Campus Justice: A Guide for Students

You may think that your biggest problem when you get to college is figuring out how to pass calculus. And actually, maybe it is. Close behind that, though, is making sure you protect your future over the next four (OK, five) years. Being a good student is important, but just as important is knowing how to play the college game.

Every year, hundreds of college students are expelled from schools all across the country for violating their schools' codes of conduct. Don't think you could be one of them? Think again. Everything's a violation these days. You don't have to steal a copy of the upcoming exam or beat up the dean to get in trouble. Signing your classmate's name on the attendance sheet is enough or asking your roommate what they remember from the history exam last semester.

The truth is, schools have itchy trigger fingers, and they're becoming less and less tolerant every day. Investigations are more fierce, and punishments are more severe than ever before. You've invested time, energy, and money in getting to this point in your academic career. Don't risk any of it.

What do you do to protect yourself? First and foremost, make sure you know just what the rules are. What mistakes can you get away with, and what mistakes can you definitely not get away with? What are the punishments? And most importantly, if you do wind up accused of breaking a rule, who do you turn to for help?

Academic Misconduct

The very first kind of trouble you can get into in college is academic. This means any kind of violation that's related to your actual classwork. Some schools go all out in explaining academic misconduct, listing dozens of ways you can mess up. For the most part, though, there are basically three kinds of mistakes you can make.

  • Plagiarism: You've probably heard of this one. Under no circumstances can you submit someone else's work as your own, especially if you don't give them credit. Obviously, this means you can't buy a paper online and turn it in as your final in freshman comp. However, you may not realize that you can't copy other kinds of work either: film projects, photo collages, computer code. In addition, most schools frown on turning in the same paper to two different courses.
  • Cheating: This one can come in lots of forms too. For example, you can't tape a crib sheet to the brim of your baseball cap. You can't ask your friend who's a whiz at dinosaurs to sit in on your paleontology final for you. Usually, you're not allowed to look up homework answers on Google. And when you're stuck on a biology lab quiz, you don't get to text a friend. The short answer, though, is that if it gives you an unfair advantage on your coursework, it probably qualifies as cheating.
  • Misrepresentation: Finally, many schools throw in “misrepresentation” as a bonus form of academic misconduct, just to make sure absolutely everything is covered. The truth is, plagiarism and cheating are both kinds of misrepresentation. In addition, though, this category includes things like forging a sick note or signing a friend's name on the attendance sheet.

What happens if you're accused of academic misconduct? That depends on your school. Most schools, though, use a two-level system. First, your instructor gets to weigh in. They will probably ask you to meet with them to discuss your side of the story. Then they'll assign a penalty. If you're lucky, they may just issue a warning or ask you to re-do the assignment. It's not unusual, though, for faculty to give zeroes on plagiarized assignments or flunk students who cheat on an exam.

In addition, almost every college and university has a policy requiring that instructors report all incidents of academic misconduct to the central administration. In other words, your professor will have no choice but to tell the Dean's office if they think your sociology paper sounds suspiciously like one they read last semester. That office will keep a record of your sins, and punishment for future offenses will likely be more severe.

Hopefully, your school offers some means of defending yourself if you are accused (keep reading to find out more), but you should expect that they aren't going to take your word for it.

Finally, you should know that it's always better to fight these kinds of accusations and penalties. If a notation for academic misconduct should find its way to your transcript, it can hurt your chances at scholarships, grad school, even getting a job. You'll find that most employers aren't anxious to hire graduates who have been labeled cheaters. You may think it's easier to just take the zero, but that decision can come back to haunt you.

Disciplinary Misconduct

As you might expect, disciplinary misconduct includes pretty much everything that isn't included under academic misconduct. These kinds of violations don't interfere with learning in any direct sense but make no mistake: schools treat these just as seriously as—and sometimes more seriously than—classroom violations.

What kind of trouble can you get into? That depends on your school. Of course, if you're drinking on campus, or taking drugs, or if you decide to punch your RA in the nose, you can be pretty certain you'll be in trouble no matter where you may be enrolled. Does your school prohibit drones, though? Can you have a guinea pig in your dorm if it helps alleviate stress? What happens if you're caught stealing ice cream sandwiches from the cafeteria and selling them on the quad? For the answers to those questions, you're going to have to consult your school's official Code of Conduct. You should be able to find a copy online.

That resource can also explain what happens if you're accused of violating any campus rules. Here again, every school's code of conduct will be a little different. Hopefully, your school makes sure to respect your rights no matter what the offense might be. That means they conduct a serious investigation, and they provide you with an official hearing so you can defend yourself.

Few schools go so far, though. Some provide these or similar options, but only if you are accused of something that could get you suspended or expelled. A few schools, though, don't even provide these sorts of protections. If you're accused of vandalism, a “judicial committee” might decide your case with little or no input from you. In some cases, a single administrator decides can decide whether or not you're guilty and whether or not you should be expelled.

Again, the best thing you can do is to educate yourself now about your own school's specific policies, so you won't be caught by surprise later.

Sexual Misconduct and Title IX

Sexual misconduct is usually treated as its own special category of disciplinary misconduct. That's because it has its own complicated rules and is dealt with under very specific procedures dictated not by your school but by the federal government.

Your university deals with most accusations of sexual misconduct using Title IX, a law passed in 1972 that prohibits sexual discrimination in US education programs. You might be thinking “discrimination” just means treating everyone equally. It's a little more complicated than that. Over time, that word has come to refer to everything from verbal harassment to stalking, sexual assault, and even rape.

