All posts by ACLU of Northern California

Let’s Fix School Discipline in California

By Jory Steele

The school-to-prison pipeline is a heartbreaking problem with huge costs to our state. Not only are we paying more in criminal justice costs than it would take to educate every young person, California is losing the creative energy and productivity of too many students — especially students of color.

The legislature is considering taking a huge towards disrupting California’s school-to-prison pipeline. Assembly Bill 420, which requires approval by the Senate and Governor, will provide educators the guidance they need to keep more kids in front of a blackboard instead of behind bars.

California issues too many suspensions and expulsions, sending students on unsupervised vacations rather than keeping students in school and learning. In fact, California public schools suspend almost twice as many students as they graduate each year.

If you think that suspensions and expulsions cannot play a major role in sending kids into the criminal justice system, think again. Just one suspension triples a child’s likelihood of becoming entangled in the juvenile justice system within one year. A single suspension also makes that child five times more likely to drop out of school. The fact is that harsh punishment like suspensions, which are all-too-easily handed out, is often among the first stops along a pipeline to prison and the unrealized potential of our youth.

And the cost to our state is staggering. Incarcerating just one juvenile costs roughly $200,000 more per year than does educating her.

Let’s consider the role that race plays in determining a student’s likelihood of suspension. Young people of color in our state are much more likely to be suspended than white kids for the same behavior. Vague infractions, such as “willful defiance” can include missing a homework assignment or even wearing a hat. In fact, African-American kids are over four times more likely to be suspended than white kids for this largely undefined infraction.

This is California in 2013. It is mind-boggling that the color of a child’s skin can play such a significant role in the treatment they receive in our schools, and ultimately, in setting the course for their future.

There is one important step we can take towards fairness, justice and safety in 2014, though. AB 420 would bar “willful defiance” suspensions in elementary schools. It preserves educators’ ability to suspend older children for “willful defiance,” but only as a last resort, after other alternatives have been utilized.

AB 420 leaves in place 23 other grounds for suspension or expulsion, giving educators the discretion they need to maintain discipline. It places appropriate limits, though, on this subjective and overused ground for suspension that is so disproportionately applied to children of color.

“Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice,” Governor Jerry Brown stated emphatically in his State of the State speech this year. The Governor’s clever turn of phrase depends upon one fact being universally accepted:

Unequal treatment for children in equal situations is also not justice.

Jory Steele is the Education Equity Project Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

Banner Year for School Discipline Legislation Underscores Need for Even More Progress

By Jory Steele, Director, Education Equity Project, ACLU of Northern California

It should come as no surprise to Californians that our public schools are in crisis.  Headlines regularly decry California’s fiscal crisis and its devastating impact on our schools. One issue recently receiving a lot of attention is the shockingly high rates of suspension and expulsion, particularly for students of color, across the state.

Legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown are taking note.  This was a banner year for school discipline legislation. The legislature sent seven bills to Gov. Brown’s desk designed to reduce both the rates of suspension and expulsion and their disparate effects on students of color. We applaud Gov. Brown’s decision to sign five of those bills, which means that more students will stay in school, thereby improving their educational opportunities.

Does suspending students improve their behavior? Far from it. Students who are suspended or expelled even once are five times more likely to drop out, six times more likely to repeat a grade and three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system in the following year than similar students who are not suspended or expelled. Schools with high rates of suspension do not perform well academically, meaning that all students in the school suffer.

According to a recent report, African American boys in Oakland were suspended at six times the rate of white boys last year alone.  An April 2012 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reveals that in Stockton Unified School District, 38 percent of African American boys, 28 percent of American Indian boys and 19 percent of Latino boys were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year.  Last year, one high school in Stockton had a breathtaking 92 percent suspension rate.  Ninety-two percent.

School administrators are concerned about this problem.  A September report by Oakland-based EdSource found that 80 percent of respondents (who were school administrators) are concerned about the disproportionate impact of discipline policies on students of color.

While signing these bills addressing school discipline is significant, it is disappointing that Governor Brown vetoed AB 2242, which would have provided clearer guidelines on disciplining students for “willful defiance.”  Data show that some of the greatest racial disparities in discipline occur when discretionary disciplinary categories such as “willful defiance” are used.  AB 2242 would also have been responsive to the concerns of more than 80 percent of EdSource survey respondents seeking a clearer definition to vague terms such as “willful defiance.”

