Citing Brown and Garner cases, students at elite law schools request postponed exams

Say they have lost faith in legal system following grand juries' decisions

Three top law schools said students may petition to delay their final exams because of personal distress caused by recent grand jury decisions not to indict white police officers who killed unarmed black men: first Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri; then Eric Garner, who was strangled by an officer on Staten Island.  

The two grand jury decisions set off a wave of national protests and demonstrations. Students at Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, and Georgetown University Law Center say that their participation in those rallies has prevented them from properly preparing for exams.

Berkeley student protests turn violent over the weekend

"We join marches with the looming anxiety that spending our time organizing events and attending rallies could put our studies and positions in the law school community in jeopardy," say the Columbia students in their letter. "We are now asked to use the same legal maneuvers and language on our exams this Monday that was used to deny justice to so many Black and Brown bodies."

Students from the three schools say the decisions and subsequent trauma have distracted them, caused insomnia, and prompted them to doubt the legal system they are studying to enter.

"This is more than a personal emergency. This is a national emergency," Harvard students said in a letter to administrators.

Many schools allow students to reschedule exams in case of a medical emergency, family death, or religious holiday. However, this appears to be the first time schools will allow students to move exams because of grand jury decisions—although Harvard did postpone all exams due to anti-war protests in 1970.

A small number of Columbia students had petitioned to move their exams as of Monday, and all were accommodated within the exam period, says Elizabeth Schmalz, the school's executive director of communications and public affairs. None of the schools provided figures regarding how many sought or were granted extensions.

All three schools had the individual petition process in place prior to student requests.

Implementing diversity climate surveys on campus

"Our practice of individualized consideration, among other things, allows us to connect with students and provide them the support they need when they are suffering trauma severe enough to warrant deferral," wrote Ellen Cosgrove, Harvard Law's dean of students.

The schools also suggested students approach their deans to discuss specific needs regarding exams, attend race and criminal justice discussions on campus, and speak with chaplains or university counseling services.

Columbia and Harvard have offered students sessions with professors, mental health professionals, or counselors to discuss the grand juries' decisions.

Creating comprehensive communities of care

However, some in the law community argue against providing extensions for emotional reasons.

George Mason University School of Law Professor David Bernstein argues Columbia infantilized its students by "suggesting that adult law students can't handle hearing about perceived injustices in the world."

Harvard Law School alumnus and former attorney Elie Mystal says lawyer must perform no matter the injustice.

"It's a learning experience," he wrote in the blog "Above the Law: Redline," "How do I excel when the racism is so think that I can't breathe? It's a skill that you might as well learn in school because it will be required of you in life" (Otani, BloombergBusinessweek, 12/9; Marcelo, AP/Huffington Post, 12/10).


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Around the nation: December 11, 2014

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