Honor Code Violations

When you decided to pursue a higher degree, you likely received a copy of your college or university's code of conduct. It may have been a link in your orientation materials – or perhaps a chapter in your Student Handbook. But this code is a published, formal set of ethical, professional, and legal standards that your school expects every student, faculty member, administrator, and employee to follow as long as they are a member of the campus community. Nearly every institution of higher learning across the country – as well as most abroad – have some formalized code of conduct to support their commitment to integrity, honesty, and fair practices. It's important that you, as a student, understand that code and commit to following it during your time at school.

Some colleges and universities, however, particularly higher profile institutions and service academies, take the code of conduct one step further with an Honor Code. Instead of pages and pages of different rules and regulations outlining the rules, regulations, and expectations, some schools distill those values into a single statement that addresses honesty, integrity, and acts that may be related to those traits. Schools with Honor Codes expect all members of the greater campus community to adhere to the Honor Code. You may even have to sign a formal pledge, stating that you have read and understood the Honor Code, as part of that commitment.

The Honor Code, however, is not just about your own behavior. Most schools with a code also expect students to monitor the behavior of their peers to ensure they are following it, too – and they expect you to turn them in to the school authorities if they do not. That's what makes an Honor Code a bit different than your regular code of conduct: it is a self-regulating entity, placing the responsibility for maintaining the school's standards as much on the students as the faculty and administration. You are an integral part of the Honor Code's adherence and enforcement. If you see something, you are expected to say something – even if it may be a close friend who is violating the code. As importantly, students often have an affirmative duty to correct past indiscretions otherwise they can be subject to additional disciplinary action.

What Does an Honor Code Cover?

Probably the most famous Honor Code is that of the United States Military Academy, better known as West Point. Their Cadet Honor Code – they refer to all students as cadets – reads, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Students receive this guidance in their student guidebook. But it is also inscribed on a large granite plaque on the street leading from the campus' barracks to its classrooms – meaning students will walk past that particular credo at least once every day.

Other colleges and universities have their own versions of an honor code. While the exact words and phrasing vary, they usually cover some of the same issues that West Point's famous code does: academic as well as personal honesty and integrity. Generally speaking, the code requires that students do their own work on exams, papers, and other school projects – and not give or receive help on such assignments. At its simplest, you can think of it as the anti-cheating statement.

Parts of the Honor Code

While your school's Honor Code will have its own specific wording, these statements usually cover the following types of actions:

  • Cheating. Copying from a peer's test paper – or “borrowing” sections from your roommate's English paper all constitute academic dishonesty or cheating. Behaviors that include collaboration without permission, plagiarism, cheat sheets, or giving or receiving aid on an assignment are generally all violations of a college or university honor code.
  • Dishonesty. If you deliberately deceive one of your professors, whether it's about missing class or any work you have (or have not) completed, this may be a violation of the code. Most Honor Codes expect you to communicate with faculty, administration, and students with candor.
  • Stealing. Taking items that don't belong to you, whether they happen to be school property or things belong to a fellow member of the campus community, are also frowned upon. The intent to deprive or defraud another person of their personal property also violates most Honor Codes.
  • Looking the Other Way. Many Honor Codes also have language regarding tolerating fellow campus members who are violating the Honor Code. If you are aware that another student is lying, cheating, or stealing – or misrepresenting themselves or taking some form of unfair advantage, the onus is on you to let the professor or Dean know within a reasonable amount of time. The definition of “reasonable,” however, tends to vary not only by school but by the severity of the offense.

There's a good reason why many schools expect you to sign the school's Honor Code during your freshman year – they want to be sure you have carefully read and understood their expectations. Furthermore, they want every member of the campus community to uphold said code and recognize the potential consequences if you do not.

What Happens If You Violate the Honor Code

Violations of the Honor Code vary quite a bit from school to school. West Point, for example, claims to have a zero-tolerance policy regarding the code. However, that said, it also has something called the Willful Admission Process that can mitigate the penalties for a violation. If you turn yourself in for any Honor Code violation, you are less likely to face serious penalties or consequences later.

