Where We Can Help: Massachusetts Colleges and Universities

Are you a student or the parent of student at a Massachusetts school, college, or university facing a school-related issue or concern?  Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm can help. The world of academia is unique, and the Lento Law Firm has unparalleled national experience bringing its problem-solving approach and fighting spirit to address school-related injustice.  Attorney Lento and his Firm have helped countless students and families in Massachusetts and across the United States at the school level and in court.  Please click on the following links for more information.  Please also see our expanded list of school practice areas.

Joseph D. Lento has helped countless students and others in academia in Massachusetts protect their academic and professional future, and he can do the same for you. Contact him today at 888-535-3686.

An Overview of Massachusetts Student Discipline and Student Rights

If your college or university in Massachusetts has accused you of misconduct, it can seem overwhelming. Whether you're facing a Title IX, sexual misconduct, academic misconduct, or code of conduct violation, the consequences can be severe and may have a significant impact on your future. Most large academic institutions have a team of lawyers at their disposal, and they can use their legal and administrative heft to stack the odds against you in court.

You might feel defeated if your school has levied charges against you, but you do have rights, and you deserve a fair hearing – especially since you've worked so long and hard to get to where you are. You have a better shot at a favorable outcome if you have an experienced student misconduct attorney-advisor on your side. It is also essential to familiarize yourself with the laws, policies, and procedures related to different types of student misconduct in Massachusetts, as well as what to expect from your individual college or university.

Academic Misconduct Allegations in Massachusetts Schools

If you are accused of misconduct at your Massachusetts college or university, odds are your particular institution has its own code of conduct detailing specific procedures for handling these types of violations. Massachusetts has several large academic institutions that serve many thousands of students, with some of the most notable being Boston University, the University of Massachusetts system, and Harvard University. As a first step in your defense, it is important to understand your school's position on misconduct cases and the type of penalty you can expect to receive if you are found guilty.

Boston University

With nearly 32,000 students and more than 4,000 faculty members, Boston University (BU) is the largest school in the state of Massachusetts. BU was founded in 1839 and is consistently ranked among the best universities in the country. BU’s academic conduct code describes the university's expectations of students and guarantees students certain rights with the goal of developing a “supportive and productive learning environment.”

At Boston University, the types of misconduct outlined in the academic code of conduct include the following, which are similar at many institutions in Massachusetts as well as other states:

  • Cheating on an exam or assignment
  • Plagiarism, which is defined as “representing the work or ideas of another as one's own and/or using another's work or ideas without crediting the source”
  • Misrepresentation, falsification, or fabrication of data
  • Theft of an examination
  • Unauthorized communication during exams
  • Knowingly allowing another student to represent your work as their own
  • Forgery, alteration, or knowing misuse of graded examinations, quizzes, grade lists, or official records or documents
  • Misrepresentation of identity
  • Theft or destruction of examinations or papers after submission
  • Submitting the same or extremely similar work in multiple courses
  • Altering or destroying another student's work or records
  • Forgery, alteration, or knowing misuse of graded examinations, quizzes, grade lists, or official records or documents

If you are in violation of any of these items, possible penalties may include the following, which are also similar at many schools in Massachusetts and across the country:

  • For minor offenses, a reprimand on a student's internal record that does not carry over to the transcript
  • Disciplinary probation
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

At Boston University, all decisions may be appealed to the dean of the school or college where the student is enrolled within 14 days of the final decision and penalty. Particularly because penalties for these offenses can be severe and detrimental to a student's education and future career, anyone who has been accused of academic dishonesty needs to remember that they have rights, and these charges can be fought.

University of Massachusetts System

The University of Massachusetts (UMass) system is comprised of four comprehensive undergraduate campuses – the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the University of Massachusetts Boston, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell – as well as a medical school and a law school. More than 72,000 students are currently enrolled in schools within the University of Massachusetts system.

Within the UMass system, the academic honesty policy and procedures state that the following types of misconduct constitute academic dishonesty:

  • Cheating
  • Fabrication of information or citations
  • Plagiarism
  • Helping another student commit an act of academic dishonesty

In the UMass system, a student and an instructor may agree on an informal resolution to settle dishonesty cases that involve relatively minor first or second offenses. For this process to work correctly, both parties must agree on a penalty and send an official signed document to the academic honesty board. After a third charge of academic dishonesty, a student will face more severe disciplinary action. Similarly, if the student and instructor cannot agree on an informal charge, formal charges may also be filed. Students are able to appeal formal charges with the academic honesty board within 10 days of the charges being filed.

Harvard University

Established in 1636, Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university that is among the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world. More than 22,000 students attend Harvard, which has only a 5 percent acceptance rate. At such an elite school, it should come as no surprise that academic honesty is paramount.

According to Harvard's statement on academic integrity and academic dishonesty, the university “adheres to the scholarly and intellectual standards of accurate attribution of sources, appropriate collection and use of data, and transparent acknowledgement of the contribution of others to our ideas, discoveries, interpretations, and conclusions.”

All students are required to affirm their awareness of and adherence to this honor code at various points throughout the semester. If a student is caught plagiarizing or committing other forms of academic dishonesty, they may face disciplinary action that could include being withdrawn from the college.

