Where We Can Help – Pennsylvania Schools

Are you a student or the parent of student at a Pennsylvania 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 at the school level and in court in Pennsylvania and across the United States.  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 Pennsylvania protect their academic and professional future, and he can do the same for you.  Contact him today at 888-535-3686.

Pennsylvania Student Misconduct and Student Rights

Getting a degree from an institution of higher education isn't easy. It takes time, money, and years of studying to finish a degree program—a goal that many people in Pennsylvania choose to pursue. When your college or university accuses you of misconduct, however, it can put your plans to get an education at risk. Dealing with the formal administrative and disciplinary procedures that follow an accusation of misconduct can feel overwhelming for a student who's never experienced it before. Colleges and universities exist to provide students with an education, but they also won't hesitate to take action against misconduct if it means maintaining their public reputation.

The misconduct process at your college or university can seem enigmatic and impossible to navigate, but with an experienced student discipline attorney by your side, you can make sense of these formal disciplinary procedures. Your attorney will ensure you know your rights and help you defend yourself from a misconduct allegation.

What Kinds of Misconduct Allegations Can a Student Face in Pennsylvania?

Every institution of higher education in Pennsylvania has its own policies concerning student misconduct and disciplinary procedures, but many of the state's schools approach misconduct in similar ways. They are allowed to generate policies and regulations that pertain to all enrolled students, all faculty, and staff, but every public learning institution must follow state laws concerning due process and reporting.

Public and Private Universities in Pennsylvania

Public Schools in Pennsylvania: What to Know

Pennsylvania has two public university systems, the Commonwealth System of Higher Education and the Pennsylvania State System for Higher Education (PASSHE). The Commonwealth System of Higher Education is a hybrid, public-private system, which designates four universities in Pennsylvania as “state-related.” These four universities offer tuition discounts to in-state students in exchange for financial appropriations from the state. Since they're not technically run by the state, these universities retain the freedom to operate administratively and academically how they wish. Pennsylvania is the only state with a statewide public-private university system.

The four “state-related” universities in Pennsylvania are some of the biggest in the state:

Penn State has multiple satellite campuses and affiliated professional schools scattered throughout Pennsylvania—all of which fall under Penn State's conduct rules. Pitt and Temple University also have several satellite campuses that make up their larger university systems.

The other public university system in Pennsylvania, the PASSHE, includes 14 public universities that are not “state-related” but fully under state jurisdiction. Together, they enroll 93,000 degree-seeking students plus thousands more in certificate and other career-development programs. The 14 universities in PASSHE are:

Private Schools in Pennsylvania: What to Know

Pennsylvania is also home to many private universities from the University of Pennsylvania to Carnegie Mellon and Villanova University. While these academic institutions may not specifically fall under the same rules as PA's public schools, they aren't entirely on their own when it comes to governance.

Chapter 171 of the Pennsylvania Code contains general provisions for how private schools in PA need to operate, from their funding sources to the curriculum standards they need to implement. Private schools seeking accreditation in Pennsylvania need to follow the regulations set forth in Chapter 52 of the PA code, which include stipulations such as clearly-defined student student services, ongoing review of the school's health standards and facilities, and written policies for complaints and due process.

In short, while your path to pursuing justice at your private school may differ slightly from your options at a public school, you do have options if you're subjected to unfair discipline or you witness procedural irregularities.

Grounds for Discipline

Universities in Pennsylvania typically have codes of student conduct that govern student behavior on campus. These codes of conduct will describe what kinds of actions are grounds for disciplinary action, as well as the procedures for dealing with conduct violations. Universities have the right to create conduct policies related to all areas of campus life, including in the classroom, in campus housing, at sporting events or other campus activities, and even in off-campus contexts that involve members of the university community.

Although each school may list different actions that constitute misconduct violations, most Pennsylvania universities tend to have the same forms of prohibited behavior. Taking Penn State’s Code of Student Conduct as an example, the following actions by students are considered misconduct:

  • Abuse or endangerment
  • Harassment
  • Sexual harassment and misconduct
  • Discriminatory harassment
  • Possession, carrying, storing, or using weapons, explosives, or other dangerous items
  • Fire safety violations
  • Illegal possession, use, distribution, manufacture, sale, or being under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
  • Intentionally providing false information
  • Theft and possession of stolen property
  • Disruption of operations
  • Violations of academic integrity
  • Failure to comply
  • Forgery or alteration
  • Unauthorized entry or use
  • Disorderly conduct
  • Violations of university regulations
  • Violation of law
  • Retaliation
  • Hazing

