Representation of students accused of violating the Student Conduct Code

My experience representing students at California colleges and universities

I have represented students at all ten campuses in the UC system, including University of California Berkeley (UCB), University of California Davis (UCD), University of California Irvine (UCI), University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California Merced (UCM), University of California Riverside (UCR), University of California San Diego (UCSD), University of California San Francisco (UCSF), University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), and University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). I have also represented students at about half of the campuses in the California State University system, and at most of the major private universities in California, including Stanford, University of Southern California (USC), California Institute of Technology (Caltech), California Institute of The Arts (CalArts), the Claremont Colleges (Pomona College, Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, and Pitzer College), the Claremont Graduate University, the University of San Diego, the University of San Francisco, and numerous community colleges throughout the state.

Why are so many students being accused of cheating on online exams and assignments?

Ever since campuses in California closed due to the novel coronavirus social distancing requirement, I have been inundated with inquiries from worried students (and their parents) alleged to have cheated or collaborated with another student during an online exam or an online quiz. This is a situation common at universities across the United States. For example, in an article in the December 24, 2020 NYT, appears this. "Dr. Roberts, who is the director of the honor and integrity system at Kansas State University, said her school has seen three times the number of cheating cases in the spring and fall semesters. She said students are cheating in a number of different ways, including searching the internet for help on tests and using special websites where students can ask other people to answer exam questions."

It is possible, as Dr. Roberts surmised, that students are taking advantage of the relativley unobservable environment in which they do online graded exercises. There is another explanation, however. Professors are not yet adept at identifying bona fide online cheating. Pre-COVID, a professor or the TAs would proctor exams, and bust students they saw looking at each others' papers, or at cheat sheets. Now, because they can't do that, they are filing charges against students on the flimsiest or no evidence of cheating whatsoever, out of a sense that someone must be cheating, and rather than let the guilty students get away with it, it's better to accuse a bunch of students and let the Office of Student Conduct, or the Dean of Students, identify the guilty ones.

Unfortunately, the innocent students then have to defend themselves on bogus charges lest they get a sanction on their disciplinary records. And often, the accused students get a "DR" [did not report] as the grade for the course, which prevents them from registering for other courses for which the DR'ed course is a prerequisite. I have had clients lose an entire year of required courses (e.g., Organic Chemistry 109A, 109B and 109C) they couldn't register for while they waited for the DR to be adjudicated. In the most extreme cases, students have been waiting more than 6 months for their cases either to be dismissed or sent to hearing, with no firm date for when the Dean of Students office will make that decision. UCSD posted this statement on January 5, 2021: "The AI Review Request [for an accused student to get a review of his/her case] queue is currently backlogged. We are currently scheduling 2019-2020 cases in front of the Board. Students with violations from the 2020-2021 academic year should NOT expect their cases to be resolved this academic year."

Why defending against allegations of violations of the Student Code of Conduct is critical to your future

Being charged with violating the student code of conduct for cheating, plagiarism, sexual assault, or other conduct is the most serious thing that can happen to you as a student. Such charges, unless successfully defended, will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Many attorneys claim to be able to represent students charged with violating the student code of conduct. If you talk to someone other than me about representing you, ask them if they have ever succeeded in getting a student accused of plagiarism off. I did, and there are not many attorneys who have had such a successful outcome for a client.

I can provide arguably the best defense available for you based on my experience as a lawyer doing so for other students, and the thirty years I spent as a professor at the University of California, where I was on the other side of the hearing table from a student I had turned in to Student Judicial Services for academic dishonesty in one of my classes.

If you admit or are found to have violated the student code of conduct, you will be sanctioned, with penalties ranging up to and including suspension for one or more terms or permanent dismissal from your college. Dismissal from one of the UC campuses effectively means that you won’t be able to attend any UC as an undergraduate or after graduation, for professional or graduate school, as explained at III. G. 6. here.

