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Virginia Bills Would Put Limits on Role of Police in Schools

The Virginia State Capitol Building
The Virginia State Capitol Building

Center for Public Integrity

Legislation follows Center investigation of harsh punishments directed at even middle-schoolers

Virginia legislators are debating bills this week that would limit the role of school cops and prohibit charging K-12 students with “disorderly conduct” — a reaction to Center stories on unusually aggressive school policing there.

Among the reform proposals:  a measure that would release school administrators from state code requirements that they report a range of incidents to police, including potential misdemeanors.  Another bill under debate would strengthen the rights of students with disabilities if they’re charged with disorderly behavior and face prosecution in court.

Last April, the Center for Public Integrity published an investigation identifying Virginia as having the top rate of public school  referrals of students to law enforcement agencies.  Based on an analysis of 2011-2012 data collected by the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s rate of referring students to cops or courts was about three times the national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. Black students and those with disabilities were referred at even higher rates.

Criminal charges against Virginia students arrested at schools often fell heavily on middle-school kids and black students, the Center also found after examining local arrest records in some jurisdictions.

Among these students was Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic sixth-grade student who was charged in the fall of 2014 with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can after he became upset at his school in Lynchburg. The 11-year-old was also handcuffed, arrested and charged with felony assault on a police officer when he tried to break free from an officer’s grasp.

Kayleb’s story and other examples of the criminalization of young students were also featured in a report the Center produced in collaboration withReveal, an investigative public radio program.

The Center investigation helped “generate a lot of talk—and now action,” said Jason Landberg, education attorney for the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.

[Related: Law Enforcement Forced Into Role Confusion in Schools]

JustChildren’s attorneys represent special-needs students in disputes over appropriate educational services at their schools. The lawyers have grown increasingly concerned that students are getting arrested and prosecuted for behavior at school that’s not uncommon for children their age, or conduct that stems from a disability. A number of conservative organizations in Virginia have also urged reforms to school policing, including doing away with disorderly conduct charges against students.

On Monday, three bills backed by JustChildren were referred to the full House Education Committee from the House Elementary and Secondary Subcommittee.  The measures are scheduled to be heard in the full committee later this week.

One proposal, HB1061, sponsored by Henrico County Democrat Lamont Bagby, would require schools to consider “feasible alternatives” before referring students to law enforcement or expelling them. The proposed requirement would not apply to students accused of having firearms or certain other kinds of weapons at school.

Two other bills that also moved forward,   HB 1132 and HB 1134, are sponsored by Republican Dave LaRock from Loudoun County.

LaRock’s HB 1132 would strike language from state code that some administrators interpret as a  mandate that they report any possible misdemeanor to law enforcement.  The other LaRock bill, HB 1134, would eliminate the option to charge elementary and secondary students with committing disorderly conduct at school or school events.

Another House bill that would also scale back the role of school police has already passed out of the House of Delegates with overwhelming bipartisan support.  HB 487, which was approved on a 95-to-2 votes in the House, is sponsored by Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat.

McClellan’s bill amends language in state legislation that authorizes state grants to pay for school resource officers; the legislation currently requires such grant-funded officers—who are a minority of the state’s school cops—to enforce “school board rules and codes of school conduct.”

Striking this language, McClellan said, will provide more discretion to school administrators and officers so they don’t have to feel compelled to involve police in relatively minor violations of school rules.

“That’s not really the officers’ job,” McClellan said.

McClellan said she thinks another bill she is co-sponsoring—LaRock’s proposal to end disorderly conduct charges against students—could likely face amendments if it is to move on.

Legislators, she said, have discussed the idea of applying a prohibition on disorderly conduct charges to younger students only, or limiting the prohibition to cover only students enrolled at schools where an incident takes place. That way, she said, school officials could have some flexibility to react to a disruption created by minors who aren’t enrolled at a school but cause a disruption.

McClellan is co-sponsoring another bill related to school policing —HB 1213—along with David Albo, a Republican delegate from Fairfax Station.

Focused on special-needs students,  that measure would require that students charged with “willfully disrupting” school be afforded the opportunity to submit special educational plans or behavior assessments as part of their defense in court. The minor, at least 10 days before trial, would have to inform prosecutors of the intent to use the documents as evidence and provide prosecutors with copies.

McClellan acknowledged that a number of her colleagues in Virginia legislature support a hard “law-and-order” line and are reluctant to embrace some of the proposals. “But this is an area I know has bipartisan support,” she said, referring to calls to reform school-policing policies.

After the Center report was published and aired last April, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, appointed a cabinet-level task force to come up with ideas for how to reform school policing. Last October, members of the task force said they were launching a “Classrooms, not Courtrooms” initiative to retrain all school police in the state and help schools embrace the use of alternative discipline methods.

This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. 

More related articles:

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Obama Administration Unveils School Discipline Guidelines

OP-ED: When the Stupidity of Adults Hurts Kids

Virginia Tops Nation in Sending Students to Cops, Courts: Where Does Your State Rank?

Kayleb Moon-Robinson
Kayleb Moon-Robinson —who is diagnosed as autistic— had barely started sixth grade last fall in Lynchburg, Virginia, when a school resource officer filed charges against him. Kayleb was charged with disorderly conduct for kicking over a trash can and then with felony assault on a police officer because he struggled to break free when the cop grabbed him. The Center for Public Integrity analyzed national data and found that Virginia schools refer more students to law enforcement than other states, and that nationally schools refer black and special-needs kids to cops and courts disproportionately.

From The Center for Public Integrity:

Kayleb Moon-Robinson was 11 years old last fall when charges — criminal charges — began piling up at school.

Diagnosed as autistic, Kayleb was being scolded for misbehavior one day and kicked a trash can at Linkhorne Middle School in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A police officer assigned to the school witnessed the tantrum, and filed a disorderly conduct charge against the sixth grader in juvenile court.

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Key Findings:

  • Referrals of students to law enforcement nationwide in 2011-12 occurred at a rate of 6 for every 1,000 students, with 19 states surpassing that rate.
  • Virginia led all states with a rate of almost 16 referrals per 1,000, followed by Delaware and Florida.
  • In Virginia, where preteens have been arrested for disorderly conduct, referrals raise questions about whether police are too involved in discipline.
  • Special-needs students were 14 percent of U.S. enrollment, but represented 26 percent of students referred to law enforcement.
  • African-American students were 16 percent of U.S. enrollment, but represented 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement.
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Just weeks later, in November, Kayleb, who is African-American, disobeyed a new rule — this one just for him — that he wait while other kids left class. The principal sent the same school officer to get him.

“He grabbed me and tried to take me to the office,” said Kayleb, a small, bespectacled boy who enjoys science. “I started pushing him away. He slammed me down, and then he handcuffed me.”

In an incident report, a teacher confirmed that the officer spoke to Kayleb, then grabbed him around the chest, and that Kayleb cursed and struggled. School officials won’t comment on this case, but say that police in schools are crucial to providing a safe atmosphere and protecting against outside threats. Stacey Doss, Kayleb’s mother and the daughter of a police officer herself, was outraged.

Educators stood by, she said, while the cop took her son in handcuffs to juvenile court. The officer filed a second misdemeanor disorderly conduct complaint. And he also submitted another charge, a very grown-up charge for a very small boy: felony assault on a police officer. That charge was filed, Doss said the officer told her, because Kayleb “fought back.”

“I thought in my mind — Kayleb is 11,” Doss said. “He is autistic. He doesn't fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”

To Doss’ shock, a Lynchburg juvenile court judge found Kayleb guilty of all those charges in early April, which could prove life-altering.

The young student’s swift trip into the criminal justice system might seem like a singular case of tough discipline. But he’s not alone.

In fact, U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity show that Virginia schools in a single year referred students to law enforcement agencies at a rate nearly three times the national rate. Virginia’s referral rate: about 16 for every 1,000 students, compared to a national rate of six referrals for every 1,000 students. In Virginia, some of the individual schools with highest rates of referral — in one case 228 per 1,000 — were middle schools, whose students are usually from 11 to 14 years old.

A state-by-state look at students referred to law enforcement
Click to view full interactive graphic by CPI, "A state-by-state look at students referred to law enforcement."

