Politicians in Harrisburg are Using People With Down Syndrome

By Rabbi Mordechai Liebling

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives recently passed HB 2050, a bill that attempts to restrict abortion based on a Down syndrome diagnosis. They did so without holding a single public hearing, and the bill is now before the state Senate. I’m the parent of a son with Down syndrome, and I can tell you what this bill truly is: an attack on a woman’s right to control her own reproductive care decisions in our commonwealth.

The bill would make it a felony to terminate a pregnancy based solely on a prenatal diagnosis that a fetus has Down syndrome. It copies legislative efforts in several other states that restrict abortion access and are now facing legal challenges over their constitutionality. It’s also an infuriating exploitation of people with Down syndrome as political pawns by Harrisburg politicians so eager to interfere with Pennsylvanians’ reproductive freedom.

There are a lot of misperceptions of what it’s like to raise a child with Down syndrome. The reality is that never before have the opportunities been so great for people with cognitive disabilities, from employment opportunities to the level of acceptance in society. If this proposed legislation was truly about protecting the wellbeing of people with Down syndrome, then it would mandate more funding for genetic education and genetic counseling about the realities of having a child with Down syndrome.

Any parent with a child with Down syndrome will tell you their child is a blessing, and our son Lior has added so much to my family. Now 27, he attended a two-year program at Temple University for people with cognitive disabilities and works full-time while living in an independent living community. It’s critical that people understand the possibilities that exist for people with cognitive disabilities, including specially designed college programs and state and local services. Any new legislation should focus on widening access to such possibilities.

The Liebling family

It makes me angry that people with Down syndrome are being used as bargaining chips in Harrisburg to restrict a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her reproductive healthcare. This is purely a manipulative play by anti-abortion legislators, one that we need to fight not only in Pennsylvania’s legislature, but nationwide.

Not all people whose lives are touched by Down Syndrome or cognitive disabilities agree that this bill is the way to advocate for people with those disabilities. Having Lior has brought immeasurable joy to my family, and I’m so glad he came into our lives. But that doesn’t mean parenthood is my – or Harrisburg politicians’ – decision to make for anyone else.

Take action! Tell your state senator to vote NO on House Bill 2050 by clicking this link. Women’s access to reproductive healthcare depends on it!

PA House of Representatives Hopefuls Share Bold Vision for Criminal Justice Reform in Allegheny County and Across Pennsylvania

By Ian Pajer-Rogers, Communications Strategist, Campaign for Smart Justice, ACLU of Pennsylvania

At the Forum For A Just PA in Pittsburgh this week, five candidates for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fielded questions from community groups, people currently incarcerated in Allegheny County, and voters about their views on criminal justice reform and mass incarceration.

Over the course of the two-hour discussion, which was streamed live on the ACLU-PA Facebook page, it was apparent that candidates in attendance were well attuned to how they might work to bring about meaningful change in Allegheny County and across Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County is the second-largest contributor to the state prison system after Philadelphia, and it holds an average of 2,300 people in its county jail on any given day — many of whom are there simply because they can’t afford cash bail. Almost 50 percent of those people are Black, despite accounting for only 13 percent of the county’s residents.

Pastor Michael Anthony Day moderated the forum and pushed the candidates to get specific on what steps they would take to reform the criminal justice system. A major theme among the forum attendees was putting an end to cash bail in Allegheny County and statewide.

Representative Jake Wheatley of the 19th District, the only incumbent in attendance, noted his 100% percent voting record score from the ACLU Pennsylvania in 2016 and reminded the audience that the broken cash bail system “starts with who we have in the DA’s office. What they ask for within the system controls a lot of what happens with the defendants.”

Summer Lee, a candidate for the 34th District, reminded the room of the racist and draconian roots of cash bail: “When we look at the criminal justice system, cash bail is just another old relic that needs to go … The harsh reality here is that these issues all impact disproportionately people of color and poor communities.”

“Even a few days in jail can ruin somebody’s life,” said Mike Devine, candidate for the 20th District, focusing on the all-too-common outcome of the cash bail system. “A few days. You lose your job. Your license gets suspended. Your family and the whole thing falls apart in a matter of a few weeks. It’s heartless.”

Sara Innamorato, candidate for the 21st District, focused on the profit-motives baked into the cash bail system: “We are running modern day debtor prisons here in the state of Pennsylvania … When you tie our prison systems to creating profit, you’re going to only encourage more mass incarceration.”

“The system isn’t broken. The system works exactly how it was designed,” said Aerion Abney, a challenger to Rep. Wheatley. Jail is “supposed to be reformatory. But the people in jail feel like they’re in purgatory. We have to figure out how we can go back to reforming people back into civil society.”

