International (mis)understandings: What happens to international students if they break the law?


Photo courtesy of Bruce Walton

Bruce Walton

For many students, college is a place of freedom from authority, to let loose and be reckless is a cultural rite of passage for Americans. International students, in fear of facing consequences of the state, cannot afford that freedom.

Abdullah Jamal, a sophomore aeronautics major who was raised in Jeddah, a city close to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, has lived in the U.S. for two years. International students, Jamal said, are more likely to abide closer to U.S. laws because they could face deportation.

“I know that breaking the law here can lead to you getting deported,” Jamal said. “So it’s not a lot of international students want to go through that kind of trouble.”

More than 2,500 students from more than 100 countries come to Kent State every semester to study abroad, learn new skills, explore American culture and earn their degree. But there are many circumstances — from cultural misunderstandings to outright recklessness — where some international students may break the law. So what happens to those students when they commit a crime or act of misconduct? Do international students face the same consequences as domestic students?

Violating the Code of Student Conduct

“The Code of Student Conduct applies to all Kent State students,” said Todd Kamenash, assistant dean of students and director of Student Conduct. “It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from, or where they’re studying…But any student who breaks a rule regardless from where they’re from still has to face the Code of Student Conduct.”

Full U.S. citizenship is the only major difference between international and domestic students, Kamenash said. Even with only a temporary visa, international students, like any other student, can and do make poor decisions, including disregarding authority or breaking the law. They are not immune from facing the consequences of the U.S. judicial system due to their international status.

Depending on the severity of the offense, international students could face both legal consequences in the criminal justice system as well as university penalties for violating the Code of Student Conduct.

Section 1: Jurisdiction and Authority

A. The Code of Student Conduct shall apply to conduct of students and student organizations occurring on university premises, at university-sponsored activities, and to off-campus conduct that adversely affects the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives in accordance with University policy regarding administration of student conduct.

Section 5: Procedures for Student Conduct Hearings

B. Any member of the University community may file an incident report accusing a student or student organization (“respondent”) of violating the Code of Student Conduct. Incident reports may be submitted to the director of student conduct in writing.

Minor offenses like traffic or speeding violations wouldn’t necessarily incite a sanction, said Desnee Stevens, assistant director of the international student services in the Office of Global Education. However, major crimes such as gambling, use or possession of alcohol while underage, destruction of property or impaired driving may lead them to be convicted in criminal court on top of facing consequences for poor conduct by the university.

There are times when the actions of international students aren’t sanctioned, Kamenash said, simply because Student Conduct isn’t informed of the case or isn’t provided with information from a policing agency.

When a student violates the Code of Student Conduct, he or she is often reported to the Office of Student Conduct. The office sends an email notification explaining to the student that he or she is accused of violating the rules, sharing the incident report and giving the student an opportunity to have a hearing. After being notified, Kamenash said the criminal proceedings are handled much like that of a domestic student, and international students are often advised to seek advice from Kent State international program coordinators and the American consulate.

Regardless, Stevens said that for first time or minor offenses with the law, international students might be treated with less severity than domestic students.

Off-campus violations

The code’s jurisdiction among students only applies to “conduct of students and student organizations occurring on university premises, at university-sponsored activities, and to off-campus conduct that adversely affects the university community and/or the pursuit of its objectives in accordance with University policy regarding administration of student conduct.”

Legal Process of Student Conduct

1. Student commits an offense that violates U.S. law and/or the Code of Student Conduct

2. If minor offense is reported: Student Conduct receives the report, emails the student in question and he or she faces potential consequences from the university. If major offense is reported: the student faces potential criminal charges as well as referral to Student Conduct.

3. If convicted of a major offense, student faces the legal consequences of the justice system. That student also faces the potential dismissal from the university.

4. If dismissed from the university, student has 10 days to appeal. If the student fails to appeal or win the appeal, he or she faces deportation within 15 days.

5. Student has the opportunity to apply at another university. If accepted, he or she can transfer immigration record to that university and does not face deportation. If rejected, he or she must vacate the country within the same 15-day period.

If an international student is charged with an offense for breaking the law, they are under the same laws that would apply to any and all domestic students, off or on-campus, said Carol Crimi, managing attorney for Kent State’s Student Legal Services.

