As States Build Barriers to Racial Justice Teaching, Educators Fight Back

Originally published in Rethinking Schools on January 3, 2022.
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Heather Smith is a middle school technology teacher in Youngstown, Ohio. In late May she watched in horror as Republicans introduced House Bill 322, legislation that would restrict how educators like her could teach about racism.

“No teacher or school administrator . . . shall approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks [or] instructional materials” that suggest “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States,” the bill read.

Backed by national conservative organizations, more than 25 other states have introduced similar bills that would require educators to pare down or even eliminate their lessons around systemic racism. As of December, nine of those states — Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Arizona, and South Carolina — had enacted their bills into law. In other states, including Florida, Georgia, and Utah, state education boards have introduced guidelines and resolutions to restrict teaching about racism in schools.

The advent of legislation and rumblings of more to come have created an intimidating environment for educators, who already felt embattled after a year of pandemic teaching. Threats of legal retribution abound. In New Hampshire, the conservative group Moms for Liberty pledged in November to pay $500 to the first person who could catch a public school educator “breaking” their new state law. In December, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis introduced a bill to allow parents to sue school districts that teach lessons about race they object to.

In response to the new rules and guidelines, district administrators have started pulling books from school libraries and reconsidering what educators can permissibly say in their classrooms. In October, one Florida school district ordered the removal of a 5th-grade reading text that depicted a child and father attending a Black Lives Matter protest in Atlanta in 2020. The school district required it be replaced with a narrative that was similarly constructed but that took place in 1963 instead, during a Civil Rights Movement march. The contemporary anecdote “contained content that may be controversial and in conflict with [Florida Department of Education] requirements,” the school district wrote in a letter to parents. The problem with the text, in other words, was the suggestion that racism is not confined to the past.

Recognizing the danger this sort of censorship poses to students and society, teachers nationwide have been standing up to register their resistance and solidarity, organizing rallies, supporting school board candidates who reject these bills, and doubling down on their own efforts to learn and teach about race.

Pledging to “Teach Truth” Across the Country
When Smith heard about the national day of action educators were organizing on June 12 in response to these types of bills, she felt relief, and looked to find something local she could attend. But when she realized that no one was planning anything in Youngstown, she thought, “Well, why don’t I just try to do it myself?”

She reached out to Penny Wells, the director of the Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, which takes high school students on immersion trips to southern Civil Rights Movement landmarks. The Zinn Education Project (coordinated by Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change) had called for the day of action, and was encouraging organizers to hold events at the kinds of historic sites that teachers would have to lie about or omit entirely from their curriculum if the oppressive bills became law. So in Youngstown, Smith and Wells invited activists to gather at a local swimming pool that was segregated throughout the 1940s. At the rally, they explored the history of segregated pools and an Ohio State Board of Education member, despite what the state legislature was doing, read the board’s official resolution against racism and hate.

Smith is not alone in feeling the pull of action and responsibility. In Providence, Rhode Island, 3rd-grade teacher Lindsay Paiva felt worried as Republicans introduced House Bill 6070 in her state legislature — to ban teaching so-called “divisive topics” in public schools. Although the bill ultimately died in committee, conservative groups have continued to organize for its reintroduction. So when Paiva saw the call to action for educators in June, she too felt compelled to organize. They held their local rally at the DeWolf Tavern in Bristol, which formerly held enslaved people between auctions. Michael Rebne, a teacher in Kansas City, Kansas, heeded the call too, and with his chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice helped organize a roughly three-mile march of educators from a historically Black high school to the Black Archives of Mid-America in Kansas City, Missouri. “We wanted our rally to be a message to push back against all the white parents and community members in the suburbs who have been protesting CRT [critical race theory] at school board meetings,” he explained.

Rebecca Coven and Ari Abraham, two Chicago educators, teamed up to plan a local rally in late August with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union. Their city has a strong community of anti-racist activists, and Illinois is doing far better than most states in encouraging inclusive curriculum. This past July, Democratic Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed the first law in the nation requiring public schools to teach Asian American history, and a month later he signed another bill to ensure that contributions of LGBTQ+ people are represented in classrooms. Still, Coven said, there is not always enough time and resources for educators looking to teach about systemic racism.

“In Chicago, what we wanted to do was stand in solidarity with fellow educators who live in states that are fighting bans on teaching truth, and we also wanted to create a community of educators here who are committed publicly to teaching truth and empowering our students,” Coven explained. They gathered together at the 1919 Chicago Race Riot marker, near where Eugene Williams, a Black teenager, was stoned to death by a white man while he was swimming in Lake Michigan. Coven herself made a pledge that day to not only teach the difficult parts of U.S. history, but also to teach more about joy and resistance among Black people, Indigenous communities, and other individuals of color. “Education can be a tool for liberation by centering our shared humanity,” she said. “But our schools don’t spend as much time as they should uplifting our students and the contributions of people who look like them.”

Like Coven and Abraham in Chicago, Lena Amick, a high school teacher in Maryland, also felt it was necessary to help organize an event in a blue state. “Not because there’s a huge threat of those anti-CRT laws happening in Maryland but because the rhetoric behind those laws is what’s dangerous in this area,” Amick said. “The rhetoric is just one more tool used to undermine public education and undercut teacher autonomy.” About 70 people attended her local Teach Truth rally, where they gathered near the historic East Towson neighborhood, a community founded by formerly enslaved peoples in the 1850s.

Fighting Back Against a History of Classroom Censorship
The contemporary wave of bills attacking teaching about systemic racism and so-called “divisive topics” is not, by any means, the first time that educators committed to social justice have had to battle efforts to censor content in the classroom.

Back in the 1930s, conservative groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution ginned up opposition to leading school textbooks that encouraged exploration of American racism, exploitation, and inequality. (Anti-capitalist critiques had grown more prevalent and pronounced following the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.) In the 1950s, conservative groups like the American Legion and National Council for American Education targeted so-called “unpatriotic” textbooks and teachers, accusing educators throughout the McCarthy era of teaching students disloyalty. Fights around textbooks and appropriate curriculum grew even more contentious in the years following desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

But educators don’t have to look back decades to find antecedents to the most recent backlash. More recently has been the wars around ethnic studies, which sparked major resistance beginning in 2010, when conservative Arizona lawmakers banned the Mexican American ethnic studies program in Tucson public schools. (The Rethinking Schools publication Rethinking Columbus was one of the banned books.) The lawmakers claimed the program had “radicalized” and “indoctrinated” students. In fact, the objections to ethnic studies then sounded almost identical to critiques leveled at “critical race theory” today: that the curriculum makes white students feel bad about themselves, that the lessons are too focused on race, that the material should be taught only at the college level.

The Tucson ethnic studies program launched in 1998, and efforts to shut it down ended up galvanizing new efforts to promote similar programs across the country. In 2020, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1010, which will require every public school student in California to take an ethnic studies course before graduating.

Momentum to diversify teaching, pursue equity initiatives, and push ethnic studies further accelerated during the Trump era, when immigrants faced heightened threats of deportation and the movement to end police brutality against Black Americans picked up steam.

Many teachers point to September 2020 as a turning point, when Trump attacked the New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it a “crusade against American history” that “will destroy our country.” He kept up his public criticisms, and shortly before he left office in January 2021, he established a commission to counter the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”

Following his lead, state lawmakers began introducing their bills targeting educators last spring. More than 7,500 educators responded in turn by signing the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach the Truth. The pledge endorses Martin Luther King Jr.’s declaration that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Pledge signers also promise to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events.”

Signing that pledge carried consequences for some teachers. The Daily Wire, a conservative news outlet, reported on the pledge and call for action, and numerous educators who signed publicly said they were subjected to harassment, intimidation, and physical threats. Other teachers and administrators have resigned or been threatened with firing over the last year due to their classroom lessons and public advocacy.

Jennifer Lee, a high school educator in Killeen, Texas, worked to support teachers in her state who faced threats from The Daily Wire’s attention. Lee spoke with educators facing retribution and encouraged them to contact the Texas State Teachers Association, her teacher organization and the state affiliate of the National Education Association. “One Texas teacher got a letter from her superintendent saying that they did not appreciate her signing the Teach Truth pledge, and so we talked through the process to join TSTA,” Lee said. The organization, as well as its parent union and the American Federation of Teachers, have all promised to defend educators who face punishment for doing their fundamental jobs.

Lee herself has also been organizing local rallies in defense of teaching un-sanitized history. She describes her community as “very Republican” and “passionate about certain kinds of history” — namely Confederate history. In her town of Killeen, there have been multiple protests dedicated to keeping Confederate statutes up.

Given this local context, Lee and her colleagues decided to organize a Teach Truth rally in front of their county courthouse, where a Confederate monument still stands on the lawn. Lee acknowledged that those in favor of Confederate memorabilia also use the “teach truth” language in their advocacy. “They would say they also want history to be taught but correctly,” she said. “Correctly to them means that you don’t bash slave owners.”

As summer break transitioned into the fall, some activist teachers acknowledged that the new school year brought about barriers to organizing against attacks on anti-racist teaching, especially as educators contended with new staff shortages and shoddy COVID-19 safety protocols.

“When our governor put a mask mandate ban in place — even as COVID cases were skyrocketing — our organizing energy shifted to that,” said Lee. Still, the group of Texas activists who came together over the summer to organize their rally has not dissolved. “We now have a Facebook page, we have Zoom meetings, a group text, and we can pivot again [after COVID-19] to other things,” Lee said.

Paiva, in Rhode Island, also said educators have had to slow their work down since the new school year started. “There’s a lot of school-based organizing that pops back up and union organizing also resumes,” she said. Amick in Maryland highlighted the additional barrier of burnout. “Our staffing shortage has forced us all into enormous stress this year,” she said. “When you literally do not have enough adults to put into the classrooms with the students, you start to lose valuable time and energy.”

Study Groups and School Boards
Yet another avenue educators have embraced to register their resistance has been through study groups. Teachers are joining new study groups and attending online classes and professional development focused on deepening their commitments to racial justice.

Rebne from Kansas is involved with one of the Zinn Education Project’s Teaching for Black Lives study groups, which explore anti-racist perspectives to teaching. His cohort is using the associated readings to plan the first Black Lives Matter Week of Action at their high school, organized in collaboration with student groups and the student council.

Rebne says his own learning has made him a more conscious educator during periods like Thanksgiving. “Even in physics class, we spend some time dispelling these myths and featuring Indigenous mathematicians and scientists,” he said, adding there’s also now a greater focus on connections between racism and the underrepresentation of people of color in STEM fields.

Amelia Haynes Wheeler, a former public school teacher who is now a graduate student in the Social Studies Education program at the University of Georgia, helped plan a new series of professional development modules this year for teachers called “Teach the Truth Thursdays.” The sessions consisted of eight weekly workshops hosted by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, a civil rights nonprofit, and Haynes Wheeler helped design the curriculum. Their goal, she said, is to support classroom teachers “in whatever place they are in their journey to become anti-racist educators.” A similar series is being planned for the spring.

