Pubdate: Sat, 18 Aug 2001
Source: Charlotte Creative Loafing (NC)
Copyright: 2001 Creative Loafing Charlotte, Inc.
Author: Marc Schanz
Cited: Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Bookmark: (Higher Education Act)


Students Denied Federal Aid After Drug Convictions

You can murder, maim, and molest and still get federal financial aid for
your college expenses. But get caught smoking a joint, and you have to pay
your own way; if you can afford it, that is.

The Bush administration has stepped up efforts to enforce a relatively new
law that suspends financial aid to anyone convicted of any drug crime,
felony or misdemeanor, state or federal. Those convictions can range from
smoking marijuana to dealing hard narcotics.

That's right, you could be sitting next to a convicted pedophile in Psych
101 whose tuition is paid for from federal financial aid, but not next to
your friend who was caught by police taking Ecstasy at a dance club.

For this school year, an estimated 34,000 students and college applicants
across the country will be denied financial aid because of drug convictions,
nearly a three-fold increase from last year, when less than 10,000 were
denied aid, according to the US Department of Education.

The suspensions have caused students across the country to organize in
opposition, and they have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the National Council for Higher

This measure is denying one of the basic principles of empowerment in this
country: education. It is taking away that opportunity, and people do not
react favorably to that attitude towards the problem, says Jody Widenhouse,
who last fall helped organize the local chapter of Students for Sensible
Drug Policy at NC State University. The national student organization, based
in Washington, DC, has local chapters on 148 universities and high schools.

This issue in particular. . . is forcing people to deal with the nonsense
politics of the drug war, Widenhouse says.

Since the 2000-2001 academic year, students have been losing financial aid
eligibility by way of the drug free student aid provision of the Higher
Education Act. The provision, which was put into practice during the last
school year, denies student loans, federally funded grants and scholarships,
and work assistance to drug offenders. Students can regain the assistance
after a minimum one-year suspension, but only after completing a
rehabilitation program that adheres to federal guidelines, as well as
agreeing to submit to 
random drug testing.

The Case of Chris Spurry

Activists are citing one student in particular as a victim of the law. Chris
Spurry was convicted in June 1999 for possession of marijuana. Seventeen
months later, in December 2000, Spurry had just finished his first semester
at Arkansas State University, where he was studying for a bachelor's degree
in biology and an associate degree in elementary education.

Then he got a letter from the university. He was no longer eligible for
financial assistance and would have to pay $800 for tuition for the next
semester if he wanted to continue his studies.

"I couldn't believe it at first," Spurry says. "I paid for my offense. I had
to give up my [driver's] license, pay fines. People are being punished twice
for their crimes," he says. "It just doesn't make sense."

Spurry who is married with children dropped out before classes resumed.
"With three children, I can't afford to go to school without that aid. I
just can't do it."

Says NCSU activist Widenhouse: "This only shows people what the drug war is
doing. It is taking away opportunity and punishing people for their crimes
more than once."

Finding students like Spurry is proving difficult, according to one

"The problem is not a lot people are willing to come forward on this," says
Zach Mazer, former vice president of the NC State chapter of Students for a
Sensible Drug Policy. "No one wants to come forward and say, 'Hey, I have a
drug conviction and it cost me my education.'"

Mazer, who graduated this month and remains active in SSDP, says the NC
State chapter will keep searching for an area student who has been denied
financial aid because of a drug conviction. Ideally, they'd like to help
that student find other sources of educational money as well as bring him or
her to the attention of the media. The search may be easier than in previous
years, according to Mazer, because of the greater number of victims now

"People all across this country are struggling to find [students who've been
denied]," he says. "For this year, there's going to be many, many thousands
of these people, yet they're elusive."

Question of Fairness

The drug free student aid measure is the brainchild of Congressman Mark
Souder, a Republican from Indiana. In 1994, Congressional Quarterly named
him one of the four most effective conservative true believers in Congress.

He also is one of the more passionate voices when dealing with issues
related to illegal drugs. 

Unless we all work together. . . we are going to continue to lose many more
of our young people and adults to the scourge of illegal narcotics, Souder
said from the House floor in defense of the law.

In 1998, Souder mustered enough support from his colleagues to amend the
federal Higher Education Act to ban financial aid for students with drug
convictions. Two years later, the law took effect.

Federally subsidized student aid is a privilege, not a right, Souder wrote
in an op-ed column last year in USA Today. Is it unreasonable to expect
college students. . .to refrain from using and selling drugs or risk losing
that aid? 

The Higher Education Act was established in 1965 as one of President Lyndon
Johnson's Great Society initiatives. It created federal programs such as the
Perkins and Plus Loans, Pell Grants and work-study programs. 

