There were two developments in May that have me confused and appear to conflict.
On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Education is urging colleges and universities to not ask prospective students about their past run-ins with the law during the initial phase of the admission process. The department says that delaying such requests for information until after an admission decision has been made will encourage more individuals to apply for college who are trying to turn their lives around.
On the other hand, Baylor University President Ken Starr and football head coach Art Briles were fired over their handling of sexual assault allegations against some of the school’s former athletes, including former football player Sam Ukwuachu who was convicted of raping a fellow student. Baylor is under intense scrutiny in part due to a claim by Boise State University football coach Chris Petersen that he warned Briles about Ukwuachu, who transferred from Boise State to Baylor. Peterson allegedly told Briles — before Ukwuachu’s rape conviction — that Ukwuachu had been violent towards his ex-girlfriend.
In Baylor’s case, Ukwuachu was not convicted of any criminal offense until after he enrolled at Baylor. How could Baylor deny someone like Ukwuachu yet follow the Department of Education’s instructions to allow admission of someone else who has actually been convicted of a crime?
I see the merit in what the U.S. Department of Education is proposing. Yes, we want to give individuals who have had run-ins with the law the opportunity to improve their lives and become contributing members of society. After all, about one-third of adults now have some sort of prior arrest or conviction record.
However, we also must protect our campus communities from predators like Ukwuachu, so I can understand victim advocates’ criticism of Baylor.
The answer to this conundrum is not easy. Campuses that enroll individuals who have had some involvement with the criminal justice system (or who have come close, as in Ukwuachu’s case while he attended Boise State), must have good working relationships with these individuals’ parole officers, involve campus public safety, as well as have enough counseling, mentoring and social services on hand. In fact, all students would benefit from better access to counseling, mentoring and social services. Unfortunately, most of these services were cut drastically (both in higher ed and K-12) during the Great Recession and in most cases have not been restored.
Does the Department of Education plan on providing more resources for social services, counselling and mentoring? I certainly hope so. Unless or until it does, colleges will continue to intentionally and/or unintentionally discourage well-deserving students who have been arrested or convicted of a crime from applying to their institutions, while students like Ukwuachu, who pose a real, verifiable threat will be admitted.
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