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Errors of Admission?

May 18, 2006

The murder of Jessica Faulkner was tragic -- on that all parties agree. But does it suggest colleges need to change their approach to admissions?

Faulkner was sexually assaulted and murdered in 2004 in a dormitory room at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Her attacker and fellow student -- Curtis Dixon -- killed himself while being held on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. This week Faulkner's parents sued the University of North Carolina, charging it with negligence for admitting Dixon despite a well documented history of violence against women, including incidents at other UNC campuses.

While the suit seeks damages of $500,000, the primary goal of the litigation is to force colleges to do more thorough background checks on students who apply, according to Thomas C. Goolsby, who is the lead lawyer for Faulkner's parents. "This is about student safety and who is on our university campuses," he said.

University officials and experts on admissions are nervous about the implications of the lawsuit. Some fear it could create unrealistic demands on admissions officers, who they say should not be expected to make up for shortcomings in the legal system.

Faulkner had no way of knowing there would be a potential murderer in her dormitory. Dixon ended up in her dormitory because his application left off certain details, like findings that he had stalked and threatened a woman with a knife at the North Carolina School of the Arts (part of the UNC system) or that he was cited for disorderly conduct at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte or that he was dishonorably discharged from the Navy.

And Dixon didn't even submit the application himself. His father did and his father was at the time an assistant to the chancellor at UNC Charlotte. (The father is also being sued and has already admitted to forgery in the case, but could not be reached for comment.) The father, James E. Dixon III, also called the Wilmington admissions office on his son's behalf.

To Goolsby, it all adds up to an indictment of the way colleges admit students. "The university was clearly on notice about this student," he said, but the different campuses never shared information and no background check was conducted. He said that colleges should conduct background criminal checks on applicants routinely, and also examine service discharge records for anyone who was in the military.

"There are numerous college students charged and convicted of assault and stalking and the university needs to do more than ask whether you've been convicted of anything," he said. "Criminal records are easy to get. I get them from my office every day."

Joni B. Worthington, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina system, said that admissions officers -- as is the case at most colleges -- don't do routine background checks on applicants. With more than 100,000 applications a year to the system's campuses, a criminal background check on each applicant isn't feasible, she said.

However, Worthington said that a review by the university after the Faulkner murder led to a series of reforms in which certain "red flags" on an application result in full background checks.

Not everyone, however, agrees that colleges should even go down the road of trying to figure out whether former criminals who are not violating the law belong on campus.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said that his organization is constantly asked by members for advice on whether to screen applicants for "prior bad acts," and the advice is usually No.

In some cases, he said it does make sense to screen. If a state licensure requirement in a field bars people with certain criminal convictions from becoming nurses or doctors, for example, it doesn't make sense to admit them to programs for such training, he said.

But beyond that, he questioned why colleges should be charged with trying to figure out which former criminals are dangerous. "If an individual is at liberty in our society, why should that individual be denied education? What makes colleges competent to make extra-judicial judgments on people?" he asked.

People like Curtis Dixon can stalk and kill people from a store or a street off-campus, he said. If people think that the Curtis Dixons of the world are too dangerous to be around other people, the necessary changes would come in sentencing and other judicial reforms, not from college admissions decisions, he said. (He did distinguish this view from college decisions once a student is on campus, when it is appropriate to punish, kick out, or report to legal authorities someone who violates college rules, especially in ways that endanger someone else.)

Nassirian also expressed concern that colleges shouldn't assume people are high risk just because they have some sort of blemish on their record. It wasn't that long ago, he said, that students might have been kicked out of Bob Jones University for interracial dating. So being kicked out of a college doesn't necessarily make one dangerous.

Even with such concerns, however, Nassirian said that there was clearly power in the Faulkner example. "Obviously, post facto, one can't help but feel horror at all the missed opportunities to connect the dots," he said. "There's no question but that when you have the tragedy before your eyes, you wish you had done more."

 

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