Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Background Checks on College Students Rising

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

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.

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.

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. (www.saferplacesinc.com), a full-service firm based in Middleboro, Mass., that specializes in pre-employment screening, security consulting, and tenant screening.