By the end of the forum, it was apparent that the candidates who attended have a clear understanding of the challenges inherent to reducing incarceration rates and ending racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

We hope that all candidates for public office across Pennsylvania will follow suit and clarify where they stand on smart criminal justice reform.

The primary is May 15.

The forum was co-hosted by Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration – West, ACLU PA, First Unitarian Church, UU-PLAN, Alliance for Police Accountability, Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice, P.O.O.R.L.A.W., Human Rights Coalition – Fed Up Chapter, Abolitionist Law Center, Let’s Get Free – Women and Trans Prisoner Defense Committee.

Open Letter in defense of “March for our Lives” student walkouts

Dear Pennsylvania school administrators, solicitors, board members, and educators,

As you are already aware, students nationwide have decided to respond to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, by engaging in organized demonstrations. Their hope is to promote awareness of gun violence, which has devastated schools and communities across the country, and spark meaningful reform to address this issue. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania ask that you support them in this endeavor, and refrain from disciplining any students who engage in a peaceful walkout.

Students striving to change their communities and their country through non-violent means should be held up as models of civic engagement, regardless of the issue or the politics involved. School administrators and educators can either punish these civically minded students for violating school rules or seize this opportunity to nurture their efforts to participate in civic life and to effect positive change around them.

If you choose to punish them, you should be aware that, when engaging in political speech, students enjoy constitutional protections both in and out of school.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  • Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially and materially disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or profane.
  • Students cannot be disciplined for wearing clothes or accessories that express political or issue-oriented viewpoints just because some may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • It is unconstitutional to discipline students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishmentthan a classmate would for skipping class for some other reason.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we are continually impressed and inspired by the commonwealth’s engaged young people who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others. Whether or not you agree with their cause, we hope you will join us in encouraging students to use their growing voices to participate in our democracy, rather than becoming another hurdle they have to overcome in their fight to be heard.

Sincerely,

Reggie Shuford
Executive Director

Witold Walczak
Legal Director

Tell Politicians to Stay out of Our Health Care

Pennsylvania lawmakers are poised to vote on a bill restricting essential transgender health services next week. Please take a few minutes to make a call and ask how your state representative plans to vote on House Bill 1933.

Enter YOUR phone number, including area code:

Once you’re connected, tell your state representative:

I am calling about House Bill 1933, which would prevent transgender people insured through Medicaid and CHIP from getting the healthcare they need. I believe that no matter what kind of insurance a transgender person has, they should be able to access the medical care that they and their doctors agree is necessary for their health and well-being. Can you tell me how my representative plans to vote on this bill?


Once you’ve made the call, please take a minute to report back to us about how your representative plans to vote on this bill! You can just fill out this brief form about your call.


Background on HB 1933

Just a few weeks ago, Pennsylvania lawmakers were threatening to hold hostage CHIP, a program that insures nearly 200,000 children, as part of an effort to restrict insurance coverage for transition-related healthcare. Fortunately, the CHIP bill has been stripped of the earlier anti-trans amendment. But lawmakers haven’t given up their attack on healthcare for transgender Pennsylvanians.

A new bill, House Bill 1933, would prohibit CHIP and Medicaid from covering a range of transition-related services for the nearly three million Pennsylvanians, children and adults, who are insured through these programs. It would exclude from coverage everything from counseling to hormones to surgical procedures – even when an individual’s doctor determines this is medically necessary care.

The House plans to vote on HB 1933 the week of December 4th. Your state representative needs to hear from you today!

Help protect healthcare access for transgender Pennsylvanians like Naiymah and Jen’s son, Carter, whose story you can hear below. Call your state representative today.

To Think that SB 8 Becoming Law will Effectively Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture is Naive

By Midge Carter, ACLU-PA Criminal Justice Intern

Elizabeth Young’s Philadelphia home was taken from her because her son was charged with selling marijuana from it. Photo from Philly.com.

Elizabeth Young is a 72-year-old grandmother and lifelong Philadelphia resident. Young has never been charged or convicted of a crime. And yet, in 2010 Young had her home and vehicle seized by Philadelphia police through civil asset forfeiture, a mechanism allowing law enforcement to seize property they think has been involved in a crime, whether or not its owner has been charged or convicted of a crime. Because civil forfeiture takes place outside criminal statutes, those who have their property taken are not afforded legal counsel. The practiceis also financially lucrative for police departments and district attorneys, and it disproportionately affects the poor and people of color.

Under the Trump administration, it may expand.

