Understanding Student Misconduct in the University System of Maryland

A university is its own self-contained community. In fact, we might think of a school in terms of a town or a city. Indeed, some of the schools in the University System of Maryland (USMD) are as large as small cities. And, even at smaller schools a great deal is at stake. Coppin State, for example, has just over 2000 students, but its annual operating budget is over $100 million.

To function effectively, then, a university needs discipline—a set of laws—the same as any other city. Just like Bethesda, or Annapolis, or Baltimore, the University of Maryland, and Coppin State, and the University of Baltimore have to have some means of maintaining order.

Of course, inevitably, just as in any other city, mistakes are made. The rules sometimes overreach. Sanctions can be too severe. Innocent students wind up accused of things they had nothing to do with.

And, just as in any other city, if you've been accused, you need professional, legal representation. Gone are the days when you could sweet talk a dean into ignoring a drunken party or wriggle out of a professor's plagiarism charge by baking a pan of brownies. Today, that kind of misbehavior comes with stiff penalties, sometimes even suspension or expulsion.

As a student, it's incumbent on you to know the rules and to know what happens if you break them or if you're accused of breaking them. Only if you understand the system can you hope to have any chance of defending yourself should you get caught up in it. You're a student in the University System of Maryland, and that means it's vital you know how USMD policies work.

The University System of Maryland

As a starting point, just what is the University System of Maryland, and how does it work?

The USMD includes twelve separate member institutions who have agreed to pool their resources and knowledge in support of one another and to further education generally in the state of Maryland. They include,

  • Bowie State University
  • Coppin State University
  • Frostburg State University
  • Salisbury University
  • Towson University
  • University of Baltimore
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore
  • University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • University of Maryland (College Park)
  • University of Maryland, Eastern Shore
  • University of Maryland, Global Campus
  • University of Maryland for Environmental Science

The USMD is still a relatively new entity. It was only established by the Maryland legislature in 1988. However, the current system is the result of a merger of several preexisting state systems, and of course, many of the individual institutions in the USMD date back almost 200 years.

Altogether, the USMD is responsible for over 132,000 undergraduates and almost 40,000 graduate students. Its total annual budget currently sits at some $5.8 billion. Again, an organization of that size demands some sort of central governance. The USMD is run by a Board of Regents, consisting of 21 members who are appointed by the Maryland governor, the president of the Maryland Senate, and the Speaker of the House. This board oversees all academic, administrative, and financial operations for the system. In addition, it formulates system policy. Meanwhile, day-to-day operations are in the hands of a chancellor, hired by the board, who works out of a central office in Baltimore.

Each individual school is further governed by its own university president and governing bodies such as student and faculty senates. These officials set individual policy at their institutions based on the broader policies established in the system as a whole. So, for instance, USMD policy dictates that all member schools be drug and alcohol-free workplaces. However, each university can determine how it investigates, adjudicates, and penalizes violations of this policy. Ultimately, then, if you want to know concrete specifics about how your particular school operates, you should look closely at its code of conduct. However, there are a number of important similarities in how all schools in the system deal with misconduct.

Two Kinds of Misconduct

All USMD schools divide misconduct into two distinct categories, each with its own set of rules, its own disciplinary procedures, and its own unique sanctions.

First, every school maintains a strict policy regarding “academic misconduct.” Broadly speaking, these rules relate to behavior within the classroom, all the many activities that are involved in getting an education. Second, every school must also develop and maintain policies regarding “disciplinary misconduct.” These rules govern basic conduct between the members of the school's community.

Finally, as part of their disciplinary misconduct policies, USMD schools single out “sexual misconduct” as a very specific type of misconduct. These violations are usually subject to federal law and so are dealt with using federal guidelines.

Academic Misconduct

As you might expect, the schools in the university system of Maryland, like all schools in the U.S., live and die on their academic reputations. No employer wants to hire students from schools that are known for dishonesty and cheating. As a result, school policies are strict, and punishments can be severe. Baltimore University, for instance, recommends that even first offenses be punished with a failure in the course and suspension from the university.

Of course, not all schools agree with BU's harsh stance. Others suggest that written warnings are perfectly acceptable penalties. In fact, it can be difficult to talk about how USMD as a whole deals with academic misconduct since each school takes a slightly different approach. In general, however, there are certain important similarities regarding both the rules and how those rules are usually enforced.

