Archive for the ‘Youth rights’ Category:
Most of us have all been on the receiving end of bullying at least once, but that doesn’t mean we should let today’s youth continue to be bullied, and the Texas Legislature agrees!
State lawmakers passed a law creating new guidelines concerning bullying which school districts must implement by the time school starts this fall.
The new law requires school boards to adopt policies that:
- prohibit bullying
- stop retaliation against any person including a victim, witness, or another person, who in good faith, provides information concerning a bullying incident.
The new law requires schools to:
- notify a parent or guardian of a student who is bullying or bullied within a reasonable amount of time after the incident
- provide steps students should take to obtain assistance and intervention in response to bullying
- make available counseling options for a student who is victim of or a witness to bullying or who engages in bullying
- establish procedures for reporting bullying, investigating reports of bullying, and determining whether bullying occurred
- prohibit punishment of a student who, after an investigation is found to have been a victim of bullying, use reasonable self-defense in response to the bullying
- develop a process for bullying cases involving special education students in accordance with the Disabilities Education Act.
Parents and guardians no longer have to worry about being in the dark if bullying happens or students being punished for self-defense against bullies!
Help us protect youth rights by joining the ACLU of Texas CAN (Community Action Network). We need people like you to raise awareness in your town!
By Kate Vickery
In June, for the first time in US history, a congressional subcommittee hearing was held on the use of solitary confinement. Senator Dick Durbin opened the congressional hearing by noting that over 80,000 U.S. inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, the highest number in history. This wasn’t always the case.
“We now know that solitary confinement is not just used on the worst of the worst. Instead we’re seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there and for many vulnerable populations like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates…supposedly there for their own protection.”
The testimony of people who had experienced solitary was incredibly moving, particularly that of Texas death row exoneree, Anthony Graves, who was housed in isolation for 10 of his 18 years behind bars. Mr. Graves was an innocent man.
Mr. Graves, was one of many. Texas prisons contain about 10 percent of the nation’s isolated prisoners, who spend an average of three years in solitary.
Last month, a group from Texas Impact visited the Hughes Unit, one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s maximum-security prisons. An excellent editorial in the Austin American Statesman this week describes the experience:
“We spent the day touring the prison facility with Warden Edward Smith and heard about all of the programs available for inmates. But the image of that small room, the huge doors and the men who languish there stayed with me.”
As Senator Durbin noted, incarcerated juveniles are increasingly held in isolation as well. While hard numbers are nearly impossible to get, we know that youth are held in solitary confinement in both state and local facilities.
Using isolation as a punishment is technically prohibited for youth in Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facilities. However, 24-hour isolation is a viable option in order to “control behavior that disrupts programming.” This loophole in policy allows youth to easily be placed in isolation, when it should be used only as the absolute last resort.
Isolation has particularly devastating effects on juveniles because of their incomplete psychological and emotional development. This fact was the primary argument for the Supreme Court’s recent decision to eliminate life without parole (LWOP) as a sentencing option for juveniles. The Supreme Court continues to affirm that children who commit crimes are fundamentally different from adults. They should be given every rehabilitative opportunity while incarcerated in order to increase their chances of leading a productive life upon release. Every hour spent in isolation decreases that chance.
Current Texas policies are far too weak to prevent the overuse of isolation. Reforms need to be made to ensure that solitary confinement is used only in the most extreme circumstances.
The ACLU of Texas is committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all persons in Texas, including the incarcerated. Unfortunately, the overuse of solitary confinement in Texas prisons and jails violates those civil rights, is exorbitantly expensive, jeopardizes public safety, and has devastating effects on an individual’s mental health.
To help reduce the use of this practice in Texas prisons, sign up for the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network.
By Matthew Simpson
Today the Supreme Court issued an important decision on how youth can be sentenced. Specifically, the court held that a life sentence without the possibility of parole is cruel and unusual punishment, as barred by the 8th Amendment.
In previous cases, the Supreme Court had barred capital punishment for juveniles and prohibited life without parole for non-homicide crimes. Specifically, Roper v. Simmons held that the Eighth Amendment bars capital punishment for children, and Graham v. Florida concluded that the Amendment prohibits a sentence of life without the possibility of parole for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide offense.
