It was an excruciatingly hot day in Mississippi. The kind of day that called for ice cream and soda in a sweating paper cup. The kind of day that called for McDonald's.
Connie* (C ’18) and her friend were home alone. Both of their parents were working. It was too hot to walk to the golden arches, and at only 14, they didn’t have licenses yet. But Connie knew how to drive—and she knew how to hotwire a car. Her neighbor had a car. Her neighbor was away for the weekend.
Emboldened by her friend, Connie hotwired her neighbor’s car and drove it one mile to McDonald’s. As soon as the girls stepped inside, they were confronted by another neighbor. She knew the girls were both 14 and that it wasn’t their car, and she had already called the cops. “I guess she thought she was doing me a favor by telling me,” Connie shrugged.
The girls hightailed it home, passing police car after police car. As they drew closer to her house, Connie looked in the rearview mirror and saw a cruiser turn around to follow them, with lights on and siren off. She didn’t think to immediately pull over. When she did, five more police officers pulled up, and she and her friend were separated and questioned.
“I needed tampons,” she blurted out, hoping they would go easy on her. They didn’t.
The officers read Connie her rights and arrested her. Her friend went home.
In a in the Journal of School Violence, 35% of the universities responded that they had denied enrollment to at least one applicant due to a criminal record. Some schools, including all public universities in Louisiana, have eliminated application questions relating to criminal history, except for crime involving stalking, rape, or sexual battery. But most schools who use the Common App still look at and, in part, base application decisions on criminal records.
The Common App’s question, referred to by many as “the Box,” reads:
Have you ever been found responsible for a disciplinary violation at any educational institution you have attended from the 9th grade (or the international equivalent) forward, whether related to academic misconduct or behavioral misconduct, that resulted in a disciplinary action? These actions could include, but are not limited to: probation, suspension, removal, dismissal, or expulsion from the institution. Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?
Students who answer “yes” may jeopardize their acceptances to college. Beginning in 2006, the “Ban the Box” campaign began to rally for the removal of “the Box” that requires applicants to self–report their criminal histories on job applications. More recently, they’ve turned their efforts towards removing “the Box” from college applications.
Connie spent three days in a juvenile detention center, where she was strip–searched and made to squat and cough. Her belongings were confiscated. She slept on a mat that felt like a thin piece of rubber and had to shower with guards watching. They were allowed some rec time outdoors, but it was less than enriching. “You just got to sit outside in the sun for a while in your handcuffs.”
While showering, Connie was confronted by another girl, who took Connie’s hair–tie, her only personal possession. When Connie snapped at her, the girl backhanded her so hard her glasses snapped in half. At her court appearance, her father cried when he saw her mottled purple eye.
Today, Connie laughs when she retells this story. “It really helped me get my shit together.”
She was anxious about applying to Penn with this offense on her record. Her neighbor never pressed charges, but the state still wanted to try 14–year–old Connie as an adult for grand theft auto. The maximum penalty would’ve been seven years, but she had a good lawyer, something that shocked many of the other girls in the juvenile detention center.
The state eventually dropped the charges, and Connie did 80 hours of community service and had her record expunged. “When I think about how my life could have been completely ruined—” she pauses, “I’m not a bad person, I just made a dumbass mistake. I was terrified colleges were going to reject me for something like that.”
Connie got to check “no” for the criminal disclosure question on the Common App, but she’s aware that many applicants in similar situations cannot afford a lawyer.
“If the nature of the crime isn’t violent and it doesn’t harm another person physically, I don’t think it’s necessary to put that question on the Common App. People change and plenty of people make stupid decisions.”
She is no longer surprised by the severity of her charges. “The more I think about it...it makes sense because it’s Mississippi of all places, and I’m a black person.”
According to data presented by Community Legal Services (CLS), a Philadelphia–based law firm providing pro–bono legal services to low–income individuals, black youths are 3.64 times as likely as their white peers to face prosecution in juvenile court in Philadelphia. Research from that study also showed that due to the Common App’s question, many applicants with prior criminal records will not complete their applications, either due to stigma attached to having a record or because of the follow–up questions that are asked after self–identifying.
As Jamie Gullen, a lawyer with CLS, explains, “This process particularly impacts students of color who are disproportionately targeted by the juvenile criminal justice system.”
Pennsylvania is unique in that juvenile records are not always confidential. For juveniles who are 14 or over and found guilty of a felony, their record is available as part of any standard background check. A felony can mean a wide range of offenses from retail theft to murder— they’re all grouped under the umbrella term of “felony.”
Many colleges say “the Box” is meant to advise the admissions committee, not discriminate against the applicant.
In an email, Dean Furda described the Penn process: “Penn Admissions will ask the questions we feel are necessary in our application process to understand the full background of an applicant to be invited into our residential community. We will always wait for full due process in any school disciplinary or legal proceedings before making an admission decision.”
