New England Student Defense
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By Jonathan Cook

College and University Disciplinary Hearings are Adversarial Proceedings With More Punitive Value Than Educational Value. Call them what they are: mini-trials (sometimes lasting days) with little to no evidentiary safeguards. It is convenient for Colleges and Universities to cloak campus disciplinary hearings in an educational facade because it provides cover for their kangaroo-court trials which are often riddled with error and can damage a student's life forever. Students and parents must be properly informed of the nature of campus disciplinary proceedings. 

For example, Kansas University describe's its University Conduct System as "an educational tool that provides an equitable and inclusive system that promotes awareness of students’/student organizations’ rights and accountability for student behavior" and adds "the conduct process is focused on the objective of education rather than punishment." See KU website here

Salve Regina University claims that, "[c]onduct hearings are non-adversarial, fact finding proceedings" and "[t]he hearing is not conducted as a civil or criminal proceeding and consequently rules of evidence do not apply." See Code of Conduct at 5.

The University of Pennsylvania's Code of Student Conduct even begins with "[w]hen Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Academy, he defined its mission as “education for citizenship.” See Code of Student Conduct at 1

Every College and University in the United States relies on similar language. It is a facade. Hearings are not "teaching moments." While every College and University's disciplinary policies and proceedings are unique, they are in fact universally similar to a civil or criminal proceeding. 

How are they similar? Hmm let me count the ways...

1. A student is "charged" with violations.

2. A hearing date is set. The feel on hearing day on campus is very similar to a court date. Like a defendant pacing in the hallway outside a courtroom before a hearing, students and parents are nervous, anxious, and fearful. 

3. Procedure and rules are read aloud, present parties introduced, and the tension in the air can be can cut with a knife.

4. There are panelists who are effectively jurors.

5. There is a chairperson acting like a judge by serving as the gatekeeper of evidence.

6. There are lawyers or advocates for all parties and the school's general counsel is typically present in cases where expulsion is a potential sanction. 

7. There are competing and conflicting interests at play -- that of the complainant, the respondent, and the school. Yes the school has interests. The school is never a disinterested party.

8. Opening and closing statements are made by each party. 

9. The accused student is cross-examined by the panelists and adverse party via the panel, peppered with pointed and upsetting questions that are often leading, calling for speculation, designed to illicit character evidence or evidence of past sexual history, and/or lacking foundation, irrelevant, or all of the above, thus precluding any notion of a fairness.

10. The panelists deliberate just like a jury.

11. There is a burden of proof. Usually a "preponderance of the evidence."  

12. The panelists render a verdict of "guilty" or "not guilty" just like a jury. 

13. If found "guilty" or "responsible" or "in violation" depending on the individual school's language, the student receives one or more sanctions. Students found responsible for serious violations like Sexual Assault, Drug or Alcohol Possession, or Plagiarism and other Honor Code violations, face consequences that can be just as devastating as a criminal conviction to the student's education, future and career. 

Does this sound like a non-adversarial educational process? A teaching moment? No, because it isn't. Colleges and Universities do students and parents a tremendous disservice by trivializing campus hearings as educational tools thus allowing them to skirt evidentiary safeguards that should be present before labeling a student as a rapist, drug dealer, or any other kind of offender. As a result, students are often ill-prepared for the hearing and receive unjust punitive sanctions.  

There is little educational value other than learning the unfortunate reality that a student can be expelled based on hearsay evidence alone.  


Remember: although it is extremely important to hire an experienced Student Defense Attorney as early in Campus Disciplinary Proceedings as possible (as soon as a notice of charges is received, if not before), it is never too late. Whether a student in Rhode Island or any other state has already been sanctioned and is in the appeals stage or even after an appeal has been denied, a lawyer with extensive experience representing and defending college students can offer invaluable help.


These materials have been prepared by SRT for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.

Jonathan Cook