School board elections are another ripe domain for organizing. Earlier this year the 1776 Project PAC, a right-wing national group, formed to elect school board members who oppose critical race theory, racial justice teaching, and lessons that could make white students feel uncomfortable. Any endorsee from this group must agree to restore “honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.” Rebne and his colleagues have been working to support school board challengers who reject these ideas, though it’s been something of an uphill climb. In November, seven of the 10 Kansas candidates the 1776 Project PAC backed won their elections.

In New York, Vanessa Spiegel has also been keeping her pulse on upcoming school board elections. Like many educators, Spiegel reflected during the pandemic about what role she could play in the movement for racial justice. “As a teacher in a New York City Title I school, it was easy to think I was doing enough just by showing up at work,” she said. “But I realized that I needed to be more affirming and purposeful in my efforts to fight racism.”

In her home community of Westchester, Spiegel began organizing other parents to counter the rhetoric coming from Save Our Schools for Westchester Children — a parent group formed to fight lessons about systemic racism. Spiegel is a founding member of Teach the Truth – Westchester, which helps mobilize parents to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in local schools. “In Westchester it really runs the gamut of very liberal and very conservative school districts, and I think I was living in a bubble before that these attacks [on anti-racist teaching] couldn’t happen here,” she said.

Pushing Forward for Students
Anthony Downer, a teacher in Atlanta, is optimistic about the future of educator and student organizing for racial justice, but acknowledged the consequences for teachers doing so right now are real. Downer, who emerged as a leader in his former school district in Gwinnett County, Georgia, advocating for initiatives like more culturally responsive courses, anti-racist professional development, and restorative justice training, was not invited back to teach this year. He’s happy now in Atlanta Public Schools but was discouraged by what he felt was the message the Gwinnett leadership sent.

“I’ve been hesitant to share my story because I don’t want educators to be scared off, and my story is the ultimate fear,” he said. “This is why teachers worry about getting involved. We need more assurances that we won’t lose our jobs.” Downer says he remains hopeful nonetheless, because “so many teachers are saying ‘I’m going to organize anyway, come hell or high water.’” Activists in Georgia are now looking to push local school boards to pass more job protections for educators like Downer, and they have their eyes long term on the state level to push new requirements around multicultural curriculum.

Georgia so far has not passed a law restricting the teaching of racism and other “divisive” topics, but Republican Gov. Brian Kemp urged the Georgia Department of Education to get involved. In response, in June 2021 the state board passed a non-binding resolution declaring that the United States and Georgia are not racist. The resolution also says students should not be taught that racism or slavery are anything but exceptions to the country’s “authentic founding principles” — language echoed in other statutes, including Ohio’s House Bill 322.

Haynes Wheeler said the Georgia resolution has had a chilling effect on her friends teaching in predominantly white, affluent school districts. “Though the resolution is not law, the discourse they’re hearing from administrators is very much emphasizing that so-called ‘neutrality’ is the gold standard for teaching,” she said. “Parents have a tremendous amount of influence and teachers are told no one should know their own political beliefs. All it would take is for one kid to go home and say a teacher made them feel uncomfortable and it then blow up and the teacher receive very little support.”

In other Georgia school districts though, Haynes Wheeler says there’s been “a doubling down” of teaching about racism in the face of the state resolution. Dawn Bolton, a middle school teacher in Decatur, is one such Georgia educator doubling down. She says even with the state board resolution, she’s not afraid to lead real conversations about racism in her classroom. “I feel fortunate that in the city schools of Decatur, we are given a certain amount of autonomy to teach the truth,” she said. “I know that’s a rarity, for teachers in other districts.”

A critical role Bolton sees for herself in this moment is helping young people learn how to effectively fight for their rights and for change. “It’s important to me to teach students how to identify issues and have the courage to address them in an intelligent and informed way,” she said. “Because this orbit of discrimination and inequity and racial bias is just picking up velocity — it’s just spiraling — and I think as adults we even sometimes forget that.”

Ultimately these efforts of resistance and solidarity by teachers are in the service of students, who see the daily battles around racism and history reflected in their own lives. Bolton and Downer both say they’ve noticed new energy in their classrooms, with students asking new kinds of urgent questions about race and equity. “Students are standing up independently of us educators,” said Downer.

Bolton’s goal, she stressed, is to let students know that adults are here to support them as they navigate an unjust world. “The thing is, we adults need them as well,” she said. “But students need to know they don’t have to stand alone.”

How electric vehicles have helped labor and climate groups team up

Originally published in The Guardian on December 23, 2021.
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As the Biden administration attempts to increase incentives for the production of electric vehicles, labor unions and climate groups have teamed up to push for better wages and working conditions for autoworkers – and leave the door open for the nascent EV industry to unionize.

Last month, leaders from some of the largest environmental groups in the country sent a letter to top executives at Toyota, lambasting the automaker for appearing to support the electric vehicle revolution all while lobbying against a proposed tax credit for union-made electric cars.

The tax credit would give $4,500 to consumers who buy electric from unionized US plants – currently just Ford, General Motors and Stellantis NV would qualify – and has been hotly opposed by companies like Tesla, Honda, Hyundai and Nissan. But Toyota went a step further and began funding ads in papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and trade press claiming the federal bonus would hurt non-union autoworkers. (All electric vehicles, union or not, would remain eligible for an existing $7,500 tax credit.)

Representatives from 12 groups – including the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and Evergreen Action – blasted Toyota for “greenwash[ing] its image” and called its lobbying “extensive and unacceptable”. The organizations rejected Toyota’s claim that incentivizing electric vehicles with union labor would hurt the nation’s climate targets, and said its “manipulation of the political system and undermining action on climate is not limited to the United States”.

This came on the heels of another letter from prominent climate groups, urging electric vehicle start-up Rivian to respect workers’ wishes should they decide to unionize, and permit what’s known as a card check process. Rivan, which went public last month in the biggest US IPO since Facebook, is poised to ramp up vehicle production in the next year.

Ten climate groups, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Movement and 350.org, signed on to the letter – and said therein that they had reached out to Rivian privately in August. After two months with no response, the groups decided to take their demand for labor peace public. The president of the United Auto Workers announced in the spring that his union was planning to organize EV workers.

As lawmakers in Congress continue to hash out a wide-ranging social spending bill, labor unions, climate groups and prominent liberal thinktanks have joined forces to make the case that reducing emissions while creating unionized manufacturing jobs in the US is not only possible – but better for consumers and manufacturers alike.


This isn’t the first time that labor and climate groups have found common ground – but it represents a revitalized alliance that could help strengthen both the fight for reducing emissions and for bolstering worker rights.

Transportation is the largest source of pollution in the country, and the growth of non-union auto work has been accompanied by a nearly 20 percent decline in wages in the auto industry since 1990. “The fight for environmental and economic justice –the right for every American worker to not just survive but to thrive – are inextricably linked,” wrote UAW president Ray Curry and Center for American Progress founder John Podesta in a joint-op-ed this summer.

Rivian is not the only vehicle manufacturer that green groups have been targeting, according to Katherine García, who leads the Transportation for All campaign at the Sierra Club. “Behind the scenes there are other vehicle manufacturers we’re working with on labor peace,” she told the Guardian, adding that they’ve been holding one-on-one meetings to make their case.

While environment and labor groups have not always seen eye-to-eye, the two have a history of shared interests. Josiah Rector, an urban historian at the University of Houston who has studied the 20th century environmental movement, noted that the UAW has previously fought against toxic chemicals and pollution in auto plants.

But in the 1970s, says Rector, automakers viewed the fight for cleaner air and other environmental standards as yet another threat to their bottom line, at a time when they were already hurting from two major oil crises, intensifying deindustrialization, and the closing of manufacturing plants. Automakers began to play “environmental blackmail” against their workers, insisting that any further regulation from the government would force companies to cut even more jobs. “UAW, under threat of job blackmail, helped the companies lobby for a weaker Clean Air Act, which really strained tensions with the environmental movement,” said Rector.

Erik Loomis, a labor historian at the University of Rhode Island, also noted that the decline in industrial unions has especially hurt the unions that were more progressive to begin with – widening the gap between climate progressives and labor. “That left you with the longtime more conservative unions, and as environmentalism has become more of a rich person’s movement it also became disconnected from working-class culture,” Loomis said.

“I think the reality is climate groups have now realized that’s politically untenable and they need to build working-class coalitions if they want to get climate change legislation passed,” he adds. In other words, Loomis said, whether the modern-day solidarity is an alliance of deeply shared values or of convenience, the fact is that “neither are particularly strong enough on their own to get laws passed.”

Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and national environmental groups, attributes the work they’ve been doing recently to many years of relationship building, but credits the Build Back Better Act for catalyzing their efforts in 2021.

“That has focused everyone’s attention, and there’s an understanding that we need to reverse this trend of offshoring and de-unionization that’s hollowed out communities across the country,” he said.


The White House has set an ambitious goal of making half of all new car sales electric by 2030. Even with the united front from labor and climate groups, and the strong backing of a unionized EV sector from Joe Biden, it’s not clear the union-made tax credit will make it through the Senate. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin has voiced opposition to the subsidy, saying that taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used as an incentive for consumers. Republican governors with non-union auto facilities have also urged Congress to reject the tax credit, and Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, called Biden a “UAW … puppet” on Twitter. (Brian Rothenberg, a spokesperson for UAW, declined an interview, saying their focus is on passing the Build Back Better Act.)

For now labor and climate groups are scrambling to get the bill over the finish line, and make the case that in order to compete effectively in the global electric vehicle revolution, the US needs to invest more in the workers who make the cars on American soil.

Sam Ricketts, co-director of Evergreen Action, said while there have been signs of solidarity between unions and environmental organizations in recent years, the steps being taken in the electric vehicle debates, like climate groups pressuring companies directly and publicly, represent something new and more concerted. “This is new work happening in civil society, with groups recognizing that organizing can happen in the commercial sphere, not just the halls of Congress,” he said. “It’s leading-edge in that way.”

Rector, the University of Houston historian, said that if climate and labor groups want to surmount the problems that have plagued their solidarity efforts in the past, they’ll need a plan to defeat arguments that climate goals are zero-sum for union workers. “To solve the environmental blackmail problem, you need to have strong policies that undercut the argument coming from corporations and today from politicians like Joe Manchin,” he said. “And to do that, you need a strong coalition to push those policies through.”

Biden’s Infrastructure Czar Comes With Friendly Record on Fossil Fuels

Originally published in The Intercept on December 17, 2021.
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EIGHT YEARS AGO in New Orleans, an independent levee board created after Hurricane Katrina announced a lawsuit against 97 oil and gas companies, seeking damages for their part in destroying Louisiana’s coastline. By that point in 2013, the state had lost roughly a quarter of its wetlands, accounting for an area about the size of Delaware. Even scientists working for oil and gas conceded that at least 36 percent of the damage was due to their industries’ activities.

