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Every Breath You Take: Why Students Get in Trouble for Off-Campus Conduct

By February 13, 2014September 25th, 2023No Comments

No, it doesn’t matter that you were off-campus. It may not even matter if you were out of the country.

Student defense clients and their families often can’t believe that an alleged conduct violation occurring off-campus can still violate college student conduct policy.

“But it didn’t even happen on campus – how can the college get me in trouble?”

“Why does the university even care about what happened off-campus?”

To the colleges what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.  The schools assert jurisdiction over all student misconduct no matter where it occurs.  The typical student rights or student conduct handbook will have a catch-all provision reading something like:

Inherent Authority:

5. The University reserves the right to take necessary and appropriate action to protect the safety and well being of the campus community. Such action may include taking disciplinary action against those students whose behavior off University premises constitutes a violation of this “Code”. [1]

How can they do this?  Well the student conduct code is simply part of the overall bargain studentsand their families agree to when they enroll. In return for taking your tuition money the university subjects you to any rules they may come up with.

Why do they do this? It’s actually understandable that the colleges care about what their students do off-campus. No university likes to be associated with negative publicity. So if students commit crimes, engage in racist, sexist or just distasteful behavior that behavior can reflect poorly upon the university.

But proof is a problem for off-campus violations since by definition the schools have less information about off-campus activities. But college and university discipline proceedings seldom allow problems with proof or evidence stand in the way of their delivering “justice.”

Anonymous tips, tattling by other students looking to help their own student misconduct cases, dismissed criminal cases, acquittals in criminal cases, and convictions are all given equal weight by the colleges in their “judicial” process.

Thus, in our practice we have seen students found responsible for off-campus conduct ranging from possession of false IDs to criminal convictions that had nothing to do with other students or the campus.

And these “inherent authority” policies are inherently inconsistent with other parts of the school codes. The schools should examine their own sanctions. Typically the sanction of “removal” leads the way for more serious conduct [2]. The student may be removed from campus housing or removed from the school altogether (suspension or expulsion). This sanction rests on the idea that misconduct occurring off-campus does not threaten the safety and standards of the on-campus community. That’s why they punish students by kicking them off-campus.

But then the schools turn around and also assert that off-campus conduct equally violates studentconduct codes.

Go figure.

“Every breath you take, every move you make…every step you take…every word you say, every game you play, every night you stay…every vow you break…I’ll be watching you.” – Sting

[1] “Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities.” The George Washington University Office of the Dean of Students. 2011-2012.

[2] Student misconduct violations with sanctions not even raising potential removal from campus housing or enrollment are treated so lightly by the schools that my law firm often representsstudents for free for these violations. But note:  a couple of these lesser violations will quickly add up if the student ever faces a more serious “removal” charge.

Shan Wu

Author Shan Wu

Shan’s professional and personal background gives him a unique understanding of academic institutions and the criminal justice system. A former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., he is at home in D.C. Courts and very familiar with all of the Washington, D.C. law enforcement agencies, especially the Metropolitan Police Department. His parents were university professors so he grew up in a university environment. He understands the mindset of academic institutions. As a prosecutor, he supervised in the misdemeanor crime section. This is the section of the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office that handles most college student cases. His understanding of charging decisions and how judges view these cases is invaluable to his student clients and their families. Shan served as a federal prosecutor in the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia for over ten years. During his tenure there, now Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. appointed him to supervisory positions in the Misdemeanor Trial Section and also in a police corruption task force. His outstanding legal work in the government was recognized through numerous Special Achievement Awards from the Justice Department as well as awards conveyed by law enforcement agencies and community groups. From 1999-2000, Shan served as Counsel to Attorney General Janet Reno, advising her on criminal and civil investigations, E-Gov, E-Commerce (electronic signatures, internet gambling, internet telephony, privacy & public access issues in electronic court filings), congressional oversight, and legislative review. His responsibilities included serving as liaison to the FBI, DEA, Criminal Division, Executive Office of United States Attorneys, National Institute of Justice, and White House Counsel’s Office. Shan serves on the D.C. Bar Association’s Hearing Committee of the Board on Professional Responsibility and is a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association for the Greater Washington, D.C. area. He is a 1988 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, where he graduated Order of the Barristers, edited two law reviews, and was Co-Director of the Moot Court Program. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from Vassar College as well as a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Following law school, he clerked for the late Hon. Jerry Buchmeyer, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and the late Eugene Wright, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He is admitted to practice law in the District of Columbia and Connecticut.

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