Texas Students Thrown in Jail for Days- Punishment for Missing School #WTFnews

Texas‘s solution to truancy appears to be making kids miss even more school as they sit in jail. Alternet
June 13, 2013  |

School tardiness and absences come at a high cost in Dallas, Texas. Gone are the days of detention and writing lines on the chalkboard; now students are fined, even jailed.

The enforcement of the state’s truancy laws, which were strengthened substantially in 2003, have led to a range of abuses, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice:

  • Students have been taken out of school in handcuffs, held in jail for days at a time, and fines have totaled more than $1,000 for students who miss more than 10 days of school.
  • The students who are hauled into court to face truancy or lateness charges are not provided with legal counsel. The only lawyers in the courtroom are the judge and a member of the district attorney’s office, unless the student’s family can afford their own representation.
  • Defendants are charged court fees even if they prevail in fighting the accusations, discouraging people from exercising their right to a full hearing.

The complaint, filed by a coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled, targets the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson school districts in Texas and urges the Justice Department to force reforms and “declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy” a violation of their constitutional rights.

For their part, some school officials, lawmakers, and judges say that the rigid enforcement system has led to improved attendance.

In a statement, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins defended the program.

“The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, adding that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues, and make use of agencies who work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.

Certainly, the volume of cases has been striking. Texas adult courts in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases. Dallas County truancy court alone collected nearly $3 million in fines. It sent 67 students age 17 and older to jail because of truancy violations, and 53 students younger than 17 to juvenile detention centers. (Statewide records were not available.)

The complaint asserts that the program unfairly targets minorities and underprivileged students, and routinely puts youngsters in jail rather than keeping them in school.

Texas, like many other states, has been struggling with truancy issues for years. To combat the problem, the state legislature has passed a series of laws to stiffen penalties for absent and tardy students. In the 1990s, the legislature designated “failure to attend school” as a Class C misdemeanor, which meant that children could be tried as adults for missing school.

Texas state law now requires schools to report students to truancy court when a student has 10 or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. The complaint says that when students appear in court, they are often pressured to plead guilty and accept fines of anywhere from $80 to $500 rather than go to trial, pay additional court fees, and risk jail time. If students fail to appear in court or pay their fines on time, they can be arrested and jailed. Wyoming is the only other state in the country with a similar law, the complaint says.

In 2003, Dallas County got even more aggressive. According to the complaint, county officials lobbied the legislature to allow it to create its own specialized court system that would handle only truancy cases. The request was granted and since then four public school districts in the county have agreed to send their truant cases to the specialized courts.

Michael Harris, a senior attorney with the California-based National Center for Youth Law, said each of those school districts are predominantly African American and Latino, but are overseen primarily by white superintendents, and that the specialized court system is overseen by a white judge.

Chris Moore, a spokesman for the Garland school district, said the district has taken several steps to ensure parents are informed of their children’s unexcused absences well in advance of any complaint to the truancy court system. Tim Clark, director of communications for the Richardson school district, said the district always acts within the law in its handling of truants, and said that district officials would cooperate with any federal inquiry. In a statement on its website, the Mesquite school district said it informs students and parents about state truancy laws in the beginning of each school year.

A call to the Dallas district superintendent was not immediately returned. (If the district responds, we will update this article.)

“It’s pretty obvious that this program is set in school districts that do not have a large percentage of middle class white students. For example, the Dallas independent school district has less than 10 percent white students,” said  Harris. “These students are thought of in a different way by key decision-makers in the county than white students.”

A handful of parents and students interviewed by ProPublica say that the enforcement of the program has turned school grounds into something like a police state, with guards rounding up students during “tardy sweeps,” suspending them, then marking their absences as unexcused and reporting them to truancy court. According to the complaint, charges have been levied even when students have legitimate reasons for an absence, such as a family emergency or illness.

Ashley Brown, a 16-year-old high school sophomore and honors student at South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas, said she missed four straight days of school in December 2012. Her grandmother, who she cared for personally, died of cancer, and she stayed home to mourn her death. She was also suspended twice for three days, once because she got in a fight, and another time because she was late to class.

