Even though academic misconduct allegations can often be attributed to youthful mistakes or may even be the result of a misunderstanding, it's important that you seek legal guidance right away when mounting a defense against accusations.
The mistakes students make while they're in school can have far-reaching consequences that don't materialize until many years down the road. Specifically, academic misconduct that includes cheating, plagiarism, and other acts of dishonesty can prove to be a bar to federal security clearance eligibility when entering the workforce. Security clearance can even be revoked if the misconduct occurs after you've already received your clearance.
It may come as a surprise to learn that numerous jobs require a security clearance. The federal government employs, or contracts with, just over 9 million workers, many of whom require security clearance to perform their duties. If you have your sights set on a career with the State Department, or you're already in an ROTC program, then this number may not come as a shock to you. The important thing to know, though, is that academic misconduct can jeopardize current or future security clearance eligibility, ultimately limiting your job outlook.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm vast experience helping students and their parents through the defense process of academic misconduct allegations. Attorney Lento and his team understand how important your academic record is in terms of future success.
ROTC Cadets Accused of Academic Misconduct
The ROTC is an attractive path through higher education for many individuals. ROTC cadets receive training for military service, college tuition, and job security upon graduation. Students in ROTC programs may ultimately end up in the Air Force, the Marines, the Navy, or the Army, and as such, there will come a point when they must obtain a certain security clearance.
This point sometimes comes earlier than cadets expect, however, because the federal government wants to ensure that cadets are eligible for security clearance before investing time and resources into their training.
Importantly, ROTC programs also require students to maintain certain GPA averages during the course of their college careers. An academic misconduct investigation that results in suspension, expulsion, or the failure of a course will undoubtedly impact their ROTC standing. ROTC cadets who've signed a scholarship contract with the program will additionally lose all of their funding if this occurs, so the competent defense of misconduct allegations is paramount.
Over 4 Million Government Employees and Private Contractors Require Security Clearance
If you're in school now and don't have immediate post-graduate plans to seek out a government position that requires security clearance, you should still conduct yourself in a manner that wouldn't close the door on federal employment opportunities down the line. After all, federal jobs are coveted for their benefit programs and stability.
Regardless of whether you're planning to become a lawyer, doctor, or an accountant, there's an opportunity for you within the federal government. You don't want to risk the chance to practice your profession within the applicable government branch just because you exercised poor judgment when you were younger and then suffered an inadequate defense of that judgment.
If you're accused of academic misconduct, you need to think about how it will impact your future in addition to the present. The investigation and disciplinary actions handed down by your school are often severe, and a record of it will be maintained in your file and later discovered when you apply for security clearance.
An experienced attorney-advisor will advocate for you and leverage their experience to negotiate with your school's disciplinary board to minimize damage to your future federal employment opportunity.
Private Contractors Also Need Security Clearance
The federal government hires millions of private contractors, and they too are often required to obtain security clearance before they're able to start their work. According to a CRS Report, over 1 million contractors received security clearance in 2015.
Private contractors are individuals who are party to a contract with a federal agency or department, wherein the contractor agrees to provide services or products to the federal government. The services can range from Department of Defense needs to IT Security needs and more.
In some cases, you may be required to obtain security clearance even when you haven't personally entered into a contract with the federal government. For example, if the company you work for enters into a federal contract to provide a service that you will contribute to, then you may be required to have security clearance if you're given classified information to perform the duties of your job.
The Three Types of Security Clearance
Security Clearance is defined as a determination that a federal employee or a private contractor “is eligible for access to national security information.”
There are a variety of security clearance types falling into three main categories—Confidential, Secret, and Top Secret. The higher the security clearance required, the more in-depth the background check into your past will be. Almost no stone will be left unturned, and you can be sure that those handling your clearance eligibility investigation will find out if you have a misconduct record from years earlier.
Confidential Security Clearance is the most common and most easily obtained type of clearance. Confidential Security Clearance will be required when the job you're applying for involves access to classified information that could pose damage to the nation's security. Cybersecurity analysts and information systems operators or engineers are a few examples of the kinds of jobs that may require a confidential security clearance.