Though Gov. Brown missed an important opportunity by vetoing the bill, we nonetheless made great progress this year in helping to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students and are girded to continue the fight for further reforms next year.  

This Is the Year California Will Stop Shackling Pregnant Women

By Alicia M. Walters

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is a popular definition of insanity. Those of us across the country trying repeatedly to pass bills that would prohibit the shackling of pregnant women in jails and prisons are hardly insane. Dedicated? Yes. Stubborn? Possibly. Unwilling to accept women suffering? Absolutely.

This year marks the third attempt to get a signature on a bipartisan, unanimously supported bill in California (AB 2530) that would ban the practice of putting incarcerated pregnant women in dangerous shackles. Similar bills have passed two previous legislative sessions with overwhelming support from both political parties, only to be vetoed. Opposition from the powerful law enforcement lobby surely played a role in these vetoes. But we have persevered, and this year we’ve been successful in keeping law enforcement neutral. While we’re happy with this progress, we still need the Governor to sign the bill.

We’ve kept at this for several years for a fundamental reason: Shackling is dangerous for a woman and her baby. It’s well-documented that shackling pregnant women causes them to fall. Falls could cut off oxygen to the fetus and could lead to miscarriage, stillbirth, or fatally premature birth.

Despite how long it took us to convince law enforcement, the general public has gotten it right from the start. Whenever I talk to folks about how we’re trying to stop California jails and prisons from shackling pregnant women, the most popular response is, “What?! We even need a law for that? Seems like common sense.”

Yes, folks. It is common sense. The vast majority of incarcerated women are behind bars for low-level offenses and exhibit no violent behavior. The majority of women do not pose a security or flight risk, and with pregnant women, the risk is even less likely. So why is a state like California – a state once at the forefront of ensuring the health and safety of pregnant women in so many ways – resisting this?

Third time’s a charm. Whatever it takes, this must be the year. Take action and tell Governor Brown to sign AB 2530. Enough is enough.

Alicia M. Walters is a Reproductive Justice Advocate for the ACLU of Northern California

Clovis School District: Sex Education that Gets an “F”

By Phyllida Burlingame

California state law mandates that sexual health education in public schools be comprehensive, medically accurate, science-based, and bias-free. So why are Clovis Unified high schools teaching teens from a book that makes no mention of condoms, even in chapters about HIV/AIDS and on preventing STDs and unintended pregnancy?

Recent events, such as Representative Akin’s ill-informed statements about reproductive biology and rape – put the issue in a stark light. The brand of sex ed that Clovis high schools are peddling is putting teens’ health at risk – it’s dangerous, unlawful, and could have serious consequences if it is not stopped.

Instead of getting critical information about condoms and contraception, teens in the city’s high schools are told that to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancies, they should just “practice abstinence,” “respect yourself,” “get plenty or rest,” and “go out as a group.”

It gets worse. The curriculum teaches that all people, even adults, should avoid sexual activity until they are married. Additional materials compare a woman who is not a virgin to a dirty shoe and suggest that men are unable to stop themselves once they become sexually aroused.

The ACLU is representing parents, physicians and the GSA Network in a lawsuit against the Clovis Unified School District over this outrageous and ill-conceived curriculum.

Students need – and deserve – complete, accurate information to help them make healthy decisions. This is especially important in areas like California’s Central Valley, where Clovis is located. The Central Valley has limited access to reproductive health services and high rates of unintended pregnancy and increasing sexually transmitted infections among youth. At a time when there are cuts to so many services and programs for youth, we must demand that schools be a reliable place for young people to get health information.

Clovis schools need to do better by their students, by teaching comprehensive sex education that promotes healthy relationships, healthy decisions, and healthy futures for youth.

Read more about the case.

