City Councilmen Urge Public Forum to Discuss Background Check Policies

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Terminated Student Ambassador Offered Job Again, She Declined

By Bronson Peshlakai and Portia Booker

Cuyahoga Community College officials are now backpedaling on a background check/drug screen policy, after heightened awareness of the policy was published by the Tri-C student newspaper The Voice, and two Plain Dealer articles.

The Voice first reported of Tri-C Metro student Maria Graciani, a former student ambassador, on losing her job in July, after working a year. A new background check policy for student workers revealed to college officials that she had a felonious assault conviction on her record from 16 years ago.

Within five days of The Voice publication on Oct. 1, the Plain Dealer ran a follow-up article of Graciani’s story, and Tri-C’s decision to rethink the policy in its Oct. 6th and 9th newspaper.

On Oct. 8, Christine Jindra, a Tri-C spokesperson, said Tri-C officials had discussed the blanket-wide background check mandate for all student employees, including federal-work study participants, and said they are now reviewing the merits of the policy.

Seal of the Cleveland City Council. Image courtesy of City of Cleveland
News of Graciani’s plight of being terminated while being a model student, and documented good worker as a student ambassador, triggered outrage with Cleveland City councilmen Zack Reed (Ward 2), and Jeffrey Johnson (Ward 8).

Johnson said he was disappointed and upset at what Graciani and countless other students had to endure while trying to make a better life, or even having a chance to get out of poverty through job training and education.

“I don’t know how many people have been impacted by this archaic, stereotypical policy that still exists,” Johnson said. “Until they change it, we’re going to keep an eye on it.”

Johnson and Reed have pledged to try to bring not just Tri-C college officials to a public dialogue, but other academic institutions in the region to see what policies exist in the hiring of employees.

“We want to have a broader conversation about what are the policies in place from our public institutions that relates to these people who have made mistakes in the past,” Reed said.

Both councilmen where prepared to send a joint letter expressing their disapproval of Tri-C’s policy to College President Jerry Sue Thornton, but stopped short when Tri-C announced it was reconsidering the policy.

But, while the college thinks over the policy, both councilmen have already talked with Councilman Matthew Zone (Ward 15), who is the chair of the Employment, Affirmative Action and Training Committee, about a public forum, and they said that Zone likes the idea.

Meanwhile, since a Sept. 28 Freedom of Information Act request to Tri-C human resources officials to produce the internal document titled “background check decision matrix,” the college’s legal counsel sent the background matrix to The Voice. However, the matrix carried a notation that it was a revised document as of “10/12.”

The revised document shows several types of criminal offenses, whether a felony or misdemeanor, and “time frame since completion of sentence/probation.” In an interview with a Voice reporter, Cris Board, executive director of human resource operation and employee services said, “Depending on the position there are seven different levels of background checks we use,” and that the results are compared to a matrix that determines whether the applicant is eligible, or not, for the position.

The revised matrix is unclear on who can get a job, or not. It has a column titled “review action,” which has the same language for just about all types of criminal offenses listed, such as murder, sexual assault, falsification and suspended license, just to name a few.

Nothing in the document states a job prospect would be automatically disqualified if they were convicted of any of the listed crimes.

The review actions state in part that the college should “Consider essential job requirements and actual circumstances under which the job will be performed.” The matrix further states that the college should take factors such as pattern of conduct, work history, evidence of rehabilitation after conviction, and “other factors that may be relevant” into consideration.

While it may suggest the revised matrix will take all job applicants’ criminal history into a case-by-case basis, it clearly doesn’t reveal how job prospects were judged prior to the matrix revision.

Calls to Board, the HR official, and to college spokespeople to explain the revised matrix, and to request previous versions, went unanswered before The Voice’s print deadline Oct. 10.

After being terminated nearly three months ago, and the prospect of a policy debate about hiring practices at academic institutions on the horizon, Graciani feels elated that her voice has now been heard.

“I feel happy. I’m very proud of myself for taking a stand against whomever,” Graciani said.

She continues to give credit to Tri-C’s student newspaper for giving her the voice to speak out despite all that occurred.

“I took the initiative to stand up and speak for all of us (with criminal histories),” she said.

Jindra said the college offered the student ambassador position back to Graciani. In a follow-up Plain Dealer article announcing Tri-C’s reconsideration of the background policy, Graciani announced she would not accept the position. She would not comment to The Voice on why she declined the position, but did mention she received an apology from Michael Schoop, Tri-C Metropolitan Campus president.

As a young girl, Graciani said she learned to speak with her heart.

“No matter how long it takes a person to listen, always speak, somebody out there will listen sooner or later, and that’s what I feel happened in my case when The Voice told my story,” she said.

Expect continuing coverage from The Voice online as details emerge regarding the college’s reconsideration of the background check/drug screen policy — all available her at CCCVOICE.COM.

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