The very first thing you need to know if you've been accused of a conduct violation at your Minnesota college or university is that you can't handle the situation all by yourself. Whether you're facing an allegation of academic misconduct, disciplinary misconduct, or sexual misconduct, the rules can be confusing and the judicial procedures difficult to navigate. You need an advisor, someone who can help you organize and implement a strong defense.
That doesn't mean, though, that you shouldn't find out everything you can about your school's policies. The more you know, the less likely you'll be able to get into trouble in the first place. Plus, if trouble should come knocking at your door, you'll know exactly what to expect.
College Misconduct Defined
The only way to know for sure how your university defines misconduct is to check the Student Code of Conduct. It should list all the individual rules and explain exactly what happens if you break one. Most schools publish this document online as well as in print form, so you should have no trouble finding a copy.
However, in general, most Minnesota colleges and universities divide misconduct into three categories: academic, disciplinary, and sexual.
As the name implies, “academic misconduct” relates to how you conduct yourself as a student. Usually, there are three mistakes you want to avoid:
- Cheating: The unauthorized use of sources to complete coursework. This can include anything from looking at another person's answers during a quiz to Googling answers during a closed-book exam.
- Plagiarism: Attempting to pass another person's ideas off as your own, without giving them credit. It applies to written work but also to images, music, even computer code.
- Dishonesty: A catch-all category that covers things the other two categories miss, like falsifying data on a lab report or signing a classmate's name to the attendance log.
Most schools give faculty the responsibility for catching and punishing academic misconduct. Your instructor can probably assign one of several sanctions:
- Written warning
- Replacement assignment
- Partial or no credit on the assignment in question
- Reduced grade in the course
Your university will have some process in place for appealing your instructor's decision. In addition, though, they likely require that your instructor report all instances of academic misconduct. That means if you're a repeat offender, you can expect to be hit with harsher sanctions, such as academic probation, suspension, or expulsion.
Disciplinary conduct has to do with how you conduct yourself and how you treat other people on campus. Of course, each school's set of rules is based on its own particular principles, but there are a number of issues on which all Minnesota schools seem to agree.
- Underage drinking: Minnesota law prohibits the consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21. Some schools go further and limit how and where anyone can drink on campus.
- Drug possession: All schools in Minnesota ban the possession and distribution of controlled substances. This applies to marijuana as well. While the state legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in 2014, it remains illegal under federal law and so is banned by any school that receives federal funds.
- Hazing: Initiation rituals that could cause pain or embarrassment are banned under Minnesota state law and prohibited by all schools in the state.
- Hate crimes: Offenses related to protected categories—gender, race, color, religion, age, or sexual orientation are policy violations at every Minnesota school in addition to being punishable under federal law.
In addition to these rules, all residential universities maintain residence life policies. These usually include many additional rules governing everything from noise to visitation.
Sexual misconduct is a very particular form of disciplinary misconduct. For one thing, it isn't just governed by school policy. How investigations and hearings are conducted is dictated by Title IX, a federal law. As a result, Minnesota schools, like other schools around the country, treat sexual misconduct differently from other kinds of violations.
According to current Title IX guidelines:
- Your university must have a designated Title IX Coordinator. This official receives all complaints of sexual misconduct and determines whether or not to initiate a formal investigation.
- Your school must notify you in writing if you are being investigated under Title IX. This notice must include a description of the allegation as well as a list of the rights to which you are entitled.
- You have the right to choose an advisor to assist you with your case. This advisor may be an attorney.
- A Title IX Investigator must thoroughly investigate the allegation, meet with both sides in the case, collect evidence, and interview witnesses.
- Following the investigation, the school must hold a formal, live hearing into the case, where both sides may present evidence and cross-examine witnesses against them.
- Finally, both sides in the case may appeal the hearing verdict but only under very narrow circumstances, including procedural misconduct or the discovery of new evidence.
