Should misconduct be noted on transcripts?

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Laws recently introduced in New York and Virginia will now cite sexual crimes on academic transcripts in an attempt to target abuse on college campuses. Photo by Anthony Garnier.

In Virginia and New York, your conduct as a college student could follow you well after you graduate.

Both states passed laws in 2015 requiring all colleges — both public and private universities alike — to note on transcripts for five years after graduation whether a student was suspended, expelled or disciplined in some way by the university for sexual assault allegations.

Now, just three months ago in December 2016, California Representative Jackie Speier  proposed a nearly identical bill called the Safe Transfer Act, which, if passed, would make California the third state in the U.S. to adopt policies that crack down on sex offenders.

In the wake of nearly a decade of increased attention given to assault cases on college campuses, these policies have been offered as one solution to an increasingly dangerous sea of problems that emerge from organizations with little liability.

As institutions such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Roman Catholic Church have recently demonstrated, a chain of abuse can be easily concealed without proper accountability. These organizations, and countless others like them, are tempted to shuffle offenders around between locations without much — if any — record of prior offenses.

Consequently, unsuspecting victims in these new locations fall prey to repeat offenders, and a vicious cycle of assault begins to stretch across churches, scout troops, hospitals and, as the Safe Transfer Act now addresses, schools.

In the case of the Catholic Church, bishops frequently transfer sexually abusive priests from parish to parish without providing information to law enforcement or parishioners. Reports are documented but rarely leave the office doors of the church where the claim was first filed. Without the Safe Transfer Act, the same neglect occurs in college campuses, where offenses go unnoticed by anyone outside the university in which the incident took place.

Proponents of the act argue that these laws protect potential victims from predators leaving one university and taking up residence at another without much consequence. If admissions boards at universities, both graduate and undergraduate, aren’t aware of the offenses of a historically dangerous transfer student, they cannot make truly informed decisions about a student’s qualifications to attend their school.

It’s important to note that only offenses actually punished by universities are to be noted on offenders’ transcripts; accusations are not included.

Students who are found guilty of sexual assault are permitted to write a statement on their behalf accompanying the submission of their transcript, but opponents of the bill argue that this would do little to combat what several see as a violation of students’ privacy.

It seems to me, however, that the violation of another human being’s body instantly causes one to surrender any remaining right to privacy. Sexual assault is a crime too heinous to go unreported.

The distinction worth remembering here is that these policies are not enacted out of vengeance or spite for sex offenders, though that position is certainly understandable. The point of requiring notice of these crimes on transcripts is not so much to punish further the students who have already been found guilty, but to protect those who are not guilty.

Extenuating circumstances do happen, perhaps just as often as more serious instances of assault, but they may be addressed by the student in a letter of explanation.

If a previously guilty student is truly harmless, either upon repentance or a mere misunderstanding in the unfolding of the prior university’s disciplinary process, an impression can be made to this effect in the student’s letter.

We should not accept the argument that potential discrimination toward abusers’ applications should somehow weigh more heavily in a university’s consideration than full knowledge of information helpful in preventing further crimes.

The issues addressed in the Safe Transfer Act are precisely the issues that have been historically neglected by the Catholic Church. It’s an uncomfortable topic and a reality many Catholics don’t want to talk about. But the truth is that sexual assault is rampant everywhere, certainly not just in the Church, and the institutions that have an ability to put protections in place for victims ought to do so.

As a Catholic school, the University of Dallas has a twofold responsibility to answer the questions brought up by this legislation. Just how willing are we to speak about disagreeable issues? How far are we willing to go to protect those within our reach, even at the risk of damage to our reputation?

Texas has not yet placed a bill like this on the books, but it’s likely that at some point in the future these policies will begin to spread outside California, Virginia and New York.  When they do, UD will have to prepare an answer.

Though we received an exemption for Title IX, if a bill like this is ever passed in our state, UD will likely not be able to escape the law. When that day comes, how will we respond? Who will we protect: the offender or the offended, the abuser or the abused?

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