College due process rights at issue in NH bill

The New Hampshire Statehouse dome

The New Hampshire Statehouse dome Hannah Schroeder—Keene Sentinel staff photo, file


The Keene Sentinel

Published: 04-24-2024 10:21 AM

Modified: 04-24-2024 12:22 PM

An attorney for the University System of New Hampshire testified Tuesday that pending state legislation would disrupt an already effective system for handling disciplinary complaints at higher learning institutions.

House Bill 1288 is aimed at ensuring due process rights are protected before a public college or university expels a student, fires a faculty member or suspends a student organization.

It would establish requirements for disciplinary proceedings, including timelines, evidence rules, the right to call and cross-examine witnesses, the ability to have legal counsel present and the right to an appeal.

The Community College System of New Hampshire, which has a satellite campus at Keene State College, estimates the yearly cost of the bill at $380,000, while the university system, which includes Keene State, estimated its additional annual costs at $500,000.

House Republicans passed the bill on a party line, 196-184, vote on April 11.

Chad Pimentel, general counsel for the state’s university system, told the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday there is already a robust system in place to protect those due process rights and no evidence that people are being treated unfairly.

One part of the bill involves situations in which an accusation against a student has led to school disciplinary proceedings as well as criminal charges. Under HB 1288, the school would have to pause its proceedings until the criminal charges have been resolved.

That wouldn’t work, Pimentel said, because court cases can take years to be resolved.

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“I spoke with one of the people on my staff who helped investigate an alleged sexual assault at one of our campuses, and was just earlier this month called to testify at the criminal proceeding,” Pimentel said. “The gap between the event on campus and the criminal trial was three-and-a-quarter years.”

He also said that school disciplinary proceedings against faculty members are subject to collective bargaining agreements that might not agree with some of the provisions in the bill.

Pimentel argued that schools need the flexibility to discipline student organizations without extensive hearings, particularly in cases of minor infractions. He gave as an example school officials telling an organization it temporarily can’t use a room because it has been leaving it messy.

Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Windham, spoke before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday in support of HB 1288. He is the prime sponsor of the legislation.

He said he’s not heard of anybody at a New Hampshire college or university who has been denied due process rights, but has heard of it happening elsewhere.

“But I’m not sure you can draw from that the fact that everything is just hunky dory in the way the current process operates in New Hampshire,” he said.

Lynn said somebody who felt aggrieved by the current process might just move on and not want to discuss the matter publicly.

The Senate Education Committee will eventually schedule a vote on making a recommendation on the bill to the full Senate.