Because the charges can be so serious, and your physics professor may be deciding your fate, the government, in 2020, instituted very specific guidelines about how schools are supposed to render justice in such cases. The system isn't perfect, though, and you don't have the same protections you might expect if you were being tried in an actual court of law.

Under Title IX, all accusations originate in your school's Title IX Office. Only a complainant or the Title IX Coordinator can officially sign a complaint.

Once they do, though, the coordinator must apprise both sides of their rights. These include:

  • The right to appoint an advisor, who may be an attorney
  • The right to a full investigation and hearing
  • The right to medical care and counseling services
  • Equal rights to any other services the school might offer the complainant, such as tutoring or a leave of absence
  • The right to be presumed innocent
  • The right to present evidence and witness testimony

Following this, the coordinator appoints an investigator. This person gathers evidence in the case and interviews both parties as well as any relevant witnesses. The school must set a time limit for investigations, usually 45 or 60 days. At the end of this period, the investigator completes a written report. Both sides have the opportunity to suggest changes, and then this document is submitted to the Title IX Coordinator.

Respondents are further entitled under Title IX to defend themselves at a live hearing. The coordinator appoints a Hearing Officer to oversee this proceeding. At some schools, this officer is solely responsible for presiding over the hearing and deciding the respondent's responsibility. In other places, this officer selects a panel to hear the case, made up of faculty, staff, and students who have been given some training in sexual misconduct violations.

Students make their own opening and closing arguments. However, only advisors may question witnesses. If a student doesn't have an advisor, the school must appoint one for this portion of the hearing.

At the end of the hearing, the decision-maker(s) rule on whether the respondent is responsible or not and assign any necessary sanctions.

Finally, Title IX requires that schools provide an appeals process. Appeals are only heard if new evidence has arisen or one of the parties can show that mistakes were made in the Title IX process itself. In addition, either side may accept the final decision but appeal the sanctions.

Not Like a Courtroom

Campus justice doesn't exactly work like the actual justice system. For one thing, except in Title IX cases, you aren't guaranteed the right to defend yourself from accusations. Most schools include some sort of review process as part of their justice systems, but this could be as simple as an individual administrator deciding whether or not your professor was right when they labeled you a cheater.

Even when schools do provide for formal hearings and investigations, you will likely find your due process rights are limited. For example, you might not be allowed to submit evidence to investigators. You might not have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses against you. In addition, decision-makers at campus hearings aren't required to use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to decide your guilt. Instead, most use the “preponderance of evidence” standard. According to this standard, they must only be just over fifty percent sure you are responsible for a violation. That's a pretty low bar.

Schools exist to provide education, not to dispense justice. Investigators aren't trained like police detectives; hearing officers aren't trained like judges. As a result, schools often get things wrong, and it is accused students who tend to pay the price.


Campus justice isn't just a formality. You can't just sit through an uncomfortable meeting with your professor, or a department head, or the Dean, take your lumps and move on. There was a time when this was true. Not anymore.

If you're accused of academic or disciplinary misconduct, you can expect that your school will do everything it can to prove you are responsible and to issue a harsh punishment. Even if the punishment itself is relatively light, your school will keep a record of your violation and use it against you for all future violations. It could become part of your permanent file and wind up hurting your chances of getting that all-important first job out of college.

Punishments aren't often light, though. They can include removal from campus housing or loss of other privileges, the loss of scholarships, academic or disciplinary probation, suspension, and even expulsion. In addition, more and more schools are listing infractions on transcripts. That means if you should find yourself expelled, it won't be easy to simply pick up the pieces and transfer to another university. Few schools are willing to gamble on students who have been found responsible for cheating, stalking, or assault at their previous institutions.

How Should You Handle an Accusation?

If you should find yourself accused of any policy violation, the first thing to remember is not to panic. Yes, the system is stacked against you, and punishment can be strict, but you do have options. You are a smart, capable person who has made it this far. With a little hard work and effort, you can successfully defend yourself and your good name. What do you do?

  • Keep records of everything. Don't throw out tests or term papers. They can be vital in proving your innocence. Make notes on every visit you have with every school official.
  • Don't simply accept your school's judgment or sanction. You may think a matter is relatively simple, only to discover later that it had enormous consequences.
  • Make sure you have qualified, experienced legal representation. Don't admit to anything. Don't talk to school officials without getting professional advice first. Don't accept deals unless you've had a lawyer look them over.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento Knows Title IX

Once the school has accused you of violating policy, it has a vested interest in proving you responsible. If it turns out your professor was wrong when they accused you of copying answers to an exam, the school looks bad. If you're accused of date rape and ultimately found not responsible, the school looks bad. This means once you've been accused, you can no longer trust the school to look out for your best interests. They are now the enemy.

You need someone on your side, someone to look out for your interests and to protect your rights. You need attorney Joseph D. Lento.

Joseph D. Lento built his career handling school disciplinary cases. He's a fully qualified, highly experienced attorney, and he has a deep knowledge of the law. At the same time, though, Joseph D. Lento spends most of his time, day-to-day, thinking about campus justice. He understands how school faculty and administrators think. That means he can represent you in court, but he can also represent you if you're battling your college or university.

Joseph D. Lento believes schools have become too strict, that their punishments have become too harsh. Whether you're looking to prove your innocence or negotiate a more reasonable settlement, Joseph D. Lento will fight for you.

If you have been accused of any type of school violation, act now. Your school is already building the case against you. You need to be preparing your defense. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.

The following links provide information to help address Title IX concerns of students at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school level:

In addition, the following links provide information regarding other common disciplinary concerns at colleges and universities: