Should students be warned when a classmate is facing criminal charges?

A Chicago college is facing criticism for failing to notify students that one of their classmates was awaiting trial on rape charges in another state. The college’s response: We didn’t know, either.

It may come as a surprise that there is no widely accepted protocol for whether K-12 schools or colleges must be notified that one of their students has been charged with a serious crime.

Police agencies commonly do inform college authorities if a case involves high-profile athletes, as recently occurred when University of Minnesota football players were accused of a gang-rape at an off-campus apartment. But that is a matter of police procedure, not a legal requirement.

Last spring, students at Kansas’ Lawrence High School spotlighted this issue for their news publication, Budget Online, after the campus belatedly became aware that one student had a criminal conviction for lewd and lascivious behavior and that another transferred into the school while awaiting trial on rape charges. One of the students was subsequently charged with sexual misconduct with a minor, which brought the previous conviction to light.

As reporter Zia Kelly’s story explained, Kansas is among the many states imposing no duty on law enforcement agencies to notify schools when students are arrested. And schools are under no obligation even to consult publicly available databases such as sex-offender registries — and, at least in Lawrence, do not make a routine practice of doing so.

A handful of states do, in fact, obligate police or prosecutors to inform K-12 schools when one of their students is facing serious criminal charges. 

For example, Texas requires the head of every law enforcement agency to alert the school principal verbally within 24 hours when student is charged with a felony or a violent misdemeanor offense, and the principal must then notify all instructional personnel; the law also requires prosecutors to inform schools when criminal cases are resolved, and probation supervisors to provide notice when a probationer transfers into the school. Analogous laws are on the books in ConnecticutMaryland and North Carolina.

But no comparable laws exist for postsecondary institutions — hence the current uproar at Loyola University-Chicago. 

Loyola authorities say they learned only through the news media that a third-year student had been arrested and charged with rape during his senior year of high school in Georgia, where he recently accepted a 10-year prison sentence under a guilty plea.

Loyola has not addressed whether the student, Benjamin Holm, violated any duty to self-disclose the arrest. At some colleges, students are required to report if they are charged with or convicted of a crime, under threat of disciplinary sanctions if they’re caught failing to disclose. (Holm’s case is a bit different, since he was accepted, but not yet enrolled, at the time of his arrest.) 

A federal statute, the Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Act, does require students who are placed on a sex-offender registry to notify their colleges, but that applies only after an adjudication of guilt and not while charges are pending.

Whether colleges should hold students’ criminal records against them is an evolving issue with no universally accepted answer. 

If a college is found to have accepted, or retained, a student with a history of violent behavior and that person re-offends, the public will demand to know why the college exposed the campus to a known risk. (Of note, the U.S. Department of Education has advised that it is not a violation of federal privacy law to notify the campus community of publicly available information that a registered sex offender is attending the school.)

But a college education can redirect a wayward path and reduce the risk of resuming a life of crime — which is why an increasing number of jurisdictions, including New York’s public university system, no longer ask about criminal convictions as part of the application process.

This is a story worth exploring for student journalists everywhere: Do educational institutions take steps, such as consulting publicly available sex-offender registries, to learn whether their students have committed crimes? Should they? Are students obligated to acknowledge their arrests to campus authorities — and what happens if they don’t? And what about past offenses as opposed to current ones? Do students have a right to know if one of their classmates has a violent criminal history, and should institutions even be in the business of checking criminal backgrounds at all — or, like the State University of New York system, should they “ban the box?”