Not Appealing

by Erin Quinn

A reduced version of this story was published first in the New Paltz Times on Wednesday, August 2nd 2006

SUNY New Paltz will be taken to court by three student government leaders, President Justin Holmes, Vice-President R.J.Partington III and Student Assembly President Dan Curtis, after their 22 page appeal was denied this past Friday by Mary Beth Collier, Executive Assistant to the Provost. Although Collier did request that President Steve Poskanzer reduce the charges against Partington from expulsion to a one year suspension she claimed that there was no compelling reason to retry the case.                    

The appeal had been filed after Holmes and Curtis had been suspended for one year and Partington expelled for the charge of “harassment” of Residence Life Director Corinna Caracci.

The charges of harassment came in the wake of a contentious student election in the spring of 2006, during which the appellants claimed that Caracci and other administrators had improperly tried to influence the elections. Eric Gullikson, the spokesperson for SUNY New Paltz has called these claims “ludicrous,” and said that the administration never had and never would attempt to interfere in student elections. Holmes claims he himself overheard Corrina Caracci discussing the elections illegally and a member of an athletic team at SUNY, who wishes to remain anonymous because he fears retribution said that his coaches were constantly telling him to vote against Holmes, and Partington.

"My coach.... they said that if we voted for Justin and R.J., the gym
would not be able to be open, student athletes and people working there
would lose their jobs. That was that really - vote for the other person,” said the athlete and student who wishes to remain anonymous. “They harped on us about - they got my captains to remind us. They told us everyday while the election was going on. They were pretty adamant about it. It was funny, though - when I walked into the voting booth and I saw that I had to vote for the mandatory activity fee, it confused me. I'm looking at it and thinking why would they tell me not to vote for them - why would they tell me not to vote for a person when I could vote for the fee myself?...As soon as I saw the vote (for the activity fee) at the top, I realize that obviously there was another motive. People don't just do things like that for no reason - especially people in charge. They knew damn well that the people I voted for had nothing to do with the activity fee…The new gym is a big leverage tool and it's used against coaches…That gym involved a lot of money. It's people's livelihoods. There's coaches that work there, and it just makes sense that it can be used as a tool to get people to do things they shouldn’t do.”

A total of 14 charges were pressed against student leaders in the short period of time following the elections, including a charge against Holmes for using “stolen property” when he was asleep in his office in one of a dozen sleeping bags many students use when retiring in their offices for some shut-eye. This led the student leaders and subsequently their attorneys to believe they were being targeted for the political activism and their expression of views that ran counter to the administration’s policies, particularly on their marijuana expulsion policy which is the strictest in the SUNY System.

Although Holmes has waived his FERPA rights, Gullikson has said that the administration is restricted in what they can say based on FERPA to protect student records.

The student leaders have retained the legal services of Civil Rights Attorney Michael Sussmman and New Paltz-based Attorney Andrew Kossover. According to Sussman they plan to take a two-prong legal approach against the administration’s decision to suspend the three student leaders.

“There are two vehicles to proceed,” said Sussman. “One is to file an article 78 with the State Supreme Court calling for an injunction which Andrew Kossover will be working on. The second is to take this case to the Federal Court in Albany which I plan to do this Friday.”

According to Sussman, “This is a very, very serious case with enormous consequences. Our client’s constitutional rights to due process were violated by this half-baked process [the judicial review process of the harassment charge which was overseen and staffed by members of the Student Affairs department, the same department Carracci works for] They were not afforded counsel, they were not allowed to cross-examine witnesses, the two key elements to due process and yet the disciplinarian results were so severe that they have usurped and deprived these students not only of their chance to continue to pursue their education for an entire year, but also to strip them of the leadership positions they were elected to by their peers!”

Sussman and Kossover are arguing that the students, because of their political activism and “speech contrary to the status quo of the administration have left them to be singled out and targeted for disciplinarian action,” said Sussman.