Sanctions will be recorded on your transcript and/or in your disciplinary file, and in the case of some schools will remain there for up to seven years, e.g. see F. 4. on page 16 of the UCSB Student Conduct Code here, or, ominously, "forever," e.g. see answer to the question "If I cheat, do other people find out?" here and the answer to the question "Does a record of my academic integrity violation last forever or can it be expunged at some future date?" here.

Your disciplinary file will be made available to employers and medical, law, and graduate schools seeking information about applicants. [ For examples, see here , Question 3 here and the answer to the question "If I cheat, do other people find out?" on the FAQs page for students here.] While you need to give permission for release of information in your disciplinary file, you can imagine the consequences of refusing to give that permission on your prospects for getting a job or being admitted to graduate or professional school.

When applying for admission to graduate and professional schools or to state bar associations, or for employment with government agencies, independent agencies and many private employers, you will be asked to arrange to have the Dean of Students at your school provide a letter of clearance (aka letter of certification) that verifies that you did not violate any school policy and were not subject to any disciplinary sanctions while a student [ See here, here and here for examples. ] and/or verify yourself that you have not been sanctioned or asked to resign or withdraw from any educational institution, and have not resigned or withdrawn so as to avoid being disciplined for conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, or deceit.

Some schools offer students accused of violating the Conduct Code a non-reportable warning, with the promise that, "Once issued, records of non-reportable warnings are maintained only for in-house reference in case of subsequent violations." [ See here ]. The problem with that is that if you are asked if you were ever disciplined or sanctioned for violating the Conduct Code when you apply to graduate or professional school, you have to answer "Yes" because a non-reportable warning is a sanction. I know of a case where someone who misrepresented something on his application for graduate school had his Ph.D. revoked ten years after it was awarded, when the graduate school discovered the misrepresentation.

Additionally, when applying to professional schools or to state bar associations, or for employment with government agencies, independent agencies and many private employers, your references will be asked to verify that you have not been sanctioned or asked to resign or withdraw from any educational institution, and have not resigned or withdrawn so as to avoid being disciplined for conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, misrepresentation, or deceit.

Clear and direct discussion of the implications of having violated the code of student conduct when you are applying to law school or when you have completed law school and are applying to be admitted to the bar association is found under the heading "7. Violation of the Academic Integrity Policy and Bar Admission" here. A more nebulous discussion of the same question appears here.

Please note that while some schools offer the possibility of having sanctions imposed for violation of the student code of conduct expunged from your record after a few years have passed, expungement will not allow you or your references to answer “no” to the types of questions discussed in the previous three paragraphs. If you answer falsely, and your misrepresentation is discovered after you have been hired, for example, you could be fired and forced to pay back, with interest, any wages you had earned. For additional information concerning having your record expunged, please click here.

What to do (and what not to do) if you are accused of violating the Student Conduct Code

I cannot overemphasize the importance of adhering to the following steps once you have been notified in writing that you have been charged with violating your school's code of student conduct.

1. Do not admit or deny you committed academic misconduct if your professor asks you to do so. Many schools have a form available online that professors can present to students when they accuse them of cheating or plagiarizing in their classes. [ See here for an example. ] If you admit that you committed academic dishonesty, that admission is effectively irrevocable. If you decline to admit or deny it and later decide to admit that you did commit academic dishonesty, the consequences of changing your position will be non-existent or minimal.

2. Consider having a lawyer negotiate a settlement to end the matter under terms you find acceptable. An attorney may be able to negotiate a settlement with your college whereby you accept a sanction in return for pleading guilty to violating a provision of the code of student conduct. The advantage for you is that you know the outcome in advance, and sometimes the attorney can negotiate a reduction of the sanction and/or of the severity of the offense to which you cop a plea. Additionally, you retain the sole authority to accept or reject the offered deal; if you reject it, nothing is lost.

