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FAQs In Response to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) Case

FAQs In Response to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) Case

A former student, who was expelled in the spring of 2012 because of a series of violations of the student code of conduct, filed a complaint of racial discrimination against the College with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee (PHRC). In the interest of being transparent, we have created this web page to answer as many questions as possible about the case and surrounding issues. 

If you have a question or comment, please submit our question form.  
We may not be able to respond to all questions and comments, but please know each response is of value to the College.

Why is Chestnut Hill College appealing the Commonwealth Court’s decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Chestnut Hill College is filing this petition because this case involves issues that go to the core of the institution’s Catholic identity and the nature of its relationship to the Church. In our view, the decision of the Commonwealth Court points to a core misunderstanding of Catholic educational institutions and their relationship to the Catholic Church, whose identity and mission they share. In its decision, the Court left the door open for the College to revisit its interpretation of the nature of Catholic colleges and universities as distinctly private. We believe that the opinion compels the College to appeal, and we are heartened in this effort to enjoy the support of the ACCU.

Why has the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) affirmed the organization’s support for Chestnut Hill College and their appeal to the PA Supreme Court?

Michael Galligan-Stierle, Ph.D., president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU), affirmed the organization’s support for Chestnut Hill College, after the college filed a petition in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking review of an adverse decision of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. “We agree with the religious leadership of the College, which feels that the court’s decision demonstrated a serious lack of understanding about the essential nature and mission of Catholic institutions of higher education,” Galligan-Stierle said. “Catholic institutions incorporate the teachings of the Church into all aspects of the university experience, including policies on student life and student discipline. In a case in which Chestnut Hill is charged with racial discrimination by an expelled former student, the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission gave no credit to the college’s religious character and mission and how that religious character is reflected in what Chestnut Hill teaches to students, as well as what it expects of them.”

“Catholic higher education firmly rejects discrimination – which is against the teachings of the Church – in all of its forms,” Galligan-Stierle affirmed. “This case is about holding students accountable under the values that the college stands for – honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility – which are part of Chestnut Hill’s Catholic identity. The decision of the Commonwealth Court points to a core misunderstanding of that identity and of Catholic educational institutions’ relationship to the Catholic Church. ACCU is proud to affirm its support for the College as it rebuts the court’s decision.”

What was the Commonwealth Court's decision on the College's appeal seeking clarification on whether the PHRC had a right to hear the case?

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued its decision and denied Chestnut Hill College’s appeal. The College, which was seeking clarification of existing law, is disappointed with the Court’s decision and does not agree with the Court’s reasoning, however, the College respects the Court’s opinion. 

Click here for Commonwealth Court's decision

What was the student's claim against the college?

The complainant alleged that he was unfairly disciplined because of his race.  

Where did the student file the complaint?

This complaint was filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).  

Did the PHRC make a final decision about the case?

No, The PHRC has not reached a decision or determination in this case.  The PHRC’s investigator believed the allegations made by the complainant warrant further investigation. The probable cause document is not a statement of facts. It is not a judgment against the College. In fact, the College has not had an opportunity to rebut the allegations in the probable cause document that are inaccurately being interpreted as facts. 

Why did CHC appeal the PHRC’s right to hear the case before a public hearing was held?

In 2012, when the complaint was filed, CHC was unaware of the case law to which we are referring in support of our appeal.  It was not until the Spring of 2016 that the existence of this case law was brought to our attention by legal counsel.  At that time, CHC made a motion for the case before the PHRC to be dismissed.  It was then that the PHRC certified CHC’s right to appeal to Commonwealth Court stating that “the ultimate determination of the constitutionality of a statute is the proper function of either the Commonwealth Court or the Pa. Supreme Court;”

What is the basis of CHC’s appeal to the Commonwealth Court?

Our appeal, built upon established Pennsylvania case law, presents the important question of whether the PHRC has the power to review the student discipline decisions of Catholic colleges and universities like Chestnut Hill College.The Commonwealth Court has held that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) does not apply “to distinctly private institutions,” such as Catholic high schools. CHC is asking the Court to determine whether the Commonwealth Court’s decision applies to Catholic colleges and universities as well.  Courts exist to resolve important issues of law, and since this issue involves important constitutional rights, we believe it merits the Court’s consideration and so does the Court by deciding to hear our appeal.

What happens in the case if the Commonwealth Court decides that the PHRC does have jurisdiction to hear this case?

If it is determined by the Court that the PHRC has jurisdiction, then the College is prepared to defend the underlying allegations. To date, CHC has not been afforded the opportunity to rebut the allegations, which we believe are completely false.  In addition, if it is determined that the PHRC has jurisdiction to hear this matter, the case would continue with the PHRC, specifically wherein both parties would have the opportunity to conduct more discovery before the public hearing.  Discovery is when both parties exchange documents and take depositions prior to the hearing.  

As a Catholic institution of higher education, what protections do students and employees have against discrimination? 

First and foremost, students and employees are protected by federal laws and by the College’s own non-discrimination policy which mirrors the City of Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance. 

Secondly, the College abides by all antidiscrimination laws.  

In addition, members of the College community have access to the College’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, which is equipped to address complaints regarding discrimination. 

What is your student conduct process for discipline matters? Did the complainant in this case go through this process?