“It’s just so obvious that this procedure was set up to defeat us,” said Holmes. “In denying our property rights to our education, the HAB is also denying the students of SUNY New Paltz the right to be represented by leaders of their choosing. We have not, in fact, violated any campus rules and I’m confident that a real court will see right through this thinly veiled plot. After meeting hundreds of spirited and energetic incoming students at orientation these past few weeks, I am, more than ever, looking forward to serving as President this fall.”

“It’s obvious to anyone who has been watching or who knows me that these charges are false,” said Partington “As a student of women’s studies and a seven-time resident assistant, I am well aware that people are not always treated as they should be. I would never harass another person. And it saddens me that I will not be able to return to the campus community I love and serve in a position I’m passionate about.”

After receiving a long list of questions from the New Paltz Times regarding the situation and comments made by the student leaders, their attorneys and supporters, Gullikson said that “Because these students have said they will pursue litigation against the college, we have been advised by our legal counsel to not discuss any specifics regarding this situation.”

In a previous article, Gullickson did defend the judicial committee hearing of the harassment charges and said it followed an “educational” process that is well established and fair.

SUNY Professor Paul Zuckerman, the chairperson who oversaw the judicial hearing against the students, claimed that the process was fair, contrary to what the students and their lawyers are saying. “This process is always the same,” said Zuckerman. “Someone accuses a student of breaking a rule. A hearing is set up, it goes forward, and the administration has no choice but to let a hearing go forward. And this is not a trial. People who think that are way off base. It is a different kind of judicial process. As to whether or not the process was followed appropriately that is what an appeal is for and in this case they felt it was followed appropriately.”

Asked if he had viewed the video tape, Zuckerman said that he did “and that the tape in combination with the testimony and the campuses definition of harassment led the hearing committee to their conclusion.”

Zuckerman said that in his estimation, the judicial hearing that the students were subject to will hold up in court. “It is a process that has been tested time and time again,” said Zuckerman. “It’s been on the books a long time.”

Students Find Support from Current Faculty and Past Administrators

The appeal claimed that Zuckerman’s role in the hearing was unjust and that his handling of the hearing was unfair. Bill Sample, former Dean of Students from 1969 to 1972 and an administrator with the college from 1967 to 1995 has been following the case and agreed with the students that Zuckerman “was not a towering advocate of student rights. In fact he is disdainful of student activism. I can not believe that he would be the most judicious person to oversee a hearing of this nature.”

More than that, Sample believes that the suspension of these three students based on the evidence “is deplorable. They [the administration] have overdone this situation considerably and if they continue down the road they’re on, which I hope they do not, then I believe they will find themselves in the same humiliating situation as they were in the 1990’s when they targeted the free-lance journalist Eric Coppolino and made him ‘persona non grata’ on Campus.”

Sample is referring to the journalist who pursued the 1991 PCB contamination in dorm rooms and on campus [started by a utility accident causing a power surge which resulted in a $34 million PCB cleanup although the initial estimates the administration gave were for $500,000] for years, and who repeatedly tried to get then President Alice Chandler and members of her administration to respond to questions about the clean-up of the PCB’s that were caused from a fire in a dorm. In similar fashion to Holmes, Coppolino liked to record everything and went on to campus to ask Alice Chandler some questions since she wouldn’t return his phone calls. He had the whole incident on video tape where he politely asked her questions that she refused to answer.

Later, Chandler made him persona non grata, barring him from campus and he took the case to Federal Court and won a $20,000 settlement from SUNY Central. The story was picked up by the New York Times on June 22 of 1994 as well as other regional weeklies and dailies causing great embarrassment to the administration.

What Sample has found particularly disturbing, in addition to the treatment of the student activists, is the administration’s current “air-brushing of the reputation of the campus in the 1960’s and 1970’s as a place for free drugs and partying and not serious academic pursuit.”

