Columbia Students Postpone Final Exams Due to Trauma

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Columbia Law School is allowing its students who have undergone “trauma” from the recent grand jury decisions in New York and Missouri to postpone their final exams.

Students at the school received an email from Interim Dean Robert Scott announcing that students who felt that recent events surrounding Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s deaths have “sufficiently impaired” their ability to perform adequately on their exams could request to postpone them.

“The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally,” Scott said.

The decisions he is speaking of refer to the November 24 and December 3 decisions by two separate grand juries to not charge white police officers in the killings of the unarmed black men Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner (Staten Island, New York).  After the rulings were made public, protests have risen across the country with strong involvement from the student demographic.

Columbia University allows exam rescheduling under the school’s trauma policy.  According to Scott, the events “threaten to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality,” allowing students to postpone their final exams.  The school’s website shows the exams running through December 17.

“Our trauma will be present with us on exam day, our trauma is inhibiting us from sleeping at night, and our trauma is ever-present among the words in our textbooks,” the Columbia student coalition wrote in an open 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.”

Scott continued his email by suggesting students discuss the events with their professor, and that he would like the conversation to continue next semester during a number of events including a faculty-run speaker series and teach-in.  The events will offer students the opportunity to discuss the law as it pertains to the two cases.

Students at other law schools, including Harvard and Georgetown, are now asking for the same treatment concerning the delay in taking their exams.  In addition, there has been a push on several campuses for discussions about the events to take place, with such happenings already going on at Yale in Connecticut, New York University in New York and Stanford in California.

In an open letter to Dean Ellen Cosgrove, the Harvard Law School Affinity Group Coalition asked for a delay in their exams. “Delaying exams is not without precedent,” the coalition said. “In 1970, Harvard Law School faculty voted to delay all exams in response to demands by students participating in anti­war protests.”   However, the Dean denied their request.

The students at Georgetown experienced similar results, requesting their exams be delayed due to “extraordinary circumstances.”  In addition, they asked for their deans to make a public statement on the grand jury decisions.  This has not happened yet.

Critics of Columbia’s move claim the school is doing a disservice to their students.  According to Eugene Volokh, who teaches free speech law at UCLA School of Law, allowing students to postpone their exams creates “expectations and attitudes” that will not help them later in life.

He asked, “Where would the civil rights movement have been if civil rights lawyers were so traumatized by injustice that they couldn’t function effectively without deadline extensions?”