Friday, March 29, 2013

You’ve Come a Long Way [Baby], But . . . .

by Carol Petraitis, Duvall Reproductive Rights Project Director

Women achieved the right to vote in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The women’s suffrage (right-to-vote) movement was first articulated at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Some states never barred women from voting; others began removing the barrier. Before the 19th Amendment a map of the country shows a distinctive geographic pattern -- the entire western portion of the U.S. plus Michigan and New York gave full suffrage to women, whereas the eastern seaboard from Pennsylvania to Florida allowed none. The middle portion of the country was somewhere in between.

Fast forward to 2012. State legislatures across the country are trying desperately to limit access to the right to vote by passing laws with onerous ID requirements. Pennsylvania is at the epicenter of that effort. The ACLU-PA, along with several ally organizations, is currently challenging the law’s constitutionality in state court. The vast majority of our clients are women, which is not a coincidence.

For a variety of reasons, women – in addition to people of color, low-income individuals, and young people – are particularly affected by voter ID laws. Women often change their names because of marriage or divorce, resulting in names that don’t match voter registration records. Women who have changed their names also need additional documentation, such as a marriage license, to obtain PennDOT ID.

Around the country there are possibly hundreds of thousands of women whose participation in the electoral process is threatened. We’ve come a long way -- but as we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us be aware that the rights of women to participate fully remain fragile.

This post is part of a series for Women’s History Month.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Single-sex education and the ACLU

by Tiffanny Walsh, ACLU of Pennsylvania Annual Fund Manager

When I made the announcement that I had accepted a position at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and would be leaving New York City in four days, most of my friends were impressed that I would just up and leave New York so quickly. 

One friend, however, accused me of being a hypocrite. 

How could I, a proud graduate of an all-women's college, be a part of an organization hell-bent on destroying schools like my alma mater?

Let's get some facts straight.

I went to a private all-women's college. Private schools are allowed to teach religion or segregate by gender; public schools - eh, not so much. The ACLU supports parents’ and students’ rights to send their children to private schools that segregate by gender or promote a specific religion; but the government should not be operating schools that do either. There is also an immense difference between an 18-year-old woman making the conscious decision for herself to attend an all-women's college and a 10-year-old girl who is forced into a single-sex classroom by her public school system. 

The ACLU opposes forced single-sex public schools and programs within public schools that divide students by gender. Over the last few years, the ACLU filed complaints against multiple public elementary and middle schools for teaching stereotypes, not kids, including  Middleton Heights Elementary School in Middleton, Idaho;  Huffman Middle School in Birmingham, Alabama; and the Van Devender Middle School in Wood County, West Virginia (which returned to co-educational programs in 2012).

Don’t think Pennsylvania is immune to the false promises of sexist educational tactics. In 2011, the ACLU-PA and the Women’s Law Project threatened to file a complaint against the Pittsburgh Public School District after they announced plans for sex-segregated classrooms at Westinghouse, a Grades 6-12 public school. Students who were included in the decision-making process notified the ACLU of obvious signs that the plan was geared more to helping boys improve their academic performance at the cost of the academic performance of girls.  According to documents provided by the district, some of the false sex stereotypes the school planned to espouse were emphasizing boys as  “warrior, protector, and provider” and letting young women have “time to explore…doing make-up and hair”.

Unfortunately, the above are just two examples of the faulty beliefs perpetuated by Leonard Sax and the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, which provided training materials to administrators and teachers in Pittsburgh. Sax and his organization teach that boys are “smart,” “arrogant,” “busy,” and “eager”, whereas girls are “careful,” “insecure,” “patient,” “focused” and “lacking independence”. I’m sorry, I must have missed the memo that we all went back in time to 1913.

The district claimed that students could opt-out of the single-sex classrooms, but doing so would mean transferring to another school altogether. So if you wanted to go to the school of your choice, you had to submit to being segregated by your gender? I'm not a lawyer, but even I know that was an obvious violation of Title IX.

Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Public School District abandoned its disastrous plans for Westinghouse. They recognized that the government should not be sending the message that boys and girls need to be separated based on harmful stereotypes. 