Brown was eventually charged with 10 unexcused absences, even though Brown’s mother sent the school the grandmother’s obituary, and suspensions are supposed to be counted as excused absences under state law.

When Brown received a letter ordering her to appear in court, her mother panicked and called the school to correct her daughter’s attendance record. Afterward she missed a day of work and pulled her daughter from school to appear in court and explain the confusion. Eventually she persuaded the judge to dismiss the charges.

Andrew Collins, the assistant principal at South Oak Cliff High School, told ProPublica that he believes in the tough truancy program.

“To an extent, I do believe if a student is continuously truant, sometimes fines help solve a lot of that,” Collins said.

Others haven’t been as successful as Brown in disputing their truancy charges.

Roddi Ann Schoneberg, a 40-year-old former pre-school teacher and mother of three, said she struggled mightily to get her children to school on time after her mother suffered a stroke late in the summer of 2011.

Her children, two of whom she says are autistic, were traumatized by the experience and often went into tantrums when they were supposed to get ready for school in the morning. Overwhelmed by her children’s behavioral problems and her responsibilities toward her ailing mother, Schoneberg said she brought her elementary-school-aged children to school five to 10 minutes late roughly 20 times in the first half of the 2011 school year.

She said her children’s elementary school in the Richardson school district reported each late arrival as unexcused, and in December 2011 she received a notice to appear in court. School administrators refused to help her, she said.

Schoneberg said she intended to contest the charges, but ultimately succumbed to pressure from court officers and a county prosecutor and pleaded guilty. She was told that if she wanted to contest the charges at trial, she’d be liable for court costs no matter the outcome. The complaint alleges that Schoneberg’s experience is not unique; it says the truancy court doesn’t provide legal counsel and frequently threatens children and their families with jail time in open court, thus encouraging people to plead guilty rather than go to trial.

The county prosecutor initially tried to fine her $2,600, but Schoneberg said the judge decided to reduce it to $609. She had to return to court on five separate occasions to make payments.

“It totally enveloped my life,” Schoneberg said.

The policy, according to the complaint, can be especially hard on special education students and the disabled, who often miss school because of their physical or psychological issues.

The complaint also describes the plight of a high school student who has asthma and chronic respiratory problems. It says the student sometimes needs to be out of school for days at a time to be closer to her medical equipment at home.

Over the course of the 2011 school year she had several multi-day absences caused by her health problems, and on two occasions she forgot to turn in a note from her mother explaining why she was away. She was ultimately convicted of failure to attend school and paid a $100 fine and $77 in court costs.

Her lawyer, Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney for a disability rights group in Texas, said the child ultimately missed as much school for the court appearances as she did for her illness.

But the complaint suggests these steps aren’t working: By the time parents are able to reason with school administrators and get them to understand why their child was absent, it’s too late— the absences have already been reported to the truancy courts through an automated electronic filing system.

“This is an actual school to prison pipeline in terms of how they send kids to adult criminal court for what’s really minor misbehavior,” said Michael Harris, an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, who said he spent hours watching students get processed by the courts. “Research shows that once they go to criminal court the likelihood that they’ll be swept up in the justice system again increases greatly.”

Harris and his fellow attorneys hope that the Justice Department will use the complaint as a roadmap to investigate the truancy court system in Dallas and eventually force changes to it.

They make several recommendations, like giving children proper legal counsel and refraining from taking them out of class in handcuffs.

A spokesperson for the Justice Department did not immediately return calls for comment.


