College can be one of the most fulfilling times in any person's life. You're establishing your independence, fine-tuning your identity, gathering the knowledge and skills you need to establish a career. A misconduct allegation can put all that in jeopardy pretty quickly, though.
That's why it's so important to know exactly how your Maryland school treats different kinds of misconduct: what the rules are, what the judicial processes look like, what kind of penalties you might face. Obviously, this kind of information can help you avoid making mistakes in the first place. It can be even more important, though, if, despite your best efforts, you still find yourself accused of a violation.
Three Types of Conduct Issues
No two schools are alike, but all of them publish a student code of conduct that explains their individual rules and what happens if you break those rules. Usually, they publish this code both online and in print, so it should be easy to track down a copy and find out exactly how your school operates.
Most colleges and universities divide student misconduct into three categories: academic, disciplinary, and sexual.
Academic misconduct usually pertains to classroom activities and includes prohibitions against things like cheating, plagiarism, and general academic dishonesty. Usually, schools give classroom instructors the primary responsibility for identifying violations and assigning appropriate punishments. Punishments might include anything from a warning to a partial or failing grade on the assignment to a lowered or failing grade in the course. In addition, schools typically require instructors to report all violations to a central office. That office then has the power to punish repeat offenders with harsher punishments like probation, suspension, or expulsion.
Disciplinary misconduct generally relates to issues that arise outside the confines of the classroom. Usually, it has to do with how you conduct yourself and how you treat others.
Again, schools may differ in how they organize their rules, but the rules themselves are usually pretty much the same. The most prominent violations include things like,
- Underage drinking: Given that it is against Maryland law to drink if you are under the age of 21, it's no surprise that universities in the state forbid you to do so as well. Some schools go further and limit how and where anyone on campus—even those of age—can consume alcohol.
- Drug possession: Again, it should come as no surprise that all Maryland schools ban the possession of controlled substances. This includes marijuana possession. While medically approved use of marijuana is legal in Maryland, it remains illegal under federal law and is prohibited on all campuses.
- Hazing: Schools generally prohibit all sorts of hazing activities both on and off-campus since often these involve coercive and dangerous activities, including underage drinking.
- Residential violations: In addition to other campus rules, schools usually maintain a strict set of residence life policies that govern how students can behave in on-campus dormitories and apartments. These regulate everything from how much noise you can make in your room to who is allowed to visit and when.
- Hate crimes: Most colleges and universities take openness and inclusion very seriously. Offenses that have to do with a person's race, gender, age, religion, or disability can get you into serious trouble.
Sexual misconduct is a form of disciplinary misconduct, but it is usually treated as its own specific kind of policy violation. One reason for this is that, unlike other kinds of misconduct, sexual offenses are actually governed by Title IX, a federal law. Title IX prohibits any form of sexual discrimination on college campuses, and that has been broadly interpreted to apply to everything from verbal harassment to stalking and even rape. The law also clearly sets out how schools must respond to allegations:
- All schools must have a designated Title IX Coordinator who receives complaints of sexual misconduct
- Once a formal complaint has been lodged, the school rigorously investigates the matter
- Following an investigation, accused students have the right to defend themselves at a live hearing
- One or more decision-makers ultimately decide whether or not the accused is “responsible” for the misconduct and assign sanctions as necessary
- Both sides in the case have the right to appeal the hearing findings under certain very specific circumstances, such as the discovery of new evidence or procedural errors in the investigation
You should know that not all sexual misconduct qualifies as a Title IX violation. In 2020, the Trump administration issued new guidelines for how schools should implement Title IX. Among other changes, the administration narrowed the definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment,” limited schools' jurisdictional authority, and guaranteed certain due process rights to the accused. Many schools responded to these new guidelines by implementing new policies designed to deal with misconduct that no longer rose to the level of the new, stricter definitions. These so-called “non-Title IX” cases aren't subject to the law, and so schools are entitled to deal with them as they see fit. Many schools have elected to use Title IX procedures in both kinds of cases, but some schools have substituted their own unique policies in non-Title IX cases.
In any case, in our current social and political climate, sexual misconduct is among the most serious kinds of charges that can be leveled against a student. Defending yourself from such charges can be difficult, and penalties are often severe. The minimum sanction in such cases is usually suspension, and the more common sanction is expulsion.
How Maryland Colleges Manage Misconduct
Every Maryland school has specific procedures in place that allow students accused of misconduct to defend themselves. Not only do these vary from school to school, but they can differ depending on the specific kind of misconduct you're accused of committing.
That said, the overall process often follows a similar pattern:
- Preliminary meetings: The first step in a misconduct matter is usually a meeting with the instructor or some administrator. This gives you an opportunity—whether formal or informal—to explain your side of the situation. Sometimes, this step in the process involves multiple meetings.
- Investigation: Depending on the nature of the offense, the school may conduct an in-depth investigation into the circumstances of the accusation. Title IX, for instance, dictates that schools must thoroughly investigate sexual misconduct incidents. An accusation of plagiarism, on the other hand, might not warrant a full investigation.
- Hearings: All schools, of course, provide live hearings in Title IX cases. Most also provide hearings into other kinds of misconduct if the potential punishment includes suspension or expulsion.
- Appeals: Generally, schools have some mechanism in place by which students who have been found responsible for offenses can appeal that finding. In some cases, this involves a full committee review. In others, a single individual, such as the provost, decides the final outcome.
Handling Your School's Investigation
A charge of misconduct usually comes as a shock. An investigation can be messy, and it will almost certainly disrupt your studies. As a result, it's important to have a plan of action you can employ should you find yourself accused.
