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Innocent (Applicant) Until Proven Guilty

March 6, 2007

This academic year marked the first one in which the Common Application, soon to be used by more than 300 colleges, included a question about discipline of students. The question was added after considerable discussion and reflected a growing national debate over crime on campus and the appropriate responsibilities for colleges to protect students -- sometimes from other students.

As the board of the Common Application reviewed the experience, it tentatively decided this year that it would get even more specific, and ask applicants and their counselors not only about convictions (in either the legal system or the equivalent in school processes), but about pending actions. The theory, which was suggested by a counselor at a member institution, was that a college would want to know that a student was on trial for a crime, especially a violent one.

But when the Common Application leaders shared the idea with their members -- via the electronic discussion list of the National Association for College Admission Counseling -- the reaction was negative. And so the Common Application is keeping the question focused on convictions, not on any pending actions.

Colleges are free to consider or ignore information submitted on the Common Application, but its growing popularity, which extends to some of the most competitive colleges around, has made its decisions influential.

Many admissions counselors -- both at the high school and college level -- had strong reactions against the idea of requiring students or counselors to report on incidents when there wasn't yet a conviction and might never be one. Some worried about due process and others feared that relatively minor infractions might get blown out of proportion.

Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, said that in the end, the idea of "innocent until proven guilty" was important to admissions officers, and that his board was guided by that reaction. He noted, however, that counselors receive requests for information about students several times in the process, to confirm completion of high school courses, for example. The disciplinary question will continue to appear on those forms, so an applicant who is on trial for something at the point that a counselor first fills out the form (and says nothing at that time, since there has been no final resolution), but who is subsequently convicted, would be reported later in the process.

The questions asked of applicants and their counselors are parallel: One question asks applicants whether they have (and counselors whether they know if the applicant has) "ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at an educational institution you have attended from 9th grade forward (or the international equivalent), whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in your probation, suspension, removal, dismissal or expulsion from the institution?" A second question asks about convictions of misdemeanors, felonies or other crimes. The proposed changes that were abandoned would have added pending charges to both questions. (The questions are phrased for a Yes/No response, but any Yes response leads to a request for an explanation.)

The member institutions of the College Application get the chance to suggest changes every year, and usually there are several changes in wording. But Killion said that they tend to be relatively minor changes and that the disciplinary questions have attracted unusual interest. Part of the problem, he said, is the range of incidents that could have someone answering Yes to that question. Some might be minor and on their way to resolution without conviction. On the other hand, he said that the request to add pending cases came from the view that "if someone is in the middle of a murder trial, some schools might want to know it."

Several universities this year are in fact facing criticism over students they admitted with histories that could have raised questions during the process. The University of North Carolina System was sued last year by the parents of a woman who was murdered in her dormitory at the Wilmington campus in 2004 by a fellow student who then killed himself while being held on charges of kidnapping, sexual assault and murder. The suit charges that the university was negligent for admitting the attacker despite a documented history of violence against women, including incidents at other North Carolina campuses.

The University of Akron announced a review of its policies after being embarrassed by a series of revelations about felons -- some in their 40s -- living in dorms and sharing rooms with freshmen in their teens. As The Akron Beacon-Journal reported, one freshman was instructed to call his roommate by his jail nickname and another felon was alleged to have committed more crimes while enrolled. And the University of Pennsylvania is reviewing its policies after a series of incidents, including the murder arrest of a professor and the discovery that a child molester was taking graduate classes while on an academic release from prison, which a judge subsequently terminated.

S. Daniel Carter, vice president of Security on Campus, said that he "understands innocent until proven guilty," but would prefer to see colleges "err on the side of being aware of a pending action."

Colleges need not automatically reject everyone who answers one of the disciplinary questions Yes, and that would still be the case with a pending court action, he said. "But I think the admissions officials should have the opportunity to evaluate each situation," he said. "Is this a person who got into a fight once, or someone with a history of abusing people?"

Carter also said that with incidents such as those at Wilmington and Akron, it is important to remember that colleges aren't just admitting students, but housing students, in close quarters with other students.

A college can easily decide that a pending court action isn't relevant, or is only something to be watched for a conviction, he said. "But if I were making the decision, I'd want to know if criminal charges were pending against an applicant. My concern is that something doesn't fall through the cracks and colleges don't even know to ask about it."

 

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