SPRINGFIELD (IRN) — Opponents warn a bill before the Illinois House could make college campuses more dangerous.
The measure would prohibit any public or private college or university in the state from asking about or considering an applicant’s criminal history during the admissions process. The bill mentions exceptions to comply with federal law and a state law that requires medical schools to check the criminal history of applicants. Supporters said It would not prevent campus officials from asking students who have already enrolled questions about past criminal acts.
State Rep. Jeff Keicher, R-Sycamore, who represents the 70th District which includes Northern Illinois University, warned the bill has the potential to allow convicted
sexual criminals in dorms.
“We are one misstep, one bad actor away, from having a parent ask, ‘Why didn’t you know this person had a history that should have been addressed? Why didn’t you keep an eye on this person?’ ” Keicher said.
Aaron Woodruff is chief of police for Illinois State University. He also serves as vice president of Illinois Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. He has concerns about the bill and said others on campus share his feelings.
“A student came to me and said, ‘Why are they more concerned about rapist’s rights than my rights?’ I didn’t have a good answer for her,” Woodruff said. “And that’s the question I propose to our legislators. If you think about it, in simple terms, we are giving rights to rapists over the rights of our other students.”
Khadine Bennett, director of Advocacy and Intergovernmental Affairs with the ACLU of Illinois, said there’s no need to ask about criminal history when considering an applicant.
“What we’ve heard from impacted people is that seeing that box on an application causes them to pause and sometimes means they don’t continue to fill it out,” Bennett said. “They worry whether or not they’d be welcome at that school or whether by checking that box they would automatically be denied. It’s an unnecessary hurdle that exists.”
Bennett says any person who has paid his or her debt to society should be encouraged to continue with higher education.
“I understand forgiving past misdeeds,” Keicher said, “but I think there’s a whole segment of parental and youthful trust that is being violated when you’re sending your students to an institution that cannot act with certainty that everyone in their buildings reaches a certain level of safe history.”
Jonathan Lackland, director of governmental relations for Illinois State University, said the school believes in second chances for potential students. However, he said
the bill, as written, would put doubt in the minds of parents.
“They are relying on us to make sure not only are we educating the students properly, but that we’re keeping them safe,” Lackland said. “The students will learn if indeed they feel safe and are in a safe environment. This bill will hinder the opportunity for us to do just that.”
Bennett said other college systems around the country have eliminated the criminal history question without major consequences. She pointed to the University of Texas system, the University of California system, and the State Universities of New York.
“We also allow for after the person applies, there’s an ability to ask that [criminal] question for the purposes of housing or extracurricular activities,” Bennett said. “That’s already in place.”
Keicher warned the proposed legislation could make the state’s public university enrollment challenges more difficult.
“I can’t fathom finding out from the university during the admissions process that this institution is forbidden from asking about the criminal history of other students my daughter would be in class with and cohabitating with,” Keicher said. “I can’t understand the logic of that. The safety, security, and future growth of my daughter is paramount. And we need to secure that.”
Lackland and Bennett said opponents have been asking for changes to the language of the bill, but the request has fallen on deaf ears.
“One of the things we have requested has been to look at some really serious criminal provisions, whether it’s sexual assault or murder, things of that sort,” Lackland said. “And we’ve asked for an amendment where we could be in a position to ask that type of a question. The sponsor of the legislation has been unwilling to do so.”
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Bennett said there’s no need to change the existing language in the bill anyway.
“There are a lot of people who commit sexual assaults on campus who have never been convicted of that crime before,” Bennett said. “By asking this question, it doesn’t necessarily make a campus safer.”
Keicher said he’s been in touch with officials from Northern Illinois University, who stressed that a previous conviction does not automatically disqualify a student
“All the awareness does is create knowledge,” Keicher said. “The awareness doesn’t say we cannot allow you to still gain admission. It just says we are aware, we can monitor, and we can ascertain what we need to do to maintain a safe and secure learning environment for the other vast majority of students on our campus.”
Illinois State University receives about 20,000 applications in a given year. In 2018, Woodruff said about 150 potential students disclosed a criminal history. Of those, six were denied entry. Most of those were because of a past sex offense.
“If we, as a government entity are not protecting our youth, who are sitting in classrooms in our universities, especially at NIU, that creates a liability on us morally, in my opinion,” Keicher said.
The bill, HB217, has passed through the Higher Education Committee and now awaits a final vote from the full House.