Rules

Some schools may draw attention to this or that minor offense, but all schools identify two kinds of major academic offenses:

  • Cheating: The simplest definition for cheating is the unauthorized use of sources to complete coursework. This definition includes a whole host of sins, everything from looking on a classmate's paper during a quiz to using a Google search to complete homework. Violations can be low-tech, like copying another person's lab notes. They can also be high-tech, like complicated texting schemes during final exams. The real key is whether or not your particular instructor has authorized whatever resource it is you're trying to use.
  • Plagiarism: This means trying to pass another person's ideas off as your own without giving them credit. Like cheating, plagiarism can take a variety of different forms. It can involve downloading an entire paper from an online paper mill. On the other hand, it might be something as simple as using another scholar's phrasing without including the proper citation. It's also worth noting that plagiarism doesn't only apply to the written word. Art can be plagiarized, as can music, film, and even computer code.

Beyond these two examples of misconduct, different schools highlight other kinds of violations. UMD, for instance, singles out self-plagiarism as a special kind of academic misconduct. Salisbury's conduct code mentions “lying,” and the University of Baltimore's talks about “falsification.” In general, the one commonality between all the offenses, major and minor, seems to be “dishonesty.” Inventing numbers on a lab report is obviously a violation, but so are less obvious activities like forging a doctor's note to get out of an exam. If it's a dishonest way to get your degree, it's like against the rules.

Processes and Penalties

All USMD schools place primary academic misconduct discipline in the hands of instructors, though several schools' policies note that anyone may report a violation, and everyone has a responsibility to do so.

Generally, once a faculty member believes a student has broken the rules, they are expected to hold a meeting with that student to discuss the incident, hear the student's side of the case, and suggest any penalties as appropriate. Suggested penalties differ from school to school but typically include sanctions like:

  • Written warnings
  • Additional work or an assignment revision
  • A lower grade on the assignment in question, including an F
  • A lower grade in the course, including an F

When a student accepts the allegation and the proposed sanction, the situation is relatively simple. However, should the student disagree with either the allegation itself or the harshness of the penalty, it usually involves appealing the decision, either to a judicial committee, such as UMD's Student Honor Council or to an administrative office, such as Salisbury University's Office of Academic Affairs.

Finally, all USMD schools require that instructors report all instances of academic misconduct to an administrative office. Doing so allows the university to take stronger action if they believe it is warranted and to punish repeat offenders with additional sanctions like probation, suspension, and expulsion. As with faculty decisions, these administrative decisions are usually subject to review by some kind of appeals body.

A Word About Hearings and Appeals

While all schools provide students with the opportunity to appeal judgments made against them, the processes can be quite different from school to school, and those differences can have an enormous impact on your ability to get justice in your case.

For example, at UMD, students have the right to make their case at a hearing before the Student Honor Council. At this hearing, they are entitled to have an advocate to speak for them, an advisor—who may be an attorney—to suggest judicial strategies and a support person. Cases are decided based on the “clear and convincing evidence” standard. Though not as strict as “beyond a reasonable doubt,” this standard does demand that the council members believe it is “probable” you committed an offense before they can find you responsible.

At Salisbury University, in contrast, appeals are heard by the Academic Policies Committee. Students may submit documents in their own defense, but there is no hearing and no opportunity to speak directly to committee members. Those members ultimately decide the cases using the “preponderance of evidence standard.” In contrast to “clear and convincing,” this standard asks only that the committee member believes it is “more likely than not” that you committed a violation.

As a practical matter, then, it is important you take the time to investigate your own school's particular judicial processes in regard to academic misconduct. Even more important, though, you need to understand that it's never a good idea to try and take on the system alone. Instead, retain the services of a qualified attorney, someone with experience in academic misconduct cases, to help guide you through the complexities of your school's judicial procedures.

Disciplinary Misconduct

As communities made up of students, faculty, administrators, and staff, the schools that make up the University System of Maryland must maintain some sense of order, and this involves developing extensive policies to govern how the various members of the community should behave. Put simply, these rules cover any behaviors that happen outside the classroom.

Rules

As with academic misconduct, disciplinary misconduct can take many forms, and how specific schools define offenses can depend on their individual educational philosophies. For instance, the University of Maryland takes the time to list false fire alarms as violations. On the other hand, Towson University makes no mention of fire alarms. However, alarms are presumably covered under Towson's prohibition against providing “false information.”

In general, the rules that govern USMD's various schools can be usefully grouped into a handful of categories:

  • Offenses against persons: In simplest terms, these involve doing physical harm to someone else in the campus community. The exception here is sexually-based offenses, which, again, are usually dealt with through a separate “sexual misconduct” policy.
  • Offenses against the community: Anything that might be labeled “disruptive” qualifies as an offense against the community. At some schools, this includes weapons possession. It can also include activities such as inciting a riot or committing vandalism.
  • Offenses against property: Probably most prominent in this category is simple theft. However, vandalism is sometimes treated as a property offense, and trespassing often qualifies.
  • Offenses against the university: Sometimes, these offenses are grouped with offenses against the community, but offenses specifically against the university might include forging university documents or refusing to comply with university officials.
  • Drug and alcohol offenses: Of course, all USMD schools follow state and federal laws regarding the consumption of alcohol and the regulation of controlled substances.

