A Black Woman Said She Was Afraid of The Police. A Nearly All-White Disciplinary Panel Said We Don’t Believe You.

Originally published in The Intercept on April 5, 2019.

A STATE ETHICS panel in New Jersey, which included a former police officer indicted for killing an unarmed black man, has recommended a six-month suspension for a school board member whose own tense 2018 encounter with a cop went viral. Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad told the panel that she reacted irrationally to the officer because she was upset and afraid, but the panel concluded, in its official condemnation, that Lawson-Muhammad was lying, and that her use of an “epithet” could give her local community reason to believe she was, in fact, the real racist.

In late April 2018, Lawson-Muhammad was driving her daughter to school in South Orange, New Jersey, when she got pulled over for going 12 miles-per-hour over the speed limit. She was already having a bad morning, running late to get her daughter to school, and knowing she also had to circle back home to get her other daughter to her school in time to take the state’s standardized test. When the police officer approached her car, she quickly introduced herself, identified herself as a school board member and community member of South Orange, and apologized for potentially speeding.

When the police officer, Shaun Horstasked to see Lawson-Muhammad’s registration, she started crying and voiced her fears about getting her other daughter to school in time for her test. “And I’m scared of cops because you guys hurt black people,” she added, in tears. The cop then asked her if she wanted him to call her an ambulance — something Lawson-Muhammad perceived as mocking her anxiety. “That’s an insult,” she replied sharply. “OK, I’m just wondering,” he said. “You look like you might be having a panic attack.” When he then asked for her driver’s license, registration and insurance, she reiterated his ambulance question was “a fucking insult.”

Lawson-Muhammad asked the police officer if he could call her daughter’s middle school to let them know she’d be late for the state exam, a request he promptly declined. Upon learning he was a South Orange police officer, she said, “OK, I’ll call Sheena right now” referring to Sheena Collum, the South Orange Village President. She could not find her driver’s license, her car insurance was out of date, and she couldn’t find her updated one. “I’m freaked out right now,” she told the officer.

The anxiety, she later explained to the commission and in an interview with The Intercept, went beyond fear of a ticket or being late to school. Her Facebook feed had long been saturated with stories of police shootings of black people, and her past encounters with police left her feeling anxious, often not because the police had done anything in particular. She noticed a skull tattoo on the officer’s arm, which she said heightened her anxiety, fueling what she called the spiraling “irrational” response.

The cop returned to his vehicle and wrote her two court summonses, for speeding and not having an up-to-date insurance card. (During that time she found her license and waved it out the window so he knew not to sanction her for that.) When he returned to her car, Lawson-Muhammad had her husband on the phone, who said he could send the insurance card over immediately, but Horst said it was too late as the summons was already written. Lawson-Muhammad grew upset and confused. “I don’t want to go to court! I have insurance! He can text you a picture of it right now!” Then Lawson-Muhammad said again she would call Sheena Collum, “and your skinhead cop chief” — referring to the South Orange Police Chief, Kyle Kroll.

Things spiraled from there. Dash-cam video footage of the encounter leaked shortly after, including to the South Orange Board of Trustees, an elected body of six. Nobody had subpoenaed the footage, and nobody seemed to know about it outside the police force, the type of body which normally fights hard against efforts to pry loose dash-cam videos.

“There’s clearly something political happening when police officers are trying to release videos they think might portray political figures to look bad,” said Khadijah Costley White, founder of SOMA Justice, a local racial justice group. “And I say this as an activist. I don’t want to feel like I need to worry about a police officer pulling me over and recording me in a bad moment and then releasing that video.”

The trustees voted unanimously to send the video and a letter of concern to the school board president, Elizabeth Baker. Another person who obtained the video footage, in what he describes as an “unmarked package” from an anonymous source, was Walter Fields, a local education advocate and a longtime critic of the school board of which Lawson-Muhammad is a member. Fields wrote the board president on May 16 and called for Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation. He also said the board president should resign too if she had prior knowledge of the video. Fields then sent the footage to Village Green, a local community newspaper.

Another local news outlet, TAPinto, published a report about the video that day, and the footage quickly went viral across the country, with Fox News affiliates clamoring to cover the story. Lawson-Muhammad issued a public apology on May 17 for what she called her “irrational” behavior, and announced she had also apologized to Officer Kroll in person. Pastor Terry Richardson, the head minister at First Baptist Church in South Orange who facilitated the meeting between Kroll and Lawson-Muhammad, told The Intercept that Kroll said Lawson-Muhammad “was very sincere” and “expressed genuine heartfelt regret” and that was the reason Kroll felt committed to moving forward. (Lawson-Muhammad had also tried to meet with Kroll prior to the video going public, but the meeting did not happen until the story had already made news.)

But the episode divided the racially diverse suburbs of South Orange and Maplewood. Many called Lawson-Muhammad’s language shocking and racist, while others defended her and said the public’s reaction revealed their callousness toward the legitimate fears black people have when dealing with police. Still others said the community could use this as an opportunity for mutual healing and relationship-building.

Walter Fields, though, was not finished. He soon filed a formal complaint against Lawson-Muhammad with the New Jersey School Ethics Commission, alleging she had tried to use her position on the school board to evade legal accountability. He filed a separate ethics complaint against the school board president for withholding information about the video. Many in the community saw these efforts as politically motivated, as Fields was simultaneously suing the school district and fighting with the school board over other unrelated issues.

Last week, the School Ethics Commission, a body comprised of no African-American members and no women, issued a recommendation to suspend Lawson-Muhammad from the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education for six months. The commission — whose members, including a former DEA officer who was indicted for killing a black man, were all appointed by former Republican Gov. Chris Christie — concluded they found Lawson-Muhammad’s explanations for her behavior neither “credible or convincing.”

WHEN STEPHANIE LAWSON-MUHAMMAD and her husband moved into South Orange in 2011, they were actually bucking some broader demographic trends. South Orange and Maplewood (which share one school district) were historically known for their racial integration, but since 2010 the two suburbs have been growing whiter and wealthier. Black student enrollment in the local public schools fell 18 percent between 1998 and 2014.

Lawson-Muhammad, a trained electrical engineer who works in the wireless industry, and her husband Khalil Muhammad, a Harvard scholar of race and history and the great-grandson of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, are no strangers to racial issues. “My whole career has been in technology,” she said. “I’m typically the only black person in the room, the only woman in the room.”

In 2013, Lawson-Muhammad decided to run for school board, in the district where three of her children were enrolled and because of longstanding issues around equity and race in the public school system. The following year, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education announced it was entering into an agreement with the South Orange-Maplewood School District to ensure that black students were afforded equal opportunities to enroll in advanced courses, after investigating and finding that they were significantly underrepresented in those classes.

Walter Fields, a former leader in New Jersey’s NAACP chapter, founded the Black Parents Workshop in 2015 to advocate for black children. Though she didn’t know him well, Lawson-Muhammad said she appreciated his presence and perspective at school board meetings. She wasn’t involved in his group but thought it had promise. Over time though, she said, it eventually became clear “he was never looking to partner with members on the school board who were already fighting for equity.”

Paul Williams, a black parent in the district, told The Intercept that he doesn’t know any black parents in South Orange or Maplewood who are active in the group, and that “it seems like one or two self-appointed individuals” who run the whole thing. Fields told The Intercept that the Black Parents Workshop is not a membership-based organization and that its board makes decisions.

Near the end of 2017, the South Orange-Maplewood school board reportedwhat steps the district had taken since entering into an agreement with the Office of Civil Rights and outlined some additional goals for the years ahead. But three months later, the Black Parents Workshop filed a new federal lawsuit against the district, alleging racial discrimination in course offerings — the same thing the school board said it was tackling. “We had literally just made public statements and launched work that already was addressing many of the same things he outlined in the lawsuit,” said Lawson-Muhammad.

Fields told The Intercept that the group’s legal counsel is currently in discussions with the district about a possible settlement.

A few months after the Black Parents Workshop filed its legal challenge against the South Orange-Maplewood school district, a coalition of civil rights advocates across New Jersey filed a new integration lawsuit, calling on the state to desegregate New Jersey public schools. The UCLA Civil Rights Project ranks New Jersey as the sixth most segregated state in the U.S. for black students, and seventh for Latinos. It’s a rare suit—only the fifth, in four states, to mount a school segregation challenge as a violation of a state constitution. Brown v. Board of Education and almost all other well-known segregation lawsuits have been filed in federal court. But given New Jersey’s particular constitution and its history of strong pro-integration court decisions, legal observers say the plaintiffs have an unusually strong chance for success.

Lawson-Muhammad would soon emerge as a prominent voice championing the goals of the statewide lawsuit, which went public just weeks after the now notorious traffic stop.

SHORTLY AFTER THE video went public and viral, Fields testified at a school board meeting and called on Lawson-Muhammad to resign, alleging she had tried to use her position as a school board member to get out of the speeding ticket. Many others in the community made no secret of their disdain for her, and claimed she was the real racist.

“I had to will myself to go to the grocery store,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “I didn’t know if someone was going to come up and spit on me.”

Some local groups jumped to her defense. Founding members of Parents in Partnership for Respect and Equity, or PARES, wrote a letter to “vehemently condemn the attack and salacious media circus” against Lawson-Muhammad and said the attacks appear politically motivated. “We fear that attacking Ms. Lawson-Muhammad is a blatant ploy to sow dissent and encourage discord among the BOE, just as it embarks on its plan to desegregate our school district.”

Another group, SOMA Justice, wrote a letter urging the school board and village president to not accept or request Lawson-Muhammad’s resignation, and noted they “strenuously disagree” with the characterizations of her behavior made by Walter Fields.

White, the SOMA Justice founder, told The Intercept that her group wanted to make clear that a black woman’s fear against the police is legitimate, justified and should be taken seriously. “From my perspective trying to make clear she is a good resident and good citizen is actually a very legitimate response to interacting with the police when you never know if you can be seriously hurt or injured or maimed and killed,” White said. “That this is something that is always on the presence of black people’s minds when they interact with the police is something I think most of my white neighbors don’t think about.”