The second level of security clearance is called Secret Security Clearance and will be required when an individual has access to confidential information that could cause serious harm or damage to the United States if handled inappropriately. These positions have more to do with your access to the information than they do the seniority of your position, and even administrative assistance within the federal government may be required to obtain Secret Security Clearance.
Finally, the third and most stringent type of security clearance is Top Secret Security Clearance. This clearance is reserved for federal employees handling the most sensitive information related to national security. Misuses of this sensitive information could result in “exceptionally grave damage” to the country. If you seek out Top Secret Security Clearance, the clearance investigators will conduct interviews with friends, family, educators, those who knew you in college, and so on.
Security clearance eligibility lasts for the duration of your job or for five years—whichever is shorter. It's also important to note that you can be reinvestigated at any time during your clearance period, so if academic misconduct occurs after you receive your clearance but before the expiration of your clearance period, you can still find yourself in hot water if you don't immediately secure counsel from a knowledgeable student misconduct defense attorney who can mitigate the disciplinary actions threatened by your school.
Academic Misconduct That Can Jeopardize Your Security Clearance Eligibility
You might wonder how academic misconduct can jeopardize your security clearance. While other types of misconduct, such as sexual misconduct or discriminatory misconduct, seem an obvious red flag to security clearance, academic misconduct appears rather benign by comparison.
According to federal law, there are thirteen guidelines by which your security clearance eligibility will be assessed.
These guidelines are outlined as follows:
- Guideline A: Allegiance to the United States
- Guideline B: Foreign influence
- Guideline C: Foreign preference
- Guideline D: Sexual behavior
- Guideline E: Personal conduct
- Guideline F: Financial considerations
- Guideline G: Alcohol consumption
- Guideline H: Drug involvement
- Guideline I: Emotional, mental, and personality disorders
- Guideline J: Criminal conduct
- Guideline K: Security violations
- Guideline L: Outside activities
- Guideline M: Misuse of Information Technology Systems
Notably, Guidelines E, G, H, I, and M lend themselves to application in an academic misconduct violation. Under Guideline E, a pattern of dishonesty may demonstrate to investigators that you aren't fit for security clearance. Academic misconduct, such as falsifying records, cheating, or plagiarism, fits well within an assertion of dishonesty and, depending on the severity of the behavior, especially when coupled with ongoing evidence of misconduct, may result in a rejection of your security clearance application.
Guideline M is concerned with whether or not a person has shown a willingness to manipulate information technology systems. It may be hard to visualize how Guideline M and academic misconduct intertwine but just look at this example of a college student who hacked into the school's system to change his grades. Although this is a serious offense, there are instances where hacking may be committed as only a joke. Unfortunately, even that may still constitute grounds for a deeper investigation into someone's history of dishonesty
Academic Misconduct as a Sign of More Serious Problems
Guidelines G, H, and I pertain to addiction and emotional or mental wellbeing. While academic misconduct policies will focus on honesty and performance, there are instances when academic misconduct may be indicative of a substance abuse issue or a mental health issue. Individuals suffering from these conditions may be overwhelmed with coursework and find their grades slipping. They could be pushed to cheat or commit other dishonest acts.
When your security clearance application is processed, investigators may speak with individuals who knew you in college. If you've applied for Top Secret Clearance, investigators will go through every detail of your life with a fine-tooth comb. Even if you've never been arrested for a D.W.I., a former classmate or instructor who's being questioned about your academic misconduct record may add details about a substance abuse issue you hadn't otherwise disclosed on your security clearance application.
What the Department of Defense Considers When Comparing Your Behavior to Security Clearance Guidelines
Department of Defense Directive 5220.6 (E2.2) explains that the DoD views you as a total person when determining your eligibility for a security clearance. The DoD understands that every person makes mistakes, so it considers potential mitigating factors that could lessen the blow of any past transgressions.
