Student Justice: A Guide for Parents

If you're still using Animal House as your reference point for thinking about college, it's time to wake up to the realities of the 2020s. College today is serious business. We've known for some time that a college education is absolutely vital to building a successful career. College-educated employees make far more than their peers over the course of their careers. That piece of paper that validates an education doesn't come cheap, though. US News and World Report lists the average cost of a college education at a public, in-state university at just over $10,000 per year. Things go up from there.

Meanwhile, schools have become rigid, almost draconian, about how they respond to the mistakes their students make. The smallest infractions now garner probation, suspension, even expulsion. Those kinds of punishments can put your child's entire future at risk and leave you paying off student loans that didn't even get them an actual education.

What do you do? As a starting point, know what schools expect from their students and make sure your child is ready for the demands of college.

None of us is perfect though, and college students can and do make their fair share of mistakes. So, you should also know who to call on when problems come up. These days you can't go it alone. You need a qualified attorney who's an expert at dealing with academic justice, someone you can call on to protect your child's future.

Academic Misconduct

The very first thing you need to understand about college disciplinary policies is that there are two distinct kinds of misconduct your child can be charged with by their university. The first of these is academic misconduct.

As the phrase implies, academic misconduct has to do with classwork and basically involves anything that gives a student an unfair advantage over others. Of course, every school maintains its own unique set of rules when it comes to misconduct, but for the most part, universities typically highlight two specific forms: cheating and plagiarism.

  • Cheating: The simplest definition of cheating is getting answers for classwork in some unauthorized form. Of course, that can mean almost anything—students these days have tried everything from hiding crib sheets on the brims of their hats to employing complicated texting schemes. Getting copies of the test ahead of time, looking up answers on Google, simply looking at someone else's paper during an exam – all these qualify as cheating.
  • Plagiarism: Plagiarism, of course, means passing off someone else's work as your own. All sorts of paper mills exist online these days to write student papers, but not all students go to this much trouble. Copying a friend's paper or turning in your own paper to two different classes are also clear examples of plagiarism. It's also important to recognize that plagiarism isn't just about term papers anymore. Computer code, filmic essays, photographic collages: these can constitute plagiarism as well.

Many schools also consider “misrepresentation” to be a serious form of misconduct. As with cheating and plagiarism, misrepresentation can take many forms, but it typically involves lying in some form or another to school representatives. Students are often disciplined, for instance, for turning in forged sick notes or for signing a classmate's name to the daily attendance sheet.

Most schools these days employ a two-stage system for dealing with academic misconduct infractions. In most cases, it is an instructor who first discovers a student has cheated or plagiarized. That instructor probably has the option to assign whatever penalty they think is appropriate. That can include:

  • Verbal or written warnings
  • Re-submission of the assignment
  • A lower grade on the assignment, including a 0
  • A lower grade in the course, including an F

In addition, though, most schools also require instructors to alert the school administration about the infraction. At a minimum, the administration keeps records of those infractions and will assign more severe penalties for repeat offenses. The school may also keep permanent records about policy violations. Even if your child isn't expelled, then an accusation of cheating can hurt their chances of getting future scholarships, attending a reputable graduate school, or getting a lucrative first job.

Students are sometimes tempted to accept their punishments rather than rock the boat. Even innocent students may believe it's simpler to accept a lower grade on an assignment and move on. Maybe that would have been the right choice in the past. It isn't anymore. Once the school administration is involved, even the smallest mistakes can have severe consequences.

Disciplinary Misconduct

Disciplinary misconduct is quite different from academic misconduct. In simplest terms, it refers to policy violations that aren't related to course work. That is, disciplinary misconduct doesn't interfere directly in the educational activities of the college or university. However, that doesn't mean the school will take such infractions any less seriously. Indeed, some kinds of disciplinary misconduct can trigger harsher punishments than academic misconduct.

It is difficult to account for all the different rules and regulations that show up in college codes of conduct. Most schools, of course, prohibit activities that harm others or that harm the school itself. How “harm” is defined, though, varies a great deal. Some campuses, for example, have strict noise policies; others understand that it can be therapeutic to blow off a little steam every once in a while. Some schools these days allow students to have small animals if it helps their mental health; in other places, even a goldfish is absolutely prohibited.

Of course, drugs and underage drinking are generally banned on every campus, as is behavior such as vandalism, theft, and assault. To find out whether flying drones is forbidden, though, you'll have to consult your university's specific Student Code of Conduct. This should be easy to locate online.

That document should also explain how the school deals with violations of that code of conduct. Most schools have at least some kind of campus judicial system, though how justice is dispensed varies from school to school. Often, schools utilize formal investigations and hearings, at least in cases where suspension and expulsion are potential sanctions. Students may be able to appoint advisors to help them with their cases and may be allowed to present evidence and call witnesses on their behalf.

However, many schools also use a more informal system, especially when the infractions are less serious or don't warrant the worst penalties. Justice may be as simple as an administrator deciding what should happen in a given case, or it can involve more complex mechanisms like a “judicial committee.”

Sexual Misconduct and Title IX

Finally, it's important to discuss one very specific type of disciplinary misconduct, sexual misconduct, since the rules and procedures surrounding it are both unique and extensive.

Since 1972, US schools have dealt with most allegations of sexual misconduct through Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment in all federally-funded educational programs. In the beginning, that law only applied to schools themselves—faculty, administrators, and staff. Today, however, it is primarily used as a means of investigating and adjudicating accusations against students. These accusations can include anything from simple verbal harassment to stalking, sexual assault, and even rape.

Given the potential seriousness of some of these crimes, the government, in 2020, issued a very specific set of guidelines that currently dictate how schools should handle such cases.

