Graduate Student Issues

Graduate school: it's an achievement just to be accepted. If you're a graduate student, that's a goal you likely dedicated years of your life to accomplish.

After all that work, it would be devastating to see your effort go down the drain over a disciplinary proceeding. Academic misconduct, Title IX charges, remediation or dismissal—if you are a graduate student facing unfair consequences related to these situations, it's important to know that there's a lot at stake. Any unwarranted punitive actions could end up impacting your future academic and professional career. It is vital to be proactive about protecting your rights as a graduate student.

Student Disciplinary Issues for Graduate Students and Other Concerns

When you're a graduate student, you may find that you face many issues beyond grades, exams, and teaching assistantships. From the very first application and interview through graduation, graduate students may encounter situations rife with potential concerns at any time. These issues may include professional concerns, Title IX sexual harassment claims, or academic problems. Graduate students might face questions about their professionalism, or allegations of misconduct after a social event. Any of these situations can make the life of a graduate student—and their precious future—far more difficult than it needs to be.

Some of the more severe concerns facing today's graduate students may include:

Each graduate school will have different policies and grievance procedures to protect their students and mete out disciplinary measures. Knowing your school's specific investigative and disciplinary process is the first step in determining how you can defend your rights in a case of misconduct. At the Lento Law Firm, we can assist by leveraging our experience managing thousands of student misconduct cases. However, your priority needs to be getting informed—and getting proactive.

Academic Misconduct

If you face charges of academic misconduct, you are likely fully aware of how drastic and damaging they may be. Graduate schools tend to punish academic misconduct severely and will investigate allegations thoroughly. The reason for this is simple: the consequences may be life-changing. Graduate schools may revoke degrees; they may expel or suspend students found guilty. Once expelled from one school, you may find it very difficult to gain admittance to another.

The most common types of academic misconduct for graduate students are:

  • Plagiarism - which may include copying the ideas of another without giving due credit
  • Failure to use proper quotation marks and adequate citations
  • Cheating
  • Collaborating with others without their permission
  • Resubmitting or reusing an assignment or paper without permission
  • Fabricating data, research, or results
  • Impersonating another student
  • Sabotaging other students
  • Bribery
  • Blackmail

Plagiarism sounds like a serious offense—and it is—but it's also a slippery slope. Many graduate students may not even be aware of what plagiarism is, which only compounds the issue. However, plagiarism is common. A study found that up to 24% of graduate students admit to paraphrasing information from the internet without footnoting it—and those are just the graduate students who self-reported.

The pervasive nature of plagiarism and other types of academic misconduct makes it easy for schools and professors to assume the worst when any academic situation gives them pause. However, students implicated in these scenarios are not always guilty. There are many reasons—stress, blackmail, illness, personal problems—that can lead a student to plagiarize unknowingly or accidentally.

It may help to know what even accidental plagiarism looks like, so graduate students can be aware of the fine line it constitutes. Plagiarism is “an act of fraud”, which involves stealing an idea and lying about it afterward. This feels stark because it is. Many graduate students don't intend to plagiarize but find themselves doing so anyway because it can be easy to plagiarize accidentally. Accidental plagiarism, however unintended, can still result in disciplinary action.

Some examples of accidental plagiarism may include:

  • Failing to make it crystal-clear which thoughts belong to a graduate student, and which thoughts a student has taken from the research of others, in any graduate work.
  • Failing to include a citation for any paraphrased words or ideas of another person.
  • Adapting a quotation incorrectly and changing the meaning of a quote, even slightly.

In some cases, with accidental plagiarism, a graduate school may mete out a less severe punishment if a graduate student admits wrongdoing. This may not always be the case. Also, there are unfortunate cases in which a student is completely innocent, but faces unwarranted allegations of misconduct anyway. If you are facing allegations of academic misconduct, you need to consult with a legal advisor so you understand all of your options. If your school offers an academic misconduct hearing, you will need advice and representation for your best chance of a good result.

