Abbott Leads Pack in Taking ISIS Bait

Last Friday night, teams of armed suicide bombers took to the streets of Paris to wreak bloody and unimaginable havoc. In military parlance, their targets were “soft”—a soccer stadium, a concert hall, a sidewalk café—and their victims intentionally indiscriminate. In the end, 129 innocent souls were taken before their time, as the world watched in shock, and then in mourning.

But as the events of the attack unfolded, it told not a tale of fear and carnage, but of hope. We learned of the extraordinary acts of courage, selflessness, and solidarity of Parisians willing to open their homes and risk their lives to protect those fleeing abominable acts of terror. The now-infamous hashtag #porteouverte promised shelter and safe haven for those unable to make it to the safety of their homes. Taxi drivers turned off their meters and ferried people away from the butchery, then returned for more. And hundreds of those waiting out the attack at the Stade de France broke into an inspiring and impromptu rendition of La Marseillaise.

When we remember Paris, we should not be haunted by the specters of the bloodthirsty and maniacal men who wrought this unspeakable deed. What we should remember are the heroes, the ordinary Parisians who became their best selves in order to help their fellow men in a time of high crisis. We have lessons to learn from such brave men and women.

Sadly, these are lessons that appear to be lost on Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who announced in a letter Monday that his administration would refuse to accept any Syrian refugees “in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris.” Two dozen other governors swiftly followed suit—but not to be outdone, the following day Abbott doubled down: Not only would Texas turn away Syrian refugees, but it would also interrogate all the Syrian refugees who have already been resettled here to ensure they are not a security risk.

Such pronouncements run counter to our laws, our values, and our conscience. First, the federal government has uncontested authority over refugee resettlement, and refugee admissions are set by the President specifically, so Texas’s refusal to accept refugees is a dead letter. Second, you can’t expect to be taken seriously when you affirm your “Judeo-Christian principles” in the same breath that you vow not to live by them. And finally—and most importantly—the refugees we are talking about are risking their lives and their children’s lives to escape a fate far worse than drowning at sea. Even the 10,000 we have agreed to welcome—which constitutes about one quarter of one percent of the total number of Syrian refugees—isn’t enough.

However, what looks like state-sponsored cowardice on the part of the Abbott administration is merely more of the same thinly veiled xenophobia that he has exercised throughout Texas since he came into office. Governor Abbott has already secured $800 million from the Texas legislature to block passage to women and children fleeing terrible violence in Central America. He has cynically attempted to have private prisons holding those same women and children designated as “licensed child care facilities” in order to circumvent a federal court order. Any pretense of public safety is exactly that—a pretense.

In spite of all appearances, the goal of the Paris attacks was not to disseminate terror. It was to use the dissemination of terror to force Western countries to despise their own Muslim citizens and drive them into the arms of the enemy. ISIS is very explicit about this.

Governor Abbott’s reaction is exactly and precisely what they want.

Sadly, he’s taken the bait.

Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance is Down, But Not Out

In order to bring equality to Houston, we need more education, more pressure, and a fresh push by the new city council.

On Tuesday, November 3, Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) succumbed to its opponents’ distortions and fear-mongering tactics, which managed to sway just enough voters to defeat the ballot measure. This leaves Houston as the only major city in Texas—indeed, in these United States—that does not extend equal rights protections to all its citizens.

In the most diverse city in America, that this happened is inexcusable. But we must understand how it happened if we hope to turn the tables.

The Campaign for Houston that opposed HERO was bankrolled by Steve Hotze, an unapologetic, sword-brandishing anti-LGBT crusader who is on record stating that he wants to “drive [gays] out of our city [and] send them back to San Francisco.” The opposition wisely kept Dr. Hotze away from the microphones during the campaign, but their tactics were no less reprehensible. The Campaign for Houston brandished a lie, playing on peoples’ misunderstanding of what it means to live life as a transgender person who simply wants to use the restroom to do his or her business. It was the only card they had to play, and they played it incessantly.

Unfortunately, it was enough.

We need to change the conversation about our transgender neighbors if we hope to turn the tide in Houston and elsewhere. Theirs is not an easy life. Transgender Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed or living on less than $10,000 a year. Nearly half have been fired or denied promotions, and a full 90% have been harassed or mistreated in the workplace. They are routinely evicted or denied housing and health care. Transgender folks—young people especially—are at a staggeringly high risk for bullying and suicide. And tragically, they’re also considerably more likely to be assaulted or murdered. And some of their murderers have even attempted to turn their own feelings of deceit into a legal defense. It’s called the “trans panic defense,” and it’s based on the theory that discovering someone is transgender can render you temporarily insane, if you can believe such nonsense.

