A student facing disciplinary action from their school is in dire need of help. While student conduct violations rarely result in criminal charges, the disciplinary process in many high schools, colleges, and universities does not always favor the concept of "innocent until proven guilty." Being suspended, dismissed, or expelled from school can have catastrophic effects on the student's academic and career prospects—not to mention the possibility of lost tuition and crushing student debt.
Unfortunately, when a student faces school disciplinary action, many students and their parents don't know where or how to start looking for help. If you're in this situation, it can be easy to feel like there's no way out. But there are steps that you can take to avoid devastating consequences and save your future. The best thing you can do is hire an attorney-advisor who has experience with these types of cases--someone who knows the ins and outs of different schools' disciplinary processes. Attorney Joseph D. Lento, a criminal defense attorney in Pennsylvania, is nationally recognized for his work assisting high school, college, and grad school students who are facing disciplinary action for everything from academic misconduct, sexual misconduct accusations, disciplinary violations, and most any other issue a student may face.
How School Disciplinary Actions Can Jeopardize Your Career
Getting into trouble with your school might not seem like a big deal at first, but when you consider the time and money you've invested in your education, the stakes can be quite high. When you face a student disciplinary committee, you're usually looking at more than just a "slap on your wrist." While sometimes the discipline is little more than verbal reprimand, a violation of the Honor Code or Student Conduct Code could lead to probationary sanctions, suspension, or even expulsion. These actions can result in any or all of the following:
- Lost tuition
- Loss of academic progress
- Difficulties completing your education (if you've been dismissed)
- Costly restitution requirements
- A permanent notation on your academic record, which could reflect badly with prospective employers
- Reputation damage, both personal and professional
- In rare cases, separate criminal charges may result
Students accused in such situations face the real disadvantage of not being able to properly defend themselves. College and universities are under intense pressure to maintain high standards of conduct and high academic values, so they tend to mete out swift punishment for violations. Students may sometimes be called to attend disciplinary hearings within days of being notified of the accusations against them, and they may not have a clear understanding of disciplinary procedures to know how to respond. Students may be placed on probation, or worse, suspended or expelled, before they even realize what happened.
The point is that no allegation of student misconduct should be taken lightly—either by the student or their parents. Your professional future could hang in the balance if you don't follow the correct procedures or get expert advice.
Other Issues That Can Threaten Your Education
An allegation of misconduct isn't the only thing that could put your educational future at risk. Students may face probation, suspension, or dismissal for a wide range of issues, complications, or misunderstandings, including some that are outside their control. Having a skilled attorney-advisor can help you overcome any or all of the following challenges:
Academic Progression Issues and Academic Dismissal
Colleges, universities, medical schools, and other educational institutions have minimum standards of achievement for students to earn a degree or diploma. Student progress is typically monitored by a student progress committee who evaluates a student's academic progression. If a student struggles to maintain a minimum grade point average or keep up with the pace of the coursework, they may find themselves facing academic probation, required remediation, and in some cases, academic dismissal for failing to keep up.
Sometimes, poor academic performance happens because of temporary personal issues (e.g., mental health problems, stress, family crises) outside their control. Other times, unfortunately, schools set their students up to fail by not giving them the support they need or imposing remediation that makes it even harder for them to catch up. An attorney-advisor can help students face these challenges and find better solutions to avert academic dismissal.
Grade Disputes and Remediation
Sometimes, students are unfairly penalized for poor academic performance due to unfair grading systems or because a teacher imposed grading standards that violated school policies. This often results in unnecessary probation measures or required remediation that doesn't resolve the core issues. At worst, these issues might bring the student closer to academic dismissal; at best, they may appear as negative notations on the student's academic record. A good attorney-advisor can help the student resolve these problems through successful grade disputes and skilled negotiation.