West Point is not the only school that claims to have a zero-tolerance policy yet offers potential avenues to mitigate violations. In fact, most schools have some sort of process in place to reduce any sanctions you might receive for a violation, provided you show remorse and a willingness to work to remedy the situation. That said, those who do violate their school's Honor Code may be looking at significant consequences that can affect the course of their education. They may receive a written reprimand, a failing grade, probation, a mandatory ethics class, the loss of financial aid, suspension, or even outright expulsion. Many students may also be denied the ability to participate in different university activities or see the loss of school privileges. And such penalties may apply whether you yourself committed the offense or just knew that someone else did. This is why it is vital that all students take any allegations of Honor Code violations seriously – and engage the services of an experienced attorney-advocate to help them navigate what will likely be a complex proceeding to determine innocence or guilt.

Understanding FERPA

You may believe that an Honor Code violation will not have consequences beyond your school years. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) requires that all colleges and universities keep student files, including disciplinary actions, confidential with certain exceptions, most graduate schools and employers expect you to waive those rights to be considered for attendance or employment. Even the military will ask you permission to review your full academic record, including any Honor Code violations. Government positions in general, and those which require a security clearance in particular, will require the same. That GPA you've worked so hard for – as well as that list of extracurricular activities – too often will pale in comparison to a finding of responsibility or a guilty finding, especially of a violation that involves dishonesty, cheating, or theft. It is important to take any allegation seriously right from the start. This is a situation that can have a significant and long-lasting impact on your future, regardless of what you want to do with the rest of your life.

Honor Codes and Elite Institutions

There are many reasons to pursue a degree at an elite college or university. They are known for admitting the best and the brightest students, not only from across the country but across the globe. And while you will more than certainly get a world-class education while you are a student, taught by some of the leading minds in academia, you will also find that the name of your school, whether it's an Ivy League university or anothing leading institution in the arts or sciences, will open doors for you long after you've matriculated. That kind of name recognition can make all the difference whether you decide to apply to graduate school or for a top job in the industry of your choice after graduation.

Because such schools expect the best from their students, many have published their own unique Honor Codes. Institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, Duke University, and Pepperdine University - just to name a few - all have their own brand of Honor Code they expect students to follow. And most of these top schools take following the Honor Code very seriously. After all, they have a reputation to uphold.

For the most part, such Honor Codes pertain mostly to academic matters, to ensure students in both undergraduate and graduate institutions are actually doing the hard work that academia and industry expects of a top tier university graduate. But what your school may consider "academic" can vary greatly from school to school. At Pepperdine University, for example, academic matters include not only exams, research, and assignments, but any extracurricular activity with an academic bent, including, for law students, publishing in the Law Review or participating in a moot court. But other schools may also include rules regarding conduct and theft. The devil, as they say, is in the details. And, once again, it is vital that you carefully read your school's Honor Code before signing it. You will be expected to follow those standards throughout your time at the school. What's more, the executives looking to hire you once you graduate, who, more often than not, are also graduates of that same revered institution, are likely to expect you to hold the same lofty ideals once you come to work for them, too.

Given both the prestige and the tuition requirements of attending an Ivy League or other top-tier university, the allegation of an Honor Code violation can come at significant personal cost. Your reputation – as well as a valuable degree – may be on the line. If you are found guilty of plagiarism, cheating, or some other violation to the code, you can expect schools of this caliber to require you retaking an expensive course, putting you on academic probation, or even suspending or dismissing you. This is not an allegation to take lightly, especially since, just by nature of being accepted into such an elite institution, the world will come to expect much of you. Make sure you have retained experienced representative to protect your rights – and help you achieve the future you've long desired.

Honor Codes and Service Academies

West Point is not the only service academy to have an Honor Code. The United States Air Force Academy, the United States Naval Academy, the United States Coast Guard Academy, and the United States Merchant Marine Academy also have their own Honor Codes. And for good reason: they are shaping the leadership of future military officers. These are the men and women who will go on to protect America from all enemies foreign and domestic. It is important they lead with honor and integrity.

The United States service academies are incredibly selective – and with the American taxpayers footing the bill for all students' tuition and other fees, they need to be. Given the vital role these young leaders will one day play in serving our country, it is important that all cadets are honest, loyal, and above approach.

In years past, any Honor Code violation would have led to an immediate “separation,” or dismissal from the academy. Some cadets may have even found themselves responsible for repaying the government for their tuition and fees, depending on the circumstances of their case. Today, the academies are slightly more flexible in remediating Honor Code violations – but, given the potential consequences, it remains important to have valuable and experienced counsel on your side. If you are a service academy cadet who has been accused of an Honor Code violation, it is vital that you consult with an attorney to help make sure you are not immediately dismissed from the school – and responsible for paying back a hefty sum to Uncle Sam. Making sure your rights are protected every step of the judicial process is key to ensuring that you can resolve the matter in a favorable manner.

