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.

Recap: Compilation of #HOUequality tweets

At a special City Council hearing on Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance that took place Wed., April 29, most residents who testified voiced their unequivocal support for the ordinance. Just 19 people spoke against.

Attend the public meetings on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. To sign up to speak at the Public Session on Tuesday, May 6, you must do so before 1 p.m. the day of the meeting by:

  • Calling the City Secretary’s office at 832.393.1100
  • Sending an email to citysecretary@houstontx.gov
  • Coming by the office on the public level of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby, Houston 77002 by 1:30 p.m. that

Before you testify please download our guide (PDF), which is full of helpful tips for giving public testimony. If you can’t make it in person, tell your story online. You can submit text or a video link.

Show your support on social media!

Texas should take steps to ensure no family endures tragedy like this again

New details emerged yesterday in the case of Noe Nino de Rivera, the Texas high school student who suffered brain damage after a school resource officer tased him on school grounds.  A security video demonstrates that Noe was not displaying aggressive behavior toward the officer, a Bastrop County deputy sheriff, and in fact may have been backing away—contrary to claims of sheriff’s officials.

Sadly, this is precisely the type of incident the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocates have warned state and federal officials could result from ill-trained officers, unnecessarily harsh disciplinary practices, and lack of basic accountability.

For example, in 2011, the ACLU of Texas issued a report in which we called for: new and better training for officers stationed in schools; improved reporting on uses of force against students; a statewide policy governing use of force by officers in schools; and an end to the use of Tasers and pepper spray by school police.

That same year, Texas legislators introduced two bills that would have implemented some of these improvements. Similar bills were introduced in the 2013 legislative session, including one on training and another on reporting. They all died in committee, despite the valiant efforts of a few lawmakers who understand that law-enforcement officers stationed in our public schools need different guidance and oversight than officers patrolling our streets.

In the wake of Noe’s tasing and hospitalization late last year, the ACLU of Texas and six other civil rights and social justice organizations, including Texas Appleseed, asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE)  to end use of so-called “less-than-lethal weapons” in school districts and to launch a comprehensive review of use of force in schools.

Thankfully, this tragic incident has prompted at least a response. While the agency has not agreed to a full review, it is working with advocates to create a new training curriculum for officers in schools and to change some use-of-force trainings to include de-escalation techniques and other alternatives.

But we have to do more. For one, Governor Perry and other state leaders should initiate a review. And come 2015, when legislators return to the state capitol, they should tackle this issue in earnest and finally implement specialized training requirements and reporting on use of force in schools—not to mention consider whether weapons like pepper spray and Tasers have a place in our schools at all.

Schools across Texas have law enforcement officers stationed in schools. The goal is to keep our kids safe. So isn’t it time we work together to require appropriate training and oversight to ensure that law enforcement are part of the public safety solution, not part of the problem? Just ask Noe’s family.

Terri Burke on Free Speech Zone with @AlyonaMink

Watch Terri Burke, ACLU of Texas Executive Director, on @HuffPostLive “Free Speech Zone” discussing the school police tasing incident contributing to a student’s fall and hospitalization.

Originally aired on December 9, 2013

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. View the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement.

Student Survey Finds Sex Education in Texas “Ineffective”

Outdated textbooks, lack of training, and gender-bias are just a few of the reasons student rated their Texas public school sex education classes “ineffective.” The unscientific survey was conducted by volunteer researcher Julia Barrow for her capstone course at Rice University. Julia was kind enough to do a short Q&A with us about the survey results and her motivation behind studying this important issue.

    Q: How did this project get started?
    A: I was enrolled in the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality capstone course, Seminar and Practicum, where each student works on an engaged research project with a community organization while learning about Feminist methodology and research. I have always been extremely interested in education. I first wanted to focus on the Houston area and my initial question was whether or not inadequate sex education can lead to feelings of shame and an inability to speak out when an individual has been assaulted. I definitely touched on that theme in my final project, but the themes became bigger as did the geographic region I was surveying.

    Q: How much time did you spend on the project?
    A: I spent each Friday at the ACLU offices, attended a 3-hour seminar once a week, and spent 3 to 15 hours a week working on the project outside of the office or class.

