Everyone has big expectations for their time in college. They want to expand their horizons, take interesting classes, meet new friends, or start new activities. College helps set young people on the path they'll follow for the rest of their lives and often leads to the first steps they take in their future careers. Trouble with disciplinary issues, however, can really bring these high hopes down.
Having problems with your school's conduct procedures can significantly dampen your college experience. Some DC schools have so many rules that you may end up running afoul of your school's policies without even realizing it. Fortunately, you can avoid unknowingly getting into trouble by reading your school's conduct resources. One of the most important documents you should reference is your school's code of conduct.
The code of conduct typically contains all your rights and responsibilities as a student. It's your school's expectations for your behavior as a student, including actions that are prohibited and could lead to disciplinary measures. The code should also state procedures for dealing with suspected code violations. As a student, you should find and read your school's code of conduct carefully. Be sure you understand it because ignorance of the code is not a sufficient defense if you are accused.
At Lento Law Firm, we want every college student to have the most positive experience possible. That's why we've put together this guide to code of conduct disciplinary procedures at colleges and universities in the District of Columbia.
Academic Misconduct, Sexual Misconduct, and General Disciplinary Charges in DC
Most DC schools have a code of conduct with three types of misconduct: academic dishonesty, sexual misconduct, and general code of conduct violations. It's possible your school's code of conduct covers all three, but there may also be separate policies for each one.
Academic misconduct happens when one or more students try to gain an unfair advantage in an academic exercise. It can take many forms, including plagiarism, cheating, falsifying data, unauthorized group work, disturbing the classroom, or destruction of another's academic materials. Usually, instructors can handle suspected academic misconduct and may impose sanctions on a student, such as redoing an assignment, lowering a grade, or possibly failing the student in the course. If the academic dishonesty offense is more serious or it's not the student's first time being accused of academic misconduct, there could be harsher consequences like suspension or expulsion.
Sexual Misconduct and Title IX
Sexual misconduct occurs when any sexual conduct happens between two or more people without the freely given consent of each party. Examples of sexual misconduct include rape, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, stalking, and sexual harassment. It's highly likely that your DC school prohibits sexual misconduct, and there may be a separate policy for it if it's not covered in the code of conduct. Your college or university may also have a Title IX sexual harassment policy.
Title IX is a federal law that aims to prevent gender- and sex-based discrimination in education. It applies to all educational institutions in the US that receive federal funding, from preschools up to graduate programs. At universities, Title IX can touch many areas, including admissions, sports, employment, and financial aid. Title IX prohibits rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment on college campuses. It also sets forth procedures that schools must follow if the school learns about a potential Title IX violation.
If your DC school knows about a suspected violation of Title IX, it has an obligation to respond in the following ways:
- Thoroughly investigating the matter
- Ending any sexual violence and preventing it from happening again
- Addressing the consequences of sexual violence that may have occurred
- Offering protection to the alleged victim and person who complained
- Providing grievance procedures for rectifying the matter
The federal Title IX law places burdens on DC schools to deal strictly with potential violations. As a result, the penalties for being found responsible for a Title IX infraction can be harsh. It's important to have an experienced student defense attorney by your side if you are accused of sexual misconduct at your university.
General Code of Conduct Violations
For prohibited behaviors that don't fall under academic integrity or sexual misconduct, there are general code of conduct violations. Your school's code should provide a list of violations, and it's often extensive. Some of the behaviors you might find on this list are:
- Alcohol violations: In the District of Columbia, alcohol consumption is illegal for anyone under age 21, just like in the rest of the country. Colleges and universities adhere to this law by prohibiting underage drinking on campus, and some may even prohibit alcohol consumption and possession for all students, no matter their age.
- Drug possession: You can expect your DC college or university to prohibit the use, distribution, and possession of illegal drugs on campus. There may even be restrictions on legal or prescription drugs.
- Hazing: Forcing prospective members of a club, organization, sports team, fraternity, or sorority to complete humiliating rituals is known as hazing. Hazing can often lead to dangerous behavior such as binge drinking and, in some cases, has resulted in injury and even death. Colleges and universities take hazing seriously, and it's highly likely that your school prohibits it.
- Campus housing misconduct: For many students, college is the first time in their lives living away from home. Universities provide on-campus housing for students to live in a communal setting, which is typically more conducive to making new friends. Living with other people comes with new challenges, however, and most residential facilities have rules in place to help protect everyone's safety and privacy. Breaking these rules could have serious consequences, including getting kicked out of campus housing.
- Hate crimes: A hate crime is an offense committed against someone because of their religion, race, gender, disability, or age. Most schools won't tolerate hate crimes and therefore have severe penalties for students found responsible for committing one.
Keep in mind that your school's code of conduct may not be exhaustive. For example, being charged with a crime by civil authorities could have repercussions on your school's disciplinary procedures as well. It's important to have a student defense attorney who can help you defend your rights no matter the situation you're facing.
The Process for Code of Conduct Issues at DC Colleges and Universities
In addition to a list of prohibited behavior, your school's code of conduct likely also has procedures for how to handle suspected violations. This process typically includes:
- A formal investigation
- A disciplinary hearing or administrative meeting
- A decision and recommendation for sanctions
- An appeal process
You will know the disciplinary process has started when your school sends you formal notice of a code of conduct charge against you (usually via university email). Following the notification of the charge is an investigation, and an administrator may want to interview you. After the investigation comes the hearing, then the decision on whether you are responsible for a violation or not.