The Education Department didn’t require that schools explain why, during the 2011-12 school year, they referred students to law enforcement. And a referral did not necessarily have to end in an arrest or charges filed, at least not immediately. But by definition, it did mean that students’ behavior was reported to police or courts.

The Center’s analysis found that in Delaware, special schools for troubled kids helped drive up that small state’s rate to second after Virginia. Florida ranked third.

The findings raise questions about what kind of incidents at school really merit police or court intervention, and provide fodder for a growing national debate over whether children, especially those in minority groups, are getting pushed into a so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” unnecessarily and unjustly. What’s happening in some schools seems almost directly at odds with guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.

Preteens and police

In Virginia, interviews and police records obtained by the Center confirm that referrals of students to law enforcement have eventually turned into thousands of complaints filed in courts, many of them against preteens. The most frequent complaints are for disorderly behavior — allegations similar to those against Kayleb.

Virginia isn’t reliably tracing how many charges in juvenile courts statewide originate with school police. But some public defenders report they’re handling multiple cases with surprisingly harsh allegations against young students.

In southeastern Virginia, for instance, a 12-year-old girl was charged earlier this year with four misdemeanors — including obstruction of justice for “clenching her fist” at a school cop who intervened in a school fight.

Across the country, a movement away from harsh discipline is gaining influence, especially in convincing authorities that out-of-school suspensions are counterproductive. But certain schools continue to allow police who patrol their hallways to serve as de facto disciplinarians, with arrest powers, for all manner of indiscretions that a generation ago would almost certainly have been handled by teachers or principals.

Every so often, headlines flare about school police injuring students with Tasers, or wrestling with them to take away cell phones. In Green County, Virginia, last October, a school cop handcuffed a 4-year-old who was throwing blocks and kicking at teachers and drove him to a sheriff’s department.

What draws less scrutiny, though, is the quiet stream of young students into courts.

For some kids, the process creates delinquency records that stigmatize them at school, and stick with them for years. Judges can order students to perform, as penance, community service, and to check in frequently with probation officers. They can order students to wear electronic monitors, or put kids into detention before and after a hearing. A later slip-up at school, such as using profanity, public defenders say, has sent kids back to court and into detention.

Judge Steven Teske, who presides over juvenile court in Clayton County, Georgia, saw a steady rise in cases from schools when he took the bench in 1999 — with 90 percent involving misdemeanor charges, such as disorderly conduct, disrespect and fighting. He wanted to stop it.

“It should come to no one’s surprise that the more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased,” Teske said at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on school discipline in 2012. “These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency — school connectedness.”

Teske forged a “protocol” limiting arrests at schools, and he’s been urging other jurisdictions to do the same. Last October, he went to Richmond, Virginia, to spread the word with a group of local and state juvenile-justice officials.

That wasn’t long before Kayleb Moon-Robinson was arrested in Lynchburg.

Stacey Doss
Lynchburg, Virginia resident Stacey Doss holds her toddler, B.J., while son Kayleb plays big brother. Doss, the daughter of a police officer, is outraged that a school resource officer arrested her son after he left a classroom without permission. The autistic 11-year-old, who is sensitive to touch, was charged with felony assault on a police officer because he struggled to get away.

In March, Stacey Doss said, she turned down a “plea deal” prosecutors offered to reduce the felony to a misdemeanor assault, but require Kayleb do time in a detention center. Doss didn’t think Kayleb should be in court at all. But now, if she appeals and loses, she’s scared that state law will require that the felony remain in court files forever, even if public access is limited.

Kayleb is in an alternative school now and has to return to court in early June to hear what the judge wants to do with him. Doss said the judge had a deputy show him a cell, and told him if he gets into trouble again he could go straight to youth detention.

“He said that Kayleb had been handled with kid gloves. And that he understood that Kayleb had special needs, but that he needed to ‘man up,’ that he needed to behave better,” Doss said. “And that he needed to start controlling himself or that eventually they would start controlling him.”

A public defender argued that Kayleb wasn’t intentionally disruptive, but the prosecution argued, according to Doss, that Kayleb’s “mental issues” were insufficient to claim “diminished capacity.”

Kayleb can perform well on academic tests. But Doss had argued last year with Linkhorne Middle that it might not have appropriate services for him. He’s now in an alternative school the district is paying for that’s more equipped to deal with Kayleb’s difficulty with sudden changes in routine, Doss said. Kayleb said he left class the day he was arrested because he wanted to be with the other kids.

Revealing stats

The data that pinpointed Virginia as a hot spot for referrals was collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, for the 2011-12 school year, the most recent available. The rights office has the power to withhold funding from a district if investigators find that practices violate students’ civil rights and districts fail to change.

Federal officials didn’t rank states’ rate of referrals. But the Center analysis did, and among the findings are these:

  • The national rate of referrals to law enforcement agencies was six students for every 1,000 pupils, with 19 states surpassing that rate.
  • Virginia had about 16 referrals for every 1,000 students, followed by Delaware with almost 15; Florida with more than 12; and Wyoming and New Hampshire with nearly 12 referrals for every 1,000 students.
  • Massachusetts, Ohio, Nevada and Washington, D.C., reported the lowest rates of referrals, at two or fewer students per 1,000.
  • Even states not among those with the highest overall rates of referrals had individual schools that stood out. Bedford County, Tennessee’s Cascade High School had a referral rate of 157 per 1,000 students.
  • About 26 percent of all students referred to law enforcement nationally were special-needs kids — kids with physical or learning disabilities — even though these kids represent only 14 percent of U.S. enrollment.
  • In most states, black and Latino kids were referred in percentages that were disproportionate to their enrollment numbers.

To find out why kids in Virginia were referred, the Center filed public-record requests for police data in communities where parents have complained publicly about harsh discipline. The data reveal startling details about the tender age of some of the children accused of crimes, and a disturbing racial divide.

In Chesterfield County, a Richmond suburb that’s increasingly racially diverse, police data show that officers filed 3,538 criminal complaints against students over the last three academic years, starting in fall 2011. That’s a staggering number for a district of about 60,000 students.

The volume of complaints Chesterfield police filed during the 2011-12 academic year alone — 1,499 — was more than half the 2,548 cases that New York City police filed against students that year. Civil-rights groups protested that New York’s charges were a sign of excess, and New York has about 16 times as many students.

More than half the 3,538 complaints police filed over three years in Chesterfield were for “simple assault” or disorderly conduct.

More than half the students sent to court were black, even though black students are only 26 percent of enrollment.

And almost half of the students issued criminal complaints were children 14 or younger.

Among the youngest were 27 kids under the age of 10 accused of assault, and five children under 10 accused of making bomb threats.

Falling Creek Middle School in northern Chesterfield County had a referral rate of 228 kids per 1,000 — 39 times the national rate.

Chesterfield’s records do show a two-year decline to 951 complaints filed last year compared to the 1,499 in 2011-12. But half of those charges last year were still for simple assault or disorderly conduct — compared to 18 charges related to weapons and 117 charges for narcotics.

District administrators declined to comment, deferring to Chesterfield County Police Department officials to respond. “Their sworn officers serve as school resource officers in our schools and are charged with upholding and enforcing the law,” Chesterfield schools’ communications director Timothy Bullis said in an email.

Police spokeswoman Elizabeth Caroon said not all complaints included an arrest, and not every complaint led to a hearing in court. In an email, she said that some students are “diverted” to counseling or other programs by juvenile court intake officials empowered to decide which go to court. School cops can recommend diversion, or that a complaint go to a hearing. On the police department’s school resource webpage, a message says: “There will be no exception to the practice of reporting violations of the law.”

Chesterfield mother Lelia Grant argues that schools and police are prematurely treating kids like criminals.

In 2013, her daughter, 15, got into a fight with another girl who walked into a class and confronted her, Grant wrote to school officials. Grant’s daughter ended up being charged with assaulting a school staff member.

Grant pleaded with school officials to consider that her daughter was in shock and bleeding because a ring the other girl was wearing had deeply cut her forehead. If her daughter pushed a staff person, Grant wrote, it was not intended to be “a separate vindictive action.”

Grant also pleaded that her child was in college-prep classes and had never been in a fight before. But a week after the incident, the girl was summoned to court and arrested on the spot. “They told her to stand up, take off her sweater and put her hands behind her back,” Grant said. “They held her in a detention hall for a whole day.”

