Many Minn. colleges not asking new students: Are you a convicted felon?

12:57 PM, Sep 27, 2012   |    comments
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GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Before college students headed to the classroom this year, they had to answer question about their past when filling out their application.

But there is one question that is not asked by some schools that has Ginger Guggenberger wondering why.

"They do not ask if you are a convicted felon," Guggenberger told KARE 11.

Guggenberger's son goes to Winona State University, which is part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system or MNSCU.

On its application, prospective students are asked for their social security number, racial background, how many years of algebra or drama have they had. But nowhere does it ask if they have ever been convicted of a crime.

"They'll ask amazingly detailed questions yet they don't want to know the answer to this?" she asked.

It is a question Guggenberger didn't even think to ask until last year.

That is when her son had an opening for a fourth roommate on campus. So the school unknowingly assigned him and his friends a student who, according to court records, was once convicted of domestic abuse by strangulation. It was a felony charge that was later pleaded down to a gross misdemeanor.

"Can this really be happening? They have put someone who has committed a violent act and who was still on probation in a room with my child," she remembers thinking.

Student housing only found out about the roommates criminal past after Guggenberger's son informed them.

She claims Winona State University housing officials told her son and his friends they could move to separate dorms, but the school could not remove the roommate. Not wanting to be split up, the boys decided to stick it out for the rest of the school year.

"They were put in that position to feel like they needed to just deal with it," she said.

Nothing happened during the year, but Guggenberger says the boys were uncomfortable the entire time.

"We need to provide as supportive of an environment as we can," she said.

Although MNSCU declined an on camera interview, a spokesperson told KARE 11 because of privacy laws the school is prohibited to talk about specific students.

"Our college and universities take the safety of our students and employees with utmost seriousness," said Melinda Voss in an email.

Voss says MNSCU is in compliance with federal law and that they "annually publish online detailed reports about criminal activity on or near campuses."

The entire emailed statement is below.

And since this issue occurred, MNSCU has changed at least some of its policy which now allows its schools to remove a student from their dorm if a problem arises.

"There is much a bigger issue here than just these boys," said Guggenberger.

We checked dozens of schools throughout the state and what we found was many do ask some sort of question about criminal history, but many do not.
The University of Minnesota does and a spokesperson says depending on the offense the school takes action on a case by case basis. The same for several private colleges, like Hamline, but others like St. Thomas do not ask the question.

You can see a list of schools we spoke to and brief summary from each below. Many schools use the "Common Application" which asks a prospective student's criminal background.

"Parents need to know their students are safe when they come to a state institution," said State Representative Bud Nornes.

Nornes is the chairman of the Higher Education Committee that oversees MNSCU.

He thinks it is reasonable for schools to ask students about their criminal past.

"But I don't feel as chairman of the higher education committee that I need to pass legislation to make sure it's on there," he said.

He also questions if it is a widespread problem and worries about those students who have made mistakes in their past and now are trying to right them.

"I'd guess I'd hate to see that as another barrier that's going to be a problem for you," he said.

That's the same worry for Guggenberger who says she is not against felons getting an education but wonders if violent offenders should be allowed into housing, not to mention co-ed housing with easy access to bathrooms.

"You have students in there that have total access to the entire building you're living in," said Guggenberger.

That's why with a younger son touring colleges and universities, she plans to ask more questions because she believes many schools do not ask enough.

"They are very good at showing you the security poles, but what they are not telling you is they haven't done any checks of people they've put into their housing," she said.

LIST OF SCHOOLS:

University of Minnesota:

It does ask applicants at all of its 5 schools if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. A committee then decides if the prospective student is suitable for admittance. A spokesperson says most offenses are not deemed to be a threat, but some are.

Augsburg College:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis. 

Bethany Lutheran College:

A spokesperson says applicants are asked if they've been convicted of a crime on their printed application. The school does not ask on its online application, but "are in the process of building a new online application where the same question will be asked."

Bethel University:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

Carlton College:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

College of Saint Benedict & Saint John's University:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

College of St. Scholastica:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

Concordia College, Moorhead:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. If someone indicates yes, they are asked to explain. It is unclear what the school does after that.

Concordia University, St. Paul:

An online application does ask prospective students if they have ever been convicted of felony and then the applicant is asked to explain. In a written statement to KARE 11, a Concordia spokesperson said "If students answer yes to this question their application is reviewed by the Admissions Committee."

Crossroads College:

According to its online application, the school does ask applicants if they have been convicted of a crime. If someone indicates yes, they are asked to explain.

Crown College:

According to its online application, the school does ask applicants if they have been convicted of a crime. If someone indicates yes, they are asked to explain.

Gustavus Adolphus College:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

Hamline University:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

Macalester College:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a felony. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

Minnesota College of Art and Design:

The school does not ask the specific question about an applicant's criminal background, but a spokesperson says, "MCAD uses a more extensive/sophisticated process in screening its students - thorough one-on-one interviews coupled with a review of the applicant's high school record, college/community college record (if any), and references." 

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota:

It uses both the "Common Application", which asks applicants whether they've been convicted of a crime, and it also uses its own application which does not ask the question. Either one is accepted.

St. Catherine University:

It uses both the "Common Application", which asks applicants whether they've been convicted of a crime, and it uses its own application, which does not ask the question. Either one is accepted.

St. Olaf College:

It does ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. If applicants indicate yes, they are asked to explain. And then admittance is decided on a case by case basis.

University of St. Thomas:

It does not ask applicants if they have ever been convicted of a crime. A spokesperson says a vast majority of students are minors and do not have criminal backgrounds, but added that, "Students with safety concerns also can call a well-publicized, four-digit Public Safety phone number, or can push a button on one of the "blue-light" emergency call-in stations located throughout campus."

Minnesota State Universities and Colleges:

It does not ask applicants at if they have been arrested or convicted of a crime. MNSCU's full statement is below.

"The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities strive to create and maintain safe learning and work environments for their students and employees, and have adopted a variety of policies and practices to that end.

Our colleges and universities, in compliance with federal law, annually publish online detailed reports about criminal activity on or near campuses.  Several of our campuses are among the nation's safest based on U.S. Department of Education data. 

We are not aware of any public or private Minnesota college or university that has a policy requiring criminal background checks for all student applicants.

In accordance with state law, information about individuals with a criminal history as a sex offender or a predatory offender is made available to the campus community by college and university officials and the appropriate law enforcement officials.  Based on the information available in a particular case, admission or enrollment may be prohibited or restricted if the presence of such an individual on campus poses a safety concern. 

In certain circumstances, criminal background checks on students or applicants for admission to our colleges and universities are required by the program for which they are applying.  For example, background checks are conducted on students who want to become nurses or childcare workers.

With regard to housing, our colleges and universities are authorized to deny housing or remove students from housing in situations where the institution becomes aware of either the student's serious criminal convictions or dangerous conduct indicates a threat or danger to the college or university community.  We believe this provides the tools necessary to effectively address any concerns.  Students are encouraged to bring forward any concerns about their housing situation based on any reason, and campus officials will take appropriate steps to deal with the matter.  There is no policy that mandates a student live with another specific student.

We expect all students to abide by a code of conduct, and our colleges and universities take prompt and appropriate action when there is an infraction. Our colleges and universities each have their own student conduct code and criminal conduct may result in campus discipline, up to and including expulsion."

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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