Phyllida Burlingame is the Reproductive Justice Policy Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

“Hands Off Our DNA” Lawsuit Gets Another Day in Court

By Michael Risher, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Northern California  

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said it would rehear the ACLU of Northern California’s lawsuit challenging a California law that mandates that DNA is collected from anyone arrested on suspicion of a felony. This suit is the only civil suit in the country challenging a disturbing trend toward invasive DNA collection of people who haven’t been convicted of crime.

The federal class-action lawsuit, Haskell v. Harris, was filed on behalf of Lily Haskell and three other plaintiffs who were forced to turn over a cheek swab of their genetic blueprint to police. Lily was arrested after joining a peace rally in San Francisco. Although she was released without any charges, her DNA is now stored in national databank.  

Lily Haskell and the ACLU are seeking to stop California’s policy of mandating that DNA be collected from anyone arrested for a felony, whether or not they are ever charged or convicted. The mandatory DNA collection policy is a result of Proposition 69, which was enacted by California voters in 2004 and went into effect on January 1, 2009.

Under Prop 69, anyone who is merely arrested for a felony must provide a DNA sample that will then be stored in a criminal database accessible to local, state, national, and international law enforcement agencies. Instead of being limited to serious, violent offenses, the new requirement even applies to someone accused of writing a bad check and could be used to take DNA from victims of domestic violence who are arrested after defending themselves as well as people who are simply wrongfully arrested.

It’s plain and simple: this law violates constitutional guarantees of privacy and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. Forcing someone to provide a DNA sample without any judicial oversight violates the Constitution. Under this law, innocent Californians will be subject to a lifetime of genetic surveillance because a single police officer suspected them of a crime.

A Scientific American editorial about the lawsuit makes this clear point: “DNA is not just a technological progression from fingerprinting. It is qualitatively different. As such, it needs to be treated as more than a mere formality of a police booking procedure.” 

Background: The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard the case on July 13, 2010. On February 23, 2012, a divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the law. The ACLU asked for en banc review (review by the full Court). Those oral arguments will take place the week of September 17.

The TRUST Act: Good for all Californians.

By Danielle Riendeau, Communications Coordinator, ACLU of Northern California

On Wednesday, July 18th the ACLU and community members gathered to support Juana Reyes, who is facing deportation after an arrest for selling tamales outside of the Florin Rd. Walmart in Sacramento and to urge the passage of the TRUST Act.

Juana Reyes is your neighbor, your friend, or your family member. The food vendor and mother of two was recently arrested, chained and held in immigration detention for two weeks (while her children were taken away and placed in foster care) – all because she was selling tamales in front of a Sacramento Walmart.

In fact, she’s been a food vendor for years – the trouble only came when a new security guard tried to remove her from the premises, and local police threw trespassing and “interfering with business”charges at her. Just like that, Juana was locked away, even though the charges were minor and eventually dropped. Her story is a bold reminder of just how desperately we need to fix the broken immigration detention system in California.

The passing of the TRUST Act – AB 1081, authored by Assembly member Tom Ammiano – in the state senate on July 5th was a bold, groundbreaking step forward. The act seeks to mitigate the failures of the utterly broken Secure Communities (S-Comm) program and help ensure fair treatment for law-abiding people in all communities around California.

S-Comm is a federal program that was purportedly aimed at deporting serious and violent felons. Instead, it has become a racial profiling nightmare for communities all over the state. People have been locked up and thrown out of the country for minor violations, and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s massive dragnet has even ensnared US citizens, thanks to database snafus.

On the whole, S-Comm has resulted in the deportations of over 75,000 Californians – more than any other state. It has torn families apart, made entire communities afraid of reporting crime to the police, and threatened public safety.

The TRUST Act will restore good faith and transparency between our communities and local police by limiting local jails from holding people on immigration-based detention requests when they pose no risk to public safety. It will allow local police to do their jobs and focus on public safety – for everyone in the community.

This doesn’t mean it’s a done deal yet – the act still needs votes and the governor’s signature. Call the governor today and urge him to support the TRUST Act, and help make California a safe place for everyone who lives here.

Meet the Man Who Kept the Rainbow Flag Free

By Danielle Riendeau

The fight for LGBT equality in the Bay Area has faced plenty of challenges. Meet Matt Coles, who has been fighting for them from the beginning.