[module type="full" align="right"]

“If you have police on your campus, you need to be clear what it is you’re asking them to do.”

— Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights

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The school never tried to use mediation or counseling in response to the incident, Grant said. The court ordered 40 hours of community service in a church store, and her daughter’s grades slumped because she was removed from school for two months and forced to attend a “dumbed down” night school, Grant said.

“Some laws need to be enacted on behalf of these children,” Grant said. “They need to revisit this zero tolerance stuff.” In a letter to Grant, a school official justified suspending her daughter because the teen “defied repeated requests … to calm down.” Although officials declined to discuss policing at schools, Bullis said the local school board feels safety is “a responsibility that our parents expect us to fulfill.”

In Virginia’s Henrico County, another increasingly diverse suburban area of Richmond, police said they only began tracking student arrests this school year. In the district of about 50,000 students, records show that in five months, between last September and January, police had already filed 200 complaints against students they arrested.

Four charges were for weapons, one a firearm. The biggest single accusation against students — 78 charges — was disorderly conduct. One-third of the 200 charges were against kids 14 or younger. And even though black students represented 37 percent of enrollment, 77 percent of those arrested and charged were black. Lt. Christopher Eley, Henrico Police communications officer, said, “Our first goal [is] to divert the juvenile from the justice system to the extent possible, consistent with the protection of the public safety.”

Henrico mom Brenda Coles, who is African-American, said a police officer at her son’s school threatened to arrest the fifth-grader this year.

Her son Elijah was one of a minority of black fifth-graders at the Three Chopt Elementary School for academically gifted students. His mom has since transferred him.

Coles accuses a school cop of singling out 10-year-old Elijah last fall. She has asked, in multiple emails to school officials, why Elijah was put into a room at school with an officer interrogating him even though school officials said Elijah hadn’t done anything wrong.

At school, Coles found Elijah with the officer, who was demanding to know if Elijah understood “unwanted touching” and “assault.”

“My son was tormented. He had his head down on a table. He would not hold his head up,” Coles said.

Coles said a classmate grabbed Elijah’s shoulders in the cafeteria and Elijah jerked his arm back and it jabbed the boy. School officials agreed the boys had engaged in mutual “horseplay,” according to a school document.

Elijah Coles-Brown is a Henrico County, Virginia fifth grader with an eye on academic achievement. His mother said she is angry that a school resource officer questioned Elijah last fall about “unwanted touching,” and accused Elijah of committing “assault” even though school officials found he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Elijah Coles-Brown is a Henrico County, Virginia fifth grader with an eye on academic achievement. His mother said she is angry that a school resource officer questioned Elijah last fall about “unwanted touching,” and accused Elijah of committing “assault” even though school officials found he hadn’t done anything wrong.

Yet, Coles said, the principal and a school police officer called her and the officer told her he’d spoken to the other child’s parents and decided that Elijah had committed assault.

“He said, ‘If it happens again I’m going to arrest him,’ Coles said. “He said, ‘I do arrest fifth graders.’”

A letter to Coles from Henrico Police internal affairs said it investigated the officer’s conduct and could not substantiate her complaint. Another letter from a school official to Coles said: “Henrico County Public Schools does not direct the decisions of Henrico law enforcement officials, including decisions regarding charges or potential charges.”

William Noel, Henrico’s director of student support and discipline, told the Center much the same. School police “are part of the building, they’re part of the family,” he said, but they work for the police department.

“We don’t tell them what to do,” Noel said.

But that stance is in stark contrast to what Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, expects to happen at schools.

She’s the top federal education official responsible for ensuring all students’ civil rights are respected.

“If you have police on your campus,” she said, “you need to be clear what it is you’re asking them to do.”

Police should be handling criminal activity, she said, not behavior more appropriately handled by school personnel. There are effective discipline methods schools can use, Lhamon said, and her office is ready to provide guidance and assistance for schools to get funding to train staff.

Just last October, in fact, the department awarded Virginia $3.5 million in grants to improve services for students with mental-health needs and to reduce disruptive behavior.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon
U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon says that her office tries to be “very clear in our guidance that schools are responsible for the actions that their school police engage in.”

“We’ve tried to be very clear in our guidance,” Lhamon added, “that schools are responsible for the actions that their school police engage in when they're at the school site, so that there's not a way of saying, ‘Well, that was the police, and not us.’ ”

Lhamon said she understands calls for safety and for order in schools. Demand for school police mushroomed following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, and has spread after each school shooting since. But she’s also concerned when she hears that school police are issuing a barrage of criminal accusations against students.

“A red flag for us, consistently,” Lhamon added, “is catchall terms, like ‘disorderly conduct,’ that leave too much discretion that is unfettered.” If that term isn’t well defined, she said, then schools leave open the possibility of discrimination against certain students.

In Virginia, according to the national data the Center analyzed, about 30 percent of students schools referred to law enforcement two years ago were special-needs kids — who were only 14 percent of the state’s students. About 38 percent of students referred to law enforcement were black, even though black kids were only a quarter of Virginia’s enrollment.

Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton declined an interview request to discuss the Center’s findings. Instead, she sent a statement emphasizing that Virginia has received federal funds to help address “negative behaviors before students receive referrals.”

“We remain committed,” she said “to equity in the classroom.”

Last August, Lhamon’s office struck an agreement with the Lynchburg district that required its administrators take steps to reduce disproportionate suspensions of black students. Lhamon wasn’t happy to hear what happened to Kayleb after that agreement was reached.

“It certainly upsets me,” she said. “I wouldn't want that for my own daughters. I wouldn't want that for any child I love in school. I very much hope that we can make sure that all of our kids are treated appropriately in school.”

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“She can’t do long division, but she can get felony theft.”

— Linda McCausland, Virginia public defender, speaking of an 11-year-old client

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In eastern Virginia, public defender Linda McCausland is also concerned about students charged for behavior she thinks schools and counseling should handle.

Unlike other public defenders the Center contacted, McCausland was willing to speak publicly — as long the precise jurisdiction she was discussing wasn’t named.

One of McCausland’s clients is a 15-year-old charged with assault and sexual battery after she pushed a girl in the bathroom and kissed her. “Sexual abuse, that’s a pretty serious charge,” McCausland said. Another is an 11-year-old with mental-health problems who stole her teacher’s cell phone and was automatically charged with felony theft because the phone is worth at least $200.

“She can’t do long division, but she can get felony theft,” McCausland said.

McCausland believes the problem is compounded by police who she says “pile” charges on kids.

A 12-year-old client went to pick up her cousin at an elementary school, saw a fight and pulled her cousin out of it, McCausland said, and when a school cop grabbed her she swore. The cop charged her with obstruction of justice for clenching her first, along with trespassing, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

Julie McConnell, who teaches law at the University of Richmond, is a former juvenile prosecutor as well as a former public defender in Richmond. She said some prosecutors feel obligated to press forward with cases from schools, like it or not.

“Some offices have a no-plea-agreement policy,” she said. “You either go to trial or you plead guilty. I think that's a really unfortunate situation in a few jurisdictions.”

McConnell also said school police don’t necessarily see themselves as mediators at school because that’s not what most are trained to do.

Don Bridges, a school police officer in Maryland, argues that training can correct an overzealous approach to school policing. He is a vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a professional group that offers classes to school resource officers.

“As I’m doing my training,” he said, “one of the phrases I always say is when you’re in the building as a police officer, you have to learn to stay in your lane. You have to know specifically what it is that you should be doing.

“As long as there’s nothing where there’s a weapon, something that’s going to cause immediate public harm,” he said, “charging a student within a school setting should be an absolute last resort.”

Lynchburg prosecutors handling Kayleb Moon-Robinson’s case said confidentiality laws prohibit them from commenting on juvenile cases. But before a case goes forward, they said, a juvenile court intake officer must be satisfied that there is “sufficient probable cause” based on an officer’s or another person’s sworn testimony.

Kayleb’s public defender and Lynchburg Juvenile Court Chief Judge Cary Payne wouldn’t comment either.