The case — which the New York Times would later call “the most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever” — was hailed as a monumental step in holding fossil fuel companies to account. Two parishes neighboring New Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines, followed with their own suits. The oil industry blasted the litigation, insisting that the levee board had gone rogue. One local leader seemed to have the industry’s back: Mitch Landrieu, then the mayor of New Orleans.

“Mitch Landrieu would never sue,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental justice group based in New Orleans. “During his tenure, there were all these calls for him to join the lawsuits, but he wouldn’t.” (The city’s current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, sued oil and gas companies over coastal erosion in 2019, in a case that’s still pending.) Landrieu had said that he preferred negotiation over litigation, but as Nola.com reported, “his proposals, including one for new oil and gas taxes, were quickly rejected by the industry.”

Climate activists like Rolfes were dismayed when President Joe Biden announced in November that Landrieu had been selected to oversee the dispersal of new funds for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill now signed into law. It’s a high-visibility role that will allow Landrieu to travel around the country and build his profile as he eyes even greater national political power. But more importantly, they warn, his new post could tilt the scales in favor of fossil fuel interests as companies gun for new billion-dollar contracts to build roads, bridges, and pipelines. Landrieu did not return The Intercept’s request for comment for this story.

Landrieu said recently that climate will be his No. 1 priority for infrastructure implementation, but activists say this rhetoric is not reflected in his record from eight years as mayor. They point to his family’s close ties to the oil and gas industry; his weak, nonbinding climate plan released in his final year in office; his silence over a new gas plant approved for construction in a predominately Black and Vietnamese neighborhood; and his full-throttled defense of drilling.

“I think oil and gas production is good,” he told MSNBC in 2015. “People are gonna keep driving, and we need fossil fuels, and we need to make sure that we keep drilling.” In 2010, he urged the Obama administration to lift its ban on offshore drilling. “It is not a zero-sum game,” he insisted. “We must drill and restore.”

LANDRIEU, WHO SERVED as New Orleans mayor from 2010 to 2018, comes from a powerful political family in Louisiana that is sometimes called the “Cajun Kennedys.” His father, Maurice Edwin “Moon” Landrieu, served as mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978, followed by a three-year stint as secretary of housing and urban development under President Jimmy Carter. One of his sisters, Madeleine, is the dean of Loyola University Law School and formerly was a judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. His brother, Maurice, works as an assistant U.S. attorney, and his other sister, Mary, was the last Democrat to serve as a U.S. senator from Louisiana from 1997 to 2015.

While in the Senate, Mary Landrieu was a close ally of the fossil fuel industry. In a 2014 review of her record, the climate-focused news outlet Grist noted that she was more conservative than some congressional Republicans on environmental issues. She voted for an amendment that would reverse the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to label carbon dioxide a pollutant under the Clean Air Act, against a bill to end tax loopholes for big oil companies, and for an amendment that would have opened up large areas of coastline to offshore drilling. She was the primary sponsor on a bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and received over $1.7 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry while a senator.

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Upon losing reelection, Mary Landrieu went straight to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm Van Ness Feldman, which advocates on behalf of oil, gas, and coal companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, Cheniere Energy, and the Coal Utilization Research Council. In her time there, she’s personally lobbied for fossil fuel interests, according to Senate lobby disclosures. She did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

In a statement to The Intercept, a White House spokesperson said: “The Biden Administration is committed to maintaining the highest ethical standard, including Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Implementation Coordinator Mitch Landrieu. As a White House employee, he will comply with the Biden Administration’s Ethics Pledge and all White House ethics and conflict of interest rules. He has received rigorous counseling on his ethics obligations, including avoiding any potential conflicts of interest. He is also required to recuse from particular matters involving his sister Mary Landrieu and any clients of hers.”

One way Mitch Landrieu could exert his influence is by steering infrastructure contracts to fossil fuel companies. Activists point to the $5 billion Clean School Bus Act, a provision of the bipartisan infrastructure package, as one example of how this could play out. That program allocates $2.5 billion for new zero-emission school bus purchases and another $2.5 billion for “low-emissions” buses, a broad category that could include compressed natural gas and propane.

“On paper, a lot of these programs are being sold as clean energy projects, but when you get down to the details, things like compressed natural gas and enhanced oil recovery can qualify,” said Lukas Ross, a senior policy analyst at Friends of the Earth. “There are neutral programs that could be corrupted, and someone like Landrieu can co-opt funds, because a lot of this stuff is left up to administrative discretion.”

“For formula-funding grants and competitive grants, it can really come down to who he decides to email back, who he is taking calls from, who can get a meeting,” added Dorothy Slater, a senior climate researcher at the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinizes executive branch appointees. Throughout his political career, Landrieu took at least $134,000 in campaign contributions from oil and gas interests, per campaign finance data from the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program.

Ross and Slater also point to New Democracy, an effort launched by centrist leaders in 2017 to expand Democratic appeal in red and purple areas, for which Landrieu served on an advisory board. “[New Democracy’s] mission is to expand the party’s appeal across Middle America and make Democrats competitive everywhere,” reads the group’s website. “These pragmatic Democratic leaders need room to maneuver, not purity tests and threats to ‘primary’ incumbents who deviate from left-wing orthodoxy.”

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser for the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, published a New Democracy memo urging swing state candidates to “vocally support the shale natural gas boom that has been overwhelmingly good for American consumers, workers and the climate” and to point out that President Barack Obama “presided over America’s largest ever oil and gas boom.” A spokesperson for PPI said that Landrieu had nothing to do with its climate recommendations.

IN LIEU OF hard policy change, some of Landrieu’s more memorable political accomplishments have been symbolic, like ordering the removal of Confederate monuments in New Orleans and traveling to Paris in 2015 to talk about the role of U.S. mayors in stemming climate change.

Rolfes said that it was always hard for local climate groups to criticize Landrieu when his climate plans fell short, given the even more hostile political environment they were dealing with on the state level. “In a way, it was really politically shrewd of him to engage the groups who were worried about climate because he could also neutralize them,” she said. “Groups tried to walk that line and relationship diplomatically so they could maintain his ear.”

Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund, a national organization, called Landrieu an “excellent choice” to lead on the infrastructure plan. “Environmental Defense Fund has had the privilege of working with Mayor Landrieu on community resilience, coastal protection and other climate smart projects, and we have seen firsthand his deep experience with disaster management after Hurricane Katrina at the state and local level, and his resilience planning response as Mayor,” she said in a statement.

Restore the Mississippi River Delta — a coalition of “Big Green” groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana, and Pontchartrain Conservancy — also praised the selection.

“Louisiana desperately needs more investments in its coast, particularly through projects in the Coastal Master Plan,” said Kimberly Reyher, executive director at Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana. “Mitch Landrieu understands this, so his appointment is great news for Louisiana. As Mitch said in his address at the 2018 State of the Coast conference, ‘South Louisiana is one of the most vulnerable places on the globe, making our work on long-term restoration even more important.’”

Landrieu’s elevation among national political commentators escalated in 2017 when he ordered the removal of four Confederate statues, something local activists had been organizing around for years. Leaning into the spotlight, Landrieu then published a bestselling book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” and by 2019 went on to become a national political commentator himself, joining CNN.

New Orleans journalist Michael Stein observed that the national love for Landrieu seemed to arise overnight. “When I went to sleep, Mitch Landrieu was the mediocre mayor of New Orleans, facing lethargic public support and intense local disapproval,” he wrote in The New Republic in 2017. “When I woke up, he was a future leader of the Democratic Party and a 2020 presidential contender.” (Landrieu did not end up running for president.)

Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history and social thought at the University of Pennsylvania, criticized Landrieu for taking so much credit for the removal of the statutes. “Mitch is a nice guy. His father was a nice guy. They’re all good people,” she told NBC last year. “But he took advantage of all the work that activists in New Orleans did to demand that the city remove those statues. … Mitch was forced into the position he took. Then he hijacked the credit in a systematic way, wrote a book promoting the idea that he was brave.”

For now, Landrieu is leaning into his new gig, speaking with mayors, governors, and local media nationwide. Last week, Politico noted that sources inside and outside the administration have said that the former New Orleans mayor has been “building a power center in the West Wing” to potentially “positio[n] himself well for a future spot in the president’s inner circle and, perhaps, in a post-Biden Democratic Party.” As one administration official quipped, “Mitch Landrieu is a machine.”

Slater said the climate community was blindsided by Landrieu’s appointment. “Revolving Door Project follows all these sorts of things, we often get intel and whispers, and yet we did not hear anything about this before it was announced,” she said. “Now in hindsight it seems like the meetings may have been happening but that they were not leaked, so there really wasn’t an opportunity for climate groups to pressure the Biden administration, and it was really sprung on people right before Thanksgiving. I think that timing was intentional.”

Arkansas Legislature Introduces Texas-Style Abortion Ban

Originally published in Rewire News on December 8, 2021.
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As Arkansas launched a special legislative session Tuesday nominally dedicated to passing income tax cuts, a leading anti-choice Republican in the state senate introduced a copycat version of Texas SB 8, legislation that effectively bans abortions after six weeks and allows any citizen to sue those who help a pregnant person get the procedure.

Reproductive rights advocates have been bracing for this moment for several months, ever since Republican Sen. Jason Rapert, who has sponsored some of the most aggressive bills to restrict abortion access over the last few years, came out in September to praise SB 8.

“What Texas has done is absolutely awesome,” he proclaimed when it first went into effect. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments against SB 8 on November 1.

ROE HAS COLLAPSED AND TEXAS IS IN CHAOS.

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Earlier this year, Rapert pushed through an abortion ban that only permitted abortions to save the life of the pregnant person, but did not provide any exceptions for those impregnated by rape or incest. A federal judge in July preliminarily blocked the law, but it was just one of 20 abortion restrictions Arkansas passed this year alone.

In early October, Rapert, who did not return requests for comment for this story, announced that he would be filing a version of Texas SB 8 as soon as Arkansas’ special session launches, which at the time lawmakers thought would be on October 25.

“I am filing the Arkansas Heartbeat Protection Act with a civil cause of action—just like Texas,” he tweeted then. “I invite [Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson] to put the bill on the call and legislators to co-sponsor.”

According to the state’s legislative rules, since Hutchinson did not include abortion on his “call,” Rapert had to rally two-thirds of his colleagues in order to have his bill considered in the special session. Rapert expressed confidence earlier in the fall that he could reach that support threshold. He also insisted that he must continue to be “creative” in his legislative pushes against abortion access, given that other bills he’s authored have been struck down in court. 

SB 13 was filed Tuesday afternoon with Rep. Mary Bentley as the bill’s other primary sponsor; 28 other Republicans co-sponsored it, clearing the two-thirds threshold.

Hutchinson had declined to say what he would do if the legislature passes copycat SB 8 legislation, but he said he thinks lawmakers should wait to see the decisions the Supreme Court hands down on SB 8 and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban that the Court heard a week ago. Rapert has said he’s frustrated with Hutchinson’s stance.

Holly Dickson, the executive director of the ACLU of Arkansas, said trying to bring up a sensitive bill like this outside of the state’s regular legislative session is “unorthodox.” The ACLU has been monitoring the possibility of a Texas copycat law ever since Rapert issued his first threat.