    Q: How did you collect the responses?
    A: I had a three-pronged approach to collecting responses. Pursuant to Texas Public Information Act, Texas Government Code Ch. 552, I was able to order Open Records Requests to receive curricula from high schools with varying degrees of graduate rates, pregnancy rates, demographics, and socioeconomic status. I conducted interviews with health education teachers and other education professionals. The biggest pool of responses I analyzed was from an online survey asking Texans of all ages to describe their sex education experiences. With all of these, I conducted a linguistic analysis to pick out common themes to direct my thoughts and outside research.

    Q: What were your main findings?
    A: 73.3% of individuals reported their sex education to be ineffective. This rate did not change according to the age of the individual (which ranged from 18 to 80), begging the question of why sex ed has not improved in Texas for so long. Schools often use outdated Health textbooks that have old-fashioned, heteronormative language and ideas. Contraception, abortion, and how to receive services were not often reported to be discussed. Any topic related to relationships, intimacy, and love were never mentioned and male forms of contraception (i.e. condoms) were discussed more often than female forms of birth control.

    Q: Did you expect these findings? What surprised you most?
    A: One of the findings that surprised me the most was that there was no change in people’s perceptions about their sex ed experience due to age. I was surprised and saddened by how many of my findings mirrored the stereotype I had heard about Texas and sex education and reflected the statistics that the state has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually active teens.

    Q: What should Texas do to change?
    A: On a high level, the TEKS do not presently mandate sex ed to be taught and do mandate that if is discussed, abstinence be the central topic. As I just said, more teens in Texas are having sex than the national average. And, my findings, as well as larger studies that show high rates in teen pregnancy and STDs, prove that the system in place now is not effective. It’s ludicrous to me that abstinence could even be the “central topic” – what more can you say after, “The best way to not get pregnant or sexually transmitted diseases is by staying abstinent”? It’s true, but teens are not listening to it. In addition, schools that do have sex ed or health ed that discuss sexuality should not use outdated textbooks that present sexuality in a heterosexual, heteronormative way (effectively marginalizing their homosexual or queer students). Moreover, they need to talk about contraception, how to use it, and where to get it.

    Q: Tell us about the The Women’s studies program at Rice?
    A: I had the privilege of minoring in Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities, which is housed under the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Rice. My PJHC and many of my English classes were crosslisted with SWGS classes, which meant that I was often looking at other subjects through a gendered lens. The Women’s studies program at Rice is simply amazing. The Center’s staff, such as Dr. Rosemary Hennessy and Brian Riedel, and the PJHC staff, including Dr. Kimberly Hoang and Dr. Diana Strassman, changed my life with their ability to instruct and inspire.

    Q: What have you been doing since you finished the survey?
    A: I graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English and a minor in Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities from Rice University in May 2013. I am currently working in Los Angeles, CA.

    Q: What are your next steps?
    A: I am loving my job at Amazon Studios in Los Angeles, CA, and have long term plans to attend law school. I would love to work for the ACLU again one day :)

Download a copy of Julia’s final presentation (PDF): An Exploration of Sex Education Policies in Texas Public High Schools

Should the State of Texas Be Allowed to Do This to Children?

The primary goal of Texas county juvenile justice facilities is to rehabilitate juveniles in order to develop good behavior and deter potential repeat criminal activity. However, new amendments proposed by the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) on chemical spray in county juvenile facilities threaten the overall objective of juvenile justice and the safety of the youths and staff involved. The TJJD has proposed amendments to the Texas Administration Code Chapter 343, which would expand the chemical use of oleoresin capsicum (pepper spray) as an ordinary restraint method at county juvenile rehabilitation centers across the state.  Not only does use of chemical spray negate the goal of rehabilitation, the use of this chemical restraint as punishment is outdated, ineffective, and harmful—not to mention, the proposed amendments lack proper definitions and guidelines to prevent the abuse of discretion in the facilities, opening the doors for medical claims against the state.

A report to the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators found that facilities with high numbers of restraint and chemical incidents are more likely to produce higher rates of safety problems because of youth and staff injury, suicidal behavior, and fear among the youths from injury by staff.

The reported higher rate of incidents explain why the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators’ annual, national survey revealed only six state juvenile corrections agencies authorizing the use of chemical spray in order to secure the facilities: The low national authorization is due to data that shows negative impacts on the staff, juveniles, and facilities when it is used. The survey also showed that 15 agencies authorized chemical restraints, but not necessarily for the staff to carry on their person. Nine of those 15 agencies only authorize chemical restraint as a last resort measure. Overall, nearly 90 percent of the total juvenile correctional agencies do not authorize staff to carry chemical spray as a means to secure facilities.

