Quest for Visibility Consumes Student Advocate Office





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"To represent you in a student conduct case, you may see the ASUC student advocate."

The who?

That is just the problem, says ASUC Student Advocate Kevin Hammon, a senior rhetoric major.

"Most students on campus could use our services," he says. "It's just that people don't know about us."

The Student Advocate Office advises and defends students when they are having trouble with the university. Scenarios range from being charged with cheating to appealing problems to the Financial Aid Office. Some of the most common cases are academics-related, including disputes about grades.

"I think people can get screwed over in their classes," Hammon says. "It's a result of an academic bureaucracy, in which the transfer of a grade may not work, and things that are a simple change can affect a student's life. Some students don't realize they can do something about it."

The student advocate's duties include helping students establish California residency and correcting discrepancies in the amount of financial aid being received.

Alex Kipnis, an associate advocate for student conduct, helps students charged with student conduct code violations.

"Our goal is to make sure students' rights are protected, such as the right to be represented," Kipnis says.

In cases where there has clearly been wrongdoing on the student's part, he says he tries to negotiate a settlement that is not unduly harsh.

While the office is not as well known as other ASUC executive offices, it performs an important function and has been involved in several high-profile cases, including representing the "Barrows Six," who took over Barrows Hall to protest alleged ethnic studies budget cuts.

"It's one of the best, most effective offices," says Chuck McNally, one of the protesters charged with misconduct during the Barrows incident. "I didn't know about the office beforehand, and I was amazed to see something within the ASUC is effective."

In retrospect, Hammon says the Barrows case was a challenge for the office and his first time working at a high-profile hearing. Jen Shen, the student advocate at the time, defended the students, but Hammon also worked on the case.

He says watching tapes of the the police arrests disturbed him, and calls the hearing a tough but eye-opening experience.

While most of their cases are settled out of court, Kipnis says a few cases can go to a hearing, the university equivalent of a trial.

"Some people think of us as an attorney, which has a connotation of doing dramatic courtroom scenes," Hammon says. "That's usually not the case - most of our cases settle. I see myself as an advocate, a helper for the students."

Some cases require familiarity with university bureaucracy and the hearing process, which professional lawyers unfamiliar with UC Berkeley may not understand.

"We've seen lawyers fall flat on their faces because they are not acquainted with university rules," says Johnny Sircar, Hammon's chief of staff. "They have to understand the bureaucracy of the university."

Yet a lagging problem of the office's apparent invisibility continues to haunt its staff.

"Our chief of staff estimated that most students could use our services," Hammon says. "The problem is that most students don't know we exist."

Hammon and his staff hope to tackle that problem in a variety of ways this year, such as publicizing their services in the dormitories and Greek community.

The office also plans several community service projects outside their usual casework, which the staff hopes will increase their visibility. For example, they are holding a charity raffle for Dorothy Day House today at noon on Upper Sproul Plaza.

In addition to casework and community service, the office also lobbies for changes in the university's rules.

Hammon adds that the office's long-term goal is to reform the process by which the UC Police Department handles complaints, since the current process does not involve a binding independent review board.

Through lobbying efforts, the office was able to get the university to recognize their power to collect evidence and call witnesses for pending cases.

"We have power real defense attorneys can have," Kipnis says.

The position was formed in the 1960s and has since gained the respect and trust of the university.

"The student advocate is critical in reshaping campus regulations and code of student conduct," says Karen Kenney, UC Berkeley's director of student services. "They play an important role in being responsible for advocation on the behalf of students."

Unlike the ASUC as a whole, the Student Advocate Office is nonpartisan. Last year, party rivals Cal-SERVE and Student Action both endorsed Hammon, who ran unopposed for the seat. Traditionally, the chief of staff from the previous year runs for the advocate position.

"We're the one office that can be changed by the people who come in and work in our office, instead of being controlled by the parties," Sircar says. "We're successful because we're apolitical."

He says he hopes the office can regain its visibility and increase its caseload in the future. He adds that he wants to focus on issues of diversity and discrimination.

"We want to make sure each student is treated equally and fairly, and look at policies to make sure students' rights are protected," Sircar says.

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