U. of Virginia President Meets With Governor to Push for Access to Law-Enforcement Records

Steve Helber, AP Images

John Casteen III, president of the U. of Virginia, says that if the institution had known about the earlier arrest of a student now accused of murder, it "would have lit our system up."
May 12, 2010

How information from state law-enforcement agencies can make college campuses safer dominated the discussion at a meeting on Tuesday between John T. Casteen III, president of the University of Virginia, and the state's governor, Robert F. McDonnell.

The death last week of Yeardley Love, a student, and the arrest on murder charges of George Huguely V, a fellow student, followed by news reports of Mr. Huguely's prior arrest, had prompted Mr. Casteen to announce that the university would begin regularly screening all students against a state law-enforcement database, as well as to push for notifications of any student's arrest.

Mr. Casteen told reporters on Tuesday that information about Mr. Huguely's arrest in 2008 for assaulting a police officer in Lexington, Va., 70 miles from the campus, might have led to his suspension or expulsion if the university had known about it.

"Information of that kind would have lit our system up,'' Mr. Casteen said, according to The Washington Post.

The university's existing policies require students to disclose any encounters with the police, but Mr. Huguely apparently did not report his earlier arrest.

Now UVa wants more reliable access to such information. In Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Casteen and Governor McDonnell, a Republican, focused on "practical and logistical challenges" to obtaining it, Carol Wood, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a written statement.

"They agreed that what has been proposed will not be easy to accomplish and discussed the concerns that have been voiced in the law-enforcement community," Ms. Wood said.

Meanwhile, the state's attorney general, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, promised colleges expanded access to law-enforcement data. "We want to get them what information and tools we can," he said on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, a radio program broadcast from Washington. "You can expect to see some legal changes, changes to our statutes, as a result of this tragedy."

Challenges to Accuracy

Colleges commonly collaborate with law-enforcement agencies whose jurisdictions border their own, but partnerships for information sharing across states or regions are rare. And police officers do not routinely verify whether a person they have arrested is a student.

The answer to that question, like UVa's policy, relies on self-disclosure.

"People lie about being arrested," said Dolores Stafford, a campus-security consultant and a former police chief at George Washington University. "Why wouldn't they lie about being a student?"

Obtaining accurate, consistent information will not be easy, Governor McDonnell told reporters on Tuesday. "I think we have some challenges on how to do that,'' he said, according to the Post.

Mr. Casteen has also proposed conducting criminal background checks each semester on all 21,000 students at UVa.

A few institutions run checks on all students, typically at the point of admission, and some especially scrutinize athletes. Vastly more common are criminal checks of students in health- and education-related programs whose practical training involves contact with vulnerable populations. In many cases, clinical accreditation and state law require such checks.

Proposals to conduct regular background checks on all students, however, raise questions about cost, labor, and the reliability of information. Studies have shown that background checks of known convicts turn up hits on only half to three-quarters of them. And in many states, juvenile records are sealed and do not turn up on such checks.

The usefulness of checks depends not only on the quality of the information obtained but what administrators do with it. Do they impose disciplinary sanctions? In which cases? Some students with prior arrests will cause no further problems. Others without records may commit violent crimes.

"To do everything possible to try to prevent another tragedy of this type is certainly an excellent and an admirable intention," said Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education. But student background checks are not a perfect solution, she said. "There's no guarantee."

'Good Judgment'

Colleges that now conduct background checks grapple with the information they generate.

The University of North Carolina has been investigating some students' criminal backgrounds since 2007, under a policy introduced three years after a student and another recently expelled student at the system's Wilmington campus were accused separately of killing students.

Applications for admission now ask six questions on matters such as criminal charges, pleas, and convictions; school probations, suspensions, and expulsions; and dishonorable military discharges. Any "yes" answers or gaps in personal time lines may prompt the university to conduct a criminal-background check, said Patricia L. Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs at Wilmington. The university will ask the applicant to pay $20 for the check, conducted by a company called Certiphi, which delivers its report to the campus.

Administrators at Wilmington meet weekly during admissions season to make determinations on several students at a time, Ms. Leonard said. They consider whether applicants pose a risk to themselves or others, or if their offenses involve alcohol, drugs, or a lack of integrity. If so, the university will most likely deny them admission.

One or two alarming incidents or a pattern of smaller violations may persuade Wilmington to reject a student, Ms. Leonard said. Sometimes the dean of students will interview a borderline applicant in person or by phone.

"A lot of it is common sense and good judgment," Ms. Leonard said. "Is this the kind of student you want on your campus?" Wilmington also runs background checks two or three times a year on students involved in serious physical altercations.

Conducting criminal background checks on students may leave colleges legally vulnerable. While in some cases ordering the checks may provide a defense to allegations of negligence, assuming that responsibility would hold a college to performing it well. An institution, for example, might not uncover the arrest of a student who goes on to commit a violent crime.

"You do open up obviously the potential for liability," said Steve Milam, an education lawyer in Seattle and affiliate assistant professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine. "It's going to come down to how diligent you were in conducting the search."

Legal decisions may also depend on colleges' policies for handling criminal records they gather. Do their policies list specific crimes that automatically result in a student's denial of admission or expulsion? Administrators may consider the facts of each case, but inconsistency could expose them to lawsuits. Also, some states prohibit discrimination on the basis of criminal convictions.

Growing Practice

A new survey on student background checks should shed more light on colleges' practices. A report on the survey is set to be released in the next few weeks by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the Center for Community Alternatives, an advocacy group for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the registrars' group, spoke in general terms on Tuesday about the survey's findings. He said he was surprised to find that the majority of four-year institutions asked for applicants' criminal histories. He worries that colleges are developing a no-enroll list, equivalent to the federal government's no-fly list, with troubling implications for high-school students from low-income families and minority groups.

The arrests of low-income, minority students more often result in convictions than do those of wealthy, suburban students with lawyers, Mr. Nassirian said. And he is concerned that, in decisions about admission or disciplinary action, colleges seem to be asking, Why take a risk?

"This information is by nature prejudicial," Mr. Nassirian said. "Do we really want to create an unforgiving society?"

Nevertheless, student background checks may be becoming a trend.

"My sense is that more schools are considering doing something beyond self-disclosure," said Darby Dickerson, dean of Stetson University's College of Law, which runs an annual higher-education legal conference. Her research suggests that increasingly, colleges will conduct background checks on any student who wants to live in a residence hall.

"As more schools put different types of processes in place to check criminal backgrounds," Ms. Dickerson said, "it will be more difficult for others to turn a blind eye."