Part of the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) is for schools to make accommodations for individuals with a legally recognized disability. The ADA requires that a school provide access and amenities to public places for persons with disabilities. They are also obligated to ensure that their pupils can learn by considering the needs of people with physical, mental, or other learning challenges. Schools frequently violate this legislation by neglecting to offer access and facilities to public places for disabled individuals. Possible examples of ADA violations include:
- Lack of assistive learning equipment
- Failure to provide acceptable testing accommodations
- Failure to adjust learning styles to accommodate a disability (e.g., dyslexia)
- Failing to provide accessibility features (e.g., wheelchair-accessible ramps, handicap parking spaces, widened staircases, or sufficient elevators)
In many cases, a student's performance may be impacted by the school's failure to accommodate their disability. In such cases, an attorney experienced in student issues can work on the student's behalf to help the school correct these violations before their academic future is placed at risk.
Common Disciplinary Procedures for Colleges and Universities
Each school will have its own policies and procedures for investigating misconduct allegations and penalizing those who are found guilty. However, most schools will follow a similar process in handling such allegations. However, most student discipline matters will be handled in the following manner:
Complaint. The majority of disciplinary procedures begin when someone files a complaint or accusation against you to school authorities. It may be a student, instructor, school employee, or anyone else who is aware of your alleged conduct.
Notification. The school will inform you about the complaint and the next steps so that you can respond.
Review. The school will refer the matter to the appropriate authority (usually the Office of Student Affairs or a named committee) to determine if the complaint is sufficiently meritorious to be considered for further action and how to proceed.
Investigation. The school will investigate the allegations and determine if there is sufficient evidence to discipline you. This may include gathering evidence and interviewing any witnesses.
Hearing. If the investigator or committed believes there is sufficient evidence to proceed with the investigation, they will usually schedule a formal hearing where you will appear before the disciplinary board and respond to the allegations against you.
Determination and penalties. The committee/board will decide if you are guilty or innocent and recommend the appropriate disciplinary action.
Appeal. You can appeal against an adverse decision before it becomes final.
How an Attorney Can Help with Student Discipline Cases
Since school disciplinary proceedings don't happen in a court of law, most high schools, colleges, and universities don't allow students to hire an attorney in an official or legal capacity. However, students are allowed an attorney who functions in an advisory role—an "attorney-advisor." The help of an attorney-advisor frequently makes a huge difference in the outcome of student disciplinary cases and can often save the student's reputation, academic record, and future career prospects. Joseph D. Lento has nationwide experience as an attorney-advisor in school disciplinary proceedings.
Here are some ways an attorney-advisor can help a student facing disciplinary action from their school:
- Make sure the student understands school policies and procedures so they can make informed decisions on how to defend themselves.
- Review the allegations against the student and help create a strategy for defending against them.
- Gather evidence and witnesses to support the student's position.
- Help the student prepare for disciplinary hearings.
- Review remediation plans to ensure they actually benefit the student.
- Assist with grade appeals or appealing an adverse decision by the committee.
- Provide an additional layer of accountability to ensure the school abides by its own policies and protects the student's rights in the process.
- ADA Violations—e.g., if your educational progress is hindered because the school hasn't made proper legal accommodations for your recognized disability.
In short, a skilled attorney-advisor can help an accused student avoid serious and career-damaging repercussions such as suspension, expulsion, negative notations on their academic record. Let's talk in detail about some of the specific areas in which an attorney-advisor can help students in trouble.
Common Student Discipline Issues
Schools pursue disciplinary actions against students for a wide range of possible offenses. In some cases, the student isn't even aware that they broke a rule until they are notified that they are being investigated--or worse, called into a disciplinary hearing. Let's look at a few of the most common reasons students could face discipline from the school.
Academic misconduct is a broad category encompassing many possible offenses. Although the definitions may vary, it usually refers to actions that give students an unfair academic advantage or undermine the learning experience of other students.
School policies on academic integrity and student conduct can typically be found on the school website or in the Student Handbook. Many schools and programs will also have an Honor Code outlining student expectations for academic and professional honesty. It is important that students review the school's policy regarding academic misconduct before they start at a new college. This will help them understand what could lead to trouble.
Most colleges and universities will discipline students over the following types of academic misconduct.
Plagiarism is the act of copying or incorporating another person's ideas or work without credit to the source. This can happen in many ways, even by accident--but many schools won't even consider the intent of the student where plagiarism is concerned because it is considered such a serious offense.