Disciplinary Procedures for Pennsylvania Universities

The Commonwealth System of Higher Education is more loosely organized than the PASSHE, which has a formal Board of Governors and Chief Executive Officer of the State System. The PASSHE Board of Governors maintains a policy regarding student disciplinary due process requirements that universities within the system must adhere to. During disciplinary hearings, students have the following rights:

  • Reasonable specific advanced written notice of charges containing a description of the alleged acts of misconduct, including time, date, and place of occurrence, and the rules of conduct allegedly violated by the student
  • Reasonably advanced written notice of the date, time, and place of the hearing, unless such right is waived in writing by the student
  • A reasonable amount of time between notifying the student of their charges and the date of the hearing, so the student has time to prepare a defense
  • The opportunity to submit written, physical, and testimonial evidence, and for reasonable questioning of witnesses by both parties
  • An impartial hearing, which may consist of a committee, board, panel, or individual appointed by the university
  • Maintenance of a written summary or audiotape record of the hearing at university expense
  • A decision based upon presented evidence sufficient to make a reasonable person believe that a fact sought to be proved is more likely true than not
  • A written adjudication issued within 30 working days after the close of proceedings
  • An adviser, who may be an attorney, present at hearings to consult and interact privately with the student only
  • A fair and reasonable opportunity to answer, explain, and defend against the charges at a hearing
  • The burden of proof rests with the university
  • Hearsay shall not be the sole evidence
  • Previous disciplinary records shall not be used to establish guilt in a current case, but they may be used to determine appropriate sanctions
  • Informal hearings for cases that do not involve sanctions of expulsion or suspension
  • The right to waive a hearing through a written statement

Sanctions for Student Misconduct in Pennsylvania

The sanctions for student misconduct vary by university, and each school has the right to decide the criteria for applying sanctions in disciplinary cases. Most schools in Pennsylvania tend to impose the same types of sanctions, such as the sanctions for violating the Temple University Student Conduct Code, for example:

  • Letter of reprimand
  • Disciplinary probation
  • Loss of privileges
  • Fine
  • Restitution
  • Other sanctions
  • University housing suspension
  • University housing expulsion
  • University suspension
  • University expulsion

Other common sanctions may include:

  • Academic probation
  • Degree withdrawal or revocation
  • Community or university service hours
  • Educational plans
  • No contact orders
  • Parental notification
  • Behavioral plan
  • Mandated counseling
  • Health and safety actions

Appeals

The appeals process is where university student conduct policies tend to diverge the most. PASSHE universities aren't required to have appeal processes at all, although many of them still allow at least one level of appellate procedure for students. Appeals differ by how many days students have to submit a formal appeal request after their hearing or decision, who they appeal to, and how many levels of appeal are available.

At the University of Pittsburgh, there are different levels of hearings for student misconduct cases, and thus different levels of appeals. For Level I Hearing appeals, students have 10 days to file an appeal form with the Office of Student Conduct. In Level II Hearings, the Dean of Students determines guilt and sanctions, so students must file petitions for appeal and postponement of sanctions within 10 days of the Dean of Students' decision.

Students cannot appeal simply because they disagree with the outcome of a misconduct hearing. There is usually a limited scope of review for appeals. Pitt's conduct process lists the reasons a student may request an appeal after a hearing and sanction imposition:

  • Student's rights guaranteed by the Board of Trustees have been denied
  • If hearing procedures were not followed in a manner that would have significantly affected the decision
  • If there was an absence of rational connection between the facts found and the findings
  • If the imposed sanctions are substantially disproportionate to the severity of the violation
  • If new evidence is presented which was not available or discoverable during the hearing process, and if it had been available, would have significantly altered the findings or sanctions

Types of Appeals

Types of appeals vary by the type of disciplinary procedure the university uses. Not all cases proceed to a formal hearing; some involve an administrative meeting, hearing, or informal hearing. When a student wants to contest the results of an administrative meeting or informal hearing, sometimes their only option is going to a formal hearing. When going through the disciplinary process, students should always pay close attention to their university's appeal procedures, as they tend to be strict and have a deadline. In most cases, if a student misses an appeal deadline, then they have effectively accepted the hearing results and imposed sanctions.

The misconduct process is usually complex and may vary between schools. Students who have never faced an allegation of misconduct can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the strict procedures of disciplinary hearings and meetings. A student defense attorney can help accused students understand the process and ensure they know their rights when dealing with their universities.

