Colleges and universities have a right to discipline their students, even students with disabilities. As a requirement for enrollment, most schools compel students to follow a code of conduct, or policies related to student behavior. Students with autism, Asperger's, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) must abide by these rules just like all other students. Colleges and universities, however, have a legal obligation to make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities to guarantee them equal access to education.
In disciplinary proceedings involving sexual misconduct or Title IX violations, many colleges fall short when providing ASD students with the support they need. This unfortunate lack of support leads to hearings and sanctions that are unjust and universities ignore their responsibility to treat all students fairly. By failing to consider the needs of students with disabilities and how disciplinary policies might affect them differently than able students, colleges create inequitable environments that set students up for failure.
Defending yourself from a sexual misconduct charge at your college can be difficult and feel overwhelming. Even if you have been falsely accused, you shouldn't consider the disciplinary process a formality to go through. Your university will take the matter seriously and you should too. If you have been charged with sexual misconduct or a Title IX violation and you feel it involves your ASD, consider contacting a student defense attorney to assist you throughout the discipline process.
Disciplinary Procedures for Students with ASD
College students with autism, Asperger's, or ASD must follow their school's code of conduct and other related student behavior policies, just like all students. As a student, it's your responsibility to read your school's code of conduct, which is usually freely available on the university website. Many schools have a separate policy that addresses sexual misconduct or Title IX violations. You should also find and read these policies as well.
Note that claiming you were ignorant of a rule because you didn't read or understand the relevant policy is not a sufficient defense if you are accused of sexual misconduct. For this reason, you should seek out assistance if you don't fully understand the code of conduct or sexual misconduct policy. The office of student affairs or similar office should have staff members available to help answer questions you have about your school's policies.
Notifying Your School If You Have ASD
You do not have to notify your college or university if you have ASD. It's your choice whether to disclose it on your college application and if you don't feel that it will impact your experience in the classroom, campus housing, or extracurricular programs, you don't have to let the university know. If, however, you think that may need to request accommodations at any time related to your academic, social, or emotional experience, then you should strongly consider notifying your university about your ASD. The institution cannot provide the support you need if it doesn't know about your condition.
Another reason to consider disclosing your ASD to your university is in case you get charged with a disciplinary violation. If you get accused of sexual misconduct and feel you'll need accommodations in the disciplinary process, it's easier to request these accommodations if you've already informed your school.
The School's Responsibility to Make Reasonable Accommodations
Many schools—though not all—have resources and support services available to students on the autism spectrum, including in disciplinary procedures. It's up to students to request these resources, however.
Typical accommodations that universities provide in the disciplinary process include:
- Allowing accused students to have a counselor or personal assistant present during hearings or meetings, even if the school's policy normally doesn't allow it
- Pausing the hearing or meeting if it becomes too overwhelming for the accused student and only resuming once the student is ready to go on
- Allowing the accused student to provide written testimony rather than give an oral statement before a panel
- Reaching out directly to the student to ask if they need accommodations, if university officials are aware the student has ASD
As a college student, you are considered autonomous. That means that you have a responsibility to seek out the accommodations you need and you shouldn't count on university officials to offer them if you don't say anything. Unlike in high school, university administrators take a less active role in providing accommodations for students with disabilities, unless they're made aware of the student's disability first.
How Accommodations Differ Between High School and College
When you transition from high school to college, you'll find that the approach to disability accommodations changes. One major reason behind this shift is the legislation that governs high schools and colleges concerning students with disabilities. High schools must follow the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) whereas colleges follow the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Accommodations at High Schools and K-12 Schools
Throughout their K-12 education, students with disabilities may have access to an Individual Education Program (IEP) which provides specialized planning to help them succeed. Typically, teachers and parents play a big role in delivering accommodations to students with ASD, as it's often up to teachers to identify young students who might benefit from an IEP. When parents remain legal guardians over a student, they also have more say over their education decisions.
Accommodations at Colleges and Universities
Students must obtain ASD support on their own once they get to college. Learning to self-advocate is important, and students are encouraged to approach professors, resident advisors, and university staff if they need assistance. Also, colleges don't make IEPs for students. Many schools have support services for students with ASD, it's not a given at every university. Keep in mind that most college students are 18 or older, meaning they are legal adults and their parents cannot intervene as much in their education.
When applying to colleges, you might consider these available resources as a deciding factor for the university you choose to attend. These support services, as well as reasonable accommodations the school is obligated to provide, help students with ASD overcome challenges related to communication, social skills, sensory and motor skills, learning style, and coping skills.
