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Covering Up or Scaring Off?

September 29, 2008

A cartoon in The New Yorker shows a mother scolding a toddler who has been misbehaving in a sandbox. "Is this the story you want to tell on your college application?" The cartoon was distributed at the start of a session Friday at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The session focused on a very serious issue suggested by the cartoon: To what extent should misbehavior or discipline by students in high school should be reported to the colleges they want to attend?

If everyone agrees that a sandbox scuffle isn't worth reporting, things get much more complicated after that. An incident of cheating as a high school freshman, never repeated? An assault as a sophomore? Multiple violent incidents? Murder? While these aren't typical of most applicants, these also aren't unheard of -- and high school counselors are trying to figure out how to respond to colleges' requests for information.

From the discussion at the NACAC meeting in Seattle, it's clear that high school counselors are responding in very different ways -- with some going out of their way to report incidents and others trying to avoid doing so. Several people noted in the discussion that the exact same disciplinary action might be reported by one high school and kept confidential by another. And at the same time that high schools are weighing what is morally right, they also are facing pressure from parents and threats of lawsuits.

According to NACAC's new survey on admissions practices, only 26 percent of high schools have a written policy on what to disclose to colleges about disciplinary records. Regardless of whether high schools have a policy, the survey asked if they did disclose disciplinary histories. The record is mixed. Private, non-parochial schools are the most likely both to have a policy and to disclose information, while public schools are the least likely.

Secondary School Policy and Practice on Releasing Disciplinary Information to Colleges

  % With Written Policy % That Disclose Generally % That Disclose in Some Cases % That Don't Disclose
All schools 25.9% 23.1% 38.8% 38.0%
Public schools 21.4% 18.7% 38.2% 43.0%
Private, non-parochial 55.5% 48.4% 42.3% 9.3%
Private parochial 32.7% 34.0% 40.6% 25.5%

Many colleges are asking for the information -- either from counselors or applicants themselves. The University of Georgia, for instance, asks applicants two questions on discipline: "Are you currently, or have you ever been, charged with, or subject to, disciplinary action including suspension or expulsion for scholastic or any type of misconduct at any high school, college, or university?" And "Have you ever been charged with, convicted of, or pled guilty or nolo contendere to a crime other than a minor traffic offense, or are any criminal charges now pending against you?" To apply to Georgia, an applicant must answer both of those questions and sign the honor code, pledging to inform the university of any changes in the answers to those questions subsequent to applying and prior to admission.

The Common Application -- used by 350 colleges -- also has two similar questions and is currently in the third admissions cycle with these queries included. Rob Killion, executive director, said that the questions were added at the request of colleges -- and that the complaints and inquiries he receives about the questions come from high school counselors, not colleges.

At least some students are answering the questions in the affirmative. In last year's admissions cycle, about 355,000 people applied to college through the Common Application and 8,642 of them answered "Yes" to the question on whether they had been suspended, expelled or put on probation because of school misconduct. In addition, 887 said that they had been convicted of either a misdemeanor, felony or another crime.

Melinda W. DeMaria, associate director of admissions at Georgia, defended the need for colleges to ask these questions. "We're not talking about a 'time out,' " she said, and colleges know how to distinguish between incidents that matter and those that don't.

"We’re looking for patterns," she said. If a student reports "a minor copying incident in 9th grade," and there is no evidence of a pattern, "we’re going to push that aside,” she said. Discipline in 11th or 12th grade will get more attention, but even then it's not black and white, she said. "We're going to be looking closely at the infraction. What is something where they could have harmed others?" DeMaria noted that "college has a lot of temptations," so it's reasonable to look at an incoming student's record. She also said the university looks for evidence that a lesson has truly been learned, that a student shows remorse.

To Ryan Burke, dean of students at the Overlake School, a private school in Washington State, it's not so reasonable. Burke said that one of his duties at the school is doling out punishments, so he is aware that students misbehave, sometimes seriously. But he said high schools and colleges must not treat that discipline as evidence of clear danger. "The reason we have discipline at school is not the same reason we have laws," he said. Discipline at school "is to teach kids so they can learn and grow." Good discipline, he said, is "a positive tool for learning" and reflects the reality that "kids are supposed to make mistakes."

But he said that colleges will almost inevitably favor candidates without disciplinary records over those with them -- if the records are reported.

Burke challenged the claim colleges make that they only want to have all possible sources of information and will use the knowledge responsibly. Burke said that if colleges really believed that, they would have to ask parents if they had ever grounded their children. Parents have more knowledge of child character and more opportunity to punish, Burke said, but colleges don't impose on them -- just on high schools.

