Two marijuana-related offenses can get you expelled from school at SUNY New Paltz, as Kate Cozik found out the hard way. The 18-year-old art education student's first brush with trouble came when a dorm RA smelled incense and called the campus cops. While he didn't find any pot, he did manage to get Cozik to admit to having smoked off-campus, which ended up being strike number one.
"My case is on appeal, so I get to finish this semester," Cozik told DRCNet. "But next year, I guess I'll be going to school elsewhere."
University administrators were unavailable to discuss "No Second Chance," but according to the school's disciplinary code, the penalty for first offense marijuana possession is "Disciplinary Probation and educational and/or clinical intervention, not more than Expulsion" and the penalty for a second offense is "not less than Expulsion." For other drugs, the policy is even more draconian. The punishment for a first drug possession offense other than marijuana is "not less than Expulsion." By contrast, alcohol offenders face "not less than Warning Probation; not more than Suspension," no matter how many times they have been busted.
It was cases like Cozik's that led New Paltz students to first pass a student senate resolution in November asking the administration to put a moratorium on the expulsions, and, when the administration refused to budge, to gather for the school's first protest of the semester last Friday. A loosely-knit coalition of student groups came together along with local elected officials to urge the school to change its ways. According to organizers, more than 200 students showed up to protest the harsh and inequitable policies, and more than 700 signed petitions asking the university to change that policy.
"What we need to do is make a distinction between use and abuse, and most of the drug use around here is not abuse," student senate President Justin Holmes, a veteran activist for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, told a cheering crowd. "It's pretty simple and that seems to go right over the head of folks we need to influence here."
"Other SUNY schools treat this as a health issue," said Cozik. "Here, they just expel us. We're the only SUNY school that still has this policy of expelling students for drug use. This is ridiculous. We pay to be here, and our grades should be the deciding factor, not what we choose to do with our own bodies in our own time. If you don't want me to smoke in the dorm rooms, kick me off-campus, not out of school."
"Despite the administration's position that this is not a village issue and we should not be here speaking today... my constituency is facing eviction without due process or appeal," said New Paltz Mayor Jason West, a SUNY New Paltz alumnus. "Drug use should be treated as a public health issue and not a criminal justice issue," he told the rallying students.
Also addressing the crowd was Ulster County legislator Hector Rodriguez, who told DRCNet he supported the call for an end to expulsions. "The students are my constituents," said Rodriguez. "I think the position taken by the student senate was reasonable, and it highlighted the fact that SUNY New Paltz has one of the tougher policies in the whole SUNY system," he told DRCNet. "If you know what kind of town New Paltz is, this tough policy seems odd; it just doesn't fit."
The university is as unresponsive to him as it is to the students, Rodriguez said. "I have asked the administration for information about who has been punished under these policies, but they have told me they can't provide it under federal guidelines. I've been talking to a Freedom of Information Act expert about that," he said.
According to university officials, only four students were expelled for drug possession during the fall semester. But Holmes told DRCNet he personally knew of five and he suspected the number could be higher.
Even though student disciplinary policy is the responsibility of the university -- not the county or the village of New Paltz -- Rodriguez said, as a local official he felt obligated to speak. "People like Justin Holmes and SSDP advisor Robbie Robinson are old friends and constituents, and I largely agree with what they're doing," he said. "I felt obliged to raise my voice."
But despite last semester's student senate resolution and last week's protest, university administrators remain unmoved. In a statement issued the day of the protest, SUNY New Paltz spokesman Eric Gullickson said the school was satisfied with its policy. "The college believes its current policy is consistent with our educational mission and state and federal law. We believe the policy is fair and has worked well for New Paltz for many years," Gullickson said. "What we want is a drug-free environment, not a free-drug environment," he said.
The university's resolve in its quixotic quest for a drug-free campus may be crumbling, Holmes reported late Thursday. "The media coverage has been growing all week; we're on the front page of the New Paltz Times today and we have a two-page spread in the student newspaper, the Oracle, and now the university is willing to meet and negotiate," he said. "I've been in negotiations with them all day about the terms for a meeting. This is a significant step, but it is only a step. Ultimately, if they don't stop the expulsions, it will come down to civil disobedience, either sleeping in the president's office or holding classes there to symbolize our solidarity with the students who have no place to sleep or attend class because they've been expelled."