High schools, colleges, universities, and post-graduate programs in New Jersey all face intense pressure to maintain high academic standards for their students. With the internet now making it easier than ever for students to cheat, schools have also become increasingly sensitive to incidents of academic misconduct. They'll do everything in their power to prevent students from taking shortcuts or cutting corners, and they are often quick to discipline students who may have made simple mistakes such as accidentally plagiarizing another student's work. Even if it was just an honest mistake or a lapse in judgment—or even if the accusations are outright false—a student can end up facing suspension or even expulsion. These disciplinary actions can stay on their permanent record and damage their future educational and career prospects.
If you've ever been accused of academic misconduct, you know how scary and intense the disciplinary process can be. Many students and their parents are at a huge disadvantage because they have no concept of how the school processes accusations—not to mention the standard of proof in school disciplinary cases is much lower than it would be in a court of law. While the vast majority of these accusations will never be prosecuted as crimes, they can have a profound impact on your future. It's not just about your grade point average or getting kicked out of school; it could also result in thousands of dollars in lost tuition and affect your job prospects in the future. That's why students, as well as parents, should take allegations of academic misconduct very seriously, even if the student is innocent or the offense seems minor.
When facing school disciplinary actions, you can't necessarily hire an attorney in an official capacity, but an attorney acting as an advisor can go a long way toward mitigating the damage. An experienced attorney-advisor can guide you through the complex and scary school disciplinary process while helping to protect your rights and guide you through the process of keeping your academic record clean.
Joseph D. Lento is a New Jersey-based defense attorney who has also helped thousands of students nationwide as an attorney-advisor in academic misconduct cases. Attorney Lento understands how high schools, colleges, and universities implement their academic policies, and he has an excellent track record of success. If you're a student (or parent of a student) facing charges of academic misconduct, the Lento Law Firm has provided the following important information to help you make informed choices.
What Is Academic Misconduct?
Academic misconduct can encompass a wide range of offenses, but it typically refers to any act that gives the student an unfair academic advantage or subverts the learning experience of others. Each school has its own policies for what it considers academically appropriate or inappropriate, and you can usually find this information on the school's website, a published Code of Conduct, or an Honor Code that sets expectations for students regarding academic integrity. Always be sure to review the school's policy regarding academic misconduct when enrolling in the school, so you don't violate a rule by accident.
Here are some common types of academic misconduct that students might face serious disciplinary action for.
Plagiarism is the act of copying and/or incorporating the ideas or works of another person without attributing credit to them. Plagiarism can happen in many ways. Some common examples include:
- Direct plagiarism—transcribing the words of another writer verbatim without citing or quoting the source.
- Mosaic plagiarism—drawing content from many sources and then combining them in a patchwork manner, again without crediting the sources.
- Borrowed or hired plagiarism—hiring or convincing someone else to do an assignment for you, then turning it in as your own (buying a term paper online is an example).
- Paraphrased plagiarism—the act of rewording someone else's original ideas to make it look as though you came up with them yourself (essentially attempting to mask the fact that you're really copying)
- Self-plagiarism—taking something you wrote for one assignment and turning it in for another assignment without creating new original material.
- Collaboration plagiarism—when you work with other students on research for an assignment, but each student does their own assignment based on the shared research, some schools consider it plagiarism because the research isn't completely original.
Plagiarism is often done by accident—you may not even realize your work is similar to another, for example—but because plagiarism is considered such a serious offense, many schools won't even consider the student's intentions when deciding on a punishment.
Cheating describes any instance when a student violates the established rules for doing coursework such that they gain an unfair advantage. Like plagiarism, cheating takes many forms. Examples may include:
- Continuing work on an exam after time is called
- Copying someone else's answers for an assignment or exam
- Bringing the test answers to class with you (e.g., as notes on your smartphone)
- Paying others to do your schoolwork for you
- Using unauthorized resource material to complete assignments (e.g., website platforms like Chegg or Slader)
Falsification or alteration of records
Falsification is any providing any false documentation or misrepresenting information to the school to gain an unfair academic advantage. Examples of falsification could include altering research data, altering grades, providing false information to get exempted from certain class requirements forging your signature on official documentation, etc.
Bribery is when a student offers money or exchanges something of value in order to improperly influence a grade. This is a serious offense and could result in expulsion.