What to Expect – Rights and Procedures

Typically, the process starts with an allegation. A professor, university employee, or fellow student will notify school officials that a violation may have taken place. And even though you may be at the center of that allegation, you may not even know it until the university has officially started an investigation.

Certainly, different institutions of higher learning have different policies and procedures regarding the investigation and remediation of any Honor Code violation. You can likely find those regulations within your Student Handbook. But, more often than not, the first indication you have been accused of an Honor Code violation will be when you receive a written notice in your physical mailbox or student email inbox informing you of such. This is called a notice of violation – and it will likely contain some, but not all, of the charges being brought against you. It will also likely offer the time and date of your hearing.

Every school has its own judicial processes. But your hearing is a bit like the kind of appearance you might make in a state or county court of law. This is your opportunity to hear the evidence behind the Honor Code violation allegation as well as tell your side of the story. Instead of a judge, however, you will likely face a disciplinary committee of some sort. Some schools even have a specific Honor Code council, made up of faculty members, administrators, and students, who will adjudicate the matter. It is important to refer to your school's specific Honor Code, as well as any details the college or university has laid out regarding how violations are heard, to understand what you may be facing.

That said, few judicial proceedings go forward exactly by the book. While schools are expected to have consistent policies and procedures in place to govern any disciplinary action, they have a lot more flexibility than you may think. You may go into any Honor Council hearing believing you have certain unalienable rights like the right to representation, the right to cross-examine your accuser, or the right to protect yourself from self-incrimination. As you go through the process, you may find that those rights aren't applied the way you thought they might be. In fact, your Honor Code violation notice may go so far as to say you should not have an attorney represent you – the school will provide you with an advisor to guide you. Alas, that advisor can be a faculty member you don't know or even a fellow student. And their first priority will be protecting the school – not your rights.

The differences in how these matters are adjudicated are often subtle and nuanced. But, too often, those little differences can have a huge impact on the outcome of your case – and what penalties you may face when all is said and done. For example, you may not be given timely access to the charges against you – or to the results of the investigation. Your so-called advisor may not fully understand the procedures involved and, as such, will leave you unprepared for the hearing. You may not realize what kind of evidence you are and are not permitted to have at your hearing, leaving your defense lacking. Without the counsel of an attorney-advocate, with years' experience in defending students against Honor Code violations across the United States, you may find yourself facing significant disadvantages as you work to clear your name.

Is There an Appeals Process?

If you are found guilty of an Honor Code violation, most schools do have procedures that outline an appeals process. You may be able to ask for a second hearing – or present new evidence. Yet, it is important to realize that the onus is on you to adhere to any time or evidence limitations that may be part of your college or university policies. There are often strict time limits, and what was said and done in your first hearing can come back to bite you if you are not careful.

While it is always better to retain representation as soon as you are made aware of any notice of violation, it is even more essential to have the right advisor when you are working on an appeal. This is your last shot at trying to defend yourself without expensive and time-consuming litigation. With the right attorney by your side, you are much more likely to remediate the situation in a way that won't leave a black mark on your permanent academic record.

Helping with Honor Code Violation Defense Across the Country

If you receive notice that you have been accused of an Honor Code violation, don't let emotion get the better of you. This is not a situation where you will benefit from ignoring the notice, responding with panic, or trying to talk your way out of the problem. Instead, this is the time where you should reach out to an experienced lawyer who understands the in's and out's of university Honor Code proceedings and can help you mount a strong, reliable defense against any charges. With the right advisor in your corner, you can take the time to explain your side of the story in the proper venue, with evidence to support your claims, to ensure your case is resolved in the most favorable manner available.

Attorney-advocate Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have unparalleled experience with university Honor Code violations. By taking the time to understand your school's policies and procedures, he or one of his associates can ensure your rights – and your future – are protected. Having a knowledgeable and experienced representative in your corner – one who has successfully defended hundreds of students across the nation facing Honor Code violations – can make all the difference to your case's outcome. To schedule a confidential consultation and learn more about how the Lento Law Firm can help you, call (888) 535-3686 or contact us online.

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