Academic Misconduct Hearings 

While there may be some similarities nationwide or state by state, each graduate school will likely have its own procedures for academic misconduct hearings. Some schools may tailor the formality of the administrative hearing or panel process to the alleged charge. Others will look more like a simple meeting between the graduate student and a group of school officials. The specific process for each graduate school should be in the posted code of conduct.

At any academic misconduct hearing, school officials will review allegations made against the graduate student. If there is evidence of misconduct, the officials will review it as well, including any witness statements. The accused graduate student should have time to make comments and a statement as well. After this, the school officials will decide regarding any guilt, potential discipline, or punishment.

Disciplinary Charges for Graduate Students

There are many disciplinary charges that graduate students may face, either through their university or as criminal charges. Outside of cases regarding academic integrity, graduate students may also experience charges arising simply from adverse occasions affected by the social dynamics of life as a graduate student. These may include:

  • Social media violations
  • Internet threats
  • Computer crimes and cyber crimes
  • Cyberstalking
  • Theft
  • Drugs on campus and other drug crimes
  • Alcohol on campus
  • Software piracy
  • Destruction of property
  • Threats
  • Assault
  • Breaking and entering
  • Rape

Graduate Students and Title IX Charges

Among the most contentious of graduate school allegations and investigations are Title IX charges. Title IX is a federal rights law that is part of the Educational Amendments of 1972. It promises to protect students nationwide, in both K-12 and postsecondary educational institutions, from sex discrimination and sexual assault. Under Title IX, any federally funded school must investigate all allegations of sexual discrimination or assault or risk losing their funding. Charges that fall under the jurisdiction of Title IX can include:

  • Sexual harassment
  • Gender discrimination
  • Derogatory or sexist remarks
  • Sexually suggestive jokes, catcalls, or innuendos
  • Physical and aggressive sexual advances
  • Stalking
  • Offensive touching
  • Pornography
  • Revenge porn
  • Dating violence or intimate partner violence
  • Domestic violence
  • Bullying behavior
  • Gender-based bullying
  • Sexual assault, battery, or coercion
  • Non-consensual sex
  • Rape

Graduate schools may not have high standards such as ‘innocent until proven guilty', 'beyond reasonable doubt', or other popularly and historically held systems of fair trial. Your graduate school may deem disciplinary repercussions necessary for alleged behaviors that may not have occurred, or that no other presiding institution would deem punishable.

Any consequences you receive as a graduate student may end up on your permanent academic record. This could mar your further academic career, as well as any professional aspirations you may have before you have a chance to bring them to fruition. Since there is much at stake if you stand accused of academic or sexual misconduct, you must seek out a seasoned legal advisor so you can be proactive about protecting your rights.

Criminal Charges and Graduate Students

If your alleged behavior as a graduate student is particularly serious, your graduate school may call local law enforcement in to help assess the case and provide punitive action. The code of conduct published by your graduate school should outline the scenarios that merit this action. If you face serious charges as a graduate student (such as drunk driving, drug possession, theft, or weapons offenses), you may merit the ‘double jeopardy' of symmetrical investigations and disciplinary processes by the police and your school.

Graduate students who find themselves in this situation should call for legal help as early as possible in the process.

Graduate Student Academic Issues

The centerpiece of a graduate student's academic experience is their academic performance: grades, exams, and all of the work they do to earn their degrees. If a student does not do as well as expected, they do have the recourse to appeal academic issues. Unfairness, unequal treatment, or other issues could constitute grounds for an academic appeal.

Common academic appeals could include:

Graduate School and the Academic Appeals Process

The academic appeal process will differ from school to school but should allow students to provide a rationale for any academic issues. If family or personal issues, illnesses, or disabilities are at the root of a graduate student's troubles, many schools will be willing to work with the student. The process begins when a graduate student files an appeal with a dean or professor at the school. The student must also supply evidence or grounds for the appeal.

The more substantive evidence a student has showing that a grade or academic decision is unfair, the better. Graduate students should speak with a legal advisor before filing the appeal to learn what options they may have in their situations.

