The problem with forcing schools to call the police

I realized after writing Friday’s post that each of those issues could be a post all to themselves and that you, dear reader, would be best served by further fleshing out the issues, especially the police in schools bill (SB 56) and the sexting bill (HB 2189). (The gay foster kids issue is pretty clear. It’s horrendous what the legislature has done on that issue.)

SB 56 mandates reporting of criminal offenses on campus by school administrators to both local police and to the state Department of Education’s Office of Safe Schools. The primary sponsor has a school in his district that was calling the police for student incidents but not reporting those incidents to the Office of Safe Schools. By not reporting to the office, the school avoided being tagged as an unsafe school.

So it makes sense to put some guidelines in place to be sure that schools are not ducking the Office of Safe Schools. And, of course, all of us want some incidents reported to the police. If a homicide occurs in a school, I’m pretty sure that everyone wants the school to call the cops.

But once you get past the obvious, things get murkier the further you go down the list of offenses. Here’s an example that is nearly identical to a real incident. Say a teacher who doesn’t understand autism touches a kid who is on the spectrum. Kids with autism don’t like to be touched. The kid reacts by kicking the teacher in the leg. The act itself is simple assault, but because the victim is a school employee, it’s aggravated assault.

Under SB 56, school administrators have discretion on whether or not to call the police on simple assault but must call the police for aggravated assault, under threat of a fine of several thousand dollars. So if this bill becomes law, that kid gets hauled off by the police, and it doesn’t matter if he’s 7 or 17. Think for a moment about just how traumatic it would be for a child, any child, to be taken from school in handcuffs.

With administrators having the discretion to report simple assault but being mandated to call the police for aggravated assault, school administrators will be left to determine where particular offenses fit in the criminal code. Third degree institutional vandalism must be reported to the police, under SB 56, but lesser forms of vandalism do not. If you’re an administrator and you have a $2500 fine hanging over your head, you’re probably going to err on the side of caution and report all forms of vandalism and all forms of assault. Why risk money coming out of your pocket or your school district’s pocket?

A problem already exists with schools relying too heavily on police back up to deal with discipline problems. In the 2006-07 school year, law enforcement in Pennsylvania found just 60 percent of incidents reported by schools to be arrest worthy. In other words, police considered 40 percent of the school-based complaints they received to be unworthy of their attention. Schools are calling the police too much, and that’s without SB 56 in law.

Ironically, one of the issues coming out of the inter-branch commission on juvenile justice has been that there were too many school-based calls going into police stations in Luzerne County. The excessive use of law enforcement by school officials funneled kids into the juvenile justice system, where two Luzerne judges allegedly took bribes to send kids to detention facilities.

We don’t know the future of this legislation. It passed the Senate last year. It has not yet been taken up by the House, but it’s possible that there will be a massive (omnibus) bill related to school issues. SB 56 could be in it. It’s hard to imagine the Pennsylvania General Assembly doing any worse by our kids.

Andy in Harrisburg

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The kids are alright. But the adults are screwed up

The 2009-10 legislative session at the PA state capitol is my first full session as ACLU-PA’s legislative director. I’ve been learning a lot and really enjoying the work.

One thing that I’ve learned is that state legislators really despise our kids. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, as I am wont to do in my blogging. I’m sure legislators don’t actually despise Pennsylvania’s kids.

But based on some of the initiatives that are being pushed at the state capitol, one couldn’t help but think that our elected officials have completely forgotten what is was like to be a kid and are not consciously aware of the damage that some of their ideas would do to the commonwealth’s children. Consider:

Police in schools. Last year, the Senate passed Senate Bill 56, a bill that mandates public school administrators to call local police when certain offenses occur in school. The original bill was spectacularly draconian, even requiring school administrators to call the police for disorderly conduct and tobacco possession. To the credit of the primary sponsor, Senator Jeffrey Piccola of Dauphin County, some of the most egregious provisions were amended out of the bill.

But the bill is still a raw deal for Pennsylvania’s children, especially younger children and kids with disabilities. There are no provisions to give administrators discretion for students’ with intellectual disabilities or for younger students. A kindergarten student is held to the same standard as a senior in high school.

Do you think a kindergarten student couldn’t be hauled off in handcuffs by the police? SB 56 could make it a more frequent occurrence.

We are hearing rumblings that a massive bill on the public school code will be part of this year’s budget and that Senator Piccola is insisting that SB 56 be included in that bill.

Sexting. We all agree that it is a really bad idea for young people to send nude or sexually provocative digital photos of themselves to their partners and friends. A photo like that might never go away.

The answer to this issue, according to Pennsylvania’s district attorneys and some legislators, is to arrest the kids, including the kid who willing takes a picture of him- or herself and sends it to a willing participant, e.g. a boyfriend or girlfriend. And here’s the best part: Some DAs claim that they are helping these kids. By arresting them.

Sexting is dumb behavior. It’s also borne out of growing young people’s desires to explore their sexuality, a natural part of being human. And the legislature and DAs in PA think they should be arrested for it.

