Lawmakers say it's time to review way colleges conduct background checks

abogues@dailypress.com

The recent allegations against former Christopher Newport University football player Jesse Matthew Jr. have raised questions about the amount of background information colleges retrieve on students and how they share it with other universities and law enforcement.

Matthew, who was previously accused of a sexual assault at Liberty University, was also the subject of a criminal sexual assault investigation that was never prosecuted at CNU. He is now charged with abduction with intent to defile in the case of missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham.

State law requires public and private colleges to submit the names of all students they admit to Virginia State Police to check against a national list of convicted sex offenders and the Virginia Criminal Information Network.

But some lawmakers now say it may be time to review how colleges share information about students' disciplinary records and get updates on their criminal backgrounds.

Kirsten Nelson, a spokeswoman for the State Council on Higher Education, said the database only checks for convictions, not criminal complaints or charges. In addition, the names are not checked for updates as the student continues at the college.

"That would not have helped in this situation," Nelson said, referring to the Matthew case.

"Whenever a crime takes place, like the Jesse Matthew case, we must take the time to review the situation and see where improvements can be made," said Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, whose legislative district includes CNU.

"I supported legislation this past session to study crimes like this and see how the law can be improved. We anticipate receiving those results later this year and we can address any recommendations in next year's General Assembly session," Yancey said in an email to the Daily Press.

Local colleges such as the College of William and Mary and Hampton University ask students on their admission applications if they've ever been arrested or charged with a crime.

In 2012, William and Mary also adopted a policy requiring current students to report all arrests, according to Brian Whitson, a spokesman for W&M.

According to William and Mary's website, students have "to report all felony arrests and other arrests involving violence or the threat of violence within 72 hours of the incident regardless of where it occurs."

According to the site, arrests "include any action by court summons, citation, detention or other similar process. Students are not required to disclose arrests that occurred prior to Aug. 25, 2012."

In addition, Whitson said, students who transfer have to get a certificate from the dean of students at the institution they were transferring from that they were in good standing.

This past year Sen. Mark Warner introduced legislation to curb sexual assaults on campus that included provisions to streamline the process used for investigating and reporting incidents. It also would keep athletic departments or other "subgroups" from independently handling complaints of sexual violence.

But a spokesman for Warner's office said more may need to be done, including reforming the background checks.

"Campus sexual assault is a serious issue, and it's been swept under the rug far too long on too many U.S. college campuses. We'll reserve judgment because the Matthew investigation is still underway, and all of the facts are not known," Kevin Hall, a Warner spokesman said.

"Frankly, the current system is uneven and inconsistent, and we need to raise standards and accountability to ensure a fairer process," Hall said, before adding "… we must bring more consistency, transparency and accountability to how colleges and universities handle campus sexual assaults."

Sen. Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City, who also teaches law on the campus of William and Mary, said more needs to be done to ensure campus communities are protected from students who may not have been convicted, but have had issues with the law.

"The protection of student records is important but should not always be paramount," Norment said, though it is important to remember that people are presumed to be innocent until they are proven guilty, he said.

"Colleges frequently punish students for offenses even though the student may not be charged, or even when they are found innocent," he said.

"I know there are issues, but I do think colleges should be able to exchange behavioral problems so a student like [Matthew] cannot go from school to school without the school knowing who and what they are getting. The other students' rights to be safe and protected should outweigh his aberrant behavior," he said.

In order to protect students "the legislature may need to pass an immunity bill to shield the colleges against civil lawsuits by a student who thinks they have been prejudiced," he said.

But Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, cautioned against expanding background checks.

"The ACLU of Virginia opposes the use of criminal history background information to disqualify people automatically from consideration for jobs or services unless there is a demonstrable connection between a person's conviction of a particular crime and the actual requirements of the job or other public service," she said.

"We do not believe that arrest information should be considered at all given its lack of reliability.   A person is innocent until proven guilty, and there are too many arrests, particularly those that never get prosecuted, for which there wasn't even probable cause to believe the person was engaged in criminal activity in the first place."

Daily Press staff writer Dave Ress contributed to this report. Bogues can be reached by phone at 757-247-4536.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
39°