I'm so sorry to hear about your difficult situation. Parenting a child through the college admission process (not to mention parenting period) is tough enough without this added heartbreak. And, as you've already implied, you really must address two separate -- but related -- issues here:
If this were my daughter, I would recommend that she wait until after her court date to inform her colleges of this incident. Ideally, when she does eventually report her arrest, she will be able to temper the bad news by saying that her case was continued without a finding or that her record will be expunged after a period of good behavior. Once she learns her fate, I would have her email her regional admissions reps at all of the colleges to which she's applied to explain the circumstances of her arrest, her punishment and what she's learned from the episode. If her involvement with drugs has been minimal, she should be sure to say so (although whether she sounds credible will be anyone's guess). If she has sworn to give up all illegal drug use from now on, she should insist on that as well (although, again, her sincerity may be in doubt).
The only drawback to waiting until after the court date to notify colleges is that, should the response be bad (i.e., the school that accepted your daughter revokes the acceptance or the remaining colleges deny her) then your daughter will have limited time to add other choices to her list. There will still be places that admit her, despite her record, but she may end up with options that are far less selective than the schools on her current docket. It also might be wise for her to attend a local college or to take a gap year. (More on this below.) If your daughter prefers to contact the colleges immediately, that's understandable, and she should.
How the college folks will react is hard to predict. Conservative colleges may rescind an acceptance or deny admission. Even at more left-leaning schools, there will be an element of luck involved, and the outcomes may depend upon the desk where your daughter's file lands. Her explanatory letter should state emphatically that she will not be bringing drugs — or a drug problem — to campus. Some admission officials will forgive her youthful foibles; others may not. Some admission officials may worry less about an LSD arrest than they might about opioids, cocaine and other very addictive drugs, (especially if your daughter can make a convincing argument that she's given up all drugs). But even liberal admission officials may fear that a teenager caught with LSD is not brand-new to the drug scene, and they will question the safety of welcoming such a student to campus.
In the weeks or months ahead, if your daughter applies to additional colleges with a disciplinary-action question on the application, she will have to carefully read the wording. If the question asks about any “arrests," she must say “Yes." If asked only about a “Conviction," she can respond according to the outcome in court.
However, because your daughter submitted her applications before her arrest and was presumably able to honestly answer all arrest-related questions with a “No," then it's conceivable that her colleges will never learn of this incident if she doesn't tell them. Ironically, had she been caught sharing a cigarette beneath the basketball bleachers, she probably would have faced a suspension and would be obliged to disclose this to colleges. Yet a felony committed outside of school may never reach the guidance office and thus the “School Report" that goes to colleges! I know that in my own town, teenage arrests are not routinely shared with school officials, although the grapevine usually does a dandy job of spreading the news. So it's possible that your daughter could end up not reporting this to colleges at all.
But, as noted above, if this were my daughter, I wouldn't endorse that strategy. I would expect her to face up to her wrongdoing and its consequences. I would not want her to begin her college years looking over her shoulder, concerned that a past infraction would catch up with her. Moreover, every college acceptance is “conditional." It is based on the admission staff's assumption that the student will finish senior year with both an academic and personal record that is comparable to the one on the application. Some colleges (perhaps including the college that has accepted your daughter already?) will specifically demand that students report all post-admission disciplinary actions. In most instances, however, this expectation is merely implied.
In spite of the anxiety that your daughter's arrest is surely causing you, there is a silver lining. You may hear that students convicted of a drug charge are not eligible for federal financial aid. Although this is true, it applies only to students who were convicted of the drug offense while receiving federal aid. So if your daughter has not yet completed a FAFSA but plans to, she will not be ineligible for federal aid because she wasn't an aid recipient at the time of her arrest.
So although it's very possible that your daughter can continue with her college plans in spite of this arrest, you now need to decide if that's the best route for her to take. Has your daughter been forthcoming about her drug use? Do you trust what she's told you about it? (It seems like every child I know who was ever apprehended for illegal drugs or for underage drinking has maintained to mom or dad that “It wasn't mine -- I was just keeping it for a friend!" or “This was the first time; I've never done anything like this before!" I've been repeatedly amazed by how naive the parents are. Sure, we all want to believe our own kids, but we were once kids ourselves and should know better!)
If you suspect that your daughter has a substance abuse problem or that she may not be ready to handle the independence and temptations of college life, then selecting a commuter college might be a necessity, as you've already suggested. But, instead, I propose a gap year. Frankly, I'm convinced that almost any student can benefit from a year off from school before starting college. But in your daughter's case in particular, the gap year will allow her to undergo drug treatment if she needs it, and will provide her with an opportunity to mature and maybe to pursue a project that will help show admission officials that she's serious about her anti-drug stance. For example, if she were to volunteer with younger teens in your community, leading worthwhile activities and promoting healthy choices, this should spur admission officials to push her arrest toward the back burner when evaluating her application next fall.
If it's any consolation, “The Dean" has received many queries like yours. And over the eons, I've observed that, despite the sadness, disappointment and confusion that such situations create, what seems today like an enormous roadblock to your daughter's future will appear far smaller in the rear-view mirror. Often, in fact, these detours even turn out to be fortuitous because they lead a child to a new and unanticipated destination that turns out to be more “right" than the original one.
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