Chancellor, ACLU of Illinois respond to SIU’s disproportionate referrals of black students

By Kallie Cox, News Editor

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have released statements to the Daily Egyptian calling SIU’s disproportionate referrals of black students alarming. 

SIU’s Interim Chancellor John Dunn released a statement saying he has appointed a group to look into the referrals.

An investigation by the Daily Egyptian discovered that twice as many black students were referred to Student Rights and Responsibilities than white students for drug-related offenses, especially for student conduct relating to the reported odor of marijuana. 

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See more: (Black students are disproportionately referred for drug related offenses at SIU)

Adam Steinbaugh, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said the disproportionate referrals are alarming. 

“Due process is important: it’s important that students be able to challenge the evidence against them,” Steinbaugh said. “It’s one thing for an officer to attest that he or she smelled marijuana as a basis for establishing probable cause for a search, and it’s another altogether to treat that testimony as proof of possession itself, especially in a state where marijuana is legal.”

Steinbaugh said student sanctions can have serious, long-term consequences, and students’ rights to be free from unfounded penalties should not be taken lightly.

“It is particularly alarming that a public institution appears to be punishing students based only on an accusation,” Steinbaugh said. “It’s difficult to imagine that there’s a defensible explanation for the disparate rate at which students of color are charged at a majority-white institution.”

Ben Ruddell, Criminal Justice Policy Director at the ACLU of Illinois, said it is disturbing but not surprising that students of color are bearing the brunt of enforcement of marijuana infractions on campus.

“Although people of different races use marijuana and other drugs at similar rates, there is a long and ongoing history of disproportionate enforcement of drug laws against black and brown people,” Ruddell said. 

Ruddell said as Illinois implements legalization of recreational cannabis, the rules for when, where and how people are allowed to consume these products need to be clear and the penalties for violating those rules must be fair and reasonable. 

“Most importantly, the law must be fairly and equitably applied to everyone in Illinois, whether they live in a college dorm or public housing, whether they rent an apartment or are experiencing homelessness,” Ruddell said.

The Daily Egyptian reached out to DPS and the university for a statement regarding the referrals and Dunn responded to the issue.

“I have appointed a working group to take a deeper dive into the data to understand the drivers, since referrals come from multiple sources, and we need to fully understand the correlations,” Dunn said. “We are also reviewing all of our policies and procedures related to the management and evaluation of referrals.”

Dunn said the university is going into the evaluation with an open mind. 

“We must do our due diligence to ensure that we understand the cause of the disparity and take firm and clear action,” Dunn said. “Our review will be complete by the end of the semester.”

Dunn said referrals are made by the Department of Public Safety, other agencies and officials based on reports from multiple sources, including students and residence hall staff. 

“On-campus reports are typically made based on the odor of cannabis,” Dunn said. “Public Safety refers 100% of these reports to Student Rights and Responsibilities as a potential violation of our student code of conduct, regardless of race, gender or any other factor.”

Dunn said students referred to SRR office are afforded due process.

“About a quarter of those referred are found to be not responsible for the violation,” Dunn said. “The university’s approach with those who are found to be responsible for the Code of Conduct violation is educational rather than a punitive.”

Typically, a student might be asked to write a paper and go through a program offered through the wellness center, Dunn said.

“None of this diminishes the concern about referrals and race, but it is important to understand that the consequence of a referral focuses on education that we hope will help students make better decisions in the future,” Dunn said.

Recreational cannabis will be legalized in Illinois on Jan. 1, however SIU does not plan to change their policies regarding the drug. 

See more: (Nipping it in the bud; SIU does not plan to change policies regarding marijuana use)

When asked if the university would change how it investigates the odor of marijuana, Dunn said the law would not change the status of marijauna on campus. 

“Its use on campus will still be a violation of the student code,” Dunn said. “The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities is currently working hard to help students understand their responsibilities and rights both now and after legalization; they are taking an educational approach.”

News Editor Kallie Cox can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @KallieECox.

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