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How Does a Finding of Responsibility Impact Graduate School Acceptance?

An undergraduate student who is found responsible for a Title IX violation or any type of violation of school policy must take great care when applying to graduate school. Depending on the findings and the situation involved, a judiciously composed explanation may offset an immediate negative reaction and gain the student fair consideration as an applicant. In other cases, however, a finding of responsibility may be a circumstance that automatically prevents admission. A student that has already been accepted to graduate school could have that acceptance withdrawn.

To determine the impact on a student’s acceptance to graduate school, it is important to look at the circumstances involved in the finding of responsibility as well as the policies of the institution where the student hopes to pursue graduate studies. Working with an experienced attorney can enable the student to engage in the most promising strategies and put forth the best arguments in favor of acceptance.

FERPA Offers No Protection

Many students have heard that disciplinary actions and other matters on their school records are kept private under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA. While this law ostensibly protects the privacy of educational records, it contains numerous exceptions. Schools are allowed to disclose information from a college student’s record without the student’s consent to internal school officials with “legitimate educational interest” and to other schools to which the student is transferring, as long as the disclosure is related to the enrollment or transfer. (When disclosing disciplinary information under this exception, a school is supposed to make an attempt to notify the student, or the parent of the student if the student is under 18.)

That means that even if a graduate school does not request permission from the student to access records—which it is likely to do as part of the application process anyway—the graduate school can reasonably ask the undergraduate school to see all of that student’s records on the grounds that they are related to the transfer. 

In addition, FERPA does not apply to information obtained through means other than official education records. If someone shares information about a student’s finding of responsibility, that does not constitute a violation of the student’s rights under FERPA.

School Policies Make All the Difference

Graduate and undergraduate institutions set their own rules about admission, information requested of students, and information that they will disclose without permission. The policies of an individual school have a tremendous impact when it comes to the effect of a finding of responsibility on a student’s potential acceptance to graduate school.

The Policies May Provide Some Privacy Protection

Surprisingly for some, protection of a student’s privacy after a finding of responsibility may come not from privacy laws but from the very policies that the student was found to have violated. For instance, Princeton University policies specify that if a prospective graduate school asks about a Title IX Sexual Harassment or University Sexual Misconduct Violation by a respondent, the university will not provide information regarding the student’s disciplinary history unless and until the student provides express written authorization for them to disclose this information. Once the university receives such authorization, then they will disclose both the nature of the violation and the resulting penalties.

So, in theory at least, that policy allows a prospective graduate student to keep another school from learning about the responsibility finding. As a practical matter, if a graduate school wants this information, they will require the student to authorize the release of the information. Any student that refuses would not be likely to receive consideration for admission. 

Schools are free to set their own policies in this area, and they are also free to make exceptions to those policies. If they wanted to admit an academic star or celebrity who refused to disclose their undergraduate records, the graduate school would probably be permitted to do so. If they wanted to admit a student athlete, on the other hand, NCAA rules would be likely to impact the student’s ability to play, depending on the sanctions that resulted from the finding of responsibility.

School Policies Dictate the Consideration of a Finding of Responsibility

Will a graduate school automatically refuse to accept a student who was suspended after a finding of responsibility for sexual assault? Would they submit such information to a special panel for consideration? Would they treat the matter differently if the suspension was for sexual misconduct that violated the undergraduate institution’s policies but fell outside the scope of Title IX policy? What if the penalty was some form of sanctions other than suspension? All these questions may be determined by the graduate school’s admissions policies. 

Students with a finding of responsibility on their records should consider the policies of prospective schools carefully to determine whether they are automatically ineligible or what steps might be required before admission. The policies should also provide guidance on how to explain any disciplinary action disclosed during the application process.

Waiting Could Make a Difference

School policies also differ on how long they keep records of findings and disciplinary actions. Some clear the records after five years, although seven years is more common. For certain offenses, however, the school could maintain a finding of responsibility indefinitely.

Depending on the policy—and the offense involved—waiting before applying to graduate school could essentially clear the slate. The waiting period also provides a student time to build a record demonstrating that they have taken steps to address the cause for concern.

Questions of Integrity

When a finding of responsibility involves an actual or implied lack of integrity, such as suspension for plagiarism or cheating, that could potentially provide tremendous difficulty for a student applying to graduate school.

Graduate school professors work closely with students, and professors in an academic program potentially risk their professional reputation by taking responsibility for students and their behavior. If they have any concerns about trust, they may use that as grounds to reject that student for admission.

Guidance from an Experienced Legal Counselor Can Help Reduce the Impact of a Responsibility Finding

While an attorney cannot work miracles, a legal advisor with experience assisting students after a finding of responsibility knows the best strategies and approaches to help students overcome the negative impacts. It is far better to take defensive measures to avoid the finding in the first place, but once a student has a finding of responsibility on the record, it is still possible to move forward, although not necessarily with the same plans as originally intended.

The dedicated attorneys at Duffy Law fight to protect students’ opportunities for the future. To find out more about how we could assist in your situation, contact us today.

Felice Duffy

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Attorney At Duffy Law

Attorney Felice Duffy served as an Assistant United States Attorney for ten years after beginning her legal career at two prestigious firms (one in CT and one in NY) and then clerking for two federal judges. A life-long Title IX advocate, she brought a legal action under the then-new Title IX statute against UCONN while an undergraduate to compel the creation of its women’s varsity soccer program. She went on to become a first-team Division I All-American, was selected to be on the first U.S. National Women’s Team, and spent 10 years as Head Coach of the Yale women's soccer team. Attorney Duffy has Ph.D. in Education/Sports Psychology and has spoken to, and conducted trainings for, over 50 schools and organizations on a wide range of topics involving athletics, the law, and social justice. You can reach Felice at (203) 946-2000.