Being suspended in high school can crush your chances of college acceptance, but many districts — including Seattle — have no policy on whether to release that information to colleges that ask for it.

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Among students disciplined in school, a common wish is the urge to start fresh. Many say they feel labeled after a suspension, saddled with a reputation that trails them throughout their K-12 careers.

But a new report, “Education Suspended,” crunches data from more than 400 colleges and universities to show how difficult it can be to shed a rough past:

  • Almost 75 percent of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary records from applicants. And 89 percent use the information when making admissions decisions.
  • Nearly 30 percent said a student’s record could result in an automatic denial of entry.

Most important, a majority of school districts — including Seattle — have no written policies on whether or how to disclose discipline information, meaning it’s up to individual guidance counselors. Some “go out of their way” to report a student’s past, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Others devote similar effort to avoiding disclosure.

But school discipline, as reported in several Education Lab stories, is undergoing re-examination across the country — both for the inconsistent manner in which it is applied, and for its academic results. In some schools, notes the report, a fracas between students is no longer termed “fighting,” but “assault.” Arms, hands or feet are sometimes renamed “personal weapons.”

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This poses a troubling conundrum: Students of color — blacks in particular — are suspended at three times the rate of whites for defiance, disobedience and other offenses that hinge on a teacher or principal’s judgement — meaning, colleges that use school discipline records may be unintentionally keeping blacks from higher education, or favoring students from schools that have a no-report policy.

For many of these reasons, the University of Washington does not request student discipline records. At Boston College, however, admissions officers comb applications looking for “the slightest sign” of trouble, The New York Times reported in 2007.

Either way, the issue presents a thicket of challenges.

“I think there’s an ethical question if a counselor knows of something that is very significant,” said Philip Ballinger, associate provost for enrollment management at the UW. For example: repeated threats of  violence. “That could affect the safety and welfare of the student body — so there is, in some cases, good reason to divulge information.”

The Center for Community Alternatives, which published the study, comes down squarely on the side of non-reporting.

Given the inconsistencies and room for bias, they said, “It seems unfair for colleges to consider disciplinary information only for those students unlucky enough to attend a district that allows disclosure.”