College students and their families often wonder if simply admitting responsibility is the best thing to do when a student is accused of violating their college or university’s code of conduct or academic honor code. Sometimes this comes from an idealized concept of the school as a benevolent in loco parentis entity that will always forgive and help the wayward student. This approach suffers from the same problems of believing smooth talking detectives who tell suspects that the detective wants to help the suspect clear things up. “There are two sides to every story, and I want to give you a chance to tell me yours,” an excellent detective I worked with as a prosecutor used to say to suspects.
Of course, this wonderful opportunity usually meant waiving one’s right against self-incrimination and almost inevitably led to damning statements made by the suspect that would come back to haunt them. So, the first rule in criminal defense is make no statements. But there are many significant differences between defending a criminal case and defending a university conduct code case. Chief among those differences is knowing that students often have no realistic alternative to speaking about their alleged violations.
In a criminal case, if a suspect never speaks with the police, there is some possibility that the case simply withers and dies because the police lack proof. That is unlikely to happen in a college student defense case.
For starters, there is no right against self-incrimination in a university conduct case. In fact, most student conduct codes make it a violation not to cooperate in a university investigation! Nor do such rules violate the Fifth Amendment because a university conduct case is not a criminal case. Staying silent is not viable. A student who refuses to speak about an allegation or ignores the university process is likely to simply be found responsible with no chance of contesting the finding or mitigating the punishment.
When Should You Speak About the Alleged Academic or Conduct Code Violation?
You should speak about an accusation only when you are fully prepared to speak about it. In order to be fully prepared, you must understand when you will have to speak and what the consequences are about what you say. Effective colleges student defense means your attorney will help you understand when the school first requires communication from you about the accusation.
Many students and their families wrongly assume they should meet with the school at the earliest possible time and then determine whether the student is in trouble and whether they will need an attorney. They fail to understand that the student is already in trouble. That is why there is a meeting. All too often, these students and their families find that those first meetings go poorly and result in a more difficult defense later.
An effective college student defense attorney will help you prepare for the critical first meeting. If necessary, the attorney will help you delay the meeting until you have had the chance to fully prepare for it.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that initial meetings do not matter because they are not “hearings.” By the time a hearing is set it is very late to begin preparing your defense. That preparation needs to start immediately upon hearing that you’ve been accused.
How Should You Speak about the Alleged Academic or Conduct Code Violation?
Once you know when to speak about the accusation then you must learn how to speak about it. Effective college student defense requires careful preparation in presenting your side of the story. University administrators like to conduct initial meetings in a casual conversational style at times and this style easily lulls students into being sloppy about their presentation of the facts.
The only way to give accurate presentation of the facts of your case is for you to have undergone a thorough interview by your own attorney first and, if time permits, investigation should occur before you ever speak with a university administrator.
Once you are properly prepared then your conversation needs to be friendly but firm and clear. A well-prepared client will not allow sloppy or bullying questioning to make then deviate from the truth. How you appear to an administrator and/or panel is critical. It takes a lot of preparation to appear friendly and open while still being firmly in control of the presentation of the facts.
Why Should You Speak About the Alleged Academic or Conduct Code Violation?
Of course, students need to speak about accusations because they are required to do so but there is a deeper reason why it is important students speak about the accusations. That deeper reason is the basic premise of all school conduct codes – academic or behavioral – is that the schools believe students should learn from their mistakes.
Effective college student defense must incorporate this basic fact of the college and university mindset. A lawyer that focuses solely on knee-jerk denials does their client a disservice. While a student should only admit to truthful conduct, it is critical to understand that the school almost always requires some admission of responsibility (“guilt”) in order to feel satisfied. Admitting a mistake is an opportunity to learn from it. But knowing when, how and why an accused student needs to admit their mistake is the art of effective college student defense.
These materials have been prepared by Cohen Seglias for informational purposes only and are not intended and should not be construed as legal advice.