One of the most enriching parts of college life is participating in student organizations. You can meet like-minded individuals who become lifelong friends. Occasionally, however, colleges or universities investigate student organizations for alleged misconduct. This can put a quick end to activities and have extensive repercussions.
Types of Student Organizations at the Collegiate Level
Many colleges or universities have a wide diversity of options, such as community service organizations, media and publication organizations, Greek life chapters, recreation and sports organizations, student government organizations, arts-related organizations, spiritual and religious organizations, and political organizations. Some of these organizations are nationally-based and involve accreditation through larger organizations, such as the NCAA, NAIA, or NAST.
Often, a college or university will have a large number of organizations, providing something for everyone who wants to get involved. For example, the University of Michigan has over 1,600 organizations, and Johns Hopkins University has more than 400, with 80% of its students participating in an organization at the university. Penn State, with over 1,000 organizations, boasts that there's something for everyone's passion at their school.
How Does a University or College Determine if a Violation is Organizational?
If alleged misconduct occurs at an organization event, is the organization responsible? Each college or university will have its own parameters for how it determines whether a violation qualifies as an organizational violation or an individual violation. In fact, in some instances, schools may choose to pursue allegations under both an organizational violation and a personal violation. New York University, for example, states: “Student organizations and their leaders and members may be held both collectively and individually responsible for violations of the University Student Conduct Policy.”
Among its criteria for deciding to pursue disciplinary action with an organization, NYU includes, “Whether the alleged incident occurred at or in connection with an organization-sponsored event or activity or at an event or activity that would reasonably be associated with the student organization.” This means that if an alleged violation occurs at an event, such as a Spring Fair, a party hosted by the Theater Club, or a basketball team sponsored activity, the organization could face disciplinary action according to these terms.
University of Michigan’s criteria for determining if a recognized student organization (RSO) is in violation includes if: “the member's actions, which contravene the Standards of Conduct, result from the practices or dispositions of the RSO.” This sort of action would indicate that the violation was structural or systemic to the student organization.
Finally, Emerson College, in Boston, Massachusetts, among its criteria, includes: “The number of members, including alums, involved in the incident.” Perhaps one member's involvement would not result in an alleged organizational violation, but maybe three would.
The key to all of this, is that it's important that you familiarize yourself with what your university or college considers an organizational violation. Find and examine your school's pertinent documents thoroughly. This will allow you and your fellow organization members to understand the ramifications of the investigation.
Potential Allegations that May Impact Student Organizations
Many of the possible allegations that could result in a student organization violation are going to be listed in your specific college or university's code of conduct. Some schools specifically designate sections for student organizations, while others include the behaviors under the behaviors that apply to individual students. Here are just a few examples of what might be included in your university's regulations as organizational misconduct.
Hazing is such a serious offense that several states have put their own legislation into place in order to address it. Hazing can include coercive behavior or behavior that forces another student to engage in prohibited behavior. Your college or university's student handbook will outline specifics around what qualifies as hazing.
Failure to Comply with the Law
Although all schools don't include this particular offense, many do. Did you know that if conduct breaches local, state, or federal laws, your college could possibly pursue this offense through its disciplinary proceedings? Often, students fail to consider this and only think of criminal charges that could be a result of breaking the law. If your school uncovers anything during their investigation, it may end up being shared with law enforcement. For example, Rutgers University, Camden, includes this specific violation. The more realistic concern, however, is the college or university will take disciplinary action against the student alleged to be involved in the misconduct under the school's code of conduct.
Unregistered Events with Alcohol Consumption
In some instances, a registered student organization might forget to file the appropriate paperwork to register an event, especially when it is an event where alcohol is available. Or perhaps the individual who was organizing the event didn't realize it was necessary. If your college or university happens to be one of the schools where this is a critical step, you could find yourself in violation of this regulation. It could compound if underage members attend the event.
Who Determines Judgments about Allegations?
The board, committee, or panel responsible for organizational misconduct will depend on the college or university's particular structure for disciplinary proceedings. Stanford University, for example, has an Organization Conduct Board comprised of students, faculty, and staff who are specifically qualified through training to participate in hearings for violations that involve any recognized student organization. They have jurisdiction over both on- and off-campus events that involve any recognized student organizations. Their procedures and policies are available online. In contrast, Emerson College's Student Conduct Process is the same for students and student organizations. For most schools, the evidence standard is the “preponderance of the evidence” standard, which means it's more likely than not that the violation took place.
Collateral Consequences Associated with Organizational Misconduct
When you're in college, sometimes it's hard to think ahead to life after college. However, if your university or college determines that your student organization did, in fact, violate the school's code of conduct or regulations, then there can be long-term consequences that have an impact beyond college life. The severity of the consequences depends on the specific violation. Often schools address both individuals and groups in these instances, and the result could be that a violation goes on your permanent academic record. This, in turn, could affect graduate school applications, employment opportunities, and more.
