UT Austin initiates discipline for student protesters, places hold on transcripts

Lily Kepner
Austin American-Statesman

Weeks after dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested on campus, multiple students have received letters initiating disciplinary proceedings, according to four students interviewed by the American-Statesman.

The students, who were arrested during the April protest and received disciplinary letters, also said they cannot access their transcripts or registration due to a nonfinancial hold from the dean of students office on their accounts. They first noticed the hold several weeks ago.

The disciplinary proceedings are for alleged rules violations at the protests.

“The University has made clear that we enforce institutional rules, and the conduct notices sent to students who violated our rules during protests on April 24th and 29th reflect that commitment," the university said in a statement sent after publication. "The actions and stated intentions of those participating in these protests stand in stark contrast to no fewer than 13 previous pro-Palestinian free speech events on our campus since October, which took place largely without incident.

"The University of Texas will continue to support the Constitutional rights to free speech of all individuals on our campus and will also enforce our rules, while providing due process and holding students accountable."

More:Can Texas public universities remove protesters from campus? First Amendment experts explain

Not all students who participated in the protests, which called for a cease-fire in Gaza and demanded that UT divest from weapons manufacturers supplying arms to Israel, received a letter Friday. The university would not confirm to the Statesman how many students were issued letters.

More:'Our university will not be occupied': UT president says pro-Palestinian protest was prohibited

The university has said 60 students were arrested in total during the April 24 and April 29 protests.

Stanley Davis, a UT senior who was arrested April 24, said he received an 11-page letter from the Student Conduct and Academic Integrity Office about 4 p.m. Friday detailing disciplinary procedures.

“It’s clear that whatever they’re doing now is a scare tactic,” Davis said. “We’re still going to stand" up.

The letter alleges that the student “participated in an event that disrupted/interfered with operations.” The violations listed were failure to comply and disruptive conduct, and the student is instructed to send a written statement by June 18 “addressing the allegations” and attached questions about their conduct.

More:What happened at pro-Palestinian protest at UT-Austin? Here's the timeline of events

Davis was able to register for classes before the hold was placed on his account, he said, but there is a hold on him receiving his transcript.

Another UT student who was arrested April 24, and spoke on condition anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they also received a disciplinary letter and cannot register for classes.

“Very much we’re in limbo,” the student said, adding that students are angry but leaning on one another for support.

Why were the holds placed?

states the the dean of students can withhold grades, transcripts or degrees pending a hearing or administrative disposition when a broken rule “would reasonably allow the imposition of such sanction” and when it is in the “best interests” of the university and university system.

More:Seventy-nine pro-Palestine protesters arrested during encampment UT-Austin

Aryel Mejia, who graduated from UT in the spring, found a hold on her account May 20, prohibiting her from accessing her diploma or transcripts, she told the Statesman.

“I went to the physical office, called them, left my name and number, and emailed them asking for clarification on why I had a dean of students hold with zero response,” Mejia said, adding that she was surprised when she got the letter.

A university spokesperson said holds are used to “ensure compliance with the process.” Their use varies from case to case and is determined by the dean of students office.

“It is a common practice to utilize holds with seniors or graduating students as the primary mechanism to ensure engagement in the process,” the spokesperson said.

What else was in UT's disciplinary letter?

Evidence in the letters for students included arrest affidavits, a screenshot of an Instagram post about their protest and pictures from their protest. All criminal trespassing charges from April 24 were dropped, but the ones issued for those arrested April 29 are still pending.

Police pepper spray protesters that are blocking police vehicles from leaving the University of Texas at Austin on Monday, April 29, 2024. Protesters created an encampment on the UT Tower south lawn meant to call attention to the war in Gaza and to condemn the University of Texas at Austin’s relationship with defense companies. Protesters were given notices to vacate and were then removed by Austin Police, University police, and Texas State Troopers.

The 12 questions in the letter ask students why they did not disperse, and if “it is appropriate” to them to create encampments, break university policy and exclude students; though students deny anyone was excluded. It also asked if students would do anything different, if they would agree it was disruptive, and what they would say to someone “impacted by your conduct.”

More:Pro-Palestinian protests have happened at UT before. How are the new ones different?

Mejia said the questions “seem like they want to coerce an admission of guilt.” According to the university’s rules, after the university investigation, she’ll either receive a no finding letter or an administrative disposition, which could be followed by a hearing.

The letters also in some cases included a case supplemental report detailing the circumstances behind the student's arrest. Davis said his document showed there was a warrant against him for resisting arrest from UT police after officers reviewed body camera footage, though his initial charge was dropped. UT police did not respond Monday to a Statesman question about whether it has issued warrants for other protesters.

Why were UT students protesting?

Students and community members at UT joined others across the nation in protesting to call on their universities to divest from weapons manufacturers contributing to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Israel declared war after Hamas, the militant governing body of Gaza, attacked the Jewish state on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 civilians and taking about 200 people hostage. Since Israel’s onslaught on Gaza, more than 34,000 Palestinians have reportedly been killed.

Other universities across the national have for activism they deem to be extreme. An executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott in March calling for higher education institutions to reduce antisemitism on campuses told administrators to alter and enforce their free speech policies to fit an expanded definition of antisemitism.

The order instructed universities to enforce policies against students up to expulsion and named the Palestine Solidarity Committee and Students for Justice in Palestine specifically.

More:Why UT president dismissed TAs grievances over work reassignments after pro-Palestinian note

“I hope that people understand or are open to the fact that we are just a bunch of people who care about this thing,” said Ari, a student arrested at the April 29 protest who received a letter. “It’s for Palestine; it’s for Gaza.”

The UT System and Abbott have said divestment is not on the table for UT. Students have said their activism will continue regardless.

Mejia said she was arrested April 24 by three officers who “grabbed me to the point where bruises were left on my arms.”

“I stood on the south lawn, zip-tied and crying, humiliated by my own university,” Mejia said. “Despite all this, I finished my classes, walked the graduation stage and shook hands with my dean. I earned my degree rightfully so, and share it with the people of Gaza where no universities stand.”