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Peer advocates give pre-hearing advice

Eileen Duffy | Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Following the University’s decision to suspend star basketball player Kyle McAlarney, the Notre Dame community has reignited an oft-inflamed debate over discipline. Fueling the fire is widespread confusion about Notre Dame’s policy – confusion which a group of 10 students known as Peer Advocates can straighten out.

Unfortunately, most on campus don’t know they exist.

Dating back to the 1970s, the Peer Advocacy Program provides a student facing charges from the Office of Residence Life and Housing (ORLH) with a student advocate to counsel him as he prepares to defend himself. While advocates are available for basic meetings (termed “conferences”), students most often employ them when they’ve committed more serious infractions and are facing a hearing – complete with two ORLH representatives, a rector and witnesses. McAlarney, for example, underwent a hearing before his suspension.

Under the watch of Judicial Council President James Leito and Vice President of Peer Advocacy John Trippi last year, the program strove to bring itself more attention. Twelve advocates were hired and a publicity push drew many more cases than the year before, said Gina Dolan, who took the reins of the program this year.

“[Leito, Trippi and I] kind of looked at this program and realized it was an untapped resource,” Dolan said. “We realized there was a lot of influence and power a group of students could have on our student body.”

Despite last year’s efforts, most students remain in the dark about the Peer Advocacy Program – and the program’s leaders are quick to explain why.

First, although 90 percent of ORLH cases result in the minor conferences, said Judicial Council President Liz Kozlow, ORLH only sends information about the Peer Advocacy Program to students facing the more-serious hearings.

A second reason, Dolan suggested, could be that students receive a referral to the Peer Advocacy Program from ORLH itself – meaning they associate it with that disciplinary heavy hand.

“Sometimes, then, they’re hesitant to get involved with us, in terms of not trusting us, or thinking we’re biased or not on their level,” Dolan said, noting that some of this year’s advocates have themselves been disciplined by ORLH. “We want to make sure they know we’re not out to get them. We’re on their side; we’re there to give them support. There’s no harm or risk in seeking out advice.”

So far this year, seven students have sought out that advice (though, Dolan noted, they have received countless questions via e-mail and telephone that aren’t filed as official cases). Infractions have ranged from alcohol violations to breaking parietals to possession of marijuana and/or more serious drugs, she said.

When a student receives ORLH’s letter informing him of the date for his hearing, he has just five days to prepare – so when a student requests an advocate, a meeting is quickly arranged. At that meeting, Kozlow explained, the advocate clarifies the rule that’s been broken and urges the student to go into ORLH to examine his case report, a documentation of all evidence that will be presented against the student, which ORLH makes available for students facing hearings. According to Kozlow and Dolan, from there, advocates set the pre-hearing wheels in motion.

Does the student have his witnesses ready-and do they have evidence, like pictures, prepared? Does he have an alibi? Has he shown initiative by taking an alcohol assessment? Has he proven himself community-oriented by discussing the case with his rector and parents? Is his Facebook account clean?

While specific punishments for specific transgressions are not laid out in du Lac, peer advocates can predict a punishment “based on severity and past cases,” Dolan said.

As the number of cases on file grows, Dolan said predicting a punishment is becoming easier – students can compare their own cases with past ones. So while Kyle McAlarney’s mother Janice McAlarney and others said they were surprised at Kyle McAlarney’s punishment, Dolan – who has served as an advocate for other athletes – certainly wasn’t.

“A lot of students expect athletes to get off easier than other people. But this was an example of our school being considerate and applying rules equally to athletes and students,” she said. “For marijuana possession, the standard protocol is suspension. It’s not surprising it was two because he was driving, and the University takes that very seriously.

“I think a two-semester suspension is very on par with what you’d expect at Notre Dame.”

Come the hearing, the peer advocate may be present and take notes – but no more.

“We’re not lawyers who go to a case and argue our way out of something, like in a court system. Which can be frustrating,” Dolan said, noting that having a speaking role during hearings is one of the group’s ultimate goals. “But it’s kind of not open for discussion … My understanding is that it’s really between the student and the school. We’re here to help them, but the responsibility is on the student to explain [himself] and justify [his own] behavior.

“This is not a legal system, or a court system,” she continued. “This is a private institution and this is how we do it. It’s not a big judiciary process, and lawyers can’t get involved.”