Crimi said that U.S. law applies to all students, and if law enforcement officials have a reason or evidence to cite or charge them, then they have every right to do so. And once they are in court they are subject to the same procedures, constitutional rights and face the same penalties as anyone else.

Kent State ensures those students facing the judicial system have proper legal representation and advice with the potential for negative immigration consequences. This is the result of a recent Supreme Court decision, Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky, in which it was decided that, in accordance with the Sixth Amendment, any non-citizen must be specifically notified if their offense is a deportable one. The attorneys for Student Legal Services look to help international students avoid convictions of deportable offenses.

“It’s unfortunate, I mean the vast majority of our international students are very respectful of the laws and (are) almost afraid to violate anything,” Crimi said. “But there are some who don’t make a good reputation for others unfortunately.”

Deportable offenses, Crimi said, are defined as crimes of moral wrongdoing such as violent offenses without a victim, like gambling and prostitution, as well as sex offenses, drug offenses and theft.

International students, however, are treated with a higher level of sensitivity because of differences in culture.

Cultural legal differences

Kent State is aware of the cultural differences within the population of international students, and Crimi said that, within reason, the university attempts to be more sensitive and understanding of those differences. For instance, Chinese students often report handling the actions taken in response to being stopped by police officers in a much different way from American students.

“We’ve had a number of Chinese students who are charged with fleeing or eluding a police officer,” Crimi said. “Come to find out, in China, people actually do try to get away from the cops.”

It’s not just criminal sensitivity, however, that international students face. Often, it’s a lack of the basic understanding of U.S. laws and customs.

“It’s really overwhelming because you have to abide by these things and for me, coming from a culture that policies are not something that people pay much attention to,” sophomore journalism major Lassana Kanneh said. He said that it is often difficult and overwhelming for him to know about the laws and legal issues he could face while in the U.S.

Kanneh, who has attended Kent State for three years, but grew up in Liberia, a northwestern African nation, said his home country has few laws like the U.S. In Liberia, he said, there is no age limit for alcohol or drug use, or enforced speed limits for vehicles. Individual responsibility of being aware of the law, he said, is more important than society as a whole enforcing the law. It was a challenge, therefore, to come to a country where laws and regulations are handled in the exact opposite way

There are other cultural differences that students must face as well, such as how to handle racial discrimination and how to react in self-defense.

Jamal said he was confused when it came to responding to verbal discriminatory acts he experienced. He heard that as an international student he did not have the right to defend himself as much as American student do. At its core, Jamal said he believes the biggest problem other Saudis may have is that they apply certain behaviors that are acceptable in their culture but might not be in the U.S.

Dismissal and Navigating the System

In addition to the legal consequences, there may be further academic sanctions given to the student by the university, Stevens said, including probation for the rest of the semester or academic dismissal. However, only in worst-case scenarios will they be dismissed — and those cases are passed on to Stevens herself.

If dismissed, the student has 10 days to appeal, allowing them an opportunity to stay in the U.S. until further action is taken with immigration. In those 10 days, if student fails to bring evidence contradicting the case of the university, the university must terminate the immigration record. Once that happens, the student has 15 days to vacate the country. After those days, the student will then start to accumulate “unlawful stay in the United States” and a warrant will be issued to apprehend and deport them.

Disciplinary dismissal does not mean, however, that the student will be required to leave the United States. If dismissed, he or she cannot attend Kent State and, without being enrolled in a university, Stevens said they would have to leave the country anyway — unless they are able to find an alternative, such as transferring to another institution.

“We tell the student, ‘You have 10 days to either get admitted into another school,’ which sometimes they do,” Stevens said. “And it’s usually a regional community college or something. And sometimes they come back in 24 hours, and they’ve got admission to another school. And in that short amount of time, we’re able to transfer out an active immigration record to that other school.”

Stevens said it’s usually what happens when an international student is dismissed, but it is rare in which a large case is sanctioned to international students.

Whatever the case, Jamal doesn’t believe national restrictions of the law on international students takes away from the college experience and said he enjoys his time as a student.

“Whether these laws exist or not, I always think that if you’re in a country that is not yours, you should always be more respectful towards its people because this is not your country, this is not your hometown, he said”

Contact Bruce Walton at [email protected].