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A federal judge has ordered the dean of students at the University of Northern Colorado to reduce the punishment given to a student-athlete whose loaded gun was found unattended in a locker room this year.

Kevin Williams Jr., a 22-year old graduate student and football player, was barred from the Greeley campus until summer 2022 for his transgression. But in suspending him, the university violated its own process for allowing students to appeal, ruled U.S. District Court Judge Regina M. Rodriguez.

“The Court recognizes the grave and serious public interest in gun safety to both the University and the broader public,” Rodriguez wrote in a Nov. 9 order. “However, it is also in the public interest to require the University to follow its own procedures that it has established to handle student disciplinary proceedings.”

According to Williams, he last saw his pistol in mid-July 2021. Roughly a month later, he learned where it had been found: loaded, in an unsecured and unattended backpack, in the UNC locker room.

Dean of Students Colleen Sonnentag emailed Williams to set up a hearing for Aug. 23, where he admitted that he had made a mistake. As a result, Sonnentag determined Williams had violated the code of conduct and suspended him through the spring semester of 2022. Williams was also subjected to a no-trespass order for the campus, required to take a gun safety course and write a research paper about handgun safety.

Williams appealed the order, calling it “way too harsh” and indicated a desire to use his “platform” to educate others about gun safety. He added that his father had confiscated all of his guns until Williams completed school, "making this impossible to be an issue anymore."

Two university employees who reviewed his appeal, called appeal readers, agreed the suspension was too severe. They described Williams as a “leader on campus, in athletics, and in the UNC community” and recommended alternatives to Sonnentag, including having Williams host a community meeting or write an essay specifically about the safe storage of weapons.

"There is no evidence suggesting that Mr. Williams is a threat to others, past or present," the appeal readers wrote.

Sonnentag rejected the recommendations — with the exception of adding the essay to Williams’ existing sanctions.

Williams filed a lawsuit alleging Sonnentag and the university did not provide him the process the law required of them in their decision to discipline him. The parties appeared before Rodriguez on Nov. 4 to argue whether Williams should receive a preliminary injunction based on his claims.

Rodriguez noted in her decision that the U.S. Supreme Court has not determined what process students are owed for long-term suspensions or expulsions. In light of that, she looked to whether UNC followed its own procedures, and determined it had not.

Under the code of conduct, called the BEAR Code, the appeal readers could affirm the dean’s decision, reverse it or, as with Wiliams’ case, remand it. Rodriguez determined that because the appeal readers agreed Williams had violated the BEAR Code, they did not reverse. The question was whether Sonnentag had the ability to stick by her original decision, even though the appeal readers had noted their disapproval.

"[F]ar from being either 'outrageous' or 'unheard of' the Dean’s decision on remand was congruent with the discretion afforded her under the BEAR Code and the appeal panel’s permissive framing of its non-mandatory recommendations," wrote the attorney general's office to the court.

The judge disagreed. While the remand did give the dean the option not to adopt the appeal readers’ recommendations, she said, it did not permit Sonnentag to ignore their conclusion that the sanction was too harsh.

“Thus, it was clear from the appeal readers’ decision that on remand, the Dean was to consider the appeal readers’ recommended sanctions and fashion a new outcome that was less severe than the one she originally imposed,” Rodriguez wrote.

Instead, Sonnentag had actually made Williams’ sanction harsher by adding the recommended writing assignment.

The judge found Williams would likely prevail on his claim that rejecting the appeal readers’ findings violated his due process rights, and also his claim that Sonnentag acted arbitrarily. 

Rodriguez traced the arbitrariness back to Sonnentag’s reliance on five other student conduct violations that also involved loaded firearms. Sonnentag had pointed out in her rejection of the appeals readers’ findings that she wished to keep the penalties similar across cases.

The judge, however, reasoned that because the appeals readers recommended a lesser sanction for Williams, they had not apparently believed his case was similar to the prior ones.

“[A]t least one of those cases was substantially different from Mr. Williams’ case,” Rodriguez elaborated, describing a student who left two firearms and three knives in his room with the door open, and then asked the dean why he was being treated like a terrorist. He had received three violations compared to Williams’ one.

“Mr. Williams will have lost at least the spring semester of educational opportunities to work toward a master’s degree in his chosen field of clinical mental health counseling at his chosen school — a semester he will not be able to get back,” wrote Rodriguez.

She concluded that Williams’ interest in a fair disciplinary process outweighed any harm to the university from allowing Williams back on campus. The judge ordered Sonnentag to issue a new decision by 5 p.m. on Friday.

The case is Williams v. Sonnentag et al.

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