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COVID-19 Student Code of Conduct Violations: Social Distancing & Gatherings

Due to the legitimate concerns as to the fears involving the coronavirus and COVID-19, most, if not all, colleges and universities across the country are imposing strict rules and restrictions on students, faculty and staff as it relates to gatherings on and off campus. As student advocates and code of conduct attorneys, an examination of regulations at SUNY colleges and other public and private institutions - from Cornell, Rutgers, and Maryland to Harvard, New Hampshire, and NYU – reflect the enforcement of these rules through codes of conduct. As such, while the health and safety requirements can vary in the details from college to college, failing to abide by those requirements and rules will typically result in a violation of the Student Code of Conduct for that particular institution. As a preemptive measure to educate incoming freshman and previously enrolled students, colleges are provided documents outlining these requirements, as well as the procedures and potential consequences regarding on and off campus infractions, and requiring that students sign and agree to these terms and procedures. To be sure, these rules, restrictions and procedures may vary from university to university and even within the same institution as our responses to the pandemic evolve, but have no doubt that violations and the ramifications of the same can be quite severe.

PROCEDURES FOR ALLEGED VIOLATIONS

First, the Student Conduct Office, or whatever division of the university charged with handling these matters, will review particularly reports of prohibited behavior by students. That office will then determine whether or not the alleged actions are potentially a violations of that school’s COVID-19 rules and regulations. If the office determines that a person ran afoul of the rules, and therefore a violation of the Student Code of Conduct, the office will, or should, follow its own procedures for dealing with the alleged misconduct.

Typically, this would next involve some form of an investigation – speaking with the reporter and other witnesses, and, when available, reviewing any video surveillance or other documentary evidence of the conduct such as cell phone videos or social media postings about the incident.

CONSEQUENCES OF A VIOLATION

The consequences for a violation of COVID-19 restrictions, as with any violation of a college’s code of conduct, can be varied and grave. This is, perhaps, especially true during these times where all communities, including universities, are extremely sensitive to concerns and dangers regarding the coronavirus pandemic. A student may be subject to suspension, removal from campus, or even expulsion depending the accusation and finding. On the other end of the spectrum, if the college’s student conduct office finds that the violative conduct does not require “disciplinary” action, they may require some sort of educational intervention, such as classes, writing a reflective essay, having an extended conversation with the office or other administrators and safety officials, a warning letter, or virtual roundtable discussion with members of the community. Of course, even these sorts of non-disciplinary results will be logged and a record will be created, which can result in harsher penalties the next time there is an alleged act that violates these COVID-19 rules or the code of conduct more generally. There can also be a kind of middle ground penalty, most of which allow the student to continue to participate in classes and remain on campus, such as a formal reprimand from the dean, probation or probation with additional restrictions.

APPEALING AN ADVERSE FINDING

Colleges and university will have a process by which the student conduct office’s decisions with respect to whether a violation was committed, and the imposition of a disciplinary penalty can be appealed and reviewed internally. Many such colleges have very short and restrictive deadlines for such appeals from the receipt of the final outcome letter. Good reasons for an appeal to be granted involve new and relevant evidence that was not available at the time of the decisions, or significant procedural errors in the disciplinary process. Further, if the sanction is too great, an individual may also be able to appeal. A student can typically appeal by writing a formal Letter of Appeal and submitting it to the appropriate office at the school. The penalties can be reduced, the findings of fact can be changed, and/or the terms of probation or other similar punitive terms can be adjusted and altered.

EMERGENCY ACTIONS

Bear in mind, most colleges and universities will likely take the position that they have the power to immediately remove a student who is merely alleged to have committed some violation of the COVID-19 rules and code of student conduct on the grounds that it is a public health emergency. These kinds of impositions on fundamental notions of due process must be carefully scrutinized and guarded against even if the due process rights one associates with other areas of law are not equal or the same in this context. An interim suspension or removal from campus can be dealt with in many ways, separate and apart from the actual investigation and ultimate disciplinary decisions. This is critical because even a relatively brief interim suspension can have devastating effects on a person’s reputation in the community and their ultimate academic success.

Every infraction and accusation of committing a COVID wrongdoing whether due to a party or other non-socially distanced gathering, must rise or fall on its own merits. Even in the understandably uncertain times and frightening health risks, students have rights and scholarships and monies spent to attend schools should not be cavalierly compromised. Do not let a claim of wrongdoing merely ravage all that you have, or your child has achieved. Protect yourself, protect you child, protect your future. Simply accepting your fate, even in this highly sensitive environment, is not merely an injustice but a decision that can have adverse impacts on a student’s life for years to come.

Additional materials on college and university arrests, Title IX investigations, and disciplinary hearings is available for review. Further information about Governor Cuomo’s Executive Orders and both the Criminal and Family Courts during the pandemic is available at CrottySaland.Com’s COVID FAQ page.

Call our student attorneys, disciplinary hearing lawyers and former Manhattan prosecutors at (212) 312-7129 or contact us online today.

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