Higher Education

Posted on 30. Oct, 2000 by in Uncategorized

On a warm Tuesday night in September, I am sitting in the
living room of an off-campus apartment when two other Yale students
walk in. One is on financial aid; the other does not receive
aid. They have come here, to a friendly apartment, to share a
bowl of marijuana and a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. As
they pass the pipe and the soda around the living room table,
I ask them if they’ve heard of the July 1998 amendment to the
Higher Education Act (HEA) that suspends the financial aid of
any student convicted of a drug offense. They hadn’t, but they
don’t seem too worried.
If the police were to pass by our well-lit, first-floor window
and look inside, both my friends would be vulnerable to drug
possession charges. For my wealthier friend, these first-time
charges would probably lead at most to a fine and community service.
But as a result of the HEA amendment, my other friend would stand
to lose her means of receiving an education because of one conviction
for drug possession. Few students at Yale know much about this
law, and many of those who do don’t see a reason to object to
it. But a small group is trying to change that.
The 1965 HEA established categories of federal aid like Stafford
Loans and Pell Grants to "open the doors of college to all
students." Every few years, Congress re-authorizes the Act,
fixing interest rates on loans and adding new programs and initiatives
to reflect the latest trends in education. In May 1998, the amendments
to the Act included a provision introduced by Congressman Mark
Souder (R-Ind.) Any student convicted of a drug-related offense
would lose all his or her federal financial aid for at least
one year, perhaps permanently, depending on the severity of the
crime, the number of offenses, and whether the student passed
subsequent drug tests. This provision is retroactive, though
juvenile offenses stricken from one’s record do not count. Beginning
in July 2000, the FAFSA form, which is used to determine students’
eligibility for federal financial aid, included multiple-choice
question 28, asking about an applicant’s drug convictions.
The American Civil Liberties Union soon launched a protest against
the amendment. "Stop the Use of Student Aid as a Tool of
Discrimination!" read the banner at the head of its November
4, 1999, Action Alert. This form letter, to be sent to a senator
or representative, points out the possible discriminatory effects
of the provision, which mandates special penalties for the economically
disadvantaged that do not apply to wealthier people convicted
of identical crimes. The provision has racial implications as
well: Eleven percent of US drug users are African-American, yet
they make up 37 percent of those arrested and 60 percent of those
in state prisons for drug offenses, meaning the law would almost
certainly affect students of color disproportionately. And the
stipulation that convicted students may complete a drug treatment
program to clear their records, the letter says, is a fig leaf
which ignores the woeful shortage of slots in such programs.
The letter urges one’s elected official to support Representative
Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) H.R. 1053, which would repeal the amendment.
With a year to go before the law would take effect, the usual
cadre of student activists coalesced around the cause last fall.
The nationwide Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, at their
founding conference last October, "decided that this issue
was really something winnable," says Alexandra Cox, a leader
of Yale’s Student Legal Action Movement (SLAM). At the conference,
the group chose to push for a series of student council resolutions
in protest of the provision. The resolution, co-authored by Cox
and passed by the Yale College Council (YCC) in February 2000,
is typical of those passed all over the country at schools big
and small, public and private. It calls on Yale to "actively
encourage" the passage of H.R. 1053 and to supplement any
student’s losses in financial aid. Hampshire College, in Amherst,
ma, has actually established a fund for this purpose. With the
only Ivy student council to sign on, Yale is featured prominently
in a list of colleges and universities whose students support
H.R. 1053 on several drug-reform policy websites, such as raiseyourvoice.com
and drcnet.org, the Drug Reform Coalition’s website.
The Yale administration has yet to respond officially to the
YCC’s call, but not because of a hardline position in the financial
aid office against drug use or the possibility of compensating
students for denied federal funding. "Personally, and I’m
just expressing my own opinion here, I am not at all opposed
to adopting such a procedure [compensating students]," said
Caesar Storlazzi, Associate Director of University Financial
Aid. Storlazzi points out a historical precedent for the University’s
mitigating the effects of a law restricting federal aid. During
the Vietnam War, the Federal Government denied aid to anyone
who failed to register for the draft; in response, the University
compensated conscientious objectors for lost funds. "So
it wouldn’t be the first time we might make this kind of decision
on principle," Storlazzi said.
However, in this case, the principles involved are somewhat less
clear than those surrounding the Vietnam War. After a long debate,
for example, the Dwight Hall Cabinet decided to support only
the first part of the ycc amendment, stopping short of recommending
that Yale give drug offenders extra money.
Now SLAM is working not to build consensus, but simply to raise