The programs in the public single-sex schools and classrooms that the ACLU opposes are based on flawed pseudo-science and outdated gender stereotypes. In the case of the Van Devender Middle School, even the district’s “expert witness”, Professor  Rosemary Salomone, dismissed the faulty brain research behind the school’s program (Surprise, it was based on the work of  Leonard Sax and the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education). Chief Judge Joseph Goodwin, in his decision for returning the schools to a co-ed program, stated “the court does note that the science behind single-sex education appears to be, at best inconclusive, and certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students…

The course work at my all-women's college was designed for adults of either gender. My Physiological Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience textbook was the same text book used at co-ed universities. My Theatre by Robert Cohen book was no different than those used in respected theatre programs nationwide. The only obvious differences of the college experience at all-women’s Marymount College versus the co-ed Rose Hill campus of Fordham University were that Marymount had a significantly lower rate of crime and no drunken idiots strolling into class 45 minutes late. We did have a higher number of people wearing pajamas as outside clothes during the day, but really, is that such a bad thing?

There is nothing wrong with single-sex education when it is done appropriately. However, the programs designed by Leonard Sax for public schools do more harm than good. They rely on outdated gender stereotypes, they are not based on verified scientific-research, and the statistics used by Sax and his proponents are just flat out wrong. These programs do not work. 

What the ACLU has a problem with, what I have a problem with, is when public school districts take the decision out of the hands of students, when they force students into single-sex classrooms, when they use faulty "statistics" to exclude students, to segregate by gender, to use outdated techniques to teach sexist curriculum, and force harmful stereotypes onto our children. 

An alumna of an all-women's college fighting gender-based stereotypes? Wow, what a hypocrite.

This post is part of a series in honor of Women's History Month.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Let’s talk about boobies

by Molly Tack-Hooper, ACLU-PA Staff Attorney

I think about breasts a lot.  They have been central to both my professional and personal life recently.
For the past two years, I’ve represented Kayla and Brianna, young women who defied their middle school’s ban on the Keep a Breast Foundation’s “i [heart] boobies!” cancer awareness bracelets, and were suspended for wearing the bracelets to school—on the school’s Breast Cancer Awareness Day.

According to the Easton Area School District, the bracelets are inappropriate.  Although it took the school awhile to settle on a precise explanation, eventually the district claimed that the phrase “i [heart] boobies!” was a sexual double entendre because boobies—breasts—are an “inherently sexual” body part.

I beg to differ.

As a breastfeeding mother, half of Philadelphia has now seen my boobs.  Dozens of doctors, strangers in coffee shops.  All my friends.  My whole extended family.  My boss.  None of these interactions was sexual in the slightest.

At their best, my boobs are miraculous.  They dispense milk that is perfectly nutritionally balanced for my growing child.  No cooking, no dishes; my body produces instant comfort food that is warm and ready to go whenever my son gets hungry.

At their worst, they are a source of intense pain, frustration, and embarrassment.  Breastfeeding ain’t always easy, and it can take a hell of a toll on the nipples.  My milk-laden boobs are often lopsided and leaky.  (And don’t even get me started on breast pumping.  Let’s just say I now have a great deal of empathy for dairy cows.)

My boobs are many things.  Sexual?  That’s not high on the list of adjectives I’d use to describe my lactating breasts.

So why would a school tell twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls that breasts are inherently sexual, and an inappropriate topic of conversation, even on Breast Cancer Awareness Day?

The school’s reaction to the bracelets—and its take on breasts, generally—is exactly what the Keep a Breast Foundation is trying to combat with its “i [heart] boobies!” campaign.  The exuberant campaign seeks to start conversations with the bracelets, not only to facilitate the exchange of information about breast cancer, but also to empower young women to feel comfortable talking about their breasts.  It uses the word “boobies”—a term so familiar and comfortable that it’s how many adults teach little kids to refer to breasts—because it’s not clinical.  It’s not scary.  And discussion of breasts should not be the exclusive domain of the health sciences, and it shouldn't be intimidating.  And it certainly needn't be sexual. 

Maybe things would be better if the Keep a Breast Foundation had been around when EASD’s lawyer and its middle school principals and I were growing up.  Maybe then discussion of breasts by judges and middle schoolers wouldn't elicit giggles or admonishment by adults.  Maybe then writing a blog post about my own boobs wouldn't feel quite so taboo.  And maybe then no one would define breasts as mere sexual objects.
We can’t turn back the clock and improve on the breast education adults got when we were younger, but we can certainly stop standing in the way of progress.  Our students deserve a safe space to discuss boobies.  