And when it comes to America’s restrooms, 70% of transgender men and women report having been verbally or physically attacked while using one. Where our public bathrooms are concerned, transgender Americans aren’t the predators—they are the prey.

We also need to revisit our understanding of sexual assault. Contrary to the Campaign for Houston’s nightmare scenario—which has literally never happened—sexual predators aren’t hiding in the bushes or lurking in bathroom stalls. In fact, 90% of sexual assault victims know their attacker, and about half of all sexual assaults happen within a mile of the home. To suggest that predators are waiting for a city ordinance to pass so they can freely victimize strangers in public restrooms grossly distorts the nature of sexual assault itself and therefore endangers women.

Voters also need to be made aware of what an equal rights ordinance actually accomplishes. It’s not just an LGBT issue. In fact, HERO protects 15 distinct categories of people, and over half of the discrimination claims filed in Houston involve race. And yes, racial discrimination is federally prohibited, but making that case requires thousands of dollars and years in federal court. HERO achieves the same goal in months, for free.

Here at home, we will continue the fight. It’s too early to tell if Houston can expect the same backlash that swept Indiana when it tried to legalize discrimination last year, and we won’t wait to find out. Our next mayor and our newly elected city council members must make equality a priority the moment they are sworn into office. Our partners and volunteers who have worked to bring equality to Houston won’t back down until everyone can live fairly and equally under the law.

In the most diverse city in America, nothing could be more important.

If you’d like to help, click here to send a letter to the editor of your local paper demanding equality in Houston.

Terri Burke is the executive director of the ACLU of Texas.

‘HERO is a Local Tool’…What Does That Mean, Exactly?

Without an Equal Rights Ordinance, discrimination claims cost thousands and last for years. Vote YES on Proposition 1.

Opponents of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance have a difficult case to make. Pitching discrimination to the most diverse city in the country isn’t easy, which is why they routinely resort to lies, distortions, hyperbole, and fear-mongering.

Opponents of the ordinance argue that most of the groups covered by HERO are already protected by federal laws. Therefore, the logic goes, HERO is unnecessary.

They’re wrong.

The categories included in HERO that do not enjoy full federal discrimination protections are as follows: ethnicity, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, familial status, marital status, military status, and pregnancy. In Houston, you can still be fired for being gay. You can be disqualified from a job for being a veteran. You can be turned away from a business for being pregnant.

But for the sake of argument, let’s examine what happens when someone who is federally protected has her rights violated. Since most federal claims involve race and sex, let’s take the example of Rachel, a very real Guam-born designer who in our scenario has been fictionally fired by her fictional employer for being a woman of color.

Making a Federal Case

Here’s what has to happen under current law:

First, Rachel has to file a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Six months later, the EEOC issues Rachel a “right to sue” letter.

Now it’s time for Rachel to shop for a lawyer. (For our purposes, we’ll assume Rachel hasn’t been unemployed for the six months since she’s been fired. If she had, she likely couldn’t afford a lawyer. End of story. Do not pass go. Bigotry prevails.)

But wait. Attorneys are persnickety about taking employment discrimination cases, since, as we’ll see, they could be living with the case for years. And given the he-said-she-said nature of discrimination claims, the outcome is far from certain. This is why, for example, that of the 88,778 charges made in 2014, only 167 made it to court.

But let’s assume Rachel manages to hire a plucky attorney to represent her. Since Rachel lives in Houston, the attorney files suit in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, where on average civil suits take 21.3 months to wend their way through the system before they go to trial.

So in this best case scenario, from the day Rachel was illegally fired she has had to wait two and a half years for a judge to hear her case.

And let’s say, after all this time, she actually wins! Her employer would likely appeal—and now Rachel has two or three more years of litigation (and thousands more in attorney’s fees) to look forward to.

Making a Municipal Case

Here’s what would happen with the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in place:

Within six months of her firing, Rachel has to file a complaint with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) for the city of Houston.

This costs Rachel nothing.

The OIG has one year to investigate Rachel’s claim. It can take statements, review records, conduct interviews, etc. If the employer doesn’t cooperate with the OIG, it can ask the city council to issue subpoenas.