awareness of the issue. "We’re modeling ourselves after
Students Against Sweatshops (SAS), which succeeded in bringing
vast attention to something at school," Cox says. However,
their campus organizing efforts have drawn only a handful of
students thus far. While SAS has clearly defined targets, SLAM’s
goals are "more symbolic," says Cox, and its adversaries
are more distant than the Yale administration or even Connecticut
senators and representatives. In the absence of opposition on
campus, they are focusing on education as a part of a national
effort to put pressure on key legislators in other states who
will vote on the pertinent legislation.
Cox’s choice of the word "symbolic" points to larger
reasons that this "really winnable" issue has failed
to catch fire on campus. There is a not-so-hidden sense among
people who are excited about the HEA, on both sides, that it
is really a gateway issue to a larger, and much more volatile,
debate about the War on Drugs. Drug-related offenses now constitute
the only category of crime for which students may be denied federal
financial aid-not assault, not rape, not alcohol-related violations.
So Students for a Sensible Drug Policy and the Drug Reform Coalition
are leading the protests, while activists with more mainstream
agendas are shying away. "I think on campus even some activists
are reluctant to take this on because they don’t think it’s really
legit," Cox says. Jelani Lawson, Director of A Better Way
Foundation, which "educates and advocates on behalf of public-health-oriented
solutions to the War on Drugs," puts the problem bluntly.
"People are reluctant to talk about it because there’s this
hysteria surrounding drugs. There’s this sense that while I might
be able to get away with personal use, any public advocacy will
put my personal use in jeopardy. People are afraid of being targeted
and labeled as users."
The same stigma surrounding drug use that allowed the amendment
to be passed in the first place may prevent those most directly
affected from coming forward to protest. This provision is a
new threat to the educations of the 39 percent of Yale students
who are on financial aid, yet "We’ve been kind of hesitant
to single out students who are on financial aid as spokespeople,"
says Cox, "and even people who we’ve found don’t want to
come forward." On a national scale, the movement appears
to have the same problem. The website for the Coalition for HEA
Reform, a nationwide group devoted to the cause, makes an appeal
for stories from people who have lost their aid under this provision:
"We urgently need to hear from students who have been affected
by this law, especially students who are willing to go public."
However, only one such story, reported by Mother Jones about
a student at Antioch College, is linked to the site.
So far, there are no HEA poster children at Yale. "This
is the first aid year where the Feds actually asked question
28," says Storlazzi. "At Yale, we haven’t had anyone
say yes, so there’s no University policy yet. There is a sense
that it’s not likely to come up." But it strains credulity
to think this is because Yale students are not using drugs. Surveys
show that about half of u.s. high school students try an illegal
drug before graduation, and any Thursday night Bong & Keg
attendee will tell you that this percentage probably increases
during the Yale freshman year. It’s also not because the New
Haven Police aren’t making drug arrests. In 1995, the most recent
year for which statistics were available, there were 2,682 drug-related
arrests in New Haven; 612 of them were for simple marijuana possession.
So why the widespread complacency in the face of this imminent
threat to hundreds of students’ means to getting an education?
To put it simply, Yale students aren’t often arrested for drug
use, or anything else. In 1998, the most recent year for which
statistics are available, the Yale Police made three drug arrests
on or near the campus, none of which involved students.
This holds true even when students fit police stereotypes. "As
a black man in New Haven, I feel cops treat me as a suspect,"
Lawson told me, recounting three separate experiences during
his time at Yale in which he excited sudden, unfounded suspicion
from the NHPD. He adds, "My Yale id basically served as
a get-out-of-jail-free card." Each time, proving his student
status resulted in a hasty apology from the cops.
A renewed willingness on the part of police to arrest Yale students
was demonstrated in the last week of September, when a fraternity
party on High Street led to seven alcohol-related arrests by
New Haven officers in a campaign against street noise.
Yet as long as drug use at Yale remains a relatively private,
quiet activity in living rooms and common rooms, the current
stalemate in the campus War on Drugs is likely to continue, despite
the new legislation’s stated intention. Besides, Storlazzi points
out that simply asking students whether they have been convicted
of a drug offense is the least efficient and accurate way to
find out. "What I find interesting," he says, "is
that the Federal Government is depending here on the honesty
of applicants. Usually they’re so careful about linking other
databases, and it would certainly be easy for them to discover
who was a convicted drug offender." At least for now, the
HEA amendment is more a symbolic statement than a serious deterrent
to a behavior that almost no one publicly defends, but everyone
silently acknowledges.

 

Anya Kamenetz, a junior in Davenport College,
is a managing editor for
TNJ.

 

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