Photo by Stephanie Swart
By Haley Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief—
In the midst of a pandemic, protests against police brutality and racism rocked the streets of Chattanooga and affected the hearts of many, including students of the UTC community.
Sydnie Jeffers, a senior in the Political Science Department and former member of Mock Trial, was one of the fellow students that rallied, and on May 30 she was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct. While the arrest occurred off campus, after receiving an anonymous tip, the Office of Student Conduct sent Jeffers a letter notifying her that she must report to a preliminary hearing to conduct an investigation against the alleged incident.
The alleged violations in the letter state that Jeffers went against Standard 12 in the UTC handbook which covers acts of disorderly conduct from fighting to making noise that can unreasonably disturb others.
Jeffers said that she was arrested on the corner of Tremont and Frazier when she spoke up against officers after witnessing what she felt like they were targeting specific people.
“The officer started telling Black protesters that they had to get on the sidewalk, but they weren’t telling me,” she said. “I brought that to the officer’s attention and said ‘I’ve been standing in the same spot and you haven’t said anything to me.’”
Jeffers said the officer got in her face and told her to get on the sidewalk, in which she proceeded to put one foot on the sidewalk. As a result, four state troopers came and detained her. She said she wasn’t aware of the actual arrest and charges until they got to CPD because no one had read her the Miranda Rights until her arrival at the station.
Jeffers said she hasn’t been found guilty because upon her first court date with the city, she pleaded not guilty and is wanting to pursue a trial. However, UTC has proceeded with their case against Jeffers.
Brett Fuchs, director of Student Conduct, said that the proceedings in the department range by case to case and that everything is alleged until they get further evidence, but that even off campus, students are held to the same standards of the university.
“The student code of conduct here at UTC and most other colleges have off-campus jurisdiction, meaning no matter where you are, you are bound by the policies and procedures of the University,” he said. “Now do we actively go seeking those things when you’re off campus? No, but we have cases referred to us, for example when students go on Spring break by local police stations.”
Fuchs said that sometimes they don’t proceed further or will and find the student not responsible and that it mainly falls on what evidence is presented to them. He added that the department asks if it is an actual violation or a 1st Amendment issue, in which case they always look at it at least on a cursory level.
Fuchs said that sometimes people misinterpret the proceedings done by the university and that they are simply trying to get information on each case and that they don’t formerly charge any student until there is an official hearing and there are grounds to do so.
“We are advocates for students and advocates for diversity and inclusion so, unless there is a true policy violation, we don’t want to proceed further with the case,” he said. “Knowing something is related to a protest is always one of those things that bothers me because then I have to ask the same question of ‘Why was this case referred to us?’”
As part of the process, Jeffers had a preliminary hearing with Mark Szydlowski, coordinator of Student Conduct and Student Conduct investigator. Jeffers enacted her right to have an advisor sit in and chose John Wolfe, an attorney and sole practitioner of law.
Wolfe said he thinks the school is being premature, but that their procedures were as they should be. He said it seems odd to target her case over other C-class misdemeanors such as speeding tickets. He also wondered why Jeffers was arrested in the first place over a sidewalk.
“I don’t like to speculate, but maybe they didn’t like the fact that a white girl that looked like their daughter or nieces was in support of a Black Lives Matter protest,” he said. “It is a curious case that certainly intrigues people.”
Wolfe added that there doesn’t seem to be anything at stake for the University to act because it doesn’t tarnish their reputation in the slightest. He stated his main concern was that they are affecting her right to remain silent and getting in the way of her trial with the city.
Jeffers had the same concerns and voiced them to Szydlowski, who said that a common misconception is that the department turns over information to the police but that her case is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) which keeps that information confidential.
“We don’t provide information that is disclosed to us. . . because that is a violation of your FERPA protection, if they subpoena that information that’s another story,” he said, “but in my experience that has never happened.”
Jeffers said she is worried about an academic future with applying to law schools and having charges on her record and that she feels betrayed.
“It feels kind of like a betrayal because I’ve invested so much in this University,” she said. “Until they start charging students for speeding, I don’t see why my case should matter.”