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How 3 College Students Got a Better Deal for Domestic-Violence Survivors

Their success at changing harmful local ordinances illustrates the power of a good idea, solid research and enthusiasm.

Woman sitting on the steps with her head in her lap.
Can a few college students change the world? That may seem like an unreasonable expectation, but sometimes, armed with a good idea and supporting research, they can have a positive impact on one corner of it. That happened last year in Ohio.

Between December 2016 and July 2017, three Cleveland State University students successfully lobbied seven Ohio cities to amend laws that were harming survivors of domestic violence. The students lacked money, political connections and organizational backing. They didn't even live in the cities in question. But these policy entrepreneurs persuaded mayors and city council members to amend their criminal activity nuisance ordinances (CANOs) to protect survivors of domestic violence from fines and eviction.

CANOs penalize property owners, usually landlords, for excessive criminal activity occurring on their property (typically two misdemeanor incidents or one felony within a year). Landlords facing the prospect of having their property designated as a nuisance often "abate" the nuisance by getting rid of the "problem" tenant using eviction. In most cases, however, cities list domestic violence as a nuisance activity without distinguishing between attacker and victim. As a result, survivors face the prospect of a nuisance designation and a possible eviction as a result of calling police for help. More than a dozen cities in the Cleveland area had a law like this, as do more than 2,000 cities nationwide.

The students' efforts grew out of a graduate course on policy advocacy with a seemingly impossible homework project: change the world. Working in small teams, students were charged with identifying a policy issue and advocating to decision makers that a law needed to be changed. The class tackled a diverse set of difficult issues involving discrimination, funding for child care, criminal justice reform and health policy.

One group decided to tackle CANOs. Armed with hundreds of pages of public records documenting the local enforcement of CANOs against survivors of domestic violence, the students -- Calla Bonanno, Vanessa Hemminger and Marissa Pappas (one of this column's authors) -- approached Euclid, Ohio, an inner-ring suburb of Cleveland with about 50,000 residents. The students had a compelling case: The effects of Euclid's CANO wasn't merely a theoretical worry but an urgent issue happening regularly in the city.

To bring attention to the issue, the students first approached the city's law director, then worked their way to the mayor, and ultimately were invited to present their work to the City Council's Public Safety Committee. Two weeks after their presentation, the council unanimously adopted the proposed change, removing the designation of domestic violence as a nuisance activity.

The semester ended, but the students' fight continued. They got an op-ed published. A Cleveland reporter wrote an article about their work. The local NPR affiliate invited them to appear on a popular live radio show. And while engaging the media, the students continued to reach out to other cities in the area, meeting with law directors and council members. Within a few months, six other cities amended their CANOs.

The students were not the first to point out the pitfalls of nuisance ordinances. Indeed, local advocates for fair housing policies and for domestic violence survivors had raised the issue for years but had failed to get any traction. National organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union had sued cities in other states over similar laws. So why did the students succeed when others seeking similar changes failed?

Although we can't say for sure, the students likely benefited from several factors. First, they gathered evidence to make their case. Where other advocates focused mainly on the language of the laws, the students were ready to rebut city denials with the reality of actual enforcement records. Second, they had a personal, human touch. They reached out individually to well-selected administrators. Third, as students, they brought a genuine enthusiasm and sincerity without the complicating baggage of more experienced professionals. Fourth, a relatively strong local news media meant that outlets were available to amplify the students' work.

And, of course, there was a fair amount of luck: The "policy window" described by political scientist John W. Kingdon appears to have been open. Indeed, classmates in the course who were advocating equally compelling and well researched policy ideas found their proposals falling on deaf ears, a tough lesson that merely having a good idea is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of the policy struggle.

What started as an advocacy project for a class morphed into a grant-funded research collaboration on CANO enforcement among students, faculty and community partners that caught the attention of national news organizations. But the real victory here is the hundreds of thousands of Ohioans who live in cities that now have more-just laws. While things might look hopeless in an era of political partisanship and cynicism, ideas still matter, and the students' successful lobbying campaign is a testament to the continuing power of a good idea.

An assistant professor at Cleveland State University
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