College is a rewarding experience, but don't let anyone fool you: it can be a tricky four (or so) years. You have to learn how to live in the same room with another person without killing them. You have to learn how to study without anyone there to ground you when you don't. You have to figure out how to separate your whites from your colors. These things are, like, hard.
College can be even trickier, though, if you get yourself into trouble. And let's face it, sooner or later, you're going to get yourself into trouble. Think of it as part of the curriculum.
When it happens, what do you do? If you're smart, you've taken the time to do a little research beforehand, maybe during your first semester. You know what your Student Code of Conduct says. You know who makes the rules at your school, how those rules are enforced, and what happens if you break them. You've studied your state board's policies and “Executive Orders,” and you understand exactly how they'll affect your individual case.
Or you're already in trouble, and you've come here looking for answers.
If you're a student at one of the twenty-three schools that make up the California State University system, you're in luck. All of those schools are governed by a single board. They all share the same rules, they all use the same judicial processes, they all apply the same basic penalties. You know one school, you know them all.
Even better: we've taken the time to pore through all that dense information for you and highlight exactly what you need to know. So, whether you've been accused of hazing at San Jose State University or plagiarism at USC-Long Beach, you'll find what you need here. Plus, we'll even tell you how to deal with it all while holding on to your sanity.
How Things Work
Let's start with a bit of background, something we can quiz you on later. What is the Cal State University system, and how does it work?
Most public colleges and universities in the U.S. operate under a single policy set by a state-level committee or board. All the schools in that state generally adhere to one set of rules. In some cases, every school in the state may charge a single tuition fee. You might be able to take courses from any one of them and count them towards your degree.
California is somewhat unique in that it doesn't just have one system. It has three: The Cal State University (CSU) system, which is the focus here; the University of California (UC) system; and a third system that governs community colleges. After all, though, California is a big state.
Here are the fine details. The CSU system was created in 1960 by the Donahoe Higher Education Act. It has become the nation's largest system of four-year colleges. Currently, it includes 23 different schools, from Humboldt State in the north to San Diego State in the south. In 2020, those schools enrolled roughly 485,500 students.
Who exactly decides what happens to all those students? California State University schools are run by a chancellor, who works in conjunction with a twenty-five-member board of trustees. That board is made up of:
- Governor of California
- Lieutenant Governor of California
- 16 governor appointees
- Two students from member institutions
- One tenured faculty member
- One member of the alumni association
- California House Speaker
- California Superintendent of Public Institutions
- CSU Chancellor
The board maintains nine standing committees. In addition, other groups help to decide statewide educational policy, including the Chancellor's Council, a committee made up of the presidents of all the member institutions, and a statewide student senate.
Given all those people and all of the people who make up their staff, it's no surprise that CSU policy can be lengthy and extraordinarily complex. It includes rules for oversight, operational guidelines, and procedural outlines, often written in dense legalese. In fact, the system is so large, the state maintains an extensive searchable policy database, which includes CSU's entire history of executive orders from the chancellor as well as various letters and memoranda produced by departments within the chancellor's office.
Perhaps the first thing to know, then, if you're accused of violating any aspect of this policy, is that you most likely can't handle the problem yourself. You're going to need help from a professional.
What exactly are the rules, though? How do you avoid breaking them? And what happens if you do?
We might begin by thinking generally about what the goals of education are since they ultimately dictate the individual rules any educational institution sets. For example, Cal State's Student Code of Conduct begins with a statement of “campus community values.” In essence, this statement lays out the primary goal of the member schools, to “maintain a safe and healthy living and learning environment for students, faculty, and staff.” That may all sound a little idealistic but hidden within the pie-in-the-sky hopefulness are some key concepts.
First, CSU isn't just in education. Safety and health are mentioned first. Second, CSU recognizes it isn't just an educational institution. The rules apply to the “living” environment just as much as the “learning” one. And third, these rules apply to everyone on-campus – students, faculty, and staff alike.
The rules that follow all spring directly from the basic principles established in this statement.
There are 20 rules in all, but to make things easier, let's divide them into three broad sub-categories:
- Rules dealing with academic misconduct
- Rules dealing with non-academic, non-sexual misconduct
- Rules dealing with sexual misconduct, including Title IX violations.
Academic misconduct, of course, refers to any actions or behaviors that violate the educational mission of a college or university. Many schools go into great detail about what constitutes academic misconduct, listing everything from buying term papers online to writing exam answers on the bill of your baseball cap. Certainly, making that list is a worthwhile exercise since it reminds students of all the various things they shouldn't do.
