School Disciplinary Violations
If you are facing allegations of wrongdoing at your college or university, you may be wondering if you need an attorney. When terms like assault, trespassing, and theft are staring at you from official letterhead, that is indeed a good question to ask. These are crimes, after all. But even if a court never charges you, or you are accused of something that is not a crime at all, your education, professional, and financial future are at stake. Having a skilled Student Defense Attorney in your corner is essential to ensuring the best outcome for your future.
Who Is Investigating and Why It Matters
If you face accusations of misconduct, you may have had contact with your campus or local police department. But it is important to understand that even if police responded, that does not necessarily mean you will face a criminal charge, receive a citation, or have any further involvement with the judicial system. State laws have high standards—there are rules of evidence, police procedure, and long lists of “elements” that the crime must meet before charges can be filed. And guess what—it takes a lot of desk time and paperwork to file charges, and charges lead to calls to court on a cop's day off. Campus cops may be less likely to file charges than local or city cops because they know the university will respond to the allegations. Even if what you are accused of might be something you think of as a crime, you are not very likely to miss your Biology Lab because you have a court date.
But that does not mean you are off the hook. If the alleged incident took place on campus property, or the university's police department responded, you can expect the university to be informed, and the outcome is even more likely to have a devastating impact on your future. Your university will investigate and respond, and the outcome can be devastating. Yes, you should call a lawyer—but not just any lawyer.
What's at Stake
Students who face school allegations of criminal or other sanctionable activity have their entire educational futures at stake. A suspension or dismissal can mean not earning a career-qualifying degree. It can also mean not being able to transfer to or enroll in another school. It can mean paying off the accrued student loans without the benefit of the big paycheck. Even being placed on probation can have unexpected severe consequences which can affect academic and professional goals. In short, the student's entire future, all those good things that depend on completing the college or university education in good standing, can be at stake.
Students found guilty in campus disciplinary procedures can lose leadership opportunities and scholarships, be denied access to school facilities and events, be dismissed from programs and organizations, and more.
College and University Procedures
Colleges and universities are not courts of law, but they employ rules and procedures to determine whether a student has violated the school's disciplinary code. Schools will investigate allegations, collect evidence and witness statements, and may hold a hearing. An individual or a panel will make a finding of guilt or innocence and may issue sanctions. It is entirely up to the school to create, execute, and enforce these procedures, and there is not likely a higher authority holding them to account.
The School's Advantage
The procedures that schools use seldom provide the student with the rights and protections that courts must, as a matter of constitutional law, provide an accused. In a school proceeding, the student may not face a level playing field. For example, while a court prosecutor must prove allegations of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, colleges and universities routinely choose a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard that makes it far easier to “prove” a student's violation. Some colleges and universities also permit the investigating official to determine guilt or innocence, rather than separating the role of the prosecutor from the judge as courts must do. Students may also have no right to discover exonerating or mitigating evidence. The personnel involved in the disciplinary process may not have the skills and training to adequately investigate allegations or evaluate evidence. A student may be offered an “advisor” from the school staff to assist them, who has an obvious conflict of interest. And the school may not even follow its own published procedures, resulting in the denial of the student's rights and protections. This leaves the student at a tremendous disadvantage.
Colleges and universities clearly have a lot of power and a huge advantage in disciplinary cases. This is because they have a different interest than courts have in preventing and punishing offenses. Courts pursue society's best interests, including the interest of the accused defendant. From a constitutional standpoint, courts must not punish the innocent, especially with incarceration but also with fines. School disciplinary programs, though, seek above all to preserve the safety and integrity of the educational environment. Because they are not jailing misbehaving students, only kicking them out of school, schools often judge that they can err on the school's side without harming students too badly. Yet, school suspension or dismissal does harm students badly. An accused student whom a criminal court would surely acquit may nonetheless face a school sanction that destroys the student's academic and career goals.
