School is back in session. College campuses are crawling again with students, fresh back from summer break. Dorm rooms are filled with first-year college students yearning for the ultimate college experience, complete with an appropriate balance of academic success and serious fun. The endless weekends of fraternity and sorority parties and tailgating events are well underway. The backdrop is thus perfectly set for the code of student conduct hearings that are regularly happening in universities around our state.
If you represent college students and you’ve never been to one of these conduct hearings, you should go for several reasons. The criminal case and the disciplinary hearings are interconnected. Conduct hearings afford us an early opportunity for discovery. Also, our presence alongside the student at the hearing solidifies the attorney-client bond and instills the student’s trust in us from the beginning of the representation. That foundation is vital for candid discussions about the criminal case further down the road.
Tell the student to be on the lookout for a notice from the school; the student will be provided notice and an opportunity to be heard before a sanction is imposed. This due process right is one of the few that exist in disciplinary hearings—everything else is covered by the university’s code of student conduct. And it is important to note that the law allows for tremendous latitude in what will suffice for due process. While the hearing can be conducted without the student’s presence (bad idea), by refusing to attend the hearing, the student subjects himself to being blocked from registering for classes, receiving grades, living on campus, etc.
One of the first things students are required to do is sign a statement agreeing to abide by the code of student conduct. On the whole, most students never bother to read the university’s code of student conduct. However, just like ignorance of the law is not a defense to criminal conduct, neither is ignorance of the university’s code of student conduct a defense to disciplinary action by the university. Be sure to have a current copy of the university’s code of conduct . . . and read it.
These hearings are more than just a trivial occurrence. The university always asks the student to write out the events that led to the arrest—a student statement form. Sound like a written confession? Help the student write out the student statement form (and keep a copy of the statement for your file). The university always asks the student to explain what happened during the conduct hearing. Sound like an oral confession? Talk to the student about what to say and what not to say at the hearings. Be there to cut off inappropriate questions. Oftentimes, these hearings are recorded, but even if not, there is always some type of record of the hearing. So, since the criminal case and the disciplinary hearing are interrelated, be sure to include the university in all petitions for expunction.
In the end, if it is the student’s first infraction, it is relatively minor, and appropriate steps are taken, permanent disciplinary marks on a transcript can be avoided. After all, the bottom line for the student’s academic career—similar to the criminal case—is a transcript free from the scarlet stain of a disciplinary mark. The overwhelming majority of the students we represent learn from the mistakes of their youth, never enter the criminal justice system again and go on to become productive and contributing members of society.