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Students (and Senators?) vs. the Drug War

The effort to strike the Higher Education Act's drug war provision -- which denies financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense -- is gaining ground in Congress.
 
 
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The growing effort to amend the Higher Education Act's drug war provision -- which denies financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense -- got its legislative send-off recently as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) reintroduced legislation to repeal the provision in the new, 107th Congress.

At a Capitol Hill press conference, congressional cosponsors, national student and drug reform groups and representatives of college financial aid administrators joined with Frank to denounce the provision. Under the provision, added in 1998, more than 8,000 college students lost access to grants, loans, and work assistance this school year.

"Someone who commits murder or armed robbery is not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility," said Rep. Frank, "but if you have even one nonviolent drug conviction, you can't get any aid for a year, with longer bans for people with additional convictions."

DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton also appeared at the press conference to denounce the provision, saying, "In the roster of counterproductive government sanctions, it would be difficult to top denying a kid the right to apply for a Pell Grant because she was caught experimenting with a few joints."

Arguing that the law's intent was to target drug dealers, Norton said the real effect was "tragically inverted."

"The law in fact ensnares young, inexperienced people who are not only the most likely to have minor drug offenses," Norton said, "but are also most open to change if they reach college or another plateau before going down the road to more serious drugs."

Citing reforms afoot in New York, New Mexico, California, and elsewhere, Norton blasted her congressional colleagues as "a lot more than behind the times" and seared the law for its "pernicious class and race effects."

"Mandatory minimum drug laws have wrecked the black family," Norton told the press conference. "Now federal law would wreck the chances of young people who have rehabilitated themselves. The states are looking for alternatives to incarceration for first-time drug offenders. The least Congress owes these efforts is to free the best alternative of them all -- a college education."

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) also alluded to larger issues, calling the war on drugs a "war on people." Hinchey described a concurrent Capitol Hill press conference held by sheriffs from around the country calling for alternatives to our nation's enforcement-based approach to criminal justice. "There are three reasons people commit crimes," Hinchey said, paraphrasing the sheriffs, "they have a drug problem, they have an alcohol problem, or they're unemployed."

College students across the country are in increasing agreement with Norton, Frank, and the rest of the effort to reform the HEA's drug provision. Prodded by the Higher Education Act Reform Campaign, organized by DRCNet (www.raiseyourvoice.com) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (www.ssdp.org), student governments at more than 40 schools (ranging from big state universities such as the University of Texas, the University of Wisconsin, and the University of California-Berkeley to elite private institutions such as Yale, the University of Southern California, and American University and even extending to the hi-tech precincts of the Rochester Institute of Technology), have endorsed resolutions calling for the provision's repeal.

So have state and national student and academic associations, including the Association of Big Ten Schools, the United Council of University of Wisconsin Students, the Student Association of the State University of New York, and the United States Student Association (USSA).

In a departure for student movements, the movement is cutting across racial lines. The student association at the prominent historically black college, Howard University, has endorsed the law's repeal, with other such schools examining the issue, and NAACP chapters at a range of institutions have taken the lead on their campuses in putting the question to their school's student governments.

And for the first time, in Congress, at least, the HEA reform movement is also cutting across party lines: One of the 23 original cosponsors of Frank's bill is Connie Morella, a Republican representative from Maryland.

USSA legislative director Corye Barbour explained to the press conference why the national student group wants the law changed. Calling the provision "fundamentally unfair," Barbour pointed out that "the drug question" has a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority students.

"We cannot pretend this is a race neutral policy," Barbour said. "Students of color, particularly those who are young and from low-income families, are more likely to be stopped, searched, prosecuted, and convicted for drug crimes. Introducing the bias we know is in the criminal justice system into the educational system is unconscionable."

Barbour also cited research of direct relevance to the new law. "What the Department of Education has confirmed over and over again is that once a student leaves school for a year or more, his or her chances of completing a degree drop dramatically. Taking away a student's aid eligibility tells the student that we are more concerned with punishing students' mistakes than helping them attain a degree."

"If we truly want to reduce drug use in our country, let's put more students in school, not less," Barbour concluded.

Eileen O'Leary, President of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and Financial Aid Director at Stonehill College, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "Studies show very clearly that by 2015, the majority of new high school graduates will be minority students, very many from poor families. Studies also show that higher education is the single best means of moving citizens out of poverty and into prosperity and self-sufficiency, since degree attainment is correlated so closely to income."

Two of the engineers of the student repeal movement, SSDP National Director Shawn Heller and DRCNet Campus Coordinator Steven Silverman, also addressed the press conference.

Heller told the conference, "We call on President Bush, who recently reaffirmed that education is his first national priority, to call for the repeal of the drug provision," said Heller, "and thus allow educational access for thousands of students denied financial aid."

Silverman commented that "'Tough on drugs' is not the same thing as being smart about drug policy. A law that pushes young people away from civil society at a time when they most need to be drawn in is not smart. Students, who have witnessed the failure of the drug war firsthand, understand this. That's why students from around the country have stood up to a drug war waged against educational opportunities."

Fueled by student outrage over the HEA drug provision, SSDP has grown from a single chapter at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1998 to more than 80 chapters across the country today. It is SSDP more than any other group that has harnessed that outrage and channeled it into an increasingly potent student drug reform movement.

But students and progressive members of Congress are "the usual suspects" when it comes to drug policy reform. The same cannot be said for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Adminstrators (NASFAA), which has also joined the repeal effort.

NASFAA Director of Congressional Relations Larry Zaglaniczny appeared along side Rep. Frank to explain why this rather staid organization is lining up with students and drug reformers.

"Many financial aid administrators over the years have objected to the Congress' and the administration's tendency to micromanage the federal student aid system," Zaglaniczny said, adding that both parties were guilty of meddling. Congress has at times tried to use federal student aid as a tool to promote other social goals, but these efforts are often at odds with the greater social goal of providing potential students with the financial wherewithal to attend college, he said. "Higher Education Act Section 484 (r) [the drug provision] is such a provision."

Saying that people convicted of drug crimes have paid their debt to society through the criminal justice system, Zaglaniczny said drug offenders should not be punished again by the HEA drug provision.

"[Drug offenders applying to college] now are attempting to gain useful skills and an education for their advancement in our society and in the workplace. They should not be denied those opportunities," he said. "Repeal of Higher Education Act 484 (r) is necessary to ensure such an outcome."

That probably will not happen this year. Despite the growing opposition to the drug provision, there are few signs that reformers have the strength to even force a vote in committee, let alone get it through the House this year. The real showdown is likely to occur next year, when the HEA Act comes up for its biennial renewal.

Rep. Frank admitted as much in responding to questions after the press conference.

"This year, we may try to attach the bill as an amendment if the opportunity arises, but we have seen no indication that anything has changed on the committee," he said. "We are laying the groundwork for 2002."

For SSDP's Heller and DRCNet's Silverman that means they have another year of organizing in which to strengthen their coalition.

"We think by building momentum in Congress and on campus this year, the HEA reauthorization act next year will be passed without the drug provision," Heller said.

"At first, we were disappointed that we didn't have a real shot this year," Silverman said, "but now we see it as an opportunity to deepen the grassroots mobilization already underway within key Congressional districts. By next year, we will have a very strong shot at making a difference in the committee and getting the law repealed once and for all."

Visit www.RaiseYourVoice.com to tell Congress to repeal the drug offender student financial aid ban and learn how you can get further involved in the campaign, especially if you are a student.