Cheating generally occurs when a student has failed to comply with the instructions of a university faculty member, administrator, or another officer concerning proper conduct when taking an exam or completing an assignment. Examples may include continuing to write even after the exam has ended, submitting work to others, copying other students' work, or using source materials that your teacher has prohibited.
Any student who offers money or trades something of value for the purpose of improperly influencing a grade is committing bribery. It's a serious offense and may result in expulsion.
Falsification of data or records
Falsification, forgery, and misrepresentation of any information to any University official in order to gain an unfair academic advantage--these are all taken very seriously by colleges and universities. Examples include misrepresenting research, falsifying information on an application, altering grades or academic records, or providing false information to be exempted from class or coursework.
Disrupting the Learning Experience
Students who disrupt, distract, or otherwise interfere with the classroom, laboratory, campus activities, or the learning process are usually subject to sanctions by colleges and universities. This could include excessive talking, interrupting class, or verbally accosting others.
Sabotaging someone else's academic performance can lead to severe consequences. This includes, but isn't limited to, altering data from another student, disrupting tests and experiments of others, taking actions that prevent others from working, and making modifications to parts or a group project without permission of the contributors.
Advanced knowledge is when a student obtains advanced access to exams or other assignments without an instructor's express permission. It can land the student in serious trouble with the school.
Most schools forbid collaborations on academic work without express permission from the instructor. This includes, but is not limited to, unauthorized collaboration on tests, quizzes, assignments, labs, and projects.
Unauthorized Giving or Taking of Academic Materials
Students must not distribute or share past or current course material (e.g., assignments, lab reports, notebooks, exams) without permission from the instructor. Examples include uploading these materials to websites like Chegg or Slader, emailing them to others, and taking and/or distributing unauthorized recordings of lectures/course directions.
Academic Progression Issues
Colleges, universities, and graduate schools all have certain minimum academic standards that their students are expected to meet. These standards are typically related to credits earned, grade point average (GPA), or earning a degree within a specific time frame. When students are not able to meet the minimum academic standards required by their school, they may be subject to dismissal.
Many colleges and universities can track academic progress using technology like tracking algorithms. However, some graduate schools will have their own systems for monitoring students' progress. This often involves the participation of a committee made up of students and/or faculty called a "Student Progress Committee." This committee will assess student performance and recommend remedial solutions for those who are falling behind. When a student's grades or speed of progress falls below acceptable standards, the committee will typically recommend academic probation or remediation as a solution. The Student Progress Committee will usually recommend suspension or dismissal of students who consistently fail academically.
Professionalism is an important principle in many professions, particularly those associated with public trust (e.g., pharmacists, physicians, mental health professionals). It's your responsibility to uphold your school's expectations of professionalism in dealing with teachers, colleagues, or the public.
If you are found to have not complied with professional standards, the school can take disciplinary action, such as probation, reprimands, and remediation, as well negative notations on your academic record or even dismissal. These actions can make your career path more difficult, or worse, could even derail your career prospects.
Student Code of Conduct Violations
Nearly all American universities and colleges have a written Student Code of Conduct which each student at the school is expected to know and adhere to. This Code of Conduct can usually be found on the university's website, or you can obtain a printed copy from the Department of Student Affairs.
College students who are accused of violating the Student Code of Conduct may find their academic future at risk. Even though a code violation frequently doesn't constitute a criminal offense (and most such offenses are not prosecuted in criminal court), it can affect a student's academic standing and impact their professional and personal opportunities well into the future.
Because of the seriousness of the situation, it is important to get legal advice as soon as you are accused of violating the school code. An attorney-advisor can help you navigate the complicated (and often intimidating) school disciplinary process and help you prevent a disastrous outcome.
Although the rules of conduct may vary slightly from school to school, some of the most common code violations include the following:
Drinking Alcohol/Drug Use
Students can face a range of alcohol and drug-related violations. Underage alcohol consumption is quite common, as well as possession, use, and distribution of drugs. Some colleges also penalize students who give alcohol to minors.
These serious charges can also be considered criminal offenses, so it is important to hire a Title IX lawyer (see below) who has experience in these types of disciplinary cases. The school may also have separate rules regarding sexual harassment not associated with Title IX.
