Your Baltimore Criminal Lawyer has never blogged on a part of our practice that absolutely drives us nuts. School discipline hearings. ENlawyers have handled school discipline hearings at the high school and university level. We’ve worked at UMBC, Towson, Maryland, University of Baltimore, St. Joe’s, and Baltimore County Public Schools. There is only one conclusion we’ve reached, due process does not exist and is a complete farce at these hearings. I recently saw this article about Duke University and I’m glad we at ENLawyers aren’t the only ones who think its a joke.
School discipline hearing: What is it?
If you are in high school or college, the school discipline process becomes involved in your life when some sort of behavior that occurs, either on campus or off, that also would be charged as a crime. Simple examples include fighting, theft, or underage drinking. In addition to criminal behavior, other types of behavior could bring you under the school discipline process, such as cheating, plagiarism, or academic dishonesty. Finally, quasi-criminal behavior could allow a school to discipline you in some fashion, such as sexual harassment or discrimination practices (hazing, etc). Once you engage in the behavior, the school sends you a “charging” document that informs you that your behavior could result in some sort of sanction. Usually the school asks you for a meeting, where you are required to confess your sins. If you refuse a meeting they put you through a hearing where an investigator presents evidence and there is no meaningful opportunity for a lawyer to cross examine the investigator (or any other witnesses for that matter). Then the discipline is imposed at will.
Does the process vary by school?
Yes. While in law school, I was the investigator for the University of Baltimore School of Law disciplinary board. The law school had excellent due process requirements and forced me, as the investigator, to do a thorough job working on my cases. It also allowed a lawyer to cross examine me and present a meaningful case at a hearing. That can be contrasted with the complete farce of due process provided through Towson University’s disciplinary process. Towson’s “charging” letter is an open ended invitation for the student, who is being accused of misconduct (usually our clients have been charged with crimes too), to schedule a “meeting” with an advisor to talk about the problems. The meeting is actually an ambush designed to get the student to admit their wrongdoing. Neither a parent or attorney is permitted to be present. I truly wish that attorney client privilege would allow me to post these insidious letters our clients have received from Towson University. Of course, if you refuse to go willingly and admit your wrongdoing, Towson “emergency” suspends the student pending the disciplinary hearing. While Towson says that evidence can be viewed in advance, they will not provide copies and will not allow copies to be made, even at our own expense. As a result, ENLawyers will go to the Towson University office to review the files. The disciplinary hearing is in front of 2 students and 1 faculty and is presented by the investigator. Usually only one witness (the investigator) is called. Cross examination by an attorney is prohibited, but the attorney is allowed to be present at the hearing. The only cross permitted is by the student (who usually has no ability to meaningfully cross examine anyone). After the hearing, a decision is made by the group of 3, and we’ve never heard a not guilty at Towson. Towson then imposes their punishment, usually a mandatory and immediate 1 year suspension from school. Our experiences have been better at other schools. For example UMBC and Baltimore County Schools allowed for attorneys to cross examine witnesses. But the processes are still flawed.
I got a letter from my school, what do I do?
Even though the process is flawed and a complete farce, an attorney can still be incredibly helpful and if you’re charged with a crime, absolutely necessary. For example, if your criminal charges are dismissed, we have successfully forced Towson University re-instate the student pursuant to their own code of conduct. Also the disciplinary process gets us an early look at the evidence the State’s Attorney’s office will use at a later criminal prosecution. Finally and most importantly, any suspension or expulsion will be on your permanent record and will effect your ability to transfer to another school and get a job. You need to fight for your rights to stay in school and having a lawyer involved from the earliest moment possible will help ensure that you don’t sink your own ship by providing a statement to the school investigator.
ENLawyers bottom line
We will closely watch the Duke case to see if there are any legal possibilities in challenging Towson University’s completely laughable due process. Other institutions, while having better controls, are still flawed. But some due process and a lawyer who will fight to enforce your rights is better than none. Call us if you are faced with a school discipline charge!