In a speech Monday to the National District Attorneys Association, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed intent to “develop policies to increase forfeitures.” According to a senior justice official, Sessions intends to achieve this in part by rolling back Holder-era policies put in place following complaints of law enforcement abuse. To Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, civil asset forfeiture is about bringing in the revenue of crime, not about bringing the crime to court, saying on Wednesdaythat “sometimes there will be criminal prosecutions, sometimes there won’t.” And the current president doesn’t seem to understand the concept of asset forfeiture reform in the least. In February he described forfeiture reform as situations where “[criminals] have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it.”

In the absence of federal guidance, some states are taking initiative and reforming civil forfeiture themselves. Twenty-four states have reformed forfeiture laws, but effective reform is slow and halting. The Institute for Justice notes that a “common refrain in the states where reform efforts have been unsuccessful is that resistance from law enforcement leaders killed the bills.”

For proof of that, look at the Keystone State. Three weeks ago, Governor Wolf signed SB 8, a bill reforming legislation relating to civil asset forfeiture. ACLU-PA has previously written about SB 8, but now that it’s law, let’s recap.

SB 8 started out as a strong bill that would prohibit forfeiture without a criminal conviction. It was backed heavily by advocacy groups. And then law enforcement lobbyists got involved, and the bill was weakened. Wolf signed that version of the bill.

The new reform law doesn’t do much to protect citizens, and what reforms it provides are modest. Although sponsors touted the amendments as raising the commonwealth’s burden of proof, the amended bill places the initial burden of proof on property owners, most of whom are unrepresented, rather than the government. The amended bill also makes it easier for the government to take property by default without the government ever having to present evidence to justify the forfeiture.

It does require a hearing for cases involving real property. But it misses the mark on actual protections. All of the proceeds from forfeiture still go indirectly to law enforcement; they are supposed to be used for fighting drug crime, but often are used for general operating expenses like salaries. In Philly that includes the salaries of several assistant district attorneys who do nothing but forfeiture.

Property owners can still have their property taken away without being convicted of a crime. And counsel still isn’t guaranteed. These are issues that need to be addressed if civil forfeiture reform is going to have any tangible impact.

And people like Elizabeth Young need reform to have a real impact. Young lost her house and minivan after her son, who lived at her home, was arrested for possession and intent to distribute marijuana. He was convicted when law enforcement agents found the drugs after searching Young’s home and car. Law enforcement agents then seized Young’s property, claiming it was connected with the crime.

In order to receive relief, Young had to take her case up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In May, nearly eight years after her house was seized, they ruled in her favor,deciding that authorities must prove that “owner had actual knowledge of the illegal use of the property or consented to the underlying criminal activity” in order to seize assets.

Young’s Pa. Supreme Court ruling is a victory. To think that SB 8 becoming law will effectively reform civil asset forfeiture is naive.

If you’re interested in learning more about civil asset forfeiture, check out ACLU-PA’s three reports on the topic here, read Isaiah Thompson’s ground-breaking reporting from Philadelphia City Paper on the topic, and the Institute for Justice’s Policing for Profit report (which talks a lot about Philly). Sarah Stillman’s excellent piece in The New Yorker is also worth a read, and this bit from John Oliver is worth watching if you want to giggle while you learn and scream at the television.

IN OTHER NEWS
(Criminal justice news deserving of an in-depth look.)

Pennsylvania has more juvenile lifers than anywhere in the country, and it’s not clear that the nationwide fight to eliminate juvenile life without parole sentences is over. Photo from The Atlantic.

 

  • The Atlantic: “The Reckoning Over Young Prisoners Serving Life Without Parole”

“Life sentences are an American institution. According to a recent Sentencing Project report, more than 200,000 people are serving either life in prison or a ‘virtual’ life sentence: They haven’t been explicitly sentenced to spend their natural lives behind bars, but their prison terms extend beyond a typical human lifespan. Of these prisoners, thousands were sentenced as juveniles. More than 2,300 are serving life without parole, often abbreviated LWOP, and another 7,300 have virtual life sentences. Only after they serve decades in prison do members of the latter group typically become eligible for parole.”

  • Fox43: “PA Supreme Court: Police must obtain search warrant to draw blood from unconscious DUI suspects”

 “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled today that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before drawing blood from unconscious suspects they believe to have been driving under the influence (DUI). Justice David Wecht’s opinion recognizes that motorists are ‘deemed to have given consent’ when on the road in Pennsylvania under the ‘implied consent’ statute but notes that the driver, under the same law, has a right to refuse and if he/she can’t, the test may not be conducted. The decision stems from an incident that took place in 2012.”

  • The Marshall Project: “Pennsylvania went too far with new sex offender registration laws, says state’s supreme court.”

