Open-access policy has risk: guns on campus
WELLESLEY — Valedictorians applying to Harvard report not only breathtaking grades and SAT scores but also any criminal convictions or high school disciplinary violations. Such mandated disclosures are standard at hundreds of schools, including the University of Massachusetts and most other Massachusetts state colleges.
But when Darryl Max Dookhran, a reputed gang member with a history of violent behavior, applied to Massachusetts Bay Community College, he didn’t have to report any of his transgressions. Three weeks after Dookhran enrolled, he was apprehended carrying a loaded semiautomatic machine gun around campus, nine days after a student first reported seeing him with a weapon.
MassBay and the state’s 14 other community colleges maintain “open admission’’ policies; with few exceptions, they welcome anyone with a high school diploma or GED. The schools do not inquire about students’ prior troubles, despite gun-related deaths on campuses around the country in recent years.
Massasoit Community College had been considering the addition of a disciplinary disclo sure requirement even before the Dookhran arrest, since a student gunman killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, according to David D. Tracy, the school’s vice president of student services and enrollment management. Tracy said his counterparts at other community colleges have discussed similar application changes. But William Hart, executive director of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Executive Office, said there is no plan to require disclosure of criminal records throughout the system.
Background blindness is one of the hallmarks of Massachusetts’ community colleges, a quality that makes them attractive to students in need of second chances. Requiring applicants to disclose prior offenses, administrators believe, might dissuade applications from students that community colleges have historically embraced.
“We do not want to deny access to or discourage any student,’’ Tracy said. “It’s a balancing act for us.’’
In interviews, community college officials expressed uncertainty about whether awareness of students’ prior offenses would, in fact, help forestall future problems. As Hart put it, “That’s the $6 million question.’’
Sally Chapman Cameron, Bristol Community College’s vice president of communications, suggested the answer is no.
“I don’t think a [criminal records check] or even asking students to disclose necessarily makes anyone safer,’’ she said. “I don’t think the research is there to support that.’’
In Dookhran’s case, disclosure would have been cause for concern. Wellesley police officer Conor P. Ashe testified at a Feb. 11 hearing that the 18-year-old Dookhran’s juvenile convictions include assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, unarmed robbery, and assault with a firearm.
The suspected member of Mattapan’s Favre Street Mobb was twice dismissed from Boston high schools. While he was a sophomore at The Engineering School in Hyde Park, Dookhran stabbed a rival gang member off school grounds and was placed in Department of Youth Services custody. Denied readmission upon release, he enrolled at Brighton High School in the fall of 2009 but lasted less than six months, landing back in a DYS detention facility after a gang-related fight in a school bathroom.
Dookhran earned his high school diploma while incarcerated, then registered for the MassBay semester that began on Jan. 18. Just two days later, a student in Dookhran’s college writing class spied what he believed to be a gun handle protruding from Dookhran’s left pants pocket.
During the next class meeting on Jan. 25, the student shared his suspicion with the professor. MassBay’s public safety office and the Wellesley Police Department were quickly notified.
Those two agencies worked in concert with the Norfolk County Police Anti-Crime Unit, Boston police, and MBTA Transit Police to set up surveillance in Dookhran’s Dorchester neighborhood, at the public transit stations he frequented, and on campus.
But it took police nine days to find and apprehend Dookhran. On one of those days, police had his classroom staked out but left as soon as class started. Dookhran arrived late for class. Police had elected not to alert his teachers that he was being sought.
Three days later, on Feb. 3, police finally arrested Dookhran at the registrar’s office, where he was standing in line with an Intratec AB-10, a semiautomatic 9mm handgun, in his book bag. The gun had a bullet in its chamber, according to a police report, and 18 additional rounds.
Dookhran, 18, now sits in the Norfolk County Correctional Center, awaiting trial on eight charges, including possession of a firearm with three prior violent offenses.
The delayed arrest so perturbed MassBay president Carole M. Berotte Joseph that she criticized Wellesley police and the college’s public safety department in a letter to the school community, writing that she had expressed her “dismay about this breach of security in no uncertain terms.’’
Kevin Ritacco, the police chief at Quinsigamond Community College, contends that disciplinary disclosures might prevent such breaches by helping schools anticipate which students could pose problems. “It’s preventative,’’ Ritacco said. “Not so much for the Police Department but for student services. Maybe they could intervene before something happens. [Police] are trained to intervene after something’s happened.’’
But Ritacco expressed uncertainty how colleges would step in without infringing upon students’ rights.
At UMass Amherst, the use of disciplinary disclosures ends at the application phase, according to university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. Although the school might turn away students it considers dangerous, it does not monitor enrollees who concede past troubles.
“If we decide a student is good to come, they’re good to come,’’ Blaguszewski said. “It wouldn’t be fair or appropriate for us to be keeping tabs on them.’’
Any disclosure requirement would alter community colleges’ open access status, a change students interviewed by the Globe say they resist.
“You can’t just let one person ruin it for everyone else, you know what I mean?’’ said Umar Ossama, an 18-year-old MassBay student from Brighton. “Maybe somebody else like [Dookhran] is trying to do the right thing.’’
Even the MassBay professor whose class Dookhran attended while allegedly carrying the firearm has a similar view. In an interview one month after the arrest, Matthew Walsh admitted that fear had haunted him in the weeks since he helped a student report the gun to police.
Yet Walsh also expressed sympathy for Dookhran, calling him “a kid who was trying to do something better with himself and was still in between two worlds.’’ He indicated the same description applies to many students he has encountered in his nine years at MassBay.
“There’s a lot of students who are in transition,’’ Walsh said. “. . . We do have students who come and they try to turn their lives around. And some of them really struggle.’’
This article was prepared for a graduate course in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. It was overseen by journalism professor Walter V. Robinson, a former editor of the Globe Spotlight Team. Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Confidential messages can be left at 617-929-3334.