Remediation for Graduate Students

If a graduate school board decides that a graduate student requires remediation, there are several different programs the board may suggest. A school should suggest remediation programs only to help the student overcome issues they are having and help them get back to targeted academic and behavioral standards. Remediation may include several things, including:

  • Retaking a course
  • Retaking a curriculum level assessment
  • Retaking a semester
  • Retaking an entire year

Although these courses of action are not, perhaps, as obviously devastating as more severe actions like expulsion or arrest, they can still seriously hamper a graduate student's plans or likelihood of success. A graduate student facing academic remediation should consult a legal advisor as early on as is possible. You may have options to appeal unfair or unwarranted remediation.

Concerns with Graduate Student Remediation Programs

In most cases, graduate schools have well-intentioned goals when they recommend remediation for struggling graduate students. Both the student and the school want the offered education to be successful, and for the graduate student to go on to become a contributing member of society. However, when remediation poses an undue threat to graduation, increases the cost and time of the student's education, or (due to the specific remediation recommended) creates other issues, remediation may be more trouble than they're worth.

In the best case scenario, a graduate school offers remediation to a struggling student, and remediation helps resolve the issues or struggles promptly. This does not always happen. Sometimes, a graduate school is too late (or too early) to push a graduate student into remediation, often with detrimental results. Other times, graduate schools offer one method of remediation without taking into account the specific challenges the graduate student faces.

For example, schools are obliged to provide necessary accommodations for disabled students under the Americans with Disabilities Act (A.D.A.). However, it is not always obvious when students need accommodations, or easy for schools to provide them. These oversights can be devastating to a young graduate student's career. If a graduate student believes their school is overlooking their A.D.A.-protected accommodations, an aggressive students' rights advisor can assist with holding the graduate school accountable.

Graduate Student Dismissals

A graduate school's code of conduct should make it clear what actions on the part of the student are punishable by dismissal. Since a dismissal not only halts progress at the current university, but also makes admission at an alternate school difficult, you must consult with an advisor so you know your options. Your graduate school may not have your best interests in mind when they recommend dismissal. With a proactive legal advisor, you may be able to negotiate a more preferable outcome, especially if the dismissal determination was due to academic or misconduct concerns.

Graduate students tend to be high-achieving individuals. This does not mean that they do not face academic issues. If a graduate student is experiencing stress outside the classroom or other situations that may influence their academic performance, your school should take that into account.

These situations may include:

  • Financial issues: Graduate school can be very expensive. This can be a stressor in itself. If a graduate student is working in addition to studying, that can represent an additional significant distraction. Your graduate school should take your financial burden into account, especially if it poses an undue amount of anxiety, when determining appropriate remediation.
  • Psychological or medical issues: If a graduate student experiences illness or mental health symptoms, their academics may suffer as a result. Conversely, a stressful academic environment can also cause anxiety or depression, which can further affect academic performance (or exacerbate pre-existing health conditions). Your graduate school needs to know about these issues and, accordingly, provide support or further resources.
  • Family crises or unexpected trauma: If a graduate student is dealing with drama within their family, or if a family member suddenly dies, it makes sense that their academic performance might suffer as a result.
  • Learning disabilities: Graduate studies are more intense than topics tackled in high school or at the undergraduate level. If a graduate student has learning disabilities, it may be the case that the more challenging subjects and heightened academic workloads bring challenges into a clearer light. If a graduate student suspects that they may have learning disabilities, even if they are discovering them for the first time, that student needs to let their school know. The school may be able to afford the struggling student with accommodations to alleviate disability-related stress under the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

If your graduate school recommends dismissal and you believe that your school has not taken one (or more) of these mitigating factors into account, consult a students' rights advisor immediately.

A Graduate Student Discipline Defense Advisor Ready to Assist You

Allegations of academic, professional, or sexual misconduct are serious and can impact a graduate student's future adversely. If you are a graduate student facing charges, an investigation, or an academic hearing, it is vital that you work with a legal advisor you can trust. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have handled misconduct hearings, Title IX actions, and dismissal proceedings at graduate schools nationwide. To learn about your options, call the Lento Law firm at (888) 535-3686, or fill out our brief online form for more information.

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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 our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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