CSU, however, doesn't waste time making a list. When you're making rules for almost half a million students, you can't get bogged down in details.
Instead, the student code is simple and clear. The very first item on the list is “Dishonesty.” More specifically, the item includes “Cheating, plagiarism, or other forms of academic dishonesty that are intended to gain unfair academic advantage.”
The burden, then, is on you to know what constitutes “unfair academic advantage.” In most cases, you probably do know what that phrase means. You know, for example, that you're not supposed to look at someone else's paper during a test. You also know, probably even without being told, that you shouldn't pay someone else to take a test for you.
The problem is, CSU's language is so broad, so vague, that it leaves a great deal open to interpretation. That is, individual schools, departments, and instructors may all have their own definitions of “unfair academic advantage,” and those could differ from yours in crucial ways.
This means you must take extra care to find out what your school, department, and instructor think. It means you must be cautious in order to avoid any possibility you could be accused. You may not think telling someone in another course section what's on an exam is academic misconduct, but it absolutely is. It's worth knowing as well that the very last item on CSU's list of rules states that helping anyone else to break a rule—including assisting anyone to commit academic misconduct—is also a conduct violation. Among other things, this means that signing someone else's name on an attendance sheet can count as academic misconduct since by doing so, you give that person an “unfair academic advantage.”
Despite your best efforts, though, you may still wind up breaking a rule. The problem is, a policy as general as this one puts you in an unfair position. You can't know every possible way you could break the rules, and that means you could wind up breaking one without realizing it. It's fairly obvious, for instance, that you can't simply make up sources for your research paper in freshman comp. If you merely cite your source improperly, though, is that also a violation? That depends on who you ask.
So, avoid breaking the rules, but if you should find yourself accused of academic misconduct, don't be afraid to challenge your fate. You may have options for clearing your name. And don't be afraid to ask a professional to look into your case.
Non-Academic, Non-Sexual Misconduct
Every school needs to maintain some rules beyond those that apply to the classroom. You play, eat, exercise, live with thousands of other people, and someone has to bring order to all that chaos.
Unfortunately, these sorts of rules are too various to be easily summarized in the way academic misconduct is. Instead, CSU offers a lengthy list of prohibitions. Still, to a certain extent, these can be grouped.
Disruption: Any activity that disrupts a school or on-campus activity
- Disrupting school operations
- Obstructing campus traffic, whether automobile or pedestrian
Prohibited items: Items you aren't allowed to use, possess, or distribute
- Illegal drugs or drug paraphernalia
- Alcoholic beverages (unless expressly permitted)
- Firearms and other weapons, including knives and fireworks
Generally illegal activities: Behaviors that would get you arrested if you were on the street
- Unauthorized entry into, presence in, or misuse of school property
- Disorderly, lewd, or obscene behavior
- Theft of property
- Damage to someone else's property
- Conduct that threatens or endangers someone's health or safety
Digital Violations: Restrictions that apply to virtual activities
- Unauthorized recording for commercial purposes
- Misuse of computer facilities or resources, including everything from unauthorized transfer of a file to hacking the university intranet to simple copyright violations
Hazing: CSU expressly forbids any act that can cause physical harm, mental harm, degradation, or disgrace to anyone
Finally, the list includes a whole set of general rules designed to catch anything that might have been left out:
- Violation of any published university policy
- Failure to comply with university officials
- Any violation of federal, state, or local law
- Any violation of student conduct procedures
- Encouraging or helping anyone to violate the code of conduct
Here again, some actions and behaviors are obvious examples of misconduct. You can't plead ignorance of the code of conduct if you're caught threatening your biology lab TA with a knife. On the other hand, CSU doesn't specifically define phrases like “disorderly behavior.” What might strike one campus security officer as “silly” might strike another as “disorderly.” You can't know for certain when you might wind up accused.
As you glance through the list above, you'll likely recognize that many of these are serious offenses, and they can come with serious consequences. If you should find yourself accused of any of them, don't try to defend yourself on your own. Contact a qualified attorney to help.
You may have noticed that the list above doesn't have much to say about sexual misconduct. It does mention “lewd” and “obscene” behavior. It also refers to “conduct that endangers someone's health and safety.” That rule goes on to mention “physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, or sexual misconduct” as examples. Sexual misconduct would seem to warrant more attention than this, though.