In late 2018, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com reported that a black person in South Orange was nearly 10 times more likely to face use-of-force by the police than a white person. And in Maplewood, the journalists found, police use-of-force was more than three times the state average. The findings came from a 16-month investigation that involved analyzing records from every local police department in New Jersey over the last five years.

In response to claims from community members that Fields’s complaint was politically motivated, he denied that his ethics complaint had anything to do with Lawson-Muhammad’s work on the school board. In September, the School Ethics Commission director said they found no evidence that Fields had filed his complaint “in bad faith solely for the purpose of harassment, delay, or malicious injury.”

However, in August, as advocates for the statewide integration lawsuit were preparing to meet with high-level members in Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration, Fields sent a stern email to one of the meeting organizers, condemning Lawson-Muhammad’s participation in the event. “We take offense to her inclusion given the failure of the South Orange-Maplewood School District to address the over two decades of segregation in its school district,” he wrote. “Ms. Lawson-Muhammad has been complicit in the district’s failure to address issues of equity and her participation in your panel is wrought with fraud.”

Fields went on to cite his organization’s own lawsuit, and said “Ms. Lawson-Muhammad’s tenure on the Board of Education has been marked by denial, defense and outright ignorance regarding the plethora of data that confirms the damage done to Black students by the district’s practices.” He told the organizer, Paul Scully of Building One America, that he would be making his concerns about Lawson-Muhammad known to the governor’s staff, and that any school integration effort that includes Lawson-Muhammad would not succeed.

Lawson-Muhammad told The Intercept the complaint against her — and the second one against Baker, the school board president (which was eventually dismissed) — was “absolutely” a chance for Fields to swipe at his political opponents. “He saw it as an opportunity to bring down the board, one hundred percent,” she said. “He’s suing the board, and he’s been against the board since before me.”

LAWSON-MUHAMMAD WASN’T overly concerned going into the state ethics hearing in November, because she knew the arguments Fields had been using against her weren’t true. She hadn’t tried to use her position on the school board to evade a ticket, she was just upset and scared, and wanted the cop to understand she wasn’t a threat. Her lawyer said the worst outcome she would probably get was a censure.

Seven commission members were present at the hearing—all Chris Christie appointees, including two of the former governor’s senior legal staff. One of the commissioners was Jude Tanella, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was indicted by a New York State grand jury for first-degree manslaughter after shooting a black man in the back in 2002. The charge was later dismissed by a federal judge who said Tanella had acted reasonably in the situation, with “demonstrated restraint, sound judgment and courage in the proper exercise of his sworn duty to protest the public.” Under the federal Supremacy Clause, Tanella was then immune from state prosecution.

Tanella’s history of having shot and killed a black man while in law enforcement has not previously been tied to his role on the school board, but all evidence indicates that Tanella the officer and Tanella the panel member are the same person. Reached by phone, Tanella declined to comment for the story and referred all questions to Kathryn Whalen at the School Ethics Commission. The commission told The Intercept that Whalen could not speak with the press and referred calls to the Department of Education’s communications office. Mike Yaple, the Director of Public Information at the New Jersey Education Department, said his agency “does not play any official role” in selecting who serves on the School Ethics Commission, and that the State Ethics Commission — a separate entity — would be the body to determine when recusals are warranted.

Reached again by phone, and asked directly if he had been indicted in 2002 for manslaughter, Tanella asked, “What paper are you with?” He then added, after asking where The Intercept is based, “I have no comment,” and hung up.

The dots aren’t hard to connect: The Tanella on the School Ethics Commission is a resident of Verona, New Jersey. The commission declined to share contact information for individual commissioners, but The Intercept was able to confirm that just one Jude A. Tanella lives within 100 miles of Verona — and that same individual is the only Jude Tanella who lives within 100 miles of New York City. That Jude Tanella was born in October 1963, which is consistent with the Jude Tanella who married his wife Nancy at age 34 in 1997, and is consistent with the 39-year-old Jude Tanellawho was appealing his indictment in 2003. The indicted Jude Tanella was a former police officer in Old Bridge, New Jersey, and when he got married, his wedding announcement said he was working as a detective in Old Bridge. The Jude Tanella living in Verona works as a consultant, in a home which he owns with a woman named Nancy Tanella. On his consulting firm incorporation documents, he lists Peter Tanella as his daytime contact. Peter Tanella and Jude both share a late father named Jude Tanella.

Lawson-Muhammad said she’s been in total disbelief since learning last week that Tanella from her hearing might be the same Tanella who was charged with killing a black man seventeen years ago. The possibility was first brought to her attention by Scully, of Building One America, who started searching online for more background on the commissioners after reading their recommendation to suspend her for six months. “To know that one of the people sitting there could have been involved in something like that and not recused himself just makes no sense at all,” Lawson-Muhammad said. “And this is an ethics board, so they should know about recusing. We have people on our [school] board who recuse themselves for miniscule things, and this isn’t miniscule at all.”

At her hearing, staring at an almost entirely white male panel, Lawson-Muhammad explained that contrary to Fields’s accusation, she was not trying to use her privilege to get out of a traffic ticket and was rather trying to convey to the white officer that she was not a threat.

“I needed to credentialize myself for him, so that he knew I was not some dangerous black woman, and nothing would happen, bad,” she told the commissioners. “It was about a bad outcome, not a ticket — about some dangerous, violent outcome. Me wanting to ensure that he knew that I was a good person.”  She also denied she invoked Sheena Collum’s name as a way to intimidate Officer Horst or use her privilege as a school board member; rather, Collum was someone who came to her mind as someone concerned with the well-being of the community. “Because I had anxiety, and that was a bad interaction for me, and that was what came out of my mouth,” she said. “I did not pick up the phone. I did not call her. But my instinct was, I want to talk to her because I don’t like how this feels.”

Lawson-Muhammad also said the officer’s tattoo of a skull on his arm made her nervous, and that recent incidents she had observed personally and seen on the news and social media involving black people and the police were fresh on her mind, including one that involved the son of a good friend of her’s and the South Orange Police Chief whom she later called a “skinhead.” She apologized for her behavior and said she wasn’t proud of it. “My reaction was something that I would never have wanted anyone to see and my own [child] had to see in the car,” she had said. “When [my child] came home, [my child] said mommy you were not nice to that officer, you owe him an apology. And I knew that.”

The ethics commission, however, did not believe Lawson-Muhammad’s testimony about her state of mind and motivations. “Based on its review of the testimonial and documentary evidence, the Commission does not find Respondent’s testimony about why she immediately identified herself as a Board member (i.e., safety concerns) to be credible or convincing,” their opinion read.

The commission insisted that Lawson-Muhammad was trying to “leverage her position” to get out of a court summons, and that she mentioned Sheena Collum’s name in order to “impress upon the police officer that she knew and had a relationship with the Village President.”

The commission went further in chastising Lawson-Muhammad for her “offensive and inappropriate language” and her “verbal abuse” and said it could have given the impression that she or the school board “is biased and/or not impartial.” And while she met with Chief Officer Kroll in person and issued a public apology that praised Officer Horst for his patience during their interaction, the Commission criticized her for never “personally apologizing” to Horst.

The School Ethics Commission sent its recommendation for a six-month suspension to the governor’s office, and the findings or recommended penalty can be appealed. Murphy’s office did not respond to questions on the commission’s proposed suspension, or on whether Tanella should have recused himself.

So far, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education has not issued any statement on the recommendation, and Board President Annemarie Maini told The Intercept she does not have any authority to speak on behalf of the board on any matter. “Our by-laws do not empower the president to speak on behalf of the majority of the board, and in the past we have been unable to gain unanimity on statements,” she said. Village President Collum and Chief Officer Kroll also did not return requests for comment.

Fields cheered the School Ethics Commission’s decision. “We absolutely applaud it,” he said. “I brought that complaint because she was in the wrong, and I think they saw the truth and agreed that she violated the state’s ethics laws and that none of her defenses for her behavior were credible.”

Lawson-Muhammad said she definitely plans to fight the decision. “It’s just wrong and sets bad precedent,” she said. “It erases reality for me as a black woman and to have people that are like ‘I don’t believe you’ is just completely unacceptable.”


Baltimore Has an Ongoing Debate About Arming School Police

Originally published in Next City on April 3, 2019.

Over the last year, since 17 students and staff were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, politicians and school districts across the U.S. have been grappling with the issue of guns, school safety and school climate. Some conservative elected officials, like the president of the United States and U.S Senator Ted Cruz, have endorsed arming teachers. Others have proposed ramping up security cameras or beefing up mental health support.

In Baltimore, a heavily Democratic city that starves for necessary resources for its public schools, local leaders haven’t been debating whether to arm teachers, but they have been wrestling with whether to arm school police officers.

The debate wasn’t sparked by the Parkland shooting, and actually traces its roots back to 2015, when two state legislators quietly introduced bills to remove restrictions on Baltimore school police carrying guns. They were introduced at the request of the school district, which is the only one in the state where law enforcement officials cannot carry weapons. But Baltimore is also the only Maryland jurisdiction with its own sworn school police force; all others dispatch armed local police or sheriff deputies to patrol schools.

Many in Baltimore reacted to the bills at the time with fury, and the legislation quickly died. This was before Baltimore’s four-year spike in homicides, and this past fall, State Delegate Cheryl Glenn reintroduced a new version of the bill. The president of the school police union, Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, has been advocating for his colleagues to be permitted to carry weapons, warning the city could join Parkland and Newtown, Connecticut, in tragedy if the law isn’t changed.

Community advocates, students and civil rights groups rallied against the proposal — pointing to a lack of evidence that arming school police helps to reduce school shootings, and protesting an increased militarized presence in public schools.

In late January the 10-person Baltimore school board voted unanimously against the proposal, prompting Glenn to withdraw her bill. Roughly two weeks later, an employee was seriously injured in a shooting at a high school. In light of the incident the school board reconsidered the proposal, and ended up approving it in a 8-2 revote. The injured staff member supported the measure.