To begin with, every school must have a Title IX Coordinator, and all accusations originate in the coordinator's office. This coordinator ultimately decides whether to initiate an investigation or not, but because the government withholds money from any school that it feels isn't properly enforcing Title IX, schools tend to investigate virtually every accusation.

The school must treat both the complainant (accuser) and the respondent (accused) the same.

  • They must offer both access to medical care and counseling services.
  • They can also provide course relief or even a leave of absence.
  • The respondent must be treated as innocent until proven guilty, though this does not mean the school should not believe the complainant.
  • Finally, both sides have the right, under Title IX, to appoint an advisor to represent them, and this advisor can be an attorney.

The coordinator appoints an investigator to look into the case. This investigator begins by interviewing both parties. They also collect any physical evidence as well as relevant witness testimony. Ultimately, investigators put together a complete summary of the case and, after both sides have had a chance to review this document, submit it to the Title IX Coordinator.

Once the coordinator receives the investigative report, they appoint a Hearing Officer to oversee a formal hearing. This hearing must be conducted live, though either side may request that it be held via closed-circuit video.

At some schools, the Hearing Officer is the single person who both hears the case and decides the outcome. Elsewhere, schools may appoint a panel of deciders made up of faculty, staff, and students who have been specially trained to hear such cases. The decider(s) are required to hear the case in its entirety. That is, they may not rely solely on the investigative report. Testimony, for example, from any witnesses who cannot or will not attend the hearing must be disregarded.

Students make their own opening and closing statements. However, only advisors can question witnesses. Some schools insist that questions go through the panel or hearing officer before they are asked to ensure they are appropriate.

In the end, the decision-maker(s) decide whether or not a respondent is responsible and assign any penalties as necessary.

Either side may appeal the final judgment if new evidence should arise or if they can demonstrate obvious mistakes in the investigation and hearing processes. In addition, either side has the option to accept the findings but appeal the sanctions as too light or too harsh.

Not Like a Courtroom

If you've watched an episode of Law and Order, you may think you have a pretty good idea of how justice works. On shows like that one, the proceedings all take place in stately oak-paneled rooms. Wise judges in flowing black robes sit at the front. Jurors, carefully selected, deliberate on a defendant's guilt or innocence until they come to a unanimous decision. A person must be guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” before they are convicted.

Campus justice bears little resemblance to all of that.

For one thing, the case is more likely to be heard in a basement seminar room in some dusty corner of the student union. Of course, that assumes the school offers students a hearing at all. The “judges” are usually a motley assortment of faculty, administrators, and students. Far from having any sort of legal training, they'll more likely be experts in chemistry, French literature, and accounting. And they'll be a little grumpy, since they have papers to grade.

The university also won't use the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard to determine guilt. Rather, they will most likely use the much less strict “preponderance of evidence” standard. According to this standard, your child will be found responsible (guilty) if the decision-makers believe it is “more likely than not” they violated school policy.

And again, all of this depends on whether the school allows for a hearing at all. Many simply allow an administrator or a panel to decide the case with little or no input from the student.

Consequences

What can happen when colleges and universities render justice? The real problem is that there's never any way of knowing for certain.

Schools list a range of sanctions in their code of conduct policies:

  • Verbal warnings
  • Written warnings
  • Written apologies
  • Remedial work
  • Mandated coursework or training
  • Mandated counseling
  • Restitution
  • Removal from campus housing
  • Loss of campus privileges
  • Academic probation
  • Disciplinary probation
  • Suspension
  • Expulsion

The trend these days, though, is towards harsher penalties. Many schools have begun to institute no-tolerance policies, especially when it comes to violations such as cheating, plagiarism, sexual assault, drugs, and vandalism.

It is also important to note that it is more common today for penalties to include some sort of permanent mark on a student's record. Expulsion, for example, almost always comes with a transcript notation about the nature of the offense. This means that your child can't simply re-enroll somewhere else. If they are found responsible for a serious enough violation, they may find that no other schools are willing to accept them. Forget about the money they will have been wasted on their education. They will lose all of their academic progress, all of the hard work they've put in to this point.

How Can Attorney Joseph D. Lento Help Your Child?

If you're a concerned parent—and let's face it, you are—you want to do everything you can to help your child. They may be completely innocent. Even if they did make a mistake: it doesn't mean they should simply be expelled, and certainly not without a fair hearing.

So, what can you do to help? A great deal, actually. You've taken the first step by finding out everything you can about how campus discipline works. The most important thing to know about these cases, though, is that your child can't fight a college or university alone. They need your help, but you need help as well. Colleges and universities today are serious bureaucracies, and you need someone on your side who understands how to speak this language, how to protect your child's rights, and how to ensure they get the best possible resolution they can.

You don't want just any attorney, though. A family or local attorney knows you, but they don't specialize in student conduct cases.

You want attorney Joseph D. Lento to represent you. Joseph D. Lento built his career defending students just like your child from all kinds of university violations. He's helped clients across the United States with every kind of accusation imaginable, from simple plagiarism and underage drinking to assault and date rape. He understands what you're going through because he's dealt with all of it. Most importantly, though, he understands that one mistake shouldn't doom your child's future. Joseph D. Lento is on your side. He won't let your school bully you.

Joseph D. Lento knows the law inside and out. He's dealt with hundreds of Title IX cases, for example. He knows more than the law, though: He also knows how schools operate. Joseph D. Lento understands the language of university faculty and administrators. He can negotiate fair settlements on your behalf, but he can also stand up and fight tooth and nail when you need it.

If your child has been accused of any sort of misconduct, academic or disciplinary, Joseph D. Lento can help. It's important you act now, though. The university won't wait to impose punishments. You shouldn't wait either. 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 parents with students at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional school level:

In addition, the following links provide information regarding other common disciplinary concerns facing students:

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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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