By Matt Simpson
ACLU of Texas Policy Strategist
Rep. Kolkhorst of District 13 (Brenham) filed two bills that, if passed, would bolster protections for individual privacy rights of students in Texas schools. HB 101 mandates that Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) student attendance tracking programs be voluntary and only implemented if approved by the school district board of trustees. The approval process would include an opportunity for students, parents and the public to offer comments. HB 102 cuts to the heart of the matter and bars school districts from requiring students to participate in an RFID badge program.
The ACLU of Texas opposes use of RFID technology to track studemts because the technology is not secure. This technology, originally used to track livestock, simply isn’t appropriate for use with children.
RFID is a generic term that is used to describe a system that transmits the identity (in the form of a unique serial number) of an object or person wirelessly, using radio waves. In schools, students wear RFID equipped ID cards that show their whereabouts at all times. On campus, RFID raises privacy concerns about the ability of school personnel to track students, even in restrooms. Off campus, RFID exposes students to stalking because the devices are easily hacked using simple, inexpensive devices called “readers” that cost as little as $8 on Ebay.
RFID technology to take attendance in schools made statewide news in October 2012 when John Jay High School north of San Antonio began tracking student attendance via RFID-equipped school ID cards. Prior to this, only a very small number of schools in the Houston area used this technology but the use of RFID to track students has raised serious concerns for some time.
The ACLU has monitored the expanded use of RFID technology with students. We have opposed such efforts because we don’t want to see this kind of intrusive surveillance infrastructure gain inroads into our culture, and because it is against American values of privacy and freedom to teach children to accept intrusive surveillance technology.
Rep. Kolkhorst’s proposals leave flexibility with local schools but the decision about tracking individuals rightly remains with students and their parents. This is a balance that should transcend politics and remind us that parental authority is only temporarily (and never fully) handed over to schools. Parents and students who share our concerns about the kind of intrusive, surveillance climate student tracking programs create should be able to opt out.
In truth, the ACLU of Texas encourages all school districts to avoid RFID controversy by ignoring the claims of savings used as selling points by RFID manufacturers and avoiding the purchase of expensive RFID tracking programs. RFID was designed to track commercial products and livestock, not humans. Students don’t need to be treated like parolees under house arrest with an ankle monitor. Finding creative, locally grown solutions to support education, promote school attendance and education funding is critical. But, RFID student tracking comes at too high a price.
By Terri Burke
A few days ago we posted our response on Facebook to a proposed law that would require drug testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF), which was endorsed by Gov. Perry and Lt. Gov. Dewherst. Our post drew a number of very spirited replies from supporters and non-supporters. To those who commented, thank you all for writing. Let me respond to some of your comments to emphasize a few points:
Halyi, There is no evidence welfare recipients use drugs at a higher rate than the rest of the population. When Florida tried this, over the 4 month period before the courts shut them down, the state lost $45,000 and discovered only 2.6 percent of the folks tested positive for drugs.
Jonathan, this drug test will only identify drug “use” not abuse. However much some of us may deplore any drug use, there is a difference between use and abuse. Moreover, the constitutional questions raised by mandatory government testing are far more problematic than testing by a private employer. This represents serious government overreach.
Robert, children of the occasional marijuana smoker are surely better off with that parent than being thrown into the Child Protective Services system (I don’t know where you live but search www.chron.com for some very scary stories about that if you haven’t seen them).
Johnathan, the average TANF monthly check is about $200, according to Gov. Perry. I don’t know much about drugs, but I doubt that buys very many.
Keilah, if you buy the argument that the taxpayers have a right to demand that those who receive taxpayer dollars be drug tested, then why aren’t we demanding drug testing of all the veterans, the senior citizens who receive Medicare and Social Security, farmers who get government subsidies, entrepreneurs who receive Texas Enterprise Funds from the governor’s office, and so on. My point is quite simple: we are making poverty a crime. We are going to drug test a group of people who differ from these others only because they may be poorer, they may be black, they may be brown – not because they are drug users.
I’m sorry we disagree on this but I hope you will continue to comment on our Facebook posts, receive our emails, and continue to challenge us when you think we should be. It is only through these dialogues that we get a better sense of the thinking of all Texans.
By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator
Being released from prison isn’t just about being free. Former inmates face serious obstacles to rejoining society as productive members.
Mental health issues, lack of education, and minimal work experience are huge barriers on the path to a “normal life.” The latest national data indicates that about two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested within three years.
The transition from prison to home just got a little easier thanks to our coalition partners at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Their new website features resources for youth and adults seeking to rebuild their lives.
