Does Santa Claus visit immigration detention facilities?

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania


This holiday season, there are 41 children incarcerated at Berks County Residential Center, an immigration detention center in Leesport, Pennsylvania. Some of these little detainees are toddlers. The youngest is just one year old. This year they’ll find out whether Santa can make it past security at a federal detention center.

Many of these children came to the United States with their mothers seeking refuge from the horrific violence that they suffered in Central America, and have already passed a “credible fear” determination, meaning there is a good chance that they will be granted asylum, giving them legal status to stay in the U.S.

In past years, the Department of Homeland Security typically would have released these families to stay with relatives in the United States as their immigration cases proceeded. Releasing asylum-seekers makes sense; Toy Drive families seeking asylum don’t need to be put in jail. Rarely do these women and children pose a threat to anyone, and they have every incentive to show up for court to pursue their asylum claims.

But now, instead of releasing these families as they await their asylum hearings, DHS chooses to imprison all of them, shipping them off to one of the newly created federal family detention centers around the country—the Berks Center in Pennsylvania, another facility in Karnes, Texas, and a brand new, larger facility in Dilley, Texas.

The Obama administration adopted this policy of categorically denying release to all asylum-seekers from Central America as “an aggressive deterrence strategy” after an increase this past summer in the number of Central American mothers and children coming to the United States. The idea is that keeping these mothers and children locked up for the duration of their immigration proceedings—no matter how unnecessary, no matter how unfair, no matter how traumatizing—will deter other Central American families from seeking refuge in the United States, reducing the overall number of Central American asylum-seekers. In other words, the 41 children at Berks are pawns.

The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit Tuesday challenging DHS’s “no-release” deterrence policy as a violation of federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of due process, both of which prohibit the blanket detention of asylum-seekers for deterrence purposes.

But for the 41 children currently detained at Berks County Residential Center, litigation is far too slow a fix when Christmas is just days away. The children who are old enough to write have written letters to Santa, hopeful that he can bring them a little bit of Christmas joy behind bars.

Rather than leave matters to Santa, I reached out to Carol Anne Donohoe, an immigrants’ rights advocate who represents many of the families detained at the Berks Center, who connected me with the Center’s Recreation Supervisor, Sandy Schlessman, to help Sandy organize a toy drive for the 41 children at Berks. The Berks Toy Drive registry contains a range of age-appropriate gifts approved by the detention center and reflect what many of the children at Berks asked for in their letters to Santa. There is also a toy drive for the children detained at Karnes, Texas, organized by a local church in partnership with Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

Word has already spread around the Berks Center that Santa is coming, and the children are very excited, so please give generously to help brighten their holiday season. At ACLU offices in New York, California, Washington, DC, Texas, and here in Pennsylvania, we’ll be doing our part this December—and all the rest of the year—to ensure that the Berks Center and other federal family detention centers don’t have to become regular stops on Santa’s route.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.

Fairness and Accountability in School Discipline

By Harold Jordan, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Harold Jordan

Harold Jordan

On April 11, 2014, the School Discipline Advocacy Service (SDAS) held a symposium, “Fairness and Accountability in School Discipline: Using the Dignity in Schools Campaign’s Model Code to Improve School Climate in Philadelphia’s Charter Schools.” I was one of the featured speakers. SDAS is a coalition of law students who advocate for Philadelphia students facing suspension, transfer, or expulsions, both in the school district and in charter schools.

My presentation focused on how to achieve fairness and accountability in charter school discipline. Charters are privately-managed, but publically-funded schools that are run independently of the regular school system. This feature makes public accountability more challenging, especially in the areas of student discipline and student placement. I explained that charters are not exempt from the Constitution, some state education laws, and the federal school discipline guidance.

SDAS is a coalition of law students who advocate for Philadelphia students facing suspension, transfer, or expulsion, both in the School District and in charter schools.

SDAS is a coalition of law students who advocate for Philadelphia students facing suspension, transfer, or expulsion, both in the School District and in charter schools.