House Bill 2189 would make all forms of sexting a misdemeanor. The bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week after a failed attempt by Rep. Kate Harper of Montgomery County to further downgrade this “crime” to a summary offense.

Meanwhile, over the last two weeks, legislative chambers in Florida and Illinois have also passed bills on sexting. Bills that made it a summary. Do kids have a friend in Pennsylvania?

Gay foster kids. It’s hard to believe that anyone could think it’s ok to discriminate against gay foster kids. LGBT foster kids often face abuse, as was well articulated in an op-ed this week by Cei Bell that was published in the Philadelphia Daily News.

In 2007, Rep. Phyllis Mundy of Wilkes Barre introduced a bill that she called a Foster Kids’ Bill of Rights. The bill included a non-discrimination provision that included protection for foster kids based on race, color, religion, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, age or gender. When the bill got to the floor of the House, it was amended to water down the non-discrimination provision and essentially make it a suggestion but without the power of law. Why did this happen? Because the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference didn’t want the protection for gay foster kids. I kid you not.

What kind of behavior, exactly, does the Catholic Conference want to be able to do to gay foster kids?

So Rep. Mundy has re-introduced the bill as House Bill 2338. The new bill includes the non-discrimination provision but without “sexual orientation.” Rep. Mundy went kicking and screaming to the strategy of taking out SO as a protected class, and she gave us the green light to criticize the bill for that omission. Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents did just that:

They can’t pass a bill that protects children from being abused in foster care based on their sexual orientation? I know we are battling mightily to add sexual orientation to non-discrimination laws, hate crimes laws, etc. But this is pretty despicable.

So let’s recap: Kids who act out in school, as kids sometimes do, are prone to being hauled down to the police station. Kids who explore their sexuality, as kids sometimes do, are prone to being hauled down to the police station. And gay foster kids can’t get protections passed by the state legislature.

The over-criminalization and abuse of our children has got to stop.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Reflections on Tuesday’s marriage amendment vote

It’s taken me two days to find some time to blog and to reflect on Tuesday’s vote on Senate Bill 707, amending the state constitution to ban same sex marriage. It was hard to miss it, but in case you did, the committee voted 8-6 to table SB 707. This is the third time in four years that this hurtful initiative has failed, and it’s the first time that the bill failed to get out of committee.

In 2008, this same committee passed, 10-4, a broader marriage amendment that also would have wiped out other forms of relationship recognition. There’s only been one personnel change since 2008, so three members who voted “yes” in 08 voted to table this time around.

Senator Daylin Leach has called the vote “historic.” He’s right. While this wasn’t an up or down vote on the merits of the bill, it was the next best thing. The eight senators who voted to table essentially said, “We want this to go away.”

Senator Leach has also said that the eight senators who voted to table had “courage.” I prefer to not say that this was a courageous vote. Voting to stop a bill that would inscribe discrimination into our constitution isn’t courageous. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The Pennsylvania Constitution has historically been used to preserve and expand rights and limit the power of the government.

But I get why Leach said that they had courage. For politicians, it’s not easy to switch your vote after you’ve previously voted another way. And the heat that the anti-gay crowd brings, especially the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, can be withering. After the non-discrimination bill, HB 300, came out of committee in the House, I swear some reps were cowering in the corner of their offices, crying for their mommy. (Ok, I didn’t actually see any reps cowering in the corner, crying for their mommy, but you get the point.)

We can’t say that the marriage amendment is going away forever. In an earlier post, I referred to it as a zombie freak show that never seems to die. I fully expect that the anti-gay crowd will be back for more next year or in 2012.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously after Tuesday’s vote. Their efforts are lying in ashes in Room 8e-b of the East Wing of the Pennsylvania Capitol.

Andy in Harrisburg

Say “Thank you!” Our friends at Equality Pennsylvania have posted a thank you message that you can send to the eight senators who voted to table SB 707. These eight senators need to hear how much we appreciate their vote.

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PA Senate ignores big problems, goes after gay people

A friend who is a senator likes to joke that the Pennsylvania Senate is where good ideas go to die. Apparently, it’s also the place where some bad ideas never die.

Like a zombie freak show yet again rising from its grave, the attempt to amend the Pennsylvania constitution to ban same sex marriage is back. Senate Bill 707 would embed discrimination into our constitution.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on SB 707, an idea that has already died twice, in 2006 and 2008.

Please contact your senator and ask him or her to vote “no” on SB 707. Don’t know who your senator is? Use our “find your legislator” tool.

It pains me to say this, but we almost have to encourage you to contact every member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That’s what our opponents do, and they are effective when they do it.

Since we’ve beaten this twice before, you probably know the talking points, but here are some ideas:

  • The constitution has historically been used to protect and expand rights, not restrict them.
  • A poll conducted last year by The Morning Call found that only 44 percent of Pennsylvanians want this constitutional amendment. 45 percent are opposed to the idea.
  • Pennsylvania is facing a lot of major issues, including a pension crisis, a drop in tax revenues, and prison overcrowding. There couldn’t be a worse time to take on this divisive, distracting legislation.

