There's a steep learning curve in college. That doesn't just apply to calculus. You have to learn how to live in a small space with another human being. You have to figure out when it's time to put down the game controller and pick up your textbooks. You have to master doing your own laundry.
Even before you do any of those things, though, you need to find out what your college or university expects from you. The fastest way to end your academic career is to ignore the rules.
Nobody's perfect, though, right? So, while you're getting a handle on what plagiarism is and how to avoid getting charged with public indecency, you'll also want to take the time to find out who to turn to when you do find yourself in trouble. Schools take student behaviors very seriously these days, and you don't want to try to deal with the trouble you get into all on your own.
Three Types of Conduct Issues
The very first thing you need to know is how your school defines misconduct. Of course, every college and university is different, and no two define this subject in the same way. If you really want to know all the specifics, you should take a look at your own school's Student Code of Conduct.
That said, there are some universals. One of these is that schools always divide misconduct into three categories: academic misconduct, disciplinary misconduct, and sexual misconduct.
A university's whole reason for existing is to educate students. It makes sense, then, that all schools would maintain strict policies about how that process should work. In particular, they want to make sure no one has an unfair advantage in getting their degree. Usually, the rules include prohibitions against things like cheating, plagiarism, and misrepresentation. Instructors are generally responsible for identifying and punishing misconduct, and sanctions can range anywhere from re-submitting an assignment to failing the course altogether.
You should also know, though, that your instructor is probably also required to report any academic misconduct to a central administrative office. This office keeps track of every incident. Particularly egregious or repeat offenses are subject to additional punishments. These can include probation, suspension, and expulsion.
Colleges and universities regulate a second category of student conduct though: conduct as it relates to the campus community. No community can long survive without a few rules to govern how the members treat one another.
What are your school's rules? Again, you'll probably want to track down a copy of the Student Code of Conduct to learn them all, but here are a few you can count on.
- Underage drinking: Every school in Alaska prohibits anyone under 21 from consuming alcohol. In addition, many schools regulate where and when adults can drink, and a few ban consumption entirely.
- Drug possession: As with underage drinking, drug use and possession are prohibited by state and federal law. Obviously, colleges and universities prohibit these activities as well.
- Hate crimes: Most colleges and universities work hard to establish inclusive atmospheres where no one feels like an outsider. Thus, you can expect them to punish any form of discrimination or harassment, particularly against any protected status such as sex, race, disability, age, or religious persuasion.
- Hazing: Deaths from hazing have been national news in recent years. As a result, schools are taking this activity more seriously. Alaskan schools ban all types of dangerous and coercive activities associated with joining an organization or a group.
- Residence life: Colleges and universities also have policies aimed specifically at regulating those who live on campus. These can include anything from rules against food fights in the cafeteria to rules about who can and can't enter your dorm.
Finally, your college or university has a policy against sexual misconduct. In fact, the rules governing your behaviors aren't just set by the school; they're set by federal law. Title IX, a law passed in 1972, outlaws sexual discrimination and harassment against anyone in a US educational program. These terms are broadly defined to include anything from inappropriate jokes in an online classroom forum to stalking, dating violence, and rape.
In addition, the law includes a set of guidelines for how schools investigate and adjudicate all accusations. These guidelines include strictures such as
- All schools must have a designated Title IX Coordinator who ensures the school adheres to the law
- All formal complaints are thoroughly investigated by an appointed Investigator
- Following the investigation, respondents (the accused) have the right to defend themselves at a live hearing
- One or more Decision-Makers determine the outcome of the hearing using a legal standard known as “preponderance of evidence”
- Both sides have the right to appeal the hearing decision, though only under specific circumstances such as procedural mistakes or the discovery of new evidence
For many years, all cases of sexual misconduct were Title IX cases. That changed in 2020. The law itself is more focused now. For example, it doesn't apply to sexually-based offenses that occur at off-campus sites like apartment complexes. In response to these changes, many schools modified their own policies to handle incidents no longer covered under the law. It's important to recognize that because these “non-Title IX” cases aren't subject to government regulation, schools are free to create their own procedures for dealing with them. Your school may use some form of Title IX procedures, but it may also employ something considerably different.
How Alaskan Colleges Manage Misconduct
Knowing your school's rules is a good start, but if you're going to stay out of trouble, you also need to know what procedures it uses to handle accusations of misconduct. Generally, every school uses a four-step process, no matter which type of misconduct is at issue.
- Preliminary meetings: First, someone—either an instructor or some other school official—will meet with you to talk about the accusation. They'll explain the charges and give you an opportunity to explain your side of the situation.
- Investigation: The school will then conduct some type of investigation. In serious cases, this may take several weeks and involve the collection of evidence and solicitation of witness testimony. In less serious matters, it may take a day or two and involve nothing more than gathering a few documents.
- Hearings: Here again, the situation will usually depend on the seriousness of the offense. If suspension or expulsion are possible sanctions, your school will likely allow you to defend yourself at a formal hearing. Otherwise, however, you may simply make your case—in person or in writing—to a single administrator.
- Appeals: Most schools have some mechanism for reviewing their judicial decisions. Even if you should lose a hearing, you'll have a chance to appeal. However, appeals are often limited to issues such as the discovery of new evidence or questions of bias on the part of an official.
Handling Your School's Investigation
The allegations against you can often come as a shock, especially if you truly are innocent of the charges. You can't always predict how you may react under this kind of stress. To avoid making any critical mistakes during this crucial early stage of a case, it's useful to have a plan in place for how you'll handle the situation. Here are a few principles to consider.
- Don't talk to officials without consulting an attorney. Whether or not your school informs you of this fact, you don't have to talk to them. Just as in a criminal investigation, you have the right to remain silent, and anything you say can and will be used against you. Depending on your situation, an attorney may or may not be able to do your talking for you. In any case, though, they can advise you on what to say and how to say it so that it can't be misconstrued.