Other featured speakers were Matt Cregor of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice (Boston) and David Lapp of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania. The presentations were followed by a community panel of charter school administrators, student groups, and teacher activists organizing on the ground to effect change. Some 100 persons participated in the symposium.

Harold Jordan on WHYY’s Radio Times

ACLU of Pennsylvania Community Organizer Harold Jordan stopped by WHYY’s Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane to discuss “racial disparities in school discipline.”

Check out the full interview here:

From WHYY:

New information released by the Department of Education shed more light on a disturbing difference when it comes to school discipline — minority students are suspended at a much higher rate than white students. The same applies to expulsions and harsher punishments and the problem is particularly acute in Pennsylvania. With more research to show that zero tolerance policies are ineffective, some educators are rethinking the whys and hows of school discipline. In this hour of Radio Times we’ll talk about the issues around suspensions, expulsions and even arrests, particularly when it comes to minority students. Our guests are HAROLD JORDAN of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, DEBORAH KLEHR of the Education Law Center, and University of Pennsylvania education professor MATTHEW STEINBERG. – See more at:

How a School System Led Me to Advocate for Civil Rights

By Joy Miller, co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network

(credit: aclupa)

(credit: aclupa)

I thought that having your civil rights violated in schools was something that you only heard about in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that I would face the day when my child would be criminalized and have his rights violated by his school. I always thought of school as a place where caring people cultivate relationships with the youth and assist in enhancing their academic and emotional development. My son’s experience in the school district where we will live has been eye opening to say the least.

When my son was in 6th grade, he was arrested for showing another student a miniature Swiss army knife that he found on school grounds. Before this incident, my son was a safety officer and had just made honor roll a month before being handcuffed and hauled off the school grounds into a police car. Despite having a positive performance record, no considerations were taken into account by school district officials when levying heavy consequences.

I learned the hard way that when it comes down to the logistics of handling school discipline matters that it’s about knowing your rights, documentation, and legalities. I was shocked when I received a copy of my son’s written statement, which contradicted what school officials told me initially when they notified me about the incident. My son’s statement read that he wanted to bring a knife to school for protection, which couldn’t have been further from the truth! I asked my son what made him write such a thing, when he had found it on the school grounds and had shown it to a friend in the bathroom. He informed me that the first statement that he wrote said that he found the knife outside the school and had only shown it to a friend. However, he said that the statement was thrown in the trash by the assistant principal. She had instructed him to write it over and said that he hadn’t written the statement truthfully as it happened. My son told me that he had explained to her that he didn’t know what else to write, because he had written what happened the first time, which was the truth. He then informed me that he was told by the assistant principal that it was okay if he wanted to write that he really brought the knife to school for protection and that he wouldn’t be in trouble. So he figured that he would write exactly as she said, since he was told that he wouldn’t be in trouble, or so he thought.

In my eyes, I call this abuse of authority, subliminal persuasion, and pressure. I knew that the statement I was reading was untrue, because I was personally informed by the school staff that my son located the miniature Swiss army knife on the school premises, and there was never any mention of him having it for protection. What was I to do at that point? Too much time had passed, the statement was already written, and the consequences had already been determined. I was outraged that my son had been persuaded into writing other than what had actually occurred and made to incriminate himself to look like he had intentions to hurt someone with a weapon. By this time the damage was already done.

Seeing how the school district blindsided me with their questionable tactics, how they ignored my son’s long-standing efforts to maintain a positive record and labeled him a criminal, has been both challenging and motivating. The lesson learned in dealing with our school district has given me a new life journey and has taken me in a direction that has encouraged me to focus on educating and advocating for the civil rights of parents and youth. The challenges I faced during my personal experience has empowered me to follow in the footsteps of the many people that have stood for the rights of others. I want to ensure that other parents and youth are educated about their rights when it comes to the education and juvenile justice system, so that they don’t end up blindsided like I once was. The journey of educating parents and youth about their civil rights was a mission that I took on knowing that I would have a long obstacle filled road ahead.