Housing services, legal clinics, employment services, educations assistance, and other services are only a few clicks away with this new tool. See the website in action by double clicking the video below to watch it full screen. Or try it out for yourself.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition works on issues across Texas’ criminal and juvenile justice systems to create stronger families, less taxpayer waste, and safer communities
Criminal law reform is a priority of the ACLU of Texas. We seek to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration and stand in the way of a just and equal society. Learn more about our campaign goals by visiting criminaljusticetx.org.
The ACLU and Human Rights Watch recently released the report Growing Up Locked Down which looks at the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement (22-23 hours a day isolated from human contact in a small cell). The report outlines a myriad of concerns associated with this practice.
Holding youth in solitary confinement causes psychological, physical harm, and social and developmental harm. Isolated youth exhibit mental health issues such as increased risk of suicide, self harm, and exacerbation of existing mental health issues. Youth held in this form of confinement also rarely receive the kind of exercise necessary for a normal young person leading to physical harm. Finally, youth in solitary confinement often do not have significant contact with family members, do not have meaningful educational services, and rarely receive counseling and other basic services. This problem is particularly dramatic for youth with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues. The report recommends a number of reforms to address this litany of issues, but in general this practice simply should be used minimally or never.
In Texas, youth are placed in solitary confinement in the following settings:
- County (adult) jails
- State run juvenile facilities
- County run juvenile facilities
- Juveniles certified as adults may be placed in solitary while incarcerated in state prison facilities
In each of these settings, youth face the same risks of harm identified in the national report. In some cases, for example youth housed in county jails awaiting trial, the youth awaiting trial are placed in solitary confinement without a criminal conviction. In county jails, youth are placed in solitary confinement to protect the youth from the adult population in these facilities, but ironically this protective placement causes many other problems.
To address these issues in Texas, the ACLU of Texas is asking legislators to support two important reforms. First, the ACLU of Texas along with a number of partner organizations is working to end the use of solitary confinement as punishment. Solitary confinement has such a negative impact on youth, it should only be used in emergency or dangerous situations for short stints of time. It should not be a punishment for failing to clean one’s cell or having contraband reading material.
Second, we are asking legislators to create basic review for any youth placed in solitary confinement. Drawing on the example of West Virginia, we have recommended that legislators pass a bill requiring the following:
- Any facility that houses youth in solitary confinement must create an oversight committee or an Administrative Segregation Committee
- An Administrative Segregation Committee will include at least one medical professional (either a mental health or medical expert)
- The Committee will review initial placement of all youth placed in solitary confinement in the facility
- The Committee will continue to regularly review the placement of the youth for the duration of placement
- The Committee will create a Behavior Improvement Plan for the youth which provides a graduated return of privileges and a roadmap for the youth to leave solitary confinement and return to a less isolated setting
The negative impact of solitary confinement, the human toll of this suffering, and the practical impact on recidivism rates of mishandling our wayward youth all argue for reforms to the use of solitary confinement. Ultimately, almost all youthful offenders will return to our communities and it is in our collective interest to ensure that they receive the kind of treatment and services that allow for success. Tell your local newspaper we cannot afford the lost lives or the increased prison population that is caused by overusing solitary confinement.
By Matthew Simpson
Parents and community members will have an opportunity to advocate for students at the Texas Legislature later this month. On Oct. 30, 2012, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee will hear testimony on a variety of issues facing students in our public schools. These are the topics the committee will address:
Alternative Education Programs
The committee will look at Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEPs) and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs (JJAEPs). Students are placed in DAEPs and JJAEPs when they are removed from the classroom. DAEPs are a part of school districts whereas JJAEPs are run by county juvenile justice boards. Advocates have expressed concerns about the quality of the education provided in DAEPs and JJAEPs. There are also alternative approaches to discipline that allow students to remain in a normal classroom setting that can actually produce better outcomes.
Racial Inequity in School Discipline
Second, the committee will review research that highlights racial inequity in suspension, expulsion, and tickets at school. Organizations like Texas Appleseed and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have found African-American and Latino students are more likely to be ticketed at school, expelled, and suspended. Special education students are also disproportionately represented in statewide studies. These trends raise troubling concerns about the way students are disciplined across Texas.
Zero Tolerance, Alternative Schools, and Student Ticketing
Third, the committee will consider how zero tolerance policies, separate alternative education campuses, and law enforcement in schools have become problematic in Texas. Zero tolerance policies require harsh disciplinary responses like suspension and expulsion when certain rules or laws are broken. The policies are widely considered a failure because they tie the hands of administrators. Even conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation are voicing concerns about this approach to school discipline. Another critical issue is the overzealous use of ticketing by law enforcement in school. Over 275,000 tickets are issued to students in schools EACH YEAR in Texas. Expulsion, ticketing, and suspension undermine school success and ultimately undermine the chances of any individual student graduating. It is essential that we address our high dropout rates as we move toward an ever more sophisticated workforce and economy. We can start improving student success by making basic reforms to suspension and ticketing policies.
