When you first arrived on campus for orientation, chances are that you received a copy of your school's code of conduct, or maybe you were sent a link to the online version. It's also likely that you never sat down to read the proverbial fine print to familiarize yourself with the terms of that document. That's understandable; who wants to read a list of rules when there are new friends to be made, a dorm room to decorate, and parties to attend?
The Massachusetts college or university you are attending, however, expects you to know, understand, and abide by their code of conduct (which can also be called a code of ethics, an honor code, or a student conduct code, among other names). It's important to understand the behavioral expectations set forth by the college or university you're attending so that you can avoid committing a violation. Additionally, a student who runs afoul of the rules won't be exempt from disciplinary proceedings because they didn't read or didn't understand the code of conduct.
What follows is a generalized guide to college and university codes of conduct and the consequences of violating such codes. Of course, each Massachusetts school has its own, unique policy that governs student conduct, so be sure to consult it if you or someone you love is facing disciplinary action.
The Major Code of Conduct Violations
Most schools' codes of conduct can be broken down into roughly three types: Title IX or Sexual Misconduct, Academic Dishonesty, and General Code of Conduct Violations. Within these categories, however, there are a lot of discrete offenses. Again, consult your school's documentation to make sure you understand the specifics of its policy.
Title IX and Sexual Misconduct
In 1972, the United States government passed a law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex (gender) at educational institutions that receive federal funding.
The effects of Title IX have been wide-ranging and profound at schools across the country. In no arena is Title IX's impact more notable, however, than in college sports. In a mid-2000s report, Title IX and Athletics, The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education noted that female participation in college-level athletic programs jumped from 29,977 female collegiate athletes in the 1971-1972 school year to 166,728 in 2004-2005. That's a whopping 456% increase. (Even more impressive, female athletes in high schools skyrocketed with an increase of 904%.)
Title IX legislation is so closely associated with athletic programs that many people are surprised to learn that the law contains no explicit references to equality in sports scholarships or any other aspect of college athletic programs. It's important to realize that its mandates also prohibit harassment on the basis of sex, including but not limited to:
- Harassment, whether verbal or in writing
- Sexual assault
- Any non-consensual sexual conduct
- Disseminating any materials—photos, videos, audio files, text messages, or social media content—that compromises another student's sexual privacy
- Inappropriate exposure
- Intimate partner violence
Moreover, despite the gains made by female participants in college-level sports, Title IX protections are not limited to female students. The law is in place to combat any and all types of harassment and discrimination, regardless of biological sex, gender identity, or gender expression. Women, men, those who identify as male or female, and those who identify as non-binary or transgender—all people are afforded the same rights under Title IX.
When those rights are trampled, either by an individual or by the institution's response to reports of harassment and discrimination, the victim's experience may become a “hostile educational environment.” When this occurs, schools in violation of Title IX run the risk of losing their federal funding.
To ensure that this doesn't occur, all U.S. colleges and universities are required to establish and maintain a full-time administrative position as a Title IX compliance coordinator, or sometimes just as a Title IX officer. This employee, whose responsibilities are solely dedicated to Title IX issues, are tasked with:
- Implementing Title IX regulations
- Investigating complaints
- Coordinating and moderating grievance procedures, hearings, and other formal meetings
- Establishing and maintaining all records and files relevant to Title IX violations and grievances
- Providing training in Title IX compliance issues to faculty and staff
- Developing educational resources to proactively enact preventative measures
- Liaising between complainants and the appropriate university employees
There are other responsibilities, but in general, contacting the Title IX compliance coordinator is the first step taken by a student who has been the target of potential Title IX violations. This employee will also ask the accused individual to attend a one-on-one meeting to gather all the facts related to the incident.
There are very few schools that receive no federal funding whatsoever and are therefore exempt from Title IX. However, that does not mean that these schools haven't established or don't enforce their own codes of conduct concerning sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.