“In 2012 state lawmakers amended the “Megan’s Law” there to require lifetime registration requirements. Several men who long ago were convicted of sexual offenses, and who had fulfilled the 10-year registration requirement in place at the time, sued, arguing the new law violated their constitutional rights. On Wednesday, they won their case. Allentown Morning Call Related: Read the decision. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania More: Background on the case. Allentown Morning Call

“The consequences of rescinding DACA would be severe, not just for the hundreds of thousands of young people who rely on the program — and for their employers, schools, universities, and families — but for the country’s economy as a whole. For example, in addition to lost tax revenue, American businesses would face billions in turnover costs, as employers would lose qualified workers whom they have trained and in whom they have invested. And as the chief law officers of our respective states, we strongly believe that DACA has made our communities safer, enabling these young people to report crimes to police without fear of deportation.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

What’s a nice* organization like the ACLU doing in a place like electoral politics?

By Sara Mullen, Associate Director/Advocacy & Policy Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences. The ACLU hopes to change that. Photo via Flickr user Thomas Hawk.

If you are one of the more than 13,000 ACLU members who live in Philadelphia, you may have been surprised recently to find an ACLU #VoteSmartJustice campaign canvasser at your door, eager to talk to you about the district attorney race.

For most of our 97-year history, the ACLU has shied away from electoral politics. Our involvement in the election process has been largely focused on securing and protecting the right to vote for all Americans, particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised.

But times and tactics change. And the ACLU recognizes that if we’re ever really going to fix a large, entrenched problem like mass incarceration, we must throw everything we’ve got at the problem. As part of its Smart Justice Campaign, a multi-year effort to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ACLU recently announced plans for nonpartisan voter education and engagement campaigns in 10 prosecutorial races. Philadelphia is the first.

Why are we focusing on district attorney races? Because, quite simply, we will never significantly reduce our prison and jail populations without addressing the most powerful, unaccountable, and least transparent actors in the criminal justice system — district attorneys.

All too often, prosecutors have been focused on punishment rather than on achieving true justice. With more than 90 percent of cases ending in plea bargains, prosecutors usually have the first and last word on who is incarcerated and for how long. And prosecutors in Pennsylvania have used their influence to lobby state legislators, often creating a roadblock to common-sense criminal justice reform and continuing policies that lead to mass incarceration.

Their misplaced priorities have resulted in overflowing jails and prisons, disproportionate prison sentences (especially for people of color and lower-income people), wrongful convictions, and the imprisonment of people who should instead receive treatment for addiction and mental health issues. They have devastated individuals, families, and entire communities.

Tragically, Philadelphia has the highest rate of incarceration of the ten largest cities in America. Yet despite the vital role the district attorneys play in the lives of Philadelphians — 300,000 of whom have a criminal record — voter turnout for these off-year elections has typically been abysmal.

We and our allies who care about criminal justice reform in this city hope to change that this year. We encourage our fellow Philadelphians who want to end mass incarceration and its horrific impact on our communities to educate yourselves about issues and candidates in the race. Talk to one of our canvassers, many of whom have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Attend one of the many candidate forums. Visit our campaign website, www.votesmartjustice.org, to find out more about the ACLU’s platform and where the candidates stand on critical issues such as bail reform, transparency, racial disparities, civil asset forfeiture, and the death penalty.

But most importantly, show up to vote on May 16th.

*Full disclosure — it’s possible that not everyone would describe us as nice.

Neither the ACLU nor the ACLU of Pennsylvania endorse candidates.

IN OTHER NEWS

(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

More kids come forward, allege abuse at Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh. Photo via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

  • Post-Gazette: “More students come forward alleging abuse at Woodland Hills”

“He released surveillance video Tuesday that showed school resource Officer Steve Shaulis and Que’Chawn Wade, 14, step into an office where they got into an altercation that concluded when the officer punched out his front tooth. The student had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital where his tooth was sewn back into place. Que’Chawn was charged with resisting arrest in the April incident and his case is still pending in juvenile court, Mr. Hollis said. A second video clip shows a March 2015 incident involving a former Woodland Hills student being grabbed by Officer Shaulis and thrown to the ground. In the video, Mr. Murray is seen helping to hold the boy down while Officer Shaulis shocked him with a Taser. Mr. Hollis said that student was acquitted of resisting arrest, but received probation on a charge of disorderly conduct. “They make you flinch when you see what they did to that young man,” said Tim O’Brien, the attorney representing the fourth student.”

