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Title IX & Student Conduct Code Blog

Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP

What Can You Do If Your College Imposes Penalties Like Educational Sanctions, Probation, Suspension, or Expulsion?

If you’ve been sanctioned after a finding of responsibility for a violation of Title IX or school policy, prompt action may enable you to reduce the penalties or even achieve a different finding. It is a good idea to seek advice from an attorney experienced in student defense because the process for appealing school sanctions is vastly different from the steps to appeal outcomes in civil or criminal court.

One aspect of campus defense that is similar to civil and criminal defense is the importance of watching what you say and do. Your words and actions can be used against you and even taken out of context to convey something you didn’t intend. Advice from knowledgeable legal counsel can help you avoid pitfalls that could harm your chance of an appeal or mitigated outcome.

Why It is in Your Best Interest to Fight the Sanctions

After a finding of responsibility, many students are tempted to give up, accept the penalties, and try to move on. The problem is that the sanctions imposed can make it difficult if not impossible to move forward at all. Even a penalty that seems minor, such as being required to provide an apology or pay a small amount for restitution, results in a negative mark on your student record. That damaging record will endure for years. Some school rules specify that certain sanctions remain on a student’s records forever. Even schools with less severe policies will generally keep the negative record for at least seven years.

Why is that a problem? Your academic records often matter if:

  • You ever apply to graduate school
  • A prospective employer wants to see your academic record
  • You undergo a background check
  • You apply for a professional license
  • You are ever asked if there is disciplinary action on your records
  • You ever run for public office or volunteer for certain organizations

For example, if you transfer or apply for another academic program using the “common application,” the form will require you to disclose any disciplinary action or sanctions. If you fail to do so and those records come to light—which is very likely given schools’ tendency to share information—then you have just sabotaged your efforts to further your education. The information about sanctions may appear not only in full records but also on your transcript.

The bottom line is that disciplinary sanctions can haunt you for years to come, particularly when there is an implication of dishonesty or violence involved. It is worth the effort to keep any negative marks off your record or reduce the impact of those marks if at all possible. An experienced attorney can be your best ally at this point.

Appealing Sanctions

After a finding of responsibility and the imposition of sanctions, you probably have some opportunity to appeal the results. Schools are not required by law to provide a method of appeal for all violations, but most of them do, at least for certain types of violations.

The appeal process may involve two prongs—contesting the finding itself to reverse a finding of responsibility and contesting the sanctions imposed to obtain less burdensome penalties and minimize the impact on official records and future prospects. Your attorney can advise you on how to proceed based on school policies and the facts of your specific case. You may agree with the findings, for instance, but contend that the penalty is too severe in proportion to the violation.

Before taking action, it is important to consider the collateral effects of sanctions imposed. For example, if the school prohibits you from participating in sports or a particular activity, that could affect your scholarships.

Understanding the Appeals Process

Unlike the appeals process in state and federal courts, the appeals process at your academic institution may be entirely unique. Schools have the freedom to establish their own policies and procedures for appealing findings and sanctions. Some of them get quite creative. So one of the first steps is to analyze policies thoroughly and understand the options available during the appeals process. The deadlines are often quite short, so it is critical to act quickly. Working with an experienced attorney right from the start can help ensure that you comply with procedures and deadlines and can take advantage of the most beneficial options during the process.

You may need to notify the school almost immediately that you plan to appeal, but the rules may give you additional time to prepare your arguments. It will be important to ascertain whether you will be permitted to introduce additional evidence and if so, whether there are restrictions on the type of evidence allowed. If your arguments on appeal are limited solely to the facts as already presented, it would be helpful to obtain a copy of the school’s official findings if possible.

Due Process Rights

A knowledgeable student defense lawyer can review the findings and procedures leading up to the findings to determine whether the school violated your due process rights. Both Title IX and the U.S. Constitution protect those rights. If your school violated due process in its procedural standards or in the way it carried out those standards, it may be necessary to move matters off campus to an administrative proceeding or civil lawsuit to get a fair outcome. While action off campus will generally take longer to resolve, the result could completely clear your record in the public sphere.

Filing a Complaint with the Office for Civil Rights

If the practices followed by the school during the investigation or disciplinary proceedings in a Title IX case went against policies in the school handbook or violated Title IX laws, students have the right to file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Any concerned individual can file this type of complaint—it does not need to be filed by the respondent or complainant. This means a parent could file on behalf of a student who might be reluctant to pursue this remedy on their own. As a practical matter, of course, you would need the student’s cooperation to gain the best chance of success with the complaint.

The complaint process can be lengthy. The Office for Civil Rights may take four or more months to decide whether to take the case. In recent years, hundreds of schools have been under investigation simultaneously for failing to properly handle Title IX cases.

Seeking a Temporary Restraining Order or Preliminary Injunction

If a school has ordered a student to be suspended or expelled on the basis of a Title IX or other violation, the student’s legal team can put a temporary halt on these sanctions by seeking a Temporary Restraining Order or Preliminary Injunction against the school. Quick action is essential. It may be necessary to file in court within a few weeks of the determination calling for suspension or expulsion.

If this legal maneuver succeeds, a student generally only receives a temporary reprieve from the sanctions, but this can enable the student to continue with the education process while additional legal appeals are pending. Lawyers for the student might successfully argue that the school breached the contractual arrangement with the student by failing to follow policies. The team might succeed with a variety of other theories, including a claim of selective enforcement or deliberate indifference. The options depend on the circumstances involved.

The Right to an Attorney

School policies should clearly state the type of advisor a student is permitted to have at various stages of an on-campus disciplinary proceeding. Even if an attorney is not permitted to speak on behalf of a student or appear with them in a meeting, all students have the right to consult an attorney for advice outside of official proceedings. Because experienced student defense attorneys have been through the process so many times, they can provide critical assistance right from the start, even before formal action is taken.

In some cases, state and federal law permits or even requires the presence of an attorney at certain campus proceedings. For example, Title IX requires schools to permit the student to have an attorney as their advisor.An attorney can advise you whether you are allowed by law to have an attorney present even if school policies say otherwise.

Finding the Best Outcome

Attorneys dedicated to protecting the rights and opportunities of students will fight tirelessly to achieve the best outcome for the students they represent. What that outcome will be depends on a wide array of factors and won’t be known until the end of the process.

Even in situations where appeals are denied, it is often possible to negotiate a solution that provides a more favorable result for a student. For instance, a suspension might be changed to probation. If a student has been expelled, an attorney might negotiate for permission for the student to withdraw instead so that there is no expulsion on the record.

Talk to the Dedicated Team at Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP to Find Your Best Options After Sanctions

Your situation is like no one else’s, and that means your options to contest sanctions will be different as well. One factor every student defense case has in common, however, is the need to act promptly. Deadlines come quickly, and if you fail to act by the deadline, you will lose your right to appeal.

The team at Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP is committed to protecting students’ rights in all situations, and we will not rest until we have done everything in our power to find the best way forward. If you are facing sanctions or are even concerned about potential accusations against you, please contact us to learn more about how we can help.