- Avoid talking to others about the case. It's useful to have one or two close friends or family members you can vent to about your situation. Otherwise, however, limit who you talk to about the case. This applies especially to social media. You may be tempted to proclaim your innocence and try to get others on your side. Others may not see your point of view, though, and making public pronouncements can backfire.
- Don't contact your accuser. Again, you'll be tempted. You'll want to sit down with your accuser and explain your side of the story. You'll believe that if only you can just explain yourself, everything will work out. That's almost never the way things happen. In fact, even if your accuser decides not to pursue charges against you, the school may still proceed with the investigation. More often, trying to initiate contact just winds up making things worse. It can even result in additional charges such as harassment.
- Maintain good records. From the moment you're accused, you want to begin building your case. Take the time to write down your version of events while it is fresh in your mind. Hold on to any evidence, even if you think it might put you in a bad light. Make lists of potential witnesses. In addition, take careful notes of any discussions you have with any officials about your case. This material could be crucial in proving your innocence.
- Keep yourself healthy. You need an attorney, but you can't expect your attorney to win your case without help from you. If you let yourself get stressed out over what's happening, you won't be of much use. Try to keep your routines as regular as possible. Continue going to class. Eat well. Exercise. Spend time with friends and family. You might also consider visiting a therapist or counselor, someone who can suggest strategies for getting through this difficult time.
- Get advice from an attorney. Before you do anything, even something as simple as sitting down with your instructor, contact an attorney. In many cases, your lawyer may be able to speak on your behalf. Even when they can't, though, they can still offer valuable advice for how to develop your defense strategy, how to answer difficult questions, and how to conduct yourself in meetings.
Your College's Disciplinary Hearings
A hearing is a chance to defend yourself, and you want to take full advantage of it. Your school will notify you of any proceedings before they happen and should give you enough time to prepare your case. You want to use this time wisely. Every case is different, and you'll need to come up with a strategy that works for your particular situation. You'll need to gather evidence. You'll want to practice to make sure you're comfortable talking to Decision-Makers.
Most often, cases are decided by a panel of Decision-Makers, usually made up of faculty and students. Both sides get to present evidence and call witnesses. Outcomes are typically based on a legal standard known as “preponderance of evidence.” You may be familiar with a different legal standard, “beyond a reasonable doubt.” “Preponderance of evidence” is different and is more likely to lead to a “responsible” verdict. In simplest terms, Decision-Makers are obligated to find you responsible if they believe it is more than fifty percent likely you committed an offense.
Often, an advisor, who may be an attorney, can accompany you to the hearing itself. They may even be allowed to speak on your behalf or examine and cross-examine witnesses. Just as with investigations, though, lawyers can help you well beyond their ability to speak at a hearing. For example, they can help you formulate questions for witnesses, offer advice on when you should submit different pieces of evidence, and give you tips on raising objections.
Possible Alaska College Sanctions
The range of sanctions for misconduct is pretty standard from school to school within Alaska. Typical punishments 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
Colleges and universities have become more rigid in recent years and have begun assigning penalties all out of proportion to offenses. Even if you're only given a warning, though, it's usually in your best interest to dispute it. Any sanction that's mentioned in your permanent record—even a warning—can have long-lasting consequences. You might lose scholarships. You could have trouble applying to graduate programs. You might even be confronted with your record when you go to apply for your first job.
You have a right to dispute any charges against you. If you should be found responsible, you also have the right to dispute your sanctions.
Best Practices for Responding to Allegations
What do you do if you find yourself facing a misconduct charge? First, take a deep breath. You can handle the situation. You just need to follow your game plan.
Dealing With the Accusation
Start by making sure you don't make your situation worse. Your emotions will run high. Keep them in check. Don't become confrontational. Don't argue with school officials or say anything you might later regret.
Instead, make sure you've hired a qualified attorney, someone who understands university misconduct cases and can help you navigate the process. Attorneys are skilled at developing arguments, but that's not all they're good for. They know how to talk to people; they know how to negotiate. They can help you tell your story in a way that will put you in the very best possible light.
Before and During the Hearing
Well before the hearing itself, the school will notify you of the specific charges against you. They're also required to give you equal access to all the evidence in the case. An attorney can help you make sense of this material. Not every piece of information will be useful. You have to know what to use and when to use it. Lawyers are trained to make these decisions.
At the hearing itself, it's important you maintain your composure. You'll likely be asked pointed, even personal questions. It's easy to let your emotions take over. Practicing answers ahead of time can be an excellent way to prepare. A seasoned attorney will be able to tell you just what kind of questions to expect, and they can help you formulate your answers.
If you should lose your case, you will want to appeal the decision. Appeals aren't like hearings. Your school doesn't have to hear your appeal and most place restrictions on your reasons for doing so. In addition, you won't have the opportunity to speak to Decision-Makers directly. Instead, your case will be conducted almost entirely on paper.
Again, having an attorney at your side gives you the best chance of getting an appeal and your best chance of winning it. Attorneys are practiced in choosing the very best arguments. They're also skilled at making those arguments in writing.
The Lento Law Firm
Joseph D. Lento is a fully-licensed, fully-qualified defense attorney, but his practice is unique. He built his career fighting for student rights. Over the years, he's helped hundreds of students defend themselves from all types of charges, from simple cheating allegations to accusations of sexual assault. Joseph D. Lento knows the law, and he knows how it applies to colleges and universities. Just as important, he has experience dealing with faculty and administrators. He knows what tactics they're likely to use and how to counter those tactics.
If you or your child has been accused of any type of misconduct, don't try to take on your school alone. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.