Disrupting Other Students
When a student displays disruptive behavior in classes, labs, or other learning areas—or otherwise attempts to interfere with the learning activities of other students—it basically hinders the learning experience of others. The student probably won't get sanctioned for a single class disruption, but if the instructor or another student feels the disruptive student is making a habit of it for the purpose of gaining some sort of advantage, they could face disciplinary action for it.
Any action that serves to hinder another student's academic progress could be considered sabotage. Examples might include destroying another person's work, altering students' records, creating disruptions during an exam, or changing parts of a group project without permission from the other members of the group.
Collaboration among students is common for certain types of projects and assignments, but if you collaborate without express permission from the instructor (or on an assignment where it's been expressly forbidden), this is considered academic misconduct.
Unauthorized Sharing/Using Academic Materials
Unauthorized sharing is sharing or distributing course material without permission from the instructor. Students might share these materials by hand, via email, or by uploading them to sites like Chegg or Slader.
Advance knowledge is when you gain access to answers to exams or other assignments without the instructor's permission. It may also apply to having “inside knowledge” of an upcoming pop quiz or test that other students don't know about, giving you additional time to prepare for them. Schools often classify this as academic misconduct because it gives you an unfair advantage over other students.
What the Disciplinary Process Looks Like
Although each college and university has its own procedure for investigating and punishing misconduct claims, the majority of schools follow a process similar to the following:
Complaint. The majority of disciplinary processes start with someone filing a complaint against you. In instances of academic misconduct, it's usually an instructor, but it could also be a student or school employee who accuses you of misconduct.
Notification. The school will inform you of the accusation against you and tell you what happens next so you can prepare a response.
Review. An appointed school authority (either an individual or a committee) will review the facts and circumstances surrounding the allegation to determine whether it is valid and warrants further activity.
Investigation. If the allegations are found to have merit, the school will investigate the matter further. This stage may include having an informal interview with you to discuss the complaint and get your side of it. It may also involve gathering evidence and talking to possible witnesses.
Hearing. If the school believes there is sufficient evidence to move forward with discipline, they will schedule an official hearing, at which time you will appear before the disciplinary board to answer the complaint.
Determination of sanctions. The board/committee will make a final decision about your guilt or innocence and recommend any disciplinary actions if necessary.
Appeal. Before an adverse decision becomes final, you can appeal it.
What Are the Possible Disciplinary Actions (Sanctions) For Academic Misconduct?
If the disciplinary committee decides that you did commit academic wrongdoing, they will either impose a penalty directly (if they have the authority to do so) or recommend certain disciplinary actions (called "sanctions) to the Dean. Common sanctions for academic misconduct may include the following:
- Verbal or written reprimand.
- Failing grade for the course.
- Mandatory retaking of the course.
- Academic probation. Probation generally involves a set of stipulations or actions the student must meet in order to be restored to good standing with the school, along with close monitoring and regular visits with an advisor.
- Restitution (if your actions caused damage to another student).
- Restricted access. You may be forbidden to access certain parts of the campus, for example.
- Exclusion from clubs and other extracurricular activities.
- Loss of scholarship. (This especially applies to any scholarships you've obtained as a result of academic achievement.)
- Dismissal from the program or the school. (Dismissal may only mean exclusion from a certain program or department, and you may be allowed to reapply after a certain length of time.)
- Expulsion. Usually refers to a "permanent separation" where the student isn't allowed to return.
- Revocation of degree. In extreme cases, if the student has already earned prior degrees from the school, those degrees may be revoked.
What Long-term Consequences Could I Face if I Am Sanctioned for Academic Misconduct?
If the school finds you guilty of academic misconduct, it can result in lasting repercussions for both your academic and professional career. If you are expelled or dismissed from the school, you could lose thousands of dollars in tuition, not to mention the loss of any academic progress you have made so far. If you took out student loans for school, those loans must still be repaid—even without the prospect of a high-earning degree. In addition, many of the above sanctions may be noted in your permanent academic record, which could reflect badly on future applications. Some ways that academic sanctions could come back to haunt you include:
- Difficulty re-enrolling in another school or program (if you were dismissed)
- Difficulty getting accepted into graduate programs
- Difficulty obtaining certain types of financial aid for further education
- Challenges obtaining certain types of employment or a professional license.
- Challenges obtaining security clearance for certain jobs.