Most universities and colleges forbid hazing rituals that endanger a person's physical or mental health, degrade or humiliate that person, or damage property. A student who engages in hazing could face school disciplinary action as well as criminal charges.
Violence, Assault, and Threatening Behavior
College Codes of Conduct prohibit students from engaging in or threatening physical assault or mentally abusive behavior.
Many schools pursue disciplinary action against a student who has allegedly committed a hate crime arising from a perception or belief about the victim's race, religion, color, gender, ancestry, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin.
Misuse of school computers and/or cybercriminal activity can easily be grounds for suspension or expulsion from school.
Title IX Violations
Title IX is federal legislation that, among other things, sets standards for how colleges, universities, and other academic institutions deal with sexual harassment and discrimination on campus. The law specifically requires that any school receiving federal funds must comply with its regulations. When someone refers to Title IX violations, they are referring primarily to the statute 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a):
"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."
This particular passage has led to more stringent policies regarding sexual misconduct and discrimination at colleges and universities throughout the country. Title IX regulations require schools to have certain practices and policies in place as a condition for receiving federal funding. Some examples are:
- Clear and speedy measures to address sexual misconduct allegations
- A designated office and personnel (typically called a Title IX Coordinator) to handle sexual harassment and assault claims
- An established standard of proof for evaluating the evidence against the accused student
- Both parties (accused and accuser) should have access to the same resources and procedures (e.g., advisors, opportunity to present evidence)
Title IX regulations also provide protection for students against retaliation if they file a Title IX complaint.
Sexual misconduct allegations can damage a student's reputation and even prevent them from pursuing a career. Colleges and universities tend to take a harder stance on Title IX violations than on regular code violations when it comes to disciplining students. To comply with Title IX rules, schools will often do everything possible to suspend or expel students who are implicated in a Title IX complaint. For something that could just be an innocent mistake or a misunderstanding, your academic future could be at risk. If the hearing committee doesn't rule in the student's favor, an alleged Title IX violation can easily result in expulsion.
Title IX complaints are handled under a separate office than other student violations, so to protect your academic future, it is crucial to hire an attorney-advisor with specific experience in Title IX complaints.
Fraternity and Organization Misconduct
Colleges and universities not only have Codes of Conduct in place for individual students--they also have rules governing student organizations like campus clubs, fraternities/sororities, etc. If a student organization is accused of violating the rules, the students who participate in that organization can also be implicated and may face disciplinary action. These are just a few examples that might be included in the university's regulations regarding organizational misconduct.
Hazing is a very serious offense, and many states have passed their own laws to deal with it. Examples of hazing violations may include coercive behavior or a student forcing another student to do something that is prohibited by the school.
Violation of the Law
If a student organization violates the law or compels any of its members to do so, it may not only result in criminal charges--it may also result in disciplinary action from the school itself. Your school may share any information they discover during an investigation with law enforcement.
Unregistered Events Involving Alcohol Consumption
Sometimes, a student organization may fail to file the paperwork necessary to register an event with the school. This is especially true if there is alcohol available at the event. Failing to register such an event can land the entire organization in hot water, especially if underage students are in attendance.
Disciplinary Actions for Student Organizations
The college's specific structure for disciplinary proceedings will determine the type of board, committee, or panel that is responsible for investigating organizational misconduct. The evidence standard for most schools in determining organizational misconduct is the "preponderance of the evidence" standard. This means they can hold the organization responsible if they decide it's more likely than unlikely that the violation occurred.
How Organizational Misconduct Can Affect You as a Student
Sometimes it can be difficult for students to envision the consequences of their college behavior extending to "life after college." If your college or university determines that your student group violated the school's code or regulations, there could be long-term consequences that may not just impact your campus life but also your life after school. Schools often address both individuals and groups in these cases, so a violation by your organization could affect your permanent academic record. This could impact your ability to apply for graduate school, job opportunities, etc.
Potential Sanctions and Penalties for Organizational Code of Conduct Violations
Every college and university has its own rules about what penalties and sanctions may be applied to violations of the organizational code. In most cases, possible sanctions may include any/all of the following:
Mandatory attendance in a corrective class
The college or university might ask the group to take part in an educational class if the situation warrants it.
