Push Grows For A 'Scarlet Letter' On Transcripts Of Campus Sexual Offenders

May 11, 2016
Originally published on May 25, 2016 3:48 pm

When it comes to punishing students for campus sexual assault, some say kicking offenders out of school isn't enough. They want schools to put a permanent note on offenders' transcripts explaining that they've been punished for sexual misconduct, so other schools — or employers — can be warned.

Survivor Carmen McNeill says it's common sense. She was a college junior nearly two years ago when, she says, she passed out on someone's bed after a party, from a mix of drinks — including one she suspects was spiked.

"There was a male figure over top of me," she recalls. "And my arms were being held down by his arms."

The next morning, after realizing she was missing her underwear, McNeill started piecing together what happened.

"He took advantage of what he saw was an easy target and he did what he wanted with me," she says.

Eventually, a campus disciplinary panel expelled the male student. McNeill felt relieved and vindicated — until she found out he was accepted as a transfer student at another school nearby.

"It was nauseating," she says. "I just felt so failed at that point."

It's barely better than the old days, McNeill says, when colleges would sweep the problem under the rug. Now, she says, they're just sweeping it down the street.

"It's a nightmare," she says. "I mean how are we protecting students if we're letting perpetrators in [to other schools]? Every woman is at risk now at that school."

Indeed, to many it's a disturbingly familiar reality.

"I've actually had somebody say to me, 'Isn't that the Roman Catholic Church school of disclosure? Just move the student on,' " says Mike Reilly, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "There are some parallels."

AACRAO recently switched its policy from opposing transcript notations to suggesting that schools consider it. Today only about 15 percent do, but Reilly says many more are likely to follow suit after his organization issues new guidelines in a few months.

"It's just a really complex question," he says about the kinds of discipline that get marked on the transcript, how permanent it becomes, and how much detail is included.

For example, should a transcript say "suspended for sexual misconduct" or just "for misconduct"?

But at the same time, Reilly notes, there's increased pressure on schools to do it.

"We're looking at it as a public safety matter," says Anita Bonds, a District of Columbia council member who is pushing a measure mandating transcript notations. She says a school needs to know it's bringing a perpetrator on campus, so that "they may say 'We have our eye on you.' "

Similar mandates have passed in Virginia and New York, but have failed in Maryland and California amid concerns from both survivors and those representing the accused.

Some survivors worry that mandating a higher-stakes punishment may have the unintended consequence of making schools more reluctant to punish. On the other side, many see it as too draconian to basically brand a student for life.

"I think at some point Hester Prynne gets to take the scarlet letter off," says attorney Justin Dillon, referring to the A (for "adulteress") worn by the character in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel The Scarlet Letter. Dillon has represented dozens of students accused of sexual assault. "This is essentially public shaming in its worst form."

Dillon, of the law firm KaiserDillon, says it's especially unfair considering how unreliable many campus tribunals are. He says he has seen too many students turned into pariahs, like one client who he says was expelled just months before graduating from an Ivy League school with a 3.9 GPA.

Dillon says his client applied to more than two dozen schools.

"The vast majority of them never even got back to him," he says.

Not surprisingly, the issue has made schools, and their lawyers, more than a little nervous.

If schools do mark transcripts, they worry expelled students will sue them for defamation. But if they don't, they worry a future victim will sue.

And for schools on other end, deciding whether to accept a student with a history of assault is no less fraught.

Columbus State Community College in Ohio is one school that is willing to take the risk.

"We really like to take the stance that individuals deserve opportunity to better their current circumstances," says Terrence Brooks, director for student conduct.

But, he adds, that has to be balanced with campus safety. So rather than automatically disqualifying students with checkered pasts, he says, they're accepted with conditions.

For example, they may be allowed to only take courses online. Or they may be restricted to certain areas of campus, at certain times of day. The school might also ask students to sign waivers allowing administrators permission to talk with a counselor or parole officer "to ensure they are keeping up their end of the bargain," Brooks says.

Another way some suggest to balance campus safety with second chances is to have transcript notations "sunset" after a certain number of years. But many survivors balk at the idea.

