There's no other time in your life quite like college. You're not just going to school. You're establishing your independence, figuring out who you are, and preparing yourself to go out into the world as an adult. If you're facing a misconduct allegation, you need to know: all of that is in jeopardy.
If you're a Montana student and it's happened to you, what do you do? Well, first and foremost, you find out exactly how your school treats different kinds of misconduct. What are the rules? What are the procedures if you've been accused of breaking a rule? What kinds of sanctions are you facing? This information is important for avoiding mistakes in the first place, but it's even more crucial if you've been accused of violating policy. You need to know how to protect yourself, and you need to know how to get help doing it.
Three Types of Conduct Issues
Where do you begin? Every school is different, of course, and every school defines student misconduct a little differently. Luckily, though, all of them publish a Student Code of Conduct, usually both online and in print. It's important you track down a copy, so you'll be clear on how your particular school operates.
There are some aspects of student discipline, though, that is generally true no matter what university you attend. One of these is that you can expect your school to divide misconduct into three broad categories: academic misconduct, disciplinary misconduct, and sexual misconduct.
A school lives and dies on its reputation for honesty and integrity. No employers are anxious to hire graduates from a school that's known for cheating. Thus, all colleges and universities maintain a strict policy regarding academic behavior. Typically, this policy concerns classroom activities and prohibits things like plagiarism, cheating, and other forms of academic dishonesty.
At most schools, classroom instructors have the primary responsibility for identifying and punishing policy violations. They might assign sanctions ranging from verbal warnings to partial or failing grades on the assignment to a lowered or failing grade in the course. Your instructor is probably also required to submit a record of your misconduct to a central administrative office. This office can assign repeat offenders additional, harsher punishments such as suspension or expulsion.
Colleges and universities aren't just educational institutions. They're also communities. In addition to classroom rules, then, all schools also have rules governing non-academic or “disciplinary” misconduct.
Again, your school may give more weight to one rule or another, but the rules themselves are often pretty much the same. For example, you can expect your university to have rules against:
- Underage drinking: Like every other state in the Union, Montana bars anyone under the age of 21 from drinking. Obviously, every school in the state prohibits it as well. In fact, some schools go further and limit how and where anyone on campus anyone—even those of age—can consume alcohol.
- Drug use and possession: Likewise, drug possession remains illegal in Montana. All schools in the state forbid drug possession. You should know that this includes drug usage as well. If you've ingested a controlled substance, you're in possession of it.
- Hazing: With the rise in hazing deaths in Montana and across the country, most schools have enacted strict rules against any organizational activities on or off-campus that involve coercive or dangerous activities of any type.
- Hate Crimes: Any crimes that are motivated by a person's race, gender, age, religion, or disability are classified under federal law as “hate crimes.” Many schools go further and punish all forms of discrimination and even verbal harassment.
If you live on campus, you are probably also subject to another set of disciplinary policies governing residence life. Typically, these regulate everything from who is allowed into your dormitory to how much noise you're allowed to make.
Technically speaking, sexual misconduct is a form of disciplinary misconduct. Almost all schools treat it as their own specific form of misconduct, though. That's because, unlike other kinds of misconduct, sexual offenses are actually governed by a federal law known as Title IX. Title IX was passed in 1972 and designed to limit sexual discrimination on college campuses. Over the last fifty years, that mandate has been broadly interpreted to mean everything from verbal harassment to stalking, relationship violence, and rape. The law includes a set of guidelines designed to regulate how schools respond to allegations.
- Schools must have a designated Title IX Coordinator who receives all complaints about sexual misconduct.
- Once a formal complaint has been filed, the school opens an investigation into the matter.
- Following investigations, schools hold live hearings at which “respondents” (the accused) can defend themselves from the charges.
- At the conclusion of the hearing, one or more decision-makers use a legal standard known as “preponderance of evidence” to determine whether or not the respondent is “responsible” (guilty). They also assign sanctions as necessary.