During the adjudication process, DoD officials may give varying weight to different guidelines and considers:
- The nature, extent, and seriousness of any conduct it considers to be negative
- The circumstances of any negative conduct you have displayed
- The extent to which you knew that you were engaging in detrimental conduct
- The frequency with which you have violated security clearance guidelines
- The recency of any security clearance guideline violations
- Whether you were compelled to violate a security clearance guideline or did so voluntarily
- Whether you have displayed personal rehabilitation and redemption
- The likelihood that you may commit similarly detrimental acts going forward
As the Directive states, “Each case must be judged on its own merits.” The evaluation of other security clearance cases has no bearing on your own.
Potentially Disqualifying (and Mitigating) Circumstances for Each Security Clearance Guideline
Considering the possible ramifications of being denied a security clearance, it's worth looking more intently at each guideline that could determine the fate of your clearance. Though some of these Guidelines may apply more commonly to college students than others, the breadth of the college experience is vast. For that reason, we will cover specific circumstances for each of the 13 DoD guidelines.
DoD Directive 5220.6 (E2.A1-A13) details specific circumstances that “may be disqualifying” for a security clearance candidate. With respect to each guideline, potentially disqualifying circumstances include:
Guideline A: Allegiance to the United States
Your security clearance application may be denied under Guideline A if:
- You've participated in any act qualifying as “sabotage, espionage, treason, terrorism, [or sedition,” or you have an association with those that have
- You associate (or have associated with) any group that advocates the overthrow of the U.S. government
- You associate (or have associated with) any movement that advocates the suppression of others' rights as enumerated by the U.S. Constitution
The DoD explains that your awareness of wrongdoing by an affiliate group, your role within that group, and the duration of your participation in the group could all mitigate any potential violation of security clearance guidelines.
Guideline B: Foreign Influence
Your security clearance application may be denied under Guideline B if:
- You have significant ties to citizens of, residents in, or government employees of a foreign country
- You live with someone who could impose adverse foreign influence through you
- You fail to report associations with foreign nationals
- You have a “substantial” financial interest in a foreign government or foreign-owned business
- It appears that foreign actors may be working to compromise you for their future gain
- You have associations (known or unknown) with agents of a foreign intelligence service
The nature of your foreign relationships and investments, your exposure to possible influence, and your reporting of any foreign ties could mitigate perceived violation of security clearance guidelines.
Guideline C: Foreign preference
Your security clearance could come under risk if:
- You have dual citizenship and/or a foreign passport
- You have completed foreign military service or have a willingness or obligation to complete foreign military service
- You accept any sort of benefits from a foreign country
- You reside in a foreign country with the intent of meeting citizenship requirements
- You hold or seek foreign political office
- You have voted in a foreign election
- You serve a foreign government in preference to the U.S. government
You may mitigate any such violations of Guideline C if your dual citizenship is a birthright, if you have become a U.S citizen since any perceived violations occurred, if you plan to renounce dual citizenship, or if your behaviors are sanctioned by the U.S.
Guideline D: Sexual behavior
The DoD may view your sexual behavior as a disqualifying security concern when:
- The sexual behavior is criminal in nature
- The sexual behavior indicates a possible personality disorder
- The sexual behavior could make you vulnerable to exploitation
- The sexual behavior is public and indicates a possible lack of judgment
If any such sexual behavior is not recent, occurred prior to adolescence, or does not credibly indicate a greater pattern of poor judgment, then you may still obtain a security clearance.
Guideline E: Personal conduct
The DoD may deny your security clearance application based on personal conduct when:
- You are uncooperative in the security clearance process
- Associates speak poorly of your personal conduct
- You submit false, misleading, or incomplete information during the security clearance process
- You show a pattern of dishonesty or rules violations
You may mitigate these potential violations by showing that poor personal conduct was isolated, allegations against you are untrue, you were led into the behavior by bad advice, or that you have made material steps to avoid disreputable conduct in the future. Other mitigating circumstances may apply.
