When S.D., the initials used in court records to describe him anonymously, applied for admission to Temple University in 2011, he answered "No" to the question on the application about whether he had ever been convicted of a crime.
What he didn't say (and wasn't asked about) was a juvenile "referral" for disseminating child pornography. The juvenile court that heard his case (and to which he admitted one of two charges related to sharing child porn online) ordered, among other things, that Temple be notified of his record. But because S.D. objected, the court stayed its ruling with regard to notifying Temple. This month, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled that, under Pennsylvania law, Temple should have been informed (and that other colleges should be informed in such situations).
Temple still doesn't know who S.D. is because his lawyer on Wednesday filed another appeal, which will keep the stay of notification in place. S.D.'s lawyer said that his client did enroll at Temple, but he declined to confirm whether today he is enrolled at Temple or another college. S.D.'s lawyer also said that his client, even after the juvenile court's findings, would have been correct to answer "No" to Temple's question about a conviction, because a juvenile finding in Pennsylvania is not the same thing as a criminal conviction.
High school guidance counselors and college admissions officers have long debated just how much information about an applicant's disciplinary record should be shared with the colleges to which he or she is applying. Those who favor disclosure say that colleges deserve to know the risks they and their students may face. Others, however, argue that applicants shouldn't have their college dreams hurt by school hijinks or relatively minor school infractions that may well have been committed before a student has matured. A 2008 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that only 26 percent of high schools have a written policy on what to disclose -- so the same disciplinary violation at one high school might be reported, and another high school might not do so.
S.D. was in trouble not for violating school rules, but for what would have been -- had he been a legal adult at the time -- a crime. According to his lawyer, S.D. did not produce or sell child pornography. He downloaded child porn and made it available through file-sharing, and so was found to have engaged in distribution, which would have been a crime had he been 18 at the time. S.D. was 17, and although he went through the juvenile system at the age of 18, his case was kept in the juvenile system based on his status at the time of the acts that brought him to the attention of local police.
Pennsylvania law requires that the "schools" of those who are "adjudicated" in the juvenile system be informed of what happened. Some of the language in the legislation (such as references to "building principal") suggests an assumption of an elementary and secondary school, and that is how the law has generally been interpreted. But the appeals court this month, finding the law vague, turned to dictionary definitions of "school" that include college or university, and said that the requirement should apply to institutions of higher education as well. The juvenile system can follow people for several years after they go through a review, so there are plenty of 16 and 17 year olds who could be affected going forward if "school" extends to include colleges.
Gavin Holihan, S.D.'s lawyer, said that he believes that, if the decision is upheld, the colleges attended by "thousands" of people who went through Pennsylvania juvenile proceedings could soon find out about records their students thought were sealed. And Holihan said that this would be an injustice.
"The goal of juvenile court is to allow you to make your stupid mistakes, do your stupid childish criminal activity, and not have it burden the rest of your life," he said.
But is there a right for colleges, their students and their families to know if some other students have committed various illegal acts? "I have two kids who have been to college, one there, and one who has graduated," Holihan said. "I was never given any background information about their roommates, and I never cared." He added that "at college, a student should be able to take care of himself." And of students who might not want someone with a child porn record living next door, Holihan said that "if your kid is such a delicate flower, he doesn't belong at a university anyway. He belongs back home." He said that the push to tell colleges about everything their applicants did before they reached 18 was a manifestation of "helicopter parents" wanting to watch over their children.
As to violent youth, Holihan acknowledged that "on a personal basis, if my kid was going to college with an axe murderer, I would want to know." But he said that young people involved in such acts are generally excluded from the juvenile system in Pennsylvania, so keeping records of people like S.D. sealed would not increase the odds of such a situation.
Others agree. The Center for Community Alternatives released a report in 2010 that argued that it was "problematic" to consider criminal records in admissions decisions. The report argues that "no link has been established between having a criminal record and posing a risk to campus safety," that having a criminal record "is not an unusual characteristic in American society today," and that "racial disparities" in the criminal justice system should make colleges hesitant about basing admissions decisions on such records. If colleges do want to consider criminal records, the report suggests, they should consider only felony convictions, or only felony convictions after an applicant's 19th birthday.
Still others, however, argue that more sharing of information about potentially dangerous students is needed.
S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Index of the VTV Family Outreach Foundation (a group of family members of victims and of survivors of the 2007 tragedy at Virginia Tech), said he was not familiar with the Pennsylvania case. But he said that "one of the lessons learned from April 16, 2007 was that there were tremendous gaps in information sharing about the shooter, both with respect to information from his time as a high school student and from within the community from his time at Tech." Carter added that "it is critically important that people who have experienced troubling situations with students communicate that, and that there are better structures in place for sharing information."
Ray Betzner, a spokesman for Temple, said that officials there have never before faced questions about how they would handle information from an otherwise-sealed juvenile record. "This is so brand-new that it's difficult for us to say exactly what sort of impact it would have," he said.
But Betzner said that the "closest" situation he could think of involves the admissions question about a conviction. He said that it was "very rare" for applicants to report that they had been convicted of a crime. But when they do, he said, "it becomes a factor in the decision-making" of admissions officers. "Before this case came up, I don't know that anyone thought about asking about [illegal acts] prior to being an adult because those records weren't available."
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