Pennsylvania Court: College Can be Told of Juvenile Record

PHILADELPHIA – In a case that poses questions about whether a juvenile record should follow a student to college, a Pennsylvania appeals court ruled that it was OK for a university to be told that an incoming freshman had disseminated child pornography.

Now, the teen’s attorney is asking the Superior Court to reconsider, saying its decision misinterprets state law.

At issue is the state’s Juvenile Act, which said schools shall be notified if a child is found delinquent in juvenile court. The 2-1 decision, which upheld a ruling by a Lehigh County juvenile court, said such notification can extend to colleges and universities.

The attorney, Gavin Holihan, said, “the Juvenile Act has never been construed in this way before.”

“Nobody has read it to pertain to colleges and universities,” he said. On Wednesday, he filed a motion asking the court to allow the case to be reargued before a larger panel of judges.

When he was 17, Holihan’s client had downloaded an image and put it in a folder that made it available on a file-sharing network. The unidentified teen was found delinquent the juvenile court equivalent of guilty in 2011 on one count of dissemination of child pornography.

He was 18 and intending to go to Temple University in Philadelphia by the time he was found delinquent, said Holihan, who declined to identify the teen or say if he was enrolled at the school.

The Superior Court said it would be counterintuitive to conclude that the Legislature “only wished to protect students in primary or secondary schools from those juveniles who had been adjudicated delinquent but not those attending institutions of higher education.”

The judges also questioned the logic of concluding that a child who is adjudicated delinquent “presents a danger to elementary, middle, and high school students, but ceases to present a danger once the delinquent child enrolls in college.”

Temple spokesman Ray Betzner said he could not comment on the student’s case and was not aware of other cases where the university had been notified of a student’s juvenile record. Temple does ask applicants whether they have been convicted of a crime, an answer factored into the admissions process. If the school was notified of an applicant’s juvenile record, Betzner said, it would likely fall into the same category.

Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel for the Juvenile Law Center, said the ruling could hurt teens’ chances of starting over as adults.

“It undoes this basic principle of the juvenile justice system,” Levick said of the central idea that kids get to “reboot” and start over as they become adults.

As of 2004, 44 states had some sort of school notification laws, according to Melissa Sickmund, interim director for the National Center for Juvenile Justice. But Sickmund said she didn’t how many of those, if any, addressed the issue of reporting to a college or university.

In Pennsylvania, the Juvenile Act requires that a school be notified if one of its students is found delinquent of a crime. More information is required if the crime is a felony, including a sex crime, said Jim Anderson, executive director of the Juvenile Court Judges Commission.

But the law has long been implemented under the idea that “school” meant elementary or secondary schools, he said.

It’s rare, but not unheard of, for courts to notify colleges in such circumstances, Anderson said. One of the biggest questions going forward, he said, will be whether the ruling means juvenile courts can tell colleges and universities, or are required to tell them.

Many judges would likely want the ability, but not the mandate, to notify, he said.

“There are enough barriers to kids succeeding who have made mistakes,” he said.