As colleges and universities revise their sexual-assault policies and California considers applying the “affirmative consent” standard statewide, many more students could find themselves accused of sexual misconduct in campus disciplinary proceedings without traditional due-process protections.
A Boston-area startup aims to make sure that students accused of anything don’t have to play legal roulette or rely on a shoddy lawyer.
Bonnie and Jim Garaventi launched StudentDefend earlier this month after an “eye opening personal experience with one of our own children at college,” Bonnie Garaventi said in an email to The College Fix. For $89 a year, the service gives subscribers access to a hotline that connects them immediately to a “prescreened defense attorney in their area,” its website says.
After speaking with other parents, lawyers and law enforcement officials, the parents decided that “while few families plan for a legal emergency at college, its [sic] something many end up having to deal with,” Garaventi said.
Attorneys are available 24/7 and provide “at least” 30 minutes of time to a member, “perhaps even up to an hour” depending on the attorney’s judgment, Garaventi said. The lawyers all practice criminal defense and have been vetted to ensure they are in good standing with state bar associations. She said many have high ratings from attorney rating services such as Avvo and are “Board Certified Legal Specialists in Criminal Law.”
Whether accused of misdemeanors or serious offenses, students can lose their financial aid, face suspension or expulsion, or get a mark on their criminal record, the website explains. Students are allowed to hire the attorney to represent him or herself, but are not obligated to do so.
StudentDefend’s FAQ page argues that students and their parents shouldn’t rely on student legal services on campus, whose offices “are not set up to handle urgent criminal defense matters” and have regular business hours, which means students getting in trouble on nights or weekends can’t use them.
Crucially for students in trouble with “university authorities or other students” – say, sexual-misconduct accusations – student legal services “may be unable to provide assistance due to conflict of interest,” the FAQ page says.
The Garaventis told the Boston Business Journal they only generate revenue from membership fees, not referral fees from attorneys, who currently number about 400 in its network. StudentDefend uses a call center in Massachusetts to route hotline calls to attorneys. While members can sign up now, coverage technically starts on Sept. 1, the Journal said.
Students who claim their schools botched sexual-assault proceedings against them, such as at Amherst College and Occidental College, have gone to court to clear their academic records, The College Fix has reported.
Mark Hathaway, attorney for the accused student in the Occidental case, lauded StudentDefend in an emailed statement to The College Fix.
When a student faces criminal charges, the best thing for him or her is to get access to quality legal advice, Hathaway said: “And any service that can to connect students to an attorney, such as StudentDefend, is a good thing to have close at hand.”
“An experienced advocate can help avoid pitfalls and insist that the university follows the law and acts in good faith,” Hathaway said.
College Fix contributor Matt Lamb is a student at Loyola University-Chicago.
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