SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
As COVID outbreaks are popping up at colleges, campuses are cracking down on students violating COVID prevention rules. And colleges face another threat - legal challenges from the students they're punishing. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Some of the misconduct is brazen, like the hundreds of Syracuse University students who risked everyone's safety and everyone's semester by partying like it's not 2020.
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SMITH: Twenty-three students at that party were kicked out, and the same thing's happening to students in smaller, more chill gatherings - for example, 11 Northeastern University students who were caught hanging out together in one room, violating bans on crowded gatherings and on guests in student rooms.
AVERY COLLARD: I was just like, come on. That's really irresponsible and selfish.
SMITH: Many on campus, like junior Avery Collard, say those students, who were all kicked out for the semester, had it coming.
COLLARD: There's very specific rules that say you can't do that. So, you know, you're adults. It's - I know it's hard, but, like, act like it.
SMITH: But others on campus, like junior Rhyia Bibby, take issue with the university, too, for not only booting the offenders off campus but also refusing to refund their tuition.
RHYIA BIBBY: I think there are other ways to send a message than to take $36,000 away from incoming students. I also think it's important that, in your freshman year, like, a bit of grace can be given.
BRETT JOSHPE: This is just a spiteful, gratuitous, grossly disproportionate penalty.
SMITH: Attorney Brett Joshpe appealed the suspension for two of the students, who he says were just watching a basketball game with masks on. Northeastern refused to budge on the suspensions but today told students that part of the money they lost can be applied to future tuition. Officials declined to comment beyond their initial statement that the students were repeatedly warned of the rules and the consequences. It's hardly the only school whose tough disciplinary actions are under scrutiny. Attorneys say their phones haven't stopped ringing.
ANDREW MILTENBERG: This has gone from a few cases here and there to a near-epidemic.
SMITH: Attorney Andrew Miltenberg has long represented students accused of sexual assault, arguing that those alleged sexual predators were victims of a rush to judgment. Schools, he says, are now doing the same thing to alleged super-spreaders.
MILTENBERG: They're not allowing any discussion, any mitigating circumstances. People are being summarily suspended, and there is no due process.
WILL CREELEY: Schools are taking a suspend first, expel first, ask questions later stance.
SMITH: Will Creeley with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil rights group, says he's also getting multiple calls a day.
CREELEY: We wonder if, in a desire to continue collecting full tuition, that maybe students have been set up to be the fall people here. And they're being held to basically an impossible standard.
SMITH: But schools insist students do get due process. It just sometimes comes after the fact. Kenneth Elmore is dean of students at Boston University, where multiple suspensions are being reviewed.
KENNETH ELMORE: These are different times, and we've got to make some emergency decisions based upon the facts available so that we can make sure that other people aren't at risk.
SMITH: But when investigations are done after the fact, Miltenberg says the damage is often already done to students and their reputations, especially in cases of what he calls more questionable violations. For example, he represents one student who walked into his dorm's bathroom not realizing he was the seventh guy there, and he was putting the bathroom space one man over capacity. It was an accident, Miltenberg says. Should students be expected to peek under the stalls and count feet?
MILTENBERG: Students are truly bewildered. Can you take a shower? Can you use the toilet? It's all very vague.
ELMORE: I understand this is hard stuff.
SMITH: BU's dean Elmore concedes that schools are still figuring things out as they go. Normally, he says, he's more the moral suasion type than the drop-the-hammer kind of guy, but these are not normal times.
ELMORE: I mean, personally, this is really difficult for me. And I know it sounds weird coming from the person who is the apparent executioner, but we got to do it. And it's a way to say, no, we are serious about this.
SMITH: It's a steep learning curve for both administrators and students, he says. And the stakes are high either way - if schools get it wrong or if students do.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD SONG, "FAREWELL SPACEMAN")
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