- Both sides in the case may appeal the hearing decision. However, they may do so only under very limited circumstances, like the discovery of new evidence or the revelation of procedural misconduct.
Most sexual misconduct allegations are dealt with under Title IX, but not all. In 2020, the Trump administration issued new rules that narrowed the Title IX definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment” and limited schools' jurisdictional authority. In response, a number of colleges and universities, including several in Montana, drafted new disciplinary policies designed to deal with misconduct no longer covered under Title IX.
Importantly, these so-called “non-Title IX” cases aren't subject to federal law. That means 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. Some, though, have created their own unique policies, and often these do not give respondents the due process rights they're entitled to under Title IX.
Whether you're facing a Title IX or non-Title IX charge, sexual misconduct is among the most serious accusations that can be leveled against anyone. Defending yourself can be difficult, and the penalties can be severe. In most cases, the minimum sanction you'll face is suspension. The more common punishment is expulsion.
How Montana Schools Manage Misconduct
Just as every school in Montana has its own set of rules, every school has its own particular set of procedures for handling violations of those rules. However, most follow the same general process.
- Preliminary meetings: The first step is almost always a meeting, or multiple meetings, with your instructor or some school administrator. You're told exactly what the charges against you are and usually given an opportunity to give your side of the situation.
- Investigation: Schools usually conduct some form of investigation into the allegation. Sometimes, as in the case of Title IX accusations, those investigations are formal and follow strict rules. However, if you've been accused of cheating or plagiarism, the investigation may simply involve your instructor collecting documentary evidence against you.
- Hearings: Again, some misconduct always warrants a hearing. And most schools provide hearings in all cases where suspension or expulsion are the proposed sanctions. However, you may not be entitled to defend yourself in formal proceedings if you've been accused of a minor infraction.
- Appeals: Finally, colleges and universities almost always have some procedures in place for appealing investigation and hearing outcomes. This may involve a review by a full committee. It might also mean some individual, such as the Provost, makes a final decision.
Handling Your School's Investigation
The charges against you may very well come as a shock, especially if you're innocent. That's why it's important you have a plan of action you've worked out ahead of time. Here are a few reminders as you're putting that plan together.
- Never talk to officials without first consulting with an attorney. Just as in a criminal investigation, what you say can—and will—be used against you. Your school may tell you that you don't need a lawyer. Officials may even try to convince you that they have your best interests at heart. Don't be fooled. Once you've been accused of misconduct, the school's goal is to prove you are responsible and to punish you as thoroughly as it can.
- Don't talk about the case to others. You may want to talk to a close friend or family member about what you're going through. Otherwise, though, don't spread information about the case. In particular, avoid posting about it on social media. Your statements can—and will—be used against you in university investigations and hearings.
- Don't contact your accuser. It's tempting to believe that if you can just sit down with your accuser and explain your side of the situation, you can work everything out. Unfortunately, it's too late for that. Even if you do manage to convince this person to withdraw their accusation, the school may continue its investigation anyway. Worse, contacting your accuser can leave you open to additional charges such as harassment.
- Maintain good records. As soon as you can, sit down and write out a version of what happened. Keep all evidence connected to the case. Make lists of witnesses. Make notes of all correspondence and any contact you have with anyone connected to the case. This material can be vital to helping you and your advisor craft a defense.
- Keep yourself healthy. Facing an allegation, even a small one, can be stressful. Take measures to keep that stress to a minimum. Try to keep your routines consistent. Continue going to class; maintain your exercise regimen; eat healthy foods; take time for your mental health. You might also consider visiting a counselor or therapist to get suggestions on how to manage your stress levels.
- Get advice from a qualified attorney. Never try to handle a misconduct charge on your own. There's simply too much at stake. You need an attorney, but not just any attorney. You need someone who has experience with campus justice. Every situation is different, of course. In some cases, for instance, your attorney might be able to speak for you in interviews and at hearings. Even if your school limits your attorney's role, though, they can be invaluable for helping you plan your strategy, draft documents, come up with questions for witnesses, and practice answering questions yourself.