The rainbow flag is known all over the world as a symbol of LGBT rights and acceptance. Here in San Francisco, a huge rainbow flag waves over the Castro District. But that flag came close to being a trademarked symbol that could have kept it from public use. In 1978 Gilbert Baker, the person who created the flag, came to the Castro law office of a young LGBT civil rights attorney in private practice named Matt Coles. Baker explained that he created the flag for everyone and wanted it to remain free for public use. He needed an attorney to represent him to challenge an attempt from an advocacy organization to trademark it. He didn’t have any money, but Matt agreed to represent him. Today, the rainbow flags that symbolize Pride Month are a symbol for the people.

The flag case wasn’t Matt’s first – or last – tango in the LGBT rights community. Now our Deputy National Legal Director, Matt has built an impressive career out of opposing discrimination and fighting difficult battles – he served as counsel in the ACLU/Lambda challenge to the military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, on the case that led to our first win in the U.S. Supreme Court, the challenge to Colorado’s anti-gay amendment 2, and on several challenges to Florida’s ban on adoption by gay people. He has figuratively – and literally – written the book on how to win LGBT Civil Rights: read Try This At Home for a few tips and tricks. When it comes to slaying dragons for the community, Matt is a genuine hero.

It all started right here in San Francisco. Before he came to the ACLU, he actually wrote the city’s first comprehensive law banning anti-gay discrimination – and California’s first as well.

What people may not know about LGBT history in the Bay Area is just how tough the fight for equal rights has been. Yes, the city has long been known the world over for its tolerant views and attitudes, especially where LGBT folks are concerned. This is where Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons started the daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s; it’s the city of Harvey Milk in the 1970s, home to the Castro and one of the world’s largest LGBT populations.

Back in 1982, the Board of Supervisors passed a domestic partnership ordinance that Matt wrote – but it was swiftly vetoed by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein. Matt wrote a new version that was passed in 1989, but was repealed by voters (yes, San Francisco voters repealed a gay rights bill – and it wasn’t so long ago). It finally passed for good in 1990, after 8 years of fighting tooth and nail for equality in what is often thought of as one of the most liberal and tolerant cities in the US. In 1991, a measure to repeal it was on the ballot again, but this time the repeal efforts failed.

The fight for full equality is far from over, in California and in the rest of the country. But you can rest assured that the ACLU will remain on the front lines.

A Little Kitchen Conversation

ACLU Nor Cal’s Associate Director Kelli Evans tells the story of how she responded when her 8-year-old daughter asked if lesbians were going to be banned and what would happen to their family. The ACLU is the Community Organization Grand Marshal at SF Pride 2012 and is blogging throughout the week of Pride.

By Kelli Evans

Recently, I was at home making dinner with my eight-year-old daughter Kaden. As I cooked, she flipped through the mail on the kitchen counter with the curiosity that only eight-year-olds possess. One of the pieces of mail was from a local LGBT advocacy group, advertising an upcoming event. Although Kaden has two moms, one of whom (me) works as the Associate Director for the ACLU, she doesn’t see the word “lesbian” in print all that often in her daily life. She’s certainly heard the word plenty and because of my work is familiar with words and phrases many people don’t learn until high school or later.  Words like equal protection, constitutional rights, and fundamental fairness.

For some reason, seeing the word lesbian in large font on the mailer reminded her of Proposition 8, the ballot measure passed by California voters in 2008 that banned marriage for lesbian and gay couples. Referring to Prop 8, she became visibly agitated and asked me what would happen if voters decided to ban lesbians from California. Would we still be her parents? Would we be safe in our home? What would happen to her and to our family?

I fought back tears and swallowed my disgust and outrage at the fact that my child has to think about such things in the year 2012. I looked Kaden in the eye and told her that no one was going to pass a law outlawing lesbians or LGBT families. I also explained that no matter what laws were passed that we would always be her parents and her family. While I knew that I would die before allowing my family to be torn apart, I also knew that I wasn’t quite telling Kaden the truth.

The truth is that in the year 2012 laws are being passed and enforced that discriminate against LGBT individuals, couples, and families, excluding us from the same rights and protections enjoyed by everyone else.