“We’ll oppose any effort to do that and have been advising legislators against this blatantly unconstitutional move,” Dickson said.

Public opinion is somewhat mixed on the idea. In late September, a survey from Talk Business & Politics and Hendrix College, which polled 916 likely Arkansas voters on their opinions of Texas SB 8, found about 46.5 percent of voters would support a similar bill in Arkansas, and about 49.5 percent would oppose it. Only 4 percent of respondents said they didn’t have an opinion at the time. The pollsters found opposition was particularly strong among those under 30 years old, and among people of color.

In early November, the 23rd annual Arkansas Poll was released, which conducted 800 telephone interviews with randomly selected adults across the state, and found 41 percent of all very likely voters support laws that would make it harder to get an abortion. More than a quarter of very likely voters think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances, the highest percentage ever found in this poll, according to Charisse Dean of the Little Rock-based Family Council, a conservative research and advocacy group

Last month the national anti-abortion organization, Americans United for Life, ranked Arkansas as “the most pro-life state” in the country for the second year in a row. Arkansas already requires individuals seeking abortion to undergo a mandatory 72-hour waiting period, as well as to get two in-person visits at an abortion facility. Telemedicine for abortion is banned in Arkansas, and patients can access abortion only up to 20 weeks postfertilization, or 22 weeks’ gestation.

In mid-October, Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes announced it would be launching an “aggressive statewide campaign” in Arkansas to defeat the proposed Texas copycat abortion ban. Among other things the organization said it had hired additional organizing and communications staff dedicated to the effort, would be hosting in-person and virtual events across the state to educate voters, and would be contacting over 20,000 state residents to discuss the implications.

“We’ve also really been targeting the legislature to help them understand the human impact,” said Emily Wales, the interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains.

Following the passage of SB 8 in Texas, visits by abortion-seekers into Arkansas jumped significantly. In September, Texas patients comprised 19 percent of Little Rock Family Planning Services’ caseload, after being less than 2 percent in August.

Many people are also traveling from Texas to Oklahoma for abortion care, though Oklahoma has passed its own wave of new abortion restrictions. In September, Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit to block five of these new restrictions, which were set to take effect in November. The litigation has been successful; all five of the Oklahoma laws have been temporarily blocked so far.

More public-facing organizing against a Texas copycat law, Wales said, was delayed in Arkansas because the special session was pushed back from October. Advocates had said in mid-November that they expect in-person events against a copycat ban to pick up if and when Rapert’s bill is formally introduced.

“We will have in-person rallies outside the capitol,” Wales said. “If Texas has taught us anything it’s that you have to be really visible about what the outcomes are. We’re seeing patients in Texas who are shocked that their legislature passed [SB 8] and they weren’t paying attention before.”

In late September, a Republican state representative in Florida introduced the first copycat Texas bill, which almost identically mirrors SB 8. But reproductive rights advocates in Florida say they are less concerned that the bill will become law anytime soon, given the repeated failure of Florida lawmakers to pass a six-week abortion ban.

Karen Musick, the co-founder and vice president of the Arkansas Abortion Support Network, an all-volunteer nonprofit that helps Arkansans access abortion care, said they’ve definitely seen an uptick in donations since Texas SB 8 was passed but that their attention has largely been focused on organizing volunteers.

“People have really come out of the woodwork and said, ‘My home is available if someone needs a place to stay, if someone needs help getting to another place I will take them,’” Musick said. “We’re collecting all these people who have benefited from abortion care in the past and want to do as much as they can now to ensure the next generation has access too.”

Musick said that while there’s less they can do to stop the current legislature from passing new restrictions, they can at least focus on organizing people.

“Our job is to forge as many contacts as we can,” Musick said. “We need to build a base of transportation volunteers, escort volunteers, money and counseling volunteers.”

Interrogating a Critical Race Theory Critic

Originally published in The American Prospect on December 7, 2021.
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As conservatives aim to capitalize on critical race theory backlash and their Virginia gubernatorial win from November, one longtime educator in Rhode Island has positioned herself at the center of the fray.

Ramona Bessinger, an English teacher of 23 years currently working in the Providence Public Schools, has been making the rounds on the conservative media circuit since this summer, ever since she first warned of CRT’s “infiltration” into the classroom.

Bessinger first appeared in July on Legal Insurrection, a blog affiliated with a Rhode Island–based conservative nonprofit. She alleged her predominantly nonwhite students had been “introduced to one of the most racially divisive, hateful, and in large part, historically inaccurate curriculums I have ever seen in my teaching career.” Bessinger outlined a shift in Providence school curriculum during the 2020–2021 school year, one overly focused on “identities” and “almost exclusively on an oppressor-oppressed narrative.”

Her arguments were immediately explosive. Among some of her most shocking statements were that “much of American history and literature was getting wiped out” and specifically that Romeo and JulietThe Crucible, essays by Martin Luther King Jr., poetry by Maya Angelou, Walt Whitman, and Robert Frost, and books focused on the Holocaust like Elie Wiesel’s Night and The Diary of Anne Frank “were removed from our classroom and sent to recycling.” She also criticized professional development sessions where white educators were split up from nonwhite educators, and lamented that teachers were not allowed to question why some students did not stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Bessinger’s blog was swiftly picked up by right-wing media, including Fox News and The Wall Street Journal editorial page. In October, she chatted with Tucker Carlson, who described her as “very insightful,” and last week she called on Rhode Island lawmakers to investigate how Providence Public Schools handles race and diversity lessons.

But virtually no outlet has deemed it necessary to verify any of her claims.

Debates over teaching critical race theory—an academic framework focused on the ways racism is embedded in policies and systems—have dominated school board meetings and state legislatures. Many Republican lawmakers were motivated by attacks from Donald Trump, who in September 2020 came out to blast The New York Times’ 1619 Project, calling it “a crusade against American history … ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” Shortly before Trump left office, he issued an executive order establishing a commission focused on countering the idea that “the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” Lawmakers soon followed by introducing bills to crack down on teaching so-called “divisive” topics like race, gender, and oppression.

Some parents are using attacks on critical race theory as a vehicle to push back against the Black Lives Matter movement. Other parents say they believe the various equity initiatives being implemented in the name of anti-racism are going too far, in ways they feel either threaten academic rigor or undermine the sense of patriotism they hope their child feels. But do the claims of critical race theory critics also go too far in depicting a toxic environment in public schools?

On one level, Bessinger is right in identifying some changes that have taken place within her district. In 2020, Providence Public Schools installed its first chief equity and diversity officer, a woman named Dr. Barbara Mullen. It was also the first year leaders rolled out a new curriculum program for elementary and middle-school students. The district selected American Reading Company, or ARC, in part for its Spanish curriculum and its emphasis on “culturally-responsive” texts, featuring diverse characters and written by diverse authors.

But Bessinger’s claims about esteemed literary classics being discarded or barred hold much less water. After she insisted the “oppressor-oppressed” narrative is the only one students are now exposed to, and gone was “diversity, perspective, truth and rigor that previously were taught,” I asked Bessinger to see a list of books that were approved for instruction. “There is no list,” she said, adding that there are “hundreds and hundreds” of books so she couldn’t possibly run through them all with me.

I don’t need to run through them together, I explained, I just want to review some of the titles. Bessinger then emphasized that we shouldn’t get too hung up on books. “Critical race theory is an ideology that’s infiltrated every aspect, every grade, every assignment, every part of school culture,” she stressed. “It’s very insidious and I hope I’m doing a good job at explaining this because if we don’t get this out we will not recognize this country in a few years.”

But if there is no list, I asked, where do you find the “hundreds and hundreds” of titles and what does it mean then for a book to be “removed” from a class? She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, say.

Fortunately, children and parents in Providence need not worry that lessons on the Holocaust, Shakespeare, or Martin Luther King Jr. are being scrapped from the public-school canon.

Shannon McLoud, who has worked for the district for the last eight years, two teaching English in middle school and the last six as an English department leader in high school, says that many of the texts and authors Bessinger claims are gone remain part of the high school curriculum, and some of those McLoud believes are better suited for older students anyway. “I’ll be honest, I’ve taught Night to eighth graders and it was probably not the best novel for that age cohort,” she said.

At the high school level, Providence schools use a curriculum program called StudySync, produced by McGraw-Hill. Core texts for this year, which were voted and approved collectively by high school English teachers across the district, include John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Sharon Draper’s Romiette and Julio for ninth grade, Elie Wiesel’s Night and Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents for tenth grade, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for 11th grade, and George Orwell’s 1984 and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner for 12th. (Supplemental high school texts also still include Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference.”)

“I feel the district is trying to put in more voices of color, but I don’t see how that’s a bad thing,” said McLoud. “So I think pedagogically she and I just disagree.”

Kira Leander, an English language arts teacher at the middle-school level in Providence, said it’s important to remember this is only the second year of using ARC in the district, and its first year was rolled out during the pandemic, amid a tumultuous state takeover of Providence’s schools. “I think what a new curriculum rollout looks like varies from school to school, and classroom to classroom, and there’s not just one story here,” she told the Prospect.

Still, Leander said, teachers lacked full discretion to choose their classroom literary texts, even before ARC. “I almost feel like what [Bessinger is] insinuating is that in the past teachers could just choose whatever they wanted and read that, but there’s always been curriculum programs and they come with attached texts, and ARC is no different in that way.” Teachers can still bring in some of their own supplemental texts, Leander added, though it can be challenging to find time in the busy school year to teach them.

That’s not to say ARC was met by all teachers with open arms. After the first year of the rollout, leaders from the English and social studies departments met to discuss which books students didn’t seem to connect with, and which ones educators didn’t love teaching. In some cases, core texts were swapped out based on feedback.

Leander says there is also truth to the observation that a lot of the ARC novels, like Full Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton, have some element of a young person facing oppression or discrimination based on an identity marker like race. “But to claim it’s an ‘oppressor-oppressed’ narrative oversimplifies the story and erases what I hope our students are really getting out of it,” she said. “Which is a sense of empowerment and exploring how young people can use their own voices to create the type of change that they want to see in the world. These books are used to engage with the question of what we do when we either see or ourselves face inequities.”

A spokesperson for ARC declined to comment on Bessinger’s critiques but said via email that “units are intentionally designed to give educators and schools the flexibility to include any relevant texts they believe will best meet the needs of their students.”

IN ADDITION TO CURRICULAR OBJECTIONS, Bessinger has also raised alarms about new “racialized” and “divisive” professional development opportunities. One in particular was the establishment of so-called affinity groups, where white and nonwhite educators could gather separately and talk about their experiences.

Barbara Mullen, the chief equity and diversity officer, encouraged the affinity groups and said she received pushback from just “two to three educators who were confused” because they thought it was based on segregation. “The reality is people need different things, so we create spaces for students to have the things they need and it’s the same for our educators,” she told the Prospect. Mullen is no longer working with Providence schools, and now serves as an administrator for Cambridge, Massachusetts, public schools. Providence Public Schools has not yet installed another chief equity and diversity officer and did not return requests for comment.

