Recently, the board of directors of North Carolina’s Community College System adopted a new policy that will allow individual colleges in the system to restrict admissions based on perception of a “threat” posed by any applicant. Despite objections raised by disability and civil rights advocacy groups, the Board voted to amend the system’s longstanding open-door admissions policy to allow schools to refuse to admit prospective students who may present “an articulable, imminent and significant threat.”
Coming as it did in the wake of the tragic shooting rampage in Tucson, AZ, that left six people dead and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, many people assumed that Tucson was the motivating factor for this new policy. While this was not the case (the policy change was in fact proposed last fall) it was at least in part a reaction to a shooting tragedy. When the policy was first proposed, at least one community college president linked it to the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
Every time we experience a tragedy in which the accused perpetrator is alleged to have untreated mental illness, society tries to figure out how to prevent future similar occurrence and how to “shield” the rest of us from the tiny, unpredictable portion of people with mental illness who may be violent. But mental illness generally, and any particular diagnosis or behavior specifically, is not a predictor of violent behavior.
And as the tragedy in Tucson demonstrated, simply excluding or removing a person (the accused shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had already been suspended by Pima Community College in Arizona for reportedly exhibiting erratic behavior in class) is no magic solution.
Up until now, the North Carolina’s “open door” approach allowed for the admission of anyone 18 or over or who had attained a high school diploma or its equivalent (GED). There were no other criteria for admission. By its very nature, the old policy did not require any type of admission screening including physical or psychological testing or a criminal records check.
Now every local community college has the option of developing a process to make a determination of which applicants present an “articulable, imminent and significant threat” with little or no guidance. Unfortunately, this vague language will lead to differing interpretations and methods of implementation across the community college system.
Worse still, some people with disabilities will be denied admission on the basis of their disability because of unfounded fears and stereotypes. People with mental illness and certain intellectual or developmental disabilities can be perceived as violent because of their manner, even though these disorders are in no way a predictor of violence.
A person with a movement disorder may be perceived as “dangerous” because of the way they move about. An individual with Tourette Syndrome may be perceived as “threatening” during a verbal outburst even though it is involuntary and there is no physical threat at all. This type of preadmission screening is discriminatory. The regulations implementing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 explicitly prohibit preadmission inquiries regarding whether a student has a disability.
The new policy is so fraught with potential rights violations that, on its face, it is likely illegal and almost sure to result in court challenges. But there are other potentially serious and more far reaching consequences. Will, for instance, this policy so stigmatize individuals with a diagnosis of mental illness that they decide not to seek mental health services for fear of discrimination? Will parents avoid seeking critical mental health treatment, for fear of ruining their child’s ability to go to college because of a diagnosis of a mental illness?
I am sure that the community college board members did not intend to stigmatize people with mental illness but, unfortunately, that is the very result of its decision.
Every public institution should have a safety plan to protect students, faculty and staff from the threat of violence, but clumsy, overly-broad rules that give license to discriminate against people who pose no threat at all is not the answer. Community College leaders need to start over.
Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights North Carolina.