Frequently Asked Questions About Fraternity and Organizational Misconduct at the Collegiate Level

Even if you or your student organization haven't been accused of any wrongdoing, you would be wise to read your school's student conduct policy. If your school has a separate policy for student organizational conduct, it will benefit you to read that, too. Remember: You're still bound by the policies, even if you haven't read them.

To help you make sense of it all, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions students and their families have on organizational misconduct:

What Are Student Organizations? Are They Limited to Fraternities and Sororities?

College and university organizations that will be bound by a school's organizational policies, including misconduct policies, are not limited to what people may traditionally have in mind. Put simply, colleges organizations are by no means limited to fraternities and sororities. There are thousands of different types of student organizations, including those based on major fields of study and others that focus on students' interests. Some of these organizations are nationally-based and involve accreditation through larger organizations. Most of the time, it's not difficult for students to start new student organizations.

What Exactly is Organizational Misconduct?

Baylor University, for example, outlines its expectations for student organizations in its Student Organization Conduct Policy . It defines organizational misconduct as any actions that:

  • A reasonable person would view as falling within the scope of the student organization's activity.
  • Are committed by one or more members of an organization, and more than one member of the organization is aware of it.
  • Are committed during the course of an activity financed and/or approved by the organization.
  • The officers of the organization had prior knowledge that the incident would take place, or they were not forthcoming to the school about the incident.

If the Alleged Misconduct Occurs at an Organization Event, is the Organization Responsible?

Each college or university has its own criteria for determining whether a violation qualifies as an organizational violation or an individual violation. In some cases, a school might choose to pursue allegations as both an organizational violation and a personal violation.

It's important that you familiarize yourself with what your school 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.

Who Decides Whether or Not I'm Guilty of Alleged Misconduct?

The board, committee, or panel responsible for organizational misconduct will vary depending on the college or university's particular structure for disciplinary proceedings.

Stanford University, for example, has an Organization Conduct Board that comprises students, faculty, and staff trained to participate in hearings for violations that involve student organizations. They have jurisdiction over both on- and off-campus events. Their procedures and policies are available online. In contrast, Emerson College's Student Conduct Process is the same for students and student organizations.

Does the School Have to Prove the Student Organization is Guilty of Misconduct ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt'?

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.

Since It's Called Misconduct, Does That Mean Law Enforcement Won't Get Involved?

If conduct violates local, state, or federal laws, your college might pursue this offense through its disciplinary proceedings.

“Failure to comply with the law” is mentioned in some schools' student conduct rules. Rutgers University is one school that includes a section on violations of law and student discipline in its Student Code of Conduct, in which it states that students can be held accountable for their behavior through both the criminal system and the school's conduct process.

Students often fail to consider this and only think of criminal charges that could be the result of breaking the law. If your school uncovers anything during their investigation, it may end up being shared with law enforcement.

It's much more likely 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.

What Do Schools Consider Organizational Misconduct?

Many of the possible allegations that could result in a student organization violation will be listed in your college or university's code of conduct. Some schools designate a section of their manual for student organizations, while others include the behaviors under those 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

Hazing is often inflicted on students as part of their initiation into a school group or organization. It can be so egregious at times that almost all colleges and universities in the United States, including Florida State University, Texas A&M University, Harvard University, and the University of California, prohibit it in their student conduct policies.

According to Cornell University rules, a person can be the victim of hazing whether or not they consented to participate. They go on to define hazing as including but not being limited to behavior that a reasonable person would see as being physically dangerous or mentally distressing, involves the destruction of property, forces someone to consume drugs or alcohol, or otherwise violates school policy.

Your college or university's student handbook will explain exactly what qualifies as hazing.

One arguable problem with disciplinary action taken by a school against students against of hazing is that hazing definitions are often expansive. Even having pledges do push-ups or memorize important information related to the fraternity being rushed, for example, can lead to a finding a responsibility and severe sanctions, including suspension or expulsion.

Unregistered Events With Alcohol Consumption

Registration of the event is particularly important when alcohol will be available. If any of the organization's members who are underage attend the event, this will compound the severity of the violation.

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.

What Types of Penalties Can My School Impose?

Regulations concerning sanctions or penalties for organizational code of conduct violations vary from one school to another. You'll find this information in your college or university's code of conduct, honor code, or student handbook.

Some universities, such as the University of Pittsburgh, offer specific sections for organizational misconduct. Others, like the University of Arizona and William & Mary in Virginia, cover violations by individuals and organizations together.

Examples of possible sanctions include:

Mandatory participation in educational classes

In 2019, Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity at the College of Charleston in South Carolina hosted an unregistered event off-campus that resulted in the disturbance of surrounding guests and cases of indecent conduct. The college responded with sanctions that included mandatory attendance at five seminars designed to educate fraternity members on the potential liability and risk they pose to themselves and their Chapter when conducting themselves in an unsafe manner. Seminars included “Bodily Effects of Using and Abusing Substances,” “Responsibilities, Values & the Importance of Safety,” and “Bystander Intervention.”

Fines

The student 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. The university or college may choose to restrict the organization's access to university funds or university spaces. Rutgers University is an example of a school that does this.

Additional loss of privileges could include the loss of the ability to sponsor a campus speaker or guest. For sports clubs, it might mean barring organization members from participating in intramural sports.

Loss of housing

Some sanctions may include a loss of housing that the university or college provided 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.

Removal of leadership

An elected leader(s) of the organization may be removed from their leadership position. They are often made ineligible for any leadership positions within 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.

Examples include Northwestern University, where it could be anywhere from three months to 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. Suspension of an organization often lasts for at least a semester, sometimes longer. Suspensions 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 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 had allocated to the organization.

What's the Difference Between a Harmless Prank and Hazing?

The word “harmless” is key here. Pranks or practical jokes done in the spirit of fun and bonding usually don't hurt anyone. People get hurt when they're hazed. In hazing, there is often a power differential where those in power (like members of a fraternity) subject those without power (like freshman pledges trying to get into the fraternity) to acts designed to injure them physically, mentally, or emotionally. Common hazing practices include the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, humiliation, isolation, sleep-deprivation, and sex acts.

In a 2007 study on hazing that is still often cited today, University of Maine researchers Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden found that more than half of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing. The most common type of hazing involves participation in a drinking game.

Two 2021 hazing-related deaths have been reported in the news as of October. Both deaths allegedly occurred due to hazing incidents involving alcohol at off-campus fraternity initiation parties. The victims were Adam Oakes, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Stone Foltz, a sophomore at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

We Weren't Even on School Property. How Can the School Hold Us Accountable?

The student code of conduct at many colleges and universities specifies that violations can occur on or off-campus.

Once I Graduate, Does Anyone Need to Know About the Alleged Offense?

What happens at college doesn't always stay at college, as the saying goes. If your school determines that your student organization violated its code of conduct, you may suffer long-term repercussions even after you graduate. 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.

What Should I Do If I've Been Accused of Violating My School's Code of Conduct?

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.

Collegiate proceedings can have long-standing consequences for you as an individual and for 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 won't allow attorney-advisors to participate directly in the actual hearing board or committee meeting, an attorney-advisor can still prove critical in helping you clear your organization's name.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have many years of experience successfully defending students and their organizations in college misconduct cases across the United States. He brings passion and dedication to all of his clients' matters and a desire to fight on their behalf. He won't stop until he achieves the best possible outcome on a client's behalf. Reach out to the Lento Law Firm online or give us a call today at 888.535.3686 to discuss your organization's circumstances.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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