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UNC first-year Issy Jakobuss said if she faced an honor court violation, she wouldn’t know where to start. 

“I'm not familiar with any of the resources that are out there,” she said. 

Transparency is important in understanding the Honor System and how it affects students, Hailey Desir, a UNC first-year, said.

“I think to a certain extent, if you don't know your rights, you don't know what to expect from honor court, you don't know the background of honor court, you kind of are going in there blindly without a knowledge of how you can possibly get out of this scenario,” she said. 

Though UNC's Honor System has been student-led for over 100 years, many students — like Jakobuss and Desir — are unsure of what happens once students enter the system. 

The UNC Honor System is composed of two branches: the Undergraduate Honor Court and the Graduate and Professional Honor Court. They are both tasked with processing infractions of the honor code and the Instrument of Student Judicial Governance. Created in 1974 and heavily revised in 2003, the instrument outlines honor code offenses, rights of all parties, possible sanctions and structural and procedural guidelines for the Honor System.

The charge

Honor code violations include offenses from acts of academic dishonesty and violence to the use of controlled substances. Following the submission of a complainant about a suspected violation, the Honor System process begins with an investigation. 

Director of student conduct Jennifer Spangenberg said the preliminary investigation is directed by the student attorney general, who — along with their staff — will charge the accused student if they deem the behavior in violation of the honor code. 

“They're going to examine the information that's reported and determine what information they might need to review,” she said. 

Though the student attorney general may discuss the case with the accused party, students have the right to remain silent, as their statements may be used in a hearing. 

After the student is notified of their charge, they receive information regarding the Honor System process and meet with their defense counsel to prepare for the hearing. 

The investigative counsel, which represents the University community, is also required to declare all evidence against the accused to both the student and their defense counsel. 

The hearing

A hearing follows the investigation and is largely dependent upon the plea of the student. If a student pleads not guilty, they face what Sashank Ganapathiraju, counsel in the undergraduate attorney general’s staff, called a "fact-finding hearing." In this hearing, five honor court members determine guilt or innocence based upon presented evidence. 

If a student pleads guilty, they may have an expedited hearing process granted to them by the student attorney general, or they may participate in a standard honor court hearing. The expedited process is heard by three honor court members.

Ganapathiraju said bias is reduced in the Honor System because the initial hearing is objective and looks at the facts of the case alone. 

"Fact-finding does not take into account many surrounding circumstances," he said. 

Students may alternatively decide to have a full guilty hearing if they assume guilt but do not agree with all of the evidence presented. Other hearing options are available on a case-by-case basis. 

The sanction

If a student is found guilty of an honor code violation, they are sentenced after the hearing. The instrument details all possible sanctions, such as academic consequences, loss of University privileges and penalties of record including the possibility of expulsion. 

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In deciding sanctioning for a student, Spangenberg said the honor court examines four specific factors. 

“They'll look at the gravity of events, the value of learning,” she said. “They'll look at equitable treatment across similar violations as well as other compelling circumstances.” 

Ganapathiraju said that while he cannot generalize the practice as a whole, an important aspect of ensuring equitable treatment relates to how cases of similar severity are individually sanctioned. 

“They want students who have commit[ted] similar offenses to not have drastically different consequences as a result,” he said. 

An appeal process is available following the resolution of a student’s case if students think they are eligible. Cases may be overturned by the Office of Student Conduct because of a lack of sufficient evidence, a violation of the student’s rights or the severity of sanctions. Appeals must be submitted within five days of the honor court’s ruling. 

Ganapathiraju said that students represent students within the UNC Honor System because the court should understand what students are going through.

“It's really cool that Chapel Hill is one of the very, very few universities who has a student-run Honor System, but I think it's valuable that we keep it this way,” he said.