Academic Misconduct Defense

If you're a student in high school, college, university, or any kind of graduate or post-graduate degree program, you know the school you're attending has stringent standards for academic honesty. Schools are becoming increasingly sensitive to academic misconduct as it is now easier than ever for students to cheat online. Schools will do whatever they can to prevent acts of academic misconduct, and they are quick to discipline students whom they believe have violated the rules. A student can be suspended or expelled even for making an honest mistake—and even if they have been falsely accused. These disciplinary actions can also appear on the student's permanent record, which could impact their career and educational prospects.

Being accused of academic misconduct can be a very scary and intimidating prospect. Students and parents alike are often at a disadvantage because they don't understand how the school's disciplinary process works. Although most of these accusations aren't criminal actions and would never be charged as crimes, they could still have a significant impact on your future—from reducing your job prospects to creating financial hardships due to thousands of dollars in student debt (not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money you lost as a result). No matter how minor the allegations of misconduct may seem—they may have serious repercussions and should be taken very seriously.

Although you cannot hire an attorney to represent you in school disciplinary proceedings, an attorney acting as an advisor can help minimize the impact of these disciplinary actions. A qualified attorney-advisor can help you navigate the complicated and frightening school discipline process while ensuring your rights are protected. In many cases, the involvement of an attorney-advisor can result in the complaint being dismissed, rescuing the student's reputation and future.

Joseph D. Lento, a Pennsylvania-based defense lawyer, has helped thousands of students in their academic misconduct cases as an attorney-advisor. He is exceptionally knowledgeable about the implementation of academic policies at colleges and high schools and has a proven track record of success. The following information is provided to parents or students who are currently facing academic misconduct charges.

Academic Misconduct Defined

Academic misconduct could refer to a wide variety of offenses, but generally, it refers to any act which either gives the student an unfair academic advantage or subverts other students' learning experiences. Every school has its own policies regarding what constitutes academic misconduct. The best way to make sure you don't inadvertently break these rules is to review the school's academic policies on their website, in a published Student Code of Conduct, or the school's Honor Code.

Common Types of Academic Misconduct

Most colleges and universities identify the following as prohibited academic practices, any of which could result in serious disciplinary action.

Plagiarism

  • Plagiarism refers to the act of copying, modifying, or incorporating ideas or works from another person without crediting them. Plagiarism can take many forms. Some common examples include:
  • Direct plagiarism—copying the exact words of another writer without citing the source.
  • Paraphrased plagiarism—rephrasing the words of someone else's original ideas in order to make them look like they are original (essentially, trying to hide the fact that you are actually copying).
  • Mosaic plagiarism—compiling bits of content from multiple sources and then combining them patchwork-style without crediting any of them.
  • Self-plagiarism—taking something you wrote for one assignment and turning it in for another assignment without creating new original material. (Yes, you can be penalized for plagiarizing yourself.)
  • Collaboration plagiarism—when you collaborate with other students to do research for an assignment, but each student completes their own assignment based upon the shared research, some schools consider this plagiarism. This is because the research wasn't entirely original.

Plagiarism can be accidental, and many students plagiarize without realizing that's what they are doing. You may not even recognize that your work is similar to another. However, due to the seriousness of the offense, many schools will not consider the intent of the student when meting out discipline for it.

Cheating

Many people use the word “cheating” as a blanket term synonymous with any form of academic misconduct, and many schools will have slightly different definitions for what constitutes cheating. However, it typically refers to any situation in which a student breaks the rules of coursework so that they have an unfair advantage. Cheating can take many forms, just like plagiarism. Some examples include:

  • Continued work on an exam after time is called
  • Copying someone else's answers on an assignment or exam
  • Paying someone to do your schoolwork for you
  • Bringing the test answers with you to an exam (e.g. as notes on your smartphone)
  • Using unauthorized material (e.g. Chegg or Slader) to complete assignments or copying answers from those types of websites

Whatever constitutes cheating at your school, make sure you know what is and isn't allowed. In most cases, ignorance is not an excuse, and the penalties for cheating can be severe if the school believes you did it.

Modification or falsification of records

Falsification refers to any act of providing false information or misrepresentation of the facts to your school in order to gain an unfair academic advantage. Examples of falsification might include altering research data or grades, forging your signature on official documentation, and providing false information in order to be exempt from certain class requirements.

Bribery

Bribery in the context of school refers to any instance where a student offers money or the trading of favors to influence a grade. This is a serious offense that could lead to expulsion. It's also important to note that the other party doesn't have to accept the bribe for you to be implicated—there just has to be an allegation that you offered the bribe.

