The N.C. Community Colleges Board passed a new rule Friday allowing community college officials on all 58 campuses to refuse admission to applicants they deem as potential threats to campus security.
But state disability rights groups are concerned the rule might violate federal law.
They say it is discriminatory because it does not discern between applicants who might pose a threat and those who have mental or physical disabilities that are not dangerous.
The rule will be implemented April 1 at the earliest, said Megen Hoenk, spokeswoman for the board. The process started in August 2010.
“It would allow boards of trustees to refuse admission to protect the health and safety of applicants and individuals,” Hoenk said.
Although Hoenk said the rule is not in response to any specific incident, its passing comes on the coattails of the Jan. 8 shooting in Arizona.
Policies related to mental health have been in the spotlight since Jared Loughner, who is being charged with attempt to assassinate Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was found to be mentally unstable.
Hoenk said individual colleges will determine what they consider a significant imminent threat.
“This is not a process that colleges would take lightly,” Hoenk said.
Because this is part of the state administrative code, all changes have to pass through a state-mandated process, she said.
Before it was voted on, the rule had already undergone a public hearing, as well as a public commentary period in the fall, Hoenk said.
But Vicki Smith, executive director for Disability Rights North Carolina, said there is no way for colleges to modify their admissions policy to ask a question about disability or mental state without violating federal law.
“This decision by the board is a discriminatory action that leaves the system vulnerable to legal challenges,” she said.
Federal law requires administration to refrain from any pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant has a disability, Smith said.
And the health and safety risk is not defined anywhere in this proposed rule, said Sarah Preston, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.
The proposed rule might also be arbitrarily imposed, and all 58 campuses might administer it differently, she said.
“Is someone with Tourette’s dangerous because part of that syndrome is involuntary vocal outbursts when there is no intention?” Smith asked.
Preston said her organization questions whether school administrators are equipped to evaluate medical conditions.
She said her organization also suggested in the fall that students should be able to appeal a college’s decision to deny admission based on the rule.
Preston said, “While they’ve been working on it a while, it seems like they haven’t spent enough time.”
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