Glenn quickly reintroduced her bill, but in mid-March, the full House delegation from Baltimore voted 10-5 against arming the city’s roughly 100 school police officers. While that effectively killed the bill for now, Glenn, the delegation chairwoman, suggested she may try again next year. Glenn’s office declined to comment for this story.

This isn’t the first time in recent years Baltimore lawmakers felt political pressure to pass new gun measures in response to violence, even when those measures were not backed by evidence. In 2017 the Baltimore City Council voted 8-7 in support of establishing a new mandatory minimum penalty for someone caught carrying an illegal gun. The bill was weakened after public protest — it ended up adding a $1,000 fine to existing state law that already imposes a one-year minimum sentence on second-time offenders. Gun experts noted there was no research to show the additional fine might deter crime. Still, the bill, in both its original and final form, was supported by the city’s police commissioner and the mayor. The mayor, police commissioner and the state’s attorney had all also advocated unsuccessfully for new statewide mandatory minimums.

Ebony McKiver, a Baltimore high school teacher and member of the city’s Parent and Community Advisory Board — which under Maryland state law every school district must have to advise the local school board on various issues — says her group worked to solicit feedback on the proposal to arm school police officers and the response was overwhelmingly negative.

“People are not wholly opposed to having armed school police officers, but there are so many issues that need to be dealt with in our community first before arming them,” she says. “I believe all schools have to practice an annual active shooter drill, but how many are practicing with fidelity, how many have classrooms with doors locked at all times? Some schools don’t even have doors that lock.” McKiver suggests that for the estimated price tag of the school police force — $ 7 million — the city could fix every door that doesn’t lock, develop more sophisticated safety protocols and ensure all security cameras are working.

Melissa Schober, a local parent, also argues the money could be better spent elsewhere, saying the school district spends more on school police than on social emotional learning, climate and wellness interventions. Schober also says that even though the city’s school enrollment was 82 percent African-American in 2016, 98.9 percent of those arrested in school were black.

Student activists with the Baltimore Algebra Project say that going forward, they plan, among other things, to push for a national student bill of rights, to see if there are alternative ways to conduct local decision-making, including by potentially adding students to the school board or creating an independent youth body. Students also plan to press for more accountability measures for school police and a redirection of money that would have gone to arming school police to maintaining and updating school police camera systems.

McKiver says she hopes the city and school board take the time to study the issue thoroughly before it is potentially reintroduced next year, by commissioning a formal study.

“Now is the time, and I just don’t know if it’s a priority anymore now that the bill has been killed,” she says. “And I can understand why because there are so many issues, with funding and everything else, but this is also the perfect time and I don’t want this to be where it comes up again next year and people are grappling with it in the two weeks before a vote is held.”

Free Prison Calls Could Be Coming to Connecticut

Originally published in The Intercept on April 2, 2019.

CONNECTICUT MAY SOON be the first state in the nation to make calls from prison free for incarcerated people and their families, following on the heels of New York City, which became the first city to do so last year. Decades of research have shown that keeping in touch with loved ones while incarcerated greatly improves an individual’s chance for successful re-entry when they are released and that the financial toll of maintaining contact disproportionately falls on low-income family members.

A hearing for the bill — H.B. No. 6714 — was held in Hartford in late March, and advocates are cautiously optimistic it will be voted out of the state’s House Judiciary Committee next week. The bill was introduced by Rep. Josh Elliott, a progressive elected in 2016 to represent Connecticut’s 88th District, and drafted by Worth Rises, a national nonprofit focused on ending the influence of commercial interests in the criminal justice system.

According to a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, Connecticut charges more for in-prison phone calls than any other state in the nation aside from Arkansas. A 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, nearly five times the cost of calls from prisons in neighboring states like Rhode Island and New York (71 cents and 65 cents, respectively). Advocates say the high rates are due to Connecticut poorly negotiating its telecommunications contract with Securus Technologies, the national prison telecommunications corporation it has contracted with since 2012.

In addition to making phone calls free, the bill includes language stipulating that if Connecticut implements video conferencing for prisoners in the future — which it doesn’t currently offer, but other states have slowly begun to — then those communications should be free of charge too. The bill also maintains that Connecticut shall not limit in-person visitation if it makes phone calls and video conferences free. (The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 74 percent of U.S. correctional facilities have reduced or eliminated in-person visitation since implementing video conferencing.)

A Securus spokesperson noted that their company offers not only a way for families to keep in touch but also “critical security features that prevent victim harassment, violent crime and other criminal activity.” With respect to the jurisdictions considering paying directly using taxpayer funds, the Securus spokesperson said, “we welcome discussions regarding financing models with all the agencies we serve, in order to determine the most effective way to pay for technology that keeps people both connected and safe.”

Karen Martucci, the director of external affairs for the Connecticut Department of Correction, said her agency “is supportive of efforts that increase communication between offenders and their loved ones, which will hopefully help to reduce the rate of recidivism.”

State data shows that Connecticut residents pay roughly $15 million annually for prison phone calls, with the state taking 68 percent as a kickback. A spokesperson for the state’s judicial branch testified at the hearing that losing prison phone call commission fees would result in cutting several important adult probation officer positions, illustrating how the state relies on revenue extracted from incarcerated people and their families.

One Republican legislator, Rep. Craig Fishbein from Wallingford, raised objections at the hearing and suggested that the bill would be too expensive and would seemingly allow for unlimited calls every day. He suggested making calls free on holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, instead.

Bianca Tylek, the executive director of Worth Rises, dismissed Fishbein’s proposal and told The Intercept that his comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of what advocates aim to achieve with the legislation.

“This bill was not introduced so people can talk on Christmas. It’s so family ties can be fostered, which we know leads to so many improved outcomes for children with incarcerated parents, for people on the inside to lower recidivism, and improving re-entry outcomes on the outside,” she said. “None of that is resolved with a few free days throughout the year.”

THE EXORBITANT COST of prison phone calls exacts a heavy psychic price as well. Some prisoners are able to use their meager prison wages to cover the costs, which leaves them with no savings when they finish their sentence. Many, though, must rely on family members to pick up the tab. Every minute they’re on the phone, they’re aware of the literal cost their incarceration is putting on their loved ones, straining the types of relationships that are key to re-entry.

If the state of Connecticut assumed the costs of prison phone calls, Tylek said, it should revise its contract with Securus or another company to be a flat, fixed rate.

“It would be absolutely inappropriate and imprudent for the state to continue to pay for a contract that assumes the liability of costs on a per-minute basis,” she said. “Think about your state legislature. All elected officials have telephones in their offices, and some provider, maybe it’s Verizon or AT&T — that provider isn’t saying to the state legislator you’ll pay on a per-minute basis. In no place in the country are we doing that except in prisons.”

Tylek also dismissed the idea that this would mean people would have unfettered access to phones, noting prisons still need to establish systems so that the phones can be shared equitably. Tylek suggested that a solution may be limiting phone use to 90 minutes per day (or up to six 15-minute phone calls). “We’ve done surveys across the country and found that, on average, 90-120 minutes is what people are looking for, so we might actually look to codify something like that in the bill,” she said.

New York City passed a law in August 2018 to eliminate the charge for prison phone calls, making it the first city to do so; the change is set to go into effect in May. New York City will assume the costs of paying Securus for the phone services and will forego the $5 million it had annually collected in commission fees.

Aside from Connecticut and New York City, other states and cities are now also considering eliminating phone costs on prisoners and their families, including Massachusetts and San Francisco. In November, Shelby County, Tennessee, announced it would no longer charge juvenile detainees and their families for making phone calls; shortly thereafter, in North Carolina, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office also agreed to stop charging juveniles in custody at county jails for using phones.

The new legislative traction comes after years of activists raising alarm about the high costs of prison phone calls. In 2000, Martha Wright, a grandmother in Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against the private prison where her grandson was living, saying that the costs of calling him were unconscionably steep. The court ruled that Wright’s complaint was an issue for the Federal Communications Commission to handle; she then moved to petition them to intervene. In 2013, the agency finally acted, voting to cap rates for interstate phone calls in jails and prisons. Two years later, the FCC also capped the amount an incarcerated person could be charged for calling someone within their state.

The major prison telecommunication providers — including Securus Technologies, Global Tel Link, and CenturyLink — all challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate the rates, and in 2017, the U.S Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against the FCC. As The Intercept reported at the time, the court decision came amid political turnover at the federal agency, with the individual who voted against the FCC’s 2013 proposal, Ajit Pai, having been recently named commission chair by President Donald Trump. Pai praised the D.C Circuit for agreeing with him that the FCC overstepped its authority.

Last month, the National Consumer Law Center issued a new report detailing consumer abuses wrought by private companies that extract profits from the criminal legal system and highlighted the kickbacks that cash-strapped governments accept in exchange for things like offering exclusive contracts.

Report author Brian Highsmith, who testified in favor of Connecticut’s bill to make prison phone calls free, told The Intercept that it’s important for the public to understand that this is not just a criminal justice issue, but a fiscal policy and consumer protection issue too.

“Candidly, that changes the advocacy strategy,” he said. “One of the reasons we have arrived at this moment, in having created a system of mass incarceration and social control, is because it’s very easy for people to imagine that this stuff doesn’t affect you, and so many of these abusive practices have escaped widespread public awareness.”

While Highsmith thinks there can be a role for the federal government to play, he emphasized that many of these exploitative policies are set at the state and local level, and so will have to be tackled with laws like the ones proposed in Connecticut.

“This all really gets at the intersection of two of the worst trends,” he said. “One is offloading tasks to the private sector, which comes with reduced accountability and transparency, and the other is cost-shifting,” where governments rely on bails, fines, and fees imposed on people who interact with the criminal legal system to cover the costs of policing.

The New Politics of the Retirement Crisis

Originally published in the April 2019 issue of The New Republic magazine.

