Students with criminal history face stigma
ST. CLOUD — Nathan Anderson admits he made some "stupid choices" years ago.
He wants to enter a profession where he can help people avoid hardships with school and work.
But the St. Cloud State University student can't.
"Right now, because of my criminal background, I have to put some of my education on hold," he said.
To earn a bachelor's degree, start a master's program in drug counseling and eventually secure a job in the state-licensed field, Anderson must complete an internship.
Results of a background study through the Department of Human Services have denied him that opportunity. Similar results immediately ended Anderson's employment at a drug treatment center late last year.
Minnesota law lists more than 30 offenses such as murder that permanently disqualify people from working in some state-licensed, care-giving occupations. About 50 types of offenses bar people for 15 years, more than 40 disqualify them for 10 years and about 30 bar them for seven years.
Anderson, 34, received four felony convictions between 2001 and 2010 for receiving stolen property, theft, criminal damage to property and drug possession.
He is one of an unknown number of college students trying to overcome criminal histories. Schools don't keep data on that segment of their populations, though many offer specific services.
Fair chance pledge
While a stigma remains in some respects, it is fading, as two recent events have shown.
In May, the Common App organization announced it will no longer include the phrase "other crime" on the application form that more than 600 institutions use.
The question the organization added 10 years ago still asks about misdemeanors and felonies, though schools have the option to suppress that information, Aba Blankson said. The Common App communications director said some colleges and universities overlook responses to the criminal history question at the beginning of the application process. Others choose to ignore it entirely.
Some colleges have been choosing one of those options for a while, Blankson said, and some are "just sort of coming to that."
The Common App screens students for about a dozen private Minnesota schools, including the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.
In June, they joined 23 other institutions in signing the White House Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge. It requires schools and systems to reduce, eliminate or otherwise evaluate barriers for people with criminal records.
The vice president of admission and financial aid for St. Ben's and St. John's said his schools look at applicants in a variety of ways.
"Holistic admission is very important to us," Cal Mosley said. The institutions' Benedictine values hold ideas such as social justice and hospitality at the forefront.
Signing the pledge was consistent with "who we are," Mosley said.
He said St. Ben's and St. John's rarely encounter applicants with a criminal record, but when they do they give the applicant a fair look and consider whether providing a chance is appropriate.
The schools make a strong effort to have a conversation in person or over the internet to assess the nature of the grievance, Mosley said. They would never "shut the door" in a black-and-white way, he said.
Possibility of problems
St. Cloud State never asks applicants about convictions, according to Amber Schultz, assistant vice president for admissions, marketing and recruitment.
The university makes decisions solely based on applicants' academic potential to succeed, she said.
Schultz sees possibilities for concern, mostly for residential living. But in the almost three years she's been at St. Cloud State, staff members haven't seen any problems.
One could be placing an applicant with a sex crime conviction in close proximity to other students, Schultz said. The school hasn't encountered and would likely not allow it, she said.
Questions about criminal history are not part of the St. Cloud Technical & Community College application process, according to administrators.
The school does find out about disciplinary actions from other institutions. And through its close relationship with the St. Cloud Police Department, it knows of entries on sexual offender lists.
Lori Kloos said SCTCC has dealt with the latter situation, though it's been infrequent.
The vice president for administration said the school works "very closely" with probation officers to determine restrictions. In every such case SCTCC has faced, Kloos said the students have not been able to attend the college because of proximity to restricted populations.
One concern is for Postsecondary Enrollment Options students, who tend to be minors, Kloos said. Students with criminal sexual offenses and those in the PSEO program usually don't fit together, she said.
Jon Eichten, vice president for student affairs, said the latest student survey results show people feel the campus is a safe place. And he's never heard someone express concerns over SCTCC's welcoming policies on students with criminal records.
As part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, St. Cloud State and SCTCC uses the same application as 29 other institutions.
Its sole mention of criminal history suggests people "investigate the impact" arrests, charges or convictions could have on financial aid and future employment.
Becky Bales Cramlet directs Community Corrections for Stearns County. On any given day, she helps oversee between 3,000 and 4,000 people on probation or supervised release.
The 19-year community corrections veteran advises clients to research career paths and hiring processes before entering college.
"Many types of jobs do prohibit certain criminal offenses," Bales Cramlet said. She gave examples of drug convictions barring certain medical occupations.
Bales Cramlet said chemical dependency programs, mental health counseling and other services at schools can be "very beneficial" to students with criminal records.
They "face a lot of different issues transitioning" out of corrections facilities and programs, she said.
J. Hancuch directs Community Corrections in Sherburne County. In his 35-year career in three counties, his departments have never hired someone with a felony on their record, Hancuch said. Once or twice people with minor offenses have joined his staff.
He said corrections professionals are becoming more sensitive to the idea of people changing their lives after making mistakes.
"It's just unfortunate there's significant collateral consequences that go along with it," he said.
Hard to move on
A half-dozen public agencies in Sherburne County created a brochure showing the potential effects of convictions on families, hunting privileges, employment, education and other subjects.
Hancuch said he directs clients to the National Inventory of the Collateral Consequences of Conviction. The interactive online tool allows people to view categories and types of consequences for certain offenses.
"In this day and age, it's pretty hard to move on and succeed," Hancuch said.
Ryan Fitzgerald has experienced such hurdles. The 29-year-old grew up in Rochester, switching high schools three times to play hockey. After his junior year, he dropped out and started night school.
Fitzgerald received felony convictions for two aggravated second-degree robberies when he was 19.
He attended Rochester Community and Technical College for two years, then went to St. Cloud State, graduating in spring 2014.
His criminal history prevented him from attending his first choice of college: the University of South Dakota.
"I could not live across state lines," Fitzgerald said.
He lived in Stateview Apartments during his first year in St. Cloud. But his drinking was "out of control." He was kicked out and had to find a new place to live.
"I got denied, I would say, at about 10 places, because of my felonies," Fitzgerald said.
He eventually found an off-campus apartment, and during his last year in St. Cloud, he lived in St. Cloud State's on-campus Recovery Community, which helped him stay sober. Fitzgerald said he was the first student from the program to graduate.
Anderson, the student who wants to be a counselor, lived in the Recovery Community from 2012-14. He also used the counseling center at St. Cloud State and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to overcome mental health struggles.
After years of working in the restaurant industry, Anderson now helps manage the Cricket Wireless store in Crossroads Center.
He doesn't feel hopeless, and he passes along that confidence to others in his situation.
"Don't let it deter you," Anderson said about criminal records in relation to school and employment.
"Just focus on your education," he said.
Daniel Rueckert directs the Recovery program. He said the biggest obstacle he sees for students with criminal records is finding careers that aren't prohibited by a conviction.
Rueckert said many Recovery clients, such as Anderson, want to be in social work fields. But a criminal record could prevent them from providing those services.
He said finding housing can be difficult, too, as Fitzgerald experienced.
Rueckert said adapting to new living environments can be stressful for students who come from prison. The Recovery program tries to calm those feelings and help them develop their own structure, he said.
At times, Fitzgerald asked himself why he was in college. With two felonies, he felt like he would never get a job.
But some professors and other supporters told him eventually, someone would give him a chance.
Fitzgerald received offers for two journalism jobs, pending a background check. They both came back negative.
"It's pretty tough to find a job in my field with my background," he said.
Fitzgerald works at an automotive detailing shop in the Twin Cities area and hopes by this time next year, he will have his felony convictions expunged.
He said higher education opened doors for him and helped him grow as a person. Fitzgerald said anyone with a similar past needs to stay determined.
"Eventually I will, I know I will get a job that doesn't feel like a job," he said.