Topics Range From Guns on Campus to Natural Disasters at Community College Legal Conference

When community college officials get together to talk about legal issues, what’s on their minds?

It turns out they talk about every topic imaginable – from copyright law to social media, how to respond when a natural disaster hits campus, to the growing chorus of student voices clamoring for the right to carry guns on campus.

For guidance on handling these matters, more than 200 college lawyers, administrators, faculty and staff members from 32 states and the District of Columbia gathered in Orlando recently for the seventh annual Community College Conference on Legal Issues.

The conference was organized by Valencia College in cooperation with organizations that included: the National Association of College and University Attorneys, the American Council on Education, Association of Community College Trustees, American Association of Community Colleges and the Association of Florida Colleges.

Over the course of the three-day conference, legal experts faced questions about risk management, copyright law, privacy, student affairs and social media.  Panelists offered their opinions on best practices and encouraged participants to ask questions and offer their own experiences.

Less than two months after a second shooting incident on the Virginia Tech campus, violence and guns on campus was a hot topic.

Ada Meloy, attorney for the American Council on Education, and J.P. Sherry, general counsel for the Los Rios Community College District in California, discussed the growing number of states that are allowing students with permits to carry concealed weapons on campus – and how colleges are handling the gray area of the law regarding guns on campus. 

Currently, 20 states, including Florida, prohibit guns on public college campuses, even for people with concealed weapons permits. In another 26 states, the colleges or universities are allowed to set their own weapons policies. And in Utah and Mississippi, the states permit concealed weapons on campus, as long as the carrier has a permit.

Recent court decisions about guns on campus have left plenty of college administrators scratching their heads.   Although the most recent Supreme Court decision involving gun possession upheld rules against guns in “sensitive places such as schools and government buildings,” there have been conflicting decisions in state courts in Idaho and Oregon that make the matter fuzzier.

When drafting or reviewing your own college’s policy, Sherry noted that the courts appear to be leaning toward permitting guns in one’s home – which could mean guns may be permitted in student housing. At this point, Sherry believes that colleges will be able to ban guns from on-campus dormitories, but he suspects the courts will likely permit guns in married-student housing and off-campus housing. 

And across the country, the issue is heating up. In many states, students have begun holding “empty holster protests” – saying they have a right to defend themselves. And, as more Americans apply for concealed weapons permits, college attorneys should prepare for more questions about gun rights on campus.  “This problem is not going to go away,” Meloy told the attendees. “It’s only going to get bigger.”

While violence on campus remains a hot-button issue, so too does social media – as more students turn to Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media.

Along with the growing popularity of social media, there are growing concerns about its potential for harm, particularly given the growing problem of cyber-bullying.  While college and universities should be havens for free speech, administrators  have a duty to take action after a college has become aware that its computer system has been used to make inappropriate postings, said Larry White, vice president and general counsel at the University of Delaware.

Although it’s tempting to draw up a college social media policy, Larry White and his co-presenter,  Wendy White, senior vice president and general counsel at the University of Pennsylvania, say that may be difficult, given the ever-changing world of social media.

Instead, they suggested that colleges review their “open expression policies” and make sure they’re keeping up with the realities of today’s social media – and that the policies are broad enough to cover emerging types of communication, from tweets to Facebook posts.

Rather than create long list of “don’ts” for students, administrators at the University of Pennsylvania are developing social media guidance documents, Wendy White said. For instance, the university recently released a guide that teaches students (and administrators and faculty) how to use the top 10 privacy settings on Facebook.

While social media and violence were hot topics, colleges around the nation experienced natural disasters in 2011 – from the deadly tornadoes that struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., to the flooding that Tropical Storm Irene caused throughout New England.  

Those storms were a reminder that disaster planning and disaster response is vitally important, said Chauncey Fagler, executive director of Florida College System’s risk management consortium.

Before disaster strikes, Fagler advised college officials to visit FEMA’s website to familiarize themselves with what will be expected. In addition, Fagler recommended setting up response teams in advance, which includes making pre-storm contracts with local contractors, so they will also be available immediately after a disaster to make emergency repairs.

Because record-keeping and documentation is the key to working with FEMA, Fagler suggested that colleges designate one person in finance to work with one person in facilities – whose sole jobs will be documenting the recovery and handling insurance and FEMA issues.  “This can go on for five or six years,” Fagler warned the audience.

And in an election year, all eyes turn to politics. But colleges – particularly those that have a 501(c)(3) tax exempt  status – must be careful to avoid partisanship, said Larry White, vice president and general counsel for the University of Delaware.  That means that if a candidate wants to use a college building for an event, the college should rent it to him or her for the standard rental fee. If the college produces a voter education guide, the guide should cover many issues, rather than one issue, in which the “guide” may appear to favor one candidate over another.  In addition, college officials should not use college time or resources to plug political candidates.

Although it’s rare, the Internal Revenue Service can levy fines on colleges and college administrators who authorize any expenditure that violates 501(c)(3) rules.  In addition, the IRS can fine every officer of a university, White said. 

“It’s handy to trot this out in January of election years, because it puts the campus community on alert that there are consequences for cozying up to political candidates,” White said


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