Peaceful End at Guilford?

College judicial process has ended and court case might not proceed. Is apparent resolution to attack on Palestinians reflective of reconciliation?
March 5, 2007

The fall-out from a fight between football players and Palestinian students at a Quaker liberal arts college one January night may be nearing what appears to be, at least, a muted and even amicable resolution.

North Carolina’s Guilford College closed internal judicial proceedings involving five students Wednesday after a staggering 37 hour, five-day session. While the college is mum on what sanctions, if any, might have been levied during the confidential process, Davis North, a lawyer whose firm represents two accused athletes, confirmed that all of the students are still in school. The five students charged with violations of Guilford's student code could have been suspended or expelled based on the judicial process.

“As far as I can see it we’re all on the same page,” North said. His firm recently released a statement on behalf of the two players indicating that while they were not the instigators of the January 20 incident, they apologize for participating and “are not proud of their involvement that night.”

“I think,” North said Friday, “they want to put it behind them.”

Who did what and why is still not known within the public domain, but various steps toward closure – including a widely reported offer from a lawyer for the Palestinian students to pursue a dismissal of criminal charges in exchange for some good old-fashioned apologies – suggest a couple or some combination of possibilities: among them that the truth of an incident initially cast as a hate crime is more complex than it once seemed, or perhaps that the Quaker spirit of reconciliation is far more potent than pontificators could have predicted.

“I don’t know if I would describe it so much as a rush to justice as a rush to righteous indignation,” Max Carter, director of Guilford’s Friends Center, said of the initial outcry on campus. Over time, he explained, students developed a more complex and nuanced understanding of the events of an alcohol-fueled midnight fight. “You talk to individuals certainly who still have a clear understanding of what they think went on. But I think that long, slow process of truth-seeking has been effective in helping people understand that there are more truths to this than what one’s individual truth might be. And one of the constant refrains, repeated often, was that query from Quaker Faith and Practice, ‘Consider it possible you might be mistaken.’"

“Things were happening all over the campus in a quiet, behind-the-scenes way in which reconciliation, coming together of these different students could occur," Carter added. "I think an environment has been created in which the language du jour now is of apologies, reconciliation, a desire to not ruin anybody’s life.”

In a recent statement, posted online by WFMY News 2 in Greensboro, Amiel Rossabi, the lawyer for the Palestinian students, was strongly critical of Guilford's internal process. But Rossabi, who did not return several messages seeking comment, likewise used Guilford's rhetoric of reconciliation. While insisting that his clients were not the instigators, he expressed their wish to resolve the "outstanding issues through reconciliation, rather than conflict. They believe that reconciliation is the Quaker way. Though my clients were innocent of wrongdoing and humiliated by the violent acts, and though they suffered physical injuries, including concussions, a fractured nose, nerve damage and a dislocated jaw, they believed that they could be the driving force in a reconciliation process."

With all the talk of reconciliation without either side taking responsibility for instigating the incident, it's still, more than a month after the fight, hard to know who was to blame. Administrators declined to comment any further on the incident Friday through a spokesman, who cited federal privacy law, and details are scarce.

The fact that the student judicial process progressed from a phase of determining responsibility to that of levying sanctions does imply that at least some degree of responsibility was placed somewhere, with someone. But as to whether the event more closely resembles that described in the police report (At least 15 members of the football team attack three Palestinian students in a fight involving feet, fists, brass knuckles and racial slurs), or that described in North's statement, (it was "simply a fight among students," an "affray," if you will, involving sticks, belts, punches and “inflammatory words") -- well, perhaps time will tell.

But, for better or worse, the truth might not ever be told in open court. Howard Neumann, assistant district attorney for Guilford County, said that Rossabi has not directly communicated a desire to drop charges if all those accused apologize, although he has read newspaper accounts indicating that to be the case.

The district attorney’s office took the unusual step last month of indicating a desire to wait for the college judicial process to proceed before it would pursue the pending assault charges in court: “I didn’t want the court system to just get in the way of what’s happening,” said Neumann. “The criminal courts don’t solve a lot of social issues. We react to situations after they happen, we can hold people accountable and mete out punishment but we can’t do a lot as far as change is concerned. It seemed to me that on a college campus, through a judicial process, they did have the authority to do that, to mandate some change.”

With the on-campus proceedings now complete, Neumann, who doesn’t yet know the outcome, said he plans to revisit the documentation to determine the strength of the case. And, although he said the charges won’t be dropped just because someone asks him to, such a request would likely have a significant effect on what happens next.

“I’m also getting wind that these guys have all shook hands and made up,” Neumann said, “So I need to make sure there’s still someone who’s interested in prosecuting the case.”


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