Related from the Post-Gazette: “Police watchdog group calls for investigation of Woodland Hills incidents”

  • ACLU-PA: “Latest Stop-and-Frisk Data Shows Modest Improvement by Philadelphia Police, but Much More is Needed, Say Civil Rights Lawyers”

“But in light of the approximately 140,000 pedestrian stops for 2016, that means that 35,000 persons in Philadelphia continue to be stopped illegally each year. Over 77 percent of PPD stops were of Black or Latino people, who make up just over half of the city’s population. A subsequent report, due to be released on May 16, will analyze the racial disparities in these numbers. The presiding federal judge will review the case soon after that. ‘The Philadelphia Police Department’s improvement is cold comfort for the thousands of people, largely people of color, who experience the trauma of illegal stops and frisks by police officers,’ said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. ‘While we appreciate the commissioner’s efforts, the people of Philadelphia are still waiting for an end to illegal stops, six years after the city agreed to do just that.’”

More from BillyPenn: “Stop-and-frisk in Philly: Police say it’s decreasing, but here’s the thing”

“His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine ‘literally ripped off his left leg,’ medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg. Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.”

THE APPEAL — The Appeal is a weekly newsletter helping to keep you informed about criminal justice news in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and beyond. If you’d like to receive this weekly newsletter, you can subscribe here.

JOIN— The ACLU of Pennsylvania’s mailing list to stay up to date with our work and events happening in your area.

DONATE — The ACLU is comprised of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU Foundation. The ACLU Foundation is the arm of the ACLU that conducts our litigation and education efforts. Gifts to the ACLU Foundation are tax-deductible to the donor to the extent permissible by law. Learn more about supporting the work of the ACLU of Pennsylvania here.

Meet Matthew Armstead — 2016/17 Frankel-Adair Scholar

The Frankel-Adair scholarship provides $1,500 in support of post-secondary education to an LGBT student residing in the Greater Philadelphia area.

The Frankel-Adair scholarship provides $1,500 in support of post-secondary education to an LGBT student residing in the Greater Philadelphia area.

1. How did you hear about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship?

I heard about the scholarship initially from Internet searches for LGBTQ-specific scholarships. When I was contemplating applying for the Frankel-Adair, I saw a printed poster for the scholarship at someone’s home during an organizing meeting. That’s when I knew I definitely should apply.

2. What, if any, was your connection to the ACLU prior to applying for the scholarship?

My connection with the ACLU was very limited before applying for the scholarship. When I worked at the LGBT Center at Princeton University almost every year I would organize a program with a speaker from the ACLU. Since the ACLU was so pivotal in the fights for marriage equality and trans rights in New Jersey, the ACLU staff was able of offer a long-term perspective on current issues. Also, Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s national Executive Director, is a Princeton alum, so he came back to speak for a couple of programs and really helped me to understand the scope of the ACLU’s work.

3. What were the most important events or influences that brought you to where you are today?

My second semester of college, I was asked to become the co-president of the queer student group. This was a daunting honor: I was new to school, barely knew the community, and had come out to my family less than a year earlier. Yet I took a risk, and said yes. People helped me along the way, and I learned so much about being myself as leader and building a community.

A theme that now echoes throughout my life is that community will catch me when I take a risk to be more in alignment with my calling. When I took this step to pursue a Master’s degree in Ensemble Devised Performance at the University of the Arts, this theme again rang true, and the Frankel-Adair scholarship roots my education in the LGBTQ community.

ACLU-PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford and 2016/17 Frankel-Adair Scholar Matthew Armstead.

4. What do you see as the critical issues facing the LGBTQ community at this time?

A critical issue facing the LGBTQ community in the United States is how to keep pursuing change after marriage-equality funding no longer supports as many organizations. This reality has pushed organizations to get more creative, while providing visibility for many of the concerns within the community from immigration to heath care.

Globally we are seeing that trans rights are increasingly in the forefront. I appreciate how this re-centers gender in the community narrative. Much of the violence against LGBTQ people comes when our behavior moves outside gendered expectations. And this issue of gender-policing affects trans and cis-gender people. Organizing that pushes for our unique genders to be recognized will benefit us all as it would mean an end police harassment, enactment of pay and hiring equity, and the implementation of fair housing policies.

5. Do you envision your own professional career having an impact on concerns of the LGBTQ community?

Working with LGBTQ people has been a regular part of my career, and I expect that to continue. The slogan “We are everywhere” still rings true, and I am excited as more LGBTQ people bring our identities and issues explicitly into movements for change.

6. What other social issues motivate you?

I care passionately about people who are pursuing social change across the world. On my mind at the moment are environmental activists in the Philippines who are facing increased repression, Colombian activists with disabilities who just broke ground at the United Nations, and folks in the Movement for Black Lives who successfully unseated the Florida prosecutor who convicted Marissa Alexander and failed to convict George Zimmerman. My work training change-makers through Training for Change allows me to stay involved in this range of movements.