In fact, CSU schools, like most schools across the country, addresses sexual misconduct not through its Student Code of Conduct but through Title IX. This is a federal law, passed in 1972, that prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment at any publicly funded education program. Schools are required to enforce Title IX and can lose federal dollars if they don't.
If the CSU's Student Code of Conduct is complex, Title IX is far more so. From the moment it was passed, it has been subject to controversy. It has been interpreted and reinterpreted by Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court. Even now, after fifty years, it remains in a constant state of change. That means anything we say about it may need to be re-written within the years.
Here's what's clear, though.
The law itself reads,
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation, in be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
“Discrimination” includes “harassment,” and over time, that has come to include any activity of any kind that is based on a person's sex and that interferes in any way with that person's ability to get an education. Classroom discrimination qualifies. So do stalking, assault, and rape. Sexist or denigrating language remains a subject of contention but is sometimes treated as a Title IX violation.
Title IX comes with its own set of rules and procedures, which we detail more below. For now, you need to understand that if you've been accused of sexual misconduct, your school will take it seriously. Federal law says they must. More than any other type of university misconduct, if you're facing a Title IX charge, you need to hire a qualified Title IX attorney to defend you.
Just as CSU's rules can be divided into different categories, so can its procedures for dealing with violations of those rules. Most violations of the Student Code of Conduct, including most examples of academic misconduct, are dealt with under what is labeled the “Non-discrimination / Harassment Procedures.” However, all twenty-three schools in the system currently use Title IX guidelines for any instances of sexual misconduct, which under Title IX is categorized as sexual discrimination/ harassment.
Academic Misconduct Procedures
On the university level, academic misconduct is treated using the same procedures as those for all other types of non-discrimination misconduct. However, academic misconduct has unique consequences that only occur on the course level.
If you've been accused of academic misconduct, the complaint probably originated with your course instructor. Maybe they're convinced you are cheating or that you've plagiarized a paper. They have the authority to apply whatever course sanction they think is appropriate. This could be a warning. It could mean you have to re-write the paper or re-take the exam. It could also mean a lower grade, a failure on the assignment, or, in some cases, a failure in the course. You do have recourse to appeal an instructor's decision to your department. However, there is no standard “process” at this level of academic misconduct. Instructors are empowered to use their own methods of investigation and to determine their own punishments.
Unfortunately, academic misconduct doesn't end there. Instructors at all CSU universities are required to report academic misconduct to the school administrators. That triggers the misconduct procedures detailed below. Essentially, you pay a penalty in the course itself, but you must also answer to the school for your behavior.
Non-Discrimination / Harassment Misconduct Procedures
All misconduct cases at all Cal State schools originate with a complaint.
- If you've been caught texting answers to someone during a test, that complaint may originate with your professor or TA. If you've been accused of stealing equipment from the gym, that complaint might come from another student. Ultimately, the complaint is made—whether in oral or written form—to your school's Student Conduct Administrator.
- The first thing that administrator will do is decide whether an interim suspension might be appropriate in your case. If they believe you might be a threat to the campus community, they do have the power to suspend you or issue no-contact orders between you and other members of that community.
- The administrator has forty days from the date of the complaint to investigate the incident. How an investigation proceeds, of course, will vary based on the nature of the specific offense, but it usually involves interviewing witnesses and gathering any physical evidence. As the respondent (defendant) to the complaint, you have the right to choose an advisor to help you through this process. This advisor can be an attorney. Even in the earliest stages of an investigation, such an advisor can help you prepare your case, coach you in how to answer questions, and make sure the school respects your rights.
- Within ten days of completing the investigation, the Student Conduct Administrator must notify you in writing that they have scheduled a conference. As part of this notification, they must explain the charges in detail, propose a specific sanction, and tell you where you can look at your current discipline file.
- The conference itself is with the Student Conduct Administrator. Your advisor may accompany you, though you are required to answer questions yourself. No one is allowed to record the conference. This will be your first official opportunity to respond to the charges against you. You have the choice to accept responsibility and the proposed sanction, to argue your innocence, or to accept guilt but protest the sanction. You can also refuse to attend the conference altogether. That leads directly to a hearing.
- Of course, if you should accept both responsibility and the proposed sanction, the case is at an end. Otherwise, however, you are entitled to defend yourself at an official hearing. Notice of that hearing must be issued within ten days of the conference. Again, that notice will advise you of your rights, including the right to have an advisor present at the hearing, the right to know the full charges against you and the proposed sanction, and the right to review your complete discipline file. The hearing itself must be scheduled between 10 and 20 days after the conference.