Some examples of accommodations you might expect at the college level include:
- Receiving the professor's lecture notes from class
- Having longer to respond verbally in class
- Getting a short break during class
- Wearing a hat, sunglasses, tinted glasses, earplugs, or earphones during class to help with sensory issues
- Completing tests or assignments on a computer rather than by hand
- Having additional time to complete assignments and exams
- Having a designated room to go to in a dormitory during sensory overloads
- Taking more time to get from the dormitory to class
- Living in a single dorm room without a roommate
Before you attend college, you should familiarize yourself with the ADA. Knowing what responsibilities your university has to accommodate your needs can help make the transition from high school to college easier.
ASD Students and College Sexual Misconduct
Institutions of higher education have been the subject of criticism in recent years over incidents related to sexual misconduct. As a result, many universities take sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape, and other forms of sexual misconduct very seriously. Schools sometimes feel pressured to act quickly to remedy the situation, which can compromise the due process rights of accused students. Mishandling a college sexual misconduct case has devastating consequences for everyone involved.
When colleges seek to make stricter sexual harassment policies, they tend to neglect the needs of ASD students. Each year, more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive on college campuses but sexual misconduct and Title IX policies often don't take these students into account.
Sexual Misconduct and Title IX Violations
Title IX is a federal law that all educational institutions in the US must comply with if they receive federal funding. Originally, Title IX was enacted to prevent discrimination in educational activities and programs on the basis of sex. Today, it also protects students from sexual harassment and sexual violence.
There are three types of conduct that Title IX specifically addresses:
- Quid pro quo harassment
- Hostile environment harassment
- Sexual violence (includes sexual assault, dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking)
Universities must have a Title IX coordinator who handles complaints of sexual misconduct related to students and staff at the university. Many colleges have an additional sexual misconduct policy to supplement their Title IX policies as well. These supplemental policies expand upon the definition of sexual misconduct that is provided by Title IX and tend to offer fewer protections for accused students than what Title IX offers.
Typically, these expanded definitions fall under the category of sexual exploitation. Some examples are:
- Invasion of sexual privacy
- Exposing genitals without consent
- Disseminating images of private sexual or intimate activity without consent
- Observing private sexual or intimate sexual activity without consent
- Incapacitating someone else so their ability to consent to sexual activity is compromised
- Threatening to make public a recording of private sexual or intimate activity if someone doesn't provide a certain benefit
- Intentionally exposing someone else to a sexually transmitted infection without their knowledge
What Are the University's Obligations During Sexual Misconduct Disciplinary Proceedings?
When a university receives a Title IX or sexual misconduct complaint, it has an obligation to investigate. It must also guarantee certain rights to both accused students and accusers. Under Title IX, for example, students may have an attorney present during a disciplinary hearing and have the right to cross-examine all witnesses. Universities must also guarantee due process to students in disciplinary matters, meaning that students have the right to know the charges against them, see the evidence against them, and have a chance to defend themselves.
Other obligations to students may come from the university's written policies concerning discipline and student conduct, as well as reputational concerns. Most universities want to uphold ethical standards and so try to act accordingly in sexual misconduct cases.
Often, university policies around Title IX and sexual misconduct are unclear. Knowing what does and does not constitute sexual misconduct can be a challenge even for neurotypical students. It's no surprise that ASD students struggle to understand the nuances and subtleties of what is considered inappropriate behavior. For this reason, ASD students—who may have an inability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others—are accused of sexual misconduct more often than neurotypical students.
How Colleges Decide Sexual Misconduct Cases
Most colleges and universities have a separate grievance process for sexual misconduct and Title IX cases. The procedures may not look the same as the ones for general misconduct or academic misconduct. Schools have a Title IX coordinator who handles sexual misconduct cases and they may assign another administrator, such as a representative for student affairs, to handle these cases as well. After the Title IX coordinator or other designated staff member receives a complaint of sexual harassment, they must investigate it or appoint personnel to investigate it on their behalf.
During the investigative phase, the Title IX coordinator or their representative gathers information and evidence about the alleged violation. They will speak with the students involved and possible witnesses. As soon as you are accused of sexual misconduct, you should contact a qualified student defense advisor. The investigator will want to speak with you and it helps to prepare what you should say with your advisor beforehand.
Once the investigation is over, your university might schedule a hearing. It's also possible the Title IX coordinator will decide the case based on the information gathered in the investigation. If there is a hearing, accused students will have the chance to present their arguments, question witnesses, and answer questions from a panel of faculty, staff, or fellow students. The panel will usually vote to decide if the accused student is responsible for violating the university's sexual misconduct policies. If the panel finds the allegation valid, it may also vote to recommend sanctions.
