RICHMOND, Va – A new law requiring Virginia's colleges to hand over prospective students' personal information to police for cross-checking against sex offender lists is coming under fire from privacy advocates and education leaders.
Under the law, which takes effect July 1, public and private college officials must send state police the names, Social Security numbers and birth dates of all students accepted to their schools.
Proponents say the law will help protect students from sex offenders and state police are confident the personal information will be secure. But critics are raising concerns about privacy rights and risks that the data could be misused or stolen.
Privacy law experts believe it is the first time a state has ever imposed such a requirement.
"I am not aware of anything on this breathtaking a scope when it comes to violating the potential prospective students' privacy," said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers. "Certainly the damage to privacy interests of innocent people is obvious."
The new requirement was part of a unanimously approved bill that makes sweeping changes to Virginia's sex offender laws, including tougher punishments and better monitoring of offenders once they are released from prison.
Police expect to have guidelines in place for most schools by the fall.
Although the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the personal information of enrolled students, it does not apply to those who have merely been accepted. The law does not bar sex offenders from entering college but provides a way to keep track of them.
"This law may not technically violate federal law, but it certainly violates the spirit of federal law intended to maintain student privacy rights," said Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia.
University of Virginia spokesman Jeff Hanna said the school already asks applicants if they have been convicted of a felony and can deny admission to anyone because of a felony record.
But Republican state Sen. Kenneth Stolle, the bill's chief Senate sponsor, said the legislation was an important part of the effort to prevent sex abuse.
"We would be housing some of these sex offenders in an area that is close to other students," he said. "The only way we could ensure that this information was verified was to feed the information to the state police."
However, one lawmaker who voted for the bill said he is having second thoughts.
"The bill went through with little or no debate," said Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, a Democrat. "There may have been another solution."
Schools will send the information electronically to police, who will check it against the state and national sex offender registries, said Col. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the state police.
If a prospective student is a registered sex offender and enrolls in the school, police will check to see if the offender fills out a change of address form within the required 72 hours. If the offender does not, police will investigate.
The school also is notified that a sex offender is among the students who enroll.
Personal information of those who are not registered sex offenders will be destroyed, Flaherty said.
Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal, said the overuse of Social Security numbers can have devastating results.
"The more you have Social Security numbers floating around in the state bureaucracy or university bureaucracy, the more chance for identity theft," he said.
But Polly Franks, a Virginia advocate for victims of sex crimes, said the risk of harm from offenders trumps privacy concerns. Two of Franks' young relatives were sexually assaulted by a neighbor who, unbeknownst to Franks, had been convicted of sex crimes in Texas.
"It is like putting a rattlesnake in a baby's crib," said Franks, 47, of Richmond. "It may not bite, but who's gonna take the chance?"