Defending Student Misconduct Accusations in Washington State

Are you a student or the parent of student at a Washington 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 Washington 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 Washington protect their academic and professional future, and he can do the same for you. Contact him today at 888-535-3686.

An Overview of Washington Student Discipline and Student Rights

The state of Washington has a thriving system of colleges and universities. Of the four-year institutions, 23 are public schools, and 21 are private. Together, over 300,000 students enrolled in 2020 alone. Washington also boasts nearly 40 two-year colleges throughout the state. While opportunities for advanced learning are a boon to those seeking higher education, each student is also subject to the disciplinary codes of the schools they attend. On top of school-imposed regulations, state and federal governing bodies also impose legislation on student conduct.

Most students will navigate their collegiate experience without experiencing the devastating consequences of misconduct allegations made against them in the state of Washington, but many will, unfortunately, find themselves subject to a formal investigation and disciplinary process. Turbulent political times, coupled with “cancel culture,” can create a complex climate that results in arguments, misunderstandings, and miscommunication. Even when a student faces accusations that result from poor decision making, the consequences often outweigh the student's misconduct.

If you or a loved one is accused of student misconduct at a Washington state college or university, you need to seek experienced legal defense guidance right away.

Higher Education Conduct Policies in Washington State

Public academic institutions in Washington state have codified their student conduct codes as law. For example, the conduct code applicable to Washington State University is found beginning at Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 504-26. Even the smaller colleges have codified their conduct policies. For example, Everett Community College's are located at WAC 132E-122.

Specifically, the University of Washington enrolls around 50,000 students each year, and is the largest and oldest higher education institution in the state. UW's student conduct code is set forth at WAC 478-121.

Each school's conduct code covers a variety of prohibitions. They almost always include provisions relating to:

  • Academic misconduct
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Harassment
  • Academic misconduct and dishonesty
  • Substance abuse
  • Vandalism

School conduct codes contain some variation, but they largely penalize the same problematic activities. Below is an overview of UW's conduct code, which demonstrates the most commonly prohibited conduct. While each school will administer disciplinary proceedings in accordance with their specific rules, UW's rules provide a broad example of school conduct policies in Washington state.

Academic Misconduct

Under Section 478-121-107, Academic misconduct is defined as:

  • Cheating
  • Falsification
  • Plagiarism
  • Unauthorized collaboration
  • “Engaging in behavior specifically prohibited by an instructor in the course of class instruction or in a course syllabus.”
  • Multiple submissions of the same work in separate courses
  • “Taking deliberate action to destroy or damage another's academic work in order to gain an advantage for oneself or another.”
  • Unauthorized recordings

Behavioral Misconduct

Under Section 478-121-103, abuse of others “includes assault and other forms of physical abuse of any person, or any conduct intended to threaten bodily harm or to endanger the health or safety of any person.”

Under Section 478-121-120, creating a public nuisance in neighboring communities is prohibited, and “students may be held accountable for misconduct within any residential or commercial communities adjacent to a university campus. Conduct proceedings may be initiated if the university is made aware that a student or student organization has been contacted by a law enforcement agency regarding, and is determined to have engaged in, conduct that is in violation of a state statute or municipal ordinance and has a direct quality of life impact on community residents or businesses, including, but not limited to, creating a public nuisance due to noise, residential disturbance, intentional destruction of property, urinating in public, or criminal trespass.”

Under Section 478-121-135, hazing is also prohibited. Hazing is defined as constituting a multitude of behaviors “associated with initiation or admission into a student organization or living group, or any pastime or amusement engaged in with respect to such an organization or living group, that causes or is likely to cause bodily danger or physical harm or serious psychological or emotional harm to any student or other person.”

Under Section 478-121-167, vandalism is prohibited. The WCA defines vandalism as “maliciously damaging or misusing university property, or the property of any member of the university community.”

Drug and Alcohol Misconduct

Under Section 478-121-115, “the unlawful possession, use, distribution, or manufacture of alcohol is prohibited.”

Under Section 478-121-127, “the possession, use, distribution, or manufacture of controlled substances on university premises or during university-sponsored activities where such possession, use, distribution, or manufacture is illegal under federal, state, or local law is prohibited. This includes the possession, use, distribution, or growing of marijuana in all forms during university-sponsored activities or on university premises, including university housing.”

Harassment and Bullying Misconduct

Under Section 478-121-123, discriminatory harassment is prohibited when the two conditions under Section 478-121-155 outlining sexual harassment are met; however, discriminatory harassment includes “verbal, physical, electronic, or other conduct based on an individual's race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, age, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or veteran status.”

Under Section 478-121-133, harassment or bullying is prohibited. The WCA defines this conduct as Harassment or bullying is language or conduct that is unwelcome and sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive such that it could reasonably be expected to create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment, or has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person's academic or work performance, or a person's ability to participate in or benefit from the university's programs, services, opportunities, or activities, when viewed through both an objective and subjective standard. This includes harassment or bullying that occurs through electronic means, such as electronic media, the internet, social networks, blogs, cell phones, or text messages.”