Brian Taylor, Managing Director of The IvyCoach, a college admissions consulting firm, isn’t convinced.
“The college will always take the kid who doesn’t have a criminal record over a kid who does,” he said. “When these schools have acceptance rates that are below ten percent, why not choose a student who doesn’t have those charges? Sure, it may have been a mistake in your teenage years, but there are plenty of students who haven’t made that mistake.”
For Holden Caplan (C ’19), “the Box” was something he thought about after a party was raided. As a high school senior, he was the designated driver for his two friends and remained sober the entire night. Thirty–four miles out in the middle of nowhere in York, Pennsylvania, there was a big house party. Fields and fields of open no–man’s–land between houses, with hordes of drunk teenagers loitering around. Sensing that it was about to be shut down, Holden and his friends left after 30 minutes. Outside, while they were walking to their car, cops pulled up with lights flashing. None of the three were holding drinks, but they were questioned and had lights shone in their eyes, field sobriety tests administered.
Nothing ended up happening to the three of them, but plenty of students in similar situations face consequences, ones that “the Box” will ask about and record. When contemplating the nature of “the Box” and the implications it holds for other students, Holden adds, “I don’t think an application should be thrown in the ‘denied’ bin just because of a previous action.”
Due to the wording of the Common App’s question, applicants are required to disclose even summary offenses of which they are found guilty, offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and curfew violations.
In Pennsylvania, there’s a five–year waiting period after the case has been closed before a petition for expungement can be made. Because of that, “the Box” . For the average 18–year–old applicant, a bad decision made after age 13 may haunt them during the application process.
However, supporters of “the Box” argue that it helps protect the student body by filtering out potentially dangerous criminals. In the absence of “the Box,” applicants with more serious records may be allowed to matriculate.
In 2006, Caleb* applied for Penn’s graduate school online. But at the time of his application, there wasn’t a question asking for criminal record disclosure.
He didn’t have to report that, around a decade ago when he was 22, he was arrested and put on Megan’s list, a sex offenders registry system.
In 2004, Caleb worked as a summer camp counselor. According to Caleb, he became close with one of his campers. After camp, the two kept in touch through AIM, and two weeks of instant messaging later, Caleb alleges, the boy invited Caleb to his grandparent’s house. At midnight, Caleb drove there and snuck in through the basement door while the boy’s grandfather slept upstairs. Caleb and the minor engaged in oral sex, which he claimed was consensual, and left after an hour. According to Pennsylvania state law, a person must be 16 years of age or older to consent to sexual activity with anyone more than four years older.
He confided to his co–counselors and thought it had blown over. But they had called the boy’s mother. Two months later, Caleb was arrested.
He was bewildered. Caleb hired a lawyer and surrendered without a trial. He spent 13 months in county jail, and another 17 months at a community correction center. This was 30 months less than the maximum sentence. “I hadn’t realized the full extent of what the repercussions would be,” he says.
While an inmate, Caleb applied to Penn as part of a program originally designed to let inmates work, but they approved Caleb’s request to apply to graduate school instead.
Two years later, in the fall of 2006, Caleb began as a graduate student at Penn.
While still an inmate at the correctional facility, Caleb drove himself to Penn every morning. After classes, he would drive himself back to jail. Sometimes officials would come to Penn and do infrequent spot checks. “There was no one really responsible for me when I was at Penn,” Caleb says.
To Caleb’s knowledge, Penn’s administration didn’t know about his sex offender status when he applied. Under Megan’s Law III, sex offenders were required to report the address of their place of employment or study. According to Caleb, the minor’s mother was never informed about Caleb’s enrollment due to a clerical error. When the minor’s mother saw Caleb’s updated record on Megan’s List, she called Penn to complain to the University. Two weeks into his second semester, Caleb was called into a court hearing, where a judge ruled that he shouldn’t be allowed to return to school. Penn granted him a leave of absence, with the option to return after he was released from jail.
“I kind’ve had always thought that eventually people may find out,” he says, growing quiet.
In January 2008, Caleb returned to Penn after his year–long leave. Caleb says that in order to re–enroll, he wrote the dean a letter. Caleb claims the dean gave him a list of conditions under which he could return, which Caleb agreed to.
He speaks highly of Penn’s support during his trial and their subsequent decision to readmit him. He brings up the recent case of , a woman who was jailed for murdering her son. She was released and initially accepted into Harvard’s History graduate program, only to have her acceptance revoked at the request of a few board members who were wary of her criminal record. Caleb muses: “Why should Harvard be providing additional punishment if this person was to be released?”
Caleb went on to graduate in May 2014 and after an an extensive job search, he moved abroad and is working in his chosen career field.
“The Box” never ruined his life. Not everyone else can say the same.
*Indicates name has been changed.
Sabrina Qiao is a junior in the College studying English. She is an Ego Beat Writer for Street.