As a result of changes to Title IX in 2020, a number of schools now also have policies that deal with so-called “non-Title IX” sexual misconduct, offenses no longer covered under the law. Some universities use the same set of procedures and rules for both kinds of misconduct cases. Others, however, have chosen to treat these cases like any other kind of disciplinary misconduct. Because non-Title IX cases occur outside federal jurisdiction, schools are under no obligation to provide respondents in these cases with any particular due process rights.
How Minnesota Colleges Manage Misconduct
While every Minnesota college and university has slightly different procedures in place for dealing with misconduct violations, most of the time, the process unfolds in the same basic way.
- Preliminary meetings: Your school will likely want to meet with you as soon as you've been accused of misconduct, though usually, officials will let you know the charges beforehand. This is your opportunity to explain your side of the situation. You may or may not be allowed to bring an advisor with you, and they may or may not be allowed to speak on your behalf.
- Investigation: The next part of the case is typically an investigation. Of course, not all allegations merit a full investigation. If your professor accuses you of plagiarism, for example, the university will probably simply ask them to provide evidence of the violation and you to provide any evidence that might refute the charge.
- Hearings: Again, most schools don't provide hearings for every single misconduct allegation. However, if the sanctions could include suspension or expulsion, you should expect your university to give you the opportunity to defend yourself.
- Appeals: Most colleges and universities have an appeals process in place for students who have been found responsible for misconduct.
Sometimes a full panel or committee reviews the case. Other times, a single official, such as the Dean of Students or the Provost, decides the outcome.
Handling Meetings and Investigations
Being accused of misconduct by your college or university can be an unsettling experience. As a result, you might want to have a plan in place now for dealing with this possibility.
- Don't talk to school officials without first seeking advice from an attorney. You are used to your university being on your side. Not only does your school educate you, it probably houses you and feeds you as well. Once you've been accused of misconduct, though, the rules change. Your school is now investigating and prosecuting you. You cannot expect them to simply accept what you have to say. They will be looking for ways to use your words against you. As a result, you need to be fully prepared before you talk to anyone.
- Don't discuss your case in public, and certainly not on social media or in the press. You may want to tell a friend or two what you're going through since this can be an important source of moral support. However, sharing your story in public will only lead to complications and could even prejudice some decision-makers against you.
- Don't contact your accuser. Your school may very well issue a no-contact order forbidding you from talking to your accuser. Even if they don't, however, you should avoid any contact with this person. Don't try to work things out on your own. Often, this can get you charged with additional offenses.
- Take an active role in your case. Take the accusation seriously. Whatever the charge and whatever the potential sanction, a misconduct case can have long-lasting repercussions. Take the time to write out your side of the story for your advisor. Preserve any and all evidence. Make lists of potential witnesses. Document every time you meet with anyone about the case. This material will be invaluable to your advisor.
- Take care of yourself. You cannot help in your own defense if you are overwhelmed by what is happening to you. An investigation can be stressful. Make sure to keep your life as normal as possible. Continue to go to classes. Do things with friends. Exercise. Finally, consider visiting a counselor or therapist, someone who can allow you to vent about what you're going through and who can suggest strategies for dealing with your stress.
- Hire an attorney. Most importantly, contact an attorney to serve as your advisor. Never try to handle a misconduct allegation yourself. Instead, make sure you have a qualified advisor to help you formulate a strategy and prepare for any meetings.
Your College's Disciplinary Hearings
Again, not every situation demands a hearing. You can certainly expect one if you're facing suspension or expulsion, though. Many elements of a hearing will be the same no matter where you go to school.
- Your university will give you advanced warning of the hearing so that you have time to prepare your case.
- Your school will allow you to bring at least one support person with you to the hearing. Often this is an advisor, who can be an attorney.
- Both you and the claimant will have a chance to present your side of the case, using evidence and witness testimony. You may also have an opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses against you.
- One or more decision-makers will decide the outcome of the hearing. They will most probably use a standard known as “preponderance of evidence.” Basically, they must find you responsible if they believe it is “more likely than not” that you committed a violation.
Other elements of a hearing may differ depending on your specific school.
