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Students’ classwork culminates in a General Assembly bill

Tidewater Community College students in U.S. Government I took learning to a whole new level during Summer Session 2014.

They participated in an innovative class project to develop legislation to help those accused, but not convicted, of crimes, get the mark off of their records, without paying fees or costs for filing such a petition. The end result: House Bill 1442.

Professor Robert Williams

Instructor Robert Williams, who also works as an employment specialist for Second Chances, a job placement program with the City of Norfolk, brought three scenarios to class. “My students selected this scenario based on a sense of fair play, and right and wrong,” he said. “Once we got started, there was an excitement in the classroom and really good energy.”

Students researched case laws, contacted their state representatives, studied other bills to see how to write their own, and then got to work.

Williams explained, “All along I’ve made sure that people know that this is my students’ bill. They did the work, even on their own time, to see this thing through.”

Once someone is accused of a crime, even without a conviction, that mark stays on his or her record until attorney and court fees of $100 to $500 are paid to clear the record. “Simply put, some people can’t afford to clear their names, making it difficult to get jobs,” Williams said.

“This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us,” said student Vona Reynolds. “It was amazing to learn the process and to see that our efforts actually made a difference. As a veteran, I came to TCC to prepare for another career. What I found were professors who are passionate about what they teach and great opportunities for learning.”

Williams noted that his students faced many closed doors before one important one opened. “In order to get the bill to the General Assembly, we needed a representative to sponsor the bill.” Getting Del. Lionell Spruill Sr., who represents parts of Chesapeake and Suffolk, on board was a huge boost.

“This experience gave me great insight into the process of law,” said student Daniel Janssen, who hopes to become a police officer. “Every day I learn something new at TCC.”

House Bill 1442 made the rounds this session, moving from the Committee for the Courts of Justice to the Appropriations Committee to the Public Safety Committee. The bill was sent back to the Appropriations Committee and placed on hold until next session.

“Everyone liked the bill; it just cost money – an estimated $110,000 per year in court costs. Even though the bill stalled, Delegate Spruill has promised to reintroduce it next session,” Williams said.

Students in Williams' U.S. Government class on Norfolk Campus.

“TCC students get an A+ for their efforts. This is a good idea and next session I’m hoping to bring some students with me to present it to committee,” Spruill said. “We are reworking the bill slightly and plan to put it through the general district court so it can be approved quickly. The idea is to be able to have a judge expunge the record of someone not convicted right on the spot, with no further petition necessary.”

“Through it all, it was great to see how we effected real change,” Reynolds said.

Added Williams, “For many of my students, this was a real awakening. They got to take part in a process and not just go through the motions of taking a class. This was government in action, and that’s the best way to learn.”