A Second Chance: YSU’s Policy on Students with Criminal Records

By Elizabeth Lehman

No person is immune to making mistakes. In a best-case scenario, an individual might seek to move forward and improve their circumstances by pursuing higher education.

For an individual in this situation, having a record can be a factor in determining if they are able to enroll at Youngstown State University.

The first hurdle they will encounter will be the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Every student who applies to YSU is required to answer questions about their criminal background, such as whether or not they have any past convictions or pending charges.

YSU’s Admission Background Check Procedures policy states:

“If a student answers ‘yes’ to any question, a copy of their admission application or readmission application is forwarded to the Administration Office designee to begin the Background Verification Committee review process.”

Jacci Johnson, assistant director of undergraduate admissions said, per year, admissions may receive around 10,000 applications. Out of those applications, only about 100 to 150 go before the Background Verification Committee.

Director of Undergraduate Admissions Sue Davis said the committee is tasked with determining whether or not admitting a student would pose a risk to other students, faculty or staff.

Johnson said the process is carried out on a case-by-case basis and considers the intricacies of each individual’s circumstance related to the conviction or charge.

“There’s no cookie cutter, no rubric,” Johnson said. “There’s no ‘If you’ve done this, that’s no forever, no always,’ because someone could’ve committed murder in 1983 and now … they want to come back to school. That was ’83. This is 2017. At some point, you have to give people an opportunity to prove themselves.”

Davis said that potential students who are denied admission are encouraged to appeal their case before the committee. During the appeal process, these students are able to expand upon details which will not be included in the YSU Police Department’s briefing of the charges.

“There’s always extenuating circumstances,” Davis said. “They can tell us how they’ve made reparations or how their life has changed. If somebody did drugs when they were 18 years old and they’re 30 now, do you really want to keep punishing them for something they did when they were really young? And they have had no [re-offenses] whatsoever?”

Johnson said, during the appeal, the committee asks about lifestyle changes and the current support system the student has in place.

“We don’t try to be too invasive, we try not to be too aggressive, but we want to suss out where you’re at in your life right now,” Johnson said. “What are you doing different? … What are you going to do different to make this the best experience you can and to graduate?”

Another possible hurdle is housing. If the student opts to apply for housing on campus, their record can exclude them from being eligible.

Associate director of Residence Life, Ian Tanner, said the housing contract states that every student who applies for housing and provides a security deposit will go through a background check.

“We reserve the right to cancel anyone’s housing if they are found to be responsible for a felony; obviously, any sexual assault, an offense of violence, which could be anything from battery to maybe something minor; a theft offense or drug abuse offense,” Tanner said.

If a student’s background check is flagged for any offenses, like admissions, the Office of Residence Life considers the possible risks of having the student in housing.

“Is this person going to be a liability or risk living in our halls? Are we putting more people’s lives … or more people’s property in jeopardy having them in our halls?” Tanner said.

Another hurdle that students with prior drug related offenses might encounter could be financial aid, Melissa McKenney, manager of financial aid programs for the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships said.

“For the purposes of federal financial aid eligibility, a student must only answer questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) relative to the possession or selling of illegal drugs,” McKenney said.

After a student with a criminal record makes it through the admission process successfully, the student has the same rights and freedoms as any other student on campus.

Police will be aware of the individual’s prior record; however, admissions does not continue to follow them after admission.

“We’ve tried very, very hard not to create that middle ground because then you run into creating classes of students,” Johnson said. “You’re either here or you’re not. If you’re a student, if you’re paying your tuition, then you have the rights and privileges of any paying customer or any student.”

Johnson said the screening process is not designed to keep people with a record out of the university.

“It’s to find a way to say yes, and hopefully they can get on with their lives and if we’re a part of you getting on with your life and doing better, that’s what we’re here for,” Johnson said. “We’re here to help people who want to obtain a higher education to get on with their life and to do better.”

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