The student organization may be liable for a fine.
Loss of privileges
The university or college may choose to restrict the organization's access to university funds or university spaces, be prohibited from fundraising, lose their right to sponsor campus speakers or guests, etc.
Loss of housing
The organization could lose access to any housing or dedicated building access provided by the school.
A leader elected by the organization can be removed from his or her leadership position.
Student organization probation
Although there are many variations of this sanction, it is usually similar to a first caution and comes with other sanctions. Probation is a sign that an organization's actions and behaviors are not in line with college or university policy. The length of probation an organization is placed on may vary depending on the specific school's policies and the nature of the offense.
Suspension for student organizations
A suspension is more severe than a probation violation. It basically prohibits the student organization from operating on campus for a specified period of time (typically a semester, but sometimes longer.)
Dissolution, removal, or expulsion
This sanction is usually used to indicate that the recognized student organization is no longer welcome at the college or university. This could automatically disqualify an organization from participating in university activities. It may also require that the organization give back any funds that Student Affairs or Student Government have allocated to them.
Just as an attorney-advisor can help individual students accused of misconduct, they can also be of assistance for student organizations who are facing disciplinary action from their school.
Graduate and Professional School Disciplinary Issues
Within colleges and universities, many graduate programs have their own policies and procedures for maintaining academic standards and enforcing student disciplinary issues. If a grad student fails to live up to these standards or finds themselves accused of misconduct, they can be subject to sanctions that include probation, suspension, or expulsion.
Disciplinary actions against graduate students can have even more profound and immediate consequences than disciplinary sanctions in undergraduate programs. Not only is it exceedingly challenging to re-enroll in graduate studies once you've been expelled or dismissed, but a negative mark on your academic record at this stage of education can greatly limit the career opportunities afforded to you. Hiring an attorney-advisor at the first indication of trouble could avert serious consequences once the disciplinary process begins.
High School Disciplinary Issues
These days, a student's academic record, even in high school, can affect their career trajectory for better or worse. High schools are particularly sensitive to academic misconduct (e.g., cheating, plagiarism, falsification) as well as serious disciplinary violations like assaulting a student or teacher, using/selling drugs on school grounds, vandalism, theft, or bringing weapons to school.
Students (and their parents) who find themselves in high school disciplinary hearings often have little knowledge of their rights within this process. High schools tend to have more informal hearings with very little burden of proof, and discipline is rendered swiftly. Being suspended or expelled from high school can make it very challenging for the student to complete their education, and the permanent mark on their record can affect their ability to get accepted into college, qualify for scholarships, or even get hired.
A student accused of wrongdoing could be expelled with very little warning, so it's critical to involve an attorney-advisor at the first sign of trouble.
Medical School Disciplinary Issues
Medical school students are generally held to exceedingly high academic standards while maintaining grueling course schedules mixed with clinical experience and regular interactions with the public. For this reason, it's not unusual for even the most dedicated medical students to come under scrutiny by their respective schools. Academic progression issues are quite common given the intensive schedules, and minimum grade standards--and many classes in medical school are pass/fail, making it even easier for a student's grades to fall short. Medical students also frequently face investigations and disciplinary hearings over accusations of academic or professional misconduct. Even a single lapse in judgment, external issues at home, or a simple misunderstanding can put a medical student's future in jeopardy.
Being dismissed from medical school can gravely affect a student's career prospects, not to mention years of lost tuition and potentially crippling student debt. When medical students are notified of possible disciplinary action from their school, hiring an attorney-advisor is the best way to protect themselves from potential catastrophe.
International Student Disciplinary Issues
International students face a unique set of complications if they are accused of misconduct or face disciplinary action. While the school's standards and policies typically apply across the board to both domestic and international students, if an international student is dismissed from school, it usually results in their F-1 student visa being revoked and their SEVIS status ending. This means they may have to leave the country immediately--and if they fail to leave or to re-enroll in another school, they could end up being deported and prohibited from returning to complete their education.
