Most new college students don't realize just how many rules they're now subject to. In fact, even students nearing graduation may not know just how rigid their own schools can be when it comes to enforcing policy and punishing offenders.
Of course, colleges and universities are complex institutions. Some are as large as small cities, and even schools with only one or two thousand students often have operating budgets in the millions. Obviously, they need to enact policies to make sure students behave themselves and treat others with respect.
The problem is the same problem all large, complex institutions have, though: what happens when the administration overreaches? What can students do in the face of rules that are too strict or punishments that are too harsh?
First and foremost, know your school's rules. This will prevent you from breaking any by mistake. It will also help prepare you, though, should you ever find yourself accused of misconduct. And as part of your research, make sure you find out just what your school's policy on advisors is. Because if you're accused, an advisor may be your best hope at salvaging your future.
Three Types of Misconduct
Every university maintains slightly different disciplinary policies, so it's important that you closely examine your particular school's Student Code of Conduct. This will let you know exactly what you can expect if you are charged with underage drinking or buying a freshman comp essay from an online paper mill.
However, there are a number of similarities in how Alabama schools deal with misconduct. One of these is the fact that all schools divide misconduct into three categories: academic, disciplinary, and sexual.
Academics is what colleges and universities are all about. It's no surprise, then, that all Alabama schools have strict policies against things like cheating, plagiarism, and general classroom dishonesty.
Most of the time, faculty have the primary responsibility for identifying and punishing “academic misconduct.” Typically, an instructor will call you into their office to discuss the allegation and get your side of the story, but they can sanction you without consulting anyone else. Sanctions can include,
· A written warning
· A new, replacement assignment
· A lower grade on the assignment, including a zero
· A lower grade in the course, including an F
Fortunately, most schools offer some process for appealing your instructor's decision. This doesn't always mean you're entitled to a formal hearing, though. An appeal may simply involve submitting your complaint to an administrator or a departmental committee.
In addition, all Alabama schools require instructors to report instances of academic misconduct. That means you could be hit with additional sanctions if your university thinks you've committed a particularly serious offense or if you've been accused of multiple offenses.
The second important category of university misconduct is “disciplinary misconduct.” This typically covers activities that take place outside of the classroom. Starting a food fight in the cafeteria might qualify as a disciplinary offense or stealing a valuable manuscript from the school library.
Here again, schools differ on the details. Every university has its own rules and its own system of punishment. Still, they tend to agree when it comes to the most serious kinds of violations.
· Underage drinking: If you're under 21, you aren't allowed to drink or possess alcohol on Alabama college campuses. In fact, some schools go further, restricting legal alcohol consumption or even banning it altogether.
· Drug possession: Alabama schools also prohibit the possession of all controlled substances.
· Hazing: Hazing—which includes “any willful act in striking, beating or maiming, as well as attempting or threatening to do the same” is also banned by all Alabama schools. In fact, in addition to being a policy violation, it is also against Alabama law, § 16-1-23.
· Hate crimes: Likewise, hate crimes against protected categories of persons are illegal under both state and federal law. Many schools go further, with policies that restrict hate speech and harassment.
· Residence Life rules: If you live on campus, whether in a dorm or an apartment, you are probably also subject to your school's residence life policy. These rules may relate to anything from how loud you can play your music to who you can invite over in the evening.
The third category of misconduct is “sexual misconduct.” In the strictest sense, sexually-based offenses would fit under general disciplinary misconduct since that category involves non-academic offenses. Most schools, however, treat sexual misconduct as its own type of offense. This is largely because sexual misconduct is subject to Title IX, a federal law. Essentially, the government mandates exactly how schools should investigate and adjudicate all campus allegations, and it withholds federal funding from any schools that refuse to comply.
Thus, sexual misconduct is the one type of offense that all schools in Alabama deal with in the same way.
- Your school has a designated Title IX Coordinator. All accusations must be made to this administrator. Only a complainant or a Coordinator can sign an official complaint.