I felt compelled to focus my first call of action on creating a parent advocacy support network that provides resources and services to parents and youth. As co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network, our goal is to equip parents with the education and tools needed to effectively address school matters using an informed approach. The idea to create an advocacy network for parents was not only inspired by my personal story, but also by the many similar school district stories that other parents have shared as well.

Since dealing with my personal school district matters and being empowered to advocate for the rights of other parents and youth, I have a deeper understanding for those before me who fought for the liberties of others. The civil rights leaders and social reform pioneers are the people who paved the way for organizations like the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network to exist. So as I walk in the purpose of those who fought for our civil rights, I honor humanitarians and social justice reformers past and present who dedicate their lives to the crusade.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Joy Miller is the co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network and a volunteer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Zero Tolerance: A Student’s Perspective

By Mykal Washington, Intern, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

Mykal Washington, sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus

In my fifteen years of living, it is only now that I realize that I and countless others are being victimized by a policy known as “zero tolerance.” Zero tolerance policies use predetermined punishments for specific violations and dishes out those punishments, completely disregarding the severity of the offense. A student could have politely disagreed with a teacher or said “no” in response to something a teacher instructed him to do. But it matters not because under zero tolerance policy, any challenge to a teacher is to be met with an automatic suspension.

A teen’s education is nothing to be trifled with. Minor offenses should not cause a student to miss school because it interferes with something precious – their education. The system of predetermined punishment, a.k.a. zero tolerance, does exactly this. Does this contribute to the learning process? School is supposed to be a place where children from all walks of life come to learn and further their knowledge. Mistakes allow us to recognize our faults and wrongdoings, thus bettering us as people and individuals. To punish us for every little mistake we make is to prevent us from growing. Children need to learn from their mistakes, rather than be removed from a learning environment.

This constant feeling of being watched for every move you make becomes stressful rather fast. It makes me, and I’m pretty sure a great deal of other students, feel as though school is our enemy, thus not encouraging us to be enthusiastic about attending. Is this the true purpose of the school system? At my school, Mastery Charter School Lenfest Campus, there are a number of different methods to mete out punishments, with the most prominent being the demerit system. Students at my school are required to carry around a demerit card with our school ID badges. The card lists categories of trivial and minor violations ranging from chewing gum, improper uniform (like having your shirt untucked), disruption, lateness, body language, language, disrespect, environment (e.g. leaving a workspace unkempt), integrity, and being unprepared. This long list puts students in a constant state of high alert, making us wary of every single thing we do. In my opinion offenses as trivial as simply saying “no” to teachers or disagreeing with them are not offenses worthy of a missed day of education. To my peers and me, this situation is absolutely unacceptable. It is sending a message to the world that education takes a back seat to talking back, that education takes a back seat to throwing a paper ball across the room, that education takes a back seat to an untucked shirt.

Besides these categories there is a wide range of offenses that “warrant” even greater punishment, like suspension, and I would know, considering I committed one. I was in 9th grade, and a fellow student and I were heatedly debating something when he suddenly threw a paper plate at me (we were at lunch). My first instinct was to throw the plate back, which I did. In the following moments I was swiftly suspended and missed a total of two days from my education due to throwing a harmless piece of styrofoam which traveled less than a foot across the table. The point of this anecdote is to illustrate the negative effect zero tolerance is having on students: while attempting to get an education we are being deprived of it for trivial reasons. Zero tolerance instills in us a fear of being suspended or expelled, which leads to us growing even greater disdain for school.

We are on high alert all the time – it’s not like we’re on a submarine in wartime – we’re kids going to school. It feels like the school is against us, that we’re in an adversarial relationship, which is the opposite of what school should be. How can we be inspired in this environment? How can we give our best? How can we believe that schools and staff wish great things for us? It is my belief that we learn better when we make mistakes.