A Strategic Approach To Your Defense
Once a complaining witness accuses a student of a crime or other disciplinary violation, the student should have three objectives in light of their larger educational goals. The student's first objective is to effectively navigate the school's disciplinary system to a successful defense of the charges, even though the school's procedures disadvantage the accused. One must beat or reduce the charges. The student's second objective should be to minimize the consequences to avoid any mark on the student's academic record that will frustrate the student's progress. A record of discipline, even as little as a reprimand or suspension, can have a serious and lasting effect on the student's future. The student's third objective, of course, is to keep up with their course work and maintain their grades while juggling the student disciplinary process. The right student defense attorney can make this possible.
Do I Have the Right to an Attorney?
Appellate court decisions ensure that students have the right in more serious cases to retain and benefit from the skilled services of an attorney in college and university disciplinary proceedings. Depending on the school's own procedures, and the nature of the school's allegations, that right may or may not extend to the lawyer examining and cross-examining witnesses during the hearing or otherwise advocating directly with the school. But even in less-serious misconduct cases, schools generally will not interfere with the student's use of an attorney to investigate charges, prepare for the hearing, evaluate the school's evidence, draft arguments and appeals, and otherwise respond in writing.
Confession and Accountability
Students who make it into college do so by being responsible. A student who knows they are guilty of the offense their accused of may think that the best thing to do is to take responsibility by admitting wrongdoing and seeking to make amends. They may trust their school to be forgiving and understanding, seeking to help them learn from their mistake and grow, just like their parents might. So why would they need to retain a lawyer?
While that sort of integrity and idealism is admirable, remember that schools will put their interests ahead of yours, and they are at a tremendous advantage. Skilled defense is not just for the wrongly accused. Justice and fairness are not served if institutions are not held accountable for respecting the rights of the innocent and the guilty. A skilled student defense attorney will make sure your school respects your rights and follows its own rules and will advocate for the best possible outcome. There is nothing wrong with getting expert help, even if you know you have done something wrong. In fact, it is better for the student population as a whole, as it cultivates an environment of accountability for the school, not just the students.
Ultimately, schools have their attorneys protecting their rights and interests, and you must do the same if you want to ensure a fair process and the best possible outcome.
Common Disciplinary Violations
While this list is not exhaustive, there are some offenses that are quite common on college campuses.
Burglary or Theft. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the most common type of crime reported on college campuses is burglary, While not all on-campus crimes are committed by students, students may be accused of stealing property from dorm rooms, classrooms, and campus stores. Bicycle theft is incredibly common. If you are accused of theft by your college, you could face severe consequences at school, even if the police do not charge you in court.
Drugs. The federal government has encouraged colleges and universities to crack down on alcohol and drug use on campus since the amendment of the Drug Free Schools and Community Act in 1989 and the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1991. In doing so, it impressed upon institutions of higher education the seriousness of drug and alcohol abuse, including effects on academic performance, personal conduct, sports and other activities, and other risks. Additionally, while college campuses are residences for students, they are workplaces for professors and staff, and many are designated as Drug-Free Workplaces. This means that even if a student can legally use a drug such as marijuana for recreational or medical purposes under a state's law, the university can still prohibit its use or possession on campus and subject students to the disciplinary process.
Sexual Misconduct. The influence of Title IX on the federal funding of colleges and universities has resulted in increased attention on sexual assault and misconduct on campuses nationwide. As this legislation changes under different administrations, universities are creating new, stricter sexual misconduct policies that often cast a wider net and afford the accused student fewer rights than they would have under Federal law. Remember, the burden of proof, access to evidence, and opportunity to face one's accuser can all be determined by your school, and there is a lot at stake. A misunderstanding or baseless accusation can easily derail your college career, even if the alleged offense does not rise to the level of a crime.
Hazing. Society has gradually come to recognize hazing as dangerous and harmful, even though movies and television make the Greek Life of the 1960s, including hazing rituals, seem fun and normal. Students arriving at college looking forward to the slapstick pranking of fraternity life should expect their school to have policies prohibiting hazing and other initiation rituals. They may feel significant social pressure to commit what they do not immediately realize is a violation of school codes. Schools do not have an incentive to parse out the exact individual responsibility of the members of a group when things go awry. You should retain counsel to protect yourself if you are accused of this type of misconduct.
