Campus Justice: West Virginia Wesleyan Case Questions Fairness of Judiciary Boards

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Campus Justice: West Virginia Wesleyan Case Questions Fairness of. Judiciary Boards

by Chris Murray

BUCKHANNON, WV -- West Virginia Wesleyan College seems like a million miles away from the hustle, bustle and social ills which plague the rest of America.

Nestled in the rural community of Buckhannon, this tiny coed campus surrounded by the majestic Allegheny Mountains is the essence of tranquility. But beneath this apparent serenity brews a bitter, divisive controversy involving sex, alcohol, athletes, race, charges of denial of "due process" and legal maneuverings.

In recent months, events on this campus of 1,675 students -- 100 of whom are minorities, 80 of them African Americans -- have raised questions about the fairness of campus judiciary boards when people of color are involved.

Concern at Wesleyan stems from an incident last November involving five African American male students. According to administrators, students and lawyers, this is what happened.

They were accused of sexually assaulting three white female students in a residence hall in two separate incidents and of violating the college's policies on "social responsibility" and alcohol. The five were expelled from the institution by the college's judicial board.

The accused, students from inner-city public schools who ranged from sophomores to seniors, were recruited by the private United Methodist-affiliated college. Three were on the football team. Prior to their ouster, acquaintances called them "typical college students." All five students have denied the allegations.

They did not attend the judicial hearing and were expelled in absentia. Louis Palmer, a lawyer who represented them at the hearings, said they did not receive due process because they did not have legal counsel until 20 minutes before the hearing. As a result, they did not have time to prepare an adequate defense.

The students say they were advised by several attorneys not to testify before the board until completion of any criminal prosecution, given the nature of the charges.

In December, Palmer petitioned the local court requesting dismissal of the students' expulsion. He wanted them to continue their education at the college.

That petition was denied. At the hearing, which the students attended, Randolph County Court Judge John Henning told them: "It may very well have been good advice" not to testify at the campus judicial hearings, but they were offered the opportunity and they voluntarily declined. As a result of that inaction, he said they cannot say due process was denied.

In a recent interview, Kevin Cyrus, one of the accused said: "I knew we were out of there [the campus] even before the judicial hearing." In addition to advice not to attend that hearing, he said, "Deep in my heart, I believe it wouldn't have made a difference, because this is white America."

'Wesleyan Five'

The college's judicial system is different from the federal and state court system, but the institution did meet the requirements of due process set down in the student handbook, the judge said during the injunction hearing.

Cyrus and the four others --Kevin Johnson, Stacey Williams, Craig Brown and Nkruma Byrd -- were quickly dubbed the "Wesleyan Five" in campus newspaper stories and in local media reports. Trina Dobberstein, the college's dean of student development, said that the day after the campus judiciary board's decision to dismiss, she sent students letters notifying them that they had to leave the campus that evening.

The college's student handbook requires that the decision of the hearing panel must: include a written summary of the testimony which will be sufficiently detailed to permit review in the appeal process, be accompanied by a brief written opinion, and the decision must be forwarded in writing to the student and other appropriate persons within three days after the hearing.

Students say they did not receive copies of the written opinion or a summary of testimony at the judiciary hearing. …