Sabotage

Sabotage is any action that hinders another student's academic progress. Examples might include destroying another student's assignment, project, or research, altering someone else's grades, changing aspects of a group project without permission from the group, etc.

Interfering with Other Students or with Class

Disruptive behavior by a student in class, labs, or other learning areas, or any attempt to interfere with other students' learning activitiethese are all examples of academic misconduct because they rob other students of a viable learning experience. Although you probably wouldn't be sanctioned simply for creating an interruption as a one-time thing, you could be penalized if it is habitual or if an instructor or student feels you are doing it purposefully to gain an advantage.

Gaining Advance Knowledge

Advance knowledge refers to gaining inside information about coursework that others don't possess without the instructor's express consent. Examples might include photographing the professor's test key for an upcoming exam, accessing the lesson plan to learn about upcoming pop quizzes and what they will cover, etc. These types of actions are considered academic misconduct by schools because they give you an unfair advantage over other students in the class.

Unauthorized Collaboration

For certain assignments and projects, collaboration between students is normal or even encouraged. However, if you collaborate without the instructor's express permission, you could be penalized for unauthorized collaboration. It's a form of academic misconduct because it gives the collaborating students an edge over other students who are doing the work on their own.

Unauthorized Assistance

Unauthorized assistance refers to is sharing course material with other students—or receiving said material—without permission from the instructor. Examples might include emailing completed assignments to other students, texting answers back and forth, or uploading answers to sites such as Chegg and Slader.

These are just a few examples of what might constitute academic misconduct at your school. If you're not sure whether an activity is allowed or prohibited, it's better to ask your instructor what is acceptable or ask the Student Affairs office. Your education is too important to risk over an honest misunderstanding.

Possible Disciplinary Actions for Academic Misconduct

Being accused of academic misconduct can result in serious consequences. If school authorities determine that you have committed academic misconduct, they may impose sanctions that could not only complicate your education but haunt you for years to come. These are some common sanctions for academic misconduct:

  • Written or verbal reprimand.
  • Failing grade in the course.
  • Required repeating of the course.
  • Academic probation. With probation, a student must comply with a series of conditions or actions in order to be reinstated to good standing with the school. Regular visits with an advisor may also be required.
  • Restitution (if you caused harm to another student).
  • Limited access. You might be restricted from certain areas of campus.
  • Exclusion from certain clubs and extracurricular activities.
  • Loss of scholarship—especially scholarships related to academic achievement.
  • Loss of academic honors.
  • Suspension.
  • Dismissal. (Some schools treat dismissal as different from expulsion. If you have been dismissed from the program or school, you may be allowed to reapply after a certain period of time.)
  • Expulsion—a “permanent separation” from the school in which the student can't return.
  • Revocation of degree. In some situations, degrees that the student has earned from the school may be revoked after the student graduates.

Overview of the Disciplinary Process

Each college and university has its own established processes for investigating and punishing claims of academic misconduct. However, most schools follow a pattern similar to the following:

  • Complaint. Most disciplinary proceedings begin with someone making a complaint against you. In cases of academic misconduct, the complainant is usually an instructor. However, it could also be another student or a school employee.
  • Notification. Your school will notify you about the accusation and let you know about the next steps.
  • Review. An appointed school authority (either an individual or a committee) will review the facts surrounding the allegation and determine if it has merit and warrants further action.
  • Investigation. The school will dig deeper to find evidence to support the allegations. This stage could include inviting you to an informal interview to discuss the matter and hear your side, along with gathering any physical evidence, talking to witnesses, etc.
  • Formal hearing. The school will schedule an official hearing if they believe there is enough evidence to proceed with discipline. At this hearing, you will be required to appear before the disciplinary panel to answer the complaint.
  • Final determination and sanctions. The panel will make a determination on your guilt or innocence, and if guilty, they will determine what disciplinary actions are appropriate. Sometimes, the board itself has the authority to impose sanctions, but in other cases, they may simply make recommendations to the Dean who makes the final decision.
  • Appeal. The student can appeal before an adverse decision is finalized.

What are the long-term implications of being sanctioned for academic misconduct?

If the college or university decides to penalize you for academic misconduct, it can have long-lasting repercussions on your academic professional career. You could lose thousands of dollars in tuition if you are dismissed or expelled from the school. This would also mean that you will lose any academic progress that you have made, and you would still have to repay any student loans that you borrowed for school, possibly without the benefit of a high-earning degree. 