The school will usually prescribe remediation for students who aren't making enough academic progress to avoid dismissal. Each school has its own policies and procedures regarding remediation. However, most schools will recommend any of the following:
- Retake the exam
- Repetition of a course
- Repetition of a semester or school year
- Take a leave of absence to address personal issues
Remediation is typically recommended as a preventative measure to avoid dismissal from the school. When properly structured, remediation can help the student get back on track academically—but it doesn't always work this way. For example:
- Some programs rush students into remediation without investigating other options or tailoring the program to their needs. This can lead to a student being placed under unnecessary stress.
- Sometimes, student grades are incorrectly calculated or biased in a way that drops the student's GPA even though they are not underperforming.
- Some schools view remediation as little more than an obligatory step before recommending dismissal, so they have no motivation to design the program to be helpful. (In other words—the remediation is a sham.)
Remediation Can Cause More Harm than Good
Although remediation is always preferable to being dismissed from school, remediation can still cause harm to the student in the following ways:
- The time requirements of remediation can cause the student's other work to suffer.
- If there is a time limit for earning a degree, remediation can make it difficult to complete the degree requirements in time.
- Remediation requires additional tuition and possibly additional student debt.
- Remediation may result in a negative mark on the student's academic record, affecting their ability to apply for residencies or job opportunities.
It is always best to speak with an experienced attorney-advisor before accepting remediation programs imposed by the school. It is often possible to negotiate with your school to find other ways to dismiss the case or to modify the remedial program to benefit you.
Most schools have policies in place that allow students to appeal an adverse decision by the school. There are essentially two types of appeals that students might need to file:
1. Appealing a bad grade. If you believe a bad grade was given inaccurately, unfairly, or inconsistently with school policies, you can submit a grade appeal to have the grade adjusted. You'll need to provide evidence to support your claim. Grade appeals are often an effective way to avert academic probation, remediation, or dismissal due to academic performance.
2. Appealing a disciplinary action. You have the right to appeal an adverse action by the school before it is finalized. Most appeals of this nature are related to probation, suspension, or dismissal. Appeals are typically considered by a separate committee on grounds such as biased treatment during the investigation, procedural errors, or introduction of new evidence that might have exonerated you.
Unlike the criminal justice system in which you may have weeks or months to file an appeal, you may only have days to file an appeal with the school--and since rulings on appeals are final, you basically only have one chance to get it right. An attorney-advisor can be very helpful in helping you meet these tight deadlines with the most compelling arguments possible.
Steps to Take Following an Accusation
Even if you believe the complaints or accusations against you are incorrect, it is still risky to face a college panel or make a statement without consulting an attorney-advisor lawyer. In student disciplinary hearings, you are not guaranteed a fair burden-of-proof standard, and professors, colleagues, and administrators often believe the accusations even before conducting an investigation. This can put you at risk for serious repercussions.
These steps will increase your chances of succeeding after you receive word about an accusation.
Contact a professional attorney-advisor right away.
Your chances of getting a positive outcome in your case are higher if you have a competent legal advisor who has worked with similar cases. Your advisor will guide you through the process to protect your rights and your reputation.
Gather evidence to prove your case.
Even if the accusation was false, strong evidence could change the course of your case. Your chances of changing the outcome of your case are greater if you have more information and can present it to the panel.
You may be able to reduce the impact of allegations if you have witnesses who can support your claim. Even acquaintances may have valuable information that could help you defend yourself during a disciplinary hearing.
Avoid risky interactions.
During the investigation and hearing, you need to stay vigilant when it comes to what you say and to whom you say it until the case concludes. You must take every precaution to ensure that a seemingly innocent statement doesn't lead to more problems. Avoid discussing details of the investigation with others because even their hearsay can be used as evidence. Avoid posting about it on social media or in texts, as these can also be retrieved as evidence.
Attorney-Advisor for Student Discipline Cases
Students facing dismissal for academic or other forms of misconduct are too vulnerable to face the disciplinary process alone. Pennsylvania defense attorney Joseph D. Lento is a nationally recognized expert in student defense cases and has helped thousands of students across America avoid severe repercussions from their schools. Take steps now to protect your future. To learn more, call the Lento Law Firm at (888) 535-3686.