Just as many applicants treat the college admissions process as a game, the trend of including disciplinary actions in admissions reviews has made that a game, he said. For example, he said that his school has created a new category of punishment -- "in-school detention" -- to replace suspension in some cases, so that the school can still answer "No" when asked if certain students have been suspended.

And then there are the legal issues. High school counselors are worried about being sued for what they don't report (if an admitted student repeats a past behavior) or for what they do report (if a student finds out what has been reported and objects). Scott White, director of guidance at Montclair High School, in New Jersey, said he believed many high schools were increasing their legal vulnerability by not having policies on what to disclose, or having overly vague policies. Handling these issues on a case-by-case basis, he said, creates all kinds of fairness issues when a student whose disciplinary record has been reported finds out that a similar infraction from another student was not reported.

White said that a high school has many options, but needs to be specific. It can decide to report events only in the junior or senior years, or a student's entire record. It can use some measure to reflect the seriousness of the violation, such as reporting incidents that resulted in suspensions of five days or more. Or it can report all acts of violence. But he said it must be consistent. "The people on the weakest ground are the people with no policy whatsoever," he said. And a policy that says only that "serious" offenses be reported will be vulnerable unless "serious" is defined.

And what about cases where a counselor feels a moral obligation to report something that isn't covered by a policy? That's when it's appropriate to be vague, White said, and to have good relationships with college admissions counselors. He said that he can be "oblique" and call an admissions officer sand say "this kid might not be the best kid for your campus,” and an admissions officer would know “exactly what I mean."

NACAC's "Statement of Principles of Good Practice" states that a counselor should "provide, as permissible by law, accurate descriptions of the candidates' personal qualities that are relevant to the admissions process." In addition, it is a NACAC "best practice" to have a written policy on disclosing disciplinary records, and it is also considered a best practice to "report any significant change in a candidate's academic status or qualifications, including personal school conduct record between the time of recommendation and graduation, where permitted by applicable law."

In the question-and-answer session, many counselors said that they were not happy with their options now -- and some urged NACAC to develop more specific guidance.

Many said that colleges' requests for information were broad enough that they were gathering information on relatively minor matters -- putting counselors in the position of either presenting incomplete information or hurting a student's chances of admission. Issues of fairness were also much discussed. Do these requests for disciplinary information affect more male students than female students? Do students whose parents have the money or clout to pressure school officials avoid getting the discipline (and resulting college reports) doled out to students without such advantages?

Others said that counselors were engaged -- in the words of one audience member -- in "moral relativism" by citing all the reasons not to report disciplinary actions. "High schools should answer the question that is put forward rather than redefine the terms," said one audience member. "There are consequences for bad choices" made by high school students, and "that's not a bad thing for kids to learn."

And as for the parents making threats if high schools tell colleges what their children did, this counselor suggested standing up to them. "The same parents who are bitching the most ... are the ones who want us to put every other kid under the microscope," he said. Bowing to this pressure, which almost always comes from wealthy parents, just allows their children to "get away with more."

One college counselor in the audience also questioned why the high school counselors were so hesitant to report on their students. In a reference to the dreaded "permanent record" that children learn to fear, she said that "sometimes the only thing that works is for a kid to know that it will be reported." But she added that high schools should trust colleges more -- to consider the circumstances and make a reasoned decision on whether the past act by a student is disqualifying.

Those who doubt that a college would ever admit a student with a past record might consider an example offered by Georgia's DeMaria. First, she said that Georgia is more likely to be sympathetic to a student who reports what took place, and has the facts verified by a counselor, rather than the cases where university officials read about an admitted student in the newspaper. Or there are the cases where a parent comes up to an admissions officer at a reception for admitted students and raises a hypothetical question about an arrest and asks whether it must be reported to the university. (The answer is generally yes.)

But if you don't believe that the university will be open to a person who discloses past misdeeds, she noted the case of an applicant who had served time in jail for killing someone. Needless to say, when this was reported, "we needed a little more information," DeMaria said. While she declined to discuss the details of this specific case, she said that it was important to remember that even in cases where someone is in jail for a killing, that person may not be someone who should be denied admission. "You say that word 'murder' and it strikes fear in the heart of people," she said. "But it might have been accidental, or young children playing with a loaded gun, or self defense," she said.

In this case, Georgia admitted the applicant, who then enrolled elsewhere.

 

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