Lawmakers Call for College Student Background Checks

WHEELING – West Virginia colleges and universities would gain the power to conduct criminal background checks on both current and prospective students under one of the first bills introduced during the 2014 legislative session.

The proposal would allow state institutions of higher education to perform background checks on any student who resides, or is applying to reside, in on-campus housing.

In addition to giving schools the authority to perform background checks, the bill also would allow students – at their own expense – to request their school perform a background check on another student or potential student.

The bill requires schools to keep results confidential except under court order or with the permission of the student who is the subject of the background check. Such records are to be destroyed “as soon as practicable” following the start of the semester for which the student is applying, but the legislation sets no concrete deadline for disposal.

John Davis, executive vice president and general counsel for West Liberty University, said the law would be appropriate under some circumstances, such as a student being investigated for violating the school’s code of conduct or evaluating a transfer applicant who has been expelled from another school. But he finds the provision for student-driven background checks “problematic,” saying it could open the system to frivolous requests and even harassment by students.

“The burden on institutions to be, literally, at the beck and call of students and potential students who want the power of the state brought to bear on other students or potential students would be onerous. … This bill raises concerns about cost, process abuse and federal privacy laws,” Davis said.

According to a report from the Higher Education Policy Commission, there’s no way to estimate the potential cost of the legislation, but the money likely would come from student fees that generally pay for the operating costs of residence halls.

Although it’s not entirely clear whether the bill would apply to private institutions such as Bethany College, leaders there believe the idea may have some merit.

“The legislation that has been proposed would be another tool to assist certain institutions of higher education in properly screening applicants to further ensure the safety of their campus communities,” said Bethany College President Scott Miller. “At Bethany College, the safety of our students, faculty and staff is always paramount, and like all colleges and universities, we are aware of the need for such precautions.”

The proposal, House Bill 4009, is sponsored by a dozen delegates – none of whom represent the Northern Panhandle.