The American Bar Association (ABA) standards for Juvenile Justice allow chemical restraint only in extreme situations and under strict controls. The ABA also requires the department to adopt regulations that closely govern such use. Not only would improper training and use of chemical restraint put the youth and staffs’ health at risk but would also result in the county and juvenile facility as subject to numerous investigation and lawsuits.

Our Recommendations

At present, the proposed TJJD code allows for use when the juvenile exhibits “physical aggression.” That’s a term open to broad interpretation and without a more narrow definition, there is no limit to the use of the chemical spray.

To mitigate this risk, the TJJD needs to get more specific about uses and training. For one, the amendments should strictly prohibit use to situations where there is a certain risk of life or serious bodily injury. This language would help safeguard the use of chemical spray only as a last resort effort in cases of extreme crisis. The amendment does make room for a provision that requires staff to abstain from use of the chemical on juveniles with respiratory or eye conditions. Strangely enough, there’s no indication of how these individuals would even be identified. When staff members are instructed to react to any form of “physical aggression,” it’s unlikely they would stop to inquire about a youth’s eye or breathing conditions.

Also, the TJJD should better define who would be required to train the staff in proper use of the chemical spray.  The current draft is mute on this matter, a vagary that could result in improper training and place the well-being of staff and youths in danger.

The TJJD should scrap these proposed amendments altogether. Various national written standards of chemical restraint reiterate the fact that pepper spray should not be used at all. However, if the TJJD insists on moving forward with authorization, it should adhere to strict rules regarding usage, reporting of usage, and post-use practices.  To do so, the agency needs to draft amendments that are strictly and clearly defined. Presently, the TJJD falls well short of this mark and the consequences could be devastating.

Read our letter to TJJD on their proposed changes to pepper spray rules:

Update: After listening to concerns from the ACLU and our fellow advocates, TJJD has chosen to delay consideration of this new standard until January 2014.

Same-sex schools: brain food or bad science?

Adriana Pinon
Senior Staff Attorney

The Austin Independent School District is moving forward on a plan dividing two low-performing middle schools into separate academies for boys and for girls.

While there are plenty of fine single-sex schools, research suggests they thrive because of parental choice and first-rate teaching. AISD’s plan for Pearce and Garcia middle schools promises neither.

In fact, when the district polled neighborhood parents, less than half backed dividing the students by gender. Even fewer parents were willing to send their kids to single-sex schools.

With good reason: there’s no evidence that allowing boys and girls to learn together played any role in these schools’ poor performance.

So what’s behind segregating boys and girls – and only in one, low-income community? We’re concerned that this plan is driven by outdated stereotypes and debunked claims about boys’ and girls’ brains. We also ask if a more affluent community would have been singled out for this scheme. That’s why ACLU Texas has filed a Public Information request to learn more about this plan. We need science, not stereotype, to fix our public schools.

Don’t Mess With Texans’ Sex Ed

Rebecca Robertson
Legal and Policy Director

Does Texas really need more pregnant teens? Two shameful new bills are engineered to guarantee that.

HB 1057 by State Representative Jeff Leach and SB 521 by State Sen Ken Paxton both heap budget-breaking burdens on public schools that are trying to give students quality sex education. Under these laws, schools would need written parent consent to offer sexual health education from any provider who is not a district employee.

Even worse: the bills outright forbid health professionals to teach sex ed if the educators have any link to health providers that include abortion services. That means that hundreds of districts that lack their own resources to provide their own sex ed would have to give up or whittle their programs.

And this is in the state with the fourth-highest rate of children giving birth to children.

How can Leach and Paxton justify this?

Easy: their bills exist only to bar Planned Parenthood from teaching students about sex and health. Attacking this effective, established provider of health care is priority #1 for these lawmakers. It’s more important to Leach and Paxton than preventing abortions, protecting young girls, and allowing our communities to decide for themselves how they want to inform children about health and sex.

Paxton and Leach are professional politicians. Planned Parenthood and public schools are professional educators. Leave our student’s health in the hands of those who care most.

