Towson University student fights suspension

Suit charges school denies due process

February 07, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Brett Berkman is heading to Baltimore County Circuit Court to fight his way back into school.

The 23-year-old Towson University senior was suspended for a year in December after he was arrested and charged by Baltimore County police with possession with intent to distribute cocaine.

The problem, says Berkman's attorney, is that his client has not been convicted and the arrest occurred more than a mile from the campus -- which would seem to be out of Towson's disciplinary reach.

Not so, says the university. According to school policy, students can be disciplined by the school for misconduct on or off campus.

"They are trying to deprive him of his right to pursue an education," said Berkman's attorney, Michael G. DeHaven, who obtained a temporary order allowing his client to attend classes.

Berkman is seeking a permanent injunction to force the school to reverse the suspension and is suing Towson for $250,000 in damages. A court date is scheduled for Feb. 15.

Berkman's legal problems began in October when police used an informant to buy the drug Ecstasy on two occasions, according to court documents. In a search Nov. 18 of his apartment in the 600 block of Bridgeman Terrace in Towson, police found 10 grams of cocaine and drug paraphernalia in Berkman's bedroom, the documents show.

He was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine and three misdemeanor counts of drug and paraphernalia possession and is awaiting trial.

According to the university's code of conduct, the school may discipline a student for "actions which affect the university community or the university's pursuit of its mission, policies or procedures" on or off campus.

The code also states: "A student charged with a violation of federal, state or local laws for off-campus behavior may be disciplined by the university when: the student is found guilty by a court of law; the student pleads guilty or nolo contendere to the charges; the student is given probation before judgment; or the case is stetted."

In addition, the school may take interim disciplinary action before court action is completed, the code states. Charges that may result in disciplinary action include acts of violence and drug- and alcohol-related violations, on- or off-campus.

Berkman was suspended for a year after a hearing at the university Dec. 16. DeHaven said Berkman and his family met with school officials in an attempt to keep him in school. But Jan. 24, Berkman received a letter informing him that the suspension would not be reversed.

The suit filed against Towson claims that the school violated Berkman's right to due process when it made him appear at a hearing without the ability to defend himself properly. Berkman's attorney told him not to speak in his defense for fear of self-incrimination at his criminal trial.

The temporary restraining order that allows Berkman to attend school expires Wednesday. DeHaven said he will seek an extension.

"The university will oppose the request," said Carolyn Kone, an assistant attorney general who is representing the university. "I don't think that the temporary restraining order being issued is particularly significant. The judge only heard one side of the argument because the university could not be there to represent itself."

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