The bottom line is that even for seemingly minor offenses, a negative notation on your academic record can come back to bite you years down the road. When you're accused of academic misconduct, hiring an attorney-advisor to help you respond to the accusations may give you the best chance of avoiding these harmful repercussions.
Academic Progression and Remediation Issues
Every college, university, graduate school, and post-graduate program will have certain minimum academic standards that each of their students is expected to achieve and maintain. Sometimes, if a student fails to keep up academically, the school will address it in the same category as academic misconduct. In these cases, you could be complying fully with the school's standards of academic honesty and still wind up facing possible sanctions or dismissal from the school—simply for failing to keep pace with the school's academic standards.
Most colleges, universities, and post-graduate programs offer some form of remediation for students who struggle with their academic performance. Remediation options may include retaking a test, retaking a course, taking a special remedial course, special tutoring, etc. However, while remediation is theoretically intended to help the student recover lost ground academically and avoid dismissal, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes, students are pressured into remediation when other alternatives may be available—or perhaps a grade was miscalculated, which put the student into remedial territory unfairly. Some schools even treat their remediation programs as precursors to dismissal, so not a lot of thought or effort goes into what might actually help the student succeed.
In addition, remediation that isn't specifically tailored to your needs can ultimately hurt you. Here are some examples of what could happen.
- Students may have to spend more time and energy on remediation, which can lead to them being unable to do their academic work.
- Some degree programs have time limits for completion, and unnecessary remediation could make it difficult for students to complete their degree in the time allowed.
- Additional tuition and/or student debt may be incurred by taking remedial courses.
- Many remediation actions appear as a negative mark on a student's academic record. This decreases their ability to apply for future jobs and residencies.
If you're facing academic dismissal due to bad grades, or if you are being offered a remediation program that you're unsure about, these are also reasons to hire an experienced attorney-advisor who can help you evaluate your options, contest unfair grades, or negotiate better solutions to avoid dismissal.
Medical Students and Academic Misconduct
Medical students frequently deal with student discipline issues surrounding accusations of academic misconduct—largely because of the stringent pressures they face in completing their education. Before they can become doctors, medical students must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, then go through the rigorous process to get into medical school, which lasts another four years. After that, they will need to go through a residency program. Needless to say, that's a lot of time and money invested into one's career! So, when a medical student faces disciplinary action, they stand to lose even more than an undergraduate student facing the same types of allegations.
Medical students can have academic difficulties for many reasons. It could be that they are having trouble coping with the first year of medical school or dealing with a mental health or family problem. With intense pressure coming from many sides, they may think that copying, cheating, and other misconduct is a way to “skate by” in medical school until they have a better situation.
In addition, many medical students are falsely accused of academic dishonesty. These false accusations could be made by teachers or students due to jealousy, competition, anger about personal relationships, or other reasons. One student may copy work from another student to claim that the other copied it. Or a teacher might run a student's work through a plagiarism detector and it comes back flagged with similarities to other works. Any of these issues could lead to false accusations of academic misconduct.
Because medical schools tend to hold their students to high standards of accountability—and because there is so much to lose—medical students are ill-advised to face allegations of misconduct alone. The disciplinary process doesn't always place a high priority on fairness to the student, and most schools only need to prove the student's guilt based on a “preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In these cases, hiring a competent attorney-advisor could be the very thing that saves the medical student's career.
STEM Students and Academic Misconduct
If academic standards are high for college students in general, students enrolled in STEM-related majors face a supercharged version of these standards. STEM refers to integrated programs that incorporate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) into the student's curriculum. STEM-related careers are high-paying and in high demand, but the academic expectations for these majors can be grueling, to say the least.
Because of all these pressures and what is at stake, STEM students are often tempted to cut corners academically—and schools offering STEM programs are especially sensitive to this issue. The conditions are perfect for allegations of academic misconduct, whether or not they are substantiated.
When a STEM student is accused of academic wrongdoing, they can face intense scrutiny and swift administration of discipline right when they are trying their hardest to focus on their studies. Hiring an experienced attorney-advisor may be the best way for these students to avoid a catastrophe in their academic career that could greatly impact their professional future.