Oversight of Private Schools in Massachusetts

Although private schools in the Bay State may be able to operate with a little more freedom, in some cases, than public or state schools, they are largely still subject to most state regulations. Some private schools even receive small amounts of state funding or, at least, remain eligible to do so—which means that they need to follow certain state rules. In any case, private schools in Massachusetts, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts University, and Williams College, need to operate under Massachusetts General Law if they wish to meet standards for state approval. These colleges also need to meet standards for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges in order to receive accreditation. In fact, the Board of Higher Education in Massachusetts recently signed into effect guidance that oversee the financial stability and related practices of higher education institutions—including private colleges. 610 CMR 2.00: Degree-Granting Regulations for Independent Institutions of Higher Education also oversees the way these institutions form their academic programs.

This means that if you are in an adversarial position with your Massachusetts private school, you will likely be able to find recourse to pursue a favorable outcome.

Title IX Misconduct Allegations in Massachusetts Schools

Another common type of misconduct among college students involves Title IX violations. Most college students have probably heard of Title IX and know it exists to prevent gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment or violence, but the actual rules and regulations of Title IX are complex and constantly evolving. This can make Title IX violations difficult to define and understand without the help of an experienced attorney or legal advisor. In general, Title IX violations include the following types of misconduct:

  • Gender discrimination
  • Sexual harassment
  • Sex violence, including rape or sexual abuse or assault, battery, or coercion
  • Retaliation
  • Creating a hostile environment

To ensure the best possible defense against Title IX violation accusations, you will need a skilled Title IX attorney on your side who has an in-depth understanding of how Title IX policies work in Massachusetts and what you need to do to arrive at a favorable outcome.

What is Title IX?

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools. Title IX applies to public K through 12 schools and public, private, and state colleges and universities, including those in Massachusetts.

Title IX states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Federally funded and private schools in Massachusetts must protect against discrimination in college admissions, athletics, employment, and financial aid. Sexual harassment and assault are also violations of Title IX.

Title IX Procedures in Massachusetts

We certainly understand that being hit with accusations of Title IX violations can be devastating and shocking for any college student. Still, it's important to remember that all students who are accused are guaranteed certain rights under federal law. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX investigations on all college campuses, including those in Massachusetts, are required to adhere to the following procedures:

  • Students have the right to a written notice of allegations, as well as the right to an advocate and to submit, examine, and challenge evidence.
  • Students have the right to a live hearing that involves cross-examination by advisors.
  • Students have the right to an impartial finding based on evidence, using either the preponderance or clear-and-convincing evidence standards.
  • Schools must allow both parties an equal chance to appeal findings.

New Sexual Misconduct Legislation in Massachusetts

In 2021, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new law that requires all institutions of higher education in the state to implement “certain policies, procedures, and other mandates relative to sexual misconduct on campus” by mid-year. According to the National Law Review, the new legislation requires colleges and universities to take the following actions regarding sexual misconduct on campus:

  • Adopt specified policies
  • Provide training to certain groups
  • Conduct climate surveys
  • Report sexual misconduct data and information about policies
  • Enter into written memoranda of understanding with local law enforcement and sexual assault crisis centers

The new regulation will also likely enhance procedural protections for students accused of sexual misconduct. In response to a formal complaint of sexual harassment, a college or university must provide the accused student with notice of the allegations, as well as adequate time to prepare for meetings, gather evidence, and present at a live hearing with their attorney or advisor present. Additionally, all investigators at the university must be unbiased, and just like in a criminal trial, the student must be presumed innocent until found guilty.

Due Process in Massachusetts Schools

Schools must give students due process in Title IX hearings. Simply put, due process refers to the state's requirement to respect your legal rights. In particular, they cannot decide upon or enact a penalty until you have heard and understood your charges and been given adequate time and opportunity to defend yourself. Due process ensures that a student cannot be unfairly punished without first going through a specified process to determine their guilt, usually a trial or some other type of investigation.

A disciplinary allegation that can result in suspension or expulsion should entitle a student to more due process than a minor matter resulting in only a written warning. Due process rights come from the idea that a school is taking something important from you, such as a right or a property interest. Due process sounds fairly straightforward, but it can still lead to complex and conflicting decisions in court.

Property Interests

Many colleges and universities argue that the disciplinary process is an educational correction rather than a punitive action. This argument is often an attempt to avoid allowing students procedural due process rights during disciplinary matters. However, the law is clear – students have a right to due process protections at college whenever they have a property interest or a right or liberty interest at stake.

Your education is a property interest. A degree you've earned and the progress you've made towards your degree all have significant value to you. Losing a degree or hours of school credits isn't as serious as going to jail, but it has a significant impact on a student's life and long-term earning potential.

If a Massachusetts public college wants to suspend or expel a student, they can't simply take away a student's property interest in their education arbitrarily. The student is entitled to due process. However, the level of due process depends due a student depends on the severity of the sanction. The greater the sanction, the more due process a Massachusetts school must give the student.

