Honor Codes and Honor Code ViolationsColleges and universities often have honor codes. These honor codes typically require students not to give or receive aid on tests, exams, papers or assignments – or in other words, not to cheat. They may carry other requirements regarding student conduct or behavior. The honor code is typically explained when a student starts college, and typically students are required to sign a pledge that they have read and understand the honor code. While each school may assess and set different penalties for violating an honor code violation, a violation often carries serious consequences for the student, which, unfortunately, the student may not appreciate at that time.

Both short-term and long-term consequences arise from an honor code violation. Penalties for an honor code violation may include:

  • Outright dismissal or expulsion,
  • Suspension,
  • Probation, or
  • Reprimand.

Moreover, the college of university may require the student to:

  • Repeat the course in which the honor code violation occurred,
  • Receive a failing grade in the course,
  • Take an ethics course, and/or
  • Lose university or college privileges, such as being:
    1. Denied permission to participate in specified college activities,
    2. Denied access to certain university functions,
    3. Denied access to certain campus buildings, and/or
    4. Denied the ability to serve in a leadership position.

Depending upon the college or university, there may be a far worse and longer lasting consequence: the honor code violation is included in the student’s college or university files. While a federal law, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), requires colleges to maintain confidentiality of student records, the student may waive that protection and often will have little choice but to disclose the honor code violation and sanction. To explain, graduate or professional schools, certain employers, or the military often require a student to sign a waiver allowing full disclosure of a student’s record so that they may review and examine it in its entirety – including the honor code violation.

To repeat: An accusation of an honor code violation is serious and may have long-lasting, significant negative impact on a student.

Though different colleges and universities have different procedures for prosecuting honor code violations, usually a faculty member or other student may believe that a student has cheated or violated the honor code – and report it to school officials.  The college or university then brings the accusations before an honor council, which usually consists of students and a non-voting faculty adviser.

The student may not be given timely access to the written charges levelled against her or him, along with the documents that purport to support the charges, and in our experience, students often do not appreciate the procedures involved and fail to prepare adequately for the hearing. A student should read the school’s policies, gather witnesses and documents in his or her defense, consider requesting and demanding that his accusers or other witnesses be present in person, prepare various statements for a defense and spend time and effort readying for the honor council hearing.

In practice, the student faces practical disadvantages, some of which are noted:

First, though there is a presumption of innocence and the honor council must find the violation occurred using a preponderance of the evidence standard, in practice those may be illusory. When a faculty member challenges a student’s integrity, the faculty member’s testimony and words generally carry far more weight than a student’s, and since honor code violations are not common or commonly reported, the underlying perhaps unstated assumption is that no proceeding would have been brought unless the student was guilty.

Second, most students are not schooled in the art of preparing for a serious honor council hearing beforehand. They are allowed to be accompanied by another student or faculty adviser, but few faculty members will agree to assist a student before an honor council hearing; few student advisers understand the process; and in any event, the adviser’s role is restricted and limited. Preparation however is key and again few students understand how to prepare and mount an effective defense. At a minimum, the student should do the following:

  • Read and understand the university’s written policies governing the honor code and honor council,
  • Obtain a copy of all information upon which the accusation is based,
  • Identify possible witnesses,
  • Explore any possible justification for the alleged conduct,
  • Understand what particular questions may be asked at the honor council and practice how best to answer them,
  • Find out how the honor council works in reality, not just as reported in written school handbooks and the like,
  • Depending on the student and circumstances, request facing the accuser directly,
  • Ask for particular procedures that comply with due process, and
  • Ascertain if the honor council members or its faculty adviser have any biases against the student.

While most schools allow for an appeal of a finding of a violation of the honor code, the honor council hearing and proceeding is critical. Know this: the time to appeal the honor council ruling is short at many colleges and universities, sometimes as little as two days. Failing to appeal timely to the school or university often means that the honor council decision cannot be appealed to the school. Sometimes, students have no recourse except to file suit in court, an expensive and difficult process.

We strongly encourage students and their parents to retain an experienced lawyer to assist the student in preparing for an honor council hearing. Students should understand the consequences if they lose, and understand that if they are not adequately prepared, the chances for an acceptable outcome are not favorable. Although a student may be highly accomplished and intelligent, very few are trained and equipped to contest effectively an honor code violation at an honor code hearing or prepare an appeal. Practically, the deck is stacked against them.

Attorney Perry A. Craft has represented students and their parents in these type proceedings. If you have questions or concerns about honor code accusations, violations, processes, procedures, hearings, defenses, appeals or consequences, contact the Law Office of Perry A. Craft, PLLC, or call 615 239 1899.