Mixed Verdict at Middlebury

Judge sides with college, but offers harsh criticism in case that has angered many black students.
December 1, 2005

O'Neil Walker was weeks away from graduation from Middlebury College in the spring when he was suspended indefinitely for a crime he says he didn't commit -- entering another student's room without permission.

Walker is black and he and his many supporters on the campus say that the evidence against him was flimsy and that the campus judicial system failed to give him a fair shake. The Village Voice ran an article on the case that summed up the feelings of many with its headline: "Busted for Blackness at Middlebury."

A Vermont judge ruled last month that the college was within its rights in the way it treated him. But at the same time, the judge noted numerous problems with the judicial system -- and found that the first round of hearings by Middlebury in the case violated the college's own rules in a way that made them "fundamentally unfair and arbitrary and capricious."

The judge also found that Walker may be entitled to damages for the way the college communicated subsequent findings to him, without sufficient information for him to figure out his appeal or legal options.

Middlebury has largely declared victory, issuing a statement saying that its judicial system has been upheld, and indeed the court found that the college's ultimate decision in the case did not violate the law. But the college's president has also acknowledged that there may be flaws in the judicial system that need to be fixed.

The Walker case originated in a series of incidents last winter in which male students reported waking up in the middle of the night in their dormitory rooms and finding a college-age black male staring at them, and then quickly leaving. The incidents sparked numerous campus rumors and commentary -- some of which struck black students as racist. Walker became involved when there was another incident in which a student reported waking up and finding a black male student in his room. Unlike the other incidents, this intruder said that he thought he was in the room of a friend (a room swap meant that someone else had lived there just a few weeks prior).

The student in the last incident was inebriated when he woke up, and he subsequently identified three photographs of black male students who he thought might have been the middle-of-the-night visitor, but all of them ended up having been out of town. A few weeks later, he ran into Walker and identified him as the intruder.

Following further investigation, Walker was charged with being the intruder in the incidents, but from the start, questions were raised about the evidence. Those students whose rooms had been entered earlier said they couldn't definitively identify him. And Walker differed in some key ways from the description the last student had given at the time of the incident -- Walker, for example, does not have an African accent and some of his physical features also differ.

A key complaint by Walker was that while there was never any evidence linking him to the earlier incidents, he was charged with all of them -- despite having been found guilty only of the last incident.

Robert Weltchek, Walker's lawyer, said that "overt racism" was never an issue; he did not think Middlebury set out to hurt a black student as it ended up doing to Walker. But Weltchek said that he found "many, many incidents" in which white students ended up -- without invitation -- in the rooms of other white students, and none of them faced judicial proceedings, let alone suspension. And even if Walker had been in a room inappropriately, which Weltchek stressed was not the case, he asked why a student would need to be suspended just as he was about to graduate.

Walker, who was raised by a single mother in the Bronx, has been working in a bookstore. He wants to go to law school, but couldn't apply until the case was resolved. Now, because the suspension was upheld, he needs to re-apply to Middlebury so that he can repeat his last semester and graduate. He is expected to enroll next semester.

Weltchek acknowledged that Middlebury "won" the case in that Walker wanted the court to order his suspension lifted, in which case he could have received his diploma. But Weltchek added: "It's kind of shallow for a college to declare victory over a young man who has been a stellar student and who has represented Middlebury so well."

Karen McAndrew, the lawyer for Middlebury in the case, said, "what's significant is that the court found that the finding of guilt was legitimate, warranted on the basis of the evidence, and that the sanction that was imposed was appropriate to the event." She said that while the court found "some procedural questions," that was not a cause for alarm. She noted that appeals courts regularly find procedural problems in lower court rulings, and uphold those rulings if the procedural problems "were not material to the outcome."

McAndrew also said that some of the criticism Middlebury has received for not revealing all details about this and other judicial proceedings was unfair. Many of the confidentiality rules that exist are there to protect those accused, she said.

In an e-mail to students and faculty members, Ronald D. Liebowitz, the college's president, noted Middlebury's legal victory but also the problems with the judicial system. "As an educational institution, we seek to make our procedures fair, and where flaws are found in our processes, we take steps to address those issues. We will do so here and in the future," he wrote.

Liebowitz also noted the tensions on the campus over the case. "Like many schools today, Middlebury is proud to have assembled a diverse community," he wrote, adding, "Creating diversity is one thing; making diversity work, and providing the educational environment to which we aspire as a result of having a diverse community, is another."


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