Op-ed: Dear regents: Felony disclosure is not safety

Tuesday, March 26, 2019 - 2:21pm

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J was napping on a couch in East Quad when he was approached by a University of Michigan police officer and asked to leave. The officer and the residential staff thought that he was experiencing homelessness because of the way he was dressed. J is financially independent from his family and attending school with the aid of scholarships. He was growing out a beard. J is Indian-American.

M was hammocking over the summer on Packard Street when officers took down her license number because she was not supposed to hammock on University property, despite being off-campus and despite the numerous hammocks in the Diag at the time. When she was called into a disciplinary hearing, she was asked how she could make up for the harmful impact of her actions. M is Arab-American.

L was working out in the University gym over the summer when officers arrested him. He was a freshman, and had just finished his spring term classes, so he would not be enrolled again (and hence, eligible to use the gym) until that September. He was cuffed, escorted across campus and kicked out of the University for breaking and entering. He later lost a job offer with the NFL due to this incident. L is African-American.

Is this what safety on campus looks like? The incidents described above are (relatively) minor. They did not result in felony charges, but they do illustrate the targeted and non-random nature of policing in our community. When events like these pose a risk to students’ or staff’s place at the University, the role and purpose of the University’s involvement in its students’ and staffs’ lives must be reexamined.

The University’s new policy, the "Required Disclosure of Felony Charges and/or Felony Convictions", requires faculty, staff, student employees, volunteers and visiting scholars who find themselves convicted of a felony, and even those merely charged but not convicted, to report it to the University within one week.

The University of Michigan already requires all prospective undergraduate and graduate students, faculty members and staff employees to disclose any previous criminal record during the admissions or employment application process, a procedure that has been increasingly abandoned by other educational institutions due to a lack of evidence that it ensures safety. When the University imposed the self-disclosure felony policy this winter, it added one more layer to the web of ways in which the University ingratiates itself with the criminal justice system. As an educational institution, is it outside both the University’s responsibilities and qualifications to be taking on the role of jury or judge in criminal proceedings. The Board of Regents and the University at large should be presuming our innocence, not our guilt.

I am part of Umich Behind Bars, a student-led movement in collaboration and solidarity with staff, community organizations and other movements on campus toward a more comprehensive program for diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re calling for the University to rescind the felony disclosure policy, Ban the Box, and eliminate background checks. More than 1,800 students, staff and community stakeholders have signed onto the policy changes we support, outlined in the Carceral State Project’s open letter.

In the years that my fellow organizers and I have been at the University, we’ve seen the regents and other officials act on their best intentions and create successful, productive spaces for dialogue and healing, practices that protect students at critical times, and widely successful educational campaigns, such as those on safe drinking. We know that good can come from a critically well-thought-out policy and/or University action. The University is, after all, “Committed to a policy of equal opportunity for all persons and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, height, weight, or veteran status in employment, educational programs and activities, and admissions."

I believe that the felony self-disclosure policy did come from this same set of intentions and was created out of this same concern for students’ safety on campus. No University community member should feel at risk, and those who actively undermine that and harm the community should not be allowed to continue doing so. However, police and prosecutorial discretion leaves people who are charged with felonies, which could include a wide range of severity, at risk of inequitable charge and conviction practices. The impact of the felony self-disclosure policy will have vast and disproportionate consequences for certain communities, preventing them from entering or staying at the University, while providing no prevention of harm or assurance of students’ safety.

This policy, while coming from a good place, is only going to make staff and students who are already particularly vulnerable feel that they don’t belong, will not be supported in the face of adversity, or should leave before something happens. Where students are facing police action for nonviolent protest over climate change action, and where students practically expect danger at a vigil for Muslims victims of violence, the University’s duty to protect should take the form of mitigating, rather than exacerbating, the effects of over-policing and surveillance of students. This starts with rescinding carceral policies like the felony disclosure policy, which continues to punish our communities for their unwitting interactions with the criminal justice system. It starts there, and ends with listening, learning and healing as a community.

Students who believe that the University has work to do to move forward alongside a changing world can join us on our Facebook page or email us at behindbars@umich.edu — and all are encouraged to come to the Board of Regents’ meeting on Thursday, March 28, 3 p.m. at the Richard L. Postma Family Clubhouse.

Tag us @umichbehindbars and tell @UMichRegents, @DrMarkSchlissel, and @LauritaThomas1 that we want DEI now.

Hannah French is a part of a team of organizers with Umich Behind Bars. This piece is a personal account influenced deeply by the context, voices, and collaboration of individuals and communities impacted by and organizing against this policy.