Children in the Foster Care System
Fourth, the committee will look at how foster children fair in school and in the juvenile justice system. The committee will likely look at ways to improve case management and information sharing so that youth receive appropriate services.
Alternative Discipline Models
Finally, the committee will look at “[e]vidence-based models used for addressing juvenile delinquency prevention that are targeted to non-adjudicated, but at-risk youth, in the school disciplinary system.” Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is one school discipline model that helps keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.. PBIS is a good alternative because it allows a school-wide approach to school discipline that focuses on prevention rather than simply relying on punishment. Graduated Sanctions is another alternative model. This approach creates disciplinary consequences of growing seriousness with each infraction. Tickets or suspensions are used as last resort measures.
The good news is that state legislators want to improve how we handle discipline at school and are ready to listen to suggestions. We, as parents, students, and Texas residents, have the opportunity to weigh in at this hearing and in the future as these issues continue to be discussed.
Want to get involved? Here’s how you can take action:
- Learn more about school discipline.
- Write your representative.
- Meet with your local legislator: Sign up for the Community Action Network and email email@example.com
By Dotty Griffith
ACLU of Texas Public Education Director
This week is marks the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event that celebrates the freedom to read and calls attention to the wealth of creative expression that is stifled when books can be barred from library shelves. The ACLU has always believed that our country functions best when citizens exercise their right to freely explore the world around them, and, we’ll be blogging about banned books and censorship all week. Join the conversation using #IReadBannedBooks.
If there’s one thing harder to put down than a good book, it’s a good book that’s been banned by those who would tell others what they should and shouldn’t read. To celebrate Banned Books Week, the ACLU of Texas publishes a report every year about the books banned, restricted and challenged in Texas schools. We gather this information through open records requests to Texas’ more than 1,100 independent school districts.
Fortunately, there is good news this year! The 16th edition of Free People Read Freely reveals that teachers, librarians and administrators are working with parents to cut down on the numbers of books that are banned. More schools than ever refer challenges to academic committees instead of to an administrator taking unilateral action or to the politically sensitive school board. Some schools actually require parents to read the books that they wish to challenge. (Often that is enough to convince parents that the books have merit!)
Often hot button social issues – such as LGBT rights, and pop culture topics tinged with romance, like vampires – ignite would-be censors. But classics, like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, inevitably still draw complaints. Of course, we respect the right of parents to determine whether a book is suitable for their children and applaud cooperative efforts by teachers, librarians and parents to find alternate titles in those circumstances. We firmly believe, however, that one parent’s beliefs should not dictate what others may read.
This year we inaugurated the ACLU of Texas Banned Books Club on our Facebook page during the 30th annual Banned Books Week. We are reading and posting about our favorite banned books and encouraging comment on our page – check out our page to join the conversation. And be sure to check out the banned book quote of the day on the ACLU Nationwide Facebook page, as well.
By Nimrah Siddiqui
ACLU of Texas Volunteer
Americans expect that they will not be found guilty without a fair trial. A similar principle applies to sentencing of individuals found guilty of a capital offense which, according to our laws, includes the opportunity to provide evidence that the death penalty is too harsh in the circumstances of their case. On August 22, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of John Balentine for precisely this reason. The cancellation came just one hour before his execution was set to take place.
Balentine’s lawyer, Lydia Brandt, has argued that extenuating conditions in his childhood, such as violence and delayed emotional development, were not considered when the district court of Potter County handed him the death penalty. According to Brandt, Balentine’s lawyers in his original trial and early appeals failed to present evidence that could have persuaded jurors to give him a life sentence. Brandt cited a recent court ruling from Arizona regarding the issue of ineffective counsel, Martinez v. Ryan, to request a review of his case.
There are two phases in the death penalty trial. First, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the jury decides the punishment. This is called the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, attorneys can present mitigating evidence to prove that the defendant should not have to face the death penalty. The majority of death penalty cases involve defendants who have experienced extraordinary circumstances, such as traumatic life experiences or intellectual disabilities, that sometimes convince jurors the death penalty isn’t deserved.
While the system allows for the presentation and consideration of mitigating evidence, the system is also plagued by “randomness” and wantonness, according to a 2011 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The report looks at how capital cases are arbitrarily assessed and reveals how factors other than the severity of the crime or the guilt of the criminal can influence the decision to use the death penalty.
