Creeps on campus

Do bad guys have a right to higher education?


Dawn McKeen
October 9, 1998 11:56PM (UTC)

One evening last month a wholesome-looking college student with long, straight hair took the floor of the UC-Berkeley Student Senate and began speaking as if she were delivering a sixth-grade book report. She had been researching one of her fellow students, David Cash, for two whole weeks, and it was finally time to present the facts to the student senate and answer any questions posed to her. Her descriptions were, at times, speculative, recounted as if she were both an eyewitness to the events in question and inside Cash's mind during the crime. She even subtly mimed a scene from Cash's grand jury testimony -- of him peering over a toilet stall to see what his friend Jeremy Strohmeyer was doing with the little girl he had just dragged in there.

The senators had requested the Student Advocate Office employee to research this information because they wanted to be well-informed about the decision they were about to make: whether David Cash was morally fit to walk among them as a fellow student. After all, he had witnessed his best friend kidnap a 7-year-old girl named Sherrice Iverson and hadn't done anything to stop it. He also hadn't reported it. The little girl was later found strangled in the bathroom of a Nevada casino. Her neck had been snapped and she'd been molested. Did they really want "someone like that" in their dorms, in their classes or late at night on the university walkways that wind through dark groves of eucalyptus trees?

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Cash broke no law, except the moral law that commands us to help others. Neither in Nevada, where the slaying occurred, nor in California, where Cash lives, is it illegal not to report a crime. Cash claimed he walked out of the bathroom before the molestation and murder took place, but even if he had witnessed the murder, he still couldn't be charged. The case has inspired Nevada politicians to introduce a "good Samaritan law," which would require witnesses to report crimes inflicted on children. Congressmen have proposed bills that would bar states from receiving federal child abuse prevention funds unless they pass similar laws. But even if these bills are passed, they would not be retroactive. Legally, Cash is untouchable.

But there are ways to punish beyond the law, and his critics aimed at Cash's education -- the first step along the path to the American Dream. They wanted to deny Cash his dreams, just as Sherrice's -- who would never grow up to be the nurse, policewoman or dancer she hoped to be -- were denied.

"I think it sends out the wrong message to young children, that someone watched a little girl being raped and murdered and they are rewarded with a college education," said Najee Ali, who as spokesman for Sherrice's family has been spearheading the fight to throw Cash off campus. "Everyone's afraid of standing up for what's morally right. From President Clinton on down to David Cash, people are afraid to hold people morally responsible."

The contentious meeting lasted until almost midnight as the student senators debated the pros and cons of liberty, the meaning of education and Cash's character. There was no realistic chance that their decision would have any concrete effect, but the debate was no less heated for that.

If Cash had come forward and expressed his remorse about what he didn't do -- turn in his friend -- probably none of this would have happened. It took about a year for public resentment to boil to the surface, a year for Ali and others in Los Angeles, where Sherrice lived, to collect enough signatures to call for the good Samaritan law, to help organize a protest on the Berkeley campus, where critics traveled by the busload to voice their discontent that Cash had gotten away with -- if not murder, then something almost as egregious. "It would be much different if he expressed remorse," said Ali. "But because of his arrogant and cocky attitude, he really opened up this Pandora's box himself."

Without question, Cash was his own worst enemy. In a slew of media interviews, he was quoted as saying that he was going to profit from the killing by selling the movie rights and, incredibly, that his notoriety was helping him pick up girls, he has since denied both statements. During the Berkeley meeting, an interview on a Los Angeles radio station, KLSX, was played aloud: "I have a lot of remorse toward the Iverson family, it's very difficult, they lost a loved one and it's a tough thing, an innocent bystander lost her life, a very tragic event. But the simple fact remains that I do not know this little girl -- I don't know dark children in Panama, I do not know people that die of disease in Egypt. The only person I knew in this event was Jeremy Strohmeyer ... and I'm sad because I lost a best friend." (Strohmeyer has since pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence without parole.) Cash's recent appearance on "60 Minutes" didn't help. When asked if he would do anything differently, he said no.