The goal was to provide enough financial assistance to those unable to
afford college so they would have the financial resources necessary to go to
school and seek a degree. It did not deny aid based on criminal records,
including drug convictions; if it had, many of today's leaders in politics,
business and social reform never would have gotten near a college.

But times have changed, Souder and his supporters say. Recipients of
financial aid should be accountable for their actions and think twice about
using or dealing illegal drugs while receiving money from the federal
government. Killers, drunk drivers and rapists, however, need not worry
about their convictions keeping them out of taking college courses. For this
reason and others, critics are seeking to repeal Souder's singular assault
on drug use and raise various legitimate questions:

Is the law fair?

Why doesn't the law address the particular circumstances of individual drug
offenses, such as separating dealers from occasional users?

Does it discriminate against low-income minorities in neighborhoods where
drugs are more a part of the landscape than cocktail parties are in the

"This measure raises all kinds of issues, not the least of which are
punitive and equal protection concerns," says Rachel King of the ACLU's
national headquarters in Washington DC. "The law is a bit arbitrary to begin

Adds Zach Mazer, former Vice President of the NCSU chapter of Students for
Sensible Drug Policy: "It is really sort of an example of treating student
drug offenders as a second class group of citizens, maybe even lower than

You Must Answer Question 35

The law has very specific guidelines: first convictions of possession carry
a one-year suspension of federal aid; second convictions carry a two-year
suspension; and third convictions result in a permanent suspension of aid.
Penalties for dealing are twice as tough: a first offense results in
suspension for two years, and a second offense eliminates any chance of
financial aid.

Strict guidelines are placed on regaining eligibility. Offenders have to
complete a federally approved drug treatment program and submit to two
announced drug tests once they complete the program. The law doesn't take
into consideration that treatment is expensive and availability is limited;
nearly one-half of the people seeking treatment either can't afford it or
can't find an opening, according to the national Substance Abuse and Mental
Health ServicesAdministration.

King has firsthand experience with the difficulties of treatment. 

"When I was a public defender, I had clients who had to wait months to get
on a list for drug treatment," she says. "For lower income folks, there is
not treatment widely available."

"We cannot pretend this is a race neutral policy," says Corye Barbour,
legislative director of the United States Student Association.
"African-Americans make up 12 percent of the population but 38 percent of
those arrested for, and 58 percent of those convicted of, drug offenses."

When Bill Clinton was President, students were able to avoid the issue
altogether. The question on their financial aid applications asked whether
the student had never been convicted of any illegal drug offense. Many
considered the wording of the question confusing, and around 279,000
applicants left the question blank. 

The Clinton administration simply opted not to enforce the provision and let
the blanks count as no. But out of those who checked yes on the form, 9,114
lost their aid. But the Bush administration recently announced it would
begin to enforce the law. The recently revamped financial aid applications
now have a bold flag: DO NOT LEAVE QUESTION 35 BLANK. 

Of course, there is one way to beat the system. Lie.

Very few applications are checked at the federal level and financial aid
administrators at individual colleges and universities often don't have the
resources to conduct criminal background checks.

"Most local administrators simply don't have the time to play judiciary,"
says Julie Rice-Mallette, director of Financial Aid at NCSU. 

Can the Ban Survive?

Earlier this year, Congressman Barney Frank, Democrat from Massachusetts,
introduced a resolution that would repeal the ban on federal financial aid
to students with drug convictions. 

Frank says his resolution seeks to restore equity to the system. Judges
handling individual drug cases already had the power to suspend financial
aid to drug offenders before the federal ban took effect. Frank says he
wants that discretion returned to judges without broad-based bans from the
federal government.

"The authorities previously had the discretion to bar aid to people based on
the severity of their crimes and whether they are taking steps to
rehabilitate themselves. My bill would simply restore that discretion,"
Frank says. "This would allow some people, who may have had difficulties
with drugs but are now taking steps to improve their lives by pursuing a
higher education, to continue to be eligible for aid."

As of last month, Frank's proposal had attracted 52 co-sponsors, including
Rep. Mel Watt of Charlotte. But the reform legislation has been stuck in
committee since April.

With the new Bush administration comes new challenges. For drug reformers,
the task has been getting tougher, not only with the new enforcement
measures for financial aid, but the general attitude toward drugs overall.

Attorney General John Ashcroft is a dedicated drug warrior. Bush's nominee
for Drug Czar is John Walters, a graduate of the conservative Heritage
Foundation. Walters is known as an extremist, even in drug war circles. He
quit a Clinton administration post, in protest over increased spending for
treatment. What it adds up to is this: For those like Chris Spurry, the
ordeal is frustrating and contradicts the goal of using education as a means
of self-improvement and societal advancement.

"Education has always been a tool of empowerment and self-improvement,"
Spurry says. "Until this measure is repealed, people are being denied those
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