- A Hearing Officer controls the hearing and ultimately decides the case. CSU notes, “Hearings are intended to be educational rather than adversarial.” In practice, this means the normal rules of evidence that you might be used to seeing on TV shows like Law and Order don't apply. In addition, your advisor isn't allowed to address the hearing directly. The Student Conduct Administrator presents the case against you. You are expected to present your own case.
- At the conclusion of the hearing, the Hearing Officer determines whether you are “responsible” or “not responsible” (guilty or innocent). The officer is not required to use the standard applied in most courtrooms, “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead, they apply a much more relaxed standard known as the “preponderance of evidence.” According to this standard, they need only decide whether it is “more likely than not” that you committed the offense. Attorneys frequently refer to this standard as the 50% plus a feather standard. In addition, you should know that the Hearing Officer can impose a stricter penalty than the one proposed by the Student Conduct Administrator if they feel it is appropriate.
- The Hearing Officer then submits a written report, including a recommendation about sanctions, to the university president, who is responsible for actually passing a sentence.
As should be clear from this description of the procedures, students have limited rights to defend themselves in such cases. The school controls the entire process, from start to finish. Only the Student Conduct Administrator and the Hearing Officer have decision-making power, which means students cannot raise objections and have essentially no recourse if they are treated unfairly.
Once again, the real lesson here is that should your school accuse you, you need someone with legal training to stand beside you. School hearings aren't necessarily the final word in a case. More and more students have sued in federal court to overturn university findings. An attorney who is with you from the beginning of a case can explain to actual judges in actual courtrooms just how a school violated your rights.
Sexual Misconduct Procedures
Finally, should you commit a sexual offense, one covered under the federal government's Title IX, you are subject to yet another procedure. Title IX guidelines don't afford you the protections you'd get in an actual court of law, but they do safeguard more of your rights than normal misconduct investigations and hearings. California State's sexual misconduct procedures apply to Title IX sexual misconduct and non-Title IX sexual misconduct, as the procedure itself states:
"This executive order (EO 1097) has been revised in response to Federal Regulations and a recent California court of appeal decision and includes addenda that apply to cases involving students and employees that fall within the scope of the Federal Regulations or where a student has been accused of sexual misconduct or dating and domestic violence as defined by CSU policy."
The procedures are as follows:
- As with any misconduct, a case begins with a complaint. However, a complaint can only be made by an accuser or by the school's Title IX Officer.
- Once a formal complaint has been made, the Title IX Officer appoints an investigator to look into the matter. This investigator is tasked with interviewing both sides in the case as well as any relevant witnesses. In addition, this person will collect any physical evidence, such as clothing, pictures, video, and text messages. You are allowed an advisor, and this advisor can be an attorney. Further, in these cases, your advisor may accompany you to any interviews and advise you about answering questions.
- Because of the serious nature of the allegation, an investigation into sexual misconduct can take up to 100 days from the time a complaint is filed. At the conclusion of the investigation, the investigator writes a report. Both sides are allowed ten days to respond to this report and suggest amendments before it is submitted to the Title IX Officer.
- A Hearing Coordinator schedules the hearing, notifies witnesses, and makes sure the Hearing Officer, who will preside over the case, has copies of all relevant materials.
- At the hearing itself, advisors are not allowed to question witnesses directly or to raise objections. However, they may submit questions for the Hearing Officer to ask, assuming those questions don't concern either side's sexual history and aren't repetitive.
- At the conclusion of the hearing, the Hearing Officer submits a written report to the university president, a report that includes sanction recommendations.
- Finally, either side may appeal the Hearing Officer's decision, though only under certain very specific conditions such as new evidence or the demonstration of clear bias in the process. Appeals are made directly to the school's Student Conduct Office, which has the power to affirm the original decision, remand the case back to a hearing, or—in rare cases—to overturn the verdict.
Even more so than in regular misconduct cases when much is stake, your entire future can be on the line in a Title IX hearing. Suspension is usually the minimum punishment. More likely, your school will do everything it can to expel you if found responsible.
Again, however, federal courts have begun to recognize that students aren't treated fairly in these cases. In 2018, for example, one court uncovered that the University of Mississippi had instructed investigators to assume complainant lies were evidence they were telling the truth. CSU schools are no exception to the general tendency of colleges and universities in the U.S. to “believe the victims,” even if that means pre-judging the accused. usc title ix
The only way you can prepare a successful federal suit, though, is to have a Title IX attorney on your side throughout the entire process. Only a lawyer with experience in such cases can recognize and document the mistakes your school makes.
