Student Ambassador Fired For Criminal Record Dating Back 16 Years Ago
WINNER — 2013 Ohio Excellence in Journalism, 2nd Place, Best Print News Story, Two-year College Category
By Bronson Peshlakai and Portia Booker
A harsh reality could be in store for students with a criminal mark when they seek an on-campus job.
In January, Cuyahoga Community College implemented a new policy mandating all students seeking work-study, student employment, and some volunteer positions, to submit to a background check and drug screen when offered the job.
“This includes all students who are employed by the college,” said Cris Board, executive director of human resource operation and employee services. “Depending on the position there are seven different levels of background checks we use.”
Sophomore Maria Graciani started school at the Metropolitan Campus in Summer 2010. Her success as a student in her 30s was apparent and she was asked to become a student ambassador.
For the year, Graciani helped new students find their way around campus, assisted administrators with programs, and spoke at new student orientations as a student ambassador.
In July, when she was applying to become an ambassador for the current school year, Graciani had to submit to a background check and drug test. The past came back to haunt her when her background check revealed to college officials she was once charged with a felony.
“My supervisor called me and said human resources is implementing this new rule and I happened to fail the background check,” Graciani said. “I wouldn’t be allowed to be a student ambassador any more. It was hard for me to pack up my (school-issued) shirts and leave.”
The past that made a reappearance was a felonious assault which Graciani was charged, and pleaded guilty to, more than 16 years ago. Now a life lesson, trouble happened when a group of friends hanging out at The Flats got in a scuffle. In the end, a girl suffered injuries from being hit by a bottle, and the accusatory finger was pointing to Graciani.
“One of the girls had a bottle in her hand, and she hit the other girl in the face with it,” she said. “At that time we all had on the same black shirt and wild hair styles. They ended up pulling me out of the back seat of the car, and the victim said, ‘yes, that’s her.’”
Graciani was subsequently charged with aggravated assault.
“I know in my heart that it wasn’t me. But, there was nothing I could do,” she said.
In 1996, at the advice of her court-appointed attorney on the best thing to do in her situation, she reversed a not-guilty plea to guilty. The court sentenced her to a two-year suspended sentenced at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, two years probation, restitution to the victim, obtain her G.E.D., random urinalysis and court costs.
After successfully paying all her court-mandated financial obligations and keeping clean, Graciani was released from probation early, and moved onto a new chapter in her life.
She held stable employment working as a receptionist for a title agency, a banquet server at Windows on the River, and held positions at Medical Mutual of Ohio and Pepsi Cola in the years leading up to making the decision to get a college education.
After starting Tri-C in 2010, Graciani is working toward an urban studies and public administration degree.
At Tri-C, “where futures begin,” education is the main goal in arming students with the job skills, and knowledge to move into the workforce. However, students who may have made mistakes in the past, and interested in applying those job skills at the college level before moving into the workplace, could stand impeded by a new barrier.
Stressing the need for Tri-C to maintain a secure environment for its students, and faculty and staff, and to be proactive from negligent hiring practices, a new background check and drug screen policy was drafted and presented to the Board of Trustees for review. Tri-C’s policy making body consented to it in July 2011, and the policy was in place Jan. 1, 2012.
The background check is performed through a vendor called True Screen, an applicant-screening company. Depending on the position, details on an applicant’s criminal history, such as type of crime and how long ago it happened, and disposition of the sentence, a report is generated and sent to human resource officials at Tri-C.
Board said the results are compared to a matrix that determines whether the applicant is eligible or not for the position.
“Every applicant is reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” Board said.
The matrix used to determine an applicant’s eligibility was considered an internal document by Board, and was not provided for review upon request.
For Graciani, who maintains a GPA around 3.0, continues her education, and realizes skeletons in closets can make appearances despite how long ago mistakes happen. As a student preparing for a new profession, she said it was like a slap in the face when she learned of her dismissal as student ambassador.
“I didn’t want to come back. I felt embarassed,” Graciani said. “I was mad, real, real mad. I was so frustrated with Tri-C because they had just closed the door on me. But then I said, ‘no. This is me.’ I’m going to go back to school and I’m going to continue to do what I need to do. Because, when one door closes, another should open. That’s what I truly believe.”
Graciani holds no animosity to Tri-C or its administrators. She continues to work toward her educational goals. Students still recognize her as a former student ambassador, and often come up to her asking directions or help finding something on campus, and she still helps them in any way she can.
Keeping quiet about her past is no longer a priority, now it’s the opposite. With many other organizations in this age now requiring background checks and drug screenings, people with tarnished records, no matter how long ago it happened, stand to be scrutinized.
“I want to make sure to try my hardest to get all those quiet voices (of ex-offenders) heard. I want to let those people know to stand up with me. We did our time,” Graciani said. “I urge anyone that is walking the shoes I walked, to come on. Come join me and get help. We can do this.”
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