“Is it too late?”
All too often, I get this question from a parent whose college student son or daughter has already been suspended or expelled for a Title IX violation, plagiarism accusation, or other student conduct code or academic honor code violation. While it might seem obvious that a lawyer is needed if your son or daughter is accused of campus sexual assault or cheating, the reality is both students and families forego getting college student defense legal advice. Why? Here are some of the reasons parents and students give for failing to seek legal advice for a university discipline hearing:
We Thought the School Would Be Fair
Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but consider this: fair “trials,” “legal proceedings,” and “investigations” are conducted by lawyers, judges (who are lawyers) and professional criminal investigators (police and other law enforcement). These professionals have spent years studying and being trained in how to conduct fair investigations and proceedings. For example, within my very first year doing trials as a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., I had been assigned hundreds of cases to investigate and try. This was on top of my three years of law school studying at Georgetown University Law Center.
In contrast, the typical college or university administrator who oversees college student conduct code violation proceedings is a dean whose training is academic rather than investigatory or legal. In-house Title IX Coordinators or investigators rarely have any prior criminal investigation experience, and their training is often conducted by “compliance consultants” who also lack any prior criminal investigation experience.
This lack of training and experience makes it nearly impossible for universities to consistently conduct fair and impartial university disciplinary code investigations. So when parents and students complain that the school never listened to or understood their side of the story, what they are really describing is often a lack of skill and experience. A trained investigator “listens” differently than a regular person in the same way a musician hears music differently than a non-musician.
Having a Lawyer Makes Me Look Guilty
This is like saying having a doctor makes me look sick. This fear is identical to the fear that suspects in criminal cases voice about asking for a lawyer. Police love this response as it causes people to talk and talk themselves right into being charged and convicted. It’s not how you look that counts, it is whether you are found responsible by your university. And whether or not the universities think only “guilty” students get lawyers (and, in my experience, university administrators do not think that way), most students found “guilty” lacked lawyers.
A skilled college student defense lawyer will not make any student look guilty. Instead, the lawyer will help the student and family gather and present evidence in the most persuasive way possible. The lawyer will also help navigate the complicated university discipline systems. The lawyer also can liaison with university deans and administrators in a frank and objective way that’s impossible for parents or students to accomplish.
My Kid Told Me It Was No Big Deal
My response to this? Let me be blunt: If your child really was so on top of this situation then it would not have happened in the first place. No college student should be placed in the position of having to be investigator, lawyer, and student simultaneously. If you as a parent want a child to “learn a lesson” and accept the consequences and responsibility of defending themselves, then make sure you – as a parent – are also ready to accept not only suspension or expulsion but the obstacles that will flow from even from “notations” on a transcript of having been found responsible. Those consequences range from difficulty getting into graduate school, difficulty finding a job, difficulty in getting professional licenses like law and medical licenses, and getting security clearances.
My answer to the question “Is it too late?” is no. We often get hired after a student has been suspended or even expelled. It’s never too late for us to help. But it will be too late to have gotten the best possible outcome at the earliest possible time with the least interruption to your student’s academic and professional career.
Great section on why lawyers are so important in these trials, especially lawyers with experience in the university judicial trials. While certain due process standards should be in place, they are too frequently missing in these trials. Experienced student defenders are vital to making sure students due process needs are met. Great article!