Education is an opportunity to learn new things and to better one’s self as an individual. Education is an opportunity to advance in life and to broaden one’s horizons. School is supposed to be an environment where this opportunity is cultivated to its fullest potential. School is supposed to be an institution where the opportunity of education is pushed beyond its limits to constantly set new ones. So why is it that schools are attempting to deprive children, well deserving children of an education? The zero tolerance policies must be stopped for the sake of our children – our future. If not, disastrous results await us,. It will be far too late to repair the underlying problem.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Mykal Washington is a sophomore at Mastery Charter School, Lenfest Campus and aspires to a career in writing. He is interning this semester at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Since When is it Criminal to be a Kid?

By Maheen Kaleem, Stoneleigh Emerging Leader Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania


Imagine yourself as an adolescent. A fellow classmate who has been annoying you the whole year finally goes too far—he talks about your girlfriend. As a response, you use profanity, and you and the classmate start yelling at each other. Are you disrupting the classroom? Of course. The teacher hears the two of you. Instead of pulling both of you aside to have a conversation, or sending you to the principal’s office, he summons a police officer from the hallway.

That police officer has three options. He can take you to school authorities and assist the principal in determining what school discipline consequences you will face. He can arrest you and charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. If your actions are too minor to fit within the definition of a misdemeanor or felony under the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, the police officer can issue you a citation for “disorderly conduct.”

In Pennsylvania, “disorderly conduct” is a summary offense. It is the lowest grade of crime, and if you are a minor, you cannot be imprisoned for a summary offense. Sounds like it’s not that a big deal, right? Until you find out that in addition to being suspended, you have to go to court and you have to pay a fine. You aren’t going to juvenile court because summary offenses are heard in adult court. You don’t have an automatic right to an attorney. It is just you, a teenager, your parent, and the judge in adult court. And it is your word against a police officer’s. You and your family can be ordered to pay fines as high as $300. If you are found guilty, the incident will stay on your record as an adult criminal conviction.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently issued a report, “Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools,” which shows that black and Latino youth are at a disproportionate risk of being removed from school through suspension, expulsion and contact with law enforcement. Once students have one contact with the criminal justice system, they are likely to have further contact. They become alienated from school because of the stigma that comes with being system-involved, some drop out altogether. Convictions for summary offenses create an adult criminal record that later becomes a barrier to accessing higher education and obtaining employment.

Law enforcement officers throughout the commonwealth are issuing citations to students for catchall summary offenses such as disorderly conduct, harassment, and criminal mischief. Study upon study show that these low-level, non-violent acts are characteristic of normal adolescent behavior. Some examples of summary citations include a female student who was cited for telling a fellow student to “f-off” after he had been making inappropriate comments to her, and a student who was running in the hallway and accidentally ran into a teacher. Should this behavior be tolerated in a classroom or school setting? Maybe not. Does this mean that the student deserves an adult criminal conviction on their record? Absolutely not.

A magisterial judge in Pittsburgh recently spoke out against a new Pittsburgh Public Schools policy requiring that all summary citations be approved by the chief of school police before being issued. The judge claimed that sending students to his courtroom was a way to preserve school safety, because appearing in criminal court might “scare” students into compliance. This is the wrong approach. Summary citations are not issued for behaviors that pose a threat to school safety, and they are not issued in any consistent manner. Policies like the one in Pittsburgh decrease the number of citations issued for minor behaviors—they do not prevent school officials or law enforcement from taking all necessary measures to protect the school community.

School is where we learn how to interact with the rest of the world. Children make mistakes. Our first reaction should not be to push certain students out of school and into the justice system. If our goal is to keep our communities safe, we should work harder to keep our youth in school, and to teach all of our students how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Maheen Kaleem joined the ACLU-PA in August of 2013. Maheen recently received her J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center in May of 2013 and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. She has worked on a number of issues related to the women’s rights and racial justice, with a particular emphasis on the rights of incarcerated women and children, and a special focus on the needs of girls in the juvenile justice system.

