How to Prepare for a Disciplinary Hearing at Your School
If your school gives you a hearing, how you prepare for that hearing will be incredibly important. A number of things will happen at the hearing. Thinking about each thing well in advance is essential.
Frankly, what the school is expecting of you is unreasonable. You are being asked to be your own lawyer against a system that is unfair and stacked against you. This may be the one place where what the school says about its process is undeniably true: it is intended to be an educational process. The problem is that what you learn is that the school is not a very fair place.
Here are the key things to think through as you represent yourself in a disciplinary hearing.
First, think clearly about what your demeanor at the hearing will be. As we discuss in other places in this book, the dynamics of these hearings are incredibly challenging.
Your accuser will usually come in full of emotion. It may feel as if the oxygen has just been taken out of the room after her testimony. Just about everyone there with the slightest amount of humanity in them will want to react emotionally and try to offer support.
If you aren’t prepared for that, you will likely get angry, because being accused of a horrible crime that you didn’t commit is maddening. If you give in to that impulse and become angry, then you’re playing into a regrettable emotional template—she’s a rape victim who is wounded, and you are the angry aggressor who is attacking her . Perhaps a very lawyerly hearing panel would look at the facts in a neutral way after that, but those panels are few and far between.
So do not, as Yoda taught us long ago, give in to your anger.
Practice what you have to say in a way that doesn’t show anger. To the extent that you can, try to show empathy toward your accuser. In our experience, the vast majority of accusers are not intentionally lying; rather, for complicated reasons that are beyond the scope of this book, they have come to convince themselves of something that simply isn’t true. That’s a terrible thing for you, but it’s not the same thing as lying. Try to keep that possibility in mind.
If there is any part of that night that you regret, and you can show regret without saying that you’re responsible for a sexual assault, that may be a good thing to do. It’s better to accept responsibility for something small to show that you’re human and that all of this is affecting you. If you were drunk, accept that and say you regret being drunk. If you treated your accuser disrespectfully, say that and apologize for it. Admitting your mistakes isn’t the same thing as admitting to sexual assault; try to be aware of that.
It’s also OK to show how these charges have affected you. You can talk about the stress they have caused you and your loved ones or how they have affected your schoolwork or some other aspect of your life. But, as best you can, try to articulate these things without getting angry.
Discussing the Evidence
Often there is evidence that you will need to talk about, such as text messages, a diagram of an important location, or some other electronic record that’s relevant to what happened.
Do not just hand the documents to the panel and assume that they will read them. You have absolutely no guarantee that they will. Instead, work a discussion of that evidence into your statement. If you have text messages that show something important, say what they show, then pull up the text messages, make sure everyone has a copy of them, read them to the panel, and say again how they show what you’re saying. (In short: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.) They’ll leave a bigger and better impression than if you just toss the evidence over to them at the end of the hearing.
You don’t want to be in a position where, after the hearing, the panel has ignored a big part of the evidence. Sometimes a panel ignores evidence because you yourself ignored it in your presentation. Everyone is busy; help the panel members help you by telling them what to focus on. If it’s important, make sure the panel knows that.
Many schools let you put on character witnesses. You could certainly use a professor who thinks you’re a good student, which isn’t nothing, but we tend to think your better witnesses are women who like you—those who can talk about how you treat them and how they’ve seen you treat other women. For example, if you have female friends who can talk about times that you walked them home from a party and looked out for them after a night of too much drinking or about how they walked in Take Back the Night with you, that can mean a lot more than telling the panel that you were an Eagle Scout.