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In 2014, 64-year-old Jim Whitlock was earning a good salary as an inspector at Boeing, where he planned to work for another six years. His wife, Cheri, who was 54, was investigating public records for a title insurance company. Then Jim’s diabetes, sleep apnea, and chronic fatigue dramatically worsened. In May of that year, he was forced to retire early, and Cheri found herself serving as his primary caretaker in addition to working full-time. “The financial hit of it all was quite frankly pretty hard,” Cheri told me. Some months, she had to choose between making her next car payment, purchasing groceries, or paying the electric bill.

Two years later, when Jim was diagnosed with early onset dementia, small luxuries the Whitlocks had long taken for granted—like going to a movie or buying yarn for knitting—began to feel out of reach. Caring for her husband taxed Cheri, too. Her doctor worried about her skyrocketing blood pressure and how little sleep she got every night.

Cheri assumed she would never be able to retire. “All of Jim’s retirement funds were going to his care, we were looking at the potential of losing our house, and I was looking at a very destitute future for myself,” she recalled.

As dire as their financial situation was, Cheri and her husband were still better off than many Americans. Jim had an employee pension from Boeing, and when he passed away last July, after a rapid decline, he had a life insurance policy that doled out just enough money to keep Cheri out of poverty—and will, one day, allow her to retire. Very few Americans can say as much. Today, almost half—​45 percent—have $0 saved for retirement. Roughly the same number don’t simply worry about being financially insecure when they retire; they actually expect it. Indeed, just within the last few decades, retirement and senior care have become some of the most intimidating and untenable costs people face in their lifetimes, a burden more crushing than paying for college or buying a house.

Our modern system for dealing with the elderly emerged during the New Deal, when very different social and economic conditions reigned. The average life expectancy was 61 years old, most women didn’t work outside the home, and many workers had pension plans that provided them with a steady source of income in their old age. Private pensions were themselves a relatively new invention. In 1875, American Express offered the first such plan to employees who had been “injured or worn out” working its rail, barge, and horseback delivery lines. At the turn of the century, railroad barons implemented them, eager to remove aging workers from their ranks without political blowback. Many of those pension funds went bust during the Great Depression. Observing the decimation of millions of dollars in life savings, the federal government recognized that it needed to step in, and created the Social Security Act of 1935.

Over the next 30 years, life expectancy rose, the economy boomed, and in 1965, with flush federal coffers, the government passed Medicare to aid the growing elderly population. Both Social Security and Medicare, however, were designed to be supplemented by other sources. Benefits were nothing if not modest​—enough to keep people out of poverty but hardly enough to live on. Lawmakers had assumed that people would be able to draw on individual savings to augment their government subsidies. And for much of the twentieth century, they were right. Between World War II and the 1990s, most of the middle class earned enough from their jobs to enjoy a fairly comfortable retirement. But during that same period, an ideological shift was underway, as employers began scaling back the benefits workers relied upon to provide for themselves in their old age.

In 1982, when Social Security almost went bankrupt, some of the new think tanks that were establishing themselves in Washington at the time—like the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute—pressed President Ronald Reagan to privatize the program. But when they realized doing so would be politically perilous, given Social Security’s strong support among seniors, strategists decided to promote a different approach. Politicians would assure seniors their Social Security benefits would remain the same, tell young people they could expect no benefits to be left when they retired, and convince current workers that private investment was a safer, more lucrative option.

The retirement vehicles known as 401(k)s first appeared in 1978, and within five years, nearly half of all large firms were offering them. Advocates made rosy projections, promising things like 7 percent annual compounded returns. “There was a complete overreaction of excitement,” Bank of America’s head of retirement services recalled in a 2017 Wall Street Journal articleBut when recessions hit in the 2000s, millions lost their savings. Today, these early enthusiasts admit their analyses failed to account for a trifecta of factors: the large swings in the stock market, the ordinary investing mistakes people routinely make, and the huge fees charged by money managers. (For the typical worker, fees can easily eat up 20 percent of a retirement fund over time.)

A century after railroad companies introduced some of the nation’s first pension programs, employers have all but relinquished their sense of obligation to care for their workers in their old age. Today, pensions are nearly gone, and most small businesses don’t even offer 401(k)s. In 2013, just 28 percent of large companies in the United States provided retiree health coverage, down from 66 percent in 1988.


It’s no surprise, then, that 46 percent of Americans expect to be financially insecure when they retire, anticipating their government and employers will do next to nothing to help them. But these grim fears also open up a political opportunity. In the last election cycle, Democrats campaigned heavily on health care (by mid-October, 55 percent of their television ads centered on the issue). It’s this focus, many suspect, that helped them improve their margins among elderly voters, with seniors casting their ballots almost evenly between the two parties—a marked shift from years past.

There are signs that retirement will play a significant role in the 2020 race. In February, Bernie Sanders reintroducedthe Social Security Expansion Act, with sponsorships from three other leading Democratic presidential contenders: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris. They belong to a congressional caucus dedicated to increasing Social Security benefits. Formed last fall, it already has more than 150 Democratic members, and Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, another presidential candidate, are its co-chairs in the Senate.

The party has come a long way from its stance a decade earlier, when few liberal politicians would endorse the expansion of Social Security. In the early 2000s, the boldest promise most Democrats would make was to “preserve” benefits or “fight cuts.” Their rhetoric only began to change after 2010, when advocacy groups like Social Security Works were launched to help transform the conversation.

Congress has signaled a willingness to consider policy proposals beyond Social Security, too. Representative Pramila Jayapal’s new Medicare-for-All bill includescoverage of long-term care, and just last year, with Republicans controlling both chambers, Congress expanded Medicare coverage to seniors with multiple chronic illnesses. The success of that bill suggests real bipartisan support exists for strengthening the national insurance program.

Encouragingly, the states have also begun to propose solutions. In 2017, Hawaii launched a program to reduce the cost of senior care, dispensing $70 a day for up to 365 days to family caregivers. In 2018, Maine voters considered a ballot measure that would have established the nation’s first universal home care program. The proposal suggested taxing Maine’s highest earners to pay for caregiving for any adult aged 65 and older who wanted it. It didn’t pass (powerful groups like the Maine Hospital Association and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce torpedoed the effort), but similar ideas will likely surface elsewhere. This year, legislators in Washington state are voting on a bill to provide residents with up to $36,500 for costs like nursing home fees, in-home care, and wheelchair ramps—assistance of a kind that Cheri Whitlock and her family would no doubt have eagerly welcomed.

Politicians who address retirement understand they can reach not only the elderly, but those who care for them. More than 40 million people provide unpaid caregiving, spending on average 20 percent of their incomes each year on expenses like mortgage payments and medical bills. The home health and personal care sector, meanwhile, employs some three million people nationwide and is one of the fastest growing in the economy. Most aides are women, who earn very little and work unpredictable hours. For them, and for families who rely on their services, a plan for universal long-term care would surely represent a welcome change. Few issues in American politics cut across so many constituencies, and affect the lives of so many.

On Beto O’Rourke and Charter Schools

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2019.

WHEN BETO O’ROURKE ran for Senate in 2018, he highlighted the importance of public education and consistently said that he stood squarely in support of teachers. Given that his opponent was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, that was more than enough to secure endorsements from both the Texas State Teachers Association and its parent union, the National Education Association. Teachers across the country helped fuel his small-dollar donor machine.

There was little reason, then, to probe Beto O’Rourke on charter schools. In the Democratic presidential primary, he is unlikely to get the same gentle treatment — particularly given his wife Amy O’Rourke’s deep ties to the charter community.

Education in general was not a top priority for O’Rourke on the Texas campaign trail, nor did he have a robust record of tackling education issues during his three terms in Congress. Voters had a general sense of where he stood on K-12 education issues: He supported a rollback of standardized testing; he opposed the advent of private school vouchers and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; he believed teachers should be paid more and that the federal government should fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

But O’Rourke stayed conspicuously silent on the topic of charter schooling during his Senate campaign, and his backers in the education establishment decided not to press him on it.

This is not because charter schools are not a growing issue in the state of Texas. Just this year, the Texas American Federation of Teachers called for a pause on the publicly funded, privately managed schools until the state legislature agrees to pass a series of reforms. “We’ve always been against charter expansion and school privatization, but this is the first time we’ve said, ‘Let’s take a time out,” said spokesperson Rob D’Amico.

Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, told The Intercept his union is “very concerned” about charter growth in Texas, “especially the national charter chains that have been zeroing in on the state.” A recently commissioned TSTA poll found 73 percent of respondents statewide said there should be a halt on charter expansion until there’s more evidence of success. The two state teachers unions also filed a lawsuit last summer against a Texas law that encourages school districts to turn struggling schools over to charters or outside operators. That case is pending.

FOR THE LAST couple of years, the Democratic Party has been grappling with voters’ changing views on charter schools. In 2016, the party’s platform, which maintained its support for providing parents with “great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools” articulated, for the first time, an opposition to for-profit charter schools, which are a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. Other elected officials, and presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, also began that year adopting this compromise-seeming position.

In 2016, charter advocates also suffered an expensive loss in Massachusetts, when voters across the blue state rejected a ballot initiative to lift the state’s charter school cap. The measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, and while the initiative was being led Democrats for Education Reform, the state’s Democratic party had come out against it.

In 2017, with Donald Trump in office and GOP mega-donor Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the politics around charters continued to grow more thorny for liberal school choice supporters, many of whom who had long been hostile to teacher unions. That year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support held steady over the five years, at 62 percent. Public support for unions, meanwhile, continued to climb — climbing from 56 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017, and reaching 62 percent — a 15-year high — in 2018.

Charters were further thrust in the spotlight in the 2018 midterms, as many Democratic candidates campaigned on reserved or qualified support for charters. Newly elected Democratic governors in Illinois, California, and New Mexico all said they’d back a pause on charter school expansion, and other Democratic officials grew more forthright with their critiques. The teachers strikes that swept the nation also elevated concerns around charter schools, particularly when Los Angeles educators went on strike for six days at the start of 2019.