Lynchburg School Board President Regina Dolan-Sewell, the school district superintendent and the Lynchburg police chief also declined to talk. They sent a statement that school police are trained to work with kids, including autistic students, and get involved “in incidents that are criminal in nature, that have the potential to result in criminal charges, or that appear to place the safety of students and staff at risk.”

Virginia law requires schools to notify law enforcement about incidents that “may constitute a criminal offense.” An “offense code” chart advises that assaults must be referred to law enforcement, but disorderly conduct doesn’t. Charges aren’t required in either case.

In Lynchburg, Stacey Doss said she’s worried her special-needs son doesn’t grasp the judge’s warnings about his behavior, and that he already feels branded because classmates saw an officer subdue him. “There are people in our apartment complex that make rude comments about Kayleb,” she said. “They’ve talked about how he’s a criminal, how he's been arrested.”

She’s also incredulous that so many resources have gone into putting Kayleb into court. “As taxpayers we should say, ‘Look, I don’t want my money wasted on frivolous issues,’ ” Doss said. “Children are going to argue, children are going to push and shove. That should be handled by the school.”

The Center for Public Integrity’s Ben Wieder performed the analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. This story is featured on Reveal, a new public radio show from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Check out revealnews.org for more.

The story was co-published with PRI and TIME.

This story originally appeared on The Center for Public Integrity.

California Takes on Harsh Discipline and Academic Inequities for Black, Latino Students

Student at L.A.’s Jefferson High School
Jason Magaña, a student at L.A.’s Jefferson High School, said he was enrolled this fall in a graphic design course he’s already taken and passed twice. An aspiring aeronautical engineer, he’s part of a suit filed by students at various schools who say they have been put into “work” periods or “home” periods with no instruction rather than academic classes that are unavailable or too crowded. (screenshot/YouTube)

From The Center for Public Integrity:

As the national debate over childhood inequities sharpens, recent developments in California highlight struggles over practices critics say deprive some kids of quality class time and fuel a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

New state legislation on discipline and truancy — along with lawsuits — are at the heart of these controversies in the Golden State.

CenterForPublicIntegrityIn October, for instance, a judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring that state education officials intervene immediately at a school where students have joined a class-action lawsuit originally filed in May. Students at the school, Jefferson High in lower-income south Los Angeles, allege that they’ve been deprived of equal time for education in comparison to kids at other more affluent schools. More than 90 percent of students at Jefferson High are Latino, many the children of immigrants, and more than 8 percent of students are black.

The Oct. 8 order by Alameda County Superior Court Judge George Hernandez Jr. required state officials to immediately ensure Jefferson kids are not placed in classes this fall that they’ve already taken and passed or assigned periods dubbed “home” or “service” periods that are “devoid” of academic instruction. State officials say they’re complying with the order.

The class-action suit over “lost learning time” was filed in May on behalf of kids at nine California schools, including two in Alameda County, as the Center for Public Integrity reported. Kids at Jefferson in LA joined the suit in early October.

Students at various schools in the suit complained they were denied classes they needed to either graduate or apply to college, and suffered from poor instruction due to frequent teacher turnover and chaos in scheduling. The litigation was filed by LA-based Public Counsel, which has also represented students in expulsions, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and other law groups.

Policymakers and businesses in Silicon Valley and elsewhere in California also argue for more action to close an “achievement gap” and boost access to college prep classes for Latino and black students.

In a request this fall for immediate intervention, Jefferson student Jason Magaña, who aspires to be an aeronautical engineer, said in a Sept. 14, 2014, declaration to court that he was scheduled this fall for a graphics design class he had already taken and passed twice. He was also placed in an overcrowded AP English class of 50 kids. In addition, he was moved to an economics class he needs to graduate but had to struggle to catch up because he entered four weeks late.

The student also said he was given two “home” periods he didn’t request this semester and a schedule that had him done with school by 11:20 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.

In an interesting twist, on Oct. 2, recently resigned LA Unified School District superintendent John Deasy provided a scathing court declaration in support of the restraining order request. He called the assignment of kids to these “service” or home periods “indefensible” and a violation of students’ fundamental right to education.

“These ‘classes’ are not designed to deliver real instruction … but rather are no more than fillers designed to plug gaps where no genuine courses are readily available,” Deasy said. He said he thought the restraining order should be placed on every school in the LA district that assigns kids to these periods.

This article was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity.

A Life-and-Death Struggle for Asylum in America

At dusk in Los Angeles, Maria, 15, waits for word on her plea for asylum from extortion and gang threats in El Salvador.
At dusk in Los Angeles, Maria, 15, waits for word on her plea for asylum from extortion and gang threats in El Salvador.

From The Center for Public Integrity:

Editors' note: This story was reported in collaboration with The California Report, a production of KQED Public Radio.

Listen to this story on KQED.

See related slideshow "A Statistical Reality Check on Kids Crossing the Border."

LOS ANGELES — While other kids enjoyed summer break, a teenager with more on her mind slipped into her only dressy jacket and traveled south to Anaheim, to a nondescript building housing the local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Lithe and athletic, the girl knew she’d be less than a mile from Disneyland, “the happiest place on Earth.” But for Maria, a pseudonym, fun was a luxury she couldn’t afford that day in June.

At the tender age of 15, she faced an interview to plead, essentially, for her life — to ask for refuge from violence so chilling her family thought it better to smuggle her to the United States in the spring of 2013.

“Two years ago a friend of mine died in a very cold-blooded way. She died cut to pieces. My best friend,” Maria said in Spanish, beginning to recount what she told a U.S. asylum officer.

CenterForPublicIntegrityAs she recalled the story again, Maria’s soft voice trembled, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

She said police in El Salvador asked her to identify body parts pulled from a bag dumped in a river. She recognized a birthmark on her friend’s leg. She said she also witnessed a boy shot and dragged off, after a soccer game — a boy later found hanged. And before she fled, Maria said, she’d been asking her father, a U.S. truck driver, for more and more money so she could pay murderous MS-13 gangsters $60 a month to leave her alone.

“I was traumatized,” Maria sobbed. “I still am from seeing that body split apart. That dismembered head. Those arms … As time went by, I didn’t want to go out, or eat, or do anything. The only thing I wanted to do was to die. I told myself that the same thing could happen to me.”

After the 90-minute interview, the asylum officer told Maria she might know the outcome of her request in two weeks. More than three months later, after starting 11th grade this fall at an L.A. public high school, she was still waiting for an answer.

A test for U.S. asylum

For her asylum hearing in late June, Maria wore a dark jacket and pants because she wanted to convey respect.
For her asylum hearing in late June, Maria wore a dark jacket and pants because she wanted to convey respect.

In coming months, the American asylum system’s treatment of young people like Maria will be tested as never before — on U.S. soil and in Central America as well.

The challenge to the system’s integrity and humanitarian obligations follows an 88 percent increase in “unaccompanied minors” seized at the border this year. More than 66,000 kids traveling without parents were apprehended by the Border Patrol between October 2013 and the end of August.

News footage showed minors from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala simply walking up to agents to be taken in. Now a record number are expected to apply for asylum based on gang persecution, a basis for refugee status that’s becoming more common — and is a highly debated area of law.

The White House on Sept. 30 also approved a plan to allow a limited number of minors to apply for refugee status — the equivalent of asylum — from inside those three Central American countries if their parents are in the U.S. with legal status, including, potentially, parents with temporary legal status.

Note: Mexican and Canadian minors often agree to be deported while still in detention. Children from other countries must appear before an immigration judge at hearings that can sometimes be delayed for months; asylum is one of several options a minor might pursue, all of which can take years to settle.
Note: Mexican and Canadian minors often agree to be deported while still in detention. Children from other countries must appear before an immigration judge at hearings that can sometimes be delayed for months; asylum is one of several options a minor might pursue, all of which can take years to settle.

The plan echoes in-country refugee screenings in the past inside Haiti and Vietnam. But just like Maria, who crossed the border illegally in 2013, children in home countries will face eligibility requirements for asylum refugee status that go beyond experiencing fear.

The asylum application system for minors on U.S. territory has been designed, over time, to be deliberative and compassionate, yet it is by no means a sure thing for kids like Maria.