Student-Athletes and Academic Misconduct
College athletics are extremely popular with fans, and colleges and universities stand to generate millions in revenue by selling tickets to their sporting events each year. Most of these schools are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the body responsible for ensuring that regulations governing college student-athletes are followed. Because of the parallel pressures on student-athletes to meet minimum academic standards while performing well athletically, instances of academic misconduct are quite common among these student-athletes.
Many colleges and universities have made efforts to address academic misconduct in student-athletes, especially Division I schools that have high-profile athletic programs. These student-athletes have busy schedules, which often include travel for their competition season. This can cause them to miss classes and take less time studying. Although schools offer student-athletes more academic support, such as tutoring, they are also under intense pressure to hold their student-athletes to the same standards of excellence as other students.
The NCAA emphasizes the importance of coaches, administrators, academic advisors, students, and coaches to maintain academic integrity among the athletes, so it encourages participating schools to provide an "expedited process for academic misconduct" for athletes. Student-athletes who face disciplinary action for academic wrongdoing have a lot more to lose than just their standing in the school, especially if they are determined to “go pro” after graduation. Even if they survive the disciplinary process without being suspended or expelled, they risk being removed from the team, which could put a huge obstacle in front of their pursuit of an athletic career.
International Students and Academic Misconduct
Recent data has shown that an alarming number of international students have been accused of academic dishonesty. According to a report by the University of Windsor, international students are three times more likely to break academic integrity rules than domestic students. Unfortunately, if an international student is dismissed from an American college or university for academic misconduct, they not only risk losing their career prospects—they may be required to return immediately to their homeland or face deportation. If they are deported, they may be barred from returning to continue their degree.
Experts believe there are several contributing factors as to why international students are accused of academic misconduct more frequently than domestic students. These include:
- Cultural confusion regarding plagiarism and other academic infractions. Many foreign cultures encourage memorization, group work, and collectivism that differs from U.S. standards, which means their definitions of plagiarism are different than ours. As a result, many international students simply don't understand the rules they are breaking.
- Cultural differences teacher-student relationships. Because many international students hail from cultures that discourage questioning authority figures, they may be less inclined to ask their instructors for clarity when they don't understand something—leading them to seek answers on their own, possibly from prohibited sources.
- Written language barriers. Foreign students may be able to speak or write English, but they may still struggle to be grammatically correct given our complex rules of style. This often leads to the student cutting-and-pasting content, not realizing they are committing academic misconduct in the process.
- Increased stress and pressure to perform. International students may face intense pressure to succeed in school in order to impress their families and friends back home—all while adjusting to the cultural differences of American life. These stressors may sometimes lead to a temptation to cut corners academically.
When an international student is dismissed for academic or other reasons, their F-1 visa status is automatically revoked, and there is no grace period. If they don't file an appeal or enroll successfully in another program, they may be required to leave the country immediately. The help of an understanding attorney-advisor may be a lifeline for these students, not only because of the language and cultural differences but also because time is of the essence.
Students Studying Abroad
If you are a student participating in a study-abroad program, your school's standards for student conduct and academic honesty still apply regardless of what country you're studying in. In addition, many schools also have specific codes of conduct for students studying abroad. Students who break this code could face additional disciplinary action. If your school has a code of conduct for studying abroad, you should be familiar with it before embarking on a study abroad program.
While studying in a foreign country, you'll also have more to think about than just your own school's academic standards. You must also abide by the code of the school where you're studying—plus, foreigners living in foreign countries are required to observe the laws of that country. If you get into trouble with the law while studying abroad, there are limits to what the U.S. Embassy and Consulate can do to protect you.
The bottom line is that students studying abroad have at least three areas in which they could be accused of misconduct: their home university, the school where they're studying, and the host country. If you find yourself accused of a violation, it is important to seek the assistance of someone with experience in university disciplinary systems and legal matters. These are areas of law that only a few lawyers can navigate. Hiring an experienced attorney-advisor as early as possible into the process gives you a better chance of having the accusations dismissed.
High School Academic Misconduct
College isn't the only place where your academic choices matter, nor is it just college or graduate students who need to be concerned about the consequences of school discipline. The choices students make in high school can have a significant impact on their lives later. Your high school record is what they consider the first indicator of how you will behave in the real world, and colleges and prospective employers take notice if there's a notation on your high school record.
Being suspended or expelled for academic misconduct at the high school level can have a lasting impact on your ability to get scholarships, be accepted to top schools, or even complete your education. It can also limit the types of jobs you are qualified for as well as the employers who will hire you.