This post is part of a series in honor of Women's History Month.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

How Pennsylvania municipalities hurt domestic violence victims

by Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, ACLU-PA legal fellow

How does a Texan Southern Baptist, who wore ankle length skirts to church three times a week, didn't speak unless spoken to, and who can chalk her first protest to standing on Main Street with a venomous pro-life sign, grow up to be an attorney at the ACLU?  As that woman, the answer is simple. Annoyed by constant judgments based on my gender, I decided that everyone deserves a voice.

One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence in their lifetime. Twenty years ago no one talked about domestic violence.  School teachers looked the other way when a klutzy girl had another broken wrist.  Church elders reminded a nine-year-old that "your father, as the man of the household, is responsible for the uprightness of his family and should not be questioned.  You and your mother can be difficult."

A few concussions, several broken bones, and countless bruises later, I admitted that the problem wasn't mine, it was society's.  Society wanted to believe his version of the truth.  When I encouraged my mom to leave, people (men) accused me of trying to rip my family apart.  My father was a good man after all.   And I was a stubborn teenage girl who didn't know my place.

But that was years ago, surely in this modern and enlightened age, society has a better appreciation for the prevalence of domestic violence.  We recognize that victims and survivors of domestic violence are all around us, from the partners of professional athletes to the woman standing next to you at the bus stop.  We understand that it's not just about the punches thrown, but includes a psychological component that is often far more overwhelming and debilitating.  We can at least agree that once a woman has taken that terrifying step of calling for help, we should support her instead of persecute her for poor choices…can't we?

Municipalities across the commonwealth, including Pitcairn, Norristown, Pittsburgh, and Forest City, haven't gotten that message.  Dozens of municipalities have enacted "disruptive property ordinances," which punish renters for calling police in a three-strikes-you’re-out fashion.  Some of the ordinances allow the municipality to evict tenants for having the police called to their home too often (even when the tenant is the victim) while others fine landlords who refuse to evict.  The effect is the same—call the police to protect you and find yourself—and your young children—threatened with homelessness. 

Proponents argue that these ordinances are directed at cleaning up our neighborhoods by chasing away those noisy problem neighbors.  But the effect on domestic violence victims is very real.  These ordinances not only infringe on constitutional rights and violate the Fair Housing Act and the Violence Against Women Act, they endanger women's lives.  Domestic violence is already one of the leading causes of homelessness in women and finding affordable housing is one of the main reasons women wait to leave violent partners.  These ordinances only give women one more reason to be silent.

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Friday, March 01, 2013

Who’s Really Being Mugged?

by Witold Walczak, Legal Director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

While recently browsing books on the Black History Month display at the local library, I stumbled across Ann Coulter's 2012 book Mugged, subtitled Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama.  I had never read Ms. Coulter or, frankly, paid attention to anything she said on TV.  But now intrigued, I read the first chapter.  

Ms. Coulter's theory is that “there had been a real fight over civil rights for a century .... but by the end of the sixties, it was over. Segregated violence was gone, and all public places integrated.” Wow, who knew? She then excoriates “liberals” for a “ritualistic reenactment of the struggle for civil rights - long after it had any relevance to what was happening in the world.”  In essence, she claims race discrimination ended decades ago, and that ever since, liberals have been simply demagoguing on civil rights for electoral gain. 

My favorite example of Ms. Coulter’s claim about how “phony” the civil rights struggle has been relates to New York City, where she says “there was never any public segregation” and there were no “whites only” water fountains or lunch counters.  So there’s no racial discrimination in NYC.  Huh.  Again, who knew?  Certainly not the young black and Latino men who are disproportionately stopped and frisked by NYC police. Though they account for only 4.7 per cent of the city’s population, black and Latino males between the ages of 14 and 24 accounted for 41.6 per cent of stops in 2011. Ninety per cent of the men stopped were innocent.