Ineffective legal representation often plays a role in death penalty cases, as well. In many cases, defendants who are unable to pay are represented by inexperienced or over-burdened attorneys. The DPIC has compiled a long list of cases in which the competency of the lawyer or the right to an attorney is at issue.
The Texas Defender Service is an organization that works toward access to competent defense and ensuring a fair criminal justice system in Texas. There current cases of interest include Duane Buck, Marcus Druery, Yokamon Hearn, Ricky Kerr, and Scott Panetti.
John Balentine was the fifth prisoner on Texas’ death row to receive a stay of execution in 2012. There are nine more executions scheduled this year, with two scheduled in September. Robert Harris is scheduled to be executed September 20th, and Cleve Foster is scheduled for execution September 25th.
By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
This week we released a report documenting that school districts all over the state routinely ignore the Constitution when it comes to religious freedom in public schools. Examples are detailed in, “At the Mercy of the Majority: Attacks on Religious Freedom in Texas Public Schools in the Decade after Santa Fe v. Doe.” Moreover, Texans who complain publicly are often subjected to ridicule and threats.
Check out our coverage:
According to the report, “The ACLU of Texas receives dozens of complaints every year from students, parents, and teachers across Texas reporting that local public schools violate students’ religious freedom in a myriad of ways: prohibiting students from wearing religious attire, injecting sectarian religious views into classroom instruction, and even endorsing and requiring student prayer.
“Yet most of the complainants are afraid of speaking out, even with the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court on their side. They fear if they go public with their concerns, their children will face retaliation at school. They fear social stigma in their towns. They fear loss of their jobs. They fear violence,” the report concluded.
Schools named in the report include:
Alief ISD p. 22
Athens ISD p. 46
Brazosport ISD p. 32
Brownsville ISD p. 21
Celina ISD p. 26, 32
Cleburne ISD p. 32, 42
Clint ISD p. 20
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD p. 30, 32
Dallas ISD p. 21, 44
Dayton ISD p. 28, 32
Deer Park ISD p. 28
Ector County ISD p. 32, 35
El Paso ISD p. 25
Grand Prairie ISD p. 25
Fort Bend ISD p. 22
Fredericksburg ISD p. 32, 42
Honda ISD p. 26
Humble ISD p. 26, 28
Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD p. 45
Irving ISD p. 32, 44
Joshua ISD p. 32
King HS, Corpus Christi ISD p. 29
Liberty-Eylau ISD p. 41
Lubbock ISD p. 35
Lufkin ISD p. 32, 43
Magnolia ISD p. 25, 27, 32
Nacogdoches ISD p. 32, 40
Navasota ISD p. 41-42
North Lamar ISD p. 46
Panhandle ISD p. 28, 32
Rockwall ISD p. 41
Round Rock ISD p. 31
Socorro ISD p. 25, 47
Somerset ISD p. 20
Spring ISD p. 20
Texas City ISD p. 22
Willis ISD p. 32, 35
Wylie ISD p. 32
Ysleta ISD p. 45
Tags: religious freedom
By Debbie Russell
Editor’s Note: The Harris County hearing was reset for three weeks from today. State District Judge Joan Campbell told the prosecutors she was “floored” that the role of an Austin
police detective has not been disclosed.
Our friends at the ACLU-MA have already provided the linear version of events here. A more detailed account by Jordan Smith of The Austin Chronicle is here. First to break the news was an active Occupy Austin participant, Kit O’Connell, blogging here at FiredogLake.com, which includes the most relevant portions of the transcript of the hearing in Houston last week that brought to light these activities.
On Wednesday, September 5, in a Harris County court, a judge will rule to proceed forward or move to dismiss, essentially by suppressing much of the prosecution’s evidence against the Occupiers.
Background: Across the United States, urban police departments prioritize the drug war and the so-called “war on terror” over simply rooting out violent criminals. The war on drugs targets non-violent, low-level users for the most part, in an effort to log higher arrest numbers such that it appears they are doing their job. The war on terror, formerly the purview of federal entities, and now being done in conjunction with them, takes many forms including: data-mining; spying on people without prior cause; infiltration of activist groups (many times acting as provocateurs); and the use of military tactics to chill free speech.
Case in point: Evidence is mounting that an undercover Austin Police detective induced members of Occupy Austin to commit felony obstruction of a roadway during a demonstration in Houston in December 2011. Or, did he – and two colleagues – intervene in protester plans in order to keep them, and police and firefighters responding to the Houston protest, safe?
