A Summit County, Ohio, jury found Charles Plinton not guilty of selling drugs to a confidential informant in 2004.

A few weeks later, a University of Akron disciplinary board found him “responsible” for “selling drugs to a confidential informant.”

The difference between those two words – guilty and responsible – may not sound meaningful to the average person.

But it’s a distinction that begins to explain the secretive world of college justice in which campus committees may re-try the facts of serious crimes after criminal courts have already decided them.

“Campus tribunals are the ultimate ‘kangaroo court,’ an affront to the rational thinking that is supposed to underlie the academic enterprise,” says attorney Harvey A. Silverglate.

Disciplinary hearings are not trials; they are more akin to union grievance procedures and other types of administrative law hearings that have much looser rules.

Students usually aren’t going to get a lawyer for one of these hearings. The university’s representative may advise the panel on how to conduct the hearing; in criminal court, the prosecutor would never advise the judge on how the trial should proceed.

Criminal trials are open to the public and subject to public scrutiny. Student privacy laws keep most campus hearings closed to the public and the records confidential.

To lower students’ expectations of due process, universities are advised to use nonlegalistic language to describe their procedures.

It’s not defendants and trials; it’s respondents and hearings.

It’s not evidence, it’s information.

Students are not found guilty; they’re found responsible or in violation.

They aren’t sentenced, they’re sanctioned.

Universities once kept an even tighter leash on students, standing in place of the parent.

That control loosened with the social revolutions of the 1960s, but made a comeback in the 1980s and 1990s as universities attracted more diverse student bodies and sought to provide an educational refuge from racism, sexism and other social evils.

What’s changed, says Silverglate, is that campus hearing boards are now deciding serious criminal matters, especially hot-button issues such as date-rape, sexual harassment and hate speech.

“If the student is convicted in the criminal courts, the schools throw out the student, relying on the court’s judgment,” Silverglate says. “If the student is acquitted, most schools re-try the student, convict him, then punish or expel him. It is a completely loaded deck.”

© 2006, Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio).

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.