“We need to look at the historical context of that period. My tenure as Dean started off with the shooting of three student protestors at Kent State. There was a war in Vietnam that caused the lives of 50,000 men and women and our students had the draft breathing down their neck. They had witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. of Robert F. Kennedy…Thankfully we had a President, John Niemeyer who reached out to students, empowered them, listened to them and brought them into positions where they could help effect policy and curriculum decisions. We had several Mario Savio’s on the campus at that time that were among the best and the brightest of that generation. Were there drugs and partying? Of course there was but no more or less than other campuses across the country at that time…this administration should be sitting down and talking with these students, working with them, listening to them not trying to make them disappear for their activism and enthusiasm.  They should be proud of the history of student activism and engagement on our campus.”

Gullickson claims to agree with Sample and believes that the current administration is supportive of student activism as long as rules are not violated in the process.  “New Paltz has a history of progressive student leadership,” said Gullickson in response to Sample’s comments. “We respect the exercise of free speech on this campus. In fact, at New Paltz we pride ourselves on having a history of progressive student leaders with whom the campus community has worked cooperatively and productively. As an educational institution, we understand the role we play in teaching the community about what it is like to live and function in a democracy. As such, student protests, including some involving these students, take place on our campus regularly. Also,
student leaders are afforded numerous opportunities to discuss their concerns and issues with the campus administration in standing appointments throughout the year and open door policies with administrators”

Professor Joel Lefkowitz has been following the case very closely and also finds the suspension of the students deeply trouble as well as what he characterizes as “the administration’s lack of transparency on this issue. They have not been forthcoming at faculty meetings. They are hiding behind FERPA even when Justin Holmes waived his rights…after reading the testimony, reviewing the video tape, I saw nothing that constitutes harassment by Justin Holmes,” said Lefkowitz. “Our faculty is very sensitive to harassment particularly of a woman but there is no compelling evidence that Justin Holmes harassed her or anyone. I and many of my colleagues find the time table of the various charges [14 in all] of these students in a very short period of time following the elections very suspicious. We’d like to hear what the administration has to say about this but they have not been willing to be transparent about this case, which gives pause for concern.”

Glenn McNitt the head of the SUNY New Paltz Faculty and Staff Union, has said that “more than one staff member at the college came to talk with him about situations where they felt harassed by various student leaders,” he said. “Some of the names mentioned by these individuals did involve one or more of the student leaders who are involved in this case. There was a fourth person mentioned who is not. My role is to protect our faculty and staff, my role is not to be a student advocate,” he said. “I went to the administration to ask them about their policy regarding this. That was the extent of my involvement. Because these people did not want personal interference, it is really hearsay. They felt that my personal interference might exacerbate their situation.”

“I have great respect for Glenn McNitt and believe that he serves a very important and critical role on campus,” said Holmes. “But this kind of hearsay that is passed along results in character assassination, that the administration has been more than willing to engage in against me and my fellow student leaders. I fancy myself as an open, congenial, friendly person on campus who is accessible and approachable. I have never, nor would I ever harass anyone.”

Although they are poised to fight these suspensions in court, Holmes and his fellow leaders are already being treated as persona non gratas. They have lost access to student email, student face book and a request by Rich Prey, the President of CSEA (Classified Service Employees Association) to have President Justin Holmes address the union on Tuesday, July 31st was denied by the head of Student Affairs, David Rooney.

“Even though he received a request from the President of CSEA to have me address their meeting tomorrow I’ve been told I’m not allowed on campus,” said Holmes. “It is humiliating to have this administration tell me I can not set foot on my own campus. It is difficult to be a student leader when you can not get onto the campus which is exactly the reason why they are trying to keep us out. I was really looking forward to speaking with these employees of the institution.”

What Holmes said he would do instead is to make a DVD in the next 16 hours that will be shown at the meeting. When asked earlier of Holmes or the other two leaders would be allowed on campus during their suspension, Gullickson had said, “I cannot speak specifically about these students, but generally I can say that students that are suspended for discipline are not allowed on campus during their suspension unless prior arrangements are made with
the Office of Student Affairs.”



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