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Group protests new Pa. law on schools and criminal backgrounds

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Rey Santiago, a former member of the safety and security team at ASPIRA Olney Charter High School, said that he was fired from the school last winter for something he did 23 years ago.

Now he and fellow members of Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC), a community-based organization that mentors young African American and Latino males, are rallying against the state law that they say is unfairly putting school employees and outside contractors like themselves who have criminal records out of work.

The law is called Act 24. Enacted last September, this amendment to the state school code permanently bars any person convicted of most felonies, including those that are drug-related, from working in both private and public schools. It also requires new background checks for current employees to certify that they’ve never been arrested or convicted of certain crimes.

All school employees in Pennsylvania had to return an updated background check form to school administrators by December 27, 2011. After that submission, Santiago said, he was dismissed.

MIMIC members worry that Act 24 will not only cost them their jobs, but also their organization.

MIMIC strives to create social bonds for high-risk youth, young adults, and previously incarcerated men in Kensington and Fairhill. It also provides mentoring, community engagement, and educational programs for District students. But Act 24 has made it difficult for MIMIC to operate because many members have criminal records.

"This impacted some of the contracts and potential contracts that MIMIC has within schools, and it is denying service that is needed to some young people," said Bill McKinney, MIMIC’s board chair.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia is exploring a challenge to the law as unconstitutional. They are in talks with employees who have been affected, including MIMIC member Santiago, who could possibly join the case as plaintiffs.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania School Employees Association are also considering a challenge to the legality of Act 24.

McKinney is looking for more people to take the initiative.

"When something new like Act 24 hits, there is a lot of discussion but sometimes it is difficult for people to move it to the top of their priority list," he said. "But I will be disappointed if people do not support efforts like ours once given the opportunity."

On April 18 at 6 p.m., MIMIC members will host a forum at West Kensington Ministry at Norris Square, inviting community members to discuss how Act 24 is impacting their lives.

"We need somebody to step up," said McKinney, "and not just vote against it, but write the next piece of legislation to eliminate this."

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