The Virginia Capitol in Richmond. (Photo: KJ Mushung)

RICHMOND — A bill was killed this week that would have allowed students to hire attorneys for representation when dealing with university disciplinary actions after officials at Virginia public universities expressed concern about multiple problems the bill would pose.

House Bill 1123, introduced by Delegate Rick Morris, R-Carrolton, would have allowed public college students or student organizations to hire an attorney if faced with more than 10 days of suspension or expulsion. The bill also would have allowed students to take their cases to circuit court after exhausting all college-level judicial affairs options.

At the circuit court level, the bill would have allowed accused students to seek repayment for their tuition and court fees from their college. The bill was tabled in a subcommittee of the House Education Committee.

Brent Ericson, director of George Mason’s Office of Student Conduct, expressed concern that the bill would have made student conduct hearings too similar to court.

“We work in an educational model, and we want to get to know our students,” Ericson said in an interview with George Mason’s student-run news outlet, The Fourth Estate. “Would that ever happen with someone speaking for you? It takes it from an educational process into a procedural criminal one.”

Virginia Commonwealth University Dean of Student Affairs Reuban Rodriguez, Ed.D., agreed with Ericson.

“One of the main reasons why public institutions were opposed to (the bill) was that it’s been clearly defined through various court actions — including the Supreme Court — that the intention is for student judicial hearings not to be similar in any way, shape or form to a court hearing,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez also said student hearings would have lost educational value if they were made more similar to a trial.

Title IX requires that colleges take immediate action to address allegations of sexual harassment. Rodriguez expressed concern about how HB 1123 — if passed — could have made victims of sexual harassment more intimidated by a university’s more court-like student hearing process. Rodriguez thinks that because of that intimidation, victims would be less likely to come forward as they would feel disadvantaged.

“Most people who are not attorneys believe that when attorneys are involved, it creates a more adversarial setting,” Rodriguez said, “not only for the victim, but people involved in the hearing feel more tension … and feel like they’re in a situation where their expertise is not present because they feel overwhelmed because they have to interact with a fully licensed professional attorney.”

According to the Virginian-Pilot, Old Dominion University’s Director of Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Michael DeBowes “suggested Morris’ bill would create a more adversarial process than is in place on many campuses.”

Rodriguez also expressed concern about the cost of the bill to universities, saying that more staff would need to be hired, among other expenditures.

The bill’s impact statement projected that Virginia’s five largest universities (University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Old Dominion University) would need additional full-time attorneys on-site.

The Office of the Attorney General estimated that the cost of these full-time attorneys would total nearly half a million dollars annually. This money would have come from tuition and fees.

North Carolina is the first state to have a law similar to House Bill 1123. The “Students and Administration Equality Act” was passed in August 2013.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education supported the bill in the subcommittee hearing.

“FIRE is obviously disappointed the bill was tabled this session,” said Joe Cohn, FIRE’s legislative and policy director, “but (we are) thrilled that Delegate Morris brought this issue forward and, in doing so, made sure that delegates in Virginia now know that the current system on most of Virginia’s campuses of disciplinary proceedings just isn’t working fairly.”