Litigating against your PA private or public school

If the time comes when you need to consider your options for pursuing litigation against your PA school, you need to know the right procedure to follow. This is where your practiced, professional attorney-advisor will help you. You may only have one chance to sue your school, and there's definitely a right way to go about this complex process successfully.

  1. You will need to exhaust all of your options for pursuing justice at your school, to show that you have considered all reasonable methods for seeking a favorable outcome.
  2. As an intermediate step, you may consider filing a formal complaint with the Pennsylvania Department of Education against your postsecondary institution.
  3. Finally, only after you have pursued these first two steps, speak with your lawyer about the grounds for a lawsuit. Your advisor will know best how to proceed.

Pennsylvania College and University Title IX Misconduct

The Pennsylvania Board of Governors (who oversee the 14 universities of the PASSHE) has a specific policy addressing sexual misconduct in Pennsylvania universities. The scope of this policy includes federal and state discrimination laws, regulations under Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and criminal laws of Pennsylvania that make some forms of sexual misconduct a criminal offense. Universities part of PASSHE must implement this policy, which incorporates Title IX.

The PASSHE policy on sexual misconduct sets forth the following requirements:

  • Each university must have a Title IX Coordinator.
  • The name and contact information of the Title IX Coordinator should be prominently displayed on the university website or in handbooks and catalogs.
  • Universities must disseminate their policies on sexual misconduct to anyone required to be notified under federal and state law.
  • Universities must have a policy for resolving sexual misconduct complaints promptly and equitably.
  • Universities must provide training to Title IX Coordinators, investigators, decision-makers, appeals officers, and individuals who facilitate informal resolutions.
  • The Chancellor (CEO of PASSHE) must publish a template policy for resolving sexual misconduct complaints, which universities can adapt or adopt.
  • The Chancellor must adopt procedures and policies to implement the PASSHE sexual misconduct policy as applicable to employees.

The four “state-related” universities in Pennsylvania must also follow Title IX procedures, as they receive federal funding. Penn State, for example, has a Title IX Sexual Harassment Policy that implements all Title IX requirements. Temple University has a policy for Preventing and Addressing Sexual Misconduct, as well as an addendum to the Student Conduct Code for additional procedures that concern sexual harassment and Title IX violations.

What Is Title IX?

Title IX refers to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. §1681 et seq. It's a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at any school accepting federal funding. Title IX applies to all educational institutions, from kindergarten through to 12th grade, as well as colleges and universities. All public colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are subject to Title IX regulations.

Title IX covers all aspects of university life, including athletics, admissions, employment, and financial aid. As the law is intended to prevent sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities, it also prohibits sexual assault and sexual harassment. If an educational institution discovers that an assault occurred either on-campus or at an off-campus university-affiliated event, it must investigate and remediate the issue, even if no one makes a formal complaint. Schools can handle Title IX investigations how they choose, but they must perform a broad investigative role for serious allegations of criminal conduct.

Title IX also requires every college or university to appoint a Title IX Coordinator, who handles complaints of Title IX violations and ensures the institution remains compliant with federal Title IX legislation.

Minimum Due Process Under Title IX

Students involved in university sexual misconduct cases, whether as complainant or respondent, must be given minimum due process rights, such as:

  • An unbiased and trained tribunal
  • Receiving notification of charges with adequate time to prepare before a hearing
  • Providing an accused student (respondent) with written notice of the allegations against them, including details such as the names of other parties, the alleged misconduct, and the sections of the student code allegedly violated
  • Allowing respondents to present evidence and witnesses, and to cross-examine witnesses presented by the accusing party (complainant)
  • Giving the parties the right to consult an attorney or advisor
  • Disclosing all the evidence against the respondent and allowing them to inspect and review the evidence
  • Allowing the respondent the right to discuss the allegations and contact potential witnesses
  • Guaranteeing bilateral hearing procedures
  • Providing both parties with written findings and suggested sanctions or remedies
  • The right to a written investigative report at least 10 days before the hearing

Title IX doesn't require the use of informal hearings, but some schools may allow students to resolve matters informally, as long as both parties agree. At hearings, some schools use the evidentiary standard of “preponderance of the evidence” which means it's more likely than not that the respondent committed the violation. Another possible evidentiary standard is “clear and convincing evidence” which is more stringent than the preponderance of the evidence but less stringent than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Title IX Hearings

The PASSHE doesn't have guidance for how Title IX hearings should proceed in Pennsylvania universities, so schools must rely on federal Title IX guidelines for hearings. The four “state-related” schools also do not have a statewide framework concerning Title IX hearings, and must simply ensure compliance with federal law.