7. What effect do you think being a recipient of the Frankel-Adair Scholarship will have on you?

I hope to share the gratitude I feel with ACLU members at events throughout the year. The scholarship has the LGBTQ community in the front of my mind, so I’ll be looking for ways to use theater and my facilitation skills to support the LGBTQ community in the region.

Learn more about the Frankel-Adair Scholarship and find out how you can apply!

In day one of Lancaster immigrant testimony, a broken school emerges

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Alembe and Anyemu Dumia

ACLU of Pennsylvania clients, Alembe and Anyemu Dunia. (credit: Molly Tack-Hooper)

When hundreds of refugees enter Lancaster, Pa. every year from countries all over the world, their first contact is often Sheila Mastropietro.

Mastropietro is the director of the immigration and refugee program at the Lancaster branch of the Church World Service. Her work involves finding housing, food, clothing and shelter for refugees — people who have fled war and adversity in their home countries, and landed in the Keystone State.

It also often involves finding them educational opportunities.

In 2010, Mastropietro started hearing complaints from case workers saying that refugee students — young people from ages 17 to 21 — were either being denied enrollment into the School District of Lancaster (SDOL), or sent to a disciplinary school, Phoenix Academy, run by a private company called Camelot Education. Mastropietro arranged a meeting with SDOL’s superintendent to ask about it.

When the superintendent didn’t deny the complaints outright, Mastropietro suggested things needed to change. Refugee students needed to be enrolled in SDOL’s main high school, the J.P. McCaskey Campus, she said, for many reasons — including that McCaskey offers a full course selection, Advanced Placement courses, an International Baccalaureate program, and extracurricular sports and other programs. Phoenix had none of that. There was another reason, too, Mastropietro said: A mainstream school like McCaskey — one with more than six times the overall enrollment numbers of Phoenix — would better help to socialize refugee students to the society they were now a part of.

The response Mastropietro received appalled her.

“If socialization is what [these students] want,” said the district’s director of pupil services, “they should go to church.”

That exchange was front and center Tuesday during the first day of testimony in Issa v. the School District of Lancaster — a lawsuit centered around how SDOL has treated young refugees attempting to enroll in the district. A class action brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania along with the law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP and the Education Law Center, the case alleges that SDOL established a pattern of doing exactly what Mastropietro had heard: Either discouraging older immigrant students from enrolling in school, or diverting them to Phoenix Academy.

And Tuesday’s testimony went further still. It described an atmosphere at Phoenix in which students were searched and patted down before school, and in which teachers would fill out correct test answers for students who weren’t able to read or understand English. It described a school where students received no homework and weren’t allowed to bring books home, and where they were forced through an accelerated curriculum regardless of whether they understood the material they were being taught. Interpreters were not provided for students, and English as a second language was more theory than practice.

“[These students] want to be educated so they can create a better life for themselves and for their families,” said Eric Rothschild, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton, presenting to the court Tuesday.

Instead, he continued, they’re speeding through high school at a break-neck pace toward diplomas that are essentially meaningless.

“A diploma without meaningful education is not going to be useful for them,” he said.

***

Sitting on the stand Tuesday, grinning wide, with her head covered in a white hijab, Khadidja Issa explained through an interpreter that she was born in Sudan, and that her family fled home when she was five years old because of “extreme heat and insecurity” in the war-torn northeast African nation. From there, she moved to Chad, where she lived with her family in a refugee camp until she was 17 years old. She’d attended school in Chad before her family left for Lancaster. None of her classes at the refugee camp were taught in English or involved learning English. But she thought the U.S. education system would help her get beyond the language barrier.

She was wrong.

She started the application process to enroll in SDOL in November, she said, and was told that she “was too old for school and that I should get a job,” she said.

“I responded that I didn’t want a job without an education,” she said.

She persisted. With the help of social workers, she was eventually told she would be enrolled in Phoenix Academy.

Despite knowing very little English, she was enrolled into eleventh grade at Phoenix, taking classes taught in English.

There were other problems with Phoenix, too, she said.

“First thing when you arrive at school is the pat down,” she said.

Issa and three other students who were recently enrolled at Phoenix all described an elaborate search procedure in which students had their shoes searched every morning before school. The students were also not allowed to bring bags, notebooks, or anything else to or from school — eliminating the possibility that they might receive or complete homework.

Sharon M. O’Donnell, representing the district, in the case, countered such testimony, arguing that search procedures in public schools are commonplace.

“I had to come into this court today and take off my shoes,” O’Donnell told the court.

Going further, O’Donnell said: “If [the students] don’t like the security, McCaskey has two full time school resource officers and … they have Tasers. And, yes, sometimes they have to use them.”