What Ms. Coulter doesn't get, or acknowledge, is the distinction between de jure and de facto discrimination.  As a lawyer from a top law school, she should understand this distinction because it is Con Law 101.  De jure, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, means “anything that exists in law or formal, legitimate, moral, or rightful effect.”  Slavery and Jim Crow laws were forms of de jure discrimination, and such discrimination in this country is largely a historical relic. De facto is the opposite of de jure.  It means “in fact, in deed, actually.”  Such discrimination may be harder to identify, but it is no less damaging.  For instance, applying a different standard to stop and frisk individuals based on skin color is illegal everywhere, including in New York City.  Yet the grossly disproportionate stopping and frisking of blacks (and Latinos) by the NYPD is a form of racial (and ethnic) discrimination, whether Coulter admits it or not.
As I was reading (and seething), I wondered what Ms. Coulter would say to James Foster and Mike Sharp, two plaintiffs in Foster v. City of Pittsburgh, our lawsuit alleging race discrimination in hiring by the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police (PBP).  James is a mental-health professional on the verge of a master's degree, a father and a black man who grew up in Pittsburgh.  Mike is a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Police Training Academy, has been a police officer in suburban Pittsburgh departments for over five years, and also grew up in Pittsburgh.  They are nice, smart, physically fit black men who want to perform a dangerous public service but who were rejected, without reason, for police officer positions in the PBP.  And they are not alone.

Back to Ms. Coulter’s hypothesis, the city doesn’t have a rule or policy institutionalizing race discrimination.  And publicly, they profess frustration at not being able to find more “qualified blacks.”  So, according to Ms. Coulter, there must not be race discrimination.  Or any problem.  This is just the ACLU demagoguing for ... hmmm.  What could we possibly get out of this?  Maybe justice and fairness?  Let’s look at some Pittsburgh police hiring facts.

Despite race-neutral policies, it’s impossible to explain the city’s hiring rate over the past dozen years as anything other than discriminatory. Since 2001, only 15 of the 406 officers hired by the city are African-American, which is less than 3.7 per cent of the total.  It’s worse if you look only at the figures since 2007; six out of 226 hires are African-American, which is under 2.7 per cent.  

Whether this is illegal discrimination will be decided by the court in Foster v. City of Pittsburgh, but some basic facts begin to show why the city’s claim that they aren’t discriminating rings hollow.  The city’s most recent decennial census shows that African-Americans make up about 27 per cent of Pittsburgh’s population.  A more refined measure, calculated by federal agencies, based on education and other factors, shows that the percentage of Pittsburgh’s African-American labor force qualified for “sworn protective service” employment, a.k.a., police, is about 20 per cent.   The city’s response to the disparity has been the same for many years - blacks are just not applying in high enough numbers or we can’t find “qualified” black applicants.  

Using data obtained through public records requests, the ACLU-PA learned that the applicant pool in 2009 for police included about 20 per cent African-American candidates.  When we looked more closely at each step of the city’s selection process, a disproportionate number of blacks were rejected at every stage.  The ACLU’s investigation found irregularities, deviations from practice, gamesmanship and simply inexplicable (and unexplained) decision-making at each stage.  African-Americans, as well as Latinos and women – two other groups that historically have suffered discrimination – seemed to be excluded, suspiciously in almost every instance.

The rejected applicants we've met seem particularly worthy of a Pittsburgh police badge.  Like James and Mike, they are educated, some with advanced degrees, engaged in community service, who have lived solid lives.  They have strong work histories and several are already police officers in suburban departments.  It is hard to fathom why these folks, all members of minority groups, cannot get a job with the Pittsburgh police when so many white candidates with questionable records are getting in, and then failing out of the police academy or being fired for misconduct on the job. 

If groups like the ACLU did not allege discrimination and take legal measures to stop it, the practices would continue.  The discriminatory police-hiring in Pittsburgh has continued for more than a decade.  The harm to victims, like James, Mike and others, is not different because it’s the more subtle de facto discrimination than the in-your-face de jure discrimination.  Either way, they aren't getting hired or getting a job that, based on merit, they deserve.  The harm and the pain are the same.

I don’t know how Ms. Coulter would respond to my musings.  She’d probably find reasons why these applicants weren't worthy, which is how the city is expected to defend the case.  Or she might say it’s the free market.  Or because there is no purposeful discrimination – it just happens – too bad, life is unfair.  But to harken back to her book title, if you get mugged, the pain and injury are the same whether the mugging was part of a carefully planned operation or done on a whim by some punk.  You've still been mugged.  The same is true for James and Mike and many other people of color. They have unfairly been mugged based on an immutable physical characteristic by systems that have not, unfortunately, been purged of bias and discrimination. 

This post is part of a series honoring Black History Month.