'They Ask. Who Tells?'

ST. LOUIS -- Many high schools have policies under which, if a student is cited for a disciplinary infraction as a freshman or sophomore, and isn’t a repeat offender, that infraction is expunged from the student’s record at the end of the sophomore year. What that means is that for two students who commit the same infraction -- even a serious one -- there is no assurance that colleges that seek disciplinary records during the admissions process will know about it.

October 4, 2010

ST. LOUIS -- Many high schools have policies under which, if a student is cited for a disciplinary infraction as a freshman or sophomore, and isn’t a repeat offender, that infraction is expunged from the student’s record at the end of the sophomore year. What that means is that for two students who commit the same infraction -- even a serious one -- there is no assurance that colleges that seek disciplinary records during the admissions process will know about it. The student whose infraction takes place at the end of sophomore year won’t be found out, while the student who commits the infraction five months later, at the beginning of junior year, will be.

That’s just the start of the uncertainty over whether colleges can evaluate -- in a fair and consistent way -- disciplinary issues that may affect whether an institution wants to admit a given student. Some colleges seek the information and others don’t. Those that seek the information do so in different ways. And high school guidance counselors have their own wide-ranging policies over what they will share -- with some leaving the issue in students’ hands.

These were some of the trends discussed at a session here -- “They Ask. Who Tells?” -- at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. The issue is hardly new. Many colleges, particularly residential institutions, have long looked for ways to find out whether a given applicant may not be someone to invite into the community.

But the issue also continues to vex high school and college officials. In part they worry about being unfair to students, by treating the same infractions in different ways, or by equating a minor incident that may be part of growing up with a pattern of dangerous behavior.

But these days, every tragedy -- think about the murder of a female lacrosse player at the University of Virginia last year, or the Rutgers University students charged with cyberbullying a gay student and apparently prompting his suicide last week -- leads some to wonder whether colleges can’t do a better job of weeding out those likely to commit crimes. And yet to judge by the hallway discussions about this session, counselors are still regularly pressured by parents (and by headmasters or principals who have in turn been pressured by wealthy or influential parents) to keep some infractions off the books.

Based on panelists’ presentations here and the shows of hands they sought in the audience of several hundred, it is becoming more common for high schools to have official written policies on how to handle colleges’ requests for disciplinary records. And most said that was inherently a good way to promote consistency and to give counselors who don’t want to bow to parental pressure some support.

Likewise, counselors talked about adding issues to policies to make them more useful. For example, several talked about the need to make clear that if a high school does report disciplinary issues, it should specify that it will report additional incidents after application materials have been submitted or even after students have been admitted.

But the policies are so varying that the status quo does not seem to suggest any uniformity in the completeness of the information colleges may be receiving.

Carol Wasden, a counselor at the Hockaday School, in Texas, started the session by reading some real (but unattributed) questions from college application materials -- for either the applicant or the counselor. Many of them stated that while answering “yes” to a question about disciplinary infractions was not a cause for automatic denial, lying would be treated seriously -- and discovery of a lie could be grounds for denial, or for expulsion after admission.

Some of the questions are based on behaviors -- asking about “academic misconduct” or “behavioral misconduct.” Some define what needs to be reported by focusing on the punishment, asking to be told everything that resulted in either probation, suspension, dismissal, expulsion or any criminal conviction. (Several counselors here said that one way wealthy families try to avoid such findings is by withdrawing their children from private schools before the process for suspension or expulsion can be completed -- and some colleges are dealing with this by asking for information on any time spent out of school during the academic year.)

Notably, some colleges define a punishment about which they want to be informed quite broadly -- going even to the level of detention.

Wasden, the guidance counselor from Hockaday, said her high school answers whatever disciplinary questions a college asks. She said this was consistent with the school’s emphasis on “character” as a central goal for its students. Further, she said a full disclosure policy is fair to everyone.

“All students are treated equally,” she said, and a counselor avoids the situation of “when parents come and say somebody else did it last year and you didn’t report it.” Another way that a clearly stated policy promotes fairness is that it is publicized from the time students first enroll -- so students and parents are told about this before a student commits an infraction or it is time to apply to colleges.

“This is not ambiguous. If a college asks, we will tell,” she said.

Loyce Engle, a counselor at Cedar Park High School, a public high school in Texas, argued for generally not disclosing -- as long as high school policy backs the counselors on this. She said she will work with students on answering questions on discipline, but is concerned that public school counselors (who are responsible for many more students than is the case at private schools) may have incomplete information about the disciplinary records of many students.

While Engle said she does not favor reporting on students’ disciplinary records, she said that there is a key exception: She won’t lie on students’ behalf. And when she has discovered that a student has lied explicitly and is asked about an issue by the college, Engle will not back up the student’s lie (although she will inform students and parents of what she is going to do).

Even though she does not believe guidance counselors should be focused on disciplinary reports, she said that in the case of a lying student, "my integrity is on the line” if she does not answer the college’s questions. She also argued for flagging for colleges what counselors are and are not verifying by, for instance, stating that the counselors are standing behind the academic information submitted for an applicant.

Several counselors at high schools that have policies of not disclosing disciplinary information said that they have become masters at saying "I can't comment on that" when called by a college, and doing so in ways that they believe hint to the college that this is a situation to check out carefully.

Laura Ross, a counselor at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, in Texas, discussed a policy of refusing to report most student discipline records, but of reporting “major cases or patterns of academic dishonesty or physical violence.”

St. Stephen’s informs colleges that while it is not reporting everything, it would have expelled any student whose discipline cases “reflect a basic inability on the student’s part to remain in an academic community.” So the school is saying that anyone not expelled does not have a disciplinary record that rises to the level of raising such concerns.

While clear about what the school will report, St. Stephen’s also views the questions for student applicants as a key moment for teaching values. Ross said that she strongly encourages students to be honest about discipline -- even though they know that the school will not be providing information that might contradict the student’s failure to report.

Ross said that she uses a mix of moral suasion and fear. On the former, she talks about how important it is for students to succeed based on honesty. On the latter, she shares stories about how many colleges learn through the grapevine about disciplinary issues that students may not have volunteered.

Ross said that the lessons students have learned, reinforced when students have been honest and have still been admitted to the colleges they wanted to attend, have been “extraordinary.”

While some students are hesitant about self-reporting, many are not, she said. “We have had a number of times where kids have said ‘I want to be honest and my parents want me to lie,’ ” she said.

Several of the counselors in the question-and-answer period cited the value of counselors standing their ground and limiting what they provide to colleges -- with these counselors generally citing the need to understand that high school students are in fact learning and maturing, and shouldn’t lose opportunities because of relatively small-scale mistakes they make as 14-year-olds.

But one counselor cautioned that her colleagues were perhaps going too far in intentionally avoiding colleges’ questions.

“We implicitly have decided that we trust colleges to decide how to admit their students,” she said. She noted that many guidance counselors believe that colleges place too much emphasis on standardized test scores -- and that this view is a sincere one based on students’ best interests. But no guidance counselor she knows would refuse to submit test scores requested by a college.

To applause, she said not answering colleges’ questions directly “feels dishonorable” to her and that the talk about evading colleges’ questions makes her feel “like we are dishonoring our college colleagues.”


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