The Preliminary Investigation
Once the investigation starts, you should be cautious about who you speak with. Keep these best practices in mind:
- Don't speak to anyone about the allegations against you. You should only talk to your parents and attorney about the charge; don't speak to anyone from the university. Even a conversation with a friend or trusted professor could incriminate you.
- Refrain from posting about the charge on social media. You don't want to make the allegation public, even if you feel the urge to defend yourself. You could end up incriminating yourself as well, and once something is on social media it never truly goes away.
- Don't assume your school is on your side. Administrators from your college or university may tell you that they have your best interests in mind. In reality, they must consider what is best for the institution and its reputation. Be wary of your school, and don't automatically assume they're here to help.
- Get advice from a student defense attorney. Speaking with someone experienced in student discipline matters can help make the whole process go more smoothly.
After the investigation is over, the investigator may make a report with their findings. At this point, your school may decide not to take the case any further. It may also want to continue pursuing it and schedule a hearing.
The Disciplinary Hearing
At the hearing, you will have a chance to make your case and defend yourself. The other party will be able to do the same. There may be a hearing panel comprised of faculty, staff, and possibly students. The panel will listen to your arguments, ask you questions, and ask questions of the witnesses.
Most schools that allow a hearing will also allow you and your attorney to review any evidence that the other party plans to use against you before the hearing starts. You may also receive a witness list. You and your lawyer can use this information to develop your defense strategy so you know how to conduct yourself during your hearing. You should be able to present evidence and question your own witnesses as well.
It's possible your college or university will let you have an external advisor or attorney present with you at the hearing. Some schools will assign you an advisor from within the university, however. If you can have an attorney present, they may not be able to speak on your behalf, but you can still confer with them privately. Even if your school does not allow you to have an attorney present, working with one during the disciplinary process is still beneficial. They can coach you on how to present your arguments, help you gather evidence and witnesses, and work on all the strategies that must be done “behind the scenes” before the hearing takes place.
At the end of your hearing, the panel should make a decision regarding the charge against you. If it finds you responsible for a code of conduct violation, you may face any one of the following sanctions:
- Written reprimand in your school file
- Prohibition from participating in extracurricular activities
- Loss of scholarship
- Removal from student housing
- Academic probation
- Disciplinary probation
- Loss of degree
Some of these sanctions seem minor—how much damage can a written reprimand do? Even less strict sanctions can have lasting impacts, however. With a notation on your transcript about a code of conduct, academic integrity, or sexual misconduct violation, you may find it difficult to be accepted into a graduate program or get hired for an internship. When you are first accused of misconduct, it's essential that you defend yourself adequately if you want to avoid the consequences sanctions have on your future.
Responding to DC Code of Conduct Charges: Best Practices
When you are going through a code of conduct disciplinary process, it's important to conduct yourself properly. Stick to these best practices in order to protect your rights.
After learning about the formal charges against you, you may feel tempted to defend yourself right away. You should avoid doing so, however. By speaking to anyone associated with your university about this issue, you potentially expose yourself. Only speak to your parents or supportive family members about the allegation. It also helps to hire a student defense attorney as soon as you find out about the charges, so you can start taking the proper steps from the beginning of the process.
Before and During the Hearing
Before the hearing, your school should provide you with a list of evidence and witnesses that will be used against you. You and your attorney may also have to prepare a similar list with evidence and witnesses in your favor. You can use this information from your school to prepare your defense strategy.
During the hearing, be respectful and don't let yourself get emotional, frustrated, or excited. If you are allowed to have an attorney, and they can speak for you, let them do the talking. If you have to speak for yourself, confer with your attorney when you feel hesitant.
Filing an Appeal
Once the hearing ends, the panel will issue a decision. If it decides you are responsible for a code of conduct violation, it will also issue sanctions. Most schools allow you the chance to appeal the decision.
Typically, you must submit a written appeal to your school's administration within ten days of receiving the decision. Appeals generally must also be based on certain grounds; you cannot appeal simply because you disagree with the decision. As the time you have to file an appeal is limited, you should work with an attorney to get it submitted. You only have one chance to file it, and you want to be sure it's done right.
After your school reviews your appeal, they may overturn the hearing panel's decision, affirm the decision, or demand a new hearing. Most of the time, the appeal decision at this stage is final, with no further appeal options.
Hiring an Attorney for Your Appeal
If your college or university does not accept your appeal, there may still be something you can do to avoid sanctions and clear your name. For these options, you will need the assistance of an attorney:
- File a complaint with the District of Columbia Higher Education Licensure Commission (HELC).
- Send your lawyer to negotiate with your school's legal team to reach an agreement.
- Sue your institution. This option will sever your relationship with your school permanently.
You Need an Experienced Student Defense Lawyer
Being accused of violating your school's code of conduct can bring on a lot of emotions. You may feel frustrated, worried, upset, angry, or stressed. Having to deal with nuanced discipline procedures while you're in such emotional turmoil can lead anyone to make poor decisions. You shouldn't have to deal with this accusation on your own. A skilled student defense attorney can guide you through this process and keep you from feeling overwhelmed. At Lento Law Firm, we want to stand by you when you're handling a disciplinary charge from your school. We don't think you should go through this alone.
Our experienced attorneys have dealt with student discipline matters at hundreds of colleges and universities across the country, including in the District of Columbia. We can negotiate with administrators and even bring court litigation if necessary. One small mistake shouldn't ruin your college experience or jeopardize your future. From investigation and development of a defense strategy to representation at a hearing and assistance with appeals, attorney Joseph D. Lento will work tirelessly to help you protect your rights. Call Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686 or contact us online to see how we can help you.