Law requires colleges to give students' information to state police

VIRGINIA — A new law that goes into effect Saturday in Virginia will require all colleges to turn over to state police identifying information about the tens of thousands of students who apply and are accepted in the state each year.

The law, signed by Gov. Tim Kaine on April 19, is a comprehensive effort to regulate the activities of sexual offenders in the state, but it also contains a measure that says schools must “electronically transmit“ the complete name, date of birth, gender and social security number “or other identifying number” of each accepted applicant. State police will then compare the information with state and national sex offender registries. The law applies to all public and private two- and four-year institutions in the state.

Law enforcement officials said the new law will help to make sure sex offenders’ addresses, which are published on Virginia’s Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry, are up to date. Journalists oftentimes use the online registry in their coverage of sex offenders.

Col. W. Steven Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said sexual offenders are required to inform authorities any time they change their addresses, and the new law will crack down on those who fail to report a change of address when going to college.

“We’re trying to do this as seamlessly as possible,” Flaherty said. “The only persons who will be inconvenienced are the people who don’t comply with the law. We’re trying to collect the information, and we’re working on ways to transmit the information so that it will affect the individuals, the schools and state police as little as possible.”

The law is a product of a yearlong study on sex offenders conducted by the Virginia Crime Commission. The law is designed to ensure public safety, specifically for students on college campuses.

Proponents of the law say it will crack down on sex offenders who fail to report their locations to state police, but some privacy experts, including Michael Froomkin, a law professor and privacy specialist from the University of Miami, say that it violates the privacy rights of many innocent students.

“There’s no question that it’s an infringement on people’s privacy, and it seems to be one that’s quite disproportionate to the purported benefit,” Froomkin said. “I mean certainly there would be lots of ways of achieving the same benefit without putting every single person trying to get a higher education in the state of Virginia into a police database.”

Kenneth Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, the bill’s chief sponsor in the Virginia Senate, said the information is not much different from that kept by most states’

Department of Motor Vehicles, and state police plan to discard the records after they have checked it against criminal databases.

Stolle also said he has not heard much objection to the law, especially from those who would actually be affected by it.

“If you’re applying to a Virginia university, to come and mingle among young kids – and oftentimes these schools require students to live in the dorms their first year – and the state has information like the sex offender registry, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to make sure kids are safe at school,” Stolle said. “I haven’t heard any college students or college students’ parents complain about Virginia trying to make sure the guy next door to them is not a sexual predator.”

The Virginia law circumvents the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which generally prohibits educational institutions from releasing information about students, because colleges must submit information about accepted students before they are actually enrolled.

Even though FERPA does not conflict with the law, Stolle said no one outside of law enforcement agents will be allowed access to the information.

Jeff Hanna, a spokesman for the University of Virginia, said university and law enforcement officials are still working out the specific procedures of how schools should submit the information.

“We do know that efforts to increase safety on campus are things we support,” Hanna said. “... It’s the law, and we’ll abide by the law.”

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