Background Checks for On-campus Housing

The safety and security of students in Texas school districts and institutes of higher education (IHE) is a concern for lawmakers, administrators, and citizens. However, school districts and IHE require different approaches to safety and security. A key difference between school districts and IHE campuses regards the student population.

K-12 students are a controlled population. Meaning, the students arrive to school premises and, generally, do not leave until school is dismissed. The school district is responsible for safety and security of the students during the hours of operation. However, IHE campuses have both a transient and continuous population. The transient population consists of students that commute to campus. These students may travel long distances or live close-by, but they do not reside on college property (Jacoby, 2000).

According to the Census Bureau, 2.08 million of the approximately 20.3 million students live on-campus

According to the Census Bureau, 2.08 million of the approximately 20.3 million students live on-campus (Census, 2000; Davis & Bauman, 2013). As such, the continuous population resides on campus property. These are generally new, incoming students. Therefore, the IHE is responsible for the safety and security of the transient population while they are on campus. However, the continuous population must be secure 24/7.

Prevalance of IHE in US

According to a survey by the Center for Community Alternatives (2010)

A recent bill designed at increasing the safety and security of students residing on IHE campuses was signed into law by Governor Perry on June 14, 2013. Senate Bill 146 permits public colleges to perform in-depth background checks on incoming students applying to live on campus. The ideology behind the law stems from vetting students that will be residing on-campus. Details of SB 146, as well as the implications for colleges and students, will be discussed further.

Details of the Legislation

In an effort to improve the safety and security of college students, Sen. Tommy Williams introduced SB 146. According to SB 146, the public college’s chief or police and the institution’s housing office may access background checks from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) secure website. The background check consists of criminal history records (e.g., past crimes, active warrants), which can only be obtained for incoming or current students that apply to reside in on-campus housing at the particular college. They cannot be ordered for students that commute.

The background check may not be utilized to assess enrollment eligibility for the college; rather, it may only be used in the vetting process for on-campus, student housing. Furthermore, criminal history information obtained through this process may not be released or disclosed to any other person without a court order or consent from the student in question. As soon as possible, after the academic semester begins in which the student applied for on-campus housing, all criminal history information obtained in the background check must be destroyed by either the chief of police or the institution’s housing office.

The background check may not be utilized to assess enrollment eligibility for the college; rather, it may only be used in the vetting process for on-campus, student housing.

Impact on Colleges

Before SB 146 was signed into law, IHE were only able to perform rudimentary checks on incoming students that applied for on-campus housing. The process involved utilizing a public background check website. However, these sites generally only informed the IHE of past convictions. SB 146 allows the IHE to access the secure DPS website, which permits the IHE to become aware of pending charges as well as past convictions. The IHE can decide to participate in the background checks or not. The IHE is also not required to revoke an application for residence if a student is found to have a criminal history. The decision to what constitutes revocation is individualistic to each public college across the state.

This process is not without shortcomings for the IHE. The law only allows in-depth, DPS background checks in the state of Texas. Out-of-state and foreign students are not subject to the same level of scrutiny at this point. The IHE may still use a public background check for these students; however, some police chiefs have expressed concern about the difficulty in obtaining reliable information in this manner (see, for example, Downing, 2013).

Impact on Students

As mentioned earlier, the law does not permit an IHE access to DPS criminal background checks in relation to admission decisions. Furthermore, students currently residing in on-campus residences are not subject to retroactive criminal history checks. SB 146 only impacts new students completing on-campus residence applications at IHE that choose to participate.

Since many universities and colleges require incoming students to reside in on-campus housing, SB 146 may impact student decisions regarding where to attend college. It is plausible that students with criminal backgrounds will be required to choose educational opportunities either closer to home or at an IHE that does not participate in DPS criminal history checks. Parents and students that attend an IHE participating in DPS criminal history checks will be assured that, with the exception of out-of-state and international students, everyone residing on-campus has been vetted by the IHE.

Some have voiced the concern that background admissions checks are not effective, and that they in fact are discriminative, given the overrepresentation of minorities in the population of individuals with criminal records. It has also been argued that having a criminal record does not necessarily mean that an individual would be a danger on a college campus, and that those who are dangerous don’t always have criminal records. The Center for Community Alternatives (2010) recommends that if IHEs choose to conduct criminal background checks among its students, it should follow a set of guidelines, including establishing admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, offering support and advocacy, and establishing procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process (Center for Community Alternatives, 2010).

SB 146 only impacts new students completing on-campus residence applications at IHE that choose to participate.

Conclusion

The passage of SB 146 illustrates a legislative trend in attempting to improve the safety and security of school districts and IHE in the state of Texas. In particular, SB 146 addresses the safety and security of students residing in on-campus housing at IHE. Institutes of higher education that choose to participate may now access DPS criminal history records on all new students filing applications to reside on-campus. While this law only applies to in-state students, it may be viewed as an improvement over the public background check websites that have traditionally been utilized. As SB 146 went into effect at the beginning of the 2013-2014 academic years, research into the effectiveness of the law has not been undertaken.

Institutes of higher education that choose to participate may now access DPS criminal history records on all new students filing applications to reside on-campus.

References

Census (2000). Census 2000 PHC-T-26. Table 1. Population in group quarters by type, sex, and age, for the United States: 2000. U.S. Census Bureau, unpublished tabulation.

Davis, J. W., & Bauman, K. (2013). School Enrollment in the United States, 2011. US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau.

Downing, M. (2013, July 30). Texas colleges & universities initiate dorm background checks. Retrieved September 7, 2013, from News 12: http://www.kxii.com/home/headlines/Texas-colleges--universities-initiate-dorm-background-checks-217695851.html

Jacoby, B. (2000). Why involve commuter students in learning? In Kramer, M. (Series Ed.), & Jacoby, B. (Vol. Ed.). New directions for higher education: Number 109. Involving commuter students in learning (pp. 3-12). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.