Critics Fear Discrimination after Change in North Carolina Admissions Policy

Smita Ghosh

On Jan. 22, members of the board of the North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges voted unanimously to give school officials the discretion to refuse to admit “threatening” students.  Members say that the rule, which allows colleges to deny admission to students who present an “articulable, imminent and significant threat” to others, has been on the table since the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech.

The rule, which could go into effect in several months if it is approved by the state’s rules commission, reflects the difficulty that institutions face in balancing a need for safety measures with the rights of individual students.  School safety officials face the daunting task of preventing incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting in an era of relaxed gun control laws, even after the recent tragic shooting in Arizona.

Critics say, however, that admissions officials could easily abuse the discretion they receive under North Carolina’s new policy.  In an interview, Sarah Preston of the local ACLU noted that the law could be used to “target people who are not a danger because they make people or they make administrators uncomfortable,” citing people with AIDS as an example.

While this type of discretionary power is rare, officials at most institutions, including North Carolina’s Community Colleges, have the right to suspend or expel a student from campus if they present safety concerns.

The proposed rule creates procedural safeguards for students–preserving a student’s right to appeal the ruling, and requiring documentation on part of the admissions officials–but gives little guidance on admissions standards.  In other words, it remains to be seen how officials will make their decisions.  A recent study of admissions officers found that, among colleges that require a criminal background check, only about half of the institutions trained their admissions employees on how to interpret results of criminal checks, or how to distinguish between various types of crimes.

North Carolina’s rule may also parallel the 1990s era “zero tolerance” laws in public schools, which were designed to hinder rapidly escalating school violence, but also legitimized the targeting of non-dangerous students by overzealous school officials.  In Stephenson v. Davenport Community School District, district officials expelled Brianna Stephenson for having a small tattoo of a cross on her hand, using a zero tolerance policy prohibiting “gang symbols.”  The Eighth Circuit agreed with Stephenson, voiding the District’s policy for its vague prohibitions. Will increased discretion in North Carolina’s community colleges raise the same issues?


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