As McNeill puts it, she never gets to erase what happened to her. So the perpetrator shouldn't get to erase that he did it.

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When it comes to punishing students for campus sexual assault, some advocates say even schools that kick offenders out are not doing enough. They say when misconduct is serious enough to warrant a suspension or expulsion, it should be noted on a student's transcript. That way, other schools or potential employers can be warned. NPR's Tovia Smith reports a few states are now beginning to require that. And a quick warning - her story begins with a survivor describing the night she was raped.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Carmen McNeil says people need to know what her rapist did. She was a junior nearly two years ago when she says she passed out on someone's bed after a party from a mix of drinks, including one she suspects was spiked.

CARMEN MCNEIL: There was a male figure over top of me, and my arms were being held down by his arms.

SMITH: The next morning, after realizing she was missing her underwear, she started putting things together.

MCNEIL: He took advantage of what he saw as an easy target. And he did what he wanted with me.

SMITH: Eventually, the guy was expelled, and McNeil felt relieved and vindicated. That is until she found out he was accepted as a transfer student at another school nearby.

MCNEIL: It was nauseating. I just felt so failed at that point.

SMITH: McNeil says it's barely better than the old days, when colleges would sweep the problem under the rug. Now, she says, they're just sweeping it down the street.

MCNEIL: I mean, how are we protecting students if we're letting perpetrators in? Every woman is at risk now at that school.

MIKE REILLY: Yeah, I've actually had someone say to me, you know, isn't that the Roman Catholic Church school of disclosure - just move the student on?

SMITH: Mike Reilly heads AACRAO, a national group of college admissions officers and registrars that recently switched from opposing transcript notations to suggesting schools consider it. Today, only about 15 percent do, but Reilly says might many more will likely follow after his organization issues new guidelines in a few months.

REILLY: I mean, it's just a really complex question about what goes on there and how permanent that becomes, you know, while at the same time, there's increased pressure to put notations on the transcript.

ANITA BONDS: We're looking at it as a public-safety matter.

SMITH: Washington D.C. Councilwoman Anita Bonds is pushing a measure requiring schools to mark transcripts so other schools can be warned.

BONDS: And as a result, they may say, you know, we have our eye on you.

SMITH: Similar mandates passed in Virginia and New York but failed in Maryland and California amid a range of concerns. Some survivors worry it'll backfire if it makes schools more hesitant to expel, while others say branding a student for life is simply too punitive.

JUSTIN DILLIN: I think at some point, Hester Prynne gets to take the scarlet letter off.

SMITH: Attorney Justin Dillin represents students accused of sexual assault.

DILLIN: This is essentially public shaming in its worst form.

SMITH: Dillin says, especially considering how unreliable many campus tribunals are, it's unfair that they can turn students into pariahs, like one client, he says, was expelled just months before graduating from an Ivy League school with a 3.9 GPA.

DILLIN: I think he applied to something like more than two dozen schools. The vast majority of them never even got back to him.

SMITH: Not surprisingly, the whole issue has got schools and their lawyers more than a little nervous. If they do mark transcripts, schools worry expelled students will sue them for defamation. But if they don't, they worry a future victim will sue. And for schools on the receiving end, it's no less fraught.

TERRENCE BROOKS: We really like to take the stance that individuals deserve an opportunity to better their current circumstances.

SMITH: At Ohio's Columbus State Community College, Director for Student Conduct Terrence Brooks says students with checkered pasts are not automatically disqualified. Instead, he says, they're accepted with conditions. For example, they may be allowed to only take classes online, or they may be restricted to certain areas of campus.

BROOKS: It might also mean that we have them sign a waiver so that we have permission to talk with a counselor - sometime a parole officer or other individuals - to ensure that they're keeping up their end of the bargain to address the issues of concern.

SMITH: Some suggest another way to balance safety with second chances is to remove transcript notations after a certain number of years. Survivor Carmen McNeil is not a fan. As she puts it, she never gets to erase what happened to her, so the perpetrator, she says, shouldn't get to erase what he did. Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.