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HBCUs Back Push to Think Outside Box About Students’ Criminal Past

WASHINGTON ― Dr. Ivory Toldson, executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs, said that he is supportive of recommendations from Beyond the Box, a new report from the Education Department that urges colleges to reconsider how they ask applicants about their criminal records.

An estimated 70 million Americans have an arrest or conviction in their past, and the report found that questions about criminal records early on in the college application process may have a chilling effect on some applicants.

Toldson was speaking at “Toward a Policy and Legislative Agenda to Address the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” a conference sponsored by the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University, along with other leaders from the HBCU community Thursday. The conference centered around the disproportionate toll that overly punitive school discipline policies take on minority youth, and what actions might be taken to counteract these issues.

“I fully support any effort, whether it be in higher education, or in the workforce, where we reduce the stigma that’s associated with someone coming out with a criminal record,” Toldson said during a morning panel.

While the Beyond the Box initiative is relevant to anyone with a criminal history, it has particular implications for the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects minority youth and draws them into the criminal justice system before they can begin their adult lives.

The report points to data from the 2011-2012 Civil Rights Data Collection, maintained by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which shows that Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than White students.

“While black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest,” the report says.

Not all colleges ask applicants about their criminal records, but the Common App, which is used by nearly 700 schools, began asking applicants if they ever have been found guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor, felony or other crime in 2006.

“Questions about criminal history create a significant risk of alienating potential applicants while also unnecessarily limiting an institution’s applicant pool,” the report says.

Beyond the Box suggests, among other recommendations, that colleges consider asking applicants about their criminal and disciplinary backgrounds after an initial admissions decision has been made. The report acknowledges, however, that there are applicants who colleges and universities may not want to admit due to safety concerns.

Prior to the release of the Beyond the Box initiative, Toldson said, he had been asked by the Education Department to reach out to the HBCU community to see how the colleges and universities handle questions about criminal history during their application processes.

“There’s a lot of diversity in the HBCU community in how we handle it,” Toldson said. “There are HBCUs that have the box, and haven’t thought a whole lot about how they use it, and may in fact use it to create a certain bias against certain candidates for admissions. Then there are other HBCUs that eliminate the box altogether.”

Catherine Morris can be reached at [email protected].

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