Alcohol Offenses and Property Damage. Some campuses have reputations as “party schools” for good reason, and though it may help with recruitment efforts, they are not always happy about that designation. While school codes of conduct may not prohibit a good time, they almost always prohibit damage to university property, and most have lengthy alcohol policies. Many an on-campus party has resulted in broken windows and furniture, or damage to structures and landscaping, or beer-soaked library books. While these may not sound like serious issues, your university is likely to take increasingly severe actions in response to these offenses, up to and including expulsion. When you add noise violations, drug or underage alcohol offenses, or other seemingly innocuous shenanigans to the mix of charges, what started out as a great party could end your college career.
Timing Is Everything
While criminal courts are notoriously slow, disciplinary processes at some schools can resolve within weeks, and appeal timelines are often calculated in days. A student accused of misconduct must not only handle the emotional fallout of the accusation, track down witnesses, collect evidence, and prepare to give and respond to testimony but must do so within a very short period with no opportunity to practice or rehearse. You should not delay in obtaining expert assistance.
When choosing an attorney to defend a college or university disciplinary proceeding, you can do no better than to retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm.
Why Not a Criminal Defense Attorney?
Students facing school disciplinary proceedings may be tempted to retain a criminal defense attorney. Given all that a college or university student has at stake, and given the complexity of school disciplinary proceedings, having attorney representation is indeed a great defense strategy. But just any attorney won't do. The academic environment differs significantly from a court's criminal justice system. Traditional criminal defense attorneys generally don't have the knowledge, skills, and experience to act wisely, strategically, and effectively in school disciplinary proceedings with which they are unfamiliar. Criminal defense attorneys train for and practice in criminal courts, where procedures, customs, timetables, and expectations differ profoundly from those of university disciplinary systems. Those differences between campus disciplinary hearings and criminal courts can include:
- the accused has far less time to prepare;
- the accused may not have the right to counsel during hearings;
- the accused may not have the right to examine all evidence;
- the accused may not have the right to confront the accuser;
- committees or individuals decide discipline rather than a jury of the student's peers;
- proceedings are often confidential rather than on a public record;
- decisions may depend on student reputation rather than evidence;
- opportunities to appeal may be limited or nonexistent.
The typical criminal defense attorney will not be aware of the differences and disadvantages students face in their school disciplinary processes, and so, are not equipped to navigate them.
Why a Student Defense Attorney?
The lawyers in your college town may be trained and experienced in some areas, but that does not mean they have what it takes to successfully handle your school disciplinary matter. Every area of the law has its experts, and it takes years of experience to master them. We have discussed the vast other differences between a school disciplinary proceeding and a court's criminal justice system, and it is unlikely that their law practice has prepared them for these unique cases. Students whom schools accuse of disciplinary violations do well to engage an attorney-advisor who understands school procedures and codes and can quickly tailor an effective defense. Don't go it alone, without representation. An academic attorney helps the accused student identify, gather, and organize evidence, to locate, prepare, and present witnesses, and to argue the code and facts to best effect. By contrast to the local criminal-defense attorney with the ad on your corner bus stop, national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento has represented thousands of college and university students nationwide in disciplinary proceedings, doing exactly these things necessary to a successful defense. Attorney Lento is a skilled trial lawyer in criminal defense but also has unparalleled experience defending students in college and university disciplinary hearings.
National academic attorney Joseph D. Lento has personally represented students accused of all kinds of crimes and other disciplinary violations such as lethal pledge hazing, Title IX violations, non-Title IX sexual misconduct, substance abuse, trespassing, damage to property, theft, bullying, violating COVID-19 procedures, and many other infractions. A graduate of the law school at Temple University, attorney Lento has decades of experience as a lawyer. He has defended students at more than one thousand colleges and universities coast to coast, in Alaska, Texas, Maine, Florida, Hawaii, and every state in between. He has also defended American students studying abroad around the globe. His work with at-risk youth in the First Judicial District of Philadelphia helped him understand students from many walks of life. Attorney Lento provides the accused student with a clear plan of action on how to gather and prepare evidence, speak to witnesses, and act defensively ahead of the hearing.
Contact attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm Today at 888-535-3686, and he will get to work on your college disciplinary case. You owe it to yourself, and to your future, to have an expert in your corner looking out for your interests.