Sunday, March 11, 2001

Teen presses case against drug rule

Bill would end student aid revocations

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A Fairfield teen's drug conviction and, later, his quest for financial aid now involve U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.

        The Massachusetts Democrat recently introduced legislation that would repeal a 1998 provision in the Higher Education Act that made people convicted of drug crimes ineligible for college financial aid.

        Russell Selkirk, a 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio State University, is among 8,000 students nationwide who lost financial aid this year because of the provision.

        Mr. Selkirk admitted on last year's financial aid appli cation that he had been convicted of two misdemeanor drug crimes. Later, he learned his honesty caused his application to be denied.

        “It was ridiculous that I was, in essence, paying consequences for the same crime twice,” he said.

        “That financial aid would have greatly helped. It probably would have taken a lot of weight off my shoulders and my parents' shoulders,” said Mr. Selkirk, who works up to 30 hours a week in a grocery store while attending college full time.

        The 1998 provision took effect in July. It specifies that those convicted of their first drug offense cannot receive aid for a year. The second offense means two years' ineligibility, and a third offense leaves a college student forever ineligible.

        Mr. Frank's proposed repeal already has garnered support from politicians, civil rights groups and student government associations, said Peter Kovar, Mr. Frank's spokesman.

        They are saying the measure unfairly punishes only one kind of criminal and it harms students' chances for turning their lives around.

        “We're singling out drug crimes here,” Mr. Kovar said.

        “You can be a murderer, but you don't lose your aid. It's unfair in that sense.”

        The repeal also hits low- and moderate-income families hardest because wealthy parents are better able to afford the cost of fighting their children's drug charges and of sending them to school, he said.

        While a college freshman, Mr. Selkirk was caught smoking marijuana in the parking lot of a bar. He pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of drug abuse and possession of drug paraphernalia.

        He was sentenced to 20 hours of community service, his license was revoked and he was ordered to pay $250 in court costs and fines.

        Now he is treasurer of For a Better Ohio, an OSU group that aims to reform federal drug laws and has fought for the legalization of marijuana.

        “I do believe it's wrong to penalize someone's educational opportunities for their previous transgressions. I don't think that's right,” said Mr. Selkirk's father, Douglas, a General Electric supervisor.

        Mr. Selkirk's parents took out a loan to pay for his sophomore year at OSU. They say they are staunch Republicans — they disagree with their son's stance on legalizing marijuana — but they are proud of his position on the 1998 education provision.

        “He's sticking up for something he believes in. I'm proud of him for that,” Mr. Selkirk's father said.


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