To complicate matters further, the disciplinary process for high schools is typically more informal than that of colleges and universities. Instead of facing a formal hearing and a panel, your “hearing” may consist of a meeting with the principal, your parents, and you. Schools tend to punish misconduct quickly and severely, often giving the student and parents few options for responding to the claims and often with minimal burden of proof. At best, you could be looking at a disciplinary process that looks like this:
- The teacher or administrator who caught the academic misconduct will confront the student and inform the school authorities.
- Notification is sent to the parents.
- The school conducts a brief investigation. This includes reviewing the evidence and questioning potential witnesses.
- School officials meet with the parents/guardians and the student to discuss the charges.
- The school makes a decision and determines the severity of the penalties.
- The student may be able to appeal against the decision before it becomes final.
Because disciplinary action at the high school level can be just as disruptive to the student's future as it is in college or grad school—and because there is usually a very short window of time before the school invokes punishment—it's essential for the high school student and their parents to seek help from a skilled attorney-advisor to attempt to mitigate the damage.
Facing Academic Misconduct Accusations Post-Graduation
If you believe you're “in the clear” once you earn your degree, think again. Sometimes, accusations of academic misconduct can arise even after a student receives their degree and accepts a job offer. If the college or university finds evidence or hears an accusation that you committed academic misconduct while you were enrolled—depending on the school—they may notify you that they are holding a hearing to consider whether to revoke the degree.
In most cases, the student who walks across the platform during a graduation ceremony is not handed their actual degree. The degree is mailed later after all the credits have been tallied and certified. If academic misconduct is discovered after the fact, the school may opt to withhold your degree even after you participated in graduation ceremonies. Many colleges and universities also have it written into their sanctions policies that they have the power to rescind a degree if a student is found to have violated their codes of conduct. Some schools establish a time limit for this to happen (similar to a statute of limitations), but many schools don't. This means, in theory at least, that you could face losing your degree even years after you graduate if the school finds that you cheated or committed other forms of academic misconduct while earning that degree. If you have started a career or profession based on that degree (e.g., as a lawyer or doctor), your entire career could be jeopardized because you no longer qualify for the position you hold.
Why would a school opt to revoke a degree after it's been given? There are several reasons:
- To protect the integrity and quality of the institution as well as its degrees.
- To ensure that other graduates are respected by their employers and the public that they have legitimately earned their degree.
- To remind current students that they must follow academic conduct rules in order to receive their degree.
- To assure prospective students and their families that the school is trustworthy.
Again, even in situations where a graduated student faces the possible forfeiture of their degree, the help of an attorney-advisor may be critical for preventing that outcome.
How an Attorney-Advisor Can Help Students Accused of Academic Misconduct
If you're facing a disciplinary hearing at your high school, college, or university due to academic misconduct, you won't be permitted to hire an attorney in an official capacity because it's not a court of law, and technically, anyway, you're not on trial. However, you have the right to have an attorney help you in an advisory capacity—and this can often make a huge difference between success and failure in student discipline cases. Here are some of the many ways an attorney-advisor can help you:
- Provide insight as to the school's expectations and policies and what they are accusing you of doing
- Provide understanding of the possible consequences of disciplinary action and ways you can avert them
- Provide key guidance in preparing a compelling defense to the allegations and how to negotiate for leniency
- Help you gather evidence and witnesses to support your defense
- Evaluate remediation opportunities to help you decide if they will benefit you—and advise you on how to negotiate for other options
- Assist with appealing unfair bad grades that could be jeopardizing your academic standing
- Provide an additional layer of accountability to make sure the school adheres to its own policies and keeps the process fair
- Help you strategize on opportunities to negotiate for a dismissal of the claims
- Help you prepare a persuasive defense for your formal hearing
- Help you prepare an effective appeal of an adverse decision
New Jersey Attorney-Advisor for Academic Misconduct Cases
Students who are accused by their school of academic misconduct are dealing with an uncertain future. You've invested too much into your education and your future career to risk everything by facing these disciplinary actions on your own. New Jersey defense attorney Joseph D. Lento is nationally recognized as a student defense expert, and as a skilled attorney-advisor, he has helped thousands of students in New Jersey and nationwide save their academic standing and their reputations. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to learn more about how we can help you.