Columbia Law School is allowing students to postpone their final exams if they feel too disturbed by the recent grand jury decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of two unarmed black men, including 43-year-old Eric Garner on Staten Island.
In an email sent to students Saturday that was first posted on the Powerline blog, interim Dean Robert Scott writes the decisions in the cases of Garner and Ferguson, Missouri, teenager Michael Brown have “shaken the faith” of some students in the integrity of the legal system.
“For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality,” the email reads, in part.
In July, NYPD Officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on amateur video wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck outside a Tompkinsville store as the heavyset father of six repeatedly gasped, "I can't breathe!" Weeks later, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot the 18-year-old Brown following an altercation. In both cases, grand juries found no probable cause the officers committed the charges the jurors were tasked with considering and declined to indict them.
Scott wrote the grand jury decisions have had “traumatic effects” on some members of the law school community. A trauma specialist is scheduled to hold sessions on campus this week.
Some professors have also added office hours for students who want to discuss the implications of the grand jury decisions.
Ellen Chapnick, dean for social justice initiatives, says the decisions have caused students to question the justice system and how well they can represent their communities.
“Most of these students are people who care a great deal about justice in the United States and have come to law school to learn about how the law can be an instrument for social change and an instrument for justice,” Chapnick said.
The law school’s general exam policy allows students to reschedule their exams in the event of a scheduling conflict, illness, birth of a child, religious observance, bereavement or “other exceptional and documented circumstances.”
Yet, school administrators say focusing on exam schedules diverts the attention away from the real issues at hand.
"As an academic community dedicated to the enduring values of civic virtue—intellectual integrity, mutual respect, prudent judgment, and public service—our students are asked each day to grapple with the most pressing issues of our time," spokeswoman Elizabeth Schmalz said in an email statement. "We respect their serious efforts to raise questions of racial injustice that are central to their education as lawyers, and we welcome the opportunity to engage with them on these and other vital issues."
A small number of students have postponed their exams, but it was not clear how many, the New York Times reported.