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Trinity College Fights Ex-student’s Request for Anonymity in Lawsuit

HARTFORD, Conn. — A former Trinity College student who was suspended in the middle of his final semester for allegedly copying another student’s homework assignments is seeking to remain anonymous as he fights the discipline in a lawsuit against the private liberal arts school in Hartford.

Trinity officials are opposing the former student’s request to use a pseudonym throughout the court proceedings, saying it would set a dubious precedent. One legal expert called the request unusual.

“There is a very real concern that allowing students to anonymously file lawsuits challenging disciplinary or academic decisions will lead to a groundswell of litigation, particularly by students whose families can afford the services of a lawyer,” Trinity’s attorney, Jonathan Sterling, wrote in court documents. “This would … discourage schools from appropriately disciplining students for fear of lawsuits.”

A judge recently heard arguments on the pseudonym request. It’s not clear when a ruling will be released.

The former student, who has been permitted by a judge to use the name John Doe in initial court documents, sued Trinity in Stamford Superior Court in April, seeking undisclosed damages. His claims include that the school failed to hold fair and impartial hearings and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on him, causing him panic attacks and other health problems.

He says school disciplinary panels incorrectly and unfairly judged him guilty of “academic dishonesty” and permanently placed the one-semester suspension on his transcript, making it harder for him to get jobs or get into a graduate or law school.

He says he needs to use a pseudonym to protect his reputation while he fights what he calls the “far-reaching and misleading label of academic dishonesty.” If his real name is used, then that label will always be with him even if he’s vindicated, his lawyer, Steven Mednick, wrote in court documents.

Mednick declined to comment on the case. Sterling did not return messages seeking comment.

Doe went on to graduate this year after serving his suspension.

In Connecticut, people seeking to use pseudonyms must show their interests outweigh the public’s interests.

In the lawsuit, Doe says he and a fellow student worked together in the spring of 2016 to complete three homework assignments for a “Principles of Movement” class taught by a theater and dance associate professor. After they submitted the assignments, the professor, Lesley Farlow, accused them of “academic dishonesty” by copying each other’s homework and they were referred to a disciplinary panel, the lawsuit says.

The panel, which included two faculty members and four students, suspended Doe for two semesters through Dec. 21, 2016, finding that he inappropriately used another person’s work on the assignments. Doe appealed. An appeal panel reduced the suspension to one semester, but also increased the discipline by permanently placing the suspension on his transcript.

Farlow did not immediately return a message seeking comment Tuesday.

Richard Asselta, an attorney who handles school discipline cases in Florida and New Jersey, said it is not common for college students to sue their schools after being disciplined for plagiarism, cheating or other academic dishonesty. And when they do sue, they usually use their real names, he said.

But Asselta, who is primarily based in Plantation, Florida, said he understand Doe’s arguments.

“When students are collaborating and they’re getting information from the same sources, sometimes it’s not black or white whether they cheated,” he said. “I’ve seen students found responsible on little or no evidence. Nobody wants to have this label of academic dishonesty on their record or have to disclose it. If you get an academic dishonesty charge, that can follow you.”

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