When Cops Rape … and Nothing Happens #Vaw

The American Prospect / By Steve Yoder
Police officers who sexually assault women rarely face the consequences of their actions. How can that be changed?
May 23, 2013  |


When 20-year-old Sarah Smith got into an accident with a motorcyclist in 2008, it was nothing but bad news—she was driving with a suspended license. It got worse. When police showed up, officer Adam Skweres took Smith aside and implied that he could either make it look like the accident was her fault or give the other party a ticket. It depended on whether she’d agree to perform unspecified sexual favors. Skweres also threatened that if she told anyone, he’d “make sure you never walk, talk, or speak again,” and looked at his gun. That scared her enough that she immediately reported what he’d done to the police, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Another four years passed before the department arrested Skweres and suspended him without pay, and then only because he tried to rape a woman while on duty. By that time, Smith had moved out of the city for fear of running into him again. Three other women told stories similar to Smith’s, and on March 11 Skewers pleaded guilty to bribery, indecent assault, and other charges.

Stories of cops propositioning, harassing, and sexually assaulting women turn up every week around the country. February 18 saw the arrest of Houston officer Victor Chris for allegedly telling two women he would tear up their traffic tickets in exchange for sexual favors, according to the Houston Chronicle. Police chargedSergio Alvarez, an officer from West Sacramento, California, on February 25 with allegedly kidnapping and raping six women while on duty. On March 1, Denver cop Hector Paez got eight years in prison for driving a woman he’d arrested to a secluded spot and forcing her to perform oral sex.

“Police sexual misconduct is common, and anyone who maintains it isn’t doesn’t get it,” says retired Seattle police chief Norm Stamper, author of the book Breaking Rank.

Since no one is investing resources in learning how many victims are out there, we’re left with estimates and news accounts. As part of a 2008 study, former police officer Tim Maher, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, asked 20 police chiefs whether police sexual misconduct was a problem; 18 responded in the affirmative. The 13 chiefs willing to offer estimates thought an average of 19 percent of cops were involved—if correct, that translates to more than 150,000 police officers nationwide. An informal effort by the Cato Institute in 2010 to track the number of police sexual-misconduct cases just in news stories counted 618 complaints nationwide that year, 354 of which involved forcible nonconsensual sexual activity like sexual assault or sexual battery.

The news steadily filtering in from around the country has forced police leaders nationally to take notice. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women funded the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to develop a guide for police chiefs, issued in 2011, that encourages them to adopt specific policies in their departments to prevent police sexual misconduct. The DOJ funded the report after noting “recurring accusations of sexual offenses implicating law enforcement officers.”

Two years later, the IACP can’t tell whether its recommendations are making any difference.

No one keeps data on the number of victims of police sexual abuse, and the IACP says it can’t track the number of police departments that have adopted its recommendations. “We think there’s a good-faith effort by police departments out there to be more accountable,” says the IACP’s John Firman. But how would the IACP know, given that there’s no data on the number of victims or departments with such policies? Replies Firman, “Well, we could say the opposite—we don’t see a groundswell from people who are protesting their police departments for this kind of activity.”

If there’s no pushback, one reason may be that the victims fear retaliation. “Women are terrified and won’t come forward,” says Diane Wetendorf, an author and advocate who has worked with victims for many years. Even in cases that don’t involve cops, only about a third of rapes and less than half of sexual assaults are ever reported, according to a 2004 DOJ study. The number of women reporting sex crimes involving cops likely is far lower. “Can you imagine how much harder it is to report abuse by a police officer?” asks New York City civil-rights attorney Andrea Ritchie, co-coordinator of Streetwise and Safe, a program trying to change the city’s policing practices toward LGBTQ youth of color. One tactic of abusive cops makes that especially true—extorting sexual favors from women who fear they could be charged with a crime, in exchange for leniency. Victims think that if they report what happened, their favorable treatment will disappear.

Advocates say only a radical shift—stronger federal laws that force better oversight of local police departments—will prevent more cases like Sarah Smith’s. Ritchie, for example, wants to see the federal 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act—which established “zero tolerance” for sexual abuse and sexual misconduct by prison and jail staff—expanded to apply to anyone in police custody, not just those in lockups.