This also costs Rachel nothing.

Assuming the Inspector General concludes that Rachel was illegally fired, HERO then requires the OIG to “affirmatively engage in conciliation of the complaint.” In other words, the OIG will sit Rachel and her employer down to see if the problem can be resolved to their mutual satisfaction. If this process fails to produce results, the city can issue a $500 fine. And while this is not an especially big fine, the employer’s discriminatory practices are now a part of the public record—and reputation matters in business.

This process takes at most a year and a half, and again, costs Rachel precisely nothing.

So yes, some of the groups covered by HERO enjoy federal protections, but availing oneself of those protections requires years of legal headaches and piles of money. The fact of the matter is that HERO is necessary, and even the businesses affected by the ordinance agree. According to Bob Harvey of the Greater Houston Partnership, the business community worked with the city to craft the ordinance so that discrimination claims would be resolved quickly, and that the fines levied would be reasonable.

But in the end, HERO isn’t about numbers. It’s about the kind of Houston we all want to live in.

In the most diverse city in America, everyone should be treated equally under the law.

What a “No” Vote on HERO Would Mean for Houston

On November 3rd, voters will go to the polls to determine the fate of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. If it passes, pregnant women, veterans, the elderly, and a dozen other groups of people will find they can’t be fired, evicted, or turned away from a business because of who they are.

Here’s what we can expect if HERO doesn’t pass:

1. Another Embarrassing Moment for Texas on the National Stage

The State of Indiana recently faced a similar firestorm over equal rights protections, and if Indiana’s past is Houston’s prologue, we’re headed for catastrophe. We have enough trouble as it is convincing the rest of the world that Houston is the most diverse city in the United States, a vibrant and eclectic mosaic of art and culture and sports and food. If we decide to legalize discrimination, none of that will matter; the only story anyone will hear is that we were offered the chance to secure equal rights for all our citizens, and we turned it down.


2. We Risk Losing the Final Four and the Super Bowl

In 2015, Phoenix hosted Super Bowl XLIX. That almost didn’t happen. A year earlier, the state of Arizona sent a bill legalizing discrimination to then-governor Jan Brewer for her signature. While the law sat on her desk, the NFL issued a statement indicating its displeasure with discrimination and its intent to “follow the issue.”

Exactly one day later, Brewer vetoed the law, and a year after that, Arizona raked in three-quarter of a billion Super Bowl dollars.

Earlier this year, when Indiana actually passed a law legalizing discrimination, The NCAA responded by condemning the bill, reaffirming its commitment to diversity, and even suggested it might consider moving its headquarters out of the state.

Texans' owner Bob McNair, who withdrew his support from HERO's opposition campaign for making "numerous unauthorized statements" about his opinion on the ordinance.
Texans’ owner Bob McNair, who withdrew his support from HERO’s opposition campaign for making “numerous unauthorized statements” about his opinion on the ordinance.

But in Indiana, it didn’t stop there. The Colts’ owner lambasted the law. The entire professional basketball community attacked it. Major League Baseball criticized the law, evoking the spirit of Jackie Robinson. Even NASCAR expressed its disappointment.

3. You Can Expect to Pay a Cover Charge (Unless You’re White)

If you’re a black man or a Latina woman, you might be stuck with a $20 cover charge at a bar, while the white folks in front of and behind you get in for free. (And should complain about that and choose to leave, a bouncer might tell you to “have a good night in the ‘hood’” or “Tell Tyrone I said ‘hi’”.)

Unfortunately, racial discrimination in Houston is very real. In fact, while HERO was in effect, more than half of the discrimination complaints were filed on the basis of race.


And yes, there are federal protections outlawing racial discrimination, but the only way to benefit from them is to sue in federal court, which is exactly what three African American attorneys are doing. Most of us don’t have the resources to hire an attorney for the years it takes to win that kind of case, but if HERO doesn’t pass, that’s your only option.

4. We’ll Have a Lot Fewer Visitors

After it passed its religious refusal bill, three states and five major cities banned official travel to Indiana. Musicians and artists canceled concerts and exhibits. Celebrities from around the country condemned the law. Nick Offerman explained why he canceled a show by channeling Leslie Knope of Parks & Recreation: “Leslie would have said that while religious freedom is a basic and fundamental right, it is not more basic or more fundamental than the words all men are created equal.”