While most Democratic candidates are likely to face questions about charter schools on the trail to the White House, that likelihood is greater for Beto O’Rourke’s than most, given his wife’s stature in the charter school movement. Amy O’Rourke is a former charter school leader and currently sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charter schools in El Paso.

“Amy is free to work wherever she chooses, that’s her choice, but I think at some point Beto is going to be asked about that and he’s going to be asked about his position on public schools and charters,” said Norma De La Rosa, the president of the El Paso Teachers Association. “He was asked during his campaign about the more pressing issues like immigration and the wall, but I can assure you, he will be asked about charters now.”

Amy O’Rourke began her education career as a kindergarten teacher in Guatemala, where she worked for one year after graduating college. When she returned to El Paso in 2004, she connected with a local community organization, Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, and helped them launch a dual-language charter. She served as superintendent of the school, La Fe Preparatory School, from 2007 to 2012. In her application to open the school, she wrote that the local school district “failed to create an educational system that can generate true success for all students in the community” and promised to offer “a drastically different educational experience” for Segundo Barrio children. She also noted that “innovation and creativity are the backbone of charter schools” and praised other Texas charters for their commitment to “seeing the underprivileged succeed through hard work.”

Now, Amy O’Rourke serves on the board of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, a business-backed organization that launched in 2014 to help push education reform initiatives in El Paso. Amy O’Rourke also directs CREEED’s “Choose to Excel” initiative, aimed at boosting college-readiness and which focuses, in part, on expanding charter schools in El Paso. In 2017, CREEED hosted a two-day summit, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to strategize on how to advance education reform. Several days later, a local philanthropic group, the Hunt Family Foundation, donated $12 million to CREEED, specifically to help boost charter school enrollment El Paso. The foundation’s chair, Woody Hunt, who also serves as vice chair on CREEED’s board, told the El Paso Times that he hoped the big donation “will show large charter school backers, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that the education community in El Paso is committed to school choice.”

The donation was slammed at the time by local teacher unions, and De La Rosa of the El Paso Teachers Association told The Intercept that her organization has been upset with the way CREEED has operated in the city. “If they are as concerned about public education and the kind of education we are providing for our students, then why did they not get involved within the public school system and work with administrators and teachers to see how they could help us change direction here in El Paso and providing those resources we desperately need?” she asked. “We’ve made it clear that their philosophy does not mesh with our philosophy of what a good public school and a good public education for all our students looks like.”

One of CREEED’s focuses over the last several years has been to bring the fast-growing charter network IDEA Public Schools to El Paso. IDEA is one of the largest nonprofit charter networks in the country; it opened 18 new schools this past fall. It’s a “no excuses”-style network, with school uniforms, longer school days, a focus on enrolling in college, and strict discipline rules.

According to Chalkbeat, the IDEA charter network hopes to educate 100,000 students in the next four years and to hit 250,000 students in the next 10. In El Paso specifically, IDEA aims to run 20 schools by 2023, with the first two campuses having opened this past year. CREEED has pledged at least $10 million to help IDEA meet their growth goals.

The Intercept contacted CREEED to speak with Amy O’Rourke about public education and charter schools, and a spokesperson said they forwarded the request to the Beto O’Rourke campaign, which did not return request for comment. Beto O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, also did not return multiple requests for clarification on the candidate’s position on charter schools.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, met with the O’Rourkes recently in Texas. In an interview with The Intercept, Weingarten said Beto O’Rourke asked her “some really good questions” about schools and emphasized that the “value statements he’s been saying and said during the campaign [about schools] are important.” Weingarten said they discussed the educators he met on the campaign trail who had to use their own personal funds to pay for classroom supplies and that they discussed the importance of community schools with wraparound social services.

She demurred on whether they talked about charter schools specifically. “I’ve been very careful to not repeat the content of conversations I’ve had with the candidates,” she said. “But the whole context of how austerity and competition have really hurt public school opportunities is something that he was very aware of, let’s just put it that way.”

Weingarten acknowledged that education issues weren’t so central to the 2018 Senate race, but she expects things to be different in the months ahead. “A lot of issues did not get the same kind of airing that they will in the 2020 presidential,” she said. “And education issues will get an airing.”

A Federal Civil Rights Office Wants To Limit Access To Emotional Support Animals That Can Help With Depression

Originally published in The Intercept on March 18, 2019.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is moving forward with a proposal that could limit people’s right to live with so-called emotional-support animals under the Fair Housing Act.

As the landmark civil rights law that protects against discrimination in housing currently stands, individuals can keep emotional-support animals in their homes free of cost, provided that a trained professional certifies that the animal could help them cope with mental or physical issues. (A separate federal law, the Air Carrier Access Act, permits passengers to travel with their emotional-support animals on planes.) These laws have grown increasingly controversial in recent years, as a result of news reports about healthy pet owners exploiting legal accommodations to bring their pets on flights and into restaurants. Many landlords have also grown skeptical of those requesting to bypass “no pets” policies, suspecting that fraud is afoot.

As a result, housing industry groups have been lobbying HUD to crack down on suspected animal abuse, and they complain that the existing set of rules is too difficult for the average housing owner to understand. Civil rights groups meanwhile have pushed back, conscious that many landlords would love to keep their buildings animal-free however possible and recognize that many individuals struggle as is to have their right to an emotional-support animal taken seriously.

The National Apartment Association is “strongly supportive of disabled persons’ right to reasonable accommodations,” said Nicole Upano, the group’s director of public policy, but they have been asking HUD for clarity on how to handle these requests. “We would like for the average on-site staff person to be able to navigate this issue, but right now you really have to have a law degree,” she said.

As The Intercept reported last year, Anna Maria Farías, the federal assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD, decided to prioritize cracking down on alleged emotional-support animal fraud. For at least the last year, HUD has been working on new administrative guidance on emotional-support animals, which would essentially be a document laying out the agency’s expectations for how the law should be interpreted and applied. Federal guidance does not carry the same legal power as laws or regulations, but, in this case, it would send a strong signal to landlords and tenants about how the federal government intends to enforce the Fair Housing Act.

“The guidance is probably going to make it a little harder for someone who wants to verify the need for animals, and they will probably cut back a little on some non-domesticated exotic animals,” said Ken Walden, a disability rights attorney with the Chicago-based Access Living.

Brian Sullivan, a spokesperson for HUD, said that the agency is currently circulating the proposed guidance among other relevant agencies, like the Department of Justice, for review. The next step would be to submit it to the Office of Management and Budget for approval. This would be at least the second time the Trump administration’s HUD tries to get guidance on emotional-support animals through OMB. In November, HUD submitted a different version of the guidance to OMB, titled, “Applying the Fair Housing Act to Decide Whether a Person’s Request to Have an Animal as a Reasonable Accommodation Should Be Granted,” but quietly withdrew it in late February. Sullivan said the guidance was removed to do more interagency vetting.

Unlike service dogs, which are permitted under the Americans With Disabilities Act and can be taken to most public places, emotional-support animals under the Fair Housing Act and the Air Carrier Access Act do not have to be trained to perform specific tasks and can only be kept at home or brought on planes. They are considered a legitimate coping method for physical and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress.

Civil rights advocates say that cracking down too harshly on phony service animals can further stigmatize mental health issues, while also reinforcing the idea that medication is the only appropriate response to mental illness. As of 2019, 24 states already have laws on the books criminalizing the misrepresentation of pets as service animals, and advocates worry that more restrictions from the federal government could deter individuals who have a legitimate need from seeking assistance.

WHEN CIVIL RIGHTS advocates first learned that HUD was considering this measure last year, they requested meetings with agency officials and their requests were ignored, even though HUD was meeting with representatives from the housing industry about the issue. Last spring, however, they finally got through. In May, Walden and his Access Living colleagues Marca Bristo and Mary Rosenberg held a phone call with HUD representatives to spell out their concerns. They followed up with a detailed letter to HUD, laying out a number of fears, including that HUD might impose unfair restrictions against certain breeds of animals, that HUD might make it too difficult for tenants to verify that they have a legitimate need for an animal, and that HUD might treat certain protected classes differently, such as veterans.

Following that letter, a coalition of national disability rights groups organized to present a more unified front to HUD on these issues. The groups also requested to see the draft guidance HUD was working on, but were denied. The new guidance is expected to replace an older guidance HUD issued in 2013, which concerned what housing providers’ legal obligations are in connection to the Americans With Disabilities Act. More than halfof all fair housing complaints concern individuals with disabilities, and nearly half of those involve animal-related issues.

In October, HUD convened a meeting in Washington, D.C., between civil rights advocates and Farías, the assistant HUD secretary; Timothy Petty from HUD’s Office of General Counsel; Lynn Grosso, the director of enforcement for the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity; Ashley Ludlow, the senior HUD adviser for congressional relations; and members of Democratic Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s staff. “Senator Duckworth from our state was instrumental in setting the meeting up,” said Walden of Access Living.

Representatives from the National Association of the Deaf, the Seeing Eye, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Council on Independent Living, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Rise Phoenix Rise, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the National Association of Mental Illness, the American Council of the Blind, and the National Council on Disability were in attendance.

The conversation left the advocates feeling somewhat optimistic. “I’m hopeful that it’s not going to be as bad as we feared last year, but it’s hard to know without seeing the actual guidance,” said Walden.

One area of particular concern for advocates is whether HUD will further restrict the categories of people and groups that can validate an individual’s need for an emotional-support animal. Current guidance requires the verification of “a doctor or other medical professional, a peer support group, a non-medical service agency, or a reliable third party who is in a position to know about the individual’s disability.” Advocates worry that under pressure from housing industry groups, HUD may limit this to only a doctor or medical provider, which they say would be too restrictive, especially for low-income people. Advocates have stressed to HUD that other providers who aren’t in the medical field, like social workers, case managers, counselors, and even dog trainers can reliably testify to an individual’s need.