States also need to communicate with each other about cops who have been fired or allowed to resign for sexual misconduct. That’s not happening now—only 34 states contribute to the National Decertification Index, first implemented in 2000. That database holds the names of officers who have lost their certification for any type of misbehavior, including sexual misconduct, which allows police departments that are hiring to screen out bad-apple candidates. But without a national database to which all states contribute, the decertification system nationally will never work as it should. “It’s just nuts that we haven’t come together as a society on this,” says Roger Goldman, a law professor at the Saint Louis School University School of Law who’s an expert on police-licensing laws and has worked for 30 years to convince states to contribute to the database.

Maher thinks it’s time to create a mandatory federal database. In 1996, in fact, Senator Ben Nelson and Representative Harry Johnston, both Democrats, introduced bills to create a national registry of officers whose certification had been revoked. Both bills died in committee, in part because opponents said there was a lack of evidence that unfit officers were moving between states, notes Goldman in a 2001 paper in the St. Louis University Law Journal. That was the last attempt of its kind.

Advocates like Wetendorf think the only way to change the boys-will-be-boys police culture is to hire more women cops. Today women represent about 13 percent of the force, and that figure is growing at less than half a percent per year, according to the IACP. A report last year from the Rand Corporation said police departments appear to be doing too little to recruit women into the force. It also found that police hiring tests may be biased against women and that police culture may be marginalizing and discriminating against woman officers. Meanwhile, female officers continue to file discrimination and sexual-harassment lawsuits and are winning the majority of them, according to the IACP.

Activists have tried to draw attention to the issue in international forums, says Ritchie. In December 2007, 38 organizations submitted a report to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination documenting ongoing incidents of police sexual assault and harassment. They made the case that the federal government’s failure to address the issue violates its obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The groups submitted similar reports to two other U.N. committees.

Local grassroots groups also continue to organize. After a woman accused two Chicago officers of sexually assaulting her in March 2011, the group Campaign Against Police Sexual Assault held demonstrations in support of her during the subsequent court hearings. In Oregon, the group Portland Copwatch monitors and documents incidents of local cops involved in sexual harassment and assault. And Ritchie says that after years of talking to New York City’s police department about the issue, the department has finally told her it’s open to a conversation about developing a specific sexual misconduct policy—which is particularly important in a city where young women are summarily stopped and frisked by male cops.

Without those efforts and more, what Stamper says is needed—“a profound, radical change in policing”—isn’t likely. And thousands of abusive cops will continue to intimidate and take advantage of women they’re supposed to protect


Combatting Sexual Assault on Campus: There’s an App for That


May 3, 2012 , NEW YORK CITY — Appropriately enough, Circle of 6 was born on Twitter.

Nancy Schwartzman, a longtime advocate against sexual violence, first heard about it when her friends and followers started pinging her about a challenge issued by the White House to create an “App Against Abuse.” She called reproductive rights advocate Deb Levine of Internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS), and over the course of a few phone calls, they dreamed up Circle of 6, an award-winning iPhone app that helps prevent sexual violence and dating abuse and has been downloaded 28,000 times to date. It’s targeted at students, one in five of whom have reported experiencing sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during their time at college, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Circle of 6 works by leveraging the close circles of friends maintained by college students to create a safety net for girls who find themselves in unsafe or undesirable situations. After a user downloads the app, she’ll choose six close friends to be in her circle.

“The circle concept mirrors the tight circles that college students have, where your friends are your family,” said Ms. Schwartzman.

Having six friends on call also serves a practical purpose, said Ms. Levine, if you need immediate assistance. For example, a woman’s date is starting to make her feel uncomfortable at dinner. She can press a button asking her friends to call and interrupt the date, giving her an excuse to leave.

“Nowadays, everyone’s really busy, so if you put together a circle of six close friends, likely one or two will be free to get you out of that situation,” she said.

Ms. Schwartzman noted that the process of selecting and adding friends opens up important conversations about sexual violence and abuse prevention. A friend who is selected will receive an SMS text message alerting her or him that she’s been chosen to be in the circle.

“For example, my friends would get a text that says ‘You’ve been chosen to be in Nancy’s circle with a link to the site,” said Ms. Schwartzman. “So they’ve already had these conversations, and we provide resources for them about sexual assault and dating abuse prevention.”

