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New York Court Upholds Student Discipline For Student Code Of Conduct Violations
Several students of Syracuse University, a private university located in New York, were pledging for the University’s chapter of the Theta Tau fraternity (Chapter). The students participated in video-recorded skits in which they expressed hatred for certain racial groups, ethnicities, and religions and imitated sexual violence against women and disabled persons. The video-recorded skits were posted on the Chapter’s private Facebook page.
After a female student received access to the Chapter’s private Facebook page, she recorded the videos and shared them with University administrators and its student-run newspaper. The student-run newspaper and local media outlets shared the videos, which roused campus-wide demonstrations and protests.
In response, the University’s Chancellor made a statement to the University community that the conduct in the videos was unacceptable and contrary to the University’s moral standards. He further stated that the University was conducting a formal investigation to identify the individuals involved and to take legal and disciplinary action against them.
The University conducted an investigation into the pledging and current members of the Chapter and charged the students who participated in the skits with violations of the Code of Student Conduct (Code). After a disciplinary hearing before the University Conduct Board, the students received sanctions of between one and two years, which were affirmed by the University Appeals Board.
Thereafter, the students sought judicial intervention seeking to invalidate the University’s disciplinary sanctions, contending that the University failed to adhere substantially to its own rules and guidelines for disciplinary proceedings. The trial court disagreed and upheld the disciplinary sanctions. The students appealed the trial court’s decision.
On appeal, the court determined that the University had substantially adhered to its own rules and guidelines for disciplinary proceedings from the time the University provided the students with timely and adequate notice of the charges against them through the disciplinary hearing and the subsequent discipline imposed. The court noted that while the University’s Chancellor statement to the University community “risked creating the appearance of predetermination in a pending investigation and disciplinary process,” the evidence indicated that the University otherwise substantially followed its own policies and procedures, and the students were not deprived of a fundamentally fair process.
Doe 1 v. Syracuse University (N.Y. App. Div. 2020) 188 A.D.3d 1570.
Private schools, universities, and colleges must provide their students a fundamentally fair disciplinary process, and must follow their own policies, procedures, and guidelines for investigations into student misconduct and for student discipline. It is also best practice to refrain from making statements about pending investigations that give the appearance of bias or prejudgment, and student privacy rights and interests must always be considered and protected.