Industry groups have been pushing HUD on this very issue. Upano, of the National Apartment Association, told The Intercept that her members believe there should be a “legitimate treatment relationship” between a provider and the person requesting verification of need. Upano, of the National Apartment Association, told The Intercept that her members believe there should be a “legitimate treatment relationship” between a provider and the person requesting verification of need. Her group’s members believe that the best way to cut down on abuse is “to require that there be a therapeutic relationship between the person who is writing the note and the person requesting the reasonable accommodation,” she said. This wouldn’t necessarily need to be a medical doctor or psychologist, she added.

Civil rights advocates had concerns at one point that HUD would treat veterans who require emotional-support animals differently than other individuals with disabilities, but they said HUD officials assured them that this would likely not be the case. “We had heard there may be different standards for veterans with PTSD than other protected classes, and it would be easier for them to get verification, but we’re pretty confident at this point that they will have the same standards,” said Rosenberg.

Another takeaway from their October meeting was that HUD will likely not differentiate between types of housing or animal breeds. “We do not expect HUD to issue separate rules for condos versus apartments versus dorms,” said Rosenberg, who added that they also expect there will be consistency applied toward animal breeds.

ADVOCATES DO EXPECT HUD to take steps to address the online cottage industry that has cropped up for the sale of cheap documentation to pet owners who then falsely identify pets as service dogs or emotional-support animals — a move that, while justified, also holds risks. Critics of these websites rightly note that this type of documentation can be useful for someone who is living in an apartment building with no disability, but wants to skirt their building’s no-pet policy or its monthly or annual pet fee. Tenants and plane passengers can’t be charged for their emotional-support animals, though regular pets can incur a fee. Cultural fears abound of individuals taking advantage of these sites. One New Yorker article from 2014 identified that the “National Service Animal Registry,” which sells certificates and badges for helper animals, signed up 11,000 emotional-support animals in 2013, up from 2,400 in 2011.

While disability advocates agree that using phony documents to bypass pet rules and faking a disability is wrong, they also caution that there is no concrete evidence of widespread fraud. Still, this is a talking point that industry groups use. “By our count, there are 20 websites that spread misinformation about who should really qualify for an emotional-support animal, and they’re also providing access to a mental health professional and it’s not clear they’ve been licensed anywhere or from where they’re providing treatment to that patient,” said Upano, who noted that sometimes the letters come with a money-back guarantee.

Morgan Williams, general counsel of the National Fair Housing Alliance, cautioned in an interview last year that not everyone who seeks out online documents lacks a legitimate need or even knows that they’re wrong to use.

“Just because someone uses one of these websites doesn’t mean they don’t have a disability,” Williams told The Intercept. “They may have no concept that they’re using a website that other people might deem problematic.”

Walden said he and other advocates have tried to stress to HUD that while there may be a cottage industry of pay-for-play licensing, at the same time, technology has advanced and many people truly do have online and remote relationships with medical providers, especially in rural areas. Outlawing all online verification, they warn, would go too far.

Upano said her organization would not argue with the perspective backed by the American Psychiatric Association that telemedicine is a low-cost, affordable option for people who need mental health services. Still, she said, housing groups would like clearer guidelines on how to verify the documentation they’re presented with.

“We understand this is a sensitive issue; we understand the housing provider shouldn’t be asking any questions about diagnosis, medical records, but being able to ask the person if they did in fact write the note, and getting that very basic information, is what we heard from our members is the best deterrent to parse out legitimate and illegitimate requests,” she said.

Upano acknowledged that there can be gray areas, in which a doctor will say someone doesn’t need an animal, but they could benefit from having one. While Farías’s team looks at this issue, the federal housing agency has continued to go after landlords who deny tenants their legal accommodations. That’s where HUD’s energy should be focused, advocates say, even if they debate whether the agency has been aggressive enough.

If HUD publishes a guidance that advocates think goes too far, Rosenberg says there are a number of ways to challenge that.

“Depending on what the guidance says, we could look and say, well, this should have gone through rulemaking,” said Rosenberg. “Or we can see if what the guidance says conflicts with what the actual Fair Housing Act and associated regulations say, which hold more weight.”

This Ward 8 High School Had Its Charter Revoked. Now It’s Fighting Back

Originally published in DCist on March 14, 2019.

When the D.C. Public Charter School Board voted in December to initiate revocation proceedings for National Collegiate Prep, a Ward 8 charter high school founded 10 years ago that educates about 250 students, few could say they were really surprised.

The PCSB has closed 26 charter organizations or campuses/programs across the city between 2012 and 2018—primarily for academic reasons. Given that National Collegiate Prep has one of the lowest graduation rates in D.C., and ranked as a Tier 3 school for the last three years on the PCSB’s Performance Management Framework, the decision to shutter the school was heartbreaking for its families and staff, but not exactly unexpected. In January, the PCSB board members voted officially to revoke the school’s charter, with NCP set to close for good at the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The PCSB promised to have its staff assist students and families in finding new schools to attend.

But now, in an unexpected turn of events, National Collegiate Prep has launched a new campaign to fight its closure, and to fight the PCSB, which organizers say is unfairly targeting black-led charter schools in the District. Under the banner of “Save Our Students, Save Our School, Save Ourselves” and backed by local clergy, community organizations, and Ward 8 City Councilmember Trayon White, National Collegiate Prep staff and students have taken the unusual step of refusing to accept the PCSB’s decision.

The school is making several arguments to bolster its case against closure: its 100 percent graduation rate in 2018, that there’s no history of fiscal mismanagement, that it’s the only charter school east of the river to offer the International Baccalaureate program, and that it’s a safer, more academically distinguished school than the traditional public schools in the area where NCP students will likely go. And while NCP staff acknowledge they have some work to do, they argue the school hit eight of its nine performance goals, put forth a reasonable turnaround plan to address its weaknesses, and deserve the chance to see it through.

The campaign kicked off at a press conference organized at National Collegiate Prep on Wednesday. “Community-based schools, schools started by people located within our community for the benefit of those who have been the most underserved and the most underrepresented, are the very same schools that are being target by the Public Charter School Board for closure,” said Yohance Maqubela, the former executive director of Howard University Middle School and a current charter consultant. “Now is a chance for the community to say we will not be looked over anymore, our voices do count, and from this day forward we’re going to take a stand.”

Rev. Graylan Hagar, the senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ, and Pastor O. Jermaine Bego of Centerpoint Baptist Church pledged to rally their faith-based leaders and constituents in support. And Councilmember Trayon White, who noted he has several family members who attend NCP, said he also stands in full solidarity with the school.

“Is the school perfect? No, but to my judgment about where we are, we’re in a good place,” White told the audience. “I’m concerned about other schools like this, especially schools of color [that] are facing closure, or reprimand without just cause.”

Jennifer Ross, the founder and CEO of National Collegiate Prep, said her school has been wrongfully accused, and that they have appealed to the city council and the mayor. She says she knows they could face repercussions for the campaign, but characterizes the effort as standing up to intimidation.

“Back in 2015, we had a meeting as black school leaders to say we were very concerned with the direction of the black-led schools,” Ross told DCist. “That was held at Kent Amos’s house, and right after that, Amos’s school was closed.” Amos’s charter network, the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter Schools, was closed amid allegations that Amos illegally diverted funds to a private company.

“You know, I’m sure there are things most charter leaders will only tell you off the record, but everyone is very afraid and bullied, and I just realized it was up to me to say something,” Ross continued. “The charter school board is led by a lot of ego and personality and things are very personal.”

The D.C. Public Charter School Board did not respond to allegations that it has unfairly targeted small, minority-led charters, but in a statement provided to DCist, PCSB Chairman Rick Cruz said, “We closed this school because it was the lowest performing public charter high school and declined year after year. No one ever wants to close a school, but we’re focused on the quality of education for all students.” The PCSB board is comprised primarily of people of color, and its staff executive director is white.

As part of its campaign, National Collegiate Prep is working to highlight what makes the school unique, including its international trips, focus on STEM, and a formal cotillion offered during students’ senior year. The school also invests in restorative discipline and trauma-informed teaching.

In a report released in December, PCSB staff charged National Collegiate Prep with low performance in math, a low re-enrollment rate of 71 percent—re-enrollment is a measure the PCSB uses to gauge family satisfaction—and noted that no student who took the school’s IB courses actually earned an IB diploma. The school dropped to Tier 3 status during the 2015-16 school year, and the PCSB says it gave National Collegiate Prep ample warning over the last few years that its declining status could be grounds for closure.

National Collegiate Prep disputes many of the PCSB’s conclusions, and defended the benefit of giving students exposure to advanced curriculum offerings, insisting it can help instill confidence and success in college regardless of if they earned the IB diploma. NCP said its already hired a new math department to drive improvements in that area, and is working with Blueprint, a charter consulting firm based in Boston, to help craft a school turnaround plan. PCSB board members said NCP’s proposed interventions seemed like too little, too late.

Supporters of National Collegiate Prep acknowledge the fight ahead won’t be easy. According to the PCSB, the charter board does not even have the authority to reverse its January decision, and NCP would have to apply for a new charter, or appeal the decision in court.

At the press conference, Kamilah Wheeler, a parent, urged the NCP students to make their voices heard. “You need to get your friends together and stop this madness,” she said. “You may not understand it now but I promise you it’s going to make a difference.”

On Friday afternoon, National Collegiate Prep students plan to protest the decision at the D.C. Public Charter School Board.

Senate Bill Proposes Smaller Class Sizes for High-Poverty School Districts

Originally published in Next City on March 14, 2019.

Following a year of teacher strikes where educators in West Virginia, Los Angeles, Denver and beyond called for wage increases and reduced class sizes, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has introduced a new bill to incentivize smaller class sizes in kindergarten and first, second and third grades. The legislation, which would allocate $2 billion for competitive grant funding, primarily to high-poverty school districts in the United States, is co-sponsored by Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris (CA), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Elizabeth Warren (MA), Cory Booker (NJ) and Michael Bennet (CO). The bill is also endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Parent Teacher Association, and First Focus Campaign for Children.

Merkley says his bill is not a direct response to the teacher uprisings, but rather a reaction after discovering his son’s surprisingly large first-grade class. “My memory of my first-grade class was there was about 20 kids in it,” he says. “When I saw my son’s class I thought, how is the teacher ever going to be able to do this with 34 5- and 6-year-olds? We are the wealthiest nation on earth and can afford to do better.”

