University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus administrators provide incoming freshmen with a deck of playing cards that contain advice, campus rules and information on the penalties for selling drugs on campus. One card warns students that drug convictions can impact student financial aid. Photo shot Aug. 15, 2014. Kate Golden / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
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Campus Informants

A related story focuses on the penalties students could face for selling drugs on campus.


Wisconsin Public Radio criminal justice reporter Gilman Halsted collaborated with the Center on this report and produced his own story: “UW Campuses Use Undercover Student Informants In Drug Busts.”

Center reporter Sean Kirkby discussed this topic on WPR’s Central Time: “A Look At Students As Police Informants On UW Campuses”


Former Center reporter Mario Koran previously covered the unreliability of informant testimony in his 2013 report “When lies lead to wrongful convictions.”

For many, experimenting with drugs is part of college. But, the penalties of getting caught may be more severe than at any other time in their lives.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, students convicted of a drug-related felony or misdemeanor can lose their financial aid for a period of time, depending on the charge and previous offenses. Possession of illegal drugs can lead to a year or more of ineligibility, depending on the number of offenses.

Convictions for drug distribution carry steeper penalties. The first conviction results in two years of ineligibility, and subsequent offenses can bring indefinite ineligibility unless a student completes a drug rehabilitation program, passes two drug tests or has a conviction voided.

“It’s a huge penalty,” acknowledges Mary Beth Mackin, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater dean of students.

Mackin says UW-Whitewater’s policy is to suspend students caught selling drugs on campus. According to UW System’s administrative code, any suspension applies to all UW System schools and can last up to two years. Students cannot be present on any UW campus without written consent.

Students may also reach a settlement with the administration to shorten the suspension by participating in drug counseling, Mackin says. Otherwise, they can request a disciplinary hearing.

Even if a student avoids a criminal conviction, he or she may still be suspended because selling drugs is a violation of the university’s code of conduct, she says.

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Dean of Students Mary Beth Mackin discusses discipline and suspension on campus. She says drug convictions that can cause students to lose financial aid are “a huge penalty.” Photo shot July 1, 2014, UW-Whitewater. Sean Kirkby / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Mackin says she works with students and their families to ensure those who are suspended can continue their studies by completing transferable credits at a community college or private institution.

“I would like students to remain engaged and productive and to understand that this is not an end to your dreams,” Mackin says. “It’s just a bump in the road.”

But Stephen Richards, a UW-Oshkosh professor of criminal justice, says a felony drug conviction could hurt these chances. Other colleges may refuse to admit students with a criminal record. Given that such cases are listed on the state’s online court database, the student also may have a hard time getting a job or an apartment, Richards says.

This report was produced in collaboration with Wisconsin Public Radio reporter Gilman Halsted. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( collaborates with WPR, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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Sean KirkbyReporter

Sean Kirkby is a reporting intern for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.