(Reuters) - U.S. colleges and universities that ask applicants to disclose run-ins with law enforcement including stops and detentions are facing scrutiny from a legal advocacy group concerned the practice discriminates against minorities.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said it began contacting 17 schools in the South on Thursday about their practice of asking prospective students to detail interactions with the criminal justice system even if they have not been convicted.
The organization believes schools nationally have similar policies that may disproportionately affect minority males.
“Inquiries regarding stops and detentions and arrests pose unnecessary barriers for vast numbers of African Americans, given the racial disparities that we see across our criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
She said asking about such interactions, some of which may have been dismissed by courts, has “no predictive value whatsoever on whether or not a kid can succeed in a classroom.”
One institution singled out was the University of Alabama, which asks if applicants have received “a written or oral warning not to trespass on public or private property.”
The university has included “disciplinary-related questions” on applications since 2010, officials said. They noted the school’s African-American student admission numbers rose by 77 percent between 2010 and 2015.
“These questions are appropriate and part of the due diligence we perform to determine whether an applicant’s past behavior could potentially pose a safety risk,” the University of Alabama said in a statement.
The university also noted that students who flag such discipline are given an opportunity to explain.
Virginia Tech, another university asked to explain its policy, said it began asking applicants about their disciplinary record after a student gunned down 32 people on campus and killed himself on April 16, 2007.
“These questions are part of a holistic approach in selecting qualified applicants for undergraduate admission,” the university said in a statement. “We do not believe this is racially discriminatory.”
The lawyers’ group said its review of dozens of schools’ applications forms found that many institutions do not ask about every run-in with the law.
The organization started its effort in the South, which has high minority concentrations, but said it would be extended nationally.
“I think that this is a problem that is pervasive across the country,” Clarke said.
Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio