Rally demands equal access to college for ex-convicts

By TRISHA PARAYIL | October 12, 2017

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COURTESY OF DAVID SAVELIEV Around 100 people gathered on the Beach on Saturday to call for the Maryland legislature to override the governor’s veto of the “Ban the Box” bill.

Members of the Hopkins and Baltimore community rallied to voice their support for banning the box in college admissions. The “Ban the Box” movement includes a nationwide effort to prevent universities from asking prospective students to disclose their criminal histories in their college applications.

The rally, which took place on the Beach on Saturday, was co-sponsored by the Student Government Association (SGA) and organized by Baltimore-based groups which focus on providing resources for former convicts, like Out For Justice, Inc. (OFJ) and From Prison Cells to PhD.

Stanley Andrisse, an adjunct assistant professor at the School of Medicine, spoke at the rally about the impact that education had on his life after prison. After obtaining his doctorate, Andrisse began working to help other former convicts overcome educational barriers.

“A lot of society sees people like myself as just criminals, but we change,” he said.

In May, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the Maryand Fair Access to Education Act of 2017 which passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the state legislature. This bill would have required colleges in the state to ban the box asking for criminal history. Hogan was concerned that former convicts could pose safety problems and that the bill excessively limited colleges.

In March, Hopkins opposed an earlier draft of this bill. After working with legislators, however, the University supported its final version.

Demonstrators are currently rallying at colleges across Maryland to convince state legislators to override Hogan’s veto in the upcoming legislative session in January 2018.

Andrisse explained that he and other supporters of banning the box in college admissions want to work on making educational opportunities available for everyone.

“We want to override the veto come January,” he said. “Beyond that we have to continue the conversation because it’s the stigma of criminal conviction that is [the problem].”

Erek Barron, a member of the House of Delegates and one of the sponsors of the bill, stressed how he could have easily been incarcerated in his youth growing up as a black man in a single-parent home.

“No one else in my family had graduated from college before me. We weren’t a family that knew education. But my mom built me up and made sure I did my homework,” he said.

Caryn York, the executive director of the Job Opportunities Task Force (JOTF), an organization that advocates for low-income and low-skilled workers, emphasized that education should be accessible for everyone.

“If you desire an education, we [should] not erect any barriers in place to ensure that you don’t get that education, particularly for people with criminal backgrounds,” she said.

York also said that colleges did not support an earlier draft of the Maryland Fair Access to Education Act.

“Every college and university in the state of Maryland opposed this bill. In all fairness, the legislation they opposed was the legislation as originally drafted,” York said.

She believes it is important for colleges to voice their support for the bill in order for legislators to listen.

“Annapolis is a place of negotiation,” she said. “So we had to negotiate and you come up with amendments and you come up with a product that works for both sides. Even though we had bipartisan support, I’m pretty sure that the other side - colleges and universities - still were not happy.”

In the final version of the bill, the legislators included a provision that colleges using third party admissions applications, such as The Common Application would still be allowed to collect criminal background information.

However, colleges would be required to notify applicants that disclosing such information would not bar them from admission.

In an email to The News-Letter Dennis O’Shea, executive director of media relations for the University, explained that Hopkins supported legislative efforts to make education accessible to former convicts.

“During the most recent legislative session in Annapolis, we worked to help craft a bill that would protect potential applicants from fear of an automatic rejection because of a criminal history, while, at the same time, allowing us to thoughtfully and holistically make offers of admission,” he wrote. “A bill which found this balance was passed by the General Assembly but subsequently vetoed by the Governor.”  

He also elaborated that Hopkins does not solely consider an applicant’s criminal background in its admissions process.

“The University has long believed that the admissions process should involve a holistic evaluation of an applicant’s academic and personal accomplishments, and that a criminal record does not preclude an applicant from achieving academic success,” he wrote. “The University has admitted students who have disclosed a criminal history.”

Several students attended the rally to show support for banning the box in college admissions. Members of the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO) hosted a table at the rally.

Mikhail Osanov, the GRO chair, affirmed his support for the campaign.

“GRO believes in second chances,” he said. “GRO believes that people should have access to advanced degrees and in addition there’s data that show that people who get an undergraduate degree are much less likely to go behind bars again.”

Juliana Popovitz, the GRO advocacy chair, added that the mental barriers that former convicts face when applying to college can be detrimental.

“Banning the box is only the first stage of the process,” she said. “The person who was convicted already paid their dues and they have a clean record but they may feel discouraged to apply because they feel that the university will only look at the answer to this question and not look at their whole application.”

GRO co-chair Linda Tchernyshyov sees banning the box as an effort to stop racial discrimination.

“We don’t want to support racist structures,” she said. “We believe that this box discourages people from applying to university.”

Sophomore Allegra Rapoport attended the rally and supports providing former convicts opportunities to obtain a college degree.

“You should have a chance at a college education if that is what you want to pursue,” she said. “You should not be judged on your past convictions as long as it is not threatening the safety of the campus.”

SGA also played a role in organizing the rally. For example, Executive President Noh Mebrahtu sent a school-wide email encouraging Hopkins students to attend the event. Recently, SGA passed a resolution affirming their support for banning the box in college admissions. Mebrahtu said that SGA members were inspired to draft the bill after hearing Andrisse speak at their first meeting this year.

“I was moved by that story, and I’m pretty sure that the rest of the SGA was also moved by it,” he said. “We realized that people like that need a second chance.”

SGA drafted and unanimously passed a resolution on Sept. 19 in support of the movement. The resolution urges the University to remove the criminal convictions checkbox and add a statement on the application that states that criminal history does not disqualify an applicant from admission by Dec. 1, 2017.

“The resolution was telling the University, this is what the students would like to see on campus,” he said. “As for future rallies and future events, we’re still in the works. We don’t know how the University, administration or staff feels about Ban the Box.”

 

Correction: Juliana Popovitz and Linda Tchernyshyov’s names were originally switched in the article.

The News-Letter regrets this error.

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