Today’s opinion, written by Justice Kagan, indicates two lines of legal reasoning that point to the unconstitutionality of life without parole for youth.
- First, youth are viewed to be less culpable generally because of a “lack of maturity” and an “underdeveloped sense of responsibility.”
- Second, juvenile life without the chance of parole has been compared to the death penalty in previous opinions. Because the Supreme Court previously determined the death penalty could not be applied to youth without violating the Constitution, any similar penalty would likewise be unconstitutional.
In Texas, juvenile life without the chance of parole was ended by a law passed in 2009. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) affirmed the practice, despite existing state law to the contrary, for youth sentenced to life without parole from 2005-2009. We hope that today’s decision will influence CCA’s future decisions on juvenile life without parole.
Overall, the Supreme Court has affirmed that youthful offenders are fundamentally different from adult offenders and criminal penalties for youthful offenders must take into account these differences. This line of reasoning could potentially mean further reforms in the future. For example, the court could consider the sentencing of the mentally ill with similar emphasis on the culpability of individuals with mental health issues. Or, the Supreme Court could consider the use of solitary confinement on juveniles who have been shown to be more negatively impacted than adults by isolation.
The opinion today is a step toward fair sentencing. Approaching justice with an individualized and outcome oriented approach allows policymakers to continue to develop criminal justice policy that makes us safer and encourages positive long term outcomes. In Texas, ending juvenile life without parole was smart on crime and today the Supreme Court indicated we also have a constitutional duty to cease this sentencing practice.
By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
Jarrell High School senior, Allison Brawley, got to take the date of her choice to the prom as reported by Texas News Service. Although Allison first ran into roadblocks, she—with the help of the ACLU of Texas—was able to negotiate a resolution that allowed her to share a special night of celebration with friends and classmates.
The ACLU applauds the decision by Jarrell High School administrators to adopt a fair policy that treated all students the same, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
Often doing the right thing isn’t easy or without controversy. By standing up for Allison’s rights in a measured and reasonable way, Allison and her mother set an example for other students and their parents to follow.
The ACLU of Texas is gratified that we were able to facilitate a positive outcome that showed respect for all parties involved.
By Amy Fettig, National Prison Project & Matt Simpson, Policy Strategist
Imagine locking a teenager in a bathroom for an entire day, a week, a month, six months, a year, or longer. What would happen to that child? She would miss school. She wouldn’t be able to exercise or burn off energy in a healthy way. She wouldn’t be able to interact with other kids or adults. She would probably have a mental breakdown. She might even hurt herself. If a parent treated a child this way, most of us would agree that such actions would constitute child abuse. In Texas county jails — and the majority of jails across the country — such treatment is simply a matter of routine.
An important new report, Conditions for Certified Juveniles in Texas County Jails, by researchers at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, exposes the terrible harms visited on children held in these facilities. The LBJ report finds that the majority of jails in its survey lock youth in isolation — often with less than an hour a day out of their cells. For these youth, the average length of stay in solitary is six months to a year or longer. While in solitary, education is almost nonexistent and mental health care infrequent. Children in Texas jails spend incredibly long periods of time isolated and alone with no prospect of rehabilitation.
While in solitary confinement, children’s mental and physical health is severely compromised. The LBJ report notes the broad consensus among mental health experts that such long-term solitary confinement is psychologically harmful for adults. For children in solitary confinement, the impact is even more traumatic. Children experience time differently than adults, have a special need for social stimulation, and are damaged by forced isolation more quickly and severely than adults. It is also true that young people’s brains are still developing, which places youth at a higher risk of psychological harm when healthy development is impeded. But the psychological harm is not limited to developmental issues — it often means life or death. As the report notes, the risk of suicide and self-harm, including cutting and other acts of self-mutilation, increases exponentially for children in adult jails who are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than their counterparts in juvenile facilities.
Reviewing the data, the LBJ report notes “the impact of prolonged isolation may have mental health consequences that will make it difficult for these youth to reintegrate, and may increase the likelihood that they will recidivate.” Solitary confinement hurts children and ultimately undermines public safety.