Guideline F: Financial considerations
Your finances could disqualify you from receiving a DoD security clearance if:
- You have a history of failing to meet financial obligations
- You've engaged in “deceptive or illegal financial practices”
- You cannot explain significant sums of money
- You are unable or unwilling to settle outstanding debts
- You have financial problems related to substance abuse, gambling, or “other issues of security concern”
You can mitigate these possible violations if financial concerns are not recent, are isolated, or were out of your control. Treatment for sources of financial problems or a good-faith effort to repay debts may mitigate other financial red flags.
Guideline G: Alcohol consumption
A question that many college students may have to address, your alcohol consumption may be a risk to your security clearance if:
- Alcohol-related incidents in your life become criminal
- You have work-related demerits related to alcohol use
- You receive a medical or clinical diagnosis of alcohol abuse or dependence
- You admit to drinking to the point where it impairs your judgment
You may mitigate these concerns if there is no pattern of alcohol abuse, you can show that the problem is not a recent one, you are sober, or you receive a letter of support from a clinical or medical professional.
Guideline H: Drug involvement
The Department of Defense defines drugs as “mood and behavior-altering substances.” Drug involvement may be a threat to your security clearance if:
- You have possessed, cultivated, purchased, or sold illegal drugs
- You have used legal drugs in a non-prescribed manner
- You have a diagnosed condition of drug abuse or dependence
- You failed to complete a prescribed drug treatment program as ordered
- You express an unwillingness to end your drug use
The DoD may not hold past drug use against you. Mitigating circumstances may include isolated or aberrational drug use, non-recent drug use, a “demonstrated intent” not to use or abuse drugs, and satisfactory completion of rehabilitation.
Guideline I: Emotional, Mental, and Personality Disorders
Mental health issues and personality disorders could disrupt your security clearance application if:
- A mental health professional states that a certain condition could interfere with your judgment, reliability, or stability
- You have failed to follow appropriate medical advice with respect to a mental health issue or personality disorder
- Your behavior appears high-risk, erratic, or otherwise unstable
You may mitigate such conditions by showing that mental or personality issues no longer affect you or were only temporary. A mental health professional may also clear you as reliable.
Guideline J: Criminal conduct
Criminal mischief can occur during your time in college, but not every criminal issue disqualifies you for a security clearance. Some criminal matters that may disqualify you for a security clearance are:
- Admission to or conviction of a single “serious” crime
- Admission to or conviction of several “lesser” offenses
You may mitigate the DoD's concerns about criminal offenses by showing that the offense occurred long in the past, showing that the offense was isolated, or showing that you were coerced into the act. An acquittal or proof of rehabilitation may also mitigate past criminal issues.
Guideline K: Security violations
The DoD naturally considers security violations when vetting applicants for a security clearance. Some security violations that could harm your chances of obtaining a security clearance are:
- Unauthorized disclosure of classified information
- A deliberate security violation
- Multiple security violations
You may effectively explain a security violation by proving that your violation was unintentional, isolated, infrequent, or the result of inadequate training.
Guideline L: Outside activities
The DoD will consider activities outside the scope of your security employment when weighing your security clearance. DoD officials may have paused in approving your clearance if:
- You have volunteered, held employment with, or provided service to any foreign country, foreign national, or foreign interest
You may mitigate concerns about your outside activities by showing that the outside affiliations do not conflict with your potential security clearance. You may also terminate foreign ties that could pose a conflict of interest.
Guideline M: Misuse of information technology systems
You may have difficulty obtaining a security clearance if:
- You have gained illegal or unauthorized entry into any information technology (IT) system
- You have modified, destroyed, or manipulated an IT system in an illegal or unauthorized manner
- You have removed hardware, software, or media from an IT system in an unauthorized or illegal manner
- You have introduced unauthorized hardware, software, or media into an IT system
You may explain any of these circumstances by showing that your conduct was unintentional, insignificant, authorized, or an isolated event.
