Banning the Box at School and at Work 

Last weekend, a group of determined NYU undergrads staged a 30-hour occupation of NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life. The students, members of the Incarceration to Education Coalition (IEC), presented a simple demand: Ban the Box!

Like many universities, NYU still asks applicants questions about their criminal and educational disciplinary histories. Literally, such questions appear next to a box on the screen: “check if applicable.” But “The Box” is also a metaphor for an extension of cell walls. Applicants with criminal histories are immediately marked by their convictions and confined to the “rejection” pile. Opportunities for advancements are bounded by the past.

The Box, of course, is not merely a feature of college applications. It also regularly appears on employment applications. In its 2012 Enforcement Guidance on the subject, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission noted, “In one survey, a total of 92% of responding employers stated that they subjected all or some of their job candidates to criminal background checks.”     

But things are beginning to change. In the past few years, more than 100 municipalities have passed legislation limiting employers’ ability to ask about applicant’ criminal histories, including New York City

Colleges and universities have begun to explore similar measures. In fact, early this academic year, NYU made it University policy to do an initial box-blind read of all undergraduate applications, while retaining the right to consider criminal backgrounds on a second round review. Although the IEC has criticized the University’s incrementalism, they are clearly pushing the pendulum towards justice.

For now, The Box remains a prominent feature of many college and job applications. Yet, thanks to efforts of the IEC and its allies, that soon may change.

David Tracey

David Tracey works primarily on cases involving discrimination, wage and hour violations, employee benefits, and civil rights in the N.Y. office of Sanford Heisler, LLP.  Before becoming a lawyer, David worked as a community organizer around issues of tenants’ rights, environmental health, and gun control. He prides himself on his Bob Dylan impressions that allow him to dominate the karaoke scene.   

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