To complicate things further, academic sanctions can also appear on your permanent academic record—especially more serious ones like suspension or dismissal. These sanctions can come back to bite you in a number of ways, both now and in the future. For example:

  • Re-enrollment in another school/program is difficult if you have been dismissed.
  • You may have trouble getting accepted for graduate studies.
  • You may be disqualified from certain types of financial aid for further studies.
  • You may have difficulty getting accepted for internships or residencies.
  • You may have difficulty getting hired for some positions.
  • You may have trouble qualifying for certain types of professional licenses.
  • You could be denied security clearance to work in certain positions.

Even for minor offenses, a negative academic notation can have lingering repercussions years after the fact. Having an attorney-advisor who can help you answer the allegations could give you the best chance to avoid these negative consequences.

Academic Progression and Remediation

Each college, university, graduate school, and post-graduate program will set minimum academic standards for its students. If a student is not academically proficient, the school may address the matter in the same way as academic misconduct. You could fail to meet the school's academic standards and be subject to sanctions or dismissal.

Many schools offer remediation to students who are struggling with academic performance. Remediation efforts might include the opportunity to retake a test, retake a course or semester, obtain special tutoring, meet with advisors, or take specialized remedial courses.

Although remediation is supposed to help students recover academic ground and avoid dismissal, it doesn't always work in the student's favor. Sometimes students feel pressured to take remediation even though there are other options. Sometimes, a mistake in the grade calculation puts the student unfairly in remedial territory. In some situations, the school only recommends remediation because eventual dismissal is a foregone conclusion, and they can't legally dismiss you without offering it. In such cases, the remediation isn't tailored to help you succeed.

Finally, remediation that is out of context can cause more harm than good. For example:

  • Students might have to devote more energy and time to remediation which could make it difficult for them to complete their academic work.
  • Some degrees have time limits for completion, and remediation could make it difficult to complete the requirements on time.
  • Many remediation actions may appear as a negative notation on an academic record. This can affect the student's ability to apply for jobs, internships, or residencies in the future.
  • Remedial courses may result in additional tuition or student debt.

You may be facing academic dismissal because of poor grades or being offered remediation programs that you are unsure about. These are good reasons to seek out an experienced attorney-advisor to help you assess your options, contest unfair grades and negotiate better ways to avoid dismissal.

The following are several examples of various kinds of students and how they can be affected by academic misconduct allegations...

Academic Misconduct and Medical Students

Misconduct allegations are quite common among medical students, due in part to the rigorous pressures that they are under when completing their education. Becoming a licensed physician requires four years of undergraduate education with a high GPA, followed by four years of intensive training in medical school, followed by a residency program. This is a significant investment in one's professional career, and the pressures to maintain academic standards are high throughout the process.  

There are many reasons medical students could be accused of academic misconduct. For example:

  • They may be facing a huge amount of pressure from multiple sources (i.e., school pressures, family issues, mental health issues), and they may be unable to resist the temptation to cut corners as a way to get through. 
  • They could be falsely accused, perhaps by jealous, competitive students or vindictive instructors.
  • A misunderstanding of the policies could be construed as a deliberate attempt to cheat.
  • The student's work could be unfairly flagged by a plagiarism detector—or the student could be unfairly flagged for suspicious activity while taking an online exam.

Because of the huge investment involved in one's medical education, being accused of academic misconduct as a medical student can feel even more catastrophic than being accused of wrongdoing as an undergrad student. Medical schools hold students to high standards of accountability because they themselves are under pressure to maintain high academic standards. Unfortunately, fairness is not always a priority in these disciplinary processes, and most schools will only require that the student be proven guilty based on "preponderance of the evidence." Hiring an attorney-advisor in such cases could literally save the medical student's career.

Academic Misconduct and STEM Students

Students enrolled in STEM-related majors will face higher academic pressures than other students. STEM refers to special degree programs that integrate Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM). STEM-related jobs are highly paid and in high demand. However, the academic expectations for these majors may be challenging to say the least.

Under this intense pressure to perform, STEM students are often tempted to cut corners academically. Schools offering STEM programs are particularly sensitive to this issue, so allegations of academic misconduct may be quite common, regardless of whether they actually have merit.

Students in STEM can be subject to intense scrutiny and rapid discipline if they are accused of academic misconduct. These students may find it helpful to hire an experienced attorney-advisor in order to avoid a major setback in their academic careers that could have a significant impact on their professional future.