Landmark School Discipline Guidelines Announced by the Federal Government

By Harold Jordan, Community Organizer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

From left to right, Damon Hewitt (Open Society), Sen. Chris Murphy (CT), Joyce Parker (Citizens for a Better Greenville, MS), Harold Jordan, Sec. Duncan, and Marlyn Tillman (Gwinnett Parent Campaign to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, GA) (credit: Harold Jordan)

Last week, in a major announcement, the federal government issued new guidelines for all K-12 public schools with the goals of reducing discrimination in the administration of school discipline and improving school climate without overly relying on measures that remove students from school. I was at the event at which Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder presented the federal discipline guidance, “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline,” and materials promoting best alternative school disciplinary practices. Appropriately, it was held at Justice Thurgood Marshall’s alma matter, Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore.

It is well known that different groups of students are removed from schools -by suspension, expulsion or police action – at dramatically different rates. Sec. Duncan opened the gathering by sharing the federal government’s most recent data:

• Black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled;
• 50 per cent of students involved in school-related arrests or referrals to law enforcement are black or Latino.
• 95 per cent of suspensions were for non-violent offenses.
• In Maryland alone, some 91 pre-K students were suspended or expelled during the 2011-2012 school year.

These trends are consistent with what we documented about Pennsylvania in our recent report – Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools. In Pennsylvania, black students are suspended at five times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities are twice as likely as other students to be suspended out of school.

Most striking was Sec. Duncan’s statement that these differences are not caused principally by differences in kids’ behavior, but by the actions of adults. Duncan added that regional differences in discipline rates – he compared South Carolina to one of the Dakotas – were not a result of differences in student behavior. The guidance document explores possible causes: differences in punishment of students for the same offense and seemingly race neutral school policies that are known to have a discriminatory effect. A recent study of the records of one million students concluded that black students are more likely than other students to be disciplined for minor infractions of the code of conduct.

Federal officials should be applauded for not just criticizing discipline practices, but for also identifying alternative strategies for making schools more peaceful without denying certain students a right to an education.

Moving the government to the point of taking this action was a long struggle. It took years of investigation, analysis, and complaints brought by parents, students, and community members to prod the federal government to move forward boldly.

These guidelines are only a start. Members of school communities must ensure that changes are implemented. The ACLU is firmly committed to being a partner in these reform efforts. In the words of Sec. Duncan, “The school-to-prison pipeline must be challenged every day.”

Harold Jordan is a community organizer at the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.

Red Lion School Area District chooses the low road

Issak Wolfe, a transgender student at Red Lion School District, graduates today. Graduation day is one of life’s big milestones and cause for celebration. Unfortunately, Issak’s big day will be marred by the fact that the school district has refused to respect his gender identity and will read Issak’s female birth name at graduation instead of the male name he has gone by consistently for two years.

The school district is not required to read his legal name.  It could have chosen to be kind, understanding, and accommodating to a teenager who has endured much unkindness already. Instead, they have refused this simple accommodation that would cost them nothing, but would mean the world to Issak and his family.

In a June 5 letter to the ACLU, the school district stated that it was in the “best interests” of the school district and the entire graduating class to announce Issak by his legal, female name.  They did not explain exactly how disrespecting Issak benefits the school or his classmates.

Although not surprising, the school’s refusal to read his male name was hard for Issak to take – particularly since the announcement was followed by a graduation rehearsal at which the administration stressed to the graduating class how important it was to graduates and their families for the school to read everyone’s “correct names.” 

School officials should be in the business of supporting students. They should model acceptance and compassion for others.  Instead, Red Lion School District has displayed pettiness and arbitrariness in its treatment of Issak.

Although the mean-spirited acts of school administrators haven’t always made life easy, Issak has worked tirelessly to make his school a safer space for his classmates and future students, urging respect for all students and an end to discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression.  Although Issak leaves the Red Lion Area School District today, he leaves behind an important legacy of tolerance.  Hopefully, one day the district will be ready to embrace Issak’s message.