Most of us would agree that colleges and universities have an obligation to protect their students. What mother or father would send their child to a school they didn't trust? Obviously, that protection should extend to victims of crime. Schools should support such victims with every possible resource they can muster.
We sometimes forget, though, that the same protection should extend to those accused of committing crimes. One of the most sacred values of our justice system is the principle that all people are innocent until proven guilty. Unfortunately, that's not always how justice works on college campuses. Many schools, for example, don't afford accused students their basic due process rights.
That attitude is bad enough when the alleged crime is playing Beyonce at 3 a.m. When the allegation is something far more serious, like sexual misconduct, denying defendants their basic rights just because they happen to be students leaves the entire system open to abuse.
How We Got Here: A Brief History of Title IX
For many years, most schools prosecuted instances of sexual misconduct under the federal government's Title IX law. This law, passed in 1972, encouraged educational programs to vigorously prosecute instances of sexual discrimination and harassment and threatened to withhold federal funding from those who didn't. The government's goal was an admirable one. Anyone who has seen an episode of Mad Men can imagine how most college campuses treated women in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In practice, however, the law created a built-in incentive for schools to prosecute absolutely every allegation of sexual misconduct and to do so zealously. Money was at stake, after all. If due process rights fell by the wayside, as they often did, that was just an unfortunate casualty in the battle to protect women.
As time went by, the law evolved so that the definition of “harassment” covered everything from sexist treatment in the classroom to stalking, partner abuse, and rape. Schools were now prosecuting some of the most serious crimes that can be committed, but without offering basic protections to the accused.
Changes to Title IX
The situation changed in early 2020, when the Trump administration, under the guidance of education secretary Betsy DeVos, issued a new set of rules for enforcing Title IX. Most of the changes were aimed at restoring balance to campus judicial systems. So, for example, Title IX now guaranteed defendants the right to a hearing and the right to cross-examine witnesses. The changes also limited schools' jurisdictions and narrowed the definition of “harassment.”
Such changes might have leveled the playing field and brought clarity to a system mired in bureaucracy. Instead, most schools fought the changes tooth and nail. They saw the new rules as a direct affront to their own authority and an attempt to undermine the good work they had done in the name of women's and victims' rights.
Most colleges and universities set about re-writing their student code of conduct. Any sexual misconduct that no longer fit the strict definition of Title IX would now be prosecuted under this separate code. The situation was more confusing than ever: defendants could be prosecuted through one of two different tracks: the government's or the school's. Worse, the school's track usually did nothing to address the fundamental flaws that had existed before.
The Situation at the University of Central Florida
Like many other schools across the nation, the University of Central Florida made the decision in late 2020, before the Trump administration's new rules went into effect, to revise its student code of conduct, known as the “Golden Rule.” Sexual misconduct could now be treated under Title IX or, if the federal law wasn't applicable, under the school's own rules. The school's procedures differ from the Title IX rules in a number of important ways.
- While students are allowed to have an advisor, and this advisor can be an attorney, the advisor is not permitted to participate in the investigation or hearing directly.
- There is no option for a panel hearing. Instead a single hearing officer hears the case, determines guilt or innocence, and assigns sanctions as necessary.
- Defendants are not allowed to cross-examine witnesses.
- The order of the hearing includes “Questioning of the charged student,” but says nothing about the questioning of the complainant.
As these differences make clear, the University of Florida's judicial system does not operate like a court of law. Among other things, the school doesn't use the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” in convicting students. Rather it uses the less rigorous standard, “preponderance of evidence.” According to this standard, the school may convict if it believes “it is more likely than not” a student violated school policy.
Yet, penalties for students found responsible for sexual misconduct can be every bit as stiff as those in a court of law. True, a university cannot put a student in jail, but it can punish students with probation, suspension, dismissal for up to seven years, or permanent expulsion with a transcript notation. Any of these sanctions can put a student's academic career in jeopardy. A punishment such as suspension or expulsion can place a student's entire future in jeopardy.
Put Joseph D. Lento in Your Corner
Campus judicial systems are stacked against defendants, despite the Trump administration's efforts to correct the situation. In fact, the revised Title IX guidelines have, in many ways, only made the task of defending yourself against charges of sexual misconduct more confusing and difficult.
If you or your child should be accused of sexual misconduct at the University of Central Florida, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento immediately. Joseph D. Lento is an expert in student defense. He knows Title IX and its history. He also knows university policy and how to navigate the complex bureaucracy that comes with it. Joseph D. Lento's first job will be to make sure you are afforded all the rights you deserve, and he will stand beside you through the entire process to get you the best possible outcome.
For more information, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.