Path between desks in a classroom

One week after a federal judge directed the University of Northern Colorado to reduce the punishment given to a student-athlete, Kevin Williams Jr. is now arguing that the school's revised sanction still violates the judge's order.

Williams sued UNC and Dean of Students Colleen Sonnentag in October, alleging they violated his right to due process under the law while adjudicating his code of conduct violation. Williams had left a loaded gun in an unattended backpack, and Sonnentag imposed a suspension through the spring semester of 2022 and barred him from campus during that time.

Williams is an offensive lineman on the football team and is from Nebraska.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Regina M. Rodriguez found Sonnentag had failed to adhere to UNC's process for appealing disciplinary sanctions. Specifically, Sonnentag had disregarded the recommendation of two university employees, known as appeal readers, who determined Williams' sanction to be too harsh. Instead of modifying her decision and adopting the appeal readers' recommendations, Sonnentag only added to Williams' punishment.

In response to the judge's order, Sonnentag issued a new decision on Friday that terminated Williams' suspension after Dec. 3 and allowed him to re-enroll for the winter session. Williams alleges, however, that this latest action violates Rodriguez's directive.

"Defendant Sonnentag continues to disregard the appeal readers’ conclusions. The plain language of the appeal readers’ decision clearly shows that the appeal readers concluded that suspending Kevin for any time period is too severe a sanction," Williams' attorneys wrote in a Nov. 15 filing.

The UNC appeal readers have the authority to affirm the dean's disciplinary decision, reverse it or remand it for further consideration. They chose the latter option, believing Williams had violated the code of conduct, but should have received a lesser sanction. They recommended Williams be required to host a community impact meeting to discuss the gun incident or write an essay about gun storage and safety.

Rodriguez on Nov. 9 granted Williams a preliminary injunction, believing he would likely prevail on the claims that his procedural rights were violated and that Sonnentag acted arbitrarily. 

Sonnentag did not have the authority to reject the appeal readers' conclusions outright, Rodriguez wrote. Instead, "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."

While Rodriguez did not specifically order Sonnentag to terminate Williams' suspension, Williams interpreted the appeal readers' findings to mean a suspension should never have been imposed in the first place.

"The appeal readers could have said that the length of Kevin’s suspension was too harsh but did not," his attorneys wrote. They dismissed the notion that reinstating Williams this late in the term would serve no purpose because he could not complete his classes.

"He can certainly learn and benefit from attending classes, even if he would not be able to complete them."

Williams is asking Rodriguez to order that his suspension be lifted. A UNC spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The case is Williams v. Sonnentag et al.

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