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No Felons Allowed

June 25, 2010

A Michigan community college that this year banned all child sex offenders from enrolling will now meet with all students who are felons or whose name appears on the state’s sex offender registry to determine if their enrollment should be revoked or their admission denied.

Tuesday, the Lake Michigan College Board of Trustees unanimously adopted the changes to the institution’s admission policy. The policy revisions establish procedures to review all individuals in question on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they pose a potential threat to the “college community” and if a ban from classes is “in the best interest” of the institution.

During reviews, college officials will consider “the nature of the offense; probation/parole terms and conditions; how long ago the offense occurred; the number of offenses; if the person has completed specific treatment programs while incarcerated; references; and whether the student has been denied admission, suspended, or expelled from another institution of higher learning.”

Those who have their admission revoked after enrollment as a result of this policy change “must be notified of the right to an appeal process and provided due process.” In these cases, the felon is “provisionally enrolled” and allowed to attend classes until the outcome of the appeal process, if he or she chooses to file one.

Lake Michigan officials will not search for students with criminal backgrounds. Instead, they will just monitor the sex offender registry and check it against their student rolls. Still, all felons, whether on the sex offender registry or not, are required to inform the college “of their status” when they seek admission.

Tuesday’s decision by the Lake Michigan Board trumps a prior admissions policy change, made in February, which barred only those individuals who had committed a sex crime against children.

Robert Harrison, the college’s president, explained that the college instituted the ban on child sex offenders in February after a prospective student informed college officials that he was a registered sex offender whose victim was a child. The student and the administration, he continued, reached a mutual decision that it was not in his best interest to attend the institution, as Lake Michigan’s campus is host to more children than most community colleges.

“Annually, we have between 10-to-15,000 elementary and high school children coming to classes and events on our campus,” Harrison noted. “We’ve an early college program, run high school classes on campus and have performing arts center that lots of kids come to, so that’s why we migrated towards [child sex offenders] first.”

It was only after the policy change made in February was in place for a few months and college officials talked to Michigan State Police officials that they were encouraged to broaden their admissions restrictions to include all felons. Also, Harrison noted, the college's legal counsel encouraged the broadening out of concern, in part, that a legal challenge could be made that the narrow restriction did not treat all felons and sex offenders equally.

Though Harrison admitted he was sympathetic to the plight of felons – many of whom, after having serving prison time, must find a way to live with restricted rights and public stigma – he argued that his and the college’s obligation to protect its students, faculty, staff and visitors is far more important.

“That’s what makes decisions like these so difficult for organizations and people who are in a position ore responsibility,” Harrison said. “You want to make everyone happy. … If anything, this creates more a level of engagement with law enforcement than we already have.”

For those individuals who will now be barred from Lake Michigan, Harrison said there were other options for them. He argued that they could attend another community college in the state where there was no such restriction or attend a for-profit institution online.

“This has been a drawn-out, thoughtful process for us, administratively,” said Harrison, noting that the institution consulted with everyone from local law enforcement and probation officers to social and human service employees before instituting the change. “This is not something we’ve done on the spur of the moment.”

The admissions change has stirred emotions among locals who live near the college. A local newspaper's story about the decision has elicited numerous anonymous comments from both supporters and detractors of the new restrictions.

"My daughter takes night classes out there and I really don't want to worry about her walking through that parking lot in the dark along with felons and sex offenders," wrote one reader. "This is very good news."

Another reader, responding to this comment, sees the situation differently.

"I have been taking night classes at [Lake Michigan] for the past two years now and yes, I want to feel safe and secure, that is why the parking lot is lighted and they have security driving around at night," the readers wrote. "Banning these people that are trying to make a step in a positive direction in their life is discrimination. You probably have no idea how many sex offenders you pass everyday, at the grocery store, at the ball field, in the library.... should we ban them from these places too? You could just as easily be attacked in these parking lots as well.... your logic is skewed."

The Legal Perspective

Lake Michigan's board was able to act, in part, because of a quirk in state policy.

Michigan, unlike some states, does not have a state statute or -- since its 28 community colleges are not part of a statewide system -- an all-encompassing policy stipulating what kinds of students its community colleges are supposed to admit. As a result, each community college in the state is allowed to determine for itself what “open-access” means or draft its own admissions policy, said Jim Folkening, director of post-secondary services at the state’s Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth.

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, also confirmed this, noting that his organization “respects and values that these decision are made by those trustees that are elected to represent the will of their local community.” In yet other example of restricted “open-access,” he noted that Jackson Community College recently restricted admission of all those who did not show at least a seventh-grade proficiency in basic skills. In other words, students scoring this low at Jackson cannot even take remedial classes there. They must go elsewhere.

In states like Michigan, where there are no formal statewide stipulations as to whom community colleges should admit, there are only a few limited legal challenges to these admissions restrictions, say legal scholars.

“All courts are clear,” said Skip Capone, counsel at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. “There is not a constitutional right to be admitted to a state institution. The only claim that one could make is that there was a violation of an equal protection law or that the decision was so arbitrary or capricious. For instance, if you admitted five other people who had bank robberies on the background and for some reason you didn’t admit me. Still, it’d be a hard case to make.”

Some scholars find Lake Michigan’s policy restrictions, which apply not just to sex offenders but to all felons, broad, albeit defensible.

“I don’t know of any other community colleges that have a blanket prohibition of all felons,” said Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, a legal consulting firm that advises colleges on student affairs issues and has clients in Michigan. “But I don’t see a legal vulnerability at all. Colleges are entitled to set admission parameters [in states like Michigan].”

Sokolow did point out, however, that there are some states where public institutions are prohibited from barring felons and sex offenders. He noted that in Washington, for example, there are state laws defining community colleges as “open-access” for, well, everyone. In Washington community colleges, sex offenders are required to make their presence known to instructors and fellow students, but the institutions they attend are not allowed to kick them out simply for being sex offenders.

 

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