Liberty Interests

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, a disciplinary proceeding also implicates a liberty interest when a person's “good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake.” If a disciplinary proceeding harms a student's reputation and threatens their education, this is enough to involve a liberty and a property interest, requiring due process.

Free speech is also a liberty interest and many state constitutions, including Massachusetts', give citizens an affirmative right to free speech. In 2019, President Trump signed an executive order to protect free speech on college campuses by ordering all federally funded institutions, including private schools receiving federal money, to comply with federal laws protecting speech. After that, the Department of Education published new proposed regulations addressing free speech in January of 2020.

According to Massachusetts law, students have the right to freedom of expression: “The right of students to freedom of expression in the public schools of the commonwealth shall not be abridged, provided that such right shall not cause any disruption or disorder within the school.” As an example, the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences began investigating a private group chat where incoming students posted inflammatory and highly offensive comments. While the students involved are no longer enrolled at the schools, free speech groups are citing the first amendment and decrying the decision of UMass to investigate in the first place.

Court Litigation Against Massachusetts Colleges

If it's necessary to take a conflict over alleged misconduct with your Massachusetts school to court, there are several basic legal grounds for doing so. You may be able to make arguments under Title IX, breach of contract, or violation of due process rights.

Steps to Take Prior to Pursuing Litigation Against Your MA School

Do you think it's time to consider suing your school?

While this might be the best way to achieve the outcome you've been working towards, it's crucial to go about doing this in the most strategic way possible. This involves taking the steps prior to a lawsuit that will most effectively show that you've exhausted all other avenues of recourse.

Why is this necessary? When you initiate your court case, the court will want to see that you've worked within the set system as much as possible. In order to show this, consider the following steps:

Once you have gone through these steps, your attorney-advisor can help you determine if you have the basis for further litigation. The types of cases you may consider could include:

Title IX Court Litigation

If you can prove the outcome of a misconduct case was wrong and show evidence of gender bias in the decision or produce statements made by your school that demonstrate gender bias, you may have a valid claim against your school based on Title IX. The application of Title IX is quite broad, and if your school is found to be in violation of Title IX, they will likely be ordered to pay damages as well as your attorney fees.

Breach of Contract Claims

It is also possible to bring a claim against a college or university by arguing that the institution breached a contract laid out by the student handbook, code of conduct, or other written documents detailing disciplinary procedures and other responsibilities the school has to students.

In one recent example, a former student at Emerson College is in the process of suing the institution for a refund of tuition and fees. In the lawsuit, the student claims they had an “insufficient” learning experience after the school moved courses online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the student's allegations, by failing to provide the interactive in-person learning experience expected of a first-rate college, the school was in breach of contract.

Due Process Violations

If a school takes a property or liberty interest related to your education from you, they must give you due process. These due process rights can vary based on whether your claim involves a Title IX case or another type of student disciplinary case. In general, you are entitled to notice of the charges. The notice should be specific enough to defend against the charges, and you must have the chance to plead your case before a neutral arbiter.

In 2019, a federal appeals court found that a former student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst was deprived of his due process rights after he was accused of assaulting and harassing his girlfriend. The school suspended the student without first holding an official hearing, thereby depriving him of his rights. This ruling contrasts with a 2018 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District, which also decided that students accused of sexual violence or their advisors must be given the opportunity to question their accusers directly.

Administrative Mandamus

Massachusetts state schools are effectively agents of the state government, meaning you can challenge some decisions of the state through a writ of administrative mandamus. The writ is a request to a superior court to reverse a decision of a state administrative agency that might not have been supported by sufficient evidence.

The court can inquire whether:

  • The state acted in excess of its jurisdiction,
  • There was a fair trial, and
  • There was any prejudicial abuse of discretion.

Statute of Limitations

While litigation claims against colleges and universities nationwide will be quite similar, each state has its own statute of limitations, after which the courts bar you from bringing a claim. The statute of limitations in Massachusetts for possible claims include:

  • Breach of contract: For a written contract in Massachusetts, the statute of limitations in most cases is six years.
  • Due process violations: The statute of limitations for due process violations can vary based on the state or federal statutes involved and whether you file a state or federal claim.
  • Administrative mandamus: The statute of limitations for a writ of mandamus can vary widely, but it is preferable to file as soon as possible, ideally within 90 days.

Because the statutes of limitations can vary so widely, it's best to consult an experienced student discipline attorney as soon as possible to preserve any possible claims.

It's Time to Hire an Experienced Student Discipline Attorney-Advisor

When you're looking for an attorney-advisor to represent you in a student discipline case in Massachusetts, the most important factor will be your advisor's breadth of experience and skill. You need an attorney-advisor with years of experience handling a wide range of student discipline matters and other school-related issues and concerns, as well as someone with advanced negotiation skills.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento has unparalleled experience as an attorney-advisor negotiating and litigating against hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide. If there is a possible issue or concern affecting a student at a college or university, he's already seen it and resolved it, and he can help you. There is no reason that a misunderstanding or mistake should ruin your chances at a career or future in academia. When the schools stack their cards against you, you will want the help of a skilled and experienced attorney. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686 or reach out to us online.

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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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