According to Leander, more than a few teachers felt uncomfortable with the affinity groups when they were introduced. “We need a lot of education about why we need affinity spaces, and as a district we’re struggling so much as it is with systems and structures and overall functionality, like even figuring out who is in charge of what, which makes taking on these conversations around power and oppression and identity more challenging, though necessary.”

“I’ll be honest, when I first heard the idea I thought it seemed weird,” said McLoud. “But Barbara Mullen had open Zoom meetings and the reason for the groups was so people of color could feel they could speak freely, and so white people could speak freely. I see where people get weirded out by it, but I understand the reasoning now.”

In a statement provided to WLNE, an ABC-affiliated station that serves Providence, Victor Morente, a school district spokesperson noted that affinity group “participation is optional for staff.”

Last spring, the Rhode Island legislature proposed a bill to ban the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts” like critical race theory, but it was tabled for further study. More than 25 other states have introduced similar bills, nine of which have so far passed into law. (Arizona, one of the nine states, had its law overturned in November by its state Supreme Court, though lawmakers will likely reintroduce the bill and pass it again.)

For now, Bessinger is continuing to speak out, casting herself as a martyr for her country. On a near daily basis, she levels public criticisms against her school district or teachers union. (Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro did not return requests for comment.)

“I have everything to lose, my career is in jeopardy, but my core as a mother will not allow me to remain silent,” Bessinger insisted. “I have to expose this problematic curriculum that’s all over the country, and I’d probably extend that to the world.”

After Michigan Shooting, Democrats Weigh Competing Approaches to School Safety

Originally published in The Intercept on December 3, 2021.
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ON TUESDAY, in a suburb of Detroit, a 15-year-old boy brought his father’s semi-automatic handgun to school and shot 11 fellow students, killing at least four. It was the latest example of a problem that has become endemic in the United States: According to NBC News’s school shooting tracker, it was the third school shooting this year; the 14th since the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida; and at least the 46th since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

As pressure mounts again for action and advocates face familiar opposition from Republicans to gun control, a quieter battle has been brewing between groups on the Democratic side of the aisle, some of which support measures that could increase the role of law enforcement in schools, while others say we need greater focus on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Both camps include parent groups, pitting the parents of school shooting victims against those who have seen their children undergo the harms of chronic overpolicing.

One group of grieving parents has become something of a legislative powerhouse. Organizing under the banner of Stand With Parkland and representing parents of the shooting victims at Marjory Stoneman Douglas, they have successfully pushed for a number of policy changes to school safety both in Florida and nationwide, including a bill to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System and a bill to fund investments in school security training.

On the heels of these victories, the Parkland parents have turned their attention to several other pieces of legislation winding their way through Congress, holding more than a dozen meetings with lawmakers in Washington last month. These include the Luke and Alex School Safety Act (named for two of the students who died in the Parkland massacre), or LASSA, which would codify a federal clearinghouse to outline school security recommendations, and the EAGLES Act (named for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school mascot), which would establish a new program focused on violence prevention in schools at the National Threat Assessment Center, a division of the U.S. Secret Service.

While Stand With Parkland hails both LASSA and the EAGLES Act as critical, proactive safety measures, coalitions of hundreds of civil rights, disability rights, and privacy groups have been working hard to stop those bills from becoming law. In a series of letters sent to Congress over the past year, advocates have criticized the bills for entrenching school safety with law enforcement and for their embrace of threat assessment, a violence prevention strategy pioneered by the Secret Service to protect the president and other public officials.

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In an October letter, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents more than 220 national groups, wrote to lawmakers that “Relying on threat assessment systems, as outlined in the EAGLES Act, would be misguided, detrimental, and wasteful.”

Stand With Parkland parents are familiar with the legislative objections raised by civil rights advocates, but they have not engaged with these critics directly. “We have not met with those coalitions, but we are aware of the concerns,” said Tony Montalto, the group’s president, whose 14-year-old daughter Gina died in the shooting. “The idea of identifying someone in crisis or in need is to connect them with the resources they need. It’s not designed to punish, it’s not designed to incarcerate, but to proactively offer students individualized support before they turn to violence.”

One academic researcher and threat assessment proponent went so far as to compare the civil rights groups to anti-vaccine advocates, saying that their objections “are causing harm to many children by undermining a safe and effective practice that protects them.”

IN 2019, Jamari Nelson, a Black first grader with autism, was subjected to a threat assessment that civil rights leaders nationwide now point to as a prime example of how these evaluations can go wrong, especially for students with disabilities. The 7-year-old was temporarily barred from school and assessed after a classroom incident that culminated in Nelson hitting a teacher on the head with a whiteboard. His report indicated that he was “extremely manipulative” and “distrustful” and displayed an “alternate identity” as a force to be reckoned with. Nelson’s mother pulled him out of school following the experience, which was detailed in a shocking investigation in Searchlight New Mexico.

In a school setting, threat assessments generally involve teams that include a mental health professional, an administrator, and school or local police to evaluate potential student threats and propose interventions. The teams deem potential threats either “transient,” meaning that they do not involve serious intent to cause harm, or “substantive,” meaning that they do. The two designations trigger different responses, with the former typically entailing a quicker and ideally less punitive resolution than the latter.

In a report published this spring, the Secret Service’s National Threat Assessment Center analyzed 67 disrupted plots against K-12 schools between 2006 and 2018 and concluded that threat assessment is the “best practice” to prevent school shootings. While the report acknowledged that many of the disrupted plots had been stopped using arrests and criminal charges, the authors urged intervention before a criminal investigation becomes necessary, using tactics like connecting students with social services, adult monitoring, and conflict resolution support.

Civil rights groups say that the Secret Service overestimates its ability to prevent shootings, as the agency flags as risk factors conditions that apply to millions of students — like receiving mental health treatment, having a history of substance abuse, and being bullied. And while the Secret Service concluded that school-based police play an important role in preventing school shootings, other research has found that school police do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents. They do, however, increase suspensions, expulsions, and student arrests.

Threat assessment skeptics like Miriam Rollin, director of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, say that the model is often framed as the “chicken soup” of school shootings — meaning that it can’t hurt and should help — but in practice, it gets implemented in ways that harm students like Nelson. Civil rights groups also believe that threat assessments undermine existing programs like “Child Find,” a program implemented under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that helps connect students with mental health services.

“We absolutely oppose the use of threat assessment,” Liz King, director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told The Intercept. “It is not possible to implement it in a way that has a positive effect on students.”

The policies promoted by Stand With Parkland aren’t the only measures that support the use of threat assessments making their way through Congress. An additional such bill called the Behavioral Intervention Guidelines, or BIG, Act was passed by the House in May, though Stand With Parkland has not formally endorsed it.

The BIG Act would task the federal departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Homeland Security with developing crisis intervention plans for students with mental illnesses who have been deemed threatening. In a June letter opposing the legislation, the Coalition for Smart Safety wrote: “We are fundamentally opposed to the notion that behavioral interventions in schools begin with the assumption that the student is a threat and that a threat must be mitigated. … Students of color are over policed and disproportionately disciplined in schools and we should curb this problem rather than further entrenching ineffective and discriminatory systems.”

Both parents of school shooting victims and civil rights groups are pressing lawmakers for more school-based mental health services, but the bills each camp is pushing approach the issue very differently.

“We’re not identifying [students] as a problem, we’re identifying the problems that they are experiencing or are feelings and making sure that they are getting the help that they need,” said April Schentrup, whose daughter Carmen, 16, was also murdered in the Parkland shooting. Stand With Parkland is pushing for the Mental Health in Schools Excellence Program Act, a bill led by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., and Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., to increase recruitment and retention of school-based counselors. Civil rights groups, in turn, are rallying behind the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, which would ban the use of federal funds for police in schools and establish a new grant program to hire more counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.

DEWEY CORNELL, a professor of education at the University of Virginia and the country’s leading advocate for school-based threat assessments, has published an array of studies cited by supporters of LASSA, the EAGLES Act, and the BIG Act. He first became interested in school violence while working at a hospital in 1983, after evaluating a 16-year-old boy who murdered a 14-year-old girl. “He was depressed over the breakup of his parents’ marriage and angry at the girl for teasing him and calling him ‘pizza face’ because of his acne,” Cornell told Virginia Magazine. “I thought about this case and how little we understood the causes and determinants of violent behavior.”

Cornell’s data suggests schools that used threat assessment were less likely to use other exclusionary school discipline practices and that racial disparities among those who are suspended or expelled were also reduced. In one randomized controlled trial he led, schools using threat assessment suspended Black and white students at equal rates, whereas schools without threat assessments suspended Black students at a higher rate than their white peers.

“Threat assessment essentially protects students of color as well as students in special education from disproportionate discipline,” Cornell told The Intercept.

Civil rights advocates argue that Cornell’s focus on threat assessment outcomes downplays the trauma that those who are referred to be assessed experience. For example, students with disabilities were referred to be evaluated at nearly four times the rate as the general student population, according to Cornell’s own data. He insists that such referral disparities “should not be alarming,” noting that students of color and students with disabilities are already disciplined at far higher rates than other students — irrespective of threat assessment. In other words, he argues, if threat assessment results in less punitive discipline policies for those groups of students and instead provides them with mental health and social services, that’s a good thing.

Rollin, of the Education Civil Rights Alliance, argues that Cornell’s research conflates students who received referrals for services with those who actually received them, stressing that there has never been enough support available for students with disabilities. Diane Smith Howard of the National Disability Rights Network agrees, calling this process “referrals to nowhere.”

Cornell considers this critique “a bogus argument that just tries to raise the bar high enough to discount our findings.” He also dismissed the example of Jamari Nelson, saying that “from a scientific perspective, anecdotal evidence is not evidence, no matter how dramatic or compelling it is.”

CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATES have been scrambling over the last few weeks since they heard that LASSA could be introduced as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass piece of legislation still being debated in the Senate. In July, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., moved the bill out of his Homeland Security Committee to the full Senate, but Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., put a hold on it after communicating with civil rights groups.

“LASSA supporters are now looking for another way to bypass the hold, and since they couldn’t do it with reconciliation, we think they might try with NDAA,” Dara Baldwin, director of national policy for the Center for Disability Rights, told The Intercept. “Their No. 1 goal is to get it passed in the Senate this year, which will make it easier to get it over the finish line in 2022, especially if Republicans retake the House.” Civil rights groups have been ramping up pressure on Democratic leadership to oppose any such amendment. Murphy, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Education Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash., did not return requests for comment.

Baldwin said that her coalition is particularly frustrated with Peters for moving LASSA forward, seeing it as a slap in the face to the Black voters who helped Democrats win Michigan in 2020. A committee aide for Peters told The Intercept that while the senator has not co-sponsored the bill, he agreed to move it forward “with the understanding that it would need more work — including work with other committees — to address many of the concerns that have been raised by key stakeholders before it can be considered by the full Senate.” The aide did not respond to follow-up inquiries about how passing the bill as an NDAA amendment would undermine opportunities for further work.

Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., one of three original co-sponsors of the bill, declined to say whether her boss plans to introduce LASSA as an NDAA amendment. “Criticism of [LASSA] is misguided,” she told The Intercept. “It’s unfortunate anyone would want to prevent schools, teachers, and parents from knowing what resources are available to help protect their students.”

King, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the political momentum around the threat assessment bills is a result of lawmakers refusing to take real action on gun control yet still feeling urgent pressure to respond to mass shootings.

After the Parkland shooting, 19 states adopted so-called red flag laws, which provide police or family members ways to prevent gun purchases and possession by those deemed a threat, and Parkland parents are still pushing for a federal bill that would incentivize more states to follow suit. But momentum, particularly among state Republican leaders, has since fizzled out. Seemingly incapable of preventing violence, governments are often left in a reactive position, as in the case of Tuesday’s shooting outside Detroit, where the 15-year-old suspect could now face life in prison on charges of murder and terrorism.

“It’s a dangerous cocktail of debate framed in ways that refuse to engage in any remedy that is not criminalizing,” King said. “From our perspective, we need action now, we need action yesterday, but we are in a situation where one side is unwilling to do anything to address the underlying problem about the easy availability of guns.”

School Officials Welcome Homeland Security Surveillance After Student Fights

Originally published in The Intercept on November 9, 2021.
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IN LATE OCTOBER, after a series of student fights broke out at public schools in Prince George’s County, school district officials informed parents in the predominantly Black suburb of Washington, D.C., that they were taking steps to respond. “All has been handled,” wrote Timothy Gover, a school security official, in an email reviewed by The Intercept. With footage of some fights circulating online, Gover added, “Also reached out to A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security and they are going to attempt to monitor social media in ref to the Suitland and Wise,” two high schools where fights had recently taken place.

Anthony Tilghman, a local education activist, posted Gover’s email in a community Facebook group. The email listed other measures, including the temporary addition of extra school security to the two high schools and a request to the local police department for reinforcements. But it was the casual reference to “Homeland Security” that stood out.

Two years ago, the Prince George’s County Council voted unanimously to bar all county agencies from working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security. But if state and local homeland security divisions collect student data, agents could enter that information into any of the many federal DHS databases, creating a backdoor route for federal surveillance and immigration enforcement.

Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson Meghan Gebreselassie confirmed in an email to The Intercept that “Homeland Security” was contacted to “support monitoring social media for student conflicts/ to mitigate a possible school fight.” While the county has its own Office of Homeland Security, Gebreselassie clarified that the school district works with a separate Homeland Security division housed within the Prince George’s County Police Department. She said the district contacts the office “regularly for assistance when it comes to ensuring student safety.”

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“This warrantless, dragnet surveillance of minors is a clear violation of their civil rights and is an immediate threat to undocumented students and students with undocumented family members,” wrote Daniel Greene, a Prince George’s County parent, in an email to Board of Education CEO Monica Goldson and 13 board members. Greene raised concerns that the district’s practices were in violation of the 2019 ordinance barring cooperation with ICE and said that he would be filing Freedom of Information Act requests for more information. “I don’t believe federal anti-terror and anti-immigration surveillance is in any way suited to the task of settling fights among minors,” he wrote.

Goldson responded by writing that the district would review its actions to ensure that they were in compliance with the 2019 ordinance and that it is the district’s “desire and intent” to follow the law’s expectations and guidelines.

Gebreselassie referred The Intercept’s questions about the collection of social media posts to the police. The Prince George’s County Police Department did not return multiple requests for comment.

CIVIL RIGHTS AND legal advocates told The Intercept that they had not heard previously of homeland security offices surveilling students following school fights and warned that teenagers would likely have little idea of how their information is later used.

“Given how central social media is to young people’s lives, protecting people’s social media posts and protecting kids from state surveillance is extremely important,” said Vera Eidelman, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney focused on protecting free speech online. “It’s even more pernicious for kids who tend to say any number of really strongly felt things in the moment.”

Data collected through youth surveillance could be used to bolster already shoddy and discriminatory gang databases, national experts warn. Individuals, typically Black and Latino men, are frequently added to these police databases for trivial matters like standing on certain street corners, having particular tattoos, or meeting with someone else suspected to be in a gang. Even though the databases are well known to be riddled with inaccurate information, federal agencies still routinely consult them.

“Allegations of potential gang involvement are where we historically have seen and continue to see real collaboration between the Prince George’s County police and ICE,” said Nick Katz, legal director of CASA, an immigrant advocacy organization. “Often individuals will be flagged for baseless gang allegations — like being in a picture with someone else believed to be in a gang — and then entered into local and national databases which can be used in any way [officials] want.” Katz had not heard of homeland security forces surveilling students after school fights before but said he was not surprised given the way high school students of color are routinely branded as public safety threats.

Greene, who studies technology and surveillance as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, knows from his professional work how federal agencies can leverage the data they collect through surveillance. In 2017, for example, ICE used surveillance data to arrest and deport Rómulo Avelica-González, a father of four who had been living in California for 25 years.

“The first thing a parent said to me when I brought this up was, ‘Well, you know this might sound scary, but if people weren’t involved in those fights, then they’ve got nothing to worry about,’” Greene told The Intercept. “I think that fundamentally misunderstands what this surveillance is for and how it works.”

THOUGH IT IS now the largest federal law enforcement organization and the third-largest federal employer in the United States, the Department of Homeland Security did not exist before 2003. Feeling they had been caught flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks, federal leaders launched the new agency with a mandate to coordinate anti-terrorism efforts and doled out hundreds of millions of dollars to establish so-called fusion centers, which collect, analyze, and share information about alleged terror threats. Blurring the jurisdictional boundaries between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, the centers encourage sharing as much data as possible between all three.

Two decades in, critics charge fusion centers as yet another invasive and ineffective national security measure. A two-year bipartisan Senate investigation released in 2012 concluded that fusion centers had “yielded little, if any, benefit to federal counterterrorism intelligence efforts” and often collected intelligence of “uneven quality – oftentimes shoddy, rarely timely, sometimes endangering citizens’ civil liberties and Privacy Act protections.” In 2020, The Intercept reported that fusion centers were being used to monitor racial justice organizers and Black Lives Matter protests.

“Far from the lofty justifications given for their existence—securing the homeland and so on—the titles of the reports [fusion centers have] produced suggest a focus on criminal activity (supposed or otherwise) so mundane it’s at times comical,” wrote Ken Klippenstein in an investigation for The Nation earlier this year. Klippenstein, now a reporter at The Intercept, found that fusion centers rarely produced reports focused on counterterrorism, opting instead for investigations with titles like “Subscribers of Black Extremism Collaborate Musically” and “Criminal and Violent Extremist Use of Emojis.”

Gover, an operations supervisor for the Prince George’s County school district’s security division, said in his email that he had communicated with “A/Sgt Tilus of Homeland Security” about social media monitoring. The only county police officer listed in OpenPayrolls and other databases with that name is Wantalex Tilus, a Prince George’s County police corporal. In 2011, Tilus was sued by a parent for handcuffing and beating her seventh grade son in a civil case that was ultimately dismissed in 2015. Gebreselassie, the Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesperson, did not answer multiple requests for comment about the officer’s identity. Tilus referred The Intercept to the police department press team, which did not return requests for comment.

In a statement to The Intercept, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Homeland Security said their department “is not participating in social media monitoring related to PG County schools” but did not deny that it could review any data collected. The spokesperson wrote that the state-operated fusion centers exist “for the receipt, analysis, gathering and sharing of threat-related information between federal, state, local, tribal, territorial, and private sector partners.”

Prince George’s County Council Member Deni Taveras, the lead sponsor of the legislation barring cooperation with ICE, did not return a request for comment. The county’s Board of Education Chair Juanita Miller also did not return requests for comment.

AN EXAMPLE OF how the sharing of this flawed data can be used was on display in March 2017, when six ICE agents raided Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez’s home in Chicago, arrested him, and placed him in deportation proceedings. Catalan-Ramirez’s lawyers later learned that his arrest came from Chicago police erroneously placing him in their local gang database, a measure that effectively stripped him of sanctuary privacy protections he would have otherwise had. The city later acknowledged its mistake, and Catalan-Ramirez was released from ICE custody in 2018. This past spring, national civil rights groups organized a petition calling on DHS to end its practice of prioritizing for immigration enforcement those alleged to be involved with gangs.

“The thing about bulk data collection is, even if you trust the guys now, you might not later,” said Greene, the parent and University of Maryland assistant professor. “Data is used to build categories, and it all justifies more collection tomorrow. It’s far from being this thing where you’re looking for one bad kid. You’re taking all kids, or certain subsets like young Black and Latino working-class kids, and saying, ‘We’re going to hold on to their socials to build patterns.’”

Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program, noted that in the wake of horrific school shootings, private companies raced to develop new social media monitoring software to sell to districts under pressure to take action. These programs purport to help identify potential future shooters, she said, but they have been of dubious quality and invariably capture loads of irrelevant information in their pursuit for red flags.

“You’re talking about kids who are easily misinterpreted, a system where there are significant racial disparities, and you’re basically encouraging this data sharing that’s not vetted,” she said. “How long does this data even follow a kid around? Once you’re in a database, are you forever flagged as being suspicious?”

How To Cancel $3.2 Million of Debt for 20,000 People Who Went Through the Carceral System

Originally published in The Intercept on October 29, 2021.
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DOUGLAS HARPER WAS stunned by a piece of mail he got earlier this month. The letter said the $270 he owed in probate debt had been canceled.

“No one should go to jail because they are unable to pay a private probation fee,” the form letter read. “You no longer owe the balance of this particular debt. It is gone, a gift with no strings attached. You are no longer under any obligation to settle this account with the original creditor, the bill collector, or anyone else. … You are not a loan!”

Harper, a 31-year-old man living in Quitman, Mississippi, had been trying to pay off this debt for nearly two years, all while having his driver’s license suspended for the traffic tickets that led him to start accruing debt in the first place. Instead of going to jail for failure to pay his tickets, he was put on probation, which meant he needed to pay at least an extra $25 each month in probate fees.

“I was so happy to get the letter, it was great, it was a blessing,” he said. “Now I can get my license back and go back to my job.” Harper works as a supervisor at an oil field where, he said, driving a commercial vehicle is a job requirement.

The letter, sent in both Spanish and English, was one of 20,500 mailed out this month to individuals living in Mississippi and Florida by the Rolling Jubilee Fund, a nonprofit mutual aid group that buys debt off the secondary debt market to cancel it. The fund is affiliated with the Debt Collective, a national union of debtors which has achieved significant policy wins over the last few years, including pressuring the federal Department of Education to cancel billions of dollars in student loans.

The Rolling Jubilee Fund launched in 2012 as an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, initially focused on canceling medical, tuition, and credit card debt. The effort went dormant over the last five years as activists turned their sights to other projects they felt would bring about more systemic change. On Friday, the group announced a return to extinguishing debts outright, saying it had canceled $3.2 million in probation debt as “an act of solidarity” amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In the portfolio purchased by the group, the average debtor owed $159. The Rolling Jubilee Fund had been able to purchase all of it for just $97,922.

