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Probing Students' Pasts

July 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- In the aftermath of the 2004 murder of a University of North Carolina at Wilmington student by a classmate with a history of violence against women, the deceased student's family came to see the decision-making of the university’s admissions office as one of the major factors leading to her death.

After a lawsuit, the North Carolina system began requiring all 16 of its college campuses to conduct criminal background checks on students whose records raise red flags. As a panel discussion Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Attorneys here made clear, North Carolina is not alone. At institutions across the country, admissions officers and student affairs administrators are starting to consider conducting criminal background checks on applicants or admitted students in an extra step toward campus safety.

But the questions of whether and how to conduct student background checks are anything but resolved. The panel included a law professor who has studied the use of criminal background checks in admissions, an administrator from UNC-Wilmington who’s been involved in implementing the system’s policy, and a determined opponent of using checks during the admissions process.

At the start of the discussion, Darby Dickerson, vice president and dean at the Stetson University College of Law, described criminal background checks as a “legal and policy jigsaw puzzle” of intertwined concerns about campus safety, legal risk and individual rights.

“Implementing background checks as part of the admissions process is not a panacea,” Dickerson said, but such reviews can be “part of a more comprehensive campus safety” policy.

Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said he didn’t see background checks doing much to actually make campuses safer. “We haven’t mastered the science of human behavior,” he said. It would be “active discrimination” to enact policies that bar applicants with criminal records from admission, Nassirian said, and impossible to determine which students with records would recidivate and which ones wouldn’t.

In a recent AACRAO survey, 66 percent of responding institutions reported having any mechanism to collect criminal justice information from students. Private and four-year institutions were more likely than public or two-year institutions to conduct some kind of screening.

The most common means of getting that information, the survey found, was through questions on self-disclosure questions on their own applications or on the Common Application. Of the 144 institutions that reported collecting criminal justice information from all applicants, only ten said they used criminal background checks.

Under the rules put into place after the murder of Jessica Faulkner, the Wilmington student, the North Carolina system is one. Patricia Leonard, Wilmington’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said that the applications of fewer than 10 percent of students raise red flags that lead to scrutiny by the university’s Campus Safety and Investigations Committee and a request that the student order a criminal background check from one of several approved vendors. (The student pays the fee; it’s usually about $20, Leonard said.)

Half the students asked to submit to checks never do and take themselves out of the running for admission to the university. Among those who do undergo checks, Leonard said, 92 percent are cleared without further examination. The screening process, she said, “clearly sends a message about the campus culture -- its priorities.”

Nassirian said he thought that message was a big -- and unwarranted -- “keep out” sign for anyone with a criminal past. Colleges, he said, ought to try to serve students with criminal pasts who have resolved to overcome their histories. “If you don’t think people can change, you ought to be in a different line of work” from higher education, he said. “Educating people and putting them on the right path is a social responsibility.”

 

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