Background checks on college students; lessons learned the hard way
By David C. Sawyer, CPP
Sometimes tragedy creates change for the better—a sad reality that is being illustrated on campuses across the country as an increasing number of colleges mandate background screenings for students, particularly those enrolled in health science programs.
While this call to action appears to be more prevalent for students whose training will place them in clinical settings, such as hospitals, pharmacies and social agencies, there is a sound argument to be made for background queries, if not full screenings, for all college-bound students … and for annual checks while the student is enrolled on campus.
In fact, this may be the ultimate lesson learned from the infamous April 2007 incident when Seung-Hui Cho, an English major at Virginia Tech, killed 31 and wounded another 25 students and faculty before taking his own life. According to published reports, it was later learned that Cho had been diagnosed and received therapy for severe anxiety disorder while in middle and high school; however due to federal privacy laws, Virginia Tech was not informed of his previous diagnosis.
The massacre has prompted more schools to at the very least inquire about disciplinary issues, acts of violence or criminal convictions of students while in high school. While not all colleges are conducting a comprehensive background screening—for criminal convictions and/or against the sex offender registry—an increasing number are checking into self-reported problems appearing on college applications or on students with unexplained gaps in their school careers.
And, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), a majority (66%) of responding colleges collect criminal conviction data, although not all use it in the admissions process. Self-disclosure through the college application was the most common method reported for collecting the information.
Perhaps most eye-opening is that only about 16% reported conducting a background check on college applicants. An affirmative response to the background check survey question could mean the school checks all applicants, only applicants to certain programs, only those who disclose a prior conviction or those whose application raises a red flag for any number of reasons such as a gap in school attendance, multiple schools, dishonorable military discharge, etc.
Certainly, conducting even minimal level background checks is beneficial, but there exists a number of compelling reasons for colleges to consistently check for criminal records. In addition to keeping their campus safe against acts of violence, this preventive measure can protect a school’s reputation and safeguard against potential law suits.
This is not to say that college entrance should be denied based on a minor offense—consideration of the type and level of criminal conviction should be taken into account. School policies should differentiate between past imprudent teenage behavior and students whose records indicate they pose a current threat. That said, all colleges would benefit from an awareness of who is on their campus and living in their dormitories … with the appropriate precautions taken.
But collecting appropriate data is just part of the equation when conducting background checks on students. Institutes of higher education that decide to implement such a policy cannot do so on a wing and a prayer. Working with school administrators, Human Resources departments should take the lead on developing a comprehensive written policy and a stringent set of procedures specific to their college or university—not a mere “cut and paste” of another school’s policy.
While contemplating strategies for screening students, colleges and universities should take time to review their policies pertaining to the screening of faculty, staff and contractors as well. Fortunately we know of no physical harm stemming from the fairly recent discovery that a school videographer working as a contractor at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston is a registered sex offender, but the media firestorm that followed had the school scrambling to explain the oversight to students as well as parents.
Instituting screening policies will certainly come at a cost to schools, financially and in terms of time; but avoiding potential tragedy before it strikes is a priceless commodity.
Most people would agree that employers should bear the responsibility to provide a safe work environment—colleges should do no less.
David C. Sawyer is president of Safer Places Inc., a Middleboro, Mass.-based firm that specializes in pre-employment screening, security consulting, and tenant screening.