Privacy for safety

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October 15, 2010

2:35 AM

At The College of William and Mary, we are always interested in the policies and regulations our sister institutions have adopted, if only as a standard by which to judge our own. It is in that interest that we note the frankly troubling policy change recently announced at the University of Virginia, where administrators have newly committed themselves to enforcing the already-instated policy requiring students to report all prior arrests and convictions to school authorities.

One can easily understand why U.Va. has taken steps to increase campus security in response to the tragic events that took place earlier this year, resulting in the death of one of its students. It is unavoidable that the emotions surrounding that tragedy played a part in crafting this response. In many ways, they are specific to U.Va. alone. But the existence of such a mandate at another Virginia state university, and at one to which the College has many ties, begs the question of whether we would approve if the College were to enact a similar policy.

That possibility may be just purely hypothetical. We obviously have very little insight into how officials at the College view U.Va.’s policy change. But we hope that College officials, should they be inclined to consider similar measures, would seriously and soberly reflect on the repercussions of such a policy — and whether this invasive action would actually benefit the campus.

In our view, it would not.

The policy is an obvious invasion of student privacy; that much is certain. At most universities, including our own, there already exists a requirement to report any prior convictions. Mere arrests, however, imply no admission of guilt, and in many cases lead to no legal action of any kind. Under this policy, however, the College would have the authority to use those arrests as justification for suspension or expulsion, regardless of the outcome.

Of course, right to privacy is never an absolutely overriding principle. There are certain cases in which we would be willing to cede some individual rights to privacy if an obvious benefit to campus security could be shown. As it stands, we do not think that is the case.

Arrest records as an indicator of violent tendencies are questionable at best. Should discovering those tendencies be administrators’s goal, there are surely better, more effective mechanisms. Instead, the policy’s actual effect will most likely be entirely unrelated and far more wide-ranging. Many students would face unwarranted disciplinary action for arrests unrelated to their capacities as students, or unnecessary Honor Code violations for being afraid to report minor arrests.

As articulated currently by U.Va., the policy, or more specifically its application, is simply too broad and undefined. It comes with no formally articulated procedure for how the Dean of Students Office should react to these disclosures, and what part it may play in disciplinary decisions. As such, the requirement will almost certainly be unenforced — as it has been for years — or entirely over enforced. The limited and discrete application this policy would require to weed out potential violent offenders is unlikely, if not impossible, given the limited predictive capacity of prior arrests.

We do need a method by which to identify students who are a danger to the community to ensure the safety of the students at the College. A series of potential indicators is obviously useful in that process, as is a supportive and active student counseling program. But that imperative, necessary as it is, should not be used as a front for blatant and potentially pernicious invasion of student privacy. A false, and potentially destructive, sense of security is far from what our community needs; the College would do well to avoid policies that foster it.

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