Here’s a full page of talking points (pdf) that you may find helpful.

This committee vote is going to be very close. If this bill goes down in committee, it could be the end of the efforts to amend our constitution to ban same sex marriage. Let’s do this!

Andy in Harrisburg

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Feds’ program to detect unauthorized workers doesn’t detect unauthorized workers

Once again, research has shown that the federal E-Verify program is not ready for prime time, and it is certainly not ready for Pennsylvania. E-Verify is the feds’ online database program that is supposed to tell businesses if an employee is work-authorized. One small problem: A majority of the time it doesn’t detect unauthorized workers.

Last month Westat released the results of a study commissioned by the federal government. A majority of the unauthorized workers that Westat put through E-Verify came back as eligible to work. In other words, E-Verify can’t do the one job that its intended to do.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who is writing the Democrats’ immigration bill and has fought expanding E-Verify because of its flaws, said Wednesday that the fact that E-Verify was inaccurate so often shows that it is not an adequate tool.

“This is a wake-up call to anyone who thinks E-Verify is an effective remedy to stop the hiring of illegal immigrants,” Schumer said.

E-Verify has long been a target of derision for civil rights advocates, particularly because the databases used in E-Verify are riddled with errors. These errors lead to eligible workers being denied work because E-Verify says they are not authorized to work. The errors disproportionately affect naturalized citizens.

The federal government claims that the error rate is low, with Westat reporting a .7 percent error rate. Of course, that’s 1.5 million Americans over the age of 15, so apparently the Obama administration’s message to those 1.5 million Americans is, “Sucks to be you.”

The companies that are actually using E-Verify report a much higher error rate. Intel has said that 12 percent of legal workers it put through E-Verify came back as ineligible. A major, multinational employer reported a 15 percent error rate. And a fast food franchise in Arizona with 24 restaurants has said that 75 percent of the legal immigrant workers it put through E-Verify came back as unauthorized.

Meanwhile, here in PA, some legislators think it would be a swell idea to bring this flawed program to the commonwealth. Rep. John Galloway (D-Bucks County) and Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) are pushing to get a vote on bills to require state contractors (HB 1502) and all construction businesses (HB 1503) to use E-Verify. These bills already passed out of committee and are being teed up for a vote on the floor of the House.

Regardless of the state of the economy, it’s never a good idea to implement state policy that hurts workers. It’s especially damaging in this economy with a 10 percent unemployment rate. E-Verify creates barriers to employment and can’t even do the one job it’s intended to do, weed out unauthorized workers. E-Verify is bad for workers, bad for business, and bad for Pennsylvania.

Andy in Harrisburg

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Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

The U.S. military and all of our intelligence services are facing a shortage of Arabic linguists – and have been for some time. In 2003, for example (two years after September 11th, for the math impaired), the State Department had only 60 employees fluent in Arabic and only five with skills sufficient to go on Middle Eastern news and talk television programs.

This shortage very well may have contributed to the tragedies of September 11th happening at all. On September 10th, the NSA intercepted two messages from known al Qaeda operatives who were considered “high priority” – “Tomorrow is zero hour,” said one; “The match is about to begin,” was the other. Because these messages were from high priority targets, they were shunted into the translator’s queue to be translated…which, due to the high volume of messages and the low number of translators, took two days. Until September 12th.

Clearly, a reasonable and effective defense strategy would be for our government to actually know what people from the Middle East (including those who mean us harm, those who may be trying to prevent harm, and those who want to engage in an ongoing dialogue about how we can improve international relationships and work together on safety threats) are saying to them and be able to talk back.

Yet despite all the talk of aggressive recruitment of linguists, signing and re-enlistment incentives, and stop-loss measures, our government seems intent on shooting itself in the foot when it comes to developing and employing a pool of desperately-needed Arabic language talent.

First, it rejects the already-established talent of men and women who very much want to use their skills on behalf of their country. Just one year after September 11th, the military discharged six Arabic linguists (along with three additional linguists in other critical languages) solely because they had been found to be gay. These “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” discharges have continued up to the present, including the highly-publicized firing of fluent Arabic speaker and West Point graduate Lt. Dan Choi last year.

Then, it harasses a young college student who is studying Arabic, detaining, handcuffing, and aggressively questioning him over the course of a four-hour ordeal as he tried to make his way back to school in California, because of the Arabic-language flashcards he had in his pocket. Among the questions Nick George was asked was whether he knew what language Osama bin Laden spoke. So now our government has made it suspicious behavior not only to speak a language that hundreds of millions of people around the world speak, but to develop language skills that are in painfully short supply and are needed for defense measures that are significantly more effective than violating the Constitutional rights of airline passengers who pose no threat to flight safety.

Maybe it’s just me, but perhaps we need some better strategies.

Becca in Harrisburg

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