Handling Charges of Having Made a False Accusation of Cheating

College can be very competitive. This pressure can sometimes lead to students doing whatever it takes in an effort to get to the head of the class. No one likes to see another student cheating to improve their grades, however, and schools encourage (if not mandate) reporting that sort of conduct. But overzealousness or making a wrong assumption can sometimes get you into trouble.

For example, say you're taking a test, notice your classmate Butch repeatedly looking over at another student's test before he goes back to his own, and you report it to the proctor. When confronted, Butch says he was just staring into space while he thought about the test questions – and a comparison of the test results shows that the two students' answer sheets don't match up. You apologize to Butch and shrug it off as an innocent mistake – but soon afterward, you find a message from the dean's office in your email, asking you to come in and explain why you made a false accusation against another student.

Or maybe you're leaving the testing room and come across a piece of paper filled with class notes under Susie's chair. You assume Susie used it during the test and report it to the professor. It turns out Susie had dropped her notebook before the test when putting it away and didn't notice that the notes had fallen out. Other students corroborate that the paper was there the whole time and not viewable by Susie. Next thing you know, you find you've been accused of lying to a university official.

What may seem like an innocent mistake can have serious consequences – consequences that can snowball into a permanent black mark on your academic record if you don't act to mitigate the harm by consulting with an experienced academic attorney like Joseph D. Lento, who has assisted many students caught up in similar situations.

College Disciplinary Procedures

Different colleges use different terms, but they all treat false accusations of cheating as a violation of their academic integrity standards. A few examples:

  • The University of Alabama's Academic Misconduct Policy says that acts of academic dishonesty, such as fabrication and misrepresentation, are considered academic misconduct.
  • Cornell University's Code of Academic Integrity guidelines state that a student “shall in no way fraudulently or unfairly advance his or her academic position” and “shall not in any other manner violate the principle of academic integrity.”
  • The Student Conduct Standards at Golden Gate University School of Law prohibit “engaging in acts of misrepresentation of fact” such as “accusing another student of violating the standards of professionalism, knowing that the accusation is false, or showing a reckless disregard as to its truth.”
  • Syracuse University's Academic Integrity Policy in its Student Handbook states that any action that improperly gives a student an unfair academic advantage over another constitutes a violation of the school's academic integrity expectation.
  • And Texas Christian University's Academic Conduct Policy prohibits “Bearing false witness. Knowingly and falsely accusing another student of academic misconduct.”

The Consequences

While discipline procedures vary, all colleges and universities vigorously investigate incidents in which students are alleged to have falsely accused another student of cheating. You'll likely have to explain yourself before a panel of professors, college administrators, maybe even your peers. You might end up getting a failing grade or being suspended for a semester.

Companies that hire recent graduates generally ask to see transcripts, and potential employers who see F's or gaps in attendance will likely ask you to explain the circumstances.

And if you have a prior history of academic misconduct and this is a second or third infraction, the sanctions will be even stronger. You might be dismissed from college and required to reapply to get back in, or worse yet, expelled with no chance of readmission and limited prospects to be accepted to another school.

Don't Panic!

You may feel like dealing with the disciplinary system is too much pressure. You may even start to panic and decide it's just easier to just withdraw from school. Unfortunately, it's not that easy to put the problem behind you. If you try to enroll somewhere else, you're likely to have trouble finding another school that will accept you because colleges and universities share students' academic records with other schools.

And if you try to head straight into the workplace, it could be hard to find a job that offers a living wage: These days, almost all positions with any degree of responsibility require a BA degree.

Even if you find an employer that doesn't require a college degree, your mistake could still follow you, making it difficult to rise professionally and earn a decent living. These days most businesses routinely require some sort of background check. If you're applying for jobs that require a high degree of trustworthiness, the company may go beyond a basic criminal background check and run a more thorough investigation to make there are no incidents in your past that would indicate poor moral character, such as lying about another student. More and more jobs now include good moral character as a hiring requirement:

What to Do Next

College can be stressful for young adults. You're still maturing, moving into a new phase of life where you grapple with more responsibilities. Mistakes in judgment can happen.

No matter how uncomfortable or anxiety-provoking it may be, it's best to deal with the problem now rather than try to brush it aside. All schools have processes in place to make sure students accused of academic misconduct receive a fair hearing and have an opport