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Background Checks on College Students Rising

Lessons learned the hard way
University Business, March 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 mandated 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 Virginia Tech massacre, when Seung-Hui Cho, an English major at the institution killed 31 and wounded another 25 students and faculty before taking his own life in April 2007. According to published reports, it was later learned that Cho had been diagnosed and received therapy for severe anxiety disorder while in middle school 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. With that said, all colleges would benefit from an awareness of who is on their campus and living in their dormitories and take precautions accordingly.

But collecting appropriate data is just part of the equation when conducting background checks on students. Colleges and universities that decide to implement such a policy cannot do so on a wing and a prayer. Working with school administrators, HR departments should take the lead on developing a comprehensive written policy and a stringent set of procedures specific to their college or university instead of cutting and pasting from another school’s policy.

Colleges and universities that institute a student background check protocol must be prepared to design a comprehensive review and evaluation process, taking into consideration a series of key components, beginning with setting protocol for dealing with potential safety concerns. Administrators and HR must decide to what extent “red flagged” students can challenge screening information and whether specific background disclosures can automatically disqualify a student from acceptance to their campus. Protocol must also be in place should a student refuse to participate in a background check (by law, an individual must be notified prior to a screening and give written consent). 

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 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 and parents.

The person reviewing the background information must also be considered. If potentially damaging information is handled carelessly or “leaked,” litigation may occur; therefore it is vital to carefully vet staff members’ discretion and keep the number of eyes reviewing the information to a minimum. Colleges and universities must also establish who will maintain the screening data and the length of time the information will be kept on file. 

And it’s imperative to work with a background screening firm with an established network of security professionals whose principals are board certified in security management.

Instituting such an important school policy 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, CPP, is president of Safer Places, Inc., based in Middleboro, Mass. He has almost 30 years of experience in the security industry.

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