Kaden doesn’t know, for example, that her parents’ marriage (after being together for 18 years, we hastily got married the day before Prop 8 passed) isn’t recognized by the federal government. Or, that her generally fearless moms hold their breath every time we pass through customs, worried about how the agents will react to a two mom family.

She doesn’t know about the children of thousands of same sex couples across the country who are denied legally recognized relationships with both of their parents. Or about the fact that in states across the country it’s still perfectly legal to fire someone or refuse to hire them simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. She also doesn’t know about the LGBT youth and adults who take their lives each year or who are beaten or murdered simply because of who they are.

While I usually tell my child the truth, I didn’t have the stomach to in this instance. Instead, after reassuring her about the safety and security of our family, we talked about how one day everyone will look back and wonder how there ever was a time when equal protection, constitutional rights, and fundamental fairness didn’t apply to everyone. That’s why I work at the ACLU, where every day my colleagues across the country are working hard to make this a reality.

Kelli Evans is the Associate Director at the ACLU of Northern California.

California Pushes Back on the War on Women

By Maggie Crosby, ACLU of Northern California

Across the country we’re seeing ongoing attacks on access to reproductive health care. Massive attacks. The Guttmacher Institute released data last week detailing that, just a few months into 2012, hundreds of provisions to restrict abortion access have been introduced in state legislatures around the country. Several have already been enacted. Now, more than ever, it’s vitally important that California move in the opposite direction and continue its role as a national leader in ensuring that women have access to reproductive health care.

State Senator Christine Kehoe introduced SB 1338, which would remove barriers to care by allowing nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, and physician assistants to perform early abortions after completing thorough training. (An extensive study conducted by the University of California San Francisco showed that these trained medical professionals provide this care as safely as doctors.)

SB 1338, the Safe and Early Access bill, will be heard in Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee next week on Monday, April 23.

Roughly half of California’s counties lack an accessible abortion provider. As a result, many women delay treatment because they have to travel long distances or raise money for transportation and services. Consider the story of Jane, a single mom living near Lake Tahoe. She was not able to obtain an abortion at her local provider. Instead she had to take Amtrak to San Francisco to have an abortion. Because of the train schedule, she arrived the day before her appointment and had no place to stay. She spent her first night in the hospital’s bathroom, saving her money for food. No one should face these kinds of hurdles to access a safe and legal medical procedure.

The Safe and Early Access bill would remove these barriers to care by allowing specially trained health professionals to provide early, safe abortion services in the communities they serve. It would also help overcome other barriers such as long wait times for appointments that woman in urban areas face when seeking health care services.

Most women already receive basic reproductive health care from clinicians like nurse practitioners. And these clinicians currently provide medication abortions as well as services like vasectomy and colonoscopy.

Passing this bill would allow women in every part of our state to receive early, safe abortion care from providers they already know and trust, in their own communities.

Affirming the importance Californians place on protecting women’s reproductive health and rights, March 2012 polling by the Public Policy Institute of California showed overwhelming public support for legal abortion. It’s time to take the next step, California. Let’s make these rights a reality for all women in our state.

ACLU on the California Prison Hunger Strike

The ACLU of California supports the striking prisoners’ demands to end cruel and inhumane conditions in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison. These conditions include prolonged, solitary confinement in small, windowless concrete boxes with little to no human interaction and other severe physical deprivations.

Not only are such conditions inhumane and harmful, but they also jeopardize public safety. Solitary confinement causes and exacerbates mental illness, and prisoners who are subjected to such extreme isolation cannot properly reintegrate into society, resulting in higher recidivism rates.

An alarming number of prisoners are released directly from secure housing units into the community. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) must implement policies that enhance safety both within prisons and within our communities. Current practices do not achieve these equally important goals.

The ACLU calls on the State to re-double its efforts to engage in meaningful negotiations with the strikers to bring the hunger strike to a swift and peaceful conclusion. In addition, the ACLU calls on Governor Brown and CDCR Secretary, Matthew Cate, to significantly curtail the use of the SHU at Pelican Bay and other California prisons and to provide all prisoners confined to the SHU items, services, and programs necessary for psychological and physical well-being including warm clothing, out-of-cell time, and participation in rehabilitative programs.