The pair knew each other from their long experience in advocacy around similar issues. An independent filmmaker and the founder and Executive Director of The Line Campaign, Ms. Schwartzman uses an approach she calls “transmedia,” which engages multiple channels: storytelling, video, social media, and now mobile. Ms. Levine’s group ISIS promotes sexual and reproductive health by reaching underserved communities through online and mobile outreach. They teamed up with developer Christine Corbett Moran and graphic designer Thomas Cabus, working remotely to create the app over the course of a few weeks.

From their experience working with young people, the group came up with common scenarios that their audience would likely face.

“We brainstormed different commands that we thought would be useful, that really came from stories I’ve heard from students. What they could have used, what did they need?” said Ms. Schwartzman. “The philosophy was to prevent it before it happens. Say you stay out late at a party, and then all of a sudden it’s 3 am and there are hard choices about how to get home. Do I walk home by myself at night? Do I stay here with people I don’t really know? Or do I let someone bring me home who I also don’t know that well? None of those are particularly good options.”

While rape, sexual assault and dating abuse are fraught topics, Ms. Schwartzman is particularly proud that unlike some of the other submissions to the contest, Circle of 6 isn’t motivated by fear or paranoia.

“Using your phone to prevent rape could be very fear-based,” she said. “We didn’t want to base the app on fear, but rather on harnessing what’s really positive in young peoples’ lives, which are these tight knit friendships and connectivity. It should be easy for people to access people they know and trust.”

The app’s focus on violence prevention also represents an evolution in thinking about the issue, said Ms. Levine.

“With the passage and renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, there was a lot of focus on setting up shelters, crisis centers and crisis hotline,” said Ms. Levine. What’s different now, in 2012, is that we’re focusing on prevention. I think everyone at this point recognizes there’s a problem, and we’re taking care of those who are affected, but now it’s time, culturally and societally, for this to stop.”

Ms. Schwartzman, who has lectured on over 80 college campuses about sexuality and consent, said the response from students has been overwhelming.

“It’s really hard to talk about sexual assault all the time. People get really bugged out about it,” she said. “But when I show the video about this app, it gets a full round of applause. The students are so excited that people cared enough to think this through, and create something that prevents violence.”

Anna Louie Sussman is a writer and editor for the Women in the World Foundation website, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. magazines and newspapers.

FBI updates Rape definition after 85 years

 The FBI (FBI) and the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official websites] announced an official update of the federal government’s definition of rape [press release] to include the violation of “any person” rather than the previous definition that only covered women. The previous definition had been unchanged for 85 years. The new definition, “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim,” is primarily used in the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) [materials], an annual statistical analysis of crimes in the US. Before this year, any rape of a man was not included in the US government’s official rape statistical reports. This crime, not only under-reported, has thus also been under-represented statistically as well. Other updates are implied in this new definition with the inclusion of a consent provision:

The revised definition includes any gender of victim or perpetrator, and includes instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent because of temporary or permanent mental or physical incapacity, including due to the influence of drugs or alcohol or because of age. The ability of the victim to give consent must be determined in accordance with state statute. Physical resistance from the victim is not required to demonstrate lack of consent. The new definition does not change federal or state criminal codes or impact charging and prosecution on the local level.

The previous definition was simply “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”

Last month, the FBI announced that violent crime in the US has dropped [JURIST report], continuing a trend lasting for the past four-and-a-half years. Violent crimes, which include murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, dropped 6.4 percent in the first months of 2011 compared to the same time in 2010. Property crimes, including burglary, larceny theft and motor vehicle theft, dropped 3.7 percent and arson decreased 8.6 percent. The FBI data is a compilation of more than 18,000 jurisdictions that voluntarily participate in the FBI’s UCR Program. However, with the amended definition of rape, non-forcible rapes and rapes of men will now be included in the statistical analysis, so the violent crime rate next year should reflect that shift.


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