Academic Misconduct and Student-Athletes

Athletics are a high priority for most colleges and universities if for no other reason than the revenue they can bring to the school. Fans love college sports, and colleges and universities can generate millions of dollars each year by selling tickets for their sporting events.

These often have busy schedules that include travel to compete during the season. They may miss class and spend less time studying because of this. Schools offer more academic support to student-athletes, like tutoring, but they also have to be as strict as the rest of their students to ensure that they maintain the same high standards as other students.

Allegations of academic misconduct are quite common among these due to the simultaneous pressure on them to perform well athletically while meeting minimum academic standards. Many universities and colleges have taken steps to reduce academic misconduct among , particularly Division I schools with high-profile athletic programs. The NCAA stresses the importance of academic integrity for students and athletes by encouraging participating schools to offer an "expedited process.” Unfortunately, this sometimes means accused are at a disadvantage, especially if the school intends to make an example of them.

Suffice it to say that have more to lose than just their academic standing or their place on the team if they are penalized for academic misconduct. Even if they are able to survive the disciplinary process without being expelled, it could lead to them being removed from their athletic pursuits—including the opportunity to “go pro.”

International Students and Academic Conduct

Recent data shows that an alarming number of international students are accused of academic dishonesty. A University of Windsor report found that international students are three times as likely to violate academic integrity rules than students from their home country. An international student who is expelled from an American university or college for academic misconduct could lose their job prospects and be forced to return to their home country or face deportation. They may also be prevented from returning to their studies if they are deported.

Experts believe that there are many contributing factors to the fact that international students are more likely to be accused of academic misconduct than domestic students. These include:

  • Cultural confusion about plagiarism and other academic infractions. Many cultures in foreign countries encourage memorization, group work, and collectivism. This means that their definitions for plagiarism may differ from ours. Many international students get accused of wrongdoing simply because don't know or understand the rules.
  • Cultural differences in teacher-student relationships. Many international students come from cultures that discourage questioning authority figures. This may make them less inclined to ask for clarification from their instructors when they don't understand something—and in such cases, they may seek out that information from unauthorized sources.
  • Written language barriers. While foreign students may be proficient in English writing and speaking, they might still have difficulty following our strict rules of grammar. An international student may copy and paste content out of their own insecurities with the English language, not realizing they are committing academic misconduct in the process.
  • Increased stress and pressure to succeed. Students from international countries may feel intense pressure to perform in school to impress their family and friends back home. This stress can lead to the temptation to skimp academically.

Disciplinary actions against international students can create an urgent and immediate crisis because these students will have their F-1 visa status revoked immediately upon dismissal from the school—with no grace period. If they cannot avoid dismissal, these students must immediately find and get accepted into another program, or they may have to leave the country immediately. For these students, an attorney-advisor can be essential to helping them find other solutions to being expelled from school.

Study Abroad for Students

Your school's standards of academic honesty and student conduct will still apply to you if you're a student in a study-abroad program. Many schools also have special codes of conduct for their students studying abroad. Students who violate this code may face further disciplinary action. Before you begin a program abroad, it is important to be familiarized with the code of conduct at your school.

You will need to be aware of more than just your school's academic standards when studying abroad. You must also abide by the code of conduct of the school you're attending abroad, plus as a foreigner in a foreign country, you must also obey the laws of that country. The U.S. Embassy or Consulate can only do so much to help you if you are in trouble with the law while you're studying abroad.

Thus, students studying abroad can be potentially accused of misconduct by at least three parties: their home university, the school they are studying at, and the country where they are staying. It is crucial to seek out the help of someone who has experience with school disciplinary systems as well as legal matters if you are accused of a violation by any of these entities.  You have a greater chance of getting the allegations dismissed if you hire an experienced attorney-advisor early in the process.

High School Academic Misconduct

College and university are not the only places where you need to be concerned about academic honesty. High school records are what colleges and employers consider to be the first indicator of your behavior in the real world. Prospective employers and colleges will notice any notations on your high school records. Thus, a suspension or expulsion for academic misconduct at high school could have a lasting effect on your ability to receive scholarships, get accepted to top schools, and even finish your education. It can also limit your options for jobs and the employers that will hire you.

