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Aug 26, 2013 09:27 AM EDT

North Carolina Passes Law to Allow Students An Attorney for Disciplinary Hearings

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Student government just became a little more like real government, when North Carolina passed a law allowing students legal representation at disciplinary hearings, Inside Higher Ed reported.

School officials said the hearings are meant to determine responsibility, not guilt, but such proceedings can result in a student being suspended and expelled. Still, a student is not provided an attorney; it is at the student's expense.

"A key component of the developmental process of responding to student misconduct is for the student to take responsibility for their own behavior and to learn from the incident," said Bill Haggard, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of North Carolina at Asheville."

Many officials agreed this will not happen when a student has a lawyer speaking for them.

Part of that learning experience is being able to speak on their own behalf, take responsibility for their own behaviors and engage in a conversation about changing their behavior in the future," Haggard said. "It's obviously something that most student affairs professionals are not that crazy about."

UNC's 17-campus system already allowed a lawyer to advise a student in hearings, but this will be the first law to allow full representations. School officials are worried the presence of lawyers will severely lengthen the proceedings if they are allowed to motion for stays.

Another issues facing many schools is if one student can afford a lawyer and the other cannot, such as in a sexual assault case. Some schools might feel obligated to provide an attorney for the student who cannot afford one, making it almost a complete replica of a real courtroom.

"From a system perspective, that immediately raises questions," said Thomas Shanahan, interim general counsel at the UNC System. "When the General Assembly adopts legislation, we look to implement it and comply with it to the best of our ability, and the first step, of course, is saying what does this mean and what do the terms mean and how will that work with our processes."

The Foundation for Individuals Rights in Education (FIRE), a civil liberties watchdog helped a group of bipartisan legislators write the bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory Friday.

"Students across America are regularly tried in campus courts for serious offenses like theft, harassment, and even rape," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "Being labeled a felon and kicked out by your college carries serious, life-altering consequences. Because the stakes are so high, students should have the benefit of an attorney to ensure the hearing is conducted fairly and by the rules."

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