ACLU of Alaska Appeals State University's Refusal to Admit Ex-Felon to Social Work Program

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
July 1, 2005 12:00 am

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Teachers Support Application of Student Who Turned His Life Around

ANCHORAGE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska today filed an appeal on behalf of Micheal Purcell, a University of Alaska-Anchorage student and former prisoner who was denied entry into the social work program due solely to his past criminal convictions. ACLU of Alaska attorneys say the school’s denial of entry to a model student constitutes a violation of Purcell’s right to rehabilitation under the Alaska Constitution.

“Micheal Purcell’s situation is unfair because of the effort he’s made to turn his life around — but it’s emblematic of the problems all current and former prisoners face in Alaska,” said Jason Brandeis, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Alaska.

Students must apply for and be admitted to the Bachelor of Social Work degree program. Admission is based on successful completion of course requirements and the professional judgment of the faculty. The professional judgement standard includes consideration of whether an applicant is fit for social work practice – and calls for the admissions committee to apply the standard for felons used by the state licensing board. The felony standard gives discretion to the admissions committee to deny an applicant based on an evaluation of the number and recency of convictions and their relation to social work practice.

Purcell, a 37-year-old student, has attended the University of Alaska at Anchorage since he was released from prison on furlough in 2002. He received good grades and served as President of the University’s Social Work Club. Purcell applied to the Social Work program in the fall of 2004. His application was denied in December based on the school’s felony standard. On appeal to the school’s Review Committee, Purcell was denied again, but the committee recommended a policy change that would mandate consideration of mitigating factors in applying the standard. The committee also praised Purcell’s academic and personal accomplishments in the months and years following his release from prison and suggested they would have decided differently under a fairer policy. In the final appeal prior to the current action, the Dean of the School of Social Work also denied Purcell’s admission to the program.

“The school says it applies the same standards that the state licensing board applies — but the school doesn’t even consult with that board to find out how the board might decide. In effect the school is substituting its decision for a licensing board decision — and effectively barring that licensing board from ever having a say about whether Michael can practice social work” said Brandeis. He also noted that many social work jobs do not even require licensure and questioned whether such an evaluation by the degree program is even appropriate.

Today’s filing was a notice of appeal of the school’s final decision issued by the Dean of the School of Social Work. The notice says the school acted arbitrarily in rejecting Purcell’s application for admission to the social work program. It also asserts constitutional claims for violation of the right to rehabilitation, right to equal protection, and the right to due process. Typically there is no trial in such appeals of administrative decisions and the matter is not likely to be argued until late 2005.

“The broader issue is the school’s failure to recognize the constitutional right to rehabilitation guaranteed to prisoners under the Alaska Constitution,” Brandeis said. “We have such a right in Alaska because everyone benefits when prisoners are given the tools to succeed upon release. As things stand, former prisoners face more and more barriers to successful re-entry — problems with housing, problems with jobs, restrictions on voting and student loans, and — as in this case — problems in getting the kind of education they want.”

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