Given these obvious harms, why are jails in Texas and so many other states putting kids in solitary? The report notes that the practice of isolating youth arises from the fact that youth in adult facilities face the near-constant threat of physical and sexual assault by older prisoners. As a result, corrections officials place youth in isolation cells because they want to keep them safe and they have little choice because most facilities have few alternatives to protect youth other than solitary confinement. But we know solitary itself harms youth.
The lesson here is that kids simply don’t belong and can’t be kept safe in adult facilities. Last year the Texas legislature took an important first step to deal with this problem by passing S.B. 1209, which gives jurisdictions the discretion to house kids accused of adult offenses in juvenile facilities while awaiting trial. Now that we have the concrete data from researchers at LBJ, it’s clear that S.B. 1209 does not provide enough protection for youth confined in Texas jails. It’s time for Texas to fill this gap and work to ensure that teenage offenders are kept in the juvenile justice system where they have a better chance of staying safe, returning home and becoming productive citizens. The rest of the country should then follow Texas’s lead.
By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
Graduation season is upon us. For many students and their families, this is a happy time. But it may also be a time when school administrators teach their students a fundamentally un-American lesson – that it’s okay for the state to favor one religion over others.
Unfortunately, these administrators forget that, while the Founders left many issues up to majority rule, they viewed some rights as so fundamental that they should never be put to a vote. They created the Bill of Rights to protect those fundamental rights, including religious freedom. The First Amendment prohibits the state from endorsing or advancing religion and from interfering with any individual’s free exercise of religion.
At the ACLU of Texas, two of the most common complaints we receive during graduation season are that the graduation ceremony will feature prayer or that it is being held in a religious venue. While the specific facts of each case are vital to determining whether the school has violated the First Amendment, here is some general information about what is and is not permissible (this is not legal advice).
Prayer at graduation:
- Your school cannot sponsor or endorse prayer at graduation. Even a non-sectarian prayer is unconstitutional, because government entities like public schools cannot decide what sort of prayer people should hear. Additionally, courts have held that school-sponsored prayer is coercive, as many students feel pressured to participate even if they do not want to. The First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling a religious exercise.
- Individual students, however, may choose to pray, or talk about their religious faith, in a graduation or similar speech. This is because the First Amendment guarantees their right to freely exercise religion. Such prayer is constitutional only if the school is absolutely clear that it does not sponsor or endorse the religious speech. Therefore, at a minimum, school administrators cannot encourage students to pray; they cannot dictate, suggest, or edit what a student is going to say; and they must include a disclaimer on the event program indicating that they do not sponsor student religious speech.
- And of course, any student may pray privately, to him or herself, at anytime, at graduation or anywhere else, as long as she or he is not disrupting other students.
Graduation in Church:
- Schools are not prohibited from using a religious venue for a school event like graduation. However, the decision to use a religious venue must not advance or endorse religion. At a minimum, this means that schools should always try to hold graduation in a non-religious venue. A church should not be used unless it is the only viable location.
- If a religious setting must be used, it should be as welcoming to all beliefs and non-belief as possible. For example, if the church being used has many conspicuous, sectarian icons and symbols—such as crosses, crucifixes, menorahs, and the like—the decision to use that setting may advance the particular religion.
Think your rights have been violated? Tell us your story. Together, we can help ensure that all Texas students graduate in a Constitution-friendly way!
By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX. The ACLU works to advance educational equality in four key areas: sex-segregation and sex stereotypes in education, pregnant and parenting teens’ rights, gender-based violence, and athletics. As the actual anniversary date, June 23rd, approaches we wanted to take this opportunity to share a little about Texas’ own Title IX hero, Dr. Donna Lopiano.
Dr. Lopiano was named one of “The 10 Most Powerful Women in Sports” by Fox Sports. The Sporting News has repeatedly listed her as one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Sports.”