Sexual Misconduct

Under Section 478-121-150, sexual assault includes: “Sexual contact with another person without, or that exceeds, that person's consent.” Notably, the issue of consent is often the crux of the sexual misconduct defense and the rule further defines consent, stating:

“'consent' means that at the time of and throughout the sexual contact, there are words or conduct that reasonably communicate freely given agreement between or among the parties to engage in the sexual contact.”

Additionally, the effects of drugs or alcohol are not a defense to a defendant's actions, and those accused are held to a reasonable sober person's standard in the evaluation of whether or not they should have known whether consent was appropriately given.

Under Section 478-121-153, sexual exploitation involves “Taking nonconsensual or abusive advantage of another for the purposes of sexual arousal or gratification, financial gain, or other personal benefit.”

Examples of sexual exploitation include:

  • “Transmitting, distributing, publishing, or threatening to transmit, distribute, or publish photos, video, or other recordings or images of a private and sexual nature, including consensual sexual activity, without the consent of the subject(s);”
  • “Taking, making, sharing, or directly transmitting photographs, films, or digital images of the private body parts of another person without that person's consent;”
  • “Prostituting another person;” or
  • “Knowingly allowing another to surreptitiously watch otherwise consensual sexual activity.”

Under Section 478-121-155, sexual harassment is “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal, physical, or electronic conduct of a sexual nature” when one of two specific conditions are met. The conduct constitutes harassment if:

  • “Submission to, or rejection of, such conduct is made implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of a person's instruction, academic standing, employment, or participation in any university program, activity, or benefit, or is used as a basis for evaluation in making academic or personnel decisions;” or
  • “Such conduct creates a hostile environment, which is created when the conduct is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with an individual's academic or work performance, ability to participate in or benefit from the university's programs, services, opportunities, or activities, or the receipt of legitimately requested services when viewed through both a subjective and objective standard.”

Title IX Accusations in Federally Funded Washington State Schools

Title IX is a federal law designed to prohibit discrimination in the education system on the basis of sex. The text of the statute provides:

“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.”

Sexual assault and harassment qualify as sex-based discrimination under Title IX, and all too often, claims are made when a misunderstanding or other aggrievement leads to an argument. Sexual misconduct is serious, and victims absolutely deserve to be heard, but that doesn't mean every allegation is as claimed. Whatever the allegation made against you is, you deserve competent legal defense.

While some private schools don't receive any federal funding and are therefore not required to adhere to Title IX requirements, almost every school has a code of conduct policy that mirrors the intent of the federal Title IX law. Still, you may be surprised to learn that most private colleges and universities in the state of Washington do receive at least some federal funding and are therefore subject to Title IX. For example, although Seattle Pacific University is a private institution, its Title IX policies can be found on its website.

K-12 and higher education institutions that are required to adhere to Title IX must:

  • Have a policy against sexual discrimination
  • Have a Title IX coordinator
  • Have made known to students the procedures for filing a Title IX claim of sex discrimination

Title IX proceedings are a formal process, and if you've been issued a formal notice, you should contact an attorney with significant student sexual misconduct defense experience. Under Title IX, schools are free to use general disciplinary guidelines to address Title IX complaints, so long as the procedures in place provide fast and equitable resolution. Although the proceedings are supposed to be equitable, those accused need a fierce advocate in their corner fighting to ensure their rights are protected. The process often moves swiftly, and there's no time to waste in mounting your defense.

Title IX accusations are often upheld based on a preponderance of the evidence standard, which is less stringent than the standard of evidence required in criminal proceedings. Even though you or your loved one stands to lose so much, the accuser needs only to prove that the sexual misconduct, more likely than not, occurred. Joseph D. Lento understands that every detail matters when presenting an effective Title IX defense.

Changes in Title IX Policy Affect Washington State Schools

Since Title IX is a federal law, the federal government often issues guidance regarding its interpretation. For example, in May of 2020, the former presidential administration released guidance addressing how schools should handle sexual misconduct on their campuses in an attempt to curb due process lawsuits. The due process plaintiffs argued in court that they were not afforded the opportunity to question their accusers and were thus were punished without due process.

Of course, during the time between May of 2020 and present day, a new administration has taken office and it's to be expected that there will be new guidance which could affect due process. Shortly after he took office, President Biden issued an executive order that, in part, requires a review of the 2020 rule.

Federal guidance affecting interpretation of Title IX will always be subject to change, and when you're accused of Title IX misconduct, you will have a difficult time mounting the most appropriate legal defense without the help of an attorney who's experienced in protecting your rights in accordance with the most recent federal interpretations. Joseph D. Lento understands that sometimes this means taking your school to court in addition to the defense you must present before your school's disciplinary board.

Administrative Proceedings and Student Misconduct Accusations

If you've been accused student misconduct at either a public or private college or university in the state of Washington, you need to be prepared for formal proceedings. While each school will apply its own administrative rules, in large part the rules for disciplinary proceedings are similar across the board.

If someone accuses you of misconduct in violation of your school's policies, the school will usually perform a preliminary investigation to determine whether the claim warrants a hearing. Once the school makes its decision it will issue a formal notice to you regarding its conclusion to either dismiss the claim or further investigate it. You should know that even when an accusation is dismissed, the case may be reopened if new information comes to light.