Nick Offerman, a.k.a. Ron Swanson
Nick Offerman, a.k.a. Ron Swanson of Parks & Recreation

5. No Really, a Lot Fewer Visitors, and It’s Going to Cost Us

Houston ranks nineteenth in CVent’s top 50 business meeting destinations in the U.S. (It’s also the only city in the top 20 without an equal rights law.) Every year the city of Houston welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors to conventions, events, and shows, which every year rake in about half a billion dollars.

Again, taking Indiana as an example, their attempt to legalize discrimination scared away enough visitors and conventions that it would have cost Indianapolis a million room nights — or $1.5 billion dollars — had legislators not come to their senses and amended the law. That’s what a “no” vote will cost us.

6. Houston’s Economy Will Take a Beating

The business of Houston is business, and if we fail to pass HERO, business doesn’t look good. There’s a reason hundreds of businesses and business leaders have announced their full-throated support for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. There’s a reason that the Greater Houston Partnership and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau are fighting to keep HERO on the books. There’s a reason that Houston’s developers and realtors have mobilized.

That reason? Discrimination is bad for business.

We know all this because while the media storm makes it feel like HERO is something new and revolutionary, it really isn’t. Dozens of states and hundreds of cities already have laws identical to HERO, many of which have been in place for decades. In fact, Houston would be the last major city in Texas to pass such a law. So we already know what will happen if HERO passes, and we should shudder to think of what will happen if it doesn’t.

Donate to the Houston Unites campaign today and keep HERO in Houston.

President Obama and Texas Are Colluding to Detain Refugee Children in Private Prisons

The State of Texas has issued an emergency rule that transforms private prisons into “licensed child care facilities.”
By Terri Burke

At a time when both left and right have begun to agree on the needless financial and human costs of mass incarceration, the State of Texas is conspiring with the Obama administration to undermine a federal court order so they can keep innocent children in prison. If they succeed, it will be the latest in a litany of miseries wrought upon desperate kids and their mothers fleeing Central and South American countries where many had been kidnapped, raped, beaten, and tortured.

Beginning in the summer of 2014, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ramped up its incarceration of refugee families seeking asylum, contracting with private prison companies to build massive detention centers to contain them.

These tired, poor, and huddled masses yearned to breathe free and found that they could not. Instead, they were shepherded through freezing, overcrowded holding cells with inadequate facilities, nutrition, and medical care, then transferred to private prisons in Dilley and Karnes — towns south of San Antonio — where they are locked up in compounds that resemble internment camps.

And despite their very credible fear that deportation was tantamount to a death sentence, many of these mothers and children were denied access to attorneys. Some of the women went on a hunger strike to protest their inhumane treatment — and the children continue to suffer from poor health, weight loss, diarrhea, bed-wetting, and nightmares as a result of their incarceration.

It appalls me that such injustices can happen in America.

It also appalled Dolly M. Gee, the federal district court judge who ruled last July that the Obama administration’s incarceration of children and their mothers violated a long-standing settlement agreement from a case known as Flores. Judge Gee decried the Department of Homeland Security’s “dubious” attempts to circumvent Flores and found that DHS “wholly failed” to ensure that detention facilities were “safe and sanitary.”

Most importantly, Gee noted that Flores requires that minors be released either to (or with) family members, or that they be remanded to “licensed, non-secure child care facilities.”

Let’s be clear: Prisons are not licensed child care facilities.

But come October 23, the State of Texas and the Obama administration plan to argue that they are.

In Texas, the responsibility for licensing child care facilities falls to the Department of Family and Protective Services, which publishes and updates 350-page manual of minimum standards for such facilities. It’s pretty thorough.

However, recently the DFPS issued emergency rule 748.7, which specifically exempts these private prisons — referred to with a certain Orwellian flair as “family residential centers”— from having to comply with the minimum standards it requires of everyone else.

In other words, with the stroke of a pen the DFPS can officially turn prisons into licensed child care facilities, though they do not meet the standards to which every other such facility is required to adhere.

This may seem insane and cruel and cynical because it absolutely is, but it’s also unnecessary.

The U.S. spends $2 billion a year on immigration detention solely to ensure people show up to their court hearings. Setting aside the needless financial waste — and it’s hard to believe I have to say this — imprisoning innocent children is wrong.