When the Debt Collective realized that buying and erasing debt wasn’t a sustainable strategy for change, it turned its focus toward building a national union of debtors. “We always knew there were limits to this tactic, but we’ve revived it because of the pandemic,” explained Astra Taylor, the group’s co-founder. “In that sense it’s an echo of 2008, we’re in another economic crisis, but it’s also different now. We can see that people were spending their stimulus checks on debt payments. We know that the non-mortgaged debts of retirees have doubled. We know that payday lenders made a killing over the last year. So we wanted to revive the jubilee for this moment, but a difference this time is also our abolishment of probation debt, which ties us into a whole new domain of criminal carceral debt.”

Canceling Carceral Debt

The $3.2 million in probate debt cancellation isn’t the only announcement the activists made on Friday. Activists also introduced a new online mutual aid tool that will help Californians cancel their bail bond debt. Using this so-called Abolish Bail Debt Tool, individuals who took out bail debt with co-signers will now be able to dispute the payments easily using state consumer protection law. Good data is hard to come by, but the Debt Collective estimates that more than 1 million people across California hold debt from bail bond contracts and that at least $500 million of that was obtained with a co-signer.

Hannah Appel, co-director of the Debt Collective, said the group’s bail tool came out of California organizing they got involved with in 2017, which was focused on other financial penalties from aggressive policing. “We would show up at other community organization meetings and, while there, offer advice on disputing household debt, and folks would say, ‘Yes, it’s great to be able to dispute all these debts that got worse while I was inside but I actually have debts from my incarceration itself. What can you do about that?’” recalled Appel. “And our answer at the time was nothing.”

The median bail bond in California is $50,000, which is five times higher than the national average. Since most people can’t afford that, they turn to private bail companies that typically charge 10 percent of the total bond amount in nonrefundable premiums and fees. While the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional, the court’s decision does not affect the millions in bail debt still on the books.

The Debt Collective soon learned that Danica Rodarmel, then a fellow with the San Francisco chapter of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had developed a new legal application of California consumer protection law for these bail bond contracts. Her strategy, which she was testing out successfully with some clients, said that if one is a co-signer of a bail bond, then they should be treated as a credit lender under California consumer protection law. Among other things, California law requires co-signers to be provided with liability notices outlining their rights and obligations; Rodarmel noticed virtually no one was receiving these notices. Failure to give this notice entitles the co-signer to rescind (or cancel) the contract. While bail bond companies argue their contracts are not consumer credit contracts, so far the courts have disagreed.

With some funding from the San Francisco-based Future Justice Fund and the New York-based Justice Catalyst, the Debt Collective hired a legal fellow as well as a new carceral debt organizer and set out to make an online tool that leveraged Rodarmel’s application of the consumer protections, along with exploring other methods of using the laws to get carceral debt canceled.

Debt Abolition

The move into carceral debt and the embrace of “abolition” language is relatively new for the Debt Collective, which launched with a focus on household debts, including mortgages, student loans, medical debt, and credit card debt. Appel says the group originally focused on emphasizing debt cancellation as opposed to debt forgiveness, which suggests that a debtor has done something wrong and needs forgiveness.

“We actually didn’t start using ‘debt abolition’ until much more recently — I think it was in 2019 — and it was a very intentional shift due to our movement work with Critical Resistance,” said Appel, referring to a national prison abolition group. “I credit partners like Ruth Wilson Gilmore at CUNY and Dylan Rodríguez at UC Riverside for moving us on this.”

In “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay,” a short book the Debt Collective published last year outlining their strategy for change, the group explores how debt abolition is based on similar ideas as prison abolition. “Like prison abolition, debt abolition is a strategy and a vision for a world without—and a world with,” the collective wrote. “Indeed, the two forms of abolition may require one another.”

Discussion of how debt, policing, and incarceration impact one another grew more public in the years following Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri. The police killing galvanized what would become the global Black Lives Matter movement. Following Brown’s death, a legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, reported that Ferguson had issued almost 33,000 arrest warrants in 2013 — in a city of 21,000 people — often for trivial offenses like failing to pay a municipal fine or fee. A class-action lawsuit later charged Ferguson with being a modern debtors’ prison, outlining how individuals were routinely jailed for their inability to pay court fees. (That case is still pending.)

Ferguson is not unique. Many cash-strapped municipalities have borrowed heavily over the years to fund basic services. As the Debt Collective highlighted in “Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay,” in order to pay back creditors, cities began more aggressively extracting revenue from some of their poorest residents. Police departments, in particular, began targeting individuals for arrest to help balance their budgets with new fines and fees.

These penalties have not gone unnoticed. In 2020, as the pandemic swept the nation and protests followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, racial justice activists ramped up pressure on issues related to household and municipal debt. Among other demands, leaders called for rent and mortgage cancellations, moratoria on utility and water shutoffs, and cancellation of student and medical debt.

The Debt Collective’s successes this year in wiping out $3.2 million in probate debt and pressuring the Education Department to cancel billions more in student debt is partly why advocates do not see themselves as proposing something so far-fetched and unrealistic when they call for full debt abolition.

“It’s not an easy task but it’s reasonable,” said Braxton Brewington, a press secretary with the Debt Collective. “And if a group like ours can do this, then surely the government can also negotiate with private companies to take off this debt.”

Just this week Fair Fight Action, the voting rights group led by Stacey Abrams, announced that it too had donated $1.34 million to wipe out medical debt from 108,000 people living in five Southern states. Fair Fight Action gave to RIP Medical Debt, which then erased debt with a collective face value of $212 million that had been sold on the secondary market for pennies on the dollar.

The Debt Collective says its ultimate goal is to destigmatize holding debt and work to organize debtors into leveraging their collective power against companies, banks, and creditors. Unlike labor unions, which have been targets of the right wing for decades, debtor organizing has not really been regulated or restricted. This fact gives debt activists energy. “Debtor organizing has the potential to bring millions of people who may never have the option of joining a traditional labor union into the struggle for economic justice,” the Debt Collective wrote in its book.

Douglas Harper, for his part, feels open to learning more about the debtors’ union now that his probate debt has been canceled. “Yeah I’m interested in maybe getting involved,” he said. “So we can change some of the laws because this is ridiculous. People need a little bit of leniency.”

Parents Reported to Child Services for Keeping Unvaccinated Kids Home

Originally published in The Intercept on October 25, 2021.
—–

KAVITHA KASARGOD-STAUB was looking forward to sending her two kids back to elementary school this fall. After a year of remote learning in Washington, D.C., her kids spent the summer attending day camp. “I’m certainly not in the group of people who avoid all Covid risk,” she said, adding that camp activities were outdoors and there was testing for children if someone was exposed to the virus.

But by August, Kasargod-Staub and her husband were watching Delta variant cases rise across the region. When her husband went to the school to review its safety protocols, he left alarmed, having learned that the HVAC system was broken and there was no plan for outdoor eating. Kasaragod-Staub, who had served as PTA president the year before, called up the principal to discuss.

“The policies were vague, everyone was scrambling, so we decided to keep [our kids] home for the first week of school in the hopes that [D.C. Public Schools] would realize they made a mistake and catch up with things like testing and outdoor eating,” she told The Intercept. “It feels a little dumb now, but I genuinely thought things would change and they’d figure safety stuff out.”

Things didn’t change, and the children stayed home. Pretty soon, Kasargod-Staub was notified that her family was being referred to D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency due to her kids’ unexcused absences. “I have a lot of privilege, I know the system, and it was still terrifying,” she said. “My mind immediately goes to, ‘Where will this lead? Are they going to take away my kids?’”

Kasargod-Staub was soon contacted by a government social worker for an intake call. “The person I spoke to said, ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, we don’t have any sense of where this will go,’” she recalled. About a week and a half later, things escalated, and child protective services called to schedule a home visit. (A Child and Family Services Agency spokesperson did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.)

Kasargod-Staub and her husband discussed whether they should formally pull their kids out, but they felt extremely committed to their school. “I was the freaking PTA president, my Ph.D. work is around public education, and I didn’t want my Title I elementary to lose my kids’ per-pupil funding,” she explained. While her unvaccinated kids were not eligible for a remote learning option through D.C. Public Schools, which requires a doctor to certify that virtual school is necessary, she and her husband provided them with learning supplements and later enrolled them in a national online school for more structure.

The questions Kasargod-Staub soon fielded from child protective services felt invasive and inappropriate. “The social worker asked about our monthly income, about the paternity of my own children, are there any mental health diagnoses for the parents,” she said. “I was very clear with them exactly why we were not sending our kids to school and what safety policies would put us at ease.”

A few weeks later, Kasargod-Staub was asked to show a social worker where her children sleep and documented proof that there was food in her kitchen. “We don’t have undocumented status, we don’t have incarceration, we’re not unsheltered,” she said. “If we’re enduring this, I cannot even imagine how terrifying it is for many of our less fortunate neighbors who also have Covid concerns right now.” Her case is still not closed out.

KASARGOD-STAUB IS not alone. In Washington, D.C., at least 90 families with Covid-19 safety concerns have been referred to child protective services for “educational neglect,” which the Department of Health and Human Services defines as a parent or guardian’s failure to provide a child with appropriate schooling. As of October 8, about 30 of those referrals had been upgraded to more serious investigations, Paul Kihn, the deputy mayor for education, said at the time. (His office declined to provide more recent figures.) In one warning letter sent to another D.C. parent and reviewed by The Intercept, the school district threatened referral not only to the Child and Family Services Agency but also to the city’s juvenile probation agency.

Like D.C, New York City has taken a hard line against remote schooling. In both cities, the mayors have resisted petitions and calls from parents for virtual options this fall, in contrast to the majority of large school districts across the United States, which are making such options available.

Though government officials claim that they have strict legal obligations to investigate suspected instances of child abuse and neglect, experts say there exists far more discretion in the strapped systems than officials often admit. Gabriel Freiman, a public defender in Brooklyn who has been helping New York City families facing similar issues, says he thinks that there’s “sufficient room” for the city to ease up on these sorts of probes. And indeed, school districts neighboring D.C. in Maryland and Northern Virginia told NBC4 Washington they are not currently reporting families to child protection agencies for unexcused absences.

“The New York State Education Department does require every school district to have a policy about child neglect and absences — it’s not like this [is] out of nowhere — but it’s being handled here in an extreme way,” Freiman told The Intercept. “Parents who are actively engaged with the school asking for a remote option, asking for home curriculum, wanting to be involved, I think there’s sufficient room for [the New York City Department of Education] to decide that fails to meet the legal standard for educational neglect.” (A spokesperson for the city’s Education Department did not return a request for comment.)

