By The Des Moines Register
Most Iowans probably think that a person’s legal transgressions as a juvenile are forgotten when the person turns 18. The police record for shoplifting the $10 earrings. A school suspension for fighting in the parking lot. The disorderly conduct charge for attending that beer party.
Offenses during childhood aren’t supposed to follow you into adulthood, right?
Wrong. If young adults think they will never have to explain that suspension for smoking in the school parking lot, they should think again. They may learn this lesson when they apply for college.
In recent years, many colleges and universities have begun asking on admission applications about school discipline and criminal offenses. Prospective students must answer the questions or their applications won’t be processed. If in doubt about how to respond, schools advise answering “yes.”
Applications at Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa ask if the applicant has “ever been charged with or subject to disciplinary action for scholastic or any other type of misconduct at any educational institution.”
Does detention in the principal’s office qualify as “disciplinary action”? What about an in-school suspension? In Iowa, K-12 schools suspend, expel or otherwise “remove” kids for discipline problems tens of thousands of times each year. Should each of these young Iowans be required to revisit the experience on a college application?
No. Colleges should not ask such questions.
If an applicant did something particularly egregious, it’s likely law enforcement was involved. (After all, police officers are stationed in some Iowa high schools and middle schools cite and arrest students every day.) Applicants will have the chance to acknowledge the criminal allegations made against them when answering the next broadly-worded, and confusing, question on the application form.
The so-called “common application” used by hundreds of schools asks if the applicant has ever been “adjudicated guilty.”
The UNI application asks if someone has been “charged with a violation of the law” which resulted in specific consequences. Iowa State wants to know about pending charges and convictions, as well as whether someone has “made a plea of guilty or no contest” or “accepted a deferred judgment.”
Young adults who can even figure out how to answer such questions might just decide to check “no.” Of course they could later face consequences if it is discovered they lied. Check “yes,” however, and the applicants will need to explain what happened and perhaps provide copies of court documents.
Supposedly these questions are designed to help keep campuses safe, as if the kid picked up for shoplifting (among the most common criminal offenses for teenagers) needs to be singled out on an admissions application because he is a threat to the student body.
According to ISU Admissions Director Phil Caffrey, in the vast majority of cases where a student admits wrongdoing, the “offense is minor enough in nature, we just approve (the application).”
Occasionally there are more serious issues and those students may have to pay $45 for a private firm to conduct a comprehensive, national background check for the school. A committee may review the application and then decide whether to admit the applicant.
The Des Moines Register editorial board asked three lawyers how they would advise clients who had been in trouble as juveniles to answer some of the questions on college applications. We got three different answers. The most memorable: “I hesitate to even say this, but they should probably consult an attorney.”
If schools feel compelled to ask about applicants’ criminal histories, they should inquire only about convictions, where someone was actually proven guilty.
Schools should not ask applicants to explain high school or middle school suspensions.
Society has agreed long ago that young offenders should not be treated like adults.
That is why a juvenile justice system, with its own rules, exists. It’s why there are provisions in the law to seal and expunge their criminal records. It’s why courts provide informal avenues to avoid going to court, which generates a public record.
Society has decided that we should allow juveniles to move into adulthood with a clean slate. Colleges should let them.