Class size reduction has long been a popular policy among parents and educators, but in state and federal government, interest in the issue has waxed and waned over the last two decades.

To fund smaller class sizes, states and school districts have been able to use Title II-A money, which is an annual pot of federal funds available for teacher quality initiatives. In the early 2000s, 57 percent of all Title II-A funds indeed went for this purpose. But by 2015, just 25 percent of those dollars were going to class size reduction, with far more dollars now spent on things like professional development.

One reason cities and states began to turn away from class size reduction was basic purse-string tightening. Nineteen states began eliminating or loosening their class size limits following the 2008 recession to save money. But class size reduction also began to fall out of favor with policymakers and education wonks, as interest in alternative reform policies, like evaluating teachers based on student standardized test scores, ticked up.

Advocates for class size reduction as an evidenced-based reform point to studies showing a link between higher academic achievement and fewer students per class. The most reputable study, known as Project STAR, is from the mid-1980s, when researchers randomly assigned students and teachers in Tennessee elementary schools to classes with an average of 15 students or 23 students. The study found students in the smaller classes tested better, with the improvements particularly significant among disadvantaged children. Later research found that the smaller class sizes also increased the probability of attending college, with the effects more than twice as large among black students.

Other influential research has suggested that setting the class size cap below 20 students will yield the greatest benefits, and Merkley’s bill caps class size at 18.

Some experts object to class size reduction — arguing it’s a cover for district bloat, and less effective than other reforms for similar or even lesser costs. Prominent critics include journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Others point to implementation challenges: In California, when the state legislature passed a $1.6 billion measure in 1996 to incentivize reduced class sizes in grades K-3, it was universally adopted very quickly. Researchers later found that the rapid statewide reduction in class size led to an influx of new, inexperienced teachers, and many teachers working in poorer schools in Los Angeles and Oakland left to fill the new vacancies in wealthier districts. While the researchers found that smaller classes boosted student achievement when all else was held equal, the rollout of the policy was tumultuous, and appeared to negatively impact some students and schools it was aimed to help.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller classes, says Merkley’s bill is “very important” and targets a major problem in public education. “As the teacher strikes reveal, and data shows, class sizes have increased across the country since the recession, and even though we’re a decade past that point, school budgets and class sizes still haven’t recovered,” she says. “Increases in class size have severely damaged the quality of education for all children in affected schools, but especially disadvantaged students and students of color, who see twice the benefit from smaller classes than the average student.”

Haimson praises Merkley’s bill for its requirement that districts report how smaller class size affects teacher retention and turnover rates, as well as student discipline and chronic absenteeism. Haimson says the bill could be improved by more explicitly defining how grant recipients should report the number of new teachers hired, how many new classes are added and by how much class sizes went down. “In the past, state and city audits have shown that at least half of the districtwide class size reduction that the New York City Department of Education claimed was a result of a state grant class size reduction program was due instead to falling enrollment,” she explains.

Regarding policy criticisms around class size reduction, Merkley says he agrees “other things need to be done” to improve schools, but he emphasizes his conversations with child experts lead him to believe that investments in smaller class size for the early grades can “make such a profound difference for everything that goes forward.”

Would he want smaller class sizes for middle and high school, too? While most studies have focused on K-3, conceivably fewer students per class would have an impact in more advanced courses as well.

“The studies we’ve looked at say K-3 is where it matters the most, but if we start here, we can evaluate the impact and decide,” he says. “If we do this right, evaluate it, and find out it doesn’t have an impact, then that will be information worth having and can change how we allocate our resources.”

New Bill Would Subject Charters to Same Transparency Rules as D.C. Public Schools

Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 13, 2019.


On Wednesday morning, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen led a press conference for a bill he will introduce next week, the Public School Transparency Amendment Act of 2019. This bill would bring D.C. charter schools under the same transparency requirements as traditional public schools, and comes on the heels of the DC Public Charter School Board proposing its own transparency reforms for the charter school sector. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, and At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman have joined Allen in co-sponsoring the legislation.

Allen’s new bill would subject all D.C. charter schools and their boards of trustees to public records requests and open meetings laws, and require that the DC Public Charter School Board help individual charters comply with these new rules. The charter sector currently receives more than $800 million in taxpayer dollars annually.

“This is not exactly a cutting-edge idea,” said Allen on the front steps of the Wilson Building. “Thirty-nine states already include both our traditional and public charter schools under their open government laws. D.C. is frankly playing catchup with the rest of the country.”

He pointed to California, where just earlier this month, the state’s new governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill that would subject all of California’s 1,300 charter schools to open meetings laws and public records requests. Allen also pointed to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, and the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, which both endorse charters complying with these rules. Last month a senior vice president at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools told the Washington Post that D.C’s charter sector was unusual on this front compared to the rest of the country.

Allen said one of the most common arguments he hears from charter schools is that complying with FOIA would be a significant administrative burden. In light of this, he wrote into his bill that the DC Public Charter School Board would serve as a resource to help individual schools handle requests, and the legislation would also require the PSCB to report to the Council how many FOIA requests were received by individual charter schools, and how much it cost them to comply. Allen emphasized the bill could be adjusted in future years if schools do in fact encounter major challenges. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re respecting that concern and understanding that,” he said.

As it stands now, the DC Public Charter School Board is not being flooded with FOIA requests. Between October 1, 2017, and September 30, 2018, according to the city’s annual FOIA report, the DC Public Charter School Board received 74 requests for information, with 59 processed within 15 days, eight processed in 16 to 25 days, and two processed in over 26 days. The total cost for the agency to comply with FOIA requests last year was $22,600.

Other items in Allen’s bill include requirements that a charter school’s annual report include the amount of money donated by anyone who contributes more than $500, that schools publish all employees’ names and salaries, that each charter school include two teachers on its board of trustees, and that a student representative serve on the board of a charter high school or adult learning charter. Lastly, the bill would require a charter’s annual report to list all contracts awarded by the school, regardless of amount, as is required for D.C. Public Schools.

The bill was developed in close consultation with EmpowerED, a D.C. teacher activist group, which has been leading, over the last nine months, a campaign on public school transparency and increasing teacher, parent, and student voice in school decision-making. In January, EmpowerEd launched an online petition to bring charters under the same transparency requirements as D.C. Public Schools, which as of Wednesday had garnered 545 signatures. Scott Goldstein, the executive director of EmpowerED, says the majority of those signatures have come from D.C. charter school teachers and charter school parents.

“Nothing in this bill should be controversial,” says Goldstein. “Far from being a burden, community engagement is what makes schools stronger and more sustainable.”

Allen’s bill is likely to face opposition from some leaders in the charter school sector.

Last month, Irene Holtzman, the executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, a local charter advocacy group, testified before the Council against the kind of measures proposed in Allen’s bill, and defended the level of transparency currently existing in the charter school sector.

Josh Henderson, the executive director of the D.C. chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, tells City Paper that Allen’s bill “prioritizes paperwork over performance” and notes that D.C.’s charter sector is “already one of the most tightly regulated, and importantly, highest-performing in the country.” He says he hopes the Council will focus on issues like mental health supports and suitable facilities, “rather than adding additional layers of bureaucracy.”

DFER DC, Henderson adds, would support new measures like the Council requiring charters to hold at least two open meetings per year, “including the meeting at which they set their budgets and any meeting that would close, shrink or otherwise reconfigure a school’s campuses.” He also says his group would support requiring charters to report data about teacher tenure and attrition, which is currently only reported on a voluntary basis.

Education Committee Chairman David Grosso was not at the press conference and his spokesperson says Grosso does not have any comment on the bill at this time.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who announced in late December that he would be joining Grosso in leading oversight on the Education Committee, tells City Paper that he understands charter schools are not in support, and that he plans to “look at the bill carefully and understand why we have always treated the charter schools differently.” He says he does worry that FOIA can be a burden on agencies, noting that the amount of money the Council had to spend on answering FOIA requests jumped significantly last year.

In 2015, some local advocates tried to push for greater charter school transparency measures, but charter leaders successfully blocked their efforts, and the Public Charter School Fiscal Transparency Amendment Act included only modest reforms. Allen said at Wednesday’s press conference that he’s hopeful the Council will have a hearing and pass this bill, and he hopes even more co-sponsors will join them in the next few days.

The DC Public Charter School Board, meanwhile, has been deliberating on some of its own transparency policy changes. The PCSB first opened its transparency rules to public comment in December, and extended the comment period for another month given the high volume of feedback it received. In February during the extended public comment period, this reporter submitted a comment in favor of bringing charters under FOIA and open meetings laws, and publishing board meeting minutes online.

On March 18, board members will be voting on the DC Public Charter School Board’s proposed transparency changes, which would require individual schools to publish, among other things, which meetings are open to the public, board meeting minutes, the salaries of the five highest-compensated individuals, employee handbooks, and funding plans for at-risk students. Some of the information that the DC Public Charter School Board is proposing schools publish on their own websites is already available on the DC Public Charter School Board’s so-called Transparency Hub, which launched last April.

Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, calls Allen’s legislation “misguided” and says it “fails to take into account the extraordinary transparency measures already taken by the Public Charter School Board.” Pearson criticized the bill for not addressing issues like closing the achieving gap, reducing the number of students living in poverty, or reducing truancy.  “We support a smart, reasonable approach that provides the transparency parents need, but does not divert school efforts, attention, and funds away from educating students,” he says. “We urge the D.C. Council to include parents, local board members, students, and school leaders in this process.”

Strategies for a Post-Roe America — and for Post-Roe American Women

Originally published in The American Prospect on March 11, 2019.
Independent journalist Robin Marty, one of the nation’s top reporters covering reproductive rights, has published a new book—Handbook for a Post-Roe America—with practical advice for women who might actually need to terminate a pregnancy in the future and for people who support abortion rights. While reproductive choice is at risk regardless of what happens at the Supreme Court, there’s little question in Marty’s mind that the landscape will soon look different in a world where Roe is overturned. The faster people accept that, she argues, the faster people can start preparing. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: So, to get started, do you think we are headed for a post-Roe America?