It Is Critical that You Defend Any Past Transgressions
The DoD's 13 security clearance guidelines are a significant advantage for any college student seeking a security clearance. They grant you a window into the types of questions you will receive during the vetting process and give you the opportunity to prepare your explanations.
The sheer volume of security clearance guidelines makes it possible—if not likely—that nearly every applicant has a violation of some sort to their name. Therefore, the determination of whether you receive a security clearance may lie in your explanation of any transgressions and your own mitigating efforts.
An attorney-advisor can help you throughout the security clearance process but may be especially helpful in explaining any past behaviors that violate the security clearance guidelines. Your attorney-advisor can:
- Review any potential guideline violations that you are aware of
- Question you in a way that elucidates any other potential security clearance guideline violations
- Review the mitigating circumstances for each potential violation
- Explain to you how your own behavior mitigates any potential violations
- Instruct you about how you should explain past indiscretions
- Prepare you for any written or oral interviews related specifically to the security clearance guidelines
The process of seeking a security clearance can be long-winded and mentally strenuous. It may be easy, left to your own devices, to forget critical details that you should include on your applications or provide during formal interviews.
By retaining an attorney-advisor to prepare you for written and oral procedures, you may reduce the risk of important details falling by the wayside.
Remember that issues you have had in the past—personal, professional, or otherwise—do not necessarily disqualify you for a security clearance. The Department of Defense explains clearly that your behavior may mitigate potential violations of security clearance guidelines. It is your responsibility to bring attention to those mitigating circumstances as you seek a security clearance, though.
When explaining past shortcomings, it is also vital that you remain honest. Any perceived lie could be the end of your candidacy for a security clearance. Your attorney-advisor will show you how to effectively defend yourself without crossing the line into mistruth.
Lying on Security Clearance Forms is a Federal Crime
It's important to note that even if there are several years separating your academic misconduct record and your security clearance application, you do still need to be truthful on the security clearance application. Not only is dishonesty on your application a violation of Guideline E, but it's also a federal crime to conceal material facts from your security clearance form.
Understanding Mitigating Circumstances
The best way to ensure you'll be eligible for security clearance in the future is to handle academic misconduct claims appropriately when they arise. The 13 Guidelines listed above each contain a description of mitigating circumstances that, if demonstrated at the time of the misconduct accusation, may serve to overcome a violation of the Guidelines.
For example, in most cases, if you're able to demonstrate that the misconduct accusation was an isolated event and that you've shown a desire to reform your behavior, you have a better chance of gaining security clearance. Many of the mitigating circumstances offered in the security clearance eligibility guidelines will mirror those an experienced academic misconduct attorney will advise you to demonstrate during the course of your academic misconduct disciplinary proceedings. Ensuring you take the best defense strategy steps as soon as possible will have long-term benefits.
How to Defend Against Academic Misconduct Claims
Academic misconduct accusations are common. Building a strong defense against them with the help of an experienced attorney-advisor will help you move forward with your education and your future employment opportunities.
As soon as you're notified of a misconduct allegation, you should find a legal advisor who can act as your advocate in communicating with your school disciplinary board. Do not respond to the university while your emotions are heightened, but rather allow your attorney-advisor to facilitate communication.
You should review the school's code of conduct so that you can understand the accusations against you. Additionally, take detailed notes of any email, text, or incident that you can recall and provide them to your attorney-advisor. If you suspect that you've been accused of misconduct as a result of discrimination or retaliation, it is paramount that you communicate this concern right away.
Defending an academic misconduct claim can be a tedious and highly procedural process. Be patient and follow the advice of your attorney-advisor.
Contact National Academic Misconduct Attorney Joseph D. Lento
Attorney Joseph D. Lento understands what it takes to defend academic misconduct allegations made against you by your university. Attorney Lento and the Lento Law Firm work tirelessly to ensure present and future opportunities are protected while simultaneously communicating actionable steps that will help students recover from these allegations. Attorney Lento and his team have helped hundreds of students across the United States overcome the challenges associated security issues concerns To discover how the Lento Law Firm can help you, contact 888-535-3686 today.