First MSM coverage of push to require warrants for GPS tracking by law enforcement

The Dallas News today has coverage (“Texas civil liberties advocates  seek limits on law enforcement tracking cell phones,” Jan. 10) of Grits’ efforts to seek legislation requiring a warrant for police to access cell-phone location data, a topic with which regular readers will be familiar. The article opens:

Smartphones and certain apps can help you find where your kid is hanging out, check on the whereabouts of an absent co-worker or spy on your spouse.

But the satellite navigation that allows for such tasks also helps police track a phone user’s exact location, and Texas civil liberties advocates say that kind of surveillance without court approval goes too far.

They want to update state law to require a court-ordered warrant for cellphone GPS tracking by law officers, with some exceptions. Police can currently track someone’s whereabouts by requesting cellphone company records, said Scott Henson, whose Austin-based gritsforbreakfast.org is influential among criminal-justice policy watchers.

“The law has not kept up with the technology,” said Henson, who is circulating proposed legislation to modernize the state Code of Criminal Procedure. No lawmaker has agreed to sponsor the measure yet, he said, but “folks really seem to intuitively understand that it’s a big deal.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and EFF-Austin, a “cyber liberties” organization, are also working on the effort, part of a national movement toward tightening up privacy for mobile device users.

Texas law officers currently have to get a court warrant for a wiretap, Henson said, and a court order is required before police can attach an electronic tracking device to someone’s vehicle. But he said the rise of smartphones equipped with GPS navigation means police can simply subpoena tracking records from cellphone companies, which received 1.3 million such requests in 2011.

Working with EFF-Austin, the ACLU (both state and national) and volunteers from among Grits readers, my wife and I put together a draft version of legislation we’d like to see filed and this week began making the rounds to seek out potential sponsors. Nobody has bitten yet, but I’ve been gratified at the reception in the Lege offices we’ve visited so far and suspect we’ll soon find someone to carry it.

The Dallas News story quoted a police union rep who seemed surprisingly sanguine, if grouchy, about the bill’s prospects:

While police respect privacy rights, law enforcement uses technology to combat crime, just as criminals use it for their purposes, said Charley Wilkison, public affairs director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

“It’s a balance between the freedom of the individual … and the right of law enforcement to try to get at the bad actors,” he said.

Wilkison said accusations that GPS data is used broadly by police to spy on regular citizens are “a damn lie.” But he acknowledged that civil liberties advocates have a receptive audience among many lawmakers because of the “strong libertine, independent streak” in Texas.

To be clear, nobody said that “GPS data is used broadly by police to spy on regular citizens,” so that’s a red herring (Charley’s a master at concocting them). But it’s also true that, because requests by police for GPS data are sealed forever, nobody can know for sure what they’re doing with the information. Similarly, nobody is saying that law enforcement shouldn’t access GPS tracking data to fight crime, only that the tactic in most cases should require judicial oversight and, eventually, the public should get to know how those methods are being used.

That said, there is some evidence that requests for cell-phone location data are being used quite broadly by the feds, including in thousands of cases where charges are never filed, but nobody knows how frequently Texas agencies use the tactic. Federal Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith in Houston has pointed out that, when “Asked to furnish … cases brought against individuals who had been subject to warrantless cell phone tracking since 2001, the Department of Justice identified…about 38 cases a year. Given that the federal government obtains tens of thousands of these orders every year, this data suggests that the government is spending more time chasing the innocent than the black sheep and ne’er do wells.”

My guess would be that how and how often Texas law enforcement agencies access GPS tracking data varies widely. Some may misuse the privilege, while others may be more circumspect. If this bill passes, we’ll get to find out. However, we know for certain that any possible abuses can never be uncovered under the current system, where not just the public but even Texas judges can be kept in the dark when law enforcement accesses those records, which require only a subpoena to obtain.

Unreported in the Dallas News story, but importantly, the version of the bill we’re shopping includes exceptions to the warrant requirement during immediate, life-threatening emergencies and when the owner of an electronic device has reported it stolen. Also, to clarify, the bill includes not just smart phones but also regular cell phones (which are used by 88% of American adults) and other personal electronic devices that generate location data.

See a fact sheet regarding the proposed legislation that we’re distributing as we look for bill sponsors. If you’re a lege staffer and think your boss might be interested in carrying this bill, or if you live in Austin and are interested in volunteering for the effort, please shoot me an email.

Originally posted on Grits for Breakfast blog.