The disciplinary process at high schools is often more informal than the one at colleges and universities, which can make matters even ore precarious for you as a student accused of wrongdoing. Your "hearing" might consist of a meeting between the principal, your parents, and you—perhaps within days or even hours of being notified of the allegations against you. Schools are known for punishing misconduct fast and harshly, giving students and parents little time to respond to claims and with minimal burden of proof. Here's a glimpse of what the disciplinary process might look like:

  • The administrator or teacher who discovered the academic misconduct will confront the student and inform the school officials.
  • The parents are notified that their child is accused of misconduct.
  • The school conducts a short investigation to see if the accusation has merit.
  • School officials meet with parents/guardians and students to discuss the allegations and get the student's side of the story.
  • The school makes a decision (often on the spot) and decides on the severity of the penalty.
  • A student might be able to appeal against the decision before it is enforced.

High school disciplinary actions can have a devastating effect on a student's future. There is often a short window of time before punishment is invoked by the school. It is important for high school students and their parents to seek the help of a skilled attorney-advisor in an effort to minimize the damage.

Accusations of Academic Misconduct After Graduation

Don't assume that you are "in the clear" after you have graduated from school. Some students have been accused of academic misconduct after receiving their degree. If the college or university you attended obtains evidence that you may have committed academic misconduct while you were a student, they may still hold disciplinary hearings and may even choose to revoke your degree.

Most often, graduates aren't handed their actual degree when they walk across the platform during graduation ceremonies. The degree is usually mailed later after all the credits are certified. The school can withhold your degree if they discover evidence of academic misconduct after graduation ceremonies. Additionally, many universities and colleges have written in their policies that they can actually rescind a degree from a student who is found to have violated their codes. While some schools have a time limit for making such a determination (similar to a statute of limitations), many schools don't have any such restrictions. In theory, this means that your degree could be revoked even years after the fact if the school discovers that you cheated or other academic misconduct during your time as a student. Your entire career, including a profession or career you started on the basis of that degree (e.g., lawyer or doctor), could be at risk if you are no longer qualified for the job you currently hold.

What could make a school decide to cancel a degree once it has been awarded? First, they want to safeguard the integrity of the institution and the degrees it awards. If they allow a degree gained dishonestly to remain valid, they could lose credibility both with the public and with their accreditation board. Revoking a degree also sends a message to current students that they must observe academic honesty for their degree to be valid, and it also reinforces confidence among the families who may send their kids to that school.

If you find yourself accused of academic misconduct after graduation, your entire career could be put at immediate risk. The help of an attorney-advisor could literally save your career in such cases.

How an Attorney-Advisor Can Help Students Accused of Academic Misconduct

Since school disciplinary hearings are not courtrooms—and you are not on trial--you can't hire an attorney to represent you officially for allegations of misconduct. However, the school does give you the right to have the right to an attorney functioning as an advisor. This can often mean the difference between success or failure in student discipline cases. These are just a few of the many ways that an attorney-advisor can assist you:

  • Giving insight into the school's policies and expectations so you know exactly what you're accused of and why.
  • Explaining the potential consequences of disciplinary action and helping you strategize on how to prevent those consequences.
  • Adding an extra layer of accountability to ensure that the school follows its policies and treats you fairly.
  • Giving key advice on how to prepare a compelling defense against the allegations.
  • Advising you on strategies to negotiate for leniency.
  • Assisting you in gathering evidence and witnesses that will support your defense.
  • Evaluating remediation offers to determine if they are beneficial to you and exploring alternative options.
  • Helping you appeal unfair grades that could jeopardize your academic standing.
  • Helping you strategize the possibilities of negotiating alternatives to dismissal.
  • Helping you prepare for your formal hearing.
  • Helping you to prepare an appeal against an adverse decision.

Attorney-Advisor in Academic Misconduct Cases

If you're a student accused of academic misconduct by your school, your academic and professional future effectively hangs in the balance. Too much has been invested into your education to have your future derailed by allegations of misconduct or an adverse disciplinary action by the school. Unfortunately, if you face this process alone, you're entering the process at a distinct disadvantage because schools don't always give their accused students the benefit of the doubt or even guarantee them “due process.” The involvement of a skilled attorney-advisor could make the difference between success and failure.

Joseph D. Lento, a Pennsylvania defense attorney, is a nationally recognized student defense expert. He has assisted more than a thousand students in rescuing their academic standings and reputations across the United States. Take action now to protect your future. To learn more, call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686.

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Attorney Joseph D. Lento has more than a decade of experience successfully resolving clients' criminal charges in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania counties. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you or a loved one, contact the Lento Law Firm today! Criminal defense attorney Joseph D. Lento will go above and beyond the needs of any client, and will fight until the final bell rings.

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