Processes

In terms of actually investigating and adjudicating disciplinary misconduct, all the schools in the USMD employ the same basic processes.

  • Notice: Typically, schools provide accused students with some kind of written notice that an allegation has been made against them.
  • Preliminary meeting: Respondents are then invited to meet with school officials to discuss the charges. This also provides an opportunity for students to give their side of the case.
  • Investigation: If a school decides to proceed with a case, they may very well conduct an investigation into the circumstances of the accusation.
  • Hearing: Students aren't always entitled to defend themselves at an open hearing. However, all the schools in the system do offer hearings when the proposed sanctions include suspension or expulsion. Procedures differ between schools. UMD, for example, allows respondents to bring an advocate, an advisor, and a support person with them to the hearing. In contrast, Towson only allows students to bring a support person. In most USMD cases, though, students are allowed to present evidence and call witnesses on their behalf. An individual or a panel then decides on whether or not the student is “responsible” for a violation. These same decision-makers also assign sanctions when it is appropriate.

Penalties

As with all other aspects of campus discipline, the penalties for misconduct vary from school to school. However, there is a general range of possibilities common to all of them.

  • Verbal or written warnings: Very few violations these days receive such a light sentence, but schools almost always list “warnings” as a potential punishment.
  • Loss of privileges: This can include anything from the loss of gym privileges to being barred from participation in athletic events to removal from campus housing.
  • Restitution: Your school can order you to pay for items you've damaged or other harm you've done to individuals or the campus community. Often, though, this is accompanied by an additional sanction such as probation or suspension. In fact, even if you are expelled, the school may still demand you make financial restitution.
  • Counseling: Therapy is mandated as a sanction in some cases, particularly in lieu of harsher sanctions.
  • Probation: Probation means your school keeps a careful watch on your behaviors for a given length of time. Any slip during this period can result in a more serious punishment, such as suspension or expulsion.
  • Suspension: Your school can decide to remove you from campus for a set period of time. Often, returning is no simple matter. Some schools insist that you go through the normal admissions process. Others ask you to complete volunteer work or demonstrate in some other way why you deserve to be reinstated.
  • Expulsion: This typically means permanent separation from the school. Some USMD schools state that expulsion makes you ineligible to apply to other USMD schools. Others point out that the details of your expulsion will be included on your transcript. That can make it difficult to enroll anywhere else, even at schools in other states.

Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct is among the most serious kinds of allegations any student can face. For one thing, these types of offenses aren't just governed by school policy. Over the last fifty years, federal law has dictated how universities respond to sexually based offenses.

A Brief History of Title IX

For almost five decades, U.S. schools dealt with virtually all allegations of sexual misconduct using rules and procedures set down in Title IX. Even today, most sexual misconduct cases are treated as Title IX cases.

Title IX is a federal law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972, which prohibits sexual discrimination in all federally funded education programs, including public colleges and universities. In the beginning, this prohibition applied primarily to schools themselves. That is, it outlawed practices such as giving admissions advantages to male students or barring women from certain kinds of classes or degree programs. Over time, however, the use of the law shifted. Among other changes, the term “discrimination” was redefined to mean “harassment,” a term that includes a wide range of misconduct. As a result, Title IX is most often used today to investigate and adjudicate student misconduct, anything from simple verbal harassment to stalking, sexual assault, and even rape.

While few today would question the value of eliminating sexual discrimination, as it's currently used Title IX has become increasingly controversial. The problem is that schools aren't really set up to decide complex issues of criminal law, the kinds of issues that often attach to serious offenses like relationship violence. Physics professors know a lot about physics, of course, but they know considerably less about the law. Given this situation, the U.S. government decided early on to give schools a great deal of leeway in how they dealt with these cases. Unfortunately, that leeway led to a number of problems. One of the most significant of these was that respondents weren't always afforded the due process rights they deserved.

The Trump administration set out to improve Title IX in 2020 by issuing what it called the “Final Rule,” a set of guidelines for how all Title IX cases should be handled. One of the more important aspects of the Final Rule was its guarantee of several due process rights to accused students. Respondents now had the right to an advisor and the right to choose an attorney as their advisor. Schools were required to treat respondents as not responsible until proven responsible. Respondents were allowed to cross-examine the complainant as well as any other witnesses against them.