Researchers have long documented racial disparities in child protective service investigations. The Intercept spoke with one white D.C. parent who has kept their children from school but has not received any warnings yet for unexcused absences. And while child protective services nationally declines to confirm maltreatment allegations in roughly 83 percent of cases it responds to — and for cases referred by educators, that figure stands at 90 percent — experts say the terror of the probes can leave lasting trauma. Closed-out cases can also “stay on families’ case records to potentially affect the trajectory of any future reports that come in,” said Kelley Fong, a sociologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the U.S. child protection system.

Reports, even if unsubstantiated and closed out, can fuel lasting mistrust between the accused and the government. “After being reported, families disengage from the systems [and] people who filed the report,” said Fong. “For instance, they might not share so much with the doctor next time. In the case of schools, reports can undermine school engagement, and parents might even look into changing schools.”

Jennifer Jennings, a sociologist at Princeton University who focuses on education policy, said that “child protective services is very much to Black women what mass imprisonment is to Black men.” There’s a very real fear of being caught in a dragnet, she added, “irrespective of what the facts are.”

DEPLOYING CHILD PROTECTIVE services on families for Covid-19 schooling is not entirely new. Last year, teachers and school staff reported parents whose children were not consistently logging in to virtual school to protective agencies. Reports were most common among Black and Latino families in high-poverty areas.

Things are different this fall for concerned families that no longer have the option of remote school. Many households are also still grappling with grief and death from the coronavirus pandemic; a new study published this month estimated that more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to Covid-19.

With states easing up on their quarantine, testing, and social distancing policies, some parents say they are just not comfortable having their child return to school, at least not before vaccines are available for the 28 million students under 12. (The Biden administration told governors to prepare to administer vaccines to young children early next month.)

And kids are getting infected. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, there were more than 1.8 million new pediatric Covid-19 cases between August and early October — nearly one-third of the total pediatric cases in the U.S. since March 2020. (Cases have been decreasing since their peak on September 2, though the American Academy of Pediatrics says new cases remain “extremely high.”) As of September, 41 percent of the public thought that elementary schools should provide a remote option to families, and 51 percent thought that high schools should.

Paullette Healy, a New York City parent who is keeping her children home from school this fall, has been pressuring the city for months for a remote option. While her family has not been contacted by New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services — the city’s version of child protective services — she’s been part of a coalition supporting families that have.

“We developed a toolkit on how to respond because the social workers are still knocking on doors, leaving notices, and threatening to take kids away,” she told The Intercept. Healy says her group has worked with about 10 families that have had Administration for Children’s Services visits from caseworkers but added that most reports the group has received have been of threats made by principals to refer families to child protective services if they do not send their kids back to school.

“During any interaction, ACS works to ensure that families have the services and support they need, including educational services,” a spokesperson for the Administration for Children’s Services told The Intercept. “We have also been working closely with the Department of Education to clarify that reports to the hotline should be made only when the reporter has reasonable suspicion that a child has been abused or maltreated.” Agency figures indicate that referrals have been decreasing compared with the same time period last year. Between September 1 and October 14, New York City educational personnel made 69 reports of educational neglect and an additional 61 reports of educational neglect combined with other maltreatment concerns. During the same period in 2020, there were 99 and 87 of such reports made, respectively.

Kihn, the D.C. deputy mayor for education, declined to comment on what the possible consequences are for parents who keep their kids home out of Covid-19 safety concerns, but in an emailed statement, he said his department is continuing to explore “additional solutions and policy adjustments that meet the needs of families” during the pandemic. “While we know our schools remain safe for vital in-person instruction, we understand the uncertainty and anxiety that some of our families are feeling about returning to school,” said his statement. “In their initial referrals, our partners at [child protective services] are focused on offering support and identifying solutions, including providing medical waiver forms and exploring alternative educational options with families.”

Fong, of Georgia Tech, noted that this Covid-19 schooling situation exemplifies how “child maltreatment” is not always a straightforward, objective descriptor and can reflect societal debates around values, culture, and language. “Is it endangering your child to keep them out of school or to expose them to a deadly virus?” she asked. “States [and] authorities view things one way, but it’s easy to flip and frame the other choice as ‘neglect.’”

What If We Just Gave Renters Money?

Originally published in The Atlantic on October 20, 2021.
—–

In an obscure but public meeting last week, local and federal housing officials discussed a controversial idea that could transform U.S housing policy: What if the government gave money directly to renters, rather than relying on a complicated voucher system that drives both tenants and landlords up the wall? You’ve heard of universal basic income. What about universal basic rent?

The status quo is not working particularly well. More than half a million Americans experience homelessness on any given night, housing stock is in too-short supply, and rent and mortgage payments consistently rank among the heftiest bills families have to bear. For decades, most federal housing assistance has come in the form of a voucher program known as Section 8. But the program is cumbersome and bureaucratic. Landlords are often reluctant to jump through the government’s regulatory hoops to get the money, so they opt out. Because of funding constraints, only a quarter of those eligible for vouchers even get one, and those lucky few often must scour dozens of ads before finding even one unit that might accept the subsidy.

President Joe Biden promised during his campaign to make these vouchers available to all low-income families who qualify, and Congress is debating a measure as part of his economic package that would add roughly 750,000 more vouchers to the program. If it becomes law, that expansion would surely help some Americans find homes. But it wouldn’t solve the underlying problem: Most landlords don’t want to rent to voucher recipients.

The coronavirus pandemic showed the viability of an alternative path—one that officials in Biden’s administration now seem willing to at least discuss. Congress tried a lot of things to help people struggling with the economic fallout from COVID-19. One initiative, a government-administered eviction-prevention program, has been mired in paperwork and delays, and only one-fifth of the money the feds allotted to it has been distributed. Another program, in which the IRS simply mailed Americans stimulus checks, got money in people’s hands right away.

These recent experiences might inform federal leaders as they research new ways to improve housing assistance. Last Thursday, at a public meeting organized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, policy experts and housing-authority officials considered new voucher-program ideas that could merit formal study. Making vouchers more like cash for renters, as opposed to subsidies for landlords, was one of the top three ideas that emerged from the meeting, and it will be explored further at a second gathering later this month. The leading proposals could be tested under a HUD program known as Moving to Work, which has been around since 1996 but was expanded by Congress in 2016.

Distributing rental subsidies as cash was the second-most-popular idea discussed at the meeting, and participants acknowledged that it could involve a cost-saving element, too, as it would reduce, or even eliminate, the need for regular HUD inspections of voucher-eligible housing. At the conclusion of the three-hour session, committee members voted to continue their discussion of the idea at their next scheduled meeting, on October 28.

“I think it’s interesting in light of [universal basic income], and I think it would be interesting to decouple the government from trying to figure out the right type and size and quality of housing and leave that up to people,” Chris Lamberty, the executive director of Lincoln Housing Authority, in Nebraska, said at the meeting.

A couple of hours into the virtual call, Todd Richardson, the head of HUD’s research arm, noted that meeting participants seemed relatively excited about the cash-assistance idea. He warned, though, that it might not “pass muster” with the agency’s legal department. Asked for clarification as to what the legal concerns may be, a HUD spokesperson told The Atlantic that the public meeting posted on the Federal Register was not “intended for press” and “I don’t think we had put an invitation to the press.”

Moving to Work isn’t the only vehicle policy makers could use to test the idea of distributing cash-based rental assistance to tenants. Congress could also authorize a pilot study, like it did in 2019when lawmakers approved a new voucher program to help families relocate to richer neighborhoods.

And in Philadelphia, starting early next year, a new study will explore how families fare when they receive rental assistance as cash. “There’s never been a full evaluation of using cash to renters for our tenant-based vouchers,” Vincent Reina, one of the University of Pennsylvania researchers who will assess the program, told me. “There’s been some explorations, but a true, proper evaluation is something that we’ve never really done.” Reina attributes the lack of study to political resistance. “Cash transfers are often more contentious,” he said.

The closest thing to a real test of the idea occurred in the 1970s, when Congress authorized the Experimental Housing Allowance Program. That program, which ran for longer than a decade in a dozen U.S. cities, provided cash assistance for housing directly to more than 14,000 low-income families. In a report filed to Congress in 1976, program evaluators noted that housing allowances were being well-received by their local communities and that the housing payments were being successfully administered to renters.

It’s clear that at least some current HUD staff are considering this old research. In 2017, Richardson published a blog post suggesting that the 1970s housing-allowance experiment could inform the Moving to Work program today.

Public-housing authorities might resist the idea, as it could require them to relinquish some control. Other authorities might lack trust that the funds would go toward rent. The findings from the Experimental Housing Allowance Program also suggested that cash subsidies could lead to lower-quality housing options for renters, though experts caution against drawing firm conclusions from the half-century-old study.

Studying the idea of cash rental assistance has great potential, Phil Garboden, a professor of affordable-housing economics, policy, and planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, told me. “I imagine vouchers will continue to exist in their current form for quite some time, but studying it is a terrific idea,” he said. “We absolutely do not have good data on it.” Garboden hopes researchers could tease out whether landlords avoid taking the vouchers mainly because they don’t like to deal with the red tape involved, or whether they’re simply resistant to renting to poor people.

Some renters might prefer the voucher status quo, but for others, cash could prove easier to use. Being able to pay for housing with cash or some dedicated housing subsidy might alleviate some of the administrative hassle that comes with navigating the U.S. welfare system—what the Atlantic writer Annie Lowrey coined “the time tax” earlier this year.

“Different forms of support work differently for different people, and a voucher could be a really effective mechanism for some households and some markets and less effective for others,” Reina told me. “It’s not to say vouchers can’t work, or can’t be improved, or shouldn’t be made universal, but we know through our existing voucher research that elderly households, households with kids, and households where the head is Black are less likely to use vouchers.”

Stefanie DeLuca, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins who was in attendance at Thursday’s meeting, told me that distributing housing assistance as cash could feel dignifying for some tenants. “The research on the Earned Income Tax Credit points to the idea that recipients experienced a sense of agency and dignity when they received a lump sum of money, and I suspect that renters being able to present themselves to landlords as paying like any other potential tenant could feel quite empowering,” she said.

Still, DeLuca’s own research suggests that the existing housing-voucher program could be improved in real ways to entice more landlords to participate, even in competitive markets. Researchers have been studying landlord signing bonuses and ways to get landlords their money faster. Even COVID-19 has helped hasten the digital streamlining of HUD contracts, making them less annoying to manage.

new bipartisan bill introduced in May by Senators Chris Coons and Kevin Cramer would seek to remove red tape for Section 8 landlords. HUD is also beginning a new, major study of landlord incentives as part of its Moving to Work expansion.

And to be sure, one reason lawmakers have long resisted cash transfers is fear of political blowback. Over the years, Republican and Democratic politicians have embraced the myth that welfare rewards laziness, and that cash benefits in particular will spark public outrage.

But as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s clear that cash assistance to Americans is more politically viable—even more popular—than many in Washington previously thought. The U.S. government has also proved that it can cut checks quickly when it deems it necessary. In fact, distributing money can be easier than administering a byzantine social-insurance program that eligible participants may not even know about. If landlords continue to resist housing vouchers, perhaps the government will take that decision out of their hands and simply give renters cash.