Academic misconduct addresses transgressions that are related to the coursework. Naturally, the whole purpose of attending a college or university is to further the student's education and equip them for their career. It's a cliché to tell dishonest students that they're only cheating themselves, but of course, there's more than a grain of truth in that old chestnut. Students who violate their school's code of conduct by committing an academic infraction may find themselves facing severe consequences—suspension, being placed on academic probation, a notation on one's record, the loss of on-campus housing, the loss of scholarships or financial aid, or even expulsion.
Just as with the Title IX violations we discussed earlier, there are myriad ways that a student can commit an act of academic misconduct. Essentially, however, they're all variations on the theme of cheating:
- The use or attempted use of unauthorized materials, such as using online sources to seek out answers during a remote exam
- Plagiarism, which involves submitting another person's words, images, ideas, or any other work as one's own
- Multiple submissions of the student's work in separate courses; for example, this could mean re-using a paper or project created for a different course or while attending a different school
- Paying someone to take an exam in one's stead or using a so-called essay mill or essay bank. These unscrupulous services, sometimes called “contract cheating,” are in the business of selling term papers, essays, and even theses and dissertations
- Abusing academic materials, including books, lab equipment, or online assets, in an effort to thwart another student's work or sabotage the instructor
- Falsification or fabrication. It is a violation of academic honor codes to make up sources, invent information, or alter any materials in lieu of performing adequate research or other academic performance
- Helping another student in the commission of any dishonest activity
While there's never a good excuse for cheating, it is possible to understand how students become so stressed and so desperate to do well. Thanks to the pandemic and the consequent lockdowns it necessitated, students are feeling more pressure and uncertainty than ever before. The remote learning model makes it particularly challenging for universities and colleges to combat academic dishonesty. Even when they do have measures in place to monitor students' online activity during remote exams, the surveillance can backfire, resulting in negative publicity and bad blood on all sides.
General Code of Conduct Infractions
The last category of misconduct is something of a catch-all. General code of conduct issues that aren't sexual transgressions or academic offenses include a wide range of behavior. A few of these violations are:
- Underage alcohol use. Since so many college students are under the age of 21, it's not uncommon for their older counterparts to provide alcohol. They can be sanctioned for this, as can any minors who possess alcohol.
- Illegal drug possession, use, or distribution are other common acts of misconduct. Although recreational marijuana use is legal in Massachusetts, it is still prohibited by many schools, including Harvard. The regulations regarding cannabis use across the country can be confusing to navigate, and the same is true in the state. Recreational or medical marijuana users should do their research before arriving on any Massachusetts campus.
- Hazing rites and rituals are a time-honored, albeit controversial, tradition. In fact, they date all the way back to 387 BCE. The famed philosopher and teacher Plato observed it in his academy, bemoaning the “practical jokes played by unruly young men that injured the hazed and citizens who got in the way.” Despite being widely accepted, or at least tolerated, ever since, schools are now cracking down on this dangerous practice because it can so often lead to emotional harm, serious physical injury, and even death. Most colleges prohibit hazing not only on-campus but off-campus too.
- Campus residential misconduct can mean a few different things—trespassing, theft, destruction of property, setting off fireworks or other explosives, and even noise infractions like blasting music or singing loudly after hours. Living in the dorm can be a blast, but when a student commits offenses that annoy, anger, or inconvenience others, the school's administration has the right to sanction them.
- Hate crimes are any offense, whether criminal or in violation of a conduct code, that have prejudice at their heart. They occur when a student harasses, bullies, or even assaults one of their peers based on their perception about that individual's race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and other attributes. Universities almost invariably take hate crimes quite seriously—and so should students who stand accused of committing one.
What to Expect After An Accusation
All educational institutions in Massachusetts follow a prescribed process to address allegations of misconduct. For starters, there will be an investigation, during which the school's disciplinary board or code of conduct committee will interview all involved parties, including the student, and review evidence. Sometimes that's enough to dismiss the allegations; in other instances, the school will then schedule a formal or informal disciplinary hearing.