Your College's Disciplinary Hearings
If you're accused of misconduct that could warrant probation, suspension, or expulsion, your college or university will almost certainly offer you the chance to defend yourself at some type of hearing.
You'll be notified well in advance. That will give you enough time to begin preparing your case. The school will provide details about the charges, including the name of your accuser. In most instances, you'll also have access to the evidence against you.
Often cases are heard by panels or committees. These can be made up of faculty or faculty and students. Both sides get the chance to present their cases, including submitting evidence and calling witnesses. Most hearings are decided using a legal standard known as “preponderance of evidence.” You may be familiar with the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. “Preponderance of evidence” is far less strict. Basically, you can be found responsible if the decision-makers believe it is “more likely than not” that you committed an offense.
As with everything else, hearing rules vary from school to school. Your school may let your advisor speak on your behalf. On the other hand, they may require you to speak entirely for yourself. In fact, 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 present your case.
Possible Montana College Sanctions
Most colleges and universities use a standard range of sanctions. Typical punishments at Montana schools include:
- Formal written warnings placed in your permanent file
- Loss of housing
- Loss of privileges such as extracurricular activities
- Mandated counseling
- Loss of scholarships or other financial aid
Keep in mind that even a sanction that seems light can have long-lasting effects on your education. A written warning placed in your file could cost you scholarships, keep you from getting into grad schools, and even interfere with your ability to start your career.
You are almost always better off fighting allegations. In fact, even if you committed an offense, you should never simply accept your sanction. You have the right to demand fair treatment. The best way to do that is to make sure you have a competent lawyer at your side, someone who can help protect your rights.
Best Practices for Responding to Allegations
Here's the bottom line: what can you do to improve your chances of successfully defending yourself?
Dealing with the Accusation
Your first impulse will be to defend yourself, loudly, and to as many people as possible. Fight this. To you, your innocence is obvious. You feel like all you need to do is explain yourself, and everyone will see you couldn't possibly have committed this offense. The fact is, evidence you may think exonerates can be used against you. Say as little as possible, especially in public forums.
Instead, hire an attorney to help you navigate the system, someone with experience helping students through school misconduct cases. Attorneys are practiced at making arguments. They're professionals when it comes to negotiating on your behalf. They'll know how to talk to the public and the press if that's necessary.
Before and During the Hearing
Your school will notify you of the specific charges against you well before any meetings or hearings. They'll also give you access to all the evidence. This will give you an opportunity to begin organizing your defense. Every case is different: each one demands its own strategy. Before you head into any meeting or hearing, make sure you've looked over all this material with an attorney and worked out your plan.
Hopefully, you won't lose your case. If you should, however, you'll want to file an appeal. Most schools limit the grounds for appeal. You may only be able to file one if you've found new evidence or if you can prove a decision-maker had a clear bias against you. In short, 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. Most of the time, you can't speak in person to decision-makers. They won't see you; they won't get to hear your voice. This is yet another reason why it is so important to hire an attorney. Attorneys are practiced in choosing the very best arguments. They're also experts at making those arguments in writing. A good lawyer can make sure your appeal gets heard and give you the best chance at winning it.
The Lento Law Firm
Joseph D. Lento is a fully-licensed, fully-qualified defense attorney. He specializes, though, in student misconduct cases. In other words, he brings the extensive knowledge of a litigator to the world of campus justice. Over the years, he's helped hundreds of students just like you defend themselves from charges both big and small.
Joseph D. Lento has experience taking on colleges and universities. He knows what kinds of tactics they use and how to fight them. He's on your side and ready to do everything he can to get you the justice you deserve.
If you or your child has been accused of misconduct in Montana, don't wait to act. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form