Issa nonetheless found Phoenix’s search procedures invasive.

“I have been to school before and I’ve never seen a place where they pat you down in order to enter school, and they do it every day,” she said.

The pat downs weren’t the only thing that shocked her about Phoenix.

Issa’s 16-year-old sister wasn’t “too old” for McCaskey, so that’s where she was assigned to attend school. Issa admitted that her sister has a much better grasp of English than she does.

Two young women from Burma, 19 and 17, who testified Tuesday, made the same claim; their younger brother attends McCaskey and speaks better English than they do.

Since they don’t attend McCaskey, none could testify exactly about what makes McCaskey a better school for non-English speakers, but each explained why Phoenix wasn’t getting the job done. Phoenix does not provide interpreters to students, they said, and the one period a day devoted to teaching English as a second language isn’t enough to accomplish anything approaching that goal.

Qasin Hassan, a 17-year-old Somali student, said his family fled home after his father was killed by Al-Shabab militants. They lived in Egypt for five years before immigrating to Lancaster in late 2015. Like Issa, he said class worksheets were not translated into Arabic for him at Phoenix, despite his inability to read or speak English. His English teacher would show him pictures to help him understand, he said, through an interpreter in court, but no other teacher tried this method. And both he and Issa described having teachers fill in answers on tests when they were unable to read or provide answers themselves.

Issa pointed out something potentially worse for an eager student: She said she doesn’t do anything at school; she just sits there.

“In America, if you don’t have an education, you have a very hard life,” she said.

***

Pennsylvania law dictates that students can enroll in free public education toward a high school diploma until they turn 21 years old.

Repeatedly, SDOL’s representative, O’Donnell, stressed that Phoenix Academy provides students with the opportunity to receive a diploma.

Phoenix can also act as a bridge toward going to McCaskey, she said. But only “if the students choose to go.”

“Many don’t make that choice,” she said, “because they’re able to get their education” and then “move onto jobs where they can make money.”

“Some students do very well,” she insisted, and the district’s policy is to consult with students when they arrive to determine the best course of action. “Once they show up at our door, then the idea is to assess them and figure out how best to serve them,” she said. They are not sent to Phoenix or McCaskey based on language proficiency, she said, but based on their ability to graduate on time.

“To educate and graduate” is the school’s premise, she said.

And while students and people like Sheila Mastropietro — the Church World Service refugee coordinator — may quibble with Phoenix’s approach to education, O’Donnell said, the commonwealth of Pennsylvania “has told us that the magnet school, Phoenix Academy, is just fine.”

“If we hear testimony that kids aren’t getting help, it’s because they’re not asking,” O’Donnell said.

“It’s not that they’re being lost or that they’re being pushed aside,” she continued. “They’re being attended to, and being attended to very well.”

To Issa, O’Donnell stressed these ideas. Going further, she said that transferring to McCaskey — a school with a much slower academic schedule — might not allow Issa to receive a diploma and graduate.
Issa responded: “I don’t just want the graduation. I want an actual education.”

***

ACLU-PA, along with lawyers from Pepper Hamilton, and the Education Law Center, are asking that the Honorable Edward G. Smith, U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, certify a class for students like Issa and Hassan; declare that the district has violated federal education law; and, more simply, that they provide sufficient language supports to give older immigrant students a fighting chance at understanding a curriculum taught in English. They’re also asking that kids not be funneled into Phoenix based on their language ability and age. “Phoenix is supposed to be a ‘choice’ school,” said ACLU-PA staff attorney Molly Tack-Hooper, “but the district doesn’t give these kids a choice.” The plaintiffs argue that SDOL’s treatment of these older immigrant students constitutes “irreparable harm.”

But for people like Hassan, it’s about something more than that.

Tuesday he described being bullied by Phoenix students who would do things like kick the door of the bathroom stall while he was inside. They would yell things at him — things he didn’t understand — and then walk away, laughing. He felt like he couldn’t tell anyone that he was being messed with. He had no one who he could turn to. First he avoided using the bathroom. Eventually, pushed by his frustrations about learning nothing at Phoenix and being bullied, he simply decided to stop attending school.

In an exchange with Judge Smith toward the end of his testimony, the judge asked Qasin Hassan how he felt when he learned that his family would be moving to the U.S. His interpreter, a woman with white hair, transmitting his testimony to the court, interpreted for him.

“Happiest person in the world,” she said, speaking for Hassan. “America is number one.”

Then Judge Smith asked Hassan whether his experience at Phoenix had made him think less of the country he and his family had waited so long to be a part of. Was he disappointed, the judge asked, when Hassan got to America and realized it wasn’t what he expected?