These are families fleeing unspeakable circumstances, and there isn’t a mother alive who wouldn’t make the sacrifice to protect her children from danger and try to give them a better life. It’s heartbreaking that our own federal and state governments won’t respect their suffering and their bravery. Instead they engage in these craven bureaucratic antics just so they can keep kids behind bars.

DHS must comply with Judge Gee’s order by this Friday. We fully expect them to argue that DFPS’s sham licenses keep them from having to set these families free. We can only hope that the court will demonstrate the wisdom it has in the past and reject this inhumane and brazen deception.

Why We’ll Always Need Libraries (and Librarians)

In this second installment of our two-part series celebrating Banned Books Week, I sat down with Peter Coyl, a District Manager for the Dallas Public Library.

Peter Coyl applied for his first library card when his parents realized they could neither afford nor store all the books he wanted to read. The library was a magical place for Peter, where everything he needed was right there at his fingerprints, and he loved the library so much that he hasn’t left since.

Peter has worked in libraries since the tender age of 15, shelving children’s picture books at first, then working as a circulation clerk, a bookmobile driver, and a school librarian in Taiwan. For the last four years Peter has served at the Dallas Public Library, the first library in the country to introduce an online computer catalog, all the way back in the 1980s.

Peter Coyl is a district manager for the Dallas Public Library system. (Stella M. Chavez, KERA News)

The Dallas Public Library is a huge and sophisticated institution, but Peter and his colleagues still have to make choices as to which books will make it onto the shelves. For the most part those decisions are based on popularity, patron requests, book reviews in trade publications, and quality. (Though Peter is quick to point out that if they aren’t purchasing items they sometimes disagree with, “then we aren’t doing our jobs.”) Additionally, the DPL is a member of the Online Computer Library Center, a global network of partnered libraries, so if a patron is looking for a book the DPL doesn’t stock, they’ll be able to fly it in from somewhere in the world.

If the DPL shelves a book a patron finds objectionable, the challenge process is at least as exacting as it is for school libraries. Most objections are made in person to desk staff, but should a patron wish to pursue it further, a form can be filled out. A staff committee then convenes to read the book and to review trade publications, book reviews and other research, at which point a recommendation is made to the Associate Director, who makes the final decision. During his four years at the DPL, only a handful of challenges have gone the distance, and none of them have been successful.

While book challenges remain a serious matter, Peter and his colleagues are at least equally concerned about other issues affecting the library: the privacy of their patrons in the wake of 9/11, the changing nature of censorship, and the evolution of the library itself as it strives to stay ahead of new technologies.

In the aftermath of 9/11, America’s librarians—not generally known as a vocal or combative bunch—went toe-to-toe with the federal government over their patrons’ right to privacy. Libraries throughout the country, including Peter’s, removed sign-in sheets for Internet access and required patrons to opt in if they wanted the library to keep track of their reading histories. In Connecticut, FBI agents demanded patron records from a handful of librarians, and then slapped them with an Orwellian gag order preventing them from even acknowledging the demand. Ultimately the gag order was lifted and the federal government dropped its case, but the attacks on individual privacy, much less the debate, are far from over.

The "Connecticut Four", from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)
The “Connecticut Four”, from left to right: Janet Nocek, Peter Chase, George Christian, and Barbara Bailey (Robert Deutsch/USA Today)

The nature of censorship is changing as well. Thanks to the Internet, preventing people from having access to books becomes less practical with each passing day, but attempts to silence speakers are more numerous than ever. Untenured professors in fear for their jobs are redesigning their syllabi to remove anything that might potentially offend. In Connecticut, students are trying to shut down their own newspaper over a single objectionable op-ed. And the habit of succumbing to protests over invited speakers has led the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to refer to the end of the academic year as “disinvitation season.”

Peter finds this last trend particularly onerous. He cites the case of Bill Konigsburg, an award-winning author who was invited to speak at a Houston high school about the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBT youth. Once the principal learned Konigsburg was gay, the talk was rescheduled for after school hours, all the other schools in the area had declined his visit, and he was asked not to focus on the fact that he was gay. As his mission was to prevent suicides among LGBT youth, Konigsburg naturally ignored the request.


All that said, the future of information, and therefore of the library, remains bright. Peter notes that librarians have always prepared for innovations in information technology, and embraced them. (Though he does admit they did skip the laser disc fad.)

