[ social justice ]
Last August, Rey Santiago was filled with hope as he began his new job, as a security guard at Olney Charter High School. Santiago, 41, performed so well that within months he learned he was in line for a promotion to a student-mentoring position.
Then, on Dec. 23, the Juniata resident and more than a dozen other employees of the Aspira of Pennsylvania-run charter school were called into a room. Each was given a letter, told to read it and then to leave. Marcelo Lopez, 53, a six-year Aspira security guard, was there, too. "The letter said, due to Act 24, Section 111, of the School Code, a new law that they passed, that I'm hereby terminated and I'm not allowed to work in educational entities," he recalls.
Santiago, Lopez and the other employees had something in common: They all had felony convictions, some dating back 30 years to when they were teenagers. All had served their time, Lopez insists; none had committed a crime against children. Neither Lopez nor Santiago had been implicated in a crime in the past two decades.
But a June amendment to the 1949 state law regulating public, private, parochial and vocational schools meant that all were ineligible to work in school settings. Previously, people convicted of felonies like aggravated assault and murder were prohibited from working in schools for five years; now, they're banned for life. People convicted of drug-related crimes are also subject to the ban, while lesser crimes now carry bans of five or 10 years for prospective employees.
"They've given us a life sentence," says Santiago, who adds that his only mistake was getting into the wrong car when he was a teenager. He served an 11-year stint and has been out of prison for a decade. "It's sad that there's a law that prevents people who are trying to start over and make a difference."
Since the law took effect last September, an unknown number of individuals across the state have been fired from jobs as security staff, custodians and bus drivers. Many others say they're just waiting for the other shoe to drop. The shock waves have also reached contractors like Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC), a West Kensington-based nonprofit that sends highly trained ex-offenders into schools to run workshops and mentoring programs.
It's estimated that one in five Philadelphians has some sort of criminal record. In communities where that ratio is far higher, the impact of Act 24 has already been significant.
"I'm working in a community that has a large percentage of folks who have had some sort of record," says Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, whose district runs through Kensington. "What has been concerning to me is the number of volunteer parents who have also now started to express a concern, because they have been asked to no longer come into school buildings if they have a record."
Sánchez and other Philadelphia legislators — who just last year enacted a "Ban the Box" law forbidding a criminal-record check before an initial job interview — are on the front lines of a raging war against recidivism, which is exacerbated when opportunities are denied to people with records.
But on the state level, it looks good to be tough on crime; standing up for ex-cons isn't a popular battle.
"We found out how many politicians don't want to be associated with any issue dealing with the previously incarcerated," says Bill McKinney, an anti-violence activist and chairman of the board at MIMIC.
In fact, some describe Act 24 as just the latest of several attempts, some successful, to prevent former convicts from working in nursing homes, in day-care settings and as security officers. Getting ex-offenders out of school posts had been a priority in Harrisburg for years, according to Janet Ginzberg, an employment attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia (CLS).
"Act 24 was a big shock to us," she says. "Somebody introduces this legislation every single year. It got to the point I have a position paper on my computer and would just change the bill number and send it in. This year, they got it in the back way: They attached it to the education omnibus bill and got it through before anyone even knew what happened."
That includes local lawmakers — though most Philly Dems, Sen. Anthony Williams excepted, gave the omnibus bill a "no" vote anyway. "Legislators don't always read carefully what's put in front of them," Ginzberg points out.
Some Philly-based state lawmakers, when contacted recently, still weren't aware of how the law is now playing out across their local districts.
The city, however, is keenly aware of how devastating the law could be, according to Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, who showed up at a recent meeting organized by MIMIC. "The School District of Philadelphia is taking a very slow response to this. They don't want to get rid of everyone with records," she said.
Some private and charter school providers are being more compliant. Lopez, the guard who lost his job with Aspira, says the company had long been aware of his conviction on a 20-year-old murder charge, but had been satisfied with his performance.
Now, despite his hard work, Lopez feels like he's paying for his crime all over again: "I feel that everywhere I go, it's going to continue to be held over my head. They say they don't discriminate, but there's ways of doing it."
Indeed, civil-rights advocates say lifetime bans like the one contained in Act 24 add up to unconstitutional discrimination, given that they disproportionately impact African-American and Latino males. The Pennsylvania State Education Association is bankrolling several court cases challenging the firing of ex-offenders from schools elsewhere in the state. And CLS is hoping to assemble its own legal challenge, bolstered by new policy guidelines released by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But that's no guarantee of justice. Seven years ago, CLS fought a similar lifetime ban on working in elder-care facilities and won — but today, because of the way the court's decision was rendered, the law is still on the books. Meanwhile, MIMIC and an interfaith coalition being organized by the Rev. Adan Mairena of West Kensington Ministry are beginning a lobbying effort. But that could be a long road, and the impact on local organizations has been immediate.
McKinney says the bottom fell out of several of MIMIC's contract negotiations right after the law passed, as schools concerned about their legal exposure decided not to risk it. The group's other school-based contracts "could be pulled at any moment." The organization is scrambling to assemble grant funding to replace school-contract fees and continue work at rec centers and for local nonprofits; McKinney says giving up on Philly's high-risk youth is not an option.
Elvis Rosado, a violence-prevention specialist with the local nonprofit CADEkids, feels the same way. After being released from prison on a drug conviction in 1992, he volunteered full-time for a year and a half at a nonprofit before landing his first job. Now, he's afraid his days helping kids turn their lives around could be numbered.
"I haven't gotten into anything in 20 years," he notes. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. But you might as well put an 'F' on my forehead for felon. The system looks at me and says, 'You're still worthless, man.'"
Worse, Rosado worries that laws like Act 24 will make it impossible for others to do what he did — to find work, and to turn their lives around.
"You get 20 doors that shut," he says, "and you get 20 offers to come back to the corner."