Tag Archives: ACLU

Where Schools & Prisons Meet

The biggest appeal to me of working for the ACLU of Texas this summer was the opportunity to work on one of the greatest issues our country is facing: the tragic progression known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. This is not because the U.S. has an inherently greater percentage of bad or dangerous citizens, but rather because our criminal justice system is undeniably broken . And the brokenness isn’t just evident in the adult criminal justice system; its also evident in the institutions that pave the ways to our prisons: the mental health industry, the juvenile justice system, and the public education system.

The nexus between our nation’s schools and its prisons is a critical junction for youth. Classrooms should be the place where children, regardless of their culture or their family’s background, can learn vital knowledge and prepare to excel as adults. Sadly, instead of leveling the playing field, many schools only exacerbate the inequalities in society. Kids who need the most nurturing too often get pushed out of the educational environment and end up in our criminal justice system instead. The ACLU is doing a lot of great work to try to end this national trend, including several actions centered on policy work that I’ve been able to contribute to this summer. A couple of my favorites:

1. Making Schools Safe for ALL Children: Since the increase in school shootings and gang violence in the 1990s, schools have been under great pressure to maximize campus security efforts. One of the negative consequences of this development is that adolescent misconduct is now frequently handled by school police instead of administrators, often with damaging results. A key project of mine this summer has been assisting in the creation of a report on the use of force on students, including conducting open records requests to school districts and identifying the extent to which police use tasers, pepper spray, and other extreme tactics on kids while they’re at school. Many schools have no clear policies on how force should be used, nor any recorded data on how often force is used – a disturbing finding given how many police are guarding our nation’s classrooms.

2. Reforming Policies that Contribute to High Dropout Rates: While many of the reasons why students drop out of school are difficult to remedy, some of the factors that contribute to low graduation rates could be addressed through changes to current state policy. One example specific to Texas: by amending the current method used by the State Board of Education in establishing school curriculum, the Texas Legislature could depoliticize the process of selecting standards and better ensure that subject requirements are accurate and culturally suitable for all students. Relevant, educationally appropriate curriculum is a key to engaging students and reducing dropout. Because current curriculum adoption practices allow the SBOE to sacrifice relevant curriculum for ideological purposes, I recently delivered a report on this topic to numerous legislative staff at the Capitol in hopes of fostering support for a bill next session that would bring forth needed change to the SBOE and to the process of determining what is taught in classrooms across the state.

A second policy in need of clear revision: Texas’ law regarding truancy for students 18 or older. Unlike in any other state in the nation, students in Texas who are over 17 and still striving towards their high school diploma can be prosecuted for truancy for too many class absences. Many older students are balancing work or family commitments that can conflict with school, and facing court fees and jail time for truancy only increases the odds that they will drop out before reaching graduation. Part of my internship has been learning about detrimental laws such as this and identifying ways the ACLU can advocate for appropriate policy changes in the 2011 Legislative Session.

As I work to address these school-to-prison pipeline issues, I’m particularly looking forward to this weekend when our Austin office will host the ACLU of Texas’ annual conference. This year the entire meeting is dedicated to youth rights in school discipline and many of the juvenile justice issues that I’ve been working on this summer. It should be an inspiring gathering of people who share my concern for the education and criminal justice systems, and I look forward to sharing more soon about the exciting conversations that will take place!

Hello Texas Capitol…

Having lived in Austin for three years now, I’ve grown used to seeing the Texas Capitol building almost every day as I drive around the city. Until this past week however, I’d never actually stepped inside the distinguished building that serves as the seat of Texas government. Unlike many of my fellow students at LBJ, my road to public policy school came not through working on campaigns or prior studies of government affairs. Most of my experience has involved non-profit work in places far less glamorous than the Capitol: the crowded halls of an Atlanta high school, the desolate blocks of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the living rooms of AmeriCorps clients who were trying to find jobs and healthcare.

So on Wednesday when I first stepped through the mammoth doors into the East Lobby, I was mostly excited, somewhat intimidated, and completely fascinated to enter into a new realm of public affairs. My outsider perspective of the inside workings tends to range from cynical despair that it’s all corrupt, to hopeful reverence for the beauty of democracy – so I was curious to see how the real dynamics of the Capitol would compare to my notions.

My only assignment for my visit on last Wednesday was a pretty simple one: attend the Senate Education committee’s hearing on issues in special education and be able to report back with notes on the topics that were relevant to our current campaigns at the ACLU. Given that this was an interim hearing, my boss and I were surprised to find that the room was already standing-room-only when we arrived – seems a lot of people had a vested interest in this topic. Later I would learn that Texas ranks 49th in the U.S. in providing for special education needs, so it’s understandable that so many people are advocating for our state to do a better job on this front.

I crammed into the line of people standing against the back wall of the room and listened as the committee heard testimony from numerous Texas Education Agency officials and professionals in the education and health care fields. The discussions spanned across a variety of concerns regarding special education, but of particular interest to me were the ones related to school-to-prison pipeline issues. Parents often learn the hard way that special needs children are referred to disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEPs) at more than twice the rate of their population in the student body – paving the way for students who should be receiving individualized education and appropriate treatment to instead be funneled into the criminal justice system. Keeping kids IN school and OUT of the criminal justice system is what fighting the school-to-prison pipeline is all about –- and I’m proud to be working with the ACLU and other organizations to fight that good fight.

As far as my first impression of the hustle and bustle of the Capitol, the slow pace of the interim season doesn’t offer much to gauge thus far. No exciting walk-&-talks with politicians wheeling deals just yet – perhaps those scenes will come to life once the next session kicks off in January. On Wednesday the most lively scene was seemingly inside the one hearing I was attending, where I’m glad to say that some of my greatest ideals of democracy were actually being validated.

Though it was disheartening to hear about the sorry state of many aspects of special education, watching the public testimony part of the hearing was pretty inspiring because you’ve got to respect a government that will allow an open floor to its people. If you’re a citizen with something to say, then all you have to do is fill out a quick card and the committee will cede the microphone to you for three minutes of speaking your mind. So I got to hear from a woman with Down syndrome talk about starting her own business… and a boy with autism share about being bullied at school… and from incredible parents who dedicate their lives to caring for their special needs children. There is no guarantee that the Senate committee will actually make any policy changes after hearing their stories, but I am thankful to know that at least for a few hours their voices were heard – and hopefully better legislation and better practices will come about because of that.