Equal Access to Prom

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.

Know Your Rights at the Polls

The Justice Department found that Texas's Photo Voter ID law discriminates against minority voters. Spread the word.

Early voting in the Texas primaries began May 14th, and we’ve been hearing from people around the state about the unprecedented level of confusion among voters, media, and even election officials over the Photo Voter ID law that was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011.

Let’s set the record straight! The Photo Voter ID law is NOT in effect, and you can vote in the primary as you always have.

Learn more about your voting rights at the polls.

The Justice Department (DOJ) found that Texas’s Photo Voter ID law discriminates against minority voters, many of whom lack the kinds of ID the law requires. DOJ blocked the law, and although the State of Texas has sued DOJ and challenged the Voting Rights Act, that case is still pending.

Of course, Texas law has always required that voters show some form of ID, and that is still the case for this election. But it doesn’t have to be a photo ID. Your voter registration certificate, for example, is perfectly acceptable!

Know your rights when you go to the polls.

16 and Solitary: Texas Jails Isolate Children

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.

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Tips for a Constitution-Friendly Graduation

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!

Title IX – Not Just About Sports

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.

Title XI

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.

Title IXLearn 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.