In the court of U.S. public opinion, some have already reacted with unvarnished hostility to the flood of teens and preteens and their claims to be seeking a haven from relentless violence. “They’re going to be sucking us dry,” Cape Cod, Mass., resident Mary Woodruff said, as Boston’s WBUR radio taped public debate over a proposal to shelter detained kids at a National Guard base in the popular vacation region.

Yet the public writ large seems to be conflicted. Fifty-two percent of respondents in an Associated Press-GfK opinion poll in late July said children claiming to be fleeing gang violence shouldn’t be treated as refugees in need of asylum. Yet a survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute the same month found 69 percent support for allowing minors to stay if U.S. authorities decided it was unsafe for them to be deported.

Unaccompanied minors have an indisputable right to request an immigration hearing and seek asylum, but immigration skeptics want these kids to be treated more like adults who are subjected to rapid “credible fear” tests that can lead to their “expedited deportation.” Refugee rights advocates, meanwhile, are trying to make sure these kids — who have no right to appointed counsel — have help from attorneys.

As federal officials rush to prioritize resolution of minors’ applications, members of Congress are aggressively attacking the current asylum system as well as children’s claims they actually face mortal threats. Meanwhile, pro bono lawyers are struggling to document horrors some teens have faced — while line-level asylum officers face decisions about matters children tell them could mean life or death.

Truth about terror not enough

To win asylum, or refugee status, even children have to go beyond simply proving that they’re being truthful about terrifying experiences.

“While age should be taken into account in making the persecution determination,” says an asylum officers’ training guide, “not all harm to a child, including physical mistreatment and detention, constitutes persecution.”

The Department of Homeland Security declined a request to speak with an active asylum officer. But Christopher Manny, a former asylum officer in Chicago and Miami, explained the constraints of the law.

“As traumatic as it is seeing your friend or family member executed by a gang for refusing recruitment or refusing an extortion demand,” Manny said, “generally speaking that would not be considered grounds for a refugee definition.”

Officers must also be convinced, Manny said, that children’s suffering had a “nexus,” or was rooted in a persecutor’s intent to harm them because of one or more of five reasons: religious or political persuasion, race, nationality or because they belong to an identifiable “social group” that’s persecuted and unprotected.

Since minors, like adults, have no right to the appointment of counsel in deportation or asylum proceedings, they largely depend on nonprofit and pro bono attorneys who often need crash courses from colleagues because they’ve never studied asylum law.

State bar associations have put out calls for members to volunteer — beginning with initial appearances the kids make before immigration judges. Minors are also showing up for help at advocacy groups like Los Angeles’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, Chicago’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Washington, D.C.’s Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, among others.

Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit in the nation’s capital, is scrambling to match Central American minors with counsel from a pool of 8,000 potential pro bono lawyers nationwide that the group has developed at law firms, corporations and law schools.

In September, as part of the budget process, Congress rejected a White House request for $64 million to hire more immigration judges to clear backlogs that delay cases for years and to provide other legal support, including $15 million in direct representation for kids.

The Justice Department, though, is pressing ahead with $1.8 million in grants to groups to bolster legal representation for kids under 16. The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs shelters for the minors, announced in late September that it’s providing $9 million in grants for two years to fund nonprofit legal aid groups that provide counsel.

It’s unclear exactly how many kids will get counsel, but it can clearly make a difference. A recent analysis of a decade’s worth of immigration court records showed that 43 percent of about 100,000 juveniles in the courts had counsel. About half of those kids were ultimately allowed to stay for various reasons, asylum among them. Only one in 10 without counsel was successful, according to researchers at Syracuse University.

“An attorney is so, so central,” said Lisa Frydman, managing director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“How does a child begin to understand what kinds of evidence they have to put together,” Frydman said, “or begin to understand what the definition of a refugee even means?”

Comprehending the intricacies of the law is just one challenge; lawyers also face the daunting task of figuring out how to gather statements and relevant evidence from foreign countries where people are often terrified to hand over records.

Under current federal law — laws some in Congress now want changed — minors who arrive on their own must be released from Border Patrol custody and placed in shelters within 72 hours. They receive basic child-friendly legal briefings. And if they are from “non-contiguous” countries, like those in Central America, they must be given a date to appear before an immigration judge before they can be deported.

If a child decides to seek asylum, immigration judges transfer their cases for judgment to the U.S. Asylum Office system, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

If asylum officers don’t subsequently find children eligible for asylum, their cases return to immigration courts, where they can again argue for asylum in a hearing that can be more adversarial, with a government attorney cross-examining them.

Sorting it out

As images of minors crossing the border began to dominate news programs and talk shows, the issue quickly morphed into a political football laced with confusing accusations and misleading statistics.

Between October 2013 and the end of June, more than 1,500 asylum requests were filed by unaccompanied minors. They added up to only 4 percent of all asylum applications nationally during that time. But minors’ requests did more than double in less than a year. By the end of June, about 2,180 cases — including Maria’s, in Anaheim — were pending resolution nationwide, according to data provided by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

 

During the first nine months of the 2014 fiscal year, 65 percent of kids interviewed by asylum officers were granted refuge — a rate criticized as excessive in a widely covered press release issued in July by House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who opposes federal expenditures on counsel for unaccompanied minors. He declined to comment further.

Goodlatte’s July release alleged that too many kids were being rushed to undeserving asylum status on the basis of “proven or possible fraud,” citing an internal report from the Department of Homeland Security.

What the release didn’t say was that the overall numbers of kids approved during that time frame was modest: just 108 minors.

About 60 other cases were sent to immigration judges for what amounts to an appeal. Thirty-eight additional cases were closed for reasons that included failure to appear. Only two of the 108 minors approved were new arrivals who came in during the nine-month time frame; the rest were kids who had arrived earlier.

U.S. government reports on brutal gangs

In that recent nine-month period, some 90 percent of the kids interviewed by asylum officers were represented by counsel. On average, up to now, most minors have taken more than 300 days to file formal application forms. Because kids are kids, and are frightened, lawyers say, it can take weeks, even months, to fully understand what happened to them.

Asylum officers attempt to resolve cases within a few months of receiving an application. Kids’ lawyers say the process is accelerating now that the Department of Homeland Security, the umbrella agency handling border and immigration matters, has made minors’ cases a priority.

To help frame minors’ stories, lawyers say they routinely submit, with applications, U.S. government reports acknowledging the pervasive, brutal control organized-crime rings now exert in Central America.

In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the notorious MS-13 gang — which Maria said preyed on her — as a “transnational crime organization” involved in global narcotics smuggling and other crimes. A U.S. State Department report also warned in 2006 that kids as young as 8 were targets for gang recruitment, extortion and retaliation in some countries.

Some of Maria’s favorite movies are about struggles against organized crime and Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Some of Maria’s favorite movies are about struggles against organized crime and Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have some of the highest per capita murder rates in the world.

Congressional Research Service paper issued in July took note of a United Nations survey of about 400 Central American minors in U.S. custody in the fall of 2013. About half said they had experienced “serious harm or threats by organized criminal groups or state actors,” references to gangs and to corrupt police.

But these claims are controversial. San Diego area GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, downplayed the role of gang violence in creating the recent surge among children.

“What you’re seeing is a flood of illegals coming here prepped to say whatever they need to say to get to stay here because the president of the United States has told them, in no uncertain terms: If they get here, he won’t enforce the law,” Issa said at a June congressional hearing. Reports of “cheat sheets” composed by smugglers hired by parents fueled the idea that kids were making stories up.

Maria said it was her idea in 2013 to flee El Salvador, not her father’s, and she implored him to help her.

“The majority of my friends that have stayed in El Salvador are terrified. Some tolerate beatings; others, threats. Others are in the gangs now. Waiting to see when it’s their day to die,” Maria said, her voice shaking.

With family in Los Angeles she hasn’t met before, Maria tries to relax and enjoy feeling safer.
With family in Los Angeles she hasn’t met before, Maria tries to relax and enjoy feeling safer.

“It’s a country where no one can even play safely, nor think. Nothing,” she said. “The police are dominated by the gangs. You go to complain about a gangster and a little while later, they know about it.”

Lawyers have argued with mixed success that girls who face rape and servitude to notorious criminal bands in Central America constitute a persecuted social group.