Possible Sanctions and Penalties of Organizational Code of Conduct Violations
Each college or university has its own regulations around what sanctions and penalties may apply to organizational code of conduct violations. You can usually find school regulations listed in either a code of conduct, an honor code, or a student handbook. Many schools offer these documents online, making them easy to search and uncover specifics for your circumstance. Some universities offer specific sections for organizational conduct, such as Clemson University, in South Carolina. Others, like Penn State University, include violations by individuals and organizations together. Penn State states in its code of conduct, “ A student or student organization engages in an attempt when, with intent to commit a specific violation of the Code, they perform any act that constitutes a substantial step toward the commission of that violation.”
Here, however, is a brief overview of some possible sanctions.
Mandatory Participation in Educational Classes
If the incident merits it, the university or college might require the organization's members to participate in an educational class. College of Charleston’s Sailing Team had to complete this type of sanction (among others) after hosting an “unregistered event with alcohol that was accessible to students under 21.”
The organization may have to pay a fine to the university or college.
Loss or Restriction of Privileges
Loss of privileges can include a variety of possible sanctions. Possibly, the university or college will choose to restrict the organization's access to university funds or university spaces, such as Rutgers University does. Restricted funds could include funds that were generated by both fundraising events and membership fees or budgeted money from the school. Additional loss of privileges could include the loss of the ability to sponsor a campus speaker or guest. For sports clubs, this could be a denial to participate in intramural sports.
Loss of Housing
Some sanctions may include a loss of housing that the university or college gave to the organization. This could be a house, such as a Spanish Language House, or a Service House, sponsored by a student interest organization, or it could be housing for a sorority, fraternity, or sports team, even.
Removal of Leadership
An elected leader(s) of the organization may be removed from their leadership position. Often, in these instances, they are not eligible for any leadership positions with the organization.
Student Organization Probation
There are variations on what this particular sanction looks like, but usually, Disciplinary Probation is similar to a first warning and accompanies other sanctions. Probation indicates that the organization's behaviors and actions are not aligned with the college or university policy. The amount of time an organization is on probation may vary, depending on the offense and on the particular school's policies. For example, at Northwestern University, it could be anywhere between three months and two years. Johns Hopkins University's website lists investigations and their current sanctions. Spring Fair, the first organizational event, was charged on September 5, 2019, and their probation was set to complete June 1, 2020. In this example, the probation length is just under a year. The listings on Georgia Tech's site range from roughly three months to nine months.
Student Organization Suspension
Suspension is more severe than a probation penalty for an organization. Often a suspension of the organization lasts for at least a semester, sometimes longer. Suspensions may vary, and sometimes if a national organization intercedes, they may even be extended. One example of an extended suspension is the Georgia Tech Lambda Chi Alpha organization. Georgia Tech set the suspension length from November 13, 2018, to May 10, 2019, and the national organization extended it until 2023. If an organization's sanctions include suspension, that may mean that they have to vacate all housing or office space that they had been granted. This space may become available to other university organizations, and individuals who lose their housing may be reassigned if housing is available.
Student Organization Dissolution, Removal, Expulsion
This sanction usually indicates that the recognized student organization is no longer welcome at the university or college. This may automatically disqualify an organization from participating in University activities and may require that the organization hand over all remaining funds that the Student Government or Student Affairs allocated to the organization
How Can an Attorney-Advisor Help?
When your organization is facing allegations of organizational misconduct at your college or university, it's critical that you not lose any time before speaking with an attorney-advisor. Collegiate proceedings can have long-standing consequences, both on you as an individual and on your organization. An attorney-advisor will understand how to best navigate the complicated process of hearings, appeals, and how to proceed will all the necessary paperwork.
As you gather information that may be pertinent to your organization's case, an attorney-advisor whose expertise is student organization misconduct can advise you on which information may be able to strengthen your case. They can also evaluate what weakens your case or strengthens the school's case and prepare to defend against it. Although some schools do not allow attorney-advisors to participate in the actual hearing board or committee meeting, an attorney-advisor can still prove critical in helping you clear your organization's name.
National Student Organization Defense Attorney-Advisor
If your student organization is under investigation for organizational misconduct charges, it's imperative that you speak with an attorney-advisor before too much time passes. An attorney-advisor who fights on your behalf and ensures that someone is watching out for your best interests is invaluable in the process. Your school is going to make certain that they take the necessary steps to protect their brand and identity. It's imperative that your student organization finds the best attorney-advisor to assist you in your collegiate disciplinary proceedings. Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have many years of experience successfully defending students and their organizations in college misconduct cases. He brings passion and dedication to all of his clients and a desire to fight on their behalf. He won't quit until he wins! Reach out online or contact us today at 888.535.3686 to discuss your organization's circumstances.