©2014 Kenneth N. Margolin
Preparation, and a lot of it, is critical to success at a college disciplinary hearing. Unfortunately, too many students prepare casually or not at all, for their hearing. The same undergraduate student who would spend hours preparing for an oral presentation in class, or graduate student who would rehearse his presentation of a scholarly paper a dozen times, may waltz into a disciplinary hearing with little preparation, and less thought. There are several usual reasons for this troubling phenomenon. A principal reason is a failure to understand the seriousness of the process. Even though the student Handbook or the notice of conduct code charges, may state explicitly that suspension or expulsion may result if the student is found to have committed the violation as charged, students often simply don’t believe it. Their false sense of security is often encouraged by college officials who inform the students of the charges against them, and who are supposed to help the students understand the process. Typical is advice to the student such as, “don’t worry – if you just tell the truth, you should be fine;” “just go in and tell your story, that’s all you need to do,” “I doubt that the Committee will do anything as severe as expelling you.” College officials convey the message that they are there to help the student, and that the disciplinary hearing is simply another part of their college experience.
The reality at the hearing, if the charges are serious, can be quite different than what the student was led to expect. Stories from students are common, of disciplinary committee members asking tough questions, one after another, questions for which the student was not properly prepared to answer persuasively. If the student does attempt to – in their view – simply tell the truth, they may be met with incredulity, leaving them frightened and confused as to what to do next. An unprepared student may be disorganized at their hearing, giving a confusing version of events, saying things they shouldn’t, and forgetting to make critically important points. The situation for an unprepared student is made immeasurably worse by the fact that most disciplinary codes do not allow attorneys to be present in the hearing room – a travesty of justice when a six figure investment may be taken from the student, and their future impaired. Most student handbooks do allow the accused student to bring a faculty advisor from a restricted list, with them. The advisor may do more harm than good, discouraging the student from assertively sticking to what they state is true, if challenged by hearing committee members, and acting too much in alignment with the school. Few faculty advisors are skilled at helping a student to prepare their defense and schooling them in how best to present themselves at the hearing.
While I am of course biased, though it is a bias borne of experience, I believe that any student charged with a disciplinary offense that can result in suspension or expulsion, should seek the assistance of an experienced attorney. An attorney who understands the college disciplinary world, will help insure that the school respects the student’s procedural rights, the right to be apprised of the bases for the school’s charges, and the evidence the school possesses, being especially important. The attorney will work extensively with the student helping him or her understand how they should conduct themselves in the hearing, what types of arguments to avoid making, and what points to emphasize, and how to do it. I prepare a bullet point outline for students I represent, and have them practice their presentation with me. The point is not to have them appear overly coached, but to make them more comfortable and effective with their self-advocacy.
If a student cannot retain counsel, they must take the task upon themselves, to prepare diligently for their hearing. They should thoroughly understand the school’s disciplinary rules, and ask college officials to give them all the rights to which they are entitled. They should think carefully about the charge against them. If true and provable, they should consider putting their energies into how they will persuade the disciplinary committee members to allow them to continue their education, and to trust that they will abide by the rules in the future. If the charges are false or exaggerated, then the student must carefully consider how to most powerfully undercut the reasons why the college officials believed them to be true, and brought the charges. Some suggestions on how to prepare for a college disciplinary hearing can be found on this web site, in the document, A Guide to College Disciplinary Proceedings. Practice and preparation make a lot of life’s endeavors better. Add defending a charge of violating a college’s code of conduct, to the list.