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Student Group Accuses Pomona of Discriminating Against Applicants with Criminal Records

A gust of wind outside Pomona College’s Frary dining hall reveals posters highlighting the discrimination faced by formerly incarcerated individuals. (Adela Pfaff • The Student Life)

As sexual assault allegations against prominent figures are exploding across the country, one tactic that some colleges claim to use to prevent sexual assault incidents on campus – the Common Application question about criminal history – has come under fire at Pomona College.

Last week, a series of posters were hung up around Pomona outside Frary and Frank Dining Halls, the Smith Campus Center, and Edmunds Ballroom stating the college was unfairly discriminating against applicants with criminal records.

“Pomona College claims that a criminal record ‘does not disqualify’ a person from admittance,” one poster reads, citing an email from an anonymous administrator that added they will ‘make a judgement using all the facts presented.’” The poster replies that this response “really says: Pomona can discriminate against an admission applicant for having a criminal record.”

The posters also highlight several passages from Pomona's website regarding the college’s goals for diversity and claim the values espoused in the college’s mission statement cannot be met if people who used to be incarcerated are barred from the admissions process.

“Is diversity really that ‘crucial’ at Pomona when incarcerated folks and their perspectives could be discriminated against when in the admissions process?” another poster asks.  

Pomona is one of 680 U.S. colleges to use the Common Application, which has included a question about applicants’ criminal records since 2006, according to Inside Higher Ed. Pomona receives a student’s response to this question when the Common Application or Coalition Application is downloaded, Pomona director of admissions Adam Sapp said.

“We are in support of those who made the posters in their demand for Pomona to restructure their use of criminal background checks in admissions decisions,” Sabrina Gunter SC '18, a member of the 5C Prison Abolition Club, wrote in an email to TSL.The club is not responsible for the posters, but Gunter says the club supports the posters’ authors.

Fifty of the 700 schools that use the Common Application have chosen not to receive applicants’ responses to the criminal record question. The Department of Education under President Obama warned colleges and universities that using disciplinary records in admissions might “have the unjustified effect of discriminating against individuals on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, and disability.”

In October, California Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1008, which will prohibit private employers from asking applicants about their criminal records on job applications, similarly to public businesses.

“This means that the colleges will be required to remove the box from all of their employment applications for faculty and staff,” Gunter wrote. “With that in mind, there is no justifiable reason why they can’t or shouldn’t do the same for student applicants.”

Gunter pointed to the disproportionate representation of people of color in the U.S. criminal justice system as a reason for why this aspect of the college admissions process also disenfranchises applicants of color.

“The [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] finds that prejudice against applicants with criminal records is a violation of Title VII,” Gunter wrote. “All that to say admissions policies that are prejudiced against people with records are de facto prejudiced against people of color,” she wrote.

Sapp told TSL that checking the box on the application does not disqualify an applicant from admission, but is a factor in the decision.

“Our approach is to consider the circumstances surrounding the offense, as well as the applicant's response to the questions in the application,” Sapp wrote in an email to TSL.

The colleges that have chosen to continue to use the question in admissions cite safety as the main concern. The criminal record question first became a part of the application in 2006 at the request of the member universities in response to violent crimes committed by students, and more colleges began to include it following the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, according to The Seattle Times and the Center for Community Alternatives.

Some have claimed the question is a way to protect students as well as the college from potential lawsuits. After the University of Washington, Seattle, discovered in 2012 that it enrolled two students convicted of sex crimes against children, the school began asking undergraduates if they have been convicted of a violent crime or felony. 

Sapp said that Pomona admissions officers use a holistic approach when reading student applications. The office evaluates an applicant's academics and extracurriculars in addition to a student's ability to thrive in Pomona’s residential communities.

“Our policy is to take all the information in the application into account, which would include information detailed by an applicant who indicates he or she may have a criminal record,” Sapp wrote.

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