Globe Editorial

Ask students about their past

June 20, 2011

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OPEN-ENROLLMENT policies at the state’s 15 community colleges mean that motivated high school graduates can always find a path to higher education. But that shouldn’t guarantee entry to students who pose a serious risk to campus safety.

A lot of soul searching is taking place in the community college system after Darryl Max Dookhran, reputed to be a Boston gang member, was apprehended on the Wellesley campus of Massachusetts Bay Community College with a gun in his bag. Dookhran had a record of violence on and off campus during high school. But MassBay didn’t know because it didn’t ask. Unlike at many four-year colleges, including UMass, there is no disclosure line on community college applications to discern criminal convictions or disciplinary problems.

One strength of community colleges is that they offer a chance at higher education to young people who struggled in high school — or in life. But community college students, many of whom are single parents with jobs, have as much right to insist on a safe environment as students at private universities.

The murders of 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a wake-up call for higher education. While there is no way to guarantee safety, prudent colleges try to learn about criminal records, create campus-wide alert systems, and instruct faculty and students on how to spot potential trouble. A student may choose to lie on the admission form about a violent past. But that’s no excuse for administrators not to ask.

A criminal record shouldn’t disqualify a student from seeking higher education. Community colleges need to use discretion. For students who are deemed an unacceptable risk, online courses are still an option. The first step, however, is to require criminal and disciplinary disclosures. Without them, the open-admission policy is an open invitation for trouble.