They’ve also argued that kids who resist gang recruitment and face brutal retaliation are a social group, along with kids who witness crimes where police are either incapable or too corrupt to protect them from retaliation.

Lawyers for Maria at the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project submitted a legal memo arguing that the teenager is a witness to crime who requires protection because she is vulnerable to retaliation.

Patricia Ortiz, Esperanza’s managing attorney, is confident that the kids whose cases she’s taken are truthful.

“Just because all of them are telling similar stories does not mean that they are lying,” she said. “It just means that they’re living in a country where they are not safe, and they’re in a country where they can’t walk out into the street without being afraid of being murdered or hurt or facing some kind of harm.”

Los Angeles attorney Patricia Ortiz, 30, of the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, shoulders the lead on dozens of U.S. asylum requests from minors fleeing organized crime violence in Central America.
Los Angeles attorney Patricia Ortiz, 30, of the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, shoulders the lead on dozens of U.S. asylum requests from minors fleeing organized crime violence in Central America.

Former asylum officer Manny said officers are trained to spot stories that raise suspicions. They receive bulletins if details in multiple applicants’ stories seem oddly similar.

“What to look for,” he said of children, “is basically the consistency of their testimony, whether they seem like they believe it or whether they seem to be speaking vicariously through someone else.”

Gang refusal a reason for asylum?

The outcome of a case may also depend on how higher-level federal courts have ruled on asylum cases.

In 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, upheld an immigration board’s denial of an asylum claim based on arguments that young Honduran males who had refused to join a gang — and reported harassment to police — were a distinct persecuted group.

Opposition to gangs and resisting recruitment is too much of an “amorphous characteristic,” the court said, for determining group membership.

But in 2013, the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, reversed an asylum denial for a young girl based on arguments she lacked status within an obviously persecuted social group.

The case involved a 12-year-old who had testified in open court in El Salvador that she saw gang members assault her father and heard shots that killed him. She also said she was threatened for testifying and fled to the United States.

Her case had previously reached the Board of Immigration Appeals, the BIA, the highest review body within the immigration system. The BIA rejected the argument the girl, as a witness to crime, met the threshold of “social visibility” needed for a social group argument.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, finding that witnesses to crimes were a distinct social group, even if they were not visible to “the naked eye.”

In Chicago this summer, lawyers for a 15-year-old from Guatemala framed his asylum bid by describing him as a member of two social groups: minors who resist gang recruitment and kids who are witnesses to crime.

Francisco, as he asked to be called, came north more than a year ago and was interviewed by an asylum officer in August. His voice still sounds like a young boy’s.

In detail, Francisco recounted what he told an asylum officer. Gangsters gave him and a friend messages warning them to join up, or die. Francisco’s friend mocked the gangsters, who were also children, when he tossed a written message he’d been given to the ground. His friend was shot in an ambush on the street that sent Francisco running for his life. “I saw a bullet hit near me,” he said.

Francisco said he spoke to a police detective at his friend’s wake, and he and his mother tried to shield themselves from reprisal by moving. But Francisco said hoods younger than he found them, and his father in Chicago, fearing his son would be killed, arranged to have him smuggled up to the United States.

The asylum officer asked Francisco details about various parts of his story, and showed particular interest in his interactions with the detective and concerns about retaliation, the boy’s lawyers said.

The social group “rubric” is one of “the most common types of asylum claims nowadays — and it’s also one of the most complex,” said Ashley Huebner, managing attorney of the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Immigrant Children’s Protection Project, which represents Francisco.

Huebner said she can’t imagine minors without lawyers trying to sort out what parts of their story are more relevant than others. Former asylum officer Manny agreed. “An attorney’s brief can shed light on a lot of things that may not be expressed clearly by the child.”

Huebner said she doesn’t expect an answer on Francisco’s request for months.

Lawyers’ quests to find documents

Gladis Molina, a nonprofit attorney in Phoenix, Arizona, said she feels an awesome responsibility taking on kids’ cases. But she says she’s also had to turn away kids whose stories simply don’t meet the threshold for asylum or some other type of relief from deportation.

A first-generation Salvadoran-American, Molina, 34, manages the children’s program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program. Her father left El Salvador during its bloody civil war in the 1980s and received amnesty in 1986, during the Reagan administration.

She warns her clients that they must expect “for their story to be turned upside, downside, inward and outward because you get asked so many details.”

Some kids’ stories are so horrible, Molina said, she weeps as she listens. She’s also had agonized clients call her in the middle of night and say, “Lawyer, I don’t feel like living anymore. Life is just not worth living. I’m not happy. I feel lonely.”

Molina recently prepared a complex case on behalf of a Salvadoran girl, who was 17 when she filed her application. She recently turned 18. In mid-September she underwent an interview with an asylum officer for 2½ hours.

The girl claims she was raped by a gangster in what may have been an initiation rite. The girl’s mother, who lived in Fresno, California, is now deceased. The young woman came north to join relatives, was detained and is now terrified to return to El Salvador because the alleged rape was reported to child-welfare services. The rapist is in jail, but like many behind bars in El Salvador, the girl says, he has the ability to order a hit on her.

Up until the girl’s interview, Molina was trying to get child-welfare records from El Salvador to bolster her argument that the girl qualifies as a member of a social group — women exploited by gangs — who would face deadly retaliation if deported.

“I want those records,” Molina said.

Molina and another attorney called and emailed a child-welfare administrator and were told the girl would need to give someone in El Salvador power of attorney to release the records. Molina tried her own family connections as well to see if she could get someone on the ground to get the documents.

“I remembered that a cousin of mine knew a doctor whose wife worked for the government agency that oversees real estate taxation,” Molina said. “So I sent her an email and said, ‘I’m an American attorney. You don’t know me, but my cousin knows your husband. Can you please help me get these documents?’ ”

If her client is rejected by the asylum officer and has to go on to an immigration court hearing, Molina said, she intends to redouble efforts to get the records.

Asylum officers will not reject a child’s claim solely because adults failed to generate documentation of abuses. But officers can ask to see certain documents, and lawyers must provide a reason, in writing, why records could not be obtained.

If you can obtain them, Molina said, records can show that a child’s terrible story is “in fact what happened and not something that she’s just conveniently recounting in America to avoid deportation.”

“An unbelievable story”

Damion Robinson, 31, a Los Angeles business attorney, took on an asylum case, pro bono, for a Guatemalan girl. His firm at the time invested thousands of dollars to retrieve police and court records from Guatemala proving her kidnapping and repeated rape by an older gang member.
Damion Robinson, 31, a Los Angeles business attorney, took on an asylum case, pro bono, for a Guatemalan girl. His firm at the time invested thousands of dollars to retrieve police and court records from Guatemala proving her kidnapping and repeated rape by an older gang member.

In 2009, Damion Robinson was just two years out of the University of California at Los Angeles’ law school and a young L.A. business attorney when his firm took on an asylum case, pro bono, that required extraordinary effort — and money — to pursue, and ultimately win in November 2010. Robinson led the effort, and among the key pieces of evidence he chased down was a trove of records related to a Guatemalan girl’s story of sustained abuse at the hands of a local crime boss.

Robinson got involved when Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, approached the firm he worked for at the time, Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. The firm enthusiastically embraced the case as a pro bono service, Robinson said.

Today, at 31, Robinson handles clients that run the gamut from start-up companies to Fortune 500 firms at Van Vleck Turner & Zaller, also in L.A. He’s eager to represent another minor.

“It was hard to say no, frankly,” the Seattle native said when he began to gather facts about the Guatemalan for what turned out to be a nearly 18-month case.

A Spanish-speaking female assistant helped Robinson slowly unravel the history of the girl, who was living with a relative in L.A. after release from a shelter. At times, Robinson would have to leave the room to let the girl first disclose privately to the woman assistant details of being repeatedly raped, held captive, giving birth at 14, held captive again and beaten and threatened with weapons.

“Her story was unbelievable in a way,” Robinson said. “It was just something I couldn’t even imagine happening … There was a long, long history of sexual assault and violence, physical violence, against her that was just horrifying.”

The girl said she was first kidnapped by an older man when she was 12 years old. She said the man ran a gang with impunity in a small city. Robinson was amazed to learn that the girl’s mother had persistently filed criminal and civil complaints and obtained restraining orders that local justice officials did not enforce.

