There are few questions about the security clearance process that I haven’t heard repeatedly over the years. Yet every so often, someone poses such a fantastical outlier that I can’t help but chuckle.

One of those recent unusual questions was whether having served detention in high school “a few times in the 90’s” would pose a problem for obtaining a security clearance. Considering that the 90’s ended two decades ago, the very short and very easy answer was “no.” Not only could the government care less, they wouldn’t ask about such a thing during a security clearance background investigation unless the investigative subject was a recent (within two years) high school graduate.

We Were All Young Once. The government knows that

After taking a moment to think about why a middle-aged man would even ask such a question, I was reminded of a few moments in life that I’ve had to ask someone a question that probably seemed ridiculous to an expert in the field. I realized that to the individual posing the question, it wasn’t ridiculous. He had never been through this process previously and had no frame of reference for what was or wasn’t considered disqualifying information for a security clearance

It was a humbling moment and a reminder that the security clearance process can be both opaque and intimidating to those who are unfamiliar with its machinations. Fortunately for just about all of us, dumb decisions – even those that may be considered marginally criminal – made during one’s juvenile years are not typically considered relevant by the federal government in rendering adjudicative decisions in security clearance cases. Those high school detentions for tardiness, that curfew violation from when your 16 year-old-self snuck out to meet a girlfriend, and even that underage smoking citation you received at age 17 are all staying firmly in the past where they belong.

but there’s not a free pass for everything

There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule. As I referenced previously, if your teens were only a few years ago, a demonstrated pattern of poor judgment or unwillingness to comply with rules can prove problematic. Similarly, any evidence of serious mental health problems, sexual misconduct, violence, substance abuse, or felony charges as a juvenile can sink a clearance if a pattern of similar issues have continued in subsequent years; the derogatory information is evidence of a serious character flaw or mental health disorder that has not been adequately treated; or there is an apparent absence of maturation.

In these more serious (and relatively rare) situations, the onus is on the security clearance applicant to demonstrate that it is clearly consistent with the interests of national security that he or she be granted a security clearance – just like in every case. But even those who are facing a steeper climb to obtaining a clearance should not get discouraged too early: they can often prevail with the passage of time and a strong case for mitigation. Juvenile misconduct tends to be viewed with significantly more leniency than the same misconduct committed by an adult.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

Related News

Security Clearance Attorney Sean M. Bigley represents clients worldwide in security clearance denials and revocations. He is a former investigator for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. For more information, please visit