Syrita Steib-Martin 060517

Syrita Steib-Martin, of Metairie, successfully pushed legislation to forbid colleges and universities from inquiring into the criminal past of most applicants. The Louisiana House gave the bill final approval on Thursday, June 6, 2017. 

Public colleges and universities can’t ask most applicants about their criminal past under legislation the Louisiana House gave final approval on Tuesday.

Though not part of the governor’s package to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system, House Bill 688 could have a sweeping impact on higher education in Louisiana.

Typically, college applicants are required to check a box indicating if they have a prior conviction. Often that revelation is used to reject the application.

The “ban the box” bill extends to higher education institutions the same prohibitions against asking applicants about past crimes that Louisiana legislators last year granted to those seeking employment with the state.

The House signed off on the final version with little discussion and voted 90-1 to send House Bill 688 to the governor.

Syrita Steib-Martin, a lab supervisor at Touro Infirmary in New Orleans, did the research that helped Democratic state Reps. Vincent Pierre, of Lafayette, and Ted James, of Baton Rouge, craft the legislation for Louisiana. She pointed the lawmakers to wording used in similar bills being considered in a half of dozen other states.

Based on her research, if Edwards signs the measure, Louisiana would be the first state to take questions about most crimes off college applications, she told The Advocate.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, last week vetoed similar legislation that, like in Louisiana, received overwhelming support from legislators of both parties in both chambers. “We should not encourage schools to turn a blind eye to a prospective student’s potentially violent criminal background,” Hogan wrote in his veto message.

HB688 would prohibit public postsecondary education institutions from asking prospective students about their criminal histories during the initial application process. There are exceptions for students seeking teacher certification or those convicted of stalking, cyberstalking, rape, or sexual battery. Also a handful of Louisiana higher ed programs that use a national common application don’t have to remove the question.

After a student is admitted, however, college administrators are allowed to question them about their pasts in order to inform decisions about housing, financial aid and the myriad of other details necessary for enrolling an accepted student.

But, Steib-Martin said, the key point is that applicants won’t be summarily rejected simply for checking the box – as she was.

A national survey showed that 66 percent of postsecondary institutions around the country collected criminal histories for all prospective students, the U.S. Department of Education reported in 2016. About 35 percent of the colleges and universities reported denying admission to applicants because of their criminal pasts.

But those are only the applicants who finish the forms.

The Education Department also referred to a study at the State University of New York that showed two-thirds of individuals with a felony criminal offense record stopped the application after being asked about criminal justice involvement.

Steib-Martin wasn’t among that number. After checking the box on her first application – and being rejected by the University of New Orleans – the next time around, Steib-Martin didn’t check the box and was admitted with a scholarship.

Same academic credentials, same application form, same identification number – the only difference was the she left off the check mark identifying her as a convicted felon, she said.

At the age of 19, Steib-Martin got involved with stealing cars. A dealership in Tyler, Texas caught some of the gang’s images on security cameras, so they tried to burn down the dealership in hopes of destroying the evidence. Steib-Martin was convicted and sentenced to the federal penitentiary.

She got out in 2009 after nine years in prison.

While in federal prison Steib-Martin began taking community college courses behind bars. She felt education was the key to her overcoming anger issues and putting her life back in order. She wanted to continue that track once she was released.

At UNO, Steib-Martin tutored other chemistry students, excelled in a heavy curriculum in math and science and won academic honors. She decided to confide in a professor about her criminal past and not checking the box on her UNO application.

“I was afraid, but I was tired of always hiding something that was such an essential part of my life. I couldn’t be myself,” she said.

Because of her record at UNO, the university allowed Steib-Martin to stay.

When she started considering her next step, Steib-Martin went to the LSU Health Science Center in New Orleans, explained her past and met with a panel who quizzed her.

After the examination, LSU admitted her.

Since graduating LSU, in addition to working at Touro, Steib-Martin has spoken about the need to “ban the box” on college applications at universities around the country and at the White House.

“Had I not been allowed to get an education, life wouldn’t have become better for me,” Steib-Martin said.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.