- Don't talk to officials without consulting an attorney. You are probably used to thinking of your university as an ally. Your school educates you, houses you, feeds you. Once you've been accused of misconduct, though, the situation is very different. The school's goal now is to prove you are responsible for violating policy. As in actual criminal investigations, anything you say can—and likely will—be used against you. Make sure, then, that you've gotten the very best advice before you open your mouth to say anything.
- Don't talk to others. Avoid telling friends and acquaintances about your case. This includes trying to defend yourself on social media. Your statements can often be used against you in university investigations and hearings. Talking to others can also serve to prejudice public opinion.
- Don't contact your accuser. You will almost certainly be tempted to try to fix the situation by talking to your accuser, whoever that might be. It is tempting to believe that if you can just explain your side of the situation, you can resolve everything. Unfortunately, that's not how things work. Talking to the accuser will only make things more difficult for you and, in some circumstances, can even lead to additional charges.
- Maintain records. Help your advisor as much as you can by keeping everything related to your case organized. As soon as possible, write down your version of events. Hold on to evidence. Solicit witnesses if there are any. In addition, make thorough notes of every contact you have with anyone connected to the case.
- Keep yourself healthy. Defending yourself from any accusation, even something small like cheating on an exam can be stressful. While you probably can't avoid stress altogether, you should take measures to reduce it as much as possible. Try to keep your routines consistent. Continue to go to classes, exercise, take mental health breaks. In addition, it can be a good idea to visit a therapist or counselor to get suggestions for managing your stress levels or just to talk out your feelings.
- Get advice from an attorney. You should never try to handle an academic misconduct charge on your own. There's simply too much at stake. Instead, seek the help of a qualified attorney, someone with experience dealing with university justice. Depending on the situation, your attorney might not be able to speak on your behalf or even accompany you to interviews and meetings. However, they can coach you on how to deal with these situations, they can advise you on what strategies to use to defend yourself, and they can work behind the scenes to negotiate with your school and ensure your rights are respected.
Your College's Disciplinary Hearings
Schools almost always have hearings for serious matters – sexual misconduct cases or other cases where suspension and expulsion are potential sanctions.
You can expect to be notified about the hearing far enough in advance to prepare your case. As part of this notification, the school should tell you the exact nature of the charges against you and the name of your accuser. In addition, you should have access to all evidence against you.
Typically, the case will be held before a panel or committee made up of faculty and students. Both sides will have an opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses. You may be allowed to have an advisor or other support person present to help you organize your case and formulate cross-examination questions.
Most hearings are decided using what's known as the “preponderance of evidence” standard. “Preponderance of evidence” is far less strict than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard you're probably most familiar with. It requires decision-makers to find you responsible if they are just over fifty percent sure you committed a violation.
Of course, hearing rules vary from school to school. Some schools, for example, will allow your advisor to speak for you at the hearing. Others restrict the advisor's role and prohibit them from speaking other than to you. A few schools don't allow advisors to attend hearings at all. Even in these cases, though, an attorney can be invaluable in helping you plan your defense and prepare to represent your case.
Possible Maryland College Sanctions
The range of sanctions for misconduct is pretty standard from school to school within Maryland. Typical punishments can include:
- Formal written warnings placed in your personal file
- Removal from housing
- Loss of privileges such as extracurricular activities or access to the campus gym
- Mandated counseling
- Loss of scholarships or other financial aid
All of these sanctions, even those that may seem light, can have long-lasting repercussions. A written warning for plagiarism, for example, can do serious damage to your academic career if it should be included in your academic record. It could put scholarships in jeopardy. It could make it difficult, if not impossible, to attend graduate school. Of course, no employer wants to hire a recent graduate with a reputation for cheating.
Thus, if you should find yourself accused of any kind of misconduct, you are always better off fighting it. The best way to do that is to make sure you have a lawyer on your side, someone who can help you navigate the system and make sure the outcome is fair.
Best Practices for Responding to Allegations
In the end, if you're charged with misconduct, what can you do to improve your chances of successfully defending yourself?
Dealing with the Accusation
You will want to defend yourself loudly and to as many people as possible. Don't. You know you are innocent. You may even think your innocence is obvious. It won't be to other people. A piece of evidence that you think exonerates you can sometimes convince other people you're guilty. Say as little as possible. This applies particularly to social media.
Instead, make sure you've hired a qualified attorney, someone with experience representing students in university misconduct cases. Attorneys are professionals at what they do. You're not. They will know how to talk to the administration. They'll be practiced at making arguments on your behalf. They will know how to talk to the public and the press if that's necessary.
Before and During the Hearing
Well before the hearing itself, the school will notify you of the specific charges against you and give you access to all the evidence in the case. This will give you an opportunity to begin organizing your defense. Every case is different – each one requires its own specific strategy. Make sure that before you head into a hearing, you've consulted with an attorney, so you know what's going to give you the very best chance of winning.
If you should lose your case, you will need to file an appeal. Appeals take time and resources, so schools typically only hear them for very specific reasons. You'll need to have a strong argument for why your case deserves a second look.
Unlike a hearing, an appeal is conducted almost entirely on paper. You won't have the opportunity to speak directly to decision-makers. They won't see you or hear the sincerity in your voice. This is yet another reason why it is so important to hire an attorney to help you with this aspect of your case. Attorneys are practiced in choosing the very best arguments and in making those arguments in writing. A good lawyer can make sure your appeal gets heard and give you the best chance at success.
The Lento Law Firm
Joseph D. Lento specializes in student conduct cases. He built his career defending students just like you from charges big and small. Joseph D. Lento knows just what you're facing. He's spent years learning what tactics schools use, and he knows how to fight them. Joseph D. Lento is on your side. He is sympathetic to your cause, and he wants to make sure you get the very best possible resolution to your case.
If you or your child has been accused of misconduct, don't wait to act. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.