UMass students barred from studying abroad in wake of arrests at October sit-in

UMass students hold a sit-in on Oct. 25 to protest the war in Gaza. Three of the students arrested at the protest say that sanctions imposed on them are preventing them from studying abroad during the spring semester.

UMass students hold a sit-in on Oct. 25 to protest the war in Gaza. Three of the students arrested at the protest say that sanctions imposed on them are preventing them from studying abroad during the spring semester. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 01-11-2024 11:48 AM

AMHERST — At least one of three UMass Amherst students denied the chance to study abroad next semester after being arrested for participating in the October sit-in protests against the war in Gaza has raised the possibility of bringing a federal lawsuit against the university.

Shay Negrón, the attorney representing the student, said her client had appealed the sanctions against them by university administration for occupying the school’s Whitmore Administration Building late into the night while participating in the protest, in which 56 students and one faculty member were arrested on charges of trespassing after they remained in the building after it closed.

The university subsequently imposed the sanctions, saying the students violated a student code of conduct they agreed to when enrolling at the university.

Despite an ongoing review process to appeal the sanctions, Negrón’s client — who she declined to name — said they were informed by the school’s International Programs Office (IPO) that they were ineligible for their planned study abroad programs for the coming semester. That decision has left her client on the hook for around $20,000 in fees related to the study abroad program, as well as causing a struggle to find student housing and to register for classes for the spring semester.

“We’re saying that you are oppressing my client and their right to the First Amendment,” Negrón said in an interview with the Gazette. “They shouldn’t be disproportionately reprimanded for any of these things that they were doing when they were exercising their right for free speech.”

An email sent by IPO Director Kalpen Trivedi, dated Dec. 15 and sent at 4:04 p.m. — the last day of the semester — states that the students were ineligible to study abroad, although he acknowledged there was a possibility that their eligibility could be reconsidered as a result of their appeal.

“I have reviewed all the documentation for your case, and as you currently have an active sanction or appeal for a conduct issue with the Dean of Students Office, you are ineligible to study abroad concurrently,” Trivedi wrote.

But Negrón said that since her client is undergoing an appeal process, which does not take place until January, they should not be denied studying abroad until the appeal is reviewed.

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“When you’re no longer in good standing, that’s what sparks this issue, but doing the sanction review was supposed to stop that,” she said.

Negrón said that if the sanction review hearing does not go favorably for her client, they would seek remedies in federal court.

“By imposing these sanctions on my client, UMass is sending a very disturbing message: If anyone exercises their right to free speech on this particular subject matter on this campus, they will be severely punished,” Negrón said. “This is very serious and scary.”

In a statement to the Gazette, UMass Amherst spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said that the students being barred from study abroad in the next semester was in keeping with the policy of the school and the International Program Office.

“On Tuesday, December 12, IPO received a conduct report from the Dean of Students Office indicating that a number of conditionally cleared students are currently going through the disciplinary process for violations of the Code of Student Conduct,” he said. “Consistent with past practice, IPO proceeded to revoke eligibility for these students to study abroad for the winter/spring semesters.”

After the students were arrested in October, UMass officials said they recognized the right of students to demonstrate on campus as being consistent with the university’s commitment to free speech and the advocacy of opinions and ideas protected under the First Amendment.

“The arrests were based on the refusal by those arrested to comply with a lawful order by UMass Police to leave the building,” Blaguszewski said at the time.

2nd student speaks out

Though Negrón’s client is the only one so far discussing legal action, that student is not the only one barred from study abroad programs as a result of participating in the October protest.

Aidan O’Neill, a junior and an English major at the school, had planned to study abroad next semester at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He received the same email from Trivedi on Dec. 15 denying his study abroad request due to disciplinary action following the October protest.

“I didn’t know if it would be affecting my eligibility to study abroad, and I tried to figure that out in the weeks leading up to this, but I couldn’t get a straight answer,” he said. “I was counting down the last few weeks of the semester and was really ready to leave, but this kind of came up and blew up in my face.”

Although O’Neill — a dean’s list student during the previous spring semester — said he managed to secure housing for the coming semester, he was left struggling to find classes to register for and had to pay hefty withdrawal fees to the university in Barcelona.

“I was arrested because I was at this peaceful protest,” he said. “It never felt right to me that I got arrested for that and standing up for something that my university is doing.”

Rachel Weber, an attorney and activist with the group Jewish Voice for Peace who has represented the students arrested in Eastern Hampshire District Court, said the university’s punitive actions against the students differ from similar protests in the past, such as a 2016 sit-in protest at the Whitmore building, where the students faced no disciplinary action and had been praised by UMass President Marty Meehan.