At Lincoln University, the Sexual Misconduct Policy contains procedures for hearings, which differs from hearings for regular code of conduct violations. For complaints against students, the hearing takes place before the Sexual Assault Board (SA Board). The members of the SA board are appointed by the Vice President for Student Affairs, and receive annual training on issues related to sexual misconduct. All hearings are recorded and closed to the public. No one involved in the hearing can discuss it outside of the hearing, nor can they discuss or show documents prepared for the hearing to external persons. Lincoln University uses the preponderance of the evidence standard. At the end of the hearing, both respondent and complainant receive a Final Determination Letter containing the name of the respondent, resolution of the hearing, and sanctions imposed.

Due Process Rights and Pennsylvania Schools

Due process rights are an important issue in Title IX cases, but they also apply to all student disciplinary matters. The amount of due process rights students are afforded varies by case. If a conduct allegation could potentially result in suspension or expulsion—very severe sanctions—students have more due process rights than if they're facing a potential letter of reprimand. Think of due process and school disciplinary matters in this way: If your school is trying to take something away from you, you have the right to due process. By restricting your education, your university is taking away your right as well as your property interest.

Due Process and Property

Is your education “property”? When you take courses and work toward a degree that has value, yes, your education is a property interest. Pennsylvania colleges and universities cannot take away your property interest arbitrarily, so if they want to suspend or expel you, they must grant you due process.

Due Process and Liberty

A liberty interest affects a student's name, reputation, honor, or integrity. If a university's disciplinary proceeding threatens your education and harms your reputation, they must grant you due process.

Due Process Violations

If a public college or university in Pennsylvania tries to take away your liberty or property interest through disciplinary proceedings, you are entitled to due process. Specific rights vary based on the claim, but in almost every instance, you must receive notice of the charges against you. Also, the charges must be specific enough that you can defend against them, and your school should give you the opportunity to defend yourself before a neutral party.

Court Litigation Against Pennsylvania Colleges

In some instances, you can take your Pennsylvania college or university to court. You may be able to launch litigation against your school under such things as Title IX or violation of due process rights. If you want to challenge your college or university on Title IX, you will have to provide the following:

  • Actual evidence of gender bias in the decision against you, and you can prove the outcome was wrong
  • Statements from the school that demonstrate gender bias

Pennsylvania Laws You May Need to Know

When you move to Pennsylvania, you'll need to make sure that you act in a way that respects local laws. While your on-campus behavior will generally fall under PA school codes of conduct, if you live off-campus, your behavior there could be subject to PA law - and there's always the chance that your school could refer you to local law enforcement in a misconduct dispute. It's unlikely, but it could happen!

Pennsylvania's legal language has sections referring to each of the following activities that may be relevant to college-age individuals:

  • False Identification (e.g., Fake IDs)
  • Social Networking and Defamation
  • Gambling
  • Plagiarism or Cheating
  • Sexual Assault
  • Controlled Substances
  • Driving Under the Influence
  • Drinking as a Minor

PA Statutes of Limitation

'Statutes of Limitation' refer to the maximum amount of time after an incident occurs that someone can take legal action regarding it. How will this affect you? In some cases, the statute of limitations for debt, rent, or other types of misconduct can apply to situations that college students routinely face (e.g., student debt, or the rent you owed for your off-campus residence). Here are several examples of PA statutes of limitation:

  • Injury to Person - 2 years
  • Libel/Slander - 1 years
  • Fraud - 2 years
  • Injury to Personal Property - 2 years
  • Trespassing - 2 years
  • Rent Collection - 21 years
  • Written Contracts - 4-20 years
  • Oral Contracts - 4 years
  • Debt Collection - 2 years

If you're aware of any type of misconduct in your past that could still be within that actionable window, it's key to make sure you're working with a professional to make sure that things don't get out of hand.

An Experienced Student Discipline Attorney-Advisor Can Help

Facing a disciplinary issue with your Pennsylvania college or university can be overwhelming. It may feel as though you have to take on the entire university administration by yourself. In this situation, you want an experienced student defense attorney on your team. By working with an attorney who has dealt with university disciplinary processes, you can increase your chances of a favorable outcome.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento is a student discipline defense and student rights attorney who has helped students across the country and in Pennsylvania on Title IX, academic misconduct, and other conduct and professional matters. If you're facing a school-related issue or misconduct allegation of any kind at your Pennsylvania school, contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888.535.3686.

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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 our offices today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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