CUMBERLAND — After serving time in prison, a student at Allegany College of Maryland has run into a proverbial brick wall trying to get an education due to his past and information he provided on his admission application.
“Everyone should deserve the right to an education,” said Brian Shea, 42, who served 10 years and 9 months at the Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown.
Shea’s regrets are apparent when he talks about his criminal past and incarceration.
“I created that situation and I own that. I take full responsibility.”
But now Shea, who was released in the summer of 2011, wants a fresh start and a new life.
“There is the old Brian, and there is the new Brian,” he said.
But the challenges he faces trying to put his life back together are a constant reminder of his past.
Shea’s dilemma started when it was discovered by ACM officials that he answered “no” on his admission application to a question asking if he had a criminal conviction.
After completing 31 credit hours and achieving a grade-point average of 3.61, ACM, upon discovering Shea’s application ommission, ruled that he must leave the school when the semester ends in May.
The story goes deeper than the obvious offense: providing false information on an official document.
It poses a larger question: “Will colleges extend an education to convicted criminals in an effort to rehabilitate and ready them to become productive members of society?”
When asked to comment on Shea’s situation, Renee Connor, the vice president of student and legal affairs, said, “We are unable to discuss any specific student matter.”
Cynthia Bambara, ACM president, was asked the broader question: Does a convict have the right to an education?
“ACM assesses each individual who has a criminal background — evaluating many factors. If the college deems the individual applicant a risk to safety which cannot be managed with admissions conditions, the individual is denied admission.”
Shea, after a difficult upbringing, fell into a life of drug addiction and crime. He sat down with the Times-News for an interview and told his story.
He said that an exposure to narcotic pain medication following an auto accident led to deeper drug use and eventually heroin addiction.
Shea’s dream is to become a substance abuse counselor.
He discussed his childhood in rural Illinois.
“I was the product of an affair. My mother was a compulsive gambler and alcoholic,” said Shea.
He remembers watching his mother pulling the arm of the slot machine time after time as a 5 year-old dragged along to gambling houses.
“It was almost like she was hypnotized,” said Shea.
Shea said his mother took him along because she feared him being taken by another family member.
“I had an awful childhood,” said Shea.
His early life, he said, included being sexually abused by an extended family member and witnessing a suicide attempt by his mother.
Shea is not as much upset with ACM’s decision to discipline him, but takes issue with the severity of the dismissal ruling.
After presenting about 20 character reference letters supporting him, Shea’s dismissal was upheld after an appeal hearing. That is the end of Shea’s education at ACM.
He will have 40 credit hours when he finishes in May.
“My record is clean. I have not been in trouble at all,” said Shea about his time at ACM and his life following prison.
“Everyone deserves a chance. Everyone should have the right to an education,” he said.
However, ACM has a different perspective.
In a communication supplied by Shea, ACM stated that had they known of his criminal background, he “would not have been admitted.”
Therefore, the false information he supplied on the application was not the only reason or the full picture.
Shea’s criminal record is not short. His charges include thefts, forgery and uttering bad checks, credit card fraud, robberies and assaults.
When asked if ACM is committed to extending education to those who have paid their debt to society, Bambara replied: “ACM is committed to education pursuant to our mission. We are also committed to promoting a safe learning environment for all the students, employees and community members who are on our campuses every day.”
During his hearings, Shea apologized and accepted responsibility, and was commended for his cooperation by ACM.
Shea is only allowed on the ACM campus to attend his final classes.
He said the main reason behind his desire to speak to the media is to open a dialogue so maybe the next person who comes along will not have the same problems.
“It goes beyond me. It’s for those who will come after me who try to get an education,” he said.
“It’s about the right to an education.”
Shea was asked why he said he had no criminal past on the ACM application.
“It wasn’t intentional. I said “yes” on an application to Frostburg State that I filled out around the same time. I screwed up. I didn’t pay attention,” he said.
Shea currently has an application pending to attend Frostburg State University, where he hopes to continue his dream of becoming a counselor.
This time, he said “yes” to the question about having a criminal past.
“We don’t have a closed door policy that if you check “yes” you can’t come (to FSU),” said Jesse Ketterman, dean of student affairs, concerning Frostburg’s commitment to extending an education to convicts. “But, we do reserve the right to request additional information in making a determination.”
Ketterman said he typically makes decisions on eligibility for individuals with past transgressions; however, more complicated cases are reviewed by a committee.
He was asked if convicts have the right to an education.
“Absolutely, they do. We need to figure out if there is something about a person’s past that could put other students at danger,” said Ketterman.
Shea’s case is currently being reviewed.
Sober for 12 years, Shea says he is attending church regularly.
“Receiving my associate’s degree at ACM would have been a new page for me. It’s set me back a bit. If FSU doesn’t accept me, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Shea.
Shea was asked what he wished people knew about him.
“People can change, very simply put. You can only see what my past was on paper. I had to live that. Prison saved my life. Now I want to be part of the solution and not the problem.”
Greg Larry can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.