Guest blogger and higher ed consultant David Tuttle provides insight into how to help your student navigate student conduct policies.
My neighbor’s dog is named “Trouble.” I think he is just fine. Sure, he growls and jumps on me, but has only bitten me once. (The dog, not the neighbor.)
Now, when we send our kids to college, we rarely think about, nor expect, that they will one day find themselves in “trouble” for violating campus policies. And the possibility of policy infractions is rarely called out in the recruitment and orientation process. Yet, an allegation of policy violations can derail a promising college career.
For students, on their own for the first time, facing a campus conduct process can be daunting. For them, they often don’t know how much trouble they are in and what the consequences may be. And some will call their parents right away, while others will wait until they absolutely have to “fess up” before saying anything. As a former dean of students, I have been involved in conduct issues for decades. Here are some very basic things you might find helpful as a parent if your student ever finds themselves accused of violating a policy.
Rules are different than laws
Colleges enforce their policies. Think of them as you would a professional sports team. Teams (and leagues) have rules. If an athlete breaks a policy (misses practice) then the team may impose sanctions. If an athlete violates the law (smoking weed), and is arrested, there will be legal consequences and the team can act as well, if in violation of team policies. It can get confusing when laws and policies intersect. Is underage drinking both a policy violation and against the law? Yes. But generally, a college will handle this internally, as it is minor (and courts generally prefer this). Is stealing a car against the law? Of course. Does it violate policy? Probably, if the policy is well written. A college can pursue this as a violation regardless of, and separate from, the legal process.
Schools can enforce policies when violations occur off campus
Think about this. An intoxicated student vandalizes a neighborhood store and is caught by the police. The university is notified. You can bet the campus will want to take action. The school has a reputation and wants to be a good neighbor. Policies will generally note that violations of law and policies off campus can be dealt with on campus. What is more, consider a case where a student sexually assaults another student over spring break. The students return to campus and the alleged survivor is subject to being in a class with the alleged perpetrator. This creates a potential violation of the rights of the alleged survivor to be allowed to study and live in a non-hostile environment. In fact, institutions are required under Title IX to assist the student find another section or different alternative to the class.
Colleges can’t wait for or defer to the courts
This often comes up in assault cases. A criminal determination may have complex elements to it. A case can drag on for years or there may be errors in process or technicalities that undermine prosecution. The case may be dropped; there might be sufficient evidence; complaint may be withdrawn; or a plea bargain may be agreed to. None of these things automatically exonerate a student from violating policy, especially when noting the standard of evidence (see below). This is why campuses will act independently of the courts. This isn’t double jeopardy, as that is a legal term related to a person not facing a trial for the same offense more than once.
The college standard of evidence is different than the legal one
Generally, colleges are not equipped to have intricate and detailed rules of evidence (no Miranda Warnings, fingerprinting, DNA, or polygraph tests either). Colleges are determining whether or not a student violated policy, and in extreme cases they are deciding whether temporary or permanent separation from the school is appropriate. Incarceration, and certainly capital punishment, are options. With the lower stakes, most campuses follow a standard called the preponderance of the evidence. In other words, is it more likely than not that a student violated policy? This is more akin to a civil standard. It explains why OJ Simpson was found not guilty in criminal court under the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, but guilty under the civil standard, generally seen as 50.1% more likely than not.
Most colleges take great efforts to draw distinctions between themselves and courts
Campuses hold hearings, not trials; there are presiding officers, not judges; there are responding parties, not defendants; students are found responsible or not responsible rather than guilty or not guilty. This obsession with terms matters to college officials, as it underscores that schools are dealing with policy violations.
There is a profession dedicated to student conduct
When students and families are unhappy with processes and decisions, they often decry those administering findings as amateurish kangaroo courts or star chamber, evoking images of arbitrary and capricious decision-makers. Indeed, this is why many schools have specialized staff, rather than teaching faculty, managing conduct processes. These professionals understand laws versus policies, standards for decision-making, precedence and mitigating circumstances, student development and learning, and hopefully, compassion and empathy.
In most cases, students are equipped to manage their conduct issues. Good campus officials and boards are not out to get students. They can actually be quite helpful to students who reach out for support and clarity. It is a new and different world and students can be anxious and fearful when facing serious allegations. Parents should consider assuring students at all times that they would rather know when the student is trouble at the earliest possible time in order to be supportive and reassuring.
David Tuttle spent over 30 years in higher education in Residential Life and Student Affairs and has sent four children to college. He is the proprietor of a student and parent assistance service, PROsper Collegiate, LLC, and may be contacted email@example.com.