As the former Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a National Hall of Fame athlete, Dr. Donna Lopiano is recognized as one of the foremost national experts on gender equity in sports. Dr. Lopiano, who also served 18 years as the University of Texas at Austin Director of Women’s Athletics, testified about Title IX and gender equity before three Congressional committees, served as a consultant to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights Department of Health, Education and Welfare, on the Title IX Task Force and as an expert witness in 28 court cases. She has also served as a consultant to school districts, institutions of higher education and state education agencies on Title IX compliance and to non-profit organizations on governance and strategic planning.
While at Texas, she constructed what many believed to be the premiere women’s athletics program in the country; twice earning the top program in the nation award. She understood the full range of the impact of Title IX is not just about sports. It’s about educational opportunity: 90 percent of women athletes who exhausted their athletic eligibility at the University of Texas received a baccalaureate degree during her tenure.
Learn more about Title IX:
Check out the ACLU Title IX web resources which include a timeline, new web pages and an online feature, The Nine, which highlights nine of the heroes that shaped this historic legislation over time.
By Gislaine Williams
Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator
Students in Texas and across the country are remaining silent today to raise awareness about the traumatizing effects of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools. They’re taking part in the annual Day of Silence, a national event hosted by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that empowers students to stand up for themselves and their peers.
The Day of Silence started 16 years ago and unfortunately, its message is still relevant today. Schools are failing to protect students from bullying. Some schools administrators have condoned bullying against LGBT youth and even blame the victims of bullying. We’re concerned by the number of students being pushed out of school as a result of bullying and deeply saddened every time we hear of a bullied child being driven to suicide.
We must all work together to defend the right of every student to be safe in school. We commend the students standing together in silence today and support their efforts to create a better school environment for LGBT students.
Attend Day of Silence events in Houston and Dallas:
The ACLU of Texas will be sharing resources at GLSEN-Houston’s Breaking the Silence celebration in Houston at the University of Houston at 6pm. RSVP and see details at: http://www.facebook.com/events/219237144849640/
GLSEN-Dallas and Youth First will host a Breaking the Silence event in Dallas starting at 4pm. View the details: http://www.youthfirsttexas.org/youth-first-texas-and-glsen-team-up-to-break-the-silence/
By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator
Deaths of Trayvon Martin and a beaten Iraqi mother in San Diego are extreme examples of the need for civil rights dialogue in America. We started that much needed dialogue at our day long Civil Right Conference last month. A civil rights coalition made up of civil rights organizations from around the state came together to discuss Civil rights post 9/11, immigrants’ rights, and Criminal Law Reform. Hundreds of concerned Texans gathered for an entire day to listen. The day was topped off with a moving speech from Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!
Check out our full recap:
Oscar Chacon, Executive Director of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, kicked off the conference with a civil rights overview.
Understanding Civil Rights Post 9/11
Mustafaa Carroll of CAIR Texas Houston Chapter moderated the Understanding Civil Rights Post 9/11 track.
Corey Saylor from CAIR spoke about islamaphobia and civil rights post 9/11.
Rick Halperin of SMU said, “Free speech in this country stops at the sidewalk of the supreme court” during his presentation on the right to protest and free speech. One Twitter follower wrote: “Rick Halperin of SMU killer speech on US history of oppression and free speech.”
Matt Simpson [Pictured middle] from the ACLU of Texas followed with a great speech about national security and privacy issues post 9/11.
Baldo Garza of LULAC moderated the immigrants rights panel.
Krystal Gomez [Pictured far left] from the ACLU of Texas presented on detention and deportation. Brent Wilkes [Pictured middle] from LULAC followed with a talk on immigration reform. Geoff Hoffman [Pictured far right] from the UH Law Center Immigration Clinic ended the discussion with a presentation about local, state, and federal enforcement.
Tribute to Cesar Chavez
Lunch was served during a tribute to César Chávez by Frank Curiel who was once Chávez’s bodyguard and close friend.
Our twitter followers wrote: “Things I didn’t know about Cesar Chavez: he was an environmentalist and vegetarian.”
And “Great perspective on Cesar Chavez life & struggle of farm workers by Frank Curiel.”
