This fall, students applying for undergraduate admission to the University of Washington will have to divulge whether they have a violent criminal history or are registered as sex offenders.
The need for such a question arose after the UW learned that two Level 3 sex offenders were enrolled during winter quarter 2012. The university was prompted to send an email notification to all students, faculty and staff at the Seattle campus.
“It’s fair to say that up until that point, this particular issue wasn’t really on our radar screen,” said UW spokesman Norm Arkans. In the university administration, “People scratched their heads and said, ‘Shouldn’t we know a little more about this?'”
Arkans said the UW’s law and medical schools already ask applicants whether they have a criminal history. Both Western Washington University and Eastern Washington University ask a criminal-background question.
And the Common Application, an online application used by nearly 500 colleges and universities, asks a much more detailed question about prior offenses, including whether an applicant has ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation in school from the ninth grade onward.
The UW question is: “Have you ever been convicted of a violent felony offense, are such charges pending against you at this time, or have you been required to register as a sex offender by any legal authority in the U.S. or any other country?”
Applicants who answer yes are asked to describe the incident and told they “may also explain why this information should not be a cause for concern to the safety of the university community.”
An applicant with a criminal history won’t automatically be denied admission, Arkans said. The application will be reviewed by a committee with expertise on diversity, criminal justice, campus safety and mental health. The committee will make a recommendation on whether to admit the applicant; if the applicant is denied, he or she can appeal.
Arkans noted that two years ago, the UW Law School admitted Shon Hopwood, a convicted bank robber, and awarded him a scholarship.
He said the issue of whether to add a criminal background question was controversial on campus, and administrators were careful to write the question so that applicants with convictions for minor crimes wouldn’t have to divulge that information.
“This is not drug issues, or DUI,” he said. “This is, ‘Have you been convicted of a felonious crime which constitutes a violent act against another human being?’ “