Under Title IX, both accused students and accusers must be allowed to appeal the decision of the hearing panel. Appealing usually requires sending a formal statement to a university official, such as a Vice President of Student Affairs or Dean of Students. This official may review the hearing documents and the appeal and make a final decision. They may also modify the imposed sanctions.
Keep in mind that many colleges have two grievance procedures because they have two sexual misconduct policies. One covers Title IX, the other covers sexual exploitation complaints that fall beyond the scope of Title IX. Schools must put certain procedures in place to adhere to Title IX, but they are free to create their own separate sexual misconduct policies. It's common for these policies to afford fewer protections to accused students than Title IX.
Title IX and Autism Spectrum Disorder on College Campuses
Although more students on the autism spectrum are attending institutions of higher education each year, many challenges still await ASD students on college campuses. Making new friends and building relationships is an integral part of the college experience and students with ASD want to engage in these social activities just like all college students. This isn't always easy for students on the autism spectrum, though. ASD students may not be aware of how their behavior interacts with Title IX and sexual misconduct policies at their schools due to difficulties in social information processing, poor understanding of social norms, and lack of awareness of their behavior is interpreted.
One particular issue that advocates for ASD college students have pointed out is the notion of consent. Title IX and sexual misconduct policies often hinge on this idea and many explicitly define consent. Most of these definitions assert that consent doesn't have to be verbal, that facial expressions and body language can communicate a willingness or unwillingness to engage in sexual activity. Some students who allege Title IX complaints argue this very idea, stating that the other party did not pick up on their non-verbal cues to know that the sexual activity had become unwanted.
ASD students often have trouble reading non-verbal cues. They might lack nuance around social norms or dating behaviors and be unable to perceive physical signs and facial expressions that indicate that their advance is unwelcome. It's common for sexual interactions to involve blurred verbal and non-verbal signs, making consent ambiguous even for students who do not have ASD.
As a result of the social and communication challenges ASD students face, they could find themselves with a Title IX or sexual misconduct violation without understanding what they did wrong. If an ASD student fails to read social cues and follows another student and annoys them so much that the other student files a stalking or harassment complaint, the ASD student would fail to see why their behavior was inappropriate.
Universities officials must make themselves aware of the issues that ASD students deal with in social situations. With many of the policies in place currently on college campuses, it's all too easy for ASD students to be accused of sexual misconduct as a result of a simple misunderstanding. Being on the autism spectrum won't supply students with an automatic defense against sexual misconduct in every situation, but in some, it could explain a student's behavior. Most Title IX coordinators are not trained to handle cases involving students with mental health disorders. In addition, most disciplinary procedures are not designed with students with special needs in mind. Without this crucial support, ASD students who are accused of sexual misconduct may not receive equitable treatment at disciplinary proceedings.
How Should ASD Students Handle a Charge of Sexual Misconduct?
If you are an ASD student accused of sexual misconduct by your university, you will find out about the complaint when your school notifies you. Then, the Title IX coordinator or another official may want to have a meeting with you. You should avoid going to this meeting alone, especially if you do not know what will be discussed ahead of time. At the meeting, the Title IX coordinator might tell you about the complaint against you.
At this point, do not try to make a statement or argument, and refrain from answering any questions either. Ask for a formal copy of the allegation, in writing, and tell them you will respond to questions at a later time. Also, if you haven't informed your university about your ASD before now, you should do so after your meeting with the Title IX coordinator—with the formal allegation in hand. You should also request more time to prepare your defense.
Now is also a good time to familiarize yourself with the school's sexual misconduct policy and research the specific rule you have supposedly violated. You should also contact a specialized student defense attorney as soon as you find out about the allegation, as they can provide guidance throughout the entire process.
Defense for ASD Students Accused of College Sexual Misconduct
When you are facing an allegation of sexual misconduct, it might feel like the end of your college career. If you don't take action right away, it very well could be. If you have never had to go through a university disciplinary procedure before, you might feel overwhelmed trying to navigate your school's complex processes and policies. When it comes to sexual misconduct, students with ASD tend to be more likely to be accused than neurotypical students.
If you hire a student defense attorney to work with you on your sexual misconduct allegation, you can demonstrate to your school that you are not taking the matter lightly. Also, you can help guarantee that your school upholds your rights and provides you with reasonable accommodations throughout the process. A specialized student defense attorney can comb through your school's policies to hold your university to account, as well as help you prepare a defense strategy. They can also let you know what to expect at each new step in the disciplinary process.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has worked with university students across the country on sexual misconduct accusations and has experience helping students on the autism spectrum. If you want to secure your rights to equal treatment at your university, contact Lento Law Firm by calling 888-535-3686.