In the courtroom, Hassan replied in Arabic, but the woman interpreting Hassan’s answers raised her hand to her mouth and turned away. She’d begun to cry and needed a moment to gather herself. A few seconds later she looked toward Judge Smith and translated what Hassan said.

“I didn’t get the education or opportunity I’d expected.”

——-

Matt Stroud joined the ACLU of Pennsylvania in 2016 as a criminal justice researcher and writer. Prior to joining the ACLU, Matt held staff reporting positions with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News, and has written for publications including Esquire, The Intercept, Politico, The Atlantic, and The Nation, as well as newspapers and magazines throughout Pennsylvania.

“One of the Most Transformative Years of My Life”

By Michael Kokozos, 2015 Frankel-Adair Scholarship Winner

Michael Kokozos

Michael Kokozos

I have learned this past year that classroom walls are not magical barriers to the harsh, painful, and at times tragic realities taking place in our society particularly as a facilitator this summer through LEDA (Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America) at Princeton University. The student scholars remind me, however, that paralysis is not an option. We can ignore problems or choose to tackle them. If we attempt to tackle them, we have so much to learn from each other to raise awareness and foster critical reflection preparing the groundwork towards action.

Their unceasing energy and wisdom transport me to the annual ACLU Bill of Rights Dinner — a much-needed jolt in the life of a doctoral student who can easily forget modern-day heroes do exist tirelessly fighting on behalf of all of us for better tomorrows. I recall the Q&A with New York Times Op-Ed columnist, Charles M. Blow, and my awe of his willingness to even take on his political allies for their complicity in persisting inequalities causing undue harm especially to people of color. Truly, we must be willing to see far beyond the fog of fairness and with keen eyes.

These days I also live in the library writing my dissertation, reading and analyzing texts. I examine school textbooks in hopes that the representation of so many missing LGBTQ voices will finally find a heading. I peruse legislative documents in hopes that American policy will focus more on how we can include rather than exclude when it comes to national belonging. I reflect upon my journal entries looking forward to the life I imagined in my head as a boy still yet to come. History, I have learned, takes time to catch up to matters of the heart.

Thus, I see my pursuit of an Education, Culture, & Society degree enhanced by the Frankel-Adair scholarship as symbolic of a lifelong commitment to social justice. One of my favorite quotes is when the scientist and mathematician Archimedes would awe listeners by exclaiming: “Give me a place to stand, and I will move the earth.” Harnessing a seriousness of purpose and collaborating with others to move this world with all our might — this is what it means to me to be a part of something bigger than the self, and this is what it means to me to be a member of the ACLU.

This award has made a lot of things possible for me. For example, I will continue teaching my passions to educators across the country from elementary school students and teachers to college students and professors. I will continue to develop my research and leadership acumen to interrogate curriculum, assessing its effectiveness including and integrating diverse LGBTQ voices and perspectives, and securing the rights and liberties of my community and anyone else hurt by a system that can transcend its fears by committing to love. I will continue to bridge gaps between theory and practice by listening to and supporting the voices tied to a past that launched this movement in the first place.

So, thank you ACLU of Pennsylvania family. Thank you, Peggy Curchack, for your support and kindness. Thank you, Alli Harper, for your passionate dedication to the Young Leaders Outreach Team (YLOT). Thank you, Ben Weimer, for advocating for an ACLU presence at the University of Pennsylvania. And thank you to my co-scholar, D’Angelo Cameron, for your activism — past, present, and future. This year has been one of the most transformative years of my life. Your spirits and that of teaching and learning are imbued within this award and now within me.

Thank you.

Questions about the Pope’s Philadelphia visit? We have (some) answers

Pope Francis in St Peter's square - Vatican (credit: Alfredo Borba)

Pope Francis in St Peter’s square – Vatican (credit: Alfredo Borba)

Many people have contacted us with questions about the Pope’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia September 26-28. The ACLU-PA and other groups are monitoring plans for the Pope’s visit. Here’s the latest information we have.

  • So far, there are NO plans to check IDs for people walking around or entering and leaving Center City. If we hear of such a thing, we will sue.
  • There WILL be a secure fence with check point entrances, but it looks like that will be just around the Parkway and some office buildings beside the Parkway. You should be able to walk everywhere else.
  • There WILL be a ban on cars and very restricted public transit in Center City.
  • The ACLU-PA is calling on the city and the Secret Service to give the public more information about the security plans.
  • The city has promised that Philadelphia will not foot the bill for this event.
  • If you want to PROTEST during the Pope’s visit, you should apply for a permit NOW. If you have any trouble or questions about protesting, call the ACLU-PA at 215-592-1513.