New Law Means FBI Checks for More College Students

GRAND FORKS, N.D.
A new law that gives the North Dakota University System
wide-ranging authority to conduct FBI criminal background checks could affect as many as
4,000 students and 800 employees in the state, officials say.

The law, passed by the Legislature earlier
this year, affects a number of agencies, ranging from the real estate
commission to the racing commission.

A tentative list of university system
positions where applicants would be required to undergo background checks
includes employees who handle financial information, computer records or
medical records; workers with extensive access to buildings, like custodians;
employees with extensive contact with students, like counselors and coaches;
and top university administrators.

Background checks are being considered for
students in fields dealing with vulnerable populations, such as education,
physical therapy and social work, university system officials says.

Stacey Holte, an elementary education
major at the University of North Dakota, says she isn’t bothered by the idea of
the fingerprint-based check.

“In any job where you’re going to be
working with children, it’s a good thing to keep them safe, and this doesn’t
really hurt anyone,” she says.

University system officials are still
debating the scope of the background checks as well as other questions, such as
whether the checks will be mandatory or optional and at what point in a
student’s education the checks will be performed, says system attorney Pat
Seaworth.

State Rep. Eliot Glassheim, D-Grand Forks,
says he worries that campus background checks might go too far.

“All I know is when you’re in public life,
if there’s an opportunity to protect yourself more, you’ll usually take
advantage of it,” Glassheim says. “So, my sense is there will be more
background checks required than are necessary.”

The new law was inspired by the murder
last September of Valley City
State University
student Mindy Morgenstern. State Sen. Larry Robinson, D-Valley
City, who is the school’s director
of university advancement, was the bill’s chief sponsor.

“The incident obviously caused a great
deal of concern statewide and was on everyone’s radar screen,” he says. “What
really surprised many of us was the lack of a comprehensive system of
background checks in place in North Dakota.”

State Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem
says he doesn’t view the background checks as an invasion of privacy because
all of the criminal information the checks reveal is publicly available. The
FBI simply gathers the information in a central database.

“What we’re talking about are people’s
criminal convictions,” Stenehjem says. “A person with enough resources and time
would be able to go around the country and get these records. These are not
personal details about anybody. If I’m living in a dormitory, I’d like to know
if my Resident Assistant is a convicted sex offender or a burglar.”

UND Provost Greg Weisenstein helped
compose the list of academic programs at that school where students will
undergo criminal background
checks. He described the list as a delicate balance between addressing
security concerns and not encroaching on the privacy of students.

“Optimally, we want that balance to be
right,” Weisenstein says. “Right now, we’re gaining some experience with this
on a national level, and with experience, we’ll know better where that balance
should rest.”

– Associated Press

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