Jan 24 2011

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NC: Colleges might bar students for safety reasons

By Jane Stancill, The Charlotte Observer

The state’s community colleges could soon be able to deny admission to applicants who appear to pose a health or safety threat.

On Friday, the State Board of Community Colleges voted to amend the system’s long-standing open-door admissions policy. The change would allow the 58 colleges to refuse to admit prospective students who may present “an articulable, imminent and significant threat.”

It’s unclear just how colleges would define such risks or how they would carry out the policy. That has prompted concern among some that the policy could lead to discrimination against people with mental health conditions or other disabilities.

The vote came almost two weeks after the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The accused shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had been suspended by Pima Community College in Arizona after reportedly exhibiting erratic behavior in class and shooting a video in which he called the campus “my genocide school.”

Virginia Tech spurred review
The action by the North Carolina board was not prompted by the shooting in Tucson. The board began work on the issue last year.

Board member Dr. Stuart Fountain of Asheboro said the impetus was the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, in which a student with a history of mental illness killed 32 people and then himself.

North Carolina college officials began to have their own questions about how to deal with potential threats among applicants, he said.

“I think the individual incident that most triggered all of this a year ago had to do with someone actually threatening an admissions counselor,” Fountain said. “That was the type of question that we were getting from our college presidents, (who were) saying, ‘Hey, we need some help here.’ ”

Civil liberty concerns
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina has raised concerns that the new policy could be applied unfairly and arbitrarily.

“It’s very broad and very vague,” said Sarah Preston, policy director for the state chapter of the ACLU. “You could have 58 different interpretations of the policy.”

A student who is barred from admission could appeal, according to the policy.

In North Carolina, community colleges have codes of conduct that give them leeway to suspend or expel students for violent or threatening behavior. The new policy would give colleges a way to handle applicants.

Stephen Scott, president of Wake Technical Community College, said he supports the change. “It gives a tool to help us protect the health and safety of the vast majority of our students and employees,” he said.

No criminal checks
He acknowledged that colleges know little about incoming students in a system that enrolls more than 800,000. At Wake Tech, applications don’t require criminal checks or reviews of medical records.

The policy will be useful when colleges have to decide whether to re-admit a student who’s been in trouble before, Scott said. Each semester at Wake Tech, 15 to 20 students are suspended for various reasons, including violence.

Community colleges have long opened their doors to any resident who has a high school diploma or is over 18. The UNC system, which has more discretion over admissions, performs limited criminal background checks on prospective students whose applications raise a red flag for problems. That practice was instituted after the Virginia Tech shooting.

The policy change will go before a state panel that reviews new regulations. If approved, it could take effect later this year.

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