You may then be asked to attend an informal meeting. By this point, the conduct officer handling the case should have informed the accused of the nature of the allegations against them and the possible sanctions that could result. Depending on the conduct policies at your school and the nature of the accusations, the conduct officer may suggest you and your accuser enter into an alternative dispute resolution agreement. You should consult with an attorney before doing so.

After an informal meeting, you may be required to appear at a formal hearing. If you haven't already, you should contact an attorney right away. Even if the matter appears black and white to you, there is too much at stake to risk not exercising every strategy in the book to mitigate the disciplinary action taken against you. Before the hearing, you need to collect as much evidence as possible to prove your defense. This may include emails, texts, social media posts, and witness testimony. It's important that you avoid any contact with your accuser because additional communication is often wrought with tension. Anything you say can also be used against you when the claimant presents their side of the story.

After you appear before your school's administrative panel or judge, the board appointed by the school to decide the matter will issue their ruling. If it's unfavorable, you can in most cases appeal the decision. Experienced legal understanding is crucial to your success at every step of this process, but especially the appeal.

Litigation Against Washington Colleges and Universities

Unfortunately, there are instances when the disciplinary action taken by your college or university violates your protected rights. If your school denies you these rights, then you may have a cause to bring before a court of law.

Due Process

As discussed earlier, Title IX often triggers due process issues. Students who are denied the opportunity to adequately defend themselves in the hearing are denied the constitutional protection of due process. Notably, disciplinary hearings for alleged misconduct are not criminal proceedings guaranteed due process protection. Still, under the 1975 case, Goss v. Lopez, the U.S. Supreme Court (“SCOTUS”) held that a public school cannot suspend a student without due process.

While Goss applies broadly to public schools, the legal fight is more complicated in a private school disciplinary action in Washington state. That doesn't mean, however, that it's impossible. Joseph D. Lento and his sophisticated legal team understand how the rules of law apply in both public school and in private school settings in Washington, and he will work tirelessly to ensure your rights are protected regardless of the type of school violating the right.

Freedom of Speech

Public colleges and universities in the state of Washington are subject to constitutional protections, including the First Amendment protection of free speech—at least to an extent.

Notably, SCOTUS gives academic institutions broad authority to except certain speech from First Amendment protections. If a student expresses opinions that are considered disruptive, a school could still threaten suspension. Importantly, in recent years, the state of Washington passed legislation that extended free speech protection to student journalists at public schools. Again, private school students in Washington enjoy less protections, and if the school receives no federal funding at all, students aren’t protected by the Bill of Rights.

Regardless of whether you or a loved one is facing disciplinary action for expressing thoughts and opinions at a private or a public school in Washington, you should contact an attorney well-versed in fighting against student rights' violations.

Breach of Contract

When a college or university in the state of Washington threatens suspension, students stand to lose time and money at a minimum. This loss could trigger a breach of contract lawsuit.

If the academic institution that you or your loved one attends is threatening disciplinary action that will result in the diminishment of your collegiate career, you need to be proactive about defending your interests. Experienced student defense attorneys like Joseph D. Lento know how important sophisticated and creative legal arguments are in protecting those interests.

Statute of Limitations in the State of Washington

Sometimes it's not apparent that a school has violated your rights until the dust settles, which is often the case with breach of contract claims. Additionally, it can take some time to collect the evidence you need to bring a lawsuit after a school has violated your rights. While you do have some time, the state of Washington imposes a time limit on how long you have to bring suit for breach of contract, which is 6 years under Section 4.16.040 of the Revised Code of Washington.

What Should You Do If You've Been Accused of Student Misconduct in Washington?

Students accused of misconduct at their Washington universities or colleges may feel immediately overwhelmed. It's difficult to articulate just how much is at stake when a school threatens disciplinary proceedings against you or a loved one. You could be suspended or completely expelled. If you're barred from campus, you'll lose valuable class time, and you may not be able to finish courses you need to graduate.

In addition to the immediate impacts of a formal investigation or hearing, you need to think about the future consequences. Student disciplinary action often jeopardizes scholarship opportunities, research opportunities, and internship opportunities. All of these missed experiences can affect your job hunt later on. In addition, you may have to suffer through the social stigma that often accompanies sexual misconduct claims or academic dishonesty allegations.

Navigating student misconduct allegations is an extremely stressful situation, and it's easy for parents and students alike to panic. Instead of panicking though, you should take a deep breath. Review your school's misconduct policies and make sure you understand the allegations against you. Then you should collect any evidence that may bolster your side of the story and contact a student misconduct defense attorney who's vastly experienced in fighting student misconduct allegations not only within the collegiate administrative process but also in the courtroom.

Student Misconduct Defense in Washington State

Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have unparalleled experience protecting students against misconduct claims and rights violations at the school level and also in court and in administrative proceedings nationwide. Mr. Lento and his dedicated team have a sophisticated understanding of the public and private school disciplinary process in the state of Washington and to learn how the team can help you, contact us online or call 888.535.3686 today.

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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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