Maryam Alwan figured the worst was over after New York City police in riot gear arrested her and other protesters on the Columbia University campus, loaded them onto buses and held them in custody for hours.

But the next evening, the college junior received an email from the university. Alwan and other students were being suspended after their arrests at the “ Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” a tactic colleges across the country have deployed to calm growing campus protests against the Israel-Hamas war.

The students’ plight has become a central part of protests, with students and a growing number of faculty demanding their amnesty. At issue is whether universities and law enforcement will clear the charges and withhold other consequences, or whether the suspensions and legal records will follow students into their adult lives.

Terms of the suspensions vary from campus to campus. At Columbia and its affiliated Barnard College for women, Alwan and dozens more were arrested April 18 and promptly barred from campus and classes, unable to attend in-person or virtually, and banned from dining halls.

Questions about their academic futures remain. Will they be allowed to take final exams? What about financial aid? Graduation? Columbia says outcomes will be decided at disciplinary hearings, but Alwan says she has not been given a date.

“This feels very dystopian,” said Alwan, a comparative literature and society major.

What started at Columbia has turned into a nationwide showdown between students and administrators over anti-war protests and the limits of free speech. In the past 10 days, hundreds of students have been arrested, suspended, put on probation and, in rare cases, expelled from colleges including Yale University, the University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University and the University of Minnesota.

Barnard, a women’s liberal arts college at Columbia, suspended more than 50 students who were arrested April 18 and evicted them from campus housing, according to interviews with students and reporting from the Columbia Spectator campus newspaper, which obtained internal campus documents.

On Friday, Barnard announced it had reached agreements restoring campus access to “nearly all” of them. A statement from the college did not specify the number but said all students who had their suspensions lifted have agreed to follow college rules and, in some cases, were put on probation.

On the night of the arrests, however, Barnard student Maryam Iqbal posted a screenshot on the social media platform X of a dean’s email telling her she could briefly return to her room with campus security before getting kicked out.

“You will have 15 minutes to gather what you might need,” the email read.

More than 100 Barnard and Columbia faculty staged a “Rally to Support Our Students” last week condemning the student arrests and demanding suspensions be lifted.

Columbia is still pushing to remove the tent encampment on the campus main lawn where graduation is set to be hosted May 15. The students have demanded the school cuts ties with Israel-linked companies and ensure amnesty for students and faculty arrested or disciplined in connection with the protests.

Talks with the student protesters are continuing, said Ben Chang, a Columbia spokesperson. “We have our demands; they have theirs,” he said.

For international students facing suspension, there is the added fear of losing their visas, said Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, which helped a group of Columbia students file a federal civil rights complaint against the school Thursday. It accuses Columbia of not doing enough to address discrimination against Palestinian students.

“The level of punishment is not even just draconian, it feels like over-the-top callousness,” Sainath said.

More than 40 students were arrested at a Yale demonstration last week, including senior Craig Birckhead-Morton. He is due to graduate May 20 but says the university has not yet told him if his case will be submitted to a disciplinary panel. He worries about whether he will receive a diploma and if his acceptance to Columbia graduate school could be at risk.

“The school has done its best to ignore us and not tell us what happens next,” said Birckhead-Morton, a history major.

Across the country, college administrators have struggled to balance free speech and inclusivity. Some demonstrations have included hate speech, antisemitic threats or support for Hamas, the group that attacked Israel on Oct. 7, sparking a war in Gaza that has left more than 34,000 dead.

May commencement ceremonies add pressure to clear demonstrations. University officials say arrests and suspensions are a last resort, and that they give ample warnings beforehand to clear protest areas.

Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has issued what are believed to be the only student expulsions related to protesting the Israel-Hamas conflict, according to the Institute for Middle Eastern Understanding. More than two dozen students occupied the university chancellor’s office for several hours on March 26, prompting the university to summon police and arrest several protesters. Vanderbilt then issued three expulsions, one suspension and put 22 protesters on probation.

In an open letter to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, more than 150 Vanderbilt professors criticized the university’s crackdown as “excessive and punitive.”

Freshman Jack Petocz, 19, one of those expelled, is being allowed to attend classes while he appeals. He has been evicted from his dorm and is living off campus.

Petocz said protesting in high school was what helped get him into Vanderbilt and secure a merit scholarship for activists and organizers. His college essay was about organizing walkouts in rural Florida to oppose Gov. Ron DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies.

“Vanderbilt seemed to love that,” Petocz said. “Unfortunately, the buck stops when you start advocating for Palestinian liberation.”

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