The U.S. Department of Education has agreed to release a demographic breakdown of the 200,000 students denied federal aid due to drug convictions, settling a lawsuit filed last month by the advocacy group Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.
“This is a huge victory,” said Tom Angell, SSDP’s campaigns director. “We’re very excited.”
The settlement is the latest development in the group’s campaign to rescind a law that prevents students with drug convictions from receiving federal aid.
Under a 1998 provision of the Higher Education Act, students who have been convicted for the illegal sale or possession of drugs under state or federal law can be declared ineligible to receive student financial aid, according to the government’s federal student aid Web site.
About one year ago, Students for a Sensible Drug Policy requested under the Freedom of Information Act that the Department of Education release a “state-by-state breakdown” of students denied aid, according to a statement by SSDP Executive Director Kris Krane.
The Department of Education initially asked SSDP to pay $4000 for the information, but the federal agency agreed to waive the fee when the student group threatened to challenge it in court.
The Department of Education declined to comment on the settlement.
“The government thought they could intimidate us . they had no other choice but to give (us the information),” Angell said.
But another lawsuit remains to be decided that challenges the constitutionality of the drug conviction amendment to the Higher Education Act.
The amendment, altered in January of this year, applies only to students who were convicted while receiving federal aid.
The undecided lawsuit, filed in February by SSDP and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the drug provision “interferes with the objectives of drug treatment, drug prevention, and criminal rehabilitation by denying a higher education – and its attendant economic benefits – to those convicted of drug offenses.”
The lawsuit cites three examples of upstanding college students denied federal aid because of their drug convictions, declares the law to be unconstitutional for violating the Constitution’s “double jeopardy” and “due process” clauses, and asks that the Department of Education cease denying federal aid to these students.
Leaders of SSDP said that they plan to use the demographic information on student drug violators denied aid, which the government said it will release before the end of March, to argue for repealing the Higher Education Act’s drug provision.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and 69 co-sponsors recently introduced a bill in Congress that would rescind the drug provision.
“After we have received the information from the Department of Education we’re going to have to go to Congress to show them how much this law affects their own constituents,” Angell said. “The government is on notice now that students won’t allow them to cover [this] up.”