No longer is the library a hushed and unsmiling place of sacred scholarship, but rather a place where children can be read to by their favorite authors, where half of Americans go for their internet access, a place where a community can come together and learn, and share what it has learned. “No matter how much information is out there,” Peter concludes, “people will still need libraries, and librarians.”

Librarians (and Captain Underpants) to the Rescue!

To celebrate Banned Books Week, this year I sat down with three librarians to peek behind the curtain and examine the ways by which library books are chosen and challenged; I also wanted to get the inside scoop on what the future of the library looks like. This first installment of the two-part series features two local school librarians in Houston. Much like the superheroes they are, the two preferred to keep their true identities concealed, so I will be referring to them as “Barbara Gordon” and “Judy Dark,” which happen to be the librarian alter-egos of the superheroes “Oracle” and “Luna Moth” (our apologies to D.C. Comics and Michael Chabon). Our next installment will feature my conversation with Peter Coyl, District Manager of the Dallas Public Library.

Librarians save lives: by handing the right book, at the right time, to a kid in need.

—Judy Blume

I’ve never known a bad librarian. I’ve certainly known a stern librarian or two, but never one who was incompetent or indifferent, never one who failed to appreciate the seriousness of their responsibilities or embrace the joys of learning and sharing knowledge.

However, until I sat down with Judy Dark and Barbara Gordon, two school librarians from Houston, Texas, I’d never met librarians so positively gleeful about their roles and responsibilities. Throughout the course of our conversation, it became clear that, perhaps unlike any other profession, the choice to become a librarian was more a calling than a job, and that perhaps the only thing librarians love as much as doing their jobs is talking about them.

Libraries are finite in size, and one of the librarian’s most daunting tasks is to decide which of the tens of millions of potential books to put on their limited amount of shelf space. Dark and Gordon explain that books are generally selected according to three criteria: 1) If the book is age-appropriate; 2) If the book has been well reviewed; and 3) if the book will inspire children to read.

Of course, “age appropriateness” means different things to different people, and while Dark and Gordon take into account the maturity of the themes and the complexity of the language, they tend to give their kids the benefit of the doubt when it comes to what they can handle. Librarians are also thorough in their consideration of evaluations for each book; it’s a much less grievous sin to stock a controversial book than it is a bad one.


However, a book’s ability to inspire is perhaps its most precious—as well as its most contentious—characteristic. At its core, the role of a school librarian is to inculcate a love of learning, and they are willing to fulfill that role by (nearly) any means necessary. To give an example, parents might not think too highly, say, of Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants, but according to Gordon, “the kids go absolutely crazy over it.” And when there’s a little distance between what inspires children and what their parents might not approve of, librarians like Dark and Gordon have to be prepared to defend the books they’ve selected.

The banning of books is both a morally and politically charged business, and there’s little librarians take more seriously. The process for a school book challenge is thorough, meticulous, diligent, and demanding. If a parent chooses to challenge a book, they must first fill out a challenge form and submit it to a committee consisting of librarians and other school staff. Each committee member reads the book, reviews of the book, insider publications, and other research, after which the committee reconvenes for an interview with the parent, where objections are raised and addressed. Should the parent wish to continue with their challenge, the final determination is made by either a district librarian, a principal, or a superintendent, depending on the school or school district.

For the most part, parents who request challenge forms rarely submit them. For those who do, most are either swayed by the committee or request that their own child—and not other people’s children—be restricted from checking out the book. Some parents refuse to read the book they’ve challenged, and as a result their objections are naturally ill-informed, poorly researched, and unlikely to sway any of the decision-makers in the challenge process.

Dark beams with pride when she says, “Nope, I’ve never lost a challenge.”

Gordon was quick to point out that book bans usually backfire. “The book you remove from the library,” says Gordon, “is the one all the kids want to read.” And it’s true; even in the grown-up world, book bans can do wonders for sales and circulation.


As a matter of fact, the proliferation of new technologies has rendered book challenges rarer than ever. Today kids are downloading reading material directly to their tablets, and the original objective of book bans—to keep the public from having access to a book—is a practical impossibility in the 21st century.

The librarian’s traditional responsibility as a guardian of learning is thus in constant flux. I asked Dark and Gordon if they were concerned about the future of their profession and the institution where they practice it. Both replied, emphatically, “No.” Libraries are stimulating spaces where kids can brainstorm, collaborate, and create. Dark and Gordon are no longer curators of knowledge, they said, but rather guides. They teach children how to sift through and make sense of the almost infinite knowledge available to them, how to seek out and verify sources. As the author Neil Gaiman once noted, “Google can give you 100,000 answers, but a librarian can give you the right one.”