- Your advisor may be allowed to fully represent you. However, their participation may also be limited. For instance, your school may prohibit them from addressing hearing officials directly or may insist that only officials may ask questions of witnesses. Some schools, in fact, don't allow you to bring an advisor with you at all.
- Some schools use a slightly stricter standard in deciding cases, one known as “clear and convincing.” According to this standard, decision-makers must believe it is “probable” that you committed a violation before they can find you responsible.
Possible Minnesota College Sanctions
Colleges and universities publish a wide range of possible sanctions, and they don't usually tie any specific sanction to any specific kind of misconduct. In other words, you could be punished through
- A formal written warning placed in your file
- Loss of on-campus housing
- Loss of other privileges such as extracurricular activities
- Course scheduling changes
- No contact orders
- Financial restitution
- Mandated counseling
- Loss of scholarships or other financial aid
Perhaps the most important thing to know about sanctions, though, is that even minor sanctions can affect your academic and professional future. Often students feel daunted by the prospect of an investigation and a hearing and mistakenly decide to simply accept responsibility and the penalty that goes with it rather than protesting their innocence. This is always a bad idea. Even a written warning placed in your file could impact future scholarship applications, internship and graduate school applications, even job applications. In fact, even if you accept some responsibility for an incident, you should never blindly accept your punishment. An experienced advisor can often help you negotiate a lower sanction, one that won't interfere with your academic progress.
Best Practices for Responding to Accusations
What do you do if you find yourself accused by your college or university of misconduct? First, take a breath. Then consider the following suggestions.
During the Accusation and Investigation
When you're initially accused of misconduct—even if you're being accused of something relatively minor—it can come as a shock. You may be angry or hurt. You may be confused by it all. Whatever the situation, don't make it worse by acting out of emotion and doing something you'll regret later. This is one reason why attorneys advise their clients to remain silent. In the heat of the moment, there's simply too much risk that you may say something to damage your case.
Trust your lawyer. They're experts at responding to allegations and at negotiating with officials. They'll know exactly what to say, and they can help you figure out exactly what to say too.
During the Hearing
A hearing can be a nerve-shattering experience as well. A hearing is a chance to present yourself to the decision-makers, to convince them of your integrity and your innocence. How you dress matters. How you address the hearing officers matter. Everything may hinge on asking just the right question at just the right moment.
Again, let your attorney shoulder some of the burden so that you aren't dealing with all the pressure yourself. Even if your attorney isn't allowed to speak on your behalf at the hearing, they'll know how to craft a winning defense strategy. They'll know what kinds of questions you should ask. And they'll be practiced at preparing you to talk to hearing officials.
Students—even innocent students can lose hearings at times. It doesn't help matters that most schools use the “preponderance of evidence” standard. It is easy to find a student responsible if you only need to be just over fifty percent sure. Luckily, almost all schools provide some kind of appeals process. The bad news is universities don't accept just any appeal, and they are often reticent to overturn a decision maker's ruling. You're also at a disadvantage in an appeal in that it is conducted entirely on paper. You don't have the opportunity you had during the hearing to address officials directly.
These are yet more reasons why it is so important to hire an attorney to help you with your case. An attorney will know the best arguments to use to get an appeals official to review your case, and they'll know how to organize your evidence to give you the best chance at overturning your verdict.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento, Student Conduct Advisor
Joseph D. Lento isn't just an attorney or even a defense attorney. Joseph D. Lento specializes in student misconduct cases nationwide. Over the years, he's handled hundreds of defenses for students just like you. He understands how universities operate, he has a vast knowledge of policies and rules, and he's experienced at dealing with campus judicial procedures and the school administrators and personnel involved in addressing such matters. He's comfortable in the courtroom, but he's also comfortable in faculty offices and student union seminar rooms. Joseph D. Lento will stand up to your school. He'll make sure you're treated fairly and that you're given every due process right you deserve.
If you or your child has been accused of any kind of misconduct, don't wait to act. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.