Our student conduct process, built upon the College’s Mission, is outlined in our student handbook. Students have the right to an investigation, notice of charges, an impartial hearing, presenting evidence and witnesses of fact and an appeal.  The complainant was afforded all of these rights in the process.

What have you done or are currently doing to address issues of racial justice and equality on campus? 

As a sponsored work of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the College has a long-standing commitment to  an active, inclusive love of all people without distinction. This always has  been, and will always be, the fabric of who we are.  However, we recognize there is more work to do and in this spirit, over the past year, we have engaged in self-reflection and action.  Specific action items include:  the current draft of A Path Forward, which has been created with significant community feedback; creation of an advisory board drawn from diverse constituents; the appointment of an interim College Officer for Diversity and Inclusion; series of listening sessions for students, faculty, staff and alums with the College President; a current search for a permanent College Officer for Diversity and Inclusion; and various educational programs created and supported by our student body. For fuller details on our commitment to become a leader in higher education on diversity and inclusion, please visit our page on Diversity and Inclusion

What happened with the case on February 7, 2017?

You will recall that last year we submitted an appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Appeals to determine whether the PHRC has subject matter jurisdiction in this case. We are arguing that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act does not give authority to the PHRC to hear cases involving religious institutions. This argument is based on case law. The other argument is based on the constitution which guarantees the separation of Church and state. Because our discipline code is reflective of the Church's moral teaching, we believe the PHRC has no jurisdiction.

On February 7, 2017, our counsel will offer an oral argument before three judges of the Commonwealth Court of Appeals. The plaintiff's attorney will do so as well. These arguments are based solely on briefs that were submitted in the Fall. There are no witnesses. There is no hearing of the case. This is only about the appeal, not the case itself. There will be no decision rendered until a future date after the judges have had time to weigh the arguments and write an opinion.

Finally, if CHC wins the appeal, CHC is still subject to laws governing discrimination.  As stated in FAQ answers which can be referenced above, complaints can be lodged against CHC with the appropriate agencies and courts. 

Why has it been claimed that the College refused to turn over certain documents to the PHRC during the early stages of this case?

The College did supply documents in response to the PHRC’s request; however certain requests pertained to other individual student discipline records. Because of Federal privacy laws (FERPA), which we are bound by as an institution of higher education, the College provided redacted records to the PHRC by removing all names and other personally identifiable information. The College takes the confidentiality of individual student discipline records very seriously. The PHRC still insisted on obtaining the names of all students discipline records, therefore the College and PHRC appeared before a Commonwealth Court Judge to determine how to resolve this issue. The Judge’s order confirmed what the College had already done, which was to turn over the redacted student discipline records to the PHRC.

In the data turned over to the PHRC, by the College, what was revealed about student discipline records?

Raw data regarding all student discipline at the College from 2006-2012 was turned over to the PHRC during the initial phase of this case prior to the PHRC investigator initiating the probable cause statement.  This raw data, when analyzed properly, clearly demonstrates the following:

-- In total, 1,274 students went through the discipline process between 2006-2012.  1.1% of all cases resulted in suspension or expulsion.  The remainder of the cases, as governed by the Student Handbook resulted in a range of outcomes, including, but not limited to: no finding of responsibility, written warnings, mediation, educational sanctions, loss of housing, and disciplinary probation.

-- Of the 14 students suspended or expelled from 2006-2012, 8 were white males, 3 were Hispanic males, 2 were African-American females, and 1 was an African-American male.

-- When analyzed just by race (eliminating gender), 1.1% of all white students and .97% of African-American students who went through the discipline process were suspended or expelled.

How does the Clery Act relate to student discipline records?

The Clery Act (the Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting can be found at https://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/handbook.pdf), named in honor of Jeanne Clery, requires colleges and universities to publish an Annual Security & Fire Safety Report. This report contains reports of designated crimes that occur within proscribed geographic areas on or adjacent to the campus. These numbers do not match student discipline records, they are simply reports of alleged crimes made to the College or included in information from local law enforcement. For example, if a report of a stolen laptop was made to the College and there was either no known perpetrator or the perpetrator was not a student, this would be included in the Annual Security Report because of the geography in which the crime occurred, but there would be no corresponding student discipline record. Additionally, if there was a liquor law violation reported to the College and a student, through the discipline process, was found not responsible, this liquor law violation would still be included in the Annual Security Report and there would be a corresponding student discipline record. The spirit of the Clery Act is to help students make informed decisions about staying safe on their campuses; in this spirit, the statistics provided only reflect reports of alleged crimes, there is no connection to student discipline findings in accordance with a College’s specific code of conduct.

Please note that Clery criminal offenses only refer to the following: murder, manslaughter, sexual assault (including rape, fondling, incest, and statutory rape), robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Clery also requires reporting hate crimes in the above-mentioned offenses and in incidents of: larceny-theft, simple assault, intimidation, or destruction/damage/vandalism of property. The Violence Against Women’s Act, attached with Clery, requires institutions to report domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. Finally, institutions also must report arrests and disciplinary referrals for liquor law violations, drug abuse violations, and weapons law violations. The College’s data can all be found by clicking here: https://www.chc.edu/safety-and-security/annual-security-and-fire-safety-report

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