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Some of the Berkeley speakers that night took the issue one step further, asking what should be done about actual criminals on campus. (University of California applications do not ask if the applicant has a criminal background; according to one university spokesman, in all probability there are felons on campus.) Should those students be expelled as well? "I have no problem with setting a precedent that would get rid of rapists and murderers on campus," said Arian White, the senator who wrote the bill seeking to "condemn" Cash and ask for his "voluntary withdrawal" from campus.

Ironically, Cash's most implacable critic, Najee Ali, himself has a criminal past. The man calling for Cash's expulsion and demanding "moral responsibility" is a former member of the notorious Crips gang who was convicted of armed robbery in 1988 and spent two years at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi. After his release Ali took classes at Los Angeles Community College, earning a certificate in AIDS training. It was there, he said, that he learned the lessons that helped him to turn his life around. "Before I went to college, my only interaction was with people from the inner city," he says. "I never talked to white people or Jews. But being on a college campus, I was forced to speak with people of different nationalities and understand what I went through. I definitely think that [ex-convicts] belong on campus if they have been punished for their crimes. I don't care what type of crime it is, you have a right to compete for an education to better yourself."

But what about Cash, who didn't even commit a crime? For Ali, the issue is remorse: He has it and Cash doesn't.

But judging a person's remorse, and making it a requirement for admission to college, is a slippery slope. If university students become moral arbiters of who is sorry and who is not, on what criteria will they base their decisions? Shifting the burden of dispensing punishment beyond the walls of the courthouse to the grounds of a campus may do more harm than good. Doesn't disqualifying someone because of his or her criminal or moral history contradict the highest educational and ethical ideals? Isn't education supposed to raise up even the most benighted souls?

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"In an academic environment, it's easy for students to reach half-baked conclusions about what's acceptable and what is not," says Mark Coonan, a graduate student at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. "The nature of many college students is a combination of theoretical ability and practical inexperience. I don't just mean inexperience in a given trait -- inexperience at life, inexperience at making informed judgments about life. And crime is a reality of life that, in most circumstances, college students have been protected from."

Coonan should know. At 23, in an "amphetamine-induced psychosis," he shot and killed another man his age with a handgun, mistakenly assuming the man had set him up for a drug bust. After being convicted of first-degree murder and possession with intent to deliver heroin, he spent 15 years at Indiana Reformatory at Pendleton, half an hour down the road from Muncie. It was there, behind the prison walls, that Coonan became a student at Ball State through a state-funded program in which the incarcerated can work on an associate or bachelor's degree in liberal arts. There are currently 426 full-time students enrolled in the program at four different prisons across the state, with 30 or 40 graduating with associate degrees each year and 10 to 15 completing their bachelor's. Those who do not complete their studies while incarcerated can finish it on Ball State's campus, although only a small number do so. At Ball State, no crime is too heinous for admission. Rapists, murderers and robbers walk the campus, cram for exams, eat at the dining commons and graduate with caps and gowns. There are no separate classes for them or special "ethics" requirements, and with the exception of dorms, where they are not allowed to live, ex-cons simply become a part of student life. While the administration knows the ex-cons from the others, students don't, and there is no sure way of telling. Other schools in the state with similar programs include Purdue, Indiana State and Grace College.

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"Many of the inmates have committed real evil, but I still think that they should have the opportunity to have a second chance, to change themselves," says Jim MacDougall, director of Ball State's correctional education and a professor of English. "I don't like to stigmatize them publicly, to say the guy sitting next to you committed armed robbery, because as soon as you say that, people either get frightened or they say, 'Oh, neat,' and run off and say, 'I know someone who has committed armed robbery.' In either case, it makes it difficult for someone who in all probability isn't thinking about knocking them on the head."

Jim Danglade, associate dean of the School of Continuing Education, admits that Ball State's program has had a couple of "screw-ups," including a sexual assault on a woman. But based on anecdotal evidence, he's concluded that the rate of recidivism is lower among those who pursue some type of education, whether it's adult basic education, GED or post-secondary. The more education the person has, he contends, the lower the likelihood of recidivism.

