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Legally speaking: Nurses have legal rights when returning to school

Thursday January 23, 2014
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Your opportunities for an advanced degree or to seek certification in your specialty could not be greater than right now, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act. Selecting the right program for your goals is essential, and so is keeping in mind that students have legal rights and responsibilities, including the right to due process. Although courts generally support faculty decisions about student discipline and academic decisions unless the faculty’s own policies are not followed or constitutional violations occur, knowing how due process works can help if you face potential obstacles during your studies.

Due process

Simply defined, due process is evaluating a particular right that might be threatened and then determining what process is due, fair and reasonable in the situation before the right is taken away or compromised in some way. Due process protects you throughout your entire student status and regardless of what issue you are facing. A lack of due process can be raised by you as a student when, as examples, you are accused of misconduct (e.g., plagiarizing a portion of your dissertation) or when you are in academic jeopardy (e.g., a failing grade in a course or a dissertation that is not acceptable to your committee).

Misconduct and academic issues

Students in public academic programs enjoy U.S. constitutional protections afforded by the 14th Amendment. Because the school is a governmental entity, your right to continue in a program or to graduate from a program is seen as a “property” right. As a result, before being disciplined for any kind of misconduct, including dismissal from a doctoral program, a hearing must be afforded to you.

For students in private institutions, the protections listed for misconduct are not based on the U.S. Constitution, but rather on a “contract” basis. That is, whatever legal protections the private institution promises you must be afforded before any discipline against you can occur.

Academic decisions by either type of program also must adhere to the principle of due process, and the protections afforded you are the same regardless of the type of program. Keep in mind, though, that in contrast to a discipline for misconduct, a hearing for an academic decision by either academic program is not required.

You are not alone

Resources are available to help, guide and support you through the program. You also possess specific legal rights that, when needed, can be called upon with the help of a competent nurse attorney or attorney who can advise you and represent you, if necessary, while you are a student.

It’s vital students carefully review and continually revisit student handbooks and catalogs, dissertation requirements and other documentation to keep up to date on their rights and faculty obligations.

The following section explains your rights as a public or private school student.

Due process rights of public school students

In cases of alleged misconduct:
Receive notice of charges
Hearing prior to discipline
Present witnesses
Cross-examine witnesses
Decision in writing

Academic issues:
Consistent written notice from faculty/adviser/thesis chair
Instructions on how to
remedy problems
Student is informed of repercussions — poor grade, academic probation, release from program, etc. — if the problem is not remedied
A hearing is not required
prior to dismissal

Due process rights of private school students

In cases of alleged misconduct:
Faculty and academic decisions must be based on documented misconduct and applied in
a fair-minded manner.
Other rights institution
provides students

Academic issues:
Same as for public students

To see what else is trending in advanced education, visit www.Nurse.com/Advanced-Education.


Nancy J. Brent, RN, MS, JD, is Nurse.com’s legal information columnist and an attorney in private practice. This article is for educational purposes only and is not to be taken as specific legal or other advice. Post a comment below or email specialty@nurse.com. Visit www.Nurse.com/AsktheExperts/BrentsLaw to ask a question.