The CSU Student Code of Conduct lists seven possible sanctions, or punishments, for violating the system's rules.
- Restitution: If you're found guilty in a misconduct case, you can be asked to compensate victims or the school itself for loss, damages, or injury.
- Loss of financial aid: A guilty verdict in any kind of misconduct case could place your financial aid in jeopardy. This could include scholarships, grants, fellowships, even loans.
- Educational sanctions: Your school can mandate you attend counseling. It can bar you from participation in certain campus organizations. It can also assign you to write papers or take courses that offer training in how to correct your behavior. You could also be asked to perform community service.
- Denial of access to campus or specific persons: You might be prevented from coming on to campus for a specific period of time. Your school can also deny you access to complainants, witnesses, or other specified persons.
- Disciplinary probation: If you're placed on probation, you can continue as a student, but only on the condition that you don't commit other violations of campus policy. Typically, probation lasts for a specified period of time.
- Suspension: If you should be suspended for less than one year, you are eligible to re-enroll after this period, though enrollment may require you to meet certain conditions set by the school. If you are suspended for more than a year, you are eligible to re-apply. However, even if the school reinstates you, suspensions for over a year are noted on your transcript.
- Expulsion: Finally, your school can expel you, removing you permanently and barring you from ever enrolling again. This also makes you ineligible to enroll at any other CSU institution. Finally, expulsion includes a transcript notation describing the specific nature of your offense. Such a notation can prevent you from transferring anywhere else, even to a school outside of California. In fact, it can hurt your job prospects and follow you throughout your professional career.
Given the consequences you face if you violate any CSU rules, it's in your best interest to take seriously any accusation made against you. Even an accusation of plagiarism can cost you scholarships, prevent you from getting into graduate school, or limit your ability to find that all-important first job.
What does it mean to take these accusations seriously? We'll get into that next. Without question, though, it means finding skilled representation, an attorney who can advise you and who can stand by your side and ensure you are treated fairly.
What Do You Do Now?
If you've been accused of violating a CSU policy, whether it's something minor like drinking in your dorm room or something major like sexual assault, take the situation seriously. Penalties can be severe, and even light punishments can have a lasting effect on the rest of your life.
To make matters worse, your school won't be on your side. This place that welcomed you with open arms, that may even have recruited you, will suddenly turn on you. Not only that, but it will stack the deck against you, trampling over your rights and believing your accusers no matter how dubious their claims or how shaky their evidence.
First Things First
Don't panic. You can get through whatever crisis you may be facing. You can get your life and your career back on track. You'll need help, though. As soon as possible, contact a qualified attorney, someone with experience representing student clients at university hearings.
Next, get to work:
- Take the time to write down your story. Describe what happened from your perspective. Don't leave out any details. Something small, even if you think it tends to make you look guilty, could be the key to proving your innocence.
- Make a list of witnesses. Think about anyone who might have been present when the violation occurred. Again, don't leave out anyone just because you think their testimony might be damaging. Only your attorney can decide that for certain.
- Collect any evidence related to the violation. Make sure you hang on to absolutely everything.
- Don't talk to anyone representing your school until you've had a chance to consult with your lawyer. They can help coach you on how to give answers. More importantly, they can let you know when it's better not to say anything at all.
- Try to keep your life as normal as possible. Keep going to classes, keep to your normal routines. Be kind to yourself and make sure to build in some daily comforts to help you keep your sanity.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help
Joseph D. Lento is a nationally recognized attorney specializing in student conduct cases. He has years of experience representing clients just like you and helping them defend themselves against accusations large and small. Joseph D. Lento knows the law, but he's not an ordinary defense attorney. He also knows how colleges and universities operate. He knows the Cal State System, its history, and its procedures. Most importantly, though, Joseph D. Lento understands your school isn't on your side. He knows the tricks they will try to use, the bullying tactics they might employ, and he knows how to stop them.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento is empathetic. He's on your side, and he'll do everything he can to get you the very best possible outcome for your case. He'll fight for you on campus, and, if it comes to it, he'll fight for you in federal court.
Don't wait to see what your school will do. If you've been accused of any university misconduct, call Joseph D. Lento today and find out how we can help.
Contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.