Coonan says reentering society is difficult enough as it is. He thought -- somewhat naively, he now realizes -- that society would be more forgiving than it was. But many employers wouldn't hire him. "How do you explain an enormous gap on a résumé? My working life started at 40 -- it's difficult to explain without being honest. I had people look down their nose a bit, and exclude me on the face of things." At least he could put his Ball State degree on his résumé, he says. At 46, with one daughter and two stepchildren, he now works as a counselor for incarcerated juveniles.

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In 1995, Harvard University officials discovered that Gina Grant, then a 19-year-old Boston resident and incoming freshman, had clubbed her alcoholic mom to death with a lead crystal candlestick and then shoved a knife in her throat to make it look like a suicide. At 14 she had been convicted of manslaughter and served six months in prison, well before her juvenile records were sealed on her 18th birthday. As with Cash at UC-Berkeley, the Grant discovery unleashed a firestorm of protest, ethics-wrangling and moral browbeating. Unlike Berkeley, which is prohibited by law from asking about applicants' criminal backgrounds, Harvard and other private universities include such a question and consider the answers in determining the applicants' suitability for admission. Since Grant reportedly didn't check the criminal box, Harvard unknowingly accepted a killer to its Cambridge campus.

Soon after the protests, Harvard rescinded Grant's admission. Officials declined to comment specifically to Salon about the case but issued a vague statement that all but admitted the reason. "Rescission of an admission offer occurs from time to time, and may be based on one or more of the following conditions," the statement reads. Among those cited include "if a student engages in behavior that brings into question honesty, maturity or moral character." Columbia also rejected Grant after her criminal history came out, but Tufts chose to give her a second chance. A Tufts spokeswoman confirmed that Grant, now a senior, is still there.

Questions about an applicant's criminal history normally only appear on applications for private schools, but that soon may change. The University of Michigan is now considering adding such a question after discovering that Daniel Granger, an incoming freshman, had been charged with statutory rape in a case involving three 14-year-old girls. When a picture of Granger exposing his genitals appeared in his high school yearbook, the girls came forward to say that he and four of his friends had had sex with them. Since the legal age of consent in Michigan is 16, he was charged with statutory rape. He has since plea-bargained the usual felony charge down to a misdemeanor, which carries a 90- to 180-day sentence in a detention center. The 18-year-old should be out in time for the start of the university's winter term and wants to go to college. The university says it will review his application again and make its decision then.

"The welfare of the students was our primary concern," says Joel Seguine, the school's information officer. "The university was concerned with allowing someone with a criminal background, but also someone who was involved in an alleged crime that had to do with sexual behavior. There's no cut-and-dry written policy on something like this."

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Universities have always considered applicants' character in making their admission decisions, and officials say a criminal background is a reflection of that. Question No. 5 at the University of Chicago asks whether a person has been placed on probation or convicted in a court of law. That question helps Ted O'Neil, the dean of admissions, determine if an applicant poses a risk to the campus community. He says if a person answers yes, he would look at whether the person feels remorse about his or her actions. O'Neil says he's never had to rule on an applicant with a serious criminal record. But he muses, "Why would you even take a chance [with an ex-con]? There are so many good candidates with unblemished records. And how much are you willing to affect a communal life in a negative way in order to be generous or understanding or forgiving of a person? We are responsible for the welfare of the community."

On the night of the UC senate meeting, the students voted narrowly to condemn David Cash -- 10-9, with two abstaining. Student body President Irami Osei-Frimpong vetoed the measure and the senate voted again, not coming up with enough votes to override the veto. But bill author Arian White is pressing on. He plans to write Cash a letter himself and have others sign it. "When residents of a community know there's a rapist or a murderer in the community or someone we object to, we have the right to object to his presence," White says.

The Cash case, and the larger controversy over whether criminals and morally objectionable students deserve a college education, raises important issues about the place of higher education in our society. Should we trample on a few people's chances to get an education because of the risk they might pose? Is a university a privileged haven from society's chaos -- or the symbolic upholder of our highest societal values? And just what are our highest values -- forgiveness and equality of opportunity, or adherence to a strict moral code? For these questions, there are few answers.


Dawn McKeen

MORE FROM Dawn McKeen

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