I have negotiated deals for students where the charges were dropped in return for the student voluntarily withdrawing from the school permanently. While this may seem to be an extreme outcome, the advantage for the student is that because the charges were dropped, there were no charges, so in the future (s)he will be able answer (truthfully) "No" to the question on job applications "Were you ever subject to any disciplinary sanctions while a student?"

3. Do not meet with school officials offering you the opportunity to tell your version of the events surrounding the charges against you without a lawyer advising you so you don't incriminate yourself. Anything you say during such meetings can and will be used against you in subsequent formal proceedings. When I go with clients to such meetings, the client says nothing, because anything I say cannot be used later to incriminate the student. Sometimes school officials, realizing they won't be able to browbeat a student into confessing when the student shows up for informal resolution represented by an attorney, will retract the charges knowing they won't stand up in formal proceedings.

4. Do not attempt to defend yourself at a hearing that will be held to determine if you are guilty of violating the student conduct code. You must be given a hearing if you demand one. At the hearing, the school will be represented by someone who has years of experience prosecuting students on charges such as cheating, plagiarism and other violations of the code of student conduct. You presumably have no experience in defending yourself against such charges. Plus you're scared, realizing your future is on the line. Which side do you think will present its case effectively?

You need a lawyer to put on a vigorous defense.

Some schools allow an attorney to represent you at the hearing. Other schools only allow an attorney to advise you during the hearing. I have helped students in both situations defend themselves against bogus charges of misconduct.

When students can only be advised by an attorney, I draft, with input from you, your opening statement, your testimony, your questions for witnesses who will testify on your behalf, and your closing argument. I also prepare you to be cross-examined, and I draft the questions for you to ask during cross-examination of the witnesses against you. During the hearing, I modify everything I have prepared for you in response to what actually happens during the hearing, which is pretty much never what we expect to have happen during the hearing, and present it for you in real-time to use when you make your case.

When students can be represented by a lawyer, I prepare everything discussed in the previous paragraph, but I make the opening statement, question witnesses including you, cross-exam adverse witnesses, and make the closing argument. You appear and testify as a witness on your own behalf.

Either way, I allow you to put on a strong defense to maximize your chances of not having a violation of the code of student conduct end up on your transcript, where it may remain for the rest of your life.

If the decision goes against you after a campus hearing

If things go badly at the hearing and you are sanctioned for violating the student code of conduct, there is one last chance on campus. Schools provide for an appeal of the decision that comes out of the hearing. Typically, the appeal is limited to arguing that procedure wasn't followed, the evidence presented doesn't support the decision, new evidence not available at the hearing has come to light, or the sanction is not proportionate to the violation. I can prepare an effective appeal that will maximize the likelihood that the decision will be overturned, or the sanction reduced.

Even after that, there is one more chance. I can petition for a writ of administrative mandate, asking a Superior Court judge to overturn the campus decision. To be clear, the barrier to success on a petition for a writ of administrative mandate is high but not insurmountable: the petitioner must prove that there was no substantive evidence presented at the hearing to support the hearing panel’s decision. In September 2017 I hurdled that high standard. I persuaded a Superior Court judge that there was no substantial evidence to support a UC hearing panel’s decision that my client had cheated on an assignment in an undergraduate class. The judge ordered the University of California to reverse the sanction imposed on my client, suspension for a quarter, and to remove all traces of the finding that he violated the student conduct code from his record, including from his transcript and from his disciplinary file. If are interested in additional information concerning going to court to try to overturn an adverse outcome on campus, please click here.

Contact Me

To schedule a free initial consultation, call me at (805) 845-8223, or email me at (please replace the "7" with the "at symbol"), or Click to send me an e-mail.

I will gather the relevant facts from you, and then give you an assessment of the prospects for a successful outcome if you decide to hire a lawyer.


Jumping for joy off the Santa Barbara Courthouse on Anacapa Street
after a Superior Court judge ordered
The Regents of the University of California
to revoke my student-client's one-quarter suspension
and to clear his disciplinary record
September 7, 2017

Copyright @ Michael J. DeNiro