|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Monday, July 19, 2004
Modesto Bee 7-17-04
Students say confessions were coerced
Students who falsified survey data related to the Scott Peterson double-murder trial were "coerced" into signing documents admitting they cheated, attorneys for some of the students said.
Those documents, officials say, will stay in the students' files for five years and could be released to graduate schools and prospective employers.
The attorneys argue that the university had no authority to discipline the students because the assignment given by Professor Stephen Schoenthaler was not sanctioned by the university.
"The university is premature and doesn't have jurisdiction, frankly, to discipline these kids," said Bay Area attorney Diana Weiss, who represents four students. "(Schoenthaler) was exploiting the students' labor. He did not follow required procedures and the department told him to stop and he totally ignored that."
Reached Friday, Schoenthaler declined to comment. He is not on contract this summer, similar to most of the faculty at Stanislaus. Last spring, he was on a full-time administrative assignment and he's on the roster to teach this fall.
University President Marvalene Hughes said Stanislaus State is conducting the investigation of the students in accordance with long-standing California State University and campus policy.
"That policy operates under the assumption that it is our responsibility to be very deliberative about the process, to hold students responsible and accountable, and to assure that experiences like these are learning experiences," she said.
Weiss and Modesto-based criminal defense attorney Richard Herman point to correspondence between criminal justice faculty and university administration. In that correspondence, Paul W. O'Brien, chairman of the sociology and criminal justice department, and other professors urged administrators not to punish the students for what they termed "poor judgment in the face of overwhelming difficulties."
In a Jan. 12 letter to university administrators, professors contended that students were "trapped in an inappropriate, unreasonable and unduly burdensome situation."
Survey cost time and money
After students -- complaining of the expense and lack of time to complete the assignment -- went through appropriate channels to seek help and the department tried to rectify the situation, "unbeknownst to the department faculty, Schoenthaler was not to be deterred from injecting himself into the national spotlight," the letter reads.
The late November 2003 assignment required students to call -- at their expense -- individuals in 10 counties to answer questions from a survey prepared by Schoenthaler.
Documents provided by Herman indicate that a number of Schoenthaler's teaching colleagues, including O'Brien, tried to dissuade the professor from pursuing the assignment.
"I instructed Professor Schoenthaler to give the students an alternative assignment since I felt (the survey) was unreasonable and unfair to students, based on time needed for completion and costs involved," O'Brien wrote in a March 18 memorandum to Stacy Morgan-Foster, university vice president for student affairs. "He agreed to offer an alternative assignment at that meeting."
O'Brien, who is out of state on vacation, could not be reached for comment.
The survey ultimately showed that bias against Peterson, accused of killing his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner, was significantly higher around Modesto than in the Bay Area and Southern California. The survey was a factor in a judge's decision to move the trial to San Mateo County.
However, those results were skewed, as some students did not make independent calls, but instead made up results or called people they knew. Twenty students have been disciplined for cheating.
In the Jan. 12 letter, several unidentified faculty members -- Herman removed their names -- said Schoenthaler's assignment was a departure from the "general and requisite course content."
Vice Provost Diana Demetrulias said faculty members have the freedom to create assignments.
Even if research standards were not met, that does not mean the class assignment was not legitimate, she said, adding that students still are expected not to cheat.
Herman said he represented two of Schoenthaler's students; he would not identify them.
Those students complied with disciplinary measures, including signing a document that amounts to an admission of cheating.
That document, according to Morgan-Foster, is placed in the student's disciplinary file for five years.
With student approval, it is made available to prospective employers and graduate schools who request the student's files.
So far, 20 of 58 students in the class have been disciplined.
Five more, who had refused to meet with the dean, had until Friday to contact the university.
Four students made contact Friday and scheduled meetings with judicial affairs to craft settlement agreements. The university still was attempting to reach the fifth student.
Impact on students' future
Weiss and Herman contend that the signed statements will make it difficult -- if not impossible -- for the students to find jobs in criminal justice, as well as hinder their ability to get into graduate school.
Morgan-Foster said that depends on "what the evaluation is of the institution that's making that decision."
"Many places will not even ask for it," she added. "If they do, it's to a student's benefit to have a record that shows they learned something from the situation."
Herman said students who refused to sign the disciplinary statements were threatened with suspension. In some cases, he said, a suspension would have prevented them from graduating this year.
"These students were coerced into compliance," Herman said. "The penalty outweighed the principle."
Morgan-Foster said students were told if they did not work with the university on a settlement agreement, the university would set up a hearing with an objective third-party officer. And as a result of that hearing, students could be cleared, suspended, expelled or placed on probation.
Authority to discipline
So far, none of the students who signed the agreements was suspended or expelled. All but one was placed on probation. One with a minor infraction received a warning, she said.
In arguing that the university had no authority to discipline the students, Herman cited regulations that require the approval of a university Institutional Review Board for research involving human subjects.
As a result, Herman said Schoenthaler's survey was undertaken as a personal project. The lawyer said that means the students -- if they cheated at all -- cheated Schoenthaler, not the university.
The investigation of Schoenthaler has moved into its third and final phase, following data collection and interviews.
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