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Four UT students will not appeal punishments for pro-Palestinian protest in a dean’s office

A person stands outside on a brick road with his arms crossed with the background blurred
Patricia Lim
KUT News
Evan Scope Crafts, a fifth-year doctoral student at UT Austin, was disciplined for participating in a pro-Palestinian protest.

Three UT Austin students and one recent graduate will not appeal sanctions the school is imposing for their participation in a pro-Palestinian protest at the end of last year.

Evan Scope Crafts, a fifth-year doctoral student at UT’s Oden Institute for Computational Engineering & Sciences, said he is not in a position to disrupt his degree.

“I’m four and a half years into a PhD; I can’t afford to lose what I’ve put into this at this point,” Scope Crafts said. “I feel like I’m being essentially forced to take the sanctions.”

UT is also punishing Sameeha Rizvi, who graduated in December, and Valkyrie Church. A fourth student wishes to remain anonymous.

UT told the students last week that they violated university policy by engaging in disruptive conduct and unauthorized entry during a demonstration at the School of Social Work on Dec. 8.

The students were part of a group of about a dozen people who entered Dean Allan Cole's office to deliver a list of demands. One of their demands was for UT to reinstate two teaching assistants who were removed from their positions over a message they sent to their class.

In the message, TAs Callie Kennedy and Parham Daghighi shared mental health resources for Muslim, Palestinian and other Arab students grappling with escalating violence in Gaza. Israel has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, which left 1,200 people dead.

Kennedy and Daghighi also criticized the university for not publicly addressing an incident during which three men harassed students at a Palestine Solidarity Committee event on campus last October. Video of the incident show the men calling students "terrorists."

“As your teaching assistants, we feel it is important to be clear that we do not support the University's silence around the suffering many of our students, staff, and faculty are experiencing on campus,” they wrote in the message.

“The protest was peaceful … we walked in, we read a letter. That was it. [The dean] stormed out of the office. He went into a side room. They locked the door. We left."
Evan Scope Crafts, a fifth-year doctoral student

When the group of student protesters entered Dean Cole’s office, he was on the phone making arrangements for his father’s funeral.

According to a statement of the disciplinary charges sent to Scope Crafts, Cole “had to weave through the students” to get out of the office. He then entered another space, where he completed his call. After Cole exited his office, the students left. KUT obtained the letter from the lawyer representing Scope Crafts and the three others. The letter also said staff reported being "fearful" during the incident.

Scope Crafts said students had tried to get in touch with Cole about reinstating the TAs ahead of the protest, but he didn't reply and that's what prompted them to go to his office.

“The protest was peaceful … we walked in, we read a letter. That was it,” he said. "He stormed out of the office. He went into a side room. They locked the door. We left."

Scope Crafts and the two other students still enrolled at UT face the same discipline. First, they cannot violate any university or University of System Texas rules through the end of the year or they could be suspended for two semesters. Second, they cannot contact Cole or other members of his office by phone, email, in person or through a third party.

And last, they must write a paper where they reflect on their actions and how they may have affected others. Guidance for the paper, which must be at least three pages, includes evaluating their actions and identifying “which of your actions leading up to the incident you would choose to replicate in the future and which you would change.”

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating to be treated like a grade school child having to write this apology letter over something that any adult can understand is a complex, moral and ethical question,” Scope Crafts said.

Rizvi, who already graduated, is prohibited from contacting Cole and is also banned from all UT properties until Dec. 31.

The students' lawyer, George Lobb, tried to negotiate changes to the sanctions before the students agreed to the discipline. Specifically, he wanted Rizvi to be allowed to attend graduation in May despite being banned from campus.

Lobb said Katie McGee, the former executive director of student conduct and academic integrity, agreed via email that Rizvi could attend graduation.

"When asked why that exception couldn't be put into the sanctions agreement, she wrote back that her system did not allow it," Lobb said. "Now to me what that means is that they want to be able to keep that leash real short and tight."

McGee has since been promoted to a new role at the university. UT President Jay Hartzell announced Wednesday McGee is now the interim associate vice president and dean of students.

McGee did say in emails shared by Lobb that she would document the changes that were negotiated, but he said that was not enough.

"The email from UT administrators saying they may attend graduation is not a recognizable exception because it is not in the agreement," he said. "Just because it's in their file does not make it part of the agreement."

Lobb said UT is taking issue with the protest because it was pro-Palestinian. The limits of free speech rights have been tested on university and college campuses across the U.S. as students have spoken out in response to the Israel-Hamas war.

"[UT] really went overboard on it specifically because of the content of my clients' speech," he said.

UT declined to comment on the students' decision to agree to the punishment. It has previously described their protest as a "prohibited disruption."

"Regardless of how protesters justify those activities after the fact, it does not change the fact that their conduct violated our rules and is not protected by the First Amendment," UT said in an emailed statement.

Lobb said the university's decision to punish his clients over a peaceful protest sets a dangerous precedent.

"I don't think this will be the first case of its sort. I think as long as UT chooses to regulate content of speech for certain groups, it will have a chilling effect on speech in general and on the ability to critically think," he said. "And the assumption of infallibility of which they operate causes injustices like this one."

Scope Crafts said he has lost faith in UT, and that he alone is no match for the university.

“I’m hoping to put out a call to the student body as a whole to say: Separate we’re powerless, but together there’s nothing we can’t do and this is our university,” he said.

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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