Let’s Assume the Kids (and Ahmed) Are Alright, Not Criminals

Last Sunday night in Irving, Texas, a 14-year-old boy named Ahmed Mohamed got bored. But instead of firing up his X-Box for a few rounds of Counterstrike or checking up on his fantasy football progress, Ahmed decided to build a digital clock from scratch. He likes to tinker.

By now you’ve probably heard what happened next: When Ahmed took his masterpiece to school the next day to impress his teachers, the clock was confiscated and Ahmed was pulled out of class. He was interrogated by five different police officers. His belongings were searched. He was threatened with expulsion. He was accused over and over and over again of wanting to build a bomb, or wanting people to think he’d built a bomb. He repeatedly requested to contact his parents, and those requests were denied.

Instead, law enforcement agents handcuffed the frightened high school freshman wearing a NASA t-shirt, frog-marched him out of school, and remanded him to a juvenile detention center where they snapped mug shots and took his fingerprints. The school suspended Ahmed for three days, and until the story went viral, police were considering charges.

How could this have happened?

The first and most obvious answer is racism and Islamophobia. Ahmed is Muslim, and Irving has something of a checkered history with the Muslim community. In 2012, the Irving Independent School District commissioned a 72-page report to determine if its curriculum was too pro-Islam. (It wasn’t.) In a response to a local mosque setting up a mediation panel for its worshippers, earlier this year the Irving city council voted to support an anti-Islamic bill that would forbid Texas judges from applying Shariah law in their decisions (This was, of course, already the law.)

Islamophobia, and probably racism, certainly played a role in Ahmed’s ordeal, but the fact is overzealous administrators, zero-tolerance policies, and law enforcement officers ill-equipped to deal with schoolchildren have compromised educational environments throughout the country.

If we’re handcuffing autistic children at the elbows or throwing them in jail overnight, then we’re failing them. If we’re hitting kids with felony weapons charges for bringing fishing tackle to school, then we’re failing them. And if we’re using suspensions (which absolutely do not work) against students who build clocks, or twirl pencils, or write about pot, or chew their Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, then we’re failing them.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement is currently developing a specialized police-training program for officers who work in our schools. The sooner, the better. Officers need to understand that they’re dealing with children rather than criminals. They need to ensure that a child’s right to contact their parents is as sacrosanct as any other individual’s right to speak to an attorney. And above all, they need to undertake a comprehensive review of their racial-profiling practices and cultural-sensitivity training — oh yeah, and their use of handcuffs.

Ahmed suffered through a terrifying, traumatizing, and unjust ordeal. Yet because of the mass exposure of what he endured, he’s received invitations to the White House, Facebook headquarters, and the Google science fair. I’m fairly certain that Ahmed is going to come out of this just fine. He’s called it the American dream come true and for him it seems to be so.

For too many others — the ones whose stories won’t go viral — the possibility of the American nightmare remains too real.

Street Signs and Tree Stumps: Remembering Sandra Bland

In a Facebook post earlier this month, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office expressed its “condolences to the Sandra Bland family for their loss.” The sentiments would be welcome, were they sincere.

Were they sincere, those condolences might have been accompanied by good faith efforts to address the shortcomings of the Waller County jail system that contributed to Sandra Bland’s senseless death. The county might, say, have undertaken a review and a vigorous reform of its mental health training program for jail staff. It might have created safeguards to ensure it complied with state standards for inmate monitoring. It might have given Sandra Bland’s family assurances that it was doing absolutely everything in its power to see to it that no one ever died in custody again.

But the Waller County Sheriff Office’s condolences were not followed by any of these things. Instead, its Facebook post immediately turned to how it had thrown some protesters out of the building.

In fact, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office has been much more preoccupied with its protestors than it has with its own deficiencies. When demonstrators gathered outside the building, the Sheriff’s Office erected barricades. When they gathered beneath a nearby tree to seek relief from the blistering summer heat, the Sheriff’s Office cut the tree down. And in one disturbing and frankly bizarre exchange, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith told clergywoman Hannah Bonner—who had been keeping vigil for nearly a month—to “go back to that church of Satan that you run.”