Robin Marty: I am so certain at this point that I will even tell you it will be overturned in 2021. Abortion opponents already have all the cases they need, I’m fairly certain at this point it will be a case on banning D&E [dilation and extraction, a surgical abortion procedure typically performed during the third trimester or the later part of the second trimester] and that will be the case they use to overturn Roe. We know the Fifth Circuit is looking at it right now, and we’re pretty sure that court is going to say it’s not unconstitutional for Texas to do a D&E ban. And that would leave a split circuit decision, which would let the Supreme Court weigh in.

The Supreme Court will pick a case where lawyers can be extraordinarily gruesome. Abortion opponents love D&E bans because they’re so grotesque and no one can defend them without saying you have to pull out a limb.

I expect 2021 because they won’t have a case before the next presidential election, they know that’s the only way they can get the same evangelical voters out to get Trump re-elected. Once the election is over, they will go ahead and move as quickly as possible.

You’ve notably said you think the end of Roe would be a good thing.

I’m quite excited. Roe being overturned is the best thing that could happen to our movement. We’ve been treading water since 2010, we’ve seen all these red states that have been chipping away at access, but it took until Trump was elected and Roe was in honest-to-God jeopardy for all the really privileged and white people to understand that abortion could be cut off for everyone, not just the people who have already lost access. Ending Roe will put everyone on the same level.

Does that mean you supported Gorsuch’s and Kavanaugh’s confirmations?

Oh God, no! They are such a disaster for civil rights and more, even beyond just abortion.

Don’t you think privileged women in states like Massachusetts, New York, and California will continue to feel like the rollback in access doesn’t mean much for them personally?

But they will still be able to see the impacts more directly. Just being able to see people put in jail for accessing their own care—I mean people will get abortion pills, people will get caught, and there will be stark consequences—I think that will be the turning point. It’s like [in 2012] in Ireland when Savita [Halappanavar] died from a septic miscarriage after having been denied an abortion. That was a turning point for the country.

When we go post-Roe, what we’re going to have to decide as a movement, and as activists in general, is what is our new standard? What is accessible? Why does it have to be at a clinic? Why does it have to cost $500 out of pocket at a minimum? We’ve been so busy trying to protect this right that honestly isn’t that great. Is it worth protecting anymore? I don’t know that it is.

Would you say this is a mainstream view among pro-choice leaders?

It’s not a mainstream view, per se, but it’s something that I’ve been talking to audiences about as I’ve done my book tour. Everyone’s first thought is: How could you say Roe coming to an end is a good thing?! And then we talk about it, how now everyone will be in the same position as these marginalized communities that have one clinic in their state and a 72-hour waiting period, and once people understand that abortion is already inaccessible, and maybe it’s time to just get rid of Roe and start fighting for the human right to decide, people get it.

National organizations don’t like any of this, it would be dismantling the power of national organizations and effectively redistributing those resources to local groups. A lot of my work is about why we need to take abortion outside of clinics.

You mean to do more abortions at home?

Yes. In some way, what we’re seeing is the same debate we saw around home births and midwives. This isn’t very different from that, but there’s a resistance to the idea that we don’t need to do this procedure at a clinic, that we don’t have to have formal medical intervention. A lot of this can be left up to us. If we’ve already proven it’s not dangerous—which we have at this point, over and over—then we should be more forceful in pushing for that.

Your book was very practical and concrete. Can you talk about some of the specific suggestions you laid out for emergency contraception?

Emergency contraception was actually how the book started. As soon as [Justice Anthony] Kennedy announced his retirement, I saw a ton of people saying online they were going to give money to Planned Parenthood and stock up on emergency contraception. And my first thought was, “Whoa, now.” That led to Huffington Post piece where I tried to say how you can do things like that in a more responsible way, which turned into this book.

Sterilization came up in your book as one way women could prepare for a post-Roe America. I was a bit surprised to see that. In your research, are you finding that’s already happening?

Yes, I am finding that women who have already decided they would not be interested in having children, or more children, are looking at this. The problem is it’s quite difficult to get sterilized—doctors don’t like to do it. It’s kind of a paternalistic thing, like saying you surely haven’t met the right man, or you’ll regret not being a mother. There are also a lot of rules—like you have to give consent for the procedure two weeks before you get it done. I have kids and I’ve also been sterilized.

In a chapter focused on organizing, you urged readers to focus on city councilmembers. I feel like the conversations around abortion restrictions has been focused heavily on state legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court.

The reason this book exists is to help take our attention off the bigger picture—which we’ve been paying attention to for a really long time. But national solutions are just not the best place for us to use our resources right now. My book is about drilling down as local as you can get, investing in your state, in your city, and in your local clinics.

One thing we’ve noticed about how power works is the more directly you’re involved in the area in which you can have real power, the more exponentially powerful that is. So for city councils, we’ve seen they are often the last bastion of protecting or ending access to abortion. We saw that when Whole Woman’s Health was trying to open a medication abortion clinic in Indiana. At first it was the city council that tried to block it, then the mayor overrode it, and then the city council tried to block it again. It’s now still going through lawsuits.

City councilmembers have say over things like zoning and noise ordinances, ensuring that buffer zones can be upheld. If there is a city council that is friendly toward abortion rights, that often impacts how the police will deal with people who protest and attend clinics.

Can you talk about the Pregnant Women’s Dignity Act?

The one thing we really need to do is get abortion out of the criminal code. One way to do that is through this law, the Pregnant Women’s Dignity Act, which is promoted by the Public Leadership Institute. It says if a person has any kind of poor birth outcome—it’s not her fault, it’s not something that should be investigated, this is not something that has a place of blame. It doesn’t matter if she did it on purpose, if it was by accident—it’s just a personal medical thing that has occurred and it does not involve the police or the courts.

You explore the idea of creating a new kind of infrastructure of housing, transportation, safety, and financial support for women who need to travel to get abortions in a post-Roe America.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Say that Roe is overturned and in Kentucky the state makes abortion completely illegal, and there’s just one remaining clinic. What happens to that clinic? Would that be a good place that you can then set up a hostel for women who need to then travel out of state to get an abortion? If Roe is overturned there will be no abortion in the entire Gulf area, no abortion in most of the Rust Belt. We’re talking about humongous chunks of the country. People are talking about how to make states like New York and Colorado these safe havens where people can go, but what’s the best way we can get people together so they can actually do it efficiently?

Can we bring all the people in the state of Kentucky together so they can all take a bus to Chicago together? Then none of them will have to worry about needing to drive. We have to think about how to work with systems that will be left, and how best to use it especially for those who aren’t going to have the funds to do long-distance travel.

Do you think we’ll increase the number of clinics in the future?

I’ve heard some people say, “Okay, we should build abortion clinics next to airports, so people can get off, get the procedure, and go right back home,” and my first thought was: Have these people tried to open a clinic lately?!

Just last [month] there was a piece in The Austin Chronicle about Whole Woman’s Health losing their Austin office, and they had spent months trying to find a new place they could move into. And this is in liberal Austin! There’s just so much pressure, no one wants to sell or lease their property to an abortion clinic.

I think for the most part what we have for clinics is as much as we’re going to get. And I don’t think that matters—I don’t think we should need as many abortion clinics. If people could just do it at home, as they should be able to especially with telemedicine, then we just need to have enough clinics that people can do follow-ups for later abortion or for people who can’t do it.

But haven’t studies shown that women prefer surgical abortion if they have the choice?

I totally understand why people would choose surgical abortion—you don’t have to worry about the follow-up, you don’t have to see the procedure, but if you look at Iowa, they had an extraordinarily successful telemedicine abortion program until [legislators] took it down. And what they discovered in Iowa was it didn’t increase the number of people having abortions, they just were able to have them earlier.

Your book also looks at the question of civil disobedience and direct action in a post-Roe America.

Yes, I think we’re going to see a lot more civil disobedience. There was a Mother Jones article recently about a woman who sold medication abortion online for years, and that finally got shut down by federal agents. The only thing that made the police finally get involved was because a man used the medication he bought from her to commit a crime.

As I was reading it I thought, how many people would need to start online websites, offering medication abortion for sale, before the FDA threw up their hands and said I can’t keep up with them all? That’s the kind of thing I’m thinking about. What’s the critical mass where so many people are breaking the law that it’s no longer feasible for authorities to keep up? And who are the right people to do it and how do we organize en masse?

What are some other examples of civil disobedience that you can imagine?

There’s a bill that was just reintroduced in Congress, and it comes up every year, the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Actor CIANA, which would make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines to get an abortion without parental consent. One of the best things NARAL ever did was they dubbed this the “Jail Grandma law.” They brought to mind a picture of a young girl who goes to a different state to get an abortion, and for some reason her parents couldn’t take her so her grandma takes her across the border. Are we really going to throw grandma in jail? That ground everything to a halt, and that is a perfect example of why we need old white ladies to do civil disobedience.

So the last thing I wanted to ask you about was surveillance, and why being conscious of that will be important in a post-Roe America.

One of the reasons it’s really important to pay attention to what you’re saying over open phone lines, over what you’re searching on Google, over text messages, is that when Purvi Patel was arrested in Indiana for allegedly inducing her own abortion, the state went back and forth on is this murder? Is this feticide? A lot of what they used against Patel were texts in her own phone. We need to be aware that if we do decide that it’s time to organize outside the legal bounds, or if someone is going to try to do an abortion outside of a legal clinical setting, that person will need to be really careful about what they put down in writing.

I’m someone who generally hated being pregnant, I did not have comfortable pregnancies. I don’t know how many times I texted someone saying, “God, I wish I wasn’t pregnant.” If I had had a miscarriage, what would stop some suspicious doctor or some overzealous prosecutor to say, hm, she had a miscarriage, I wonder if she induced her own abortion, and then found that text?