The Final Rule solved a number of important problems with how Title IX was enforced, but it created some new problems. At the same time, the Trump administration was giving more rights to the accused, it was also limiting schools' authority. For instance, the Final Rule narrowed the definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment” and restricted universities' jurisdictions. As a result, many schools took exception to the new guidelines, arguing that they infringed on their own autonomy and that they abrogated victims' rights.

In response, these schools created entirely new procedures for dealing with what became known as “non-Title IX” sexual misconduct, or sexual offenses no longer covered under the law. Some schools use the same procedures in both types of cases. However, it's important to note that non-Title IX offenses are not subject to federal law. That means schools can implement any judicial processes they want in dealing with them.

Finally, you should know that the current Title IX rules are still subject to revision. The Biden administration is looking for ways to overturn the Final Rule and has already advised schools on how to exploit loopholes in the guidelines. Title IX remains a hot political topic that is sure to be revised and rewritten many times in the years to come.

Title IX Procedures

Current Title IX guidelines require universities to use a two-part process: first an investigation, followed by a hearing.

  • All schools must have a Title IX Coordinator. Anyone may report sexual misconduct, and some schools require faculty and staff to report any knowledge they may have of violations. However, only a complainant or the Coordinator may sign an official complaint.
  • Once a complaint has been signed, schools are obligated to provide respondents with notice of the charges. This notice should identify the complainant and provide details about the allegation. In addition, it should remind the respondent of their rights. Among these, respondents have the right to be presumed innocent, the right to an advisor, and the right to review all evidence against them.
  • The Coordinator then appoints an Investigator to pursue the allegation. This person meets separately with both sides in the case. In addition, they gather any physical evidence, such as dorm logs, video, clothing, and text messages. Finally, they interview any potential witnesses to the incident.
  • At the conclusion of the investigation, the Investigator completes a written summary of their findings. Both sides in the case then have ten days to review this document and suggest any revisions.
  • Once they receive the final investigative report, the Coordinator sets a date for a hearing and appoints one or more decision-makers to preside over the case.
  • At the hearing, both sides have an opportunity to present their case. They may submit evidence and call witnesses. They also have the right to cross-examine each other and any witnesses against them. Schools have the right to limit the advisors' roles in these proceedings. However, only advisors may ask questions of witnesses.
  • At the conclusion of the hearing, decision-makers determine whether or not to find the respondent responsible for a Title IX violation. To do this, they employ the “preponderance of evidence” standard. This standard, far less strict than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” asks only that decision-makers believe it is “more likely than not” the respondent committed an offense.
  • If the decision-makers find the student responsible, they also recommend sanctions.
  • Finally, both sides have the right to appeal the outcome of the hearing. However, they have a limited amount of time in which to make such an appeal. In addition, appeals may only be filed for very specific reasons, including the discovery of new evidence or a claim that mistakes were made in the Title IX procedures.

Again, many schools have begun to investigate non-Title IX sexual misconduct under their own procedures, and these don't always provide respondents with the same due process rights. However, for now, all USMD schools use the same set of procedures for both Title IX and non-Title IX cases.

Sanctions

USMD schools list a variety of penalties for sexual misconduct, the same penalties, in fact, they use for other kinds of disciplinary misconduct. These include everything from written warnings to mandated therapy and probation. However, the reality is that the minimum penalty in such cases is almost always suspension. It is far more common for universities to expel students who are found responsible.

It is important to recognize that suspension and expulsion can have long-lasting repercussions. Of course, they are serious punishments in and of themselves. However, they can also impact your entire future. Many schools, for instance, include detailed notations on student transcripts explaining the reasons for a suspension or expulsion. That can prevent a student from enrolling anywhere else, effectively putting an end to their academic career. Given the statistics about the importance of a college education to finding a good job, this means that a suspension or expulsion could do permanent damage to a person's entire professional career.

What Now?

Facing an accusation, any kind of accusation from your university, can feel daunting. Whether your school is large or small, it has institutional weight behind it. It's full of highly educated men and women who know how to make sophisticated academic arguments. Most of us get nervous just asking our professors a question, let alone trying to defend ourselves against school policies. It's important, then, to have a plan in place before you decide to mount your defense.

What Do You Do?

