Katie Meyer’s parents are suffering through unthinkable tragedy, the death by suicide of their daughter, who was a scholar-athlete at Stanford University.
They told NBC News that there were “no red flags” indicating Katie was in a terribly troubled place. But they recently received notice that Katie was facing possible disciplinary action over an unspecified incident, and that the disciplinary matter would be proceeding to a hearing—not dissimilar to a “trial”—shortly before her tragic suicide.
While it may never be known exactly how allegations against her may have affected her state of mind, I can tell you as a college student defense lawyer that the stress of campus disciplines case is enormous and, when combined with a lack of communication between college administrators and the student’s family, that stress may endanger a student’s safety.
In my legal practice, I defend college students accused of university violations ranging from academic honor accusations—involving collaboration on tests and plagiarism—to conduct cases involving COVID-19 violations and Title IX campus sexual assault. All of these different types of cases share a common theme of putting young adults in stressful situations without the proper support.
This is not to say that schools don’t offer any support. Most colleges provide resources with the accused student for counseling, or even student volunteer “advocates” to help them through the discipline proceeding. But offering this type of support falls far short of what is needed to support students facing campus discipline.
Let’s start by dispelling the idea that accusations against a student are the equivalent of being called into the principal’s office in elementary school for a stern talking-to and maybe having to stay after school.
Many people and student families do not realize that universities have entire offices devoted only to managing student violations. These offices are responsible for investigating, conducting hearings, and determining the punishment of the accused students. They also oversee appeals of students found responsible. In short, they are complete judicial systems for the prosecution of students with consequences far graver than being asked to stay after school.
For college students, an academic black mark on the record for academic dishonesty can be an obstacle in applying to graduate school and seeking employment. A finding of being responsible for a Title IX campus sexual assault violation can be the kiss of death in seeking corporate jobs.
One might expect that given the severe consequences and amount of resources devoted to the campus discipline system that the systems would appear similar to criminal and civil court cases. The truth, however, is that unlike the criminal or civil justice systems, these are not processes overseen by lawyers and judges. They take place hidden from public view. No rules of evidence apply in the hearings, which means that evidence such as text messages may be used against a student without any regard to the source of the evidence or whether the message is credible—versus having been doctored or excerpted out of context.
Witnesses in these hearings testify without being held under oath to tell the truth. Accused students are not permitted to have any advocate or lawyer ask questions, object or make arguments on their behalf.
On top of this, unlike police and prosecutors, schools almost never exercise discretion about whether to bring an allegation forward to a hearing. The result is that nearly every complaint leads to a student being fed into the maw of the campus discipline machinery.
In my experience, this sense of inevitability often creates feelings of helplessness for students that can be worsened if the student is isolated from support. Many students never tell their family about the pending discipline case and, oftentimes, the family is not kept apprised about the progress of the case by college administrators.
Colleges and universities typically do not alert parents about discipline matters—but they should, out of concern over the safety of the student.
The one barrier to that might be the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) law that requires educational institutions to keep the education records of a student private.
But this requirement is waived every day by students for the disclosure of their transcripts in applications for jobs and graduate schools. It is also waived for families and attorneys for students involved in a discipline case, so long as the student completes the waiver saying they want their attorney and family to have access to their records and be able to discuss the matter with the college administration. One obstacle, however, is that this requires the student to affirmatively ask to complete the waiver. It would be far more beneficial to students if such a waiver for disciplinary matters was completed as part of each student’s enrollment agreement, unless the student specifically opted-out of such a condition.
In Katie Meyers’ case, her parents have said they hope to start a conversation about opening up better communication between college administrators and parents, because they feel they missed a chance to potentially have saved their daughter.
Automatic notification from colleges to parents about academic and conduct allegations should be as commonplace as notices about graduations and fundraising events. To continue keeping parents in the dark is a dereliction of the fundamental duty to safeguard the wellbeing of their students that every educational institution owes to students and their families.
If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.