While it still has until next month, the U.S. Dept. of Education has yet to respond to a lawsuit challenging its policy of withholding financial aid from students with prior drug convictions.
Filed on March 22 by the nonprofit organization Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the lawsuit aims to eliminate a provision in the Higher Education Act that denies federal loans and aid to students with prior drug convictions, said Tom Angell, campaigns director for SSDP. The Dept. of Education has 60 days from the time of filing to respond before the case goes to trial.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-IN, wrote the provision – coined the act’s Aid Elimination Penalty by SSDP – into the Higher Education Act in 1998 during a revision process, Angell said.
After the provision’s application in 2001, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid began asking the question, “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?” Angell said students who check the “Yes” box or leave it blank are sent a follow-up questionnaire asking for details about the conviction.
According to a SSPD report published on April 17, nearly 200,000 students eligible to receive financial aid have been denied since the introduction of the question on the FAFSA application. Over 31,000 of these students come from California.
“The HEA Aid Elimination Penalty is the drug policy that most affects our generation,” Angell said.
Angell said drug convictions are the only convictions considered on the FAFSA.
“Murderers and rapists are still eligible to receive aid,” Angell said.
Last year, seven students at UCSB either checked “Yes” to the drug conviction question or denied to answer the question, Bill Shelor, assistant director of the UCSB Financial Aid Office, said. Because roughly 12,000 students on campus receive some form of financial aid, the drug conviction question “hasn’t been a major issue on this campus,” Shelor said.
Angell said the SSDP has been lobbying Congress for the past eight years for a change in the act, and currently has a bill in Congress with 70 supporters. According to the SSPD April report, Congress revised the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty in February 2006 due to mounting criticism.
The report states that, “the change to the law takes away its “reachback effect,” meaning that only convictions that occur while someone is in college and receiving financial aid will cause that person to lose their aid.”
However, many students are still affected by the law, Angell said. The lawsuit filed by the SSDP questions the constitutionality of the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty.
“We basically say the law is unconstitutional because it punishes students twice for the same crime,” Angell said. “Taking away access to education is not only illogical, but it is illegal.”
Under the current provision, federal aid is suspended for a year on a student’s first conviction of possession of a controlled substance. A second conviction of possession leads to a second year of suspension. A third conviction of possession causes financial aid to be suspended indefinitely, Angell said.
Angell said the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project took on the lawsuit pro bono and will represent SSDP against the Dept. of Education.
Across the country, 60 high school and college campuses have formed chapters of the SSDP in support of better drug legislation, Angell said.
Randy Hencken, a fourth-year business management major and president of the SSDP chapter at San Diego State University, said he helped found the university’s chapter a year ago.
“I was fed up with the failure of the drug war and witnessing it on several different accounts,” Hencken said.
Although the chapter has about a dozen active members and at least 150 other students interested, Hencken said some students are hesitant to join for fear of retribution from the government.
In addition to hosting a debate this semester about drug laws, the SDSU chapter will next semester challenge the university’s policy on marijuana and alcohol use on campus. Under current SDSU policy, students discovered with alcohol in dorms are written up, while students found with a controlled substance can be arrested and kicked out of school.
The chapter will take the issue to SDSU’s student government in the fall, Hencken said.
“As a recreational substance, [marijuana] really isn’t any worse than alcohol,” he said.
A representative from the Dept. of Education could not be reached for comment.