- Your school must notify you in writing of any complaints against you. As part of this notification, they must provide details of the allegation and apprise you of your rights. Among these, you have the right to be presumed “not responsible” and the right to choose an advisor, who may be an attorney.
- Next, the Coordinator must appoint an Investigator to gather evidence in the case. In addition to collecting any physical evidence, this person will interview both you and the complainant as well as any witnesses.
- Under current Title IX guidelines, the school must hold a hearing following the investigation. At this hearing, both you and the complainant have the opportunity to present your evidence, call witnesses, and cross-examine witnesses against you.
- Title IX also dictates that both sides have the right to appeal the hearing outcome. Typically appeals may only be filed for very specific reasons, such as the discovery of new evidence or the revelation of procedural mistakes.
Finally, it is worth noting that, while colleges and universities still deal with most sexual misconduct allegations using Title IX, many schools also now have an additional set of procedures to address so-called “non-Title IX offenses.” In 2020, the Trump administration narrowed the definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment” and restricted school jurisdictions. In response, many schools enacted new policies that apply to all incidents no longer covered under Title IX. Because such incidents aren't covered by federal law, schools are free to create any investigative procedures they want. In addition, they are not required to guarantee respondents any particular due process rights.
How Alabama Colleges Manage Misconduct
If you're accused of misconduct in Alabama, you can generally expect your school to employ a four-part process for investigating and adjudicating your offense. Of course, the specific details will likely vary based on your particular school.
- Preliminary meetings: As soon as an accusation is made against you, you'll likely be invited to meet with a school representative, either your professor or an administrator of some sort. They'll make sure you understand the charges and give you an opportunity to explain your side of the situation.
- Investigation: You should expect your school to undertake at least some form of investigation, even if that just means collecting evidence. Of course, investigations of serious offenses can be more thorough and take weeks or sometimes months to complete.
- Hearings: Not all schools allow you to defend yourself at a hearing in all cases. Generally speaking, though, you'll probably be offered a hearing if the proposed sanctions include suspension or expulsion.
- Appeals: Your school will likely have some mechanism in place for appealing its verdicts. Sometimes this is done by committee, but more often, a single administrator makes the final decision.
Handling Meetings and Investigations
There are a series of best practices you should keep in mind should you be charged. When it comes to meetings and investigations,
- Don't talk to school officials until you've had a chance to consult an attorney. You may be anxious to clear up the matter and believe that all you have to do is explain your side of the story. It's not uncommon, though, for a school to take something that seems to prove your innocence and decide it actually proves your responsibility. Make sure you've discussed what you're going to say with an expert before you say it.
- Don't post about your case on social media. In fact, limit who you talk to about it to family and one or two friends. When accusations wind up discussed in public, it can be hard to control which direction opinion goes. You could very well prejudice officials against you before the investigation even begins.
- Don't contact your accuser. It is tempting to believe that if you can just explain your side of the story, the charge will magically disappear. In fact, you could wind up inflaming tensions, and in some cases, you can even be given additional charges.
- Participate fully in your defense. As soon as you are charged, take the time to write down your version of events. Gather any evidence that might be relevant to the case. Make a list of potential witnesses. In addition, make sure you record every contact you have with anyone involved in the case. All of this material will help your advisor construct a strategy for your defense.
- Look after your health and well-being. Dealing with even the smallest misconduct accusation can be a stressful experience. Don't let yourself become overwhelmed. Keep your life as normal as possible: go to classes; visit with friends; exercise. In addition, consider seeing a counselor, someone who can let you vent about your feelings and who can offer suggestions for dealing with any emotions you may be feeling.
- Most importantly, make sure you hire a qualified attorney to serve as your advisor. No matter what you may have been accused of, the stakes are high, and university judicial procedures can be difficult to navigate. Make sure you have someone on your side who knows the system and can help make sure you're treated fairly.