It’s clear that depriving citizens of their liberty—particularly when they’ve not been convicted of a crime, as Sandra Bland had not—is not a responsibility that the Waller County Sheriff’s Office is willing to take seriously. Try as it might, making protestors go away will not make the problem go away, because the protestors are not the problem.

In fact, the tragedy of Sandra Bland’s last days showcases nearly everything that’s broken with the criminal justice system in Texas. When law enforcement officers unilaterally escalate citizen interactions to the point of violence; when they use perceived disrespect as an excuse to exercise excessive force; when they imprison someone under a bond system that transparently discriminates against the poor; or when they fail to monitor the people they’ve detained—then we will continue to lurch from one agonizing injustice to the next.

It is of some comfort, at least, that Texas lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle are clamoring for answers. And the Prairie View City Council recently voted to change the name of University Boulevard to “Sandra Bland Parkway.”

The Waller County Sheriff’s Office will undoubtedly continue to wish its protestors away, but the memory of Sandra Bland and of the injustices wrought upon her are here to stay.

This Isn’t the Training Our Police Officers Need

This week the Houston Police Officers’ Union invited controversial psychology professor William Lewinski to conduct training seminars for 140 of its officers. Unfortunately it won’t be the sort of training that will rebuild community trust in law enforcement or save lives. Quite the opposite.

Lewinski’s publications and seminars are popular in law enforcement circles, but unfortunately his “training” doesn’t teach police officers how to better serve their communities. Instead, he teaches them to shoot first and often, and then provides them with the tools to justify those shootings after the tragic fact.

In his study on officer reaction times, Lewinski concludes that a cop can’t afford to wait until he sees a gun in order to react to its presence. (In other words, “If I see the gun, I’m already dead.”) In another study, Lewinski takes 4,000 words to explain why it’s almost always reasonable for a cop to shoot someone in the back. And in his testimony before the President’s Task Force on Policing, Lewinski laid out ten reasons why the footage from body cameras is not to be trusted.

In other words, if a cop stops you and you are unarmed, in Lewinski’s world it’s perfectly justifiable for that cop to shoot you in the back and blame “muscle memory” or “inattentional blindness” to explain away any incriminating video evidence in the ensuing investigation.

Lewinski is fond of likening shooting scenarios to baseball games. As he told deputy sheriffs in Los Angeles, “a batter can’t wait for a ball to cross home plate before deciding whether that’s something to swing at.” Of course, the analogy collapses once we realize that the consequence of a late swing is a foul tip to the cheap seats in right field, and not, say, the senseless execution of an unarmed citizen by an agent of the state.

Tragically, this sort of thing happens all too often. Man shot for reaching for the driver’s license he’s just been asked to produce. Man shot for failing to produce driver’s license. Man shot twice in the back while running away. Man shot ten times while seeking assistance after a car accident. Man shot. Man shot. Man shot.

Lewinski’s work appears either on his own website or in publications like Police Marksman magazine, and never in peer-reviewed psychology journals. The Justice Department concluded that his findings “lack foundation and reliability.” The American Journal of Psychology has derided his work as “pseudoscience.”

Lewinski and his training regimen are a particularly extreme example of a perverse and all too common law enforcement attitude that perceives civilians first and foremost as enemy combatants. It’s a world where every gesture is a threat, where every unseen hand is brandishing a gun, and where “to protect and serve” is just something that’s painted on a cruiser door.

If we ever hope to change the way police interact with vulnerable communities, we must redesign officer training. In a recent survey of 281 law enforcement agencies nationwide, the Police Executive Research Forum determined that on average officers receive 58 hours of weapons training, 49 hours of defensive tactical training, only eight hours of de-escalation training, and only a negligible amount, if any, of training on how to handle the mentally ill. If all you have is a hammer, as the saying goes, then everything looks like a nail. And if all you have is a gun, then everyone looks like a target.

We have to turn those numbers around if we ever hope to reform law enforcement culture, and the President’s report on 21st Century Policing is an excellent place to start. Police departments need to engage in meaningful dialogue with the people they are sworn to protect. Law enforcement agencies must adopt zero-tolerance policies towards racial profiling, and to increase training in implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation techniques, and how to approach people in states of mental distress. Most fundamentally, officers need to begin thinking of themselves as guardians who serve their communities rather than as warriors who occupy them.

None of that is likely to happen as long as police departments continue to listen to William Lewinski and his ilk.