The big question is did Austin Police Chief Acevedo order or approve the operation? There’s no doubt that it happened…one of the undercovers proudly admitted it in a court hearing last week. He said he pushed for activists to “step it up” and suggested building lock boxes – a riskier action than simply linking arms to block a roadway. The problem is, participants didn’t know it was “felony” risky! Never before had this action brought more than a misdemeanor charge, but an assistant district attorney in Harris County found a way to bump it up by claiming the lock boxes could have been hiding explosives (a sad irony since the real activists are committed to non-violence).The main risk with lockboxes is that they can be harmful to the users depending on how public safety officials choose to remove them.
Bottom line: Those in charge of our public safety not only lied about who they were and encouraged riskier actions than were being initially planned, but they bought the materials, assembled them and delivered the “criminal instruments” to the activists, putting them at risk of injury and unintended commission of a felony. In no way did this activity by APD protect anyone from harm. In fact, it created it.
Debbie Russell is an Austin-based activist and ACLU of Texas volunteer.
By Sarah Guidry
Interim Executive Director
Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy
Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University
I recently found out that back in the late 1800s, my paternal great grandfather purchased land and built a school for the education of his children and grandchildren. I recall hearing my father talk about how his grandfather had volumes of Shakespeare on his book shelves that contributed to my father’s yearning to learn. As a child, not a single day passed without my parents and grandparents “preaching” the importance of education. As parents and grandparents of African American children, they knew, as I do, that education is a way to a better life. Education improves key aspects of life including financial, social, familial, and spiritual. Education is power!
My forbearers would never have envisioned today’s educational system that routinely criminalizes our children and closes the doors of opportunity. Students are pushed towards lifelong involvement in the criminal justice system when they are ticketed for relatively minor disciplinary issues. This phenomenon is now widely referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy, Inc. (ECI), is a research, writing, and advocacy think tank, affiliated with the Thurgood Marshall School of Law on the campus of Texas Southern University, a historically black university. The institute is one of the few organizations providing legal representation to students in school ticketing cases.
We frequently represent children in cases we consider particularly egregious; which brings to mind the story of a student we’ll call Mick. Mick retained the ECI Juvenile Justice Project to represent him in a school ticket case. Mick has ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which most often manifests through difficulty with social interaction, and repetitive and restricted patterns of behavior. Mick has an issue with elopement. That’s when a student leaves a permissible area of containment and enters onto another part of the school grounds unsupervised or without permission.
Mick was issued a ticket for trespassing on school grounds after he eloped from his Behavior Support classroom. Mick’s Individual Education Program specifically requires that his emergency contact (in this case, his mother) be notified immediately if Mick elopes, before involving the police. Multiple school personnel followed Mick around the campus for two hours; never once notifying his mother. One of the principals finally suspended Mick to have an excuse to call police. School policy holds that the only lawful place a suspended student may physically “wait” is in the front office. If the student leaves that area or refuses to go to the office, the school may call the police to arrest the student for “trespass.” Only after six squad cars arrived on scene, and Mick was handcuffed and placed in the back seat of a squad car, was Mick’s mother notified of the situation. This was Mick’s third ticket for behavior related to his disability.
ECI was ultimately able to get Mick’s case dismissed. Mick potentially could have had three criminal misdemeanor convictions against him, all by the age of 12, possibly affecting his dream of going to college to earn a degree in computer science and becoming a gaming designer.
Other cases have included a student:
* With anxiety disorder ticketed for disruption of class for singing the ABC song which calms him;
* Overheard saying a curse word in the hallway that was ticketed for disruption of class/profanity;
* With Asperger’s Syndrome who was ticketed for assault when he brushed past a substitute teacher to leave the classroom and walk a certain hallway. He was following his school behavior plan for when he starts to have a meltdown;
* Who was bullied, including being held down and beaten. After the third bullying incident when he’s had enough and tries to defend himself, he is ticketed for disruption of school by affraying (fighting)
* Who, at age 17 and in the ninth grade, was told to withdraw from school and get a GED despite his low grade functioning (4th grade level) and in violation of the school’s duty under federal law to supply services that will allow him to be successful in school. He then was slapped with truancy fines and the court issued warrants for unpaid fines even though the student only receives social security disability benefits and could not pay.
ECI believes that the school ticketing issue should be of particular concern to the African American community. According to a report issued by Texas Appleseed, 97 percent of school tickets are discretionary (meaning the school does not have to issue the ticket). Moreover, young African Americans receive a disproportionate number of these tickets. In some school districts, African Americans are ticketed at a rate double their percentage of the school population.
We cannot afford to stand back and watch the efforts of our great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents eroded by a school system that would rather send children to jail than to college. If you need help fighting this up-hill battle, please contact the Earl Carl Institute at 713.313.1139 or visit our website at www.earlcarlinstitute.org for more information.