At this point, it becomes imperative for students facing misconduct charges to seek an experienced attorney-advisor. That's because university and college administrators aren't held to the same benchmarks that apply in a criminal trial, nor is the accused necessarily afforded the same standard of due process. The attorney-advisor can help the student prepare for the hearing, may be allowed to attend the hearing, negotiate with opposing counsel on the student's behalf, handle any appeals, and if necessary, file a lawsuit as a last resort. Having a professional who's well-versed in this legal specialty go to bat for an accused student can make a tremendous, even life-changing, difference.
What's the Worst That Can Happen?
No one who stands accused, whether of a violation of their school's honor code or of first-degree criminal charges, wants to dwell on the punitive possibilities. That said, it can be helpful to prepare oneself for all imaginable outcomes.
There are grave consequences for students who have been found culpable for misconduct. Being suspended is usually the minimum disciplinary action, and with suspension comes another unpleasant effect: an unexplained gap during one's education, which may raise questions down the line. The student may also be asked directly if they've ever been subject to a disciplinary measure.
Other repercussions students may face are:
- Suspension from athletics participation
- Suspension from extracurricular activities
- Withdrawal of scholarships
- Eviction from student housing
- Probation, either academic or disciplinary
- A note or warning attached to your academic file
- Being stripped of a degree
- Being banned from campus
- Difficulty transferring to another school, being accepted into a graduate program, or getting an internship or job
- Expulsion or dismissal from the school
These are frightening possibilities, to be certain. However, they also serve to illustrate just how important it is to have an attorney-advisor by the student's side and advocate for them during the hearing process and beyond.
The Appeals Process
When the disciplinary board has handed down its decision, and the outcome is not favorable, does the student have any recourse? The answer is yes, and this is another reason that the assistance of an attorney-advisor is necessary. Generally, students get only one chance to appeal the ruling in their case.
The attorney will reassess the situation, factoring in any new evidence that may have developed or been discovered. Also under scrutiny will be how the board handled the misconduct investigation and hearing. Perhaps its members failed to follow the proper procedures or didn't consider all the facts presented. Maybe one participant allowed prejudicial personal issues to cloud their judgment.
Should the appeal be denied, there are still steps that can be taken to restore justice. Filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education is the first of those steps. Next, the attorney-advisor will likely contact the school's lawyers and request a meeting, during which they will discuss the disciplinary committee's decision, the student's side of the story, and the possibility of a lawsuit.
As representatives of the university or college, its attorneys will likely go to great lengths to avoid litigation—which can be a major drain on resources. In some cases, just filing a suit will suffice to drive the school back to the bargaining table. Additionally, involving the courts will shine an unwelcome spotlight on the school, resulting in less-than-favorable publicity.
When Is It Time to Consult with an Attorney?
Now, because there is no time like the present. Often, students and their families will wait until they have exhausted all forms of recourse, including their appeals, before consulting with a lawyer. Admittedly, bringing a lawsuit against a college or university in Massachusetts is a serious step and should not be taken lightly.
However, an initial consultation with an attorney is still a far cry from suing an institute of higher education. There's no harm—or obligation—in discussing your situation with an experienced professional. After all, who better to advise you than someone who's dealt with many, many similar cases?
The Lento Law Firm is an expert team led by attorney Joseph D. Lento with years of collective student defense experience when it comes to school-related issues and concerns. They have seen countless college or university instructors and administrators make mistakes, mistakes that could potentially ruin a student's academic record and even their career.
Moreover, they understand that college students who make a mistake or poor choice don't deserve to be pilloried. In fact, these young adults need support and guidance from their parents, friends, fellow students, school administrators, and the community at large. Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team are proud to play a part in helping promising students get a second chance.
To get the ball rolling, have a look around the site. Browse the blog and watch some of the FAQ videos. Then, when you're ready, fill out the contact form or give the Lento Law Firm a call at 888-535-3686.