Dealing with Disciplinary Hearings and Appeals
As you move into the hearings and appeals phase of your case, you'll have new concerns.
Many elements of the hearing will be the same no matter what school you attend.
· Your school will let you know a week or ten days ahead of time, so you'll have time to prepare your case.
· You'll be allowed to choose an advisor or some other support person to accompany you to the hearing. In many cases, this person can be an attorney.
· Both sides will have the chance to present evidence and call witnesses.
· There may be one decision-maker or a panel of decision-makers. In either case, they usually employ what's known as the “preponderance of evidence” in making their decision. Less strict than the standard you probably know, “beyond a reasonable doubt,” all this standard requires is that decision-makers believe it is “more likely than not” that you committed an offense.
Other elements of a hearing may depend on the nature of your offense or your particular school's policies. For example, your advisor may be allowed to represent you fully. On the other hand, their role may be limited to private consultation. You may be able to question witnesses directly, or the school may only allow hearing officials to ask questions.
Possible Alabama College Sanctions
Most schools don't assign particular sanctions to particular offenses. Instead, decision-makers get to decide what they think is appropriate based on the specific facts of the case. In general, though, Alabama schools offer a range of different penalties.
· A formal written warning placed in your file
· Removal from on-campus housing
· Loss of privileges, such as extracurricular activities
· Course changes
· No contact orders
· Financial restitution
· Mandated counseling
· Loss of scholarships or other financial aid
It's important to recognize that any of these sanctions, even a minor one, can have enormous repercussions on your academic and professional future. A written warning about cheating, if it becomes part of your record, could prevent you from getting scholarship money. It might hurt your chances at internships or graduate school. It could even be a factor in your first job applications.
Responding to Allegations: Choosing the Right Advisor
Each step in your school's judicial process will demand a different set of skills. The right attorney can ensure you're ready.
Dealing with the Accusation and Investigation
During the early stages of the case, investigators are watching your every move to see just how you'll react. It's important that you maintain your composure, but at the same time, you must convey the attitude that you are taking the charges seriously. That can be a very fine line to walk. You'll be asked lots of questions, and you may not always have the answers.
We often associate lawyers with courtrooms, but the truth is that much of their job involves protecting clients during investigations. If you select an attorney to serve as your advisor, you can be sure that they will fully prepare you to answer questions and make certain the school respects your rights all along the way.
During the Hearing
You should have advanced notice before a hearing, which will give you time to prepare your case. In addition, you'll have access to all the evidence against you. It's not always easy to make sense of this evidence, though. It takes skill to put together a solid defense, to organize when your present evidence and call witnesses, to write successful opening and closing statements.
Here again, an attorney can be the difference between winning and losing your case. An attorney with experience in student conduct hearings will know exactly how the procedures will unfold. They'll be practiced at representing you, if that's allowed, or with advising you on how to represent yourself, if that's necessary. They'll know the right questions to ask witnesses, and they'll know when a school is trying to violate your rights.
Students—even innocent students do lose hearings. Remember that the standard for deciding the hearing will likely be “preponderance of evidence.” That leaves a lot of room for error. Luckily, hearings are not quite the last word on your case. Your school will have some appeals process in place that allows you to question the verdict.
In contrast to a hearing, an appeal happens almost entirely on paper. A single person or a committee will decide your fate based on the documents you submit. You won't get a chance to speak to them directly.
Attorneys are skilled at crafting legal arguments and at doing so in writing. They know how to convince your school to accept your appeal, and they can write that appeal to give you the very best chance of overturning the hearing decision.
Joseph D. Lento, Student Conduct Advisor
Joseph D. Lento is an attorney specializing in student conduct cases. He's spent his career helping students just like you defend themselves from all types of charges. Joseph D. Lento is comfortable in a courtroom, and he's tried hundreds of cases. He's equally comfortable in a campus seminar room, though, taking on school administrators and getting students the justice they deserve.
If you or your child has been accused of any kind of misconduct, don't wait to act. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.