Troubled By Grand Jury Verdicts, Students Request More Time For Exams

Dec 19, 2014
Originally published on December 19, 2014 6:50 pm

"The dog ate my homework?" Try, "I was protesting a grand jury decision," instead.

Students at some top law schools want exam extensions for what they are calling the trauma of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. But other law students are wondering what message that sends to future employers.

"I simultaneously feel guilty about the fact that I'm not studying, when I feel like I have no choice but to be out there protesting for my humanity to be recognized," says Aurra Fellows, a member of the Columbia Law School Coalition, a student group at Columbia University.

The coalition sent a letter to Columbia administrators this month, asking that students be allowed to delay their exams. Students at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown law schools did the same at their institutions.

Columbia agreed to let any students who felt traumatized by the events to postpone their finals.

"I know several people [for whom] that was very, very helpful to them, just the one or two days to breathe and give themselves the time that they needed," Fellows says.

For her part, Fellows did not postpone any of her tests. And all the students who did delay their exams still took them during the official exam period, which ended Friday.

But at a competitive school like Columbia, some students say that provides those who postponed an unfair edge.

"Some students are simply postponing exams because they want more time to study," says Isaac Lara, a first-year at Columbia Law School. "And because we are all graded on a curve, it's particularly threatening to other students."

Dante Gabourel, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, spent last Saturday far from his fellow students who were studying in the library. He was in Washington, D.C., to take part in the Justice for All march organized by Al Sharpton and his National Action Network.

"I'm here because all of this is an issue that has affected me very deeply and very personally," Sharpton told the crowd on Saturday. "Racism is something that you've had to deal with your whole life growing up."

A week later, Gabourel says he's still struggling with the news out of Ferguson and Staten Island.

"With everything racing through my mind about everything that had been going on in the country recently, I didn't think about eating," he says. "And there were times that I couldn't sleep."

Between preparing for finals and planning campus die-ins and marches, Gabourel and fellow campus protesters ended up pulling a lot of all-nighters. Emory didn't offer exam postponement, and students didn't ask.

But administrators at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown agreed to consider requests on an individual basis. Elie Mystal, a Harvard-educated lawyer and editor of the legal blog Above the Law, thinks that was the right decision.

"The wrong message here is that you can't function when bad things happen," says Mystal. "If you're going to be black in America, that can't be the standard."

Columbia student Isaac Lara, who is Latino, agrees. "We're making it seem to employers that us as students of color can't deal with really disappointing news," he says.

But the Columbia Law School Coalition says their request was in response to something much bigger than just "disappointing news." And their movement, they say, is about more than postponing exams. The group says it wants broader acknowledgement of the challenges faced by students of color, something they say they don't see enough of on campus.

"[People say], 'Yes, the world sucks, there is racism and you shouldn't be around here asking for anything — that's just something you have to deal with,' " Fellow says. "And to that, we say no."

For frustrated students, legal blogger Mystal has a suggestion: "Go work for the ACLU, go work for the NAACP. If you're motivated by social justice, go be motivated by social justice."

And, he adds, these are places that will understand — or even be excited by — students who sacrificed their grades to be part of a protest.

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Professors at some of the country's top law schools have been hearing from students asking if they can postpone their exams. The reason? Because they were involved in protests over the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. But some of their classmates wonder if that's fair. NPR's Eleanor Klibanoff reports.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: Law students at Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown demanded that exams be delayed for students dealing with the grand jury decisions out of Ferguson and Staten Island. They say they feel traumatized by the news.

AURRA FELLOWS: I simultaneously feel guilty about the fact that I am not studying when I feel like I have no choice but to be out there protesting for my humanity to be recognized.

KLIBANOFF: Aurra Fellows is a member of the Columbia Law School Coalition. Last week, this student group sent a letter to the administration asking that students be allowed to delay exams. Columbia agreed to let students postpone if they needed to.

FELLOWS: I know several people who that was very, very helpful to them, just the one or two days to breathe and give themselves kind of the time that they needed.

KLIBANOFF: But Fellows did not postpone her exams, and all the students who did still took them during the official exam period, which ended today. Columbia first-year Isaac Lara thinks that gives an unfair advantage.

ISAAC LARA: Some students are simply postponing exams because they just want more time to study. And because we're all graded on a curve, I mean, it's - you know, it's particularly threatening to other students.

KLIBANOFF: Dante Gabourel, a junior at Emory University in Atlanta, spent last Saturday far from his fellow students who were studying in the library. He was here in D.C. to take part in the Justice For All march.

DANTE GABOUREL: I'm here because all of this is an issue that has affected me very deeply and very personally. You know, it's something - racism in this country is something you've had to deal with your whole life growing up.

KLIBANOFF: Gabourel is still struggling with the news out of Ferguson and Staten Island.

GABOUREL: With everything racing through my head about everything that had been going on in the country, like, I didn't actually think about eating. And then there were times where I couldn't sleep.

KLIBANOFF: Gabourel and fellow campus protesters pulled all-nighters to catch up on their studying. Emory didn't offer exam postponement, and students didn't ask. But administrators at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown agreed to consider requests on an individual basis. And Elie Mystal, a Harvard educated lawyer and editor of legal blog Above the Law, thinks that was the right decision.

ELIE MYSTAL: The wrong message here is that you can't function when bad things happen. And if you're going to be black in America, that can't be the standard, right?

KLIBANOFF: Isaac Lara, who is Latino, agrees.

LARA: We're making it seem to employers that us as students of color can't deal with really disappointing news.

KLIBANOFF: The Columbia Law School Coalition says this is bigger than disappointing news. Aurra Fellows says students of color are sick of being told to just deal with it.

FELLOWS: Yes, the world sucks. There is racism and you shouldn't be around here asking for anything. That's just something you have to deal with, and, you know, to that we say no.

KLIBANOFF: Elie Mystal has a suggestion.

MYSTAL: Go work for the ACLU, go work for the NAACP. If you're motivated by social justice, go be motivated by social justice.

KLIBANOFF: And, he says, these are places that will understand or even be excited by students who sacrificed their grades to be part of a protest. Eleanor Klibanoff, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.