According to a recent Chronicle article (“Experts Debate Fairness of Criminal-Background Checks on Students“) more than 60% of colleges review applicants’ criminal records in admissions decisions, but only 38% of those actually have training on how to interpret criminal records.
Some schools take criminal background checks more seriously than others. The University of North Carolina is one such school that, after an on-campus murder in 2008, decided it needed to step up its student safety screenings. Last year, UNC asked 10% of its applicants to undergo criminal background checks. About half of the students agreed to the checks. Those who did not comply were rejected; 92% of those who submitted checks were accepted.
According to many institutions, executing a background check is a safety measure intended to keep potentially dangerous students off of their campuses. Knowing someone’s criminal record, and then preventing that person from joining the school’s next class, according to this school of thought, is the responsible move for keeping other students, as well as the reputation of the institution, safe from violence, dishonesty, and tragedy.
Others believe that criminal background checks are not accurate and that “prior charges or convictions do not predict future behavior.” According to Barmak Nassinan, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, (who’s quoted both in the Chronicle article and on an Inside Higher Ed article on the same subject), “We haven’t mastered the science of human behavior….It would be ‘active discrimination’ to enact policies that bar applicants with criminal records from admission and impossible to determine which students with records would recidivate and which ones wouldn’t.”
One problem with carrying out these checks, elaborates the Chronicle article, is that if that becomes the standard, and then a student incites violence, then the school could be held responsible—shouldn’t the admissions committee have seen this student’s ill potential and prevented him or her from entering campus? One can imagine lawsuits flying all over the place from victims’ families who are suing the school for negligence.
That, of course, would mean that no student with a criminal record of any sort should be admitted to any university—he or she could, after all, be viewed as a potential liability. This, according to most people, is unfair, especially if you’re considering students with closed juvenile records, perpetrators of petty crimes, etc.
According to Darby Dickerson, dean of Stetson University’s College of Law, “It’s not per se unreasonable to admit a student with a criminal record.” She recommends “not simply considering students’ criminal histories, but establishing polices to evaluate them fairly and consistently….Institutions should also consider updating their information with repeated checks….And legal and mental-health experts must regularly train the administrators who make decisions on which students to let in versus keep out.”
Standardizing background checks alone won’t do much for campus safety; but instituting proper use of background checks may.
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