Criminal Justice Reform
Watch the Criminal Justice panel. Tarsha Jackson from Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth moderated. Ana Yanez-Correa [Pictured far right] from TCJC presented on over-incarceration. Gislaine Williams [Pictured middle right] from the ACLU of Texas discussed the school-to-prison pipeline and bullying in public schools. Gislaine said, “talking in class shouldn’t be a class c misdemeanor!”
Bob Libal [Pictured middle left] from Grassroots Leadership talked private prisons.
Dave Atwood [Pictured far left] from HPJC and TCADP closed the discussion with a speech about the death penalty in Texas. Dave stated, “The death penalty on its way out. Except in Ohio and Southern states.”
The room filled up for the keynote address by Amy Goodman, host and executive producer of Democracy Now!
Amy urged listeners to actively fight for civil rights by quoting Barack Obama, “I don’t disagree with anything you say but you’ll have to make me do it.” If you missed her speech watch it here now.
We addressed the important issues facing our community today. Check out the Houston Chronicle’s article about the civil rights conference.
Special thanks to all the coalition members that made the conference a success:
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas
Black Heritage Society
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Texas – Houston Chapter
Central American Resource Center (CARECEN)
Houston Interfaith Workers Justice Center
Houston Peace and Justice Center (HPJC)
Houston United – Houston Unido
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Shades of White
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJP)
Texas Families of Incarcerated Youth
Think Peace International Inc.
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP)
For more information visit http://civilrightscoalition.wordpress.com/.
By Victor Cornell
Religious Freedom Campaign Coordinator
Recently, we asked people to take our survey about schools that have students vote on whether to pray at graduation. We received a lot of responses telling us how uncomfortable prayer at graduation made some people, and how they felt excluded or stigmatized at their own graduations. But we also got responses from people who were confused about what is ok and what is not when it comes to prayer in school. So let’s consult the First Amendment and see if we can’t clear things up!
Question: Why can’t students pray? Isn’t that covered by freedom of religion or freedom of speech?
Answer: They can pray, and prayer is protected! Contrary to what you may have heard on the news from certain former presidential primary candidates, students of all religions have the right to practice their religion at school. That right is protected by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.1 Students absolutely have the right to pray voluntarily in school, alone or with friends at any time that doesn’t disrupt classes.2 But here’s the part where people get tripped up. One of the most important ways that the law protects students’ religious freedom is by preventing the government – including government-run public schools – from telling kids when or what to pray. The same First Amendment that ensures students have the freedom to practice and express their faith is what protects students from having any religion or prayer forced on them by schools.
Question: What’s wrong with schools promoting religion?
Answer: Public schools are government entities; therefore they must respect all faiths and favor none. Along the same lines, the government cannot show a preference for religion in general over the beliefs of nonreligious people.3 Matters of individual conscience should be left to the individual, not forced upon students by school administrators or teachers. That’s the very definition of freedom!
Question: If the whole school votes and a majority say they want a prayer at an event, wouldn’t that be okay?
Answer: No. One of the most important jobs of the Constitution is to protect the freedom of the minority to practice a faith that the majority may disagree with. Balloting or voting for prayer still favors the majority religion over others and is unfair to the students whose beliefs don’t conform to the majority. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court held that by setting up an election and providing the stage for prayer, the school was still coercing students to pray.4 It doesn’t matter whether the person leading the prayer is invited clergy or a student or if the prayer is non-denominational; it’s all coercive and unconstitutional if school officials organize, sponsor or endorse it.
A few respondents to the survey worried that the ACLU of Texas was discriminating against Christians. But think of it this way. What would happen if a Texas school opened its graduation ceremony with a Wiccan Esbat ritual or a chanting of Hindu kirtans? Do you think the Christians in the audience would be offended? Do you think they might feel that they were being forced to participate in religious rituals that conflict with their cherished, deeply held beliefs? Of course they would! And rightly so!
The question is, “How would you feel if that happened at your graduation?” Unfortunately, it happens to students across Texas every year, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or atheist. We are reminded of Luke 6:31 (NIV) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The good news is, whenever coerced prayer happens in Texas, we are there, defending the Constitution and students’ freedoms of and from religion!
1Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.003.
2Tex. Educ. Code § 25.901. See also Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 512-13 (1969).
3See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985).
4Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 317.