  1. First and foremost, don't take any accusation lightly. The impacts of a responsible finding can be serious, and they can extend well beyond any sanction the school may assign you. Even the smallest accusation can do lasting damage to your reputation. If the school decides you plagiarized a paper, this could very likely show up on your permanent academic record. Your financial aid could be in jeopardy. You could have trouble when it comes time to apply for fellowships, internships, and graduate school. Your violation might even show up when you go to apply for that all-important first job.
  2. Along the same lines, it should go without saying that you should never merely accept the charges against you or the sanction you've been given. It's important to keep in mind that whatever penalty your instructor or school has decided on, there are always hidden penalties as well. It may seem like just accepting your professor's accusation that you cheated on an exam is far easier than trying to argue your case in front of a judicial committee. Given what's at stake, though, no accusation is minor. You have the right to protect your reputation. You have the right to fair sanctions. Raise questions. Push back. Fight for your future.
  3. Don't talk to any school officials without first seeking legal advice. You are used to seeing your school as your home. Up to now, faculty and administrators have probably had your best interests at heart. Once you've been accused of violating policy, though, the nature of the relationship has changed. Your university isn't on your side anymore. Anything you say can and probably will be used against you. A lawyer can't always speak for you when it comes to campus matters. However, when they can't, they can still help you prepare to speak for yourself.
  4. Tell as few people as possible about your situation. It can be useful to have a friend or two to confide in. Otherwise, however, you should limit who you talk to about the charges against you. Even in the best-case scenario, telling others can create problems for you in your campus community. In the worst-case scenarios, what you say can be used as evidence against you.
  5. Know your rights. Your school isn't a court of law, and it doesn't have to abide by all the rules a judge does. Even so, you do have rights. An attorney can advise you exactly what they are and can make sure that your school treats you fairly.
  6. Prepare your case carefully. Even if you hire an attorney to serve as your advisor, you still need to take charge of your situation yourself. That means writing out your version of events, gathering all the evidence, and tracking down any witnesses. An attorney can help you select and organize this material, but they can only work with the information you provide. You never know when something you fail to mention could be the very piece of evidence that could win your case.
  7. Protect your mental health. All accusations of misconduct can be nerve-rattling. Even if you've just been accused of failing to cite a source, you'll likely feel like your identity is at stake. And, if you've been accused of something more serious, you may feel like your whole world has been turned upside down. It's important you keep your sanity, though. You can't hope to win your case if you're stressed out. In general, keep your life as normal as possible. Go to classes as usual. Exercise. Give yourself breaks. It can also be useful to visit a counselor who can help you develop positive strategies for dealing with stress. You can get through this challenge, but only if you keep yourself healthy.

Finding the Right Representation

Many schools allow you to select an advisor to help you with your case. In fact, when it comes to some kinds of misconduct, such as sexual misconduct, you are guaranteed an advisor, and this advisor may be an attorney. No matter what your situation, though, you need representation, a qualified, experienced attorney who can serve as your advisor in either an official or unofficial capacity.

Many students are tempted to choose a family or local attorney to serve as their advisor. Local attorneys can seem like the most convenient option. Unfortunately, these lawyers aren't equipped to handle university misconduct cases.

Often hometown lawyers believe university cases can be solved with simple solutions. They may think that just retaining legal representation will be enough to convince the school to back down or that a letter or a brief phone conversation will resolve the problem. That may have been true once. Today, however, every allegation is serious. Universities are committed to taking a hard stance on every instance of misconduct, no matter how small. They zealously investigate every potential violation, and they impose severe penalties on all but the smallest infractions.

This means the typical attorney simply isn't prepared to handle your misconduct case. You need a lawyer who specializes in university disciplinary matters, someone who understands how schools operate and who has experience serving as an advisor.

Finding an attorney for your case, then, involves more than just finding a list of nearby law offices. You need to ask three questions of every lawyer you consider:

  • How many student misconduct cases have they dealt with?
  • How successful have they been in defending student misconduct cases?
  • What specific strategy do they have in mind for defending your case?

How Joseph D. Lento Can Help

Joseph D. Lento is an attorney, but he isn't just any attorney. He's a nationally recognized attorney who specializes in student misconduct defenses. Joseph D. Lento built his career helping students just like you protect themselves from over-zealous universities and their draconian sanctions. Whether it's academic misconduct or date rape, Joseph D. Lento has the knowledge and experience to help you deal with your particular case.

Joseph D. Lento is empathetic to your situation. He's worked with hundreds of students and their families, and he understands what you're going through. A misconduct defense can be stressful, and Joseph D. Lento will do everything he can to ease the burden on you. Make no mistake, though. Joseph D. Lento is tough as nails when it comes to making sure your rights are respected, and you're treated fairly. You can expect him to stand by your side and fight on your behalf from start to finish.

If you or your child attend a University System of Maryland school and you've been accused of any kind of misconduct, don't wait to act. Contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.

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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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