The girl’s mother finally sent her daughter out of Guatemala with a smuggler to remove her from the clutches of the man.

A tale that initially felt like it might be exaggerated became vividly real after Robinson and others labored four months to track down copies of the civil and criminal complaints and restraining orders.

“In the U.S., you would just call the clerk and have them send over the court records,” Robinson said, spreading on a table copies of documents in Spanish emblazoned with official stamps.

It was a struggle, he said, with some hired hands demanding exorbitant rates — and then failing to come through. His firm eventually spent at least $9,000 locating and hiring various law groups and services in Guatemala that work to retrieve documents from archives and agencies.

His teen client, he said, “wouldn’t have been able to pay to have that happen. And I think it was pretty instrumental to our case to have those records and have that proof, rather just being her word about what happened.”

And Robinson ultimately went even further.

At the suggestion of Kids In Need of Defense, he contacted Patrick Atkinson, an American who works with exploited minors in Guatemala. Eventually Atkinson, who runs a children’s welfare group called God’s Child, flew up on his own dime for the girl’s hearing in 2010.

Robinson’s client turned 18 after filing for asylum. At that time, the assigned asylum officer said the law didn’t grandfather her into the asylum office as a minor — it would now — so her case was sent back to a judge.

She ended up having a trial-like hearing, testifying for more than two hours with a government attorney opposing her claim for asylum. At one point, Robinson said, the government lawyer argued that the restraining orders showed law enforcement was capable of protecting the girl back in Guatemala.

Atkinson, the expert witness, said he testified at the hearing because he was convinced the gangster would have seized the girl immediately had she been deported back and killed her with impunity.

“The mother did a number of reports about rape, about assault, about domestic violence, and the police reports are there,” Atkinson said. But it’s common, he said, for authorities to be frightened into doing nothing.

“There’s different ways of blackmailing the judges and the police,” he said. “Fear is by far the most powerful.”

That’s the kind of scenario that frightens the Salvadoran girl Maria and her father, who asked to be called Miguel.

Miguel has lived and worked legally in the United States since 2001. That’s when natural disasters that devastated Central America led the U.S. government to grant temporary protected status, still in effect today, to undocumented immigrants from the region: about 212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans.

Maria pleaded with her father to get her out of El Salvador. Gangsters had begun to demand that Maria hand over money sent by her father.
Maria pleaded with her father to get her out of El Salvador. Gangsters had begun to demand that Maria hand over money sent by her father.

Miguel speaks fluent English now and has a good job driving long-distance trucks. His temporary legal status provides stability. But it’s officially temporary. And it didn’t allow him to rescue Maria from El Salvador by sponsoring her to come here legally.

Miguel felt Maria was at risk for being killed in El Salvador, and he feared the local thugs extorting her would demand ever-increasing payments until he simply couldn’t afford it.

So he scraped together $7,500 with help from family and paid it to a smuggler to get Maria out. He didn’t intend for her to get caught. But he was overjoyed when a Border Patrol agent called and said she was in custody after a harrowing raft ride over the river in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Maria spent months in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-run shelter in Houston, Texas, after her detention. Then she was transferred to a foster family in Los Angeles while federal officials vetted Miguel.

Now father and daughter live together in a South Central Los Angeles bungalow, where they’re getting to know each other. He always had a long-distance relationship with her but left when she was an infant. Maria’s mom is in El Salvador. Miguel has a new wife and a young son in Los Angeles.

To strengthen Maria’s asylum claim, attorneys were able to persuade teachers and a pastor in El Salvador to provide written statements about her character and history. Lawyers also submitted a news article about her friend’s killing, and United Nations and U.S. government reports about dangers in El Salvador.

“Gang intimidation and violence against witnesses contributed to a climate of impunity from criminal prosecution,” said the State Department’s 2013 El Salvador Human Rights Report.

Lawyers were also hoping to submit Maria’s murdered friend’s death certificate. But when Miguel persuaded a relative in El Salvador to approach the dead girl’s father to obtain the confidential report, the father declined.

“He said, ‘No, I can’t help you guys because I have more kids in my house, and I don’t want them to get killed like my daughter,’ ” Miguel said.

Miguel said he doesn’t fault the father for refusing to help.

Dissolving into tears, Miguel said, “I can’t even imagine how he is suffering now or the kind of life he is living because he’s afraid for his other kids and knowing he cannot search for justice for his daughter.”

The Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has turned away other Central American minors who’ve asked if for help in obtaining asylum. The attorneys won’t take on cases they don’t believe have merit, managing lawyer Patricia Ortiz said. But their work is exploding, with more than 60 cases involving minors seeking asylum.

The responsibility, Ortiz, 30, said, “is a little bit terrifying.”

This article was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity.

A Statistical Reality Check on Kids Crossing the Border

From The Center for Public Integrity:

See related story "A Life-and-Death Struggle for Asylum in America."

A recent surge in Central American kids crossing the border has sparked politically-tinged discord over how to respond to children’s pleas to remain in the United States. The debate has been marked by partisan disagreements over what’s really causing young people to leave their countries and whether the U.S. asylum system is properly handling their requests for refuge.

These are a few of the most accurate and illuminating numbers that emerged from the Center’s recent reporting on child asylum applications and the legal process.

Children’s Rights Groups Against Giving School Cops Military Hardware

MRAP at San Diego Unified School District
The 2013 Caiman MRAP acquired by the San Diego Unified School District Police Department, rendered by the district as it would appear after its original tan color is painted over.

From The Center for Public Integrity:

More than 20 national education and civil rights advocates sent a letter Monday to Department of Defense officials, urging them to stop giving U.S. school police departments anti-mine vehicles, military-grade firearms like M16s and even grenade launchers.

News reports and lists of recipients of surplus hardware reveal that assault-style rifles, armored vehicles and other military supplies have been handed over to school districts large and small, from California, Texas, Nevada and Utah to Florida, Georgia, Kansas and Michigan.

In California, the San Diego Unified School District acquired an 18-ton Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, called an MRAP, through the DOD’s 1033 program to transfer surplus supplies to civilian law enforcement. In June, the Los Angeles Unified School District also received an MRAP, which was designed to protect U.S. troops under attack in Iraq.

Over time, the LA school police also have received 61 M-16 rifles and three grenade launchers that have never been used.

CenterForPublicIntegrity“Adding the presence of military-grade weapons to school climates that have become increasingly hostile due to their over-reliance on police to handle routine student discipline can only exacerbate existing tensions,” said the protest letter, signed by the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund and public-interest law groups Texas Appleseed of Austin, Texas, and Public Counsel, which is based in Los Angeles.

Controversy over so-called militarization of school police comes just as the LA district is enacting policies that limit ticketing of students for minor infractions and curb the controversial use of officers in school discipline, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

Both Texas Appleseed and Public Counsel have been active in pushing for states and districts to reform policies regarding how school police are deployed on campuses.

Other signatories to the letter objecting to military hardware for school police include the Children’s Law Center, the Education Law Center, the National Center for Youth Law, the Advancement Project — also active in urging school police reforms — and the LA-based Labor-Community Strategy Center.

Scrutiny of transfers of military supplies from the DOD’s Defense Logistics Agency erupted following revelations that many city police departments have been accumulating military hardware designed primarily for war.

Among the cities that obtained military equipment for free, or just for delivery costs, was Ferguson, Mo., where local police rolled out armored vehicles and officers in combat-like gear to respond to protests in August over an officer’s fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

President Barack Obama in August ordered a review of the 1033 program. The Defense Logistics Agency did not respond immediately to a request for a comment on the letter regarding school police. But on Sept. 9, a Defense Department official addressed the 1033 program’s provision of hardware to law enforcement in general during a hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Each state has a 1033 program state coordinator who is appointed by the state’s governor and who approves law enforcement agencies that apply to participate in the program. The state coordinator also screens and approves requests those agencies make for items listed in catalogues, explained Alan Estevez, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology.

“It is worth noting that we are not ‘pushing’ equipment on any police force,” Estevez said. He said the Defense Logistics Agency conducts a basic review of requests based on size of a department. For example, he said, a law enforcement department of 10 officers would not receive 20 M16 rifles.

The letter objecting to the program noted that 10 Texas school districts, the most reported in one state so far, have been receiving DOD hardware.

“Altogether, these 10 districts have received 64 M-16 rifles, 18 M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols, extended magazines and 4,500 rounds of ammunition,” the letter said. “Some of these Texas districts received armored plating, tactical vests and military vehicles.”

Texas’ Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District, which has 33,500 students, has outfitted its own SWAT team with these supplies, the letter said.

Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, said militarization of police runs contrary to efforts to prevent excessive use of force against students.

“Military-grade weapons have no place on our public school campuses,” Fowler said. “We have already seen the way that much more common weapons — like Tasers and pepper spray — can be misused in school settings, and know that excessive use of force in schools is often targeted at young people of color and students with disabilities.”

In Aledo, Texas, the town’s school police — in a district of 5,000 students — have decided to return five U.S. military rifles officers obtained from the 1033 program, according to a recent report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The department has seven full-time officers and 11 reserve officers.

In Los Angeles, Manuel Criollo, an organizer with the Labor-Community Strategy Center, called on the LA school district to return the military hardware. “The intersection of criminalization and militarization in our schools should be rejected,” said Criollo, who helped draft the LA school police policies.

LA school police chief Steve Zimmerman said the MRAP was obtained as a way to transport schoolchildren in the event of a large-scale attack, according to the Los Angeles Daily News.

The chief is now evaluating whether the vehicle and grenade launchers are necessary, the newspaper said. The school police have an agreement with city police and county sheriff’s deputies to provide support in the event of civil unrest, according to Zimmerman, and the grenade launchers were to be outfitted to fire rubber bullets.

This article was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity.

L.A. Schools Program Aims to Keep Kids out of Courts

From The Center for Public Integrity:

School desks
School desks placed in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters by parents, district graduates and activists in April, 2014 represent the 375 students who drop out of the district every week during the school year. A press release by Los Angeles based community groups to announce the new program says just one arrest can double a student's chances of dropping out.

The nation’s second-largest school district — Los Angeles Unified — is unveiled a sweeping new agreement to curb police involvement in minor school discipline and campus problems.

The agreement, more than two years in the making, is at the cutting edge of a national movement to stop sending students into courts for minor infractions at school.

In 2012, the Center for Public integrity began publishing a series of reports documenting how L.A. Unified’s police — the nation’s largest school police department — were giving out more than 10,000 court citations a year to kids mostly for minor infractions.

Nearly half the kids ticketed, often for tardiness or fights, were 14 or younger; almost all were black or Latino and from lower-income areas, the Center found.

A 12-year-old boy was handcuffed and arrested in reaction to a first-ever fight with a friend during a basketball game — his parents were not called first — and two first graders were issued citations for disturbing the peace after a scuffle, the Center found.

CenterForPublicIntegrityThe new protocol “is a significant step forward to ensuring that student behavior is not inappropriately criminalized but rather met with interventions that will address the root causes of a student’s behavior,” said Ruth Cusick, Los Angeles-based education rights attorney with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law group.
“Taking school fights out of the courtroom and instead teaching students about conflict resolution will keep more students in school on a path to success,” Cusick she continued.

About 20 percent of all student arrests are related to fights. The new protocol sets out requirements for how students must instead be referred to counseling at school or at community sites known as YouthSource Centers.

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Learn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource HubLearn more about community-based alternatives at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub.

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Students accused of other misbehavior that has resulted in police issuing them court citations must now be referred back to school for counseling on a campus or at a YouthSource Center. These infractions can include minor use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana possession or minor damage or theft of school property.

Public Counsel worked on the policy along with juvenile court judges, school administrators, police officials and the Community Rights Campaign, an L.A.-based group that has represented students in court.

The Community Rights Campaign was instrumental in proving that police were concentrating their efforts to nab tardy students in lower-income areas, even handcuffing some kids if they arrived minutes late.

Manuel Criollo, director of organizing for the Community Rights Campaign, said school playgrounds had become “minefields” of criminalization and that the protocol will help reverse the trend.

Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge Donna Groman also hailed the new protocol in a press statement. Juvenile court, she said, “should be the last resort for youth who commit minor school-based offenses.” She said that she hopes that L.A. Unified’s policy “is shared both nationally and statewide as a model response.”

L.A. Unified Police Chief Steve Zipperman said, according to a press release, that the protocol “contains clear guidelines regarding the roles and responsibilities of …campus police officers and establishes criteria to assist officers in properly distinguishing school discipline responses to student conduct from criminal responses.”

Last year, Zipperman announced that officers would no longer issue court citations to students 12 or younger unless there were extraordinary reasons for such an action.

In their press release announcing the new protocol, community groups said: “National reports show that police contact with young people is a strong predictor of whether a student will fail to finish school, will have to repeat a year, or will end up in the juvenile justice system or criminal justice system,” community groups that negotiated the police protocols said in a press release.

“In fact,” the groups said, “just one arrest doubles a child’s chance of dropping out of school.”

This story courtesy of The Center for Public Integrity.

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Federal Complaint Challenges Texas Town’s New Ban on Housing any Border Kids

U.S. Border Notice

League City's ordinance cites concerns of diseases, Islamic terrorism

From the Center for Public Integrity: 

Civil rights groups filed a federal complaint Tuesday challenging a Texas city’s ban on providing housing to “refugees” or foreigners such as the Central American children who’ve been turning themselves in at the border.

The complaint against an ordinance adopted July 8 by League City, a Houston suburb, was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and Appleseed, a Texas public-interest law group. Appleseed has researched dangers faced by Mexican and Central American migrant children.

The complaint argues that the ordinance — one of a number being contemplated in Texas — is discriminatory and violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “There is particularly ugly language about Muslims in this League City ordinance also,” said Maddie Sloan, an Appleseed attorney.

CenterForPublicIntegrityThe number of children from Central America showing up along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged this year.  Since last October, more than 52,000 minors, many of them without parents, have been detained, double the total number of such kids detained during all of last year. For some kids, a Department of Homeland Security assessment found, violence in their countries is so great that the risk of traveling alone “is preferable to remaining at home.”

Marisa Bono, a MALDEF attorney, said the complaint against League City “is a warning to other municipalities that are considering similar resolutions. Cities can’t accept federal funds, and then use them to discriminate.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and halt ordinances aimed at “vulnerable children.”

The League City ordinance, approved in a 6-2 vote, lists a number of allegations that elected officials say motivated them to outlaw the provision of housing for children.

Language in the housing ban makes the claim that illegal immigrants carry diseases “endemic” to their countries of origin — an allegation that international health experts say is factually unfounded, as the Texas Observer reported.

The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 93 percent of children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles, compared to 92 percent of American kids.

Federal officials have not approached League City about placing children there at federal cost, as they have in other communities with suitable shelters.

But supporters of the ordinance said they wanted to take a stand, and protect taxpayers from having to shoulder costs for schooling or other services for children. The ordinance also asserts a need for a ban because “radical Islamist terror groups continue to exploit the situation to infiltrate the United States” — an allegation that has also not been proved or linked to the influx of Central Americans.

“Be it resolved,” the ordinance says, that all agencies in League City are “instructed to refuse requests or directives by federal agencies to permit or establish any facility for the purposes of processing, housing, or detaining any illegal aliens, designated as ‘refugees,’ or otherwise.”

Heidi Theiss, the council member who wrote the ordinance, talked to KPRC television in Texas about why she proposed the housing ban. “We are a very safe city, here in League City,” she said, “and it’s that way because we’re proactive.”

Some minors taken into custody at the border say they fear gang violence and reprisals and other dangers in Central America, an impoverished region struggling with organized crime and drug cartels, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

Debate is on over whether to alter existing federal legislation so that Border Patrol agents can quickly deport more of the minors rather than put them in shelters where social workers can assess them and they can get immigration court dates.

Advocates for children argue that as children, the minors need a safe place to reveal their circumstances and talk about whether they might be eligible to seek asylum or another type of legal status, or agree to be returned to their home countries in an orderly fashion.

 


The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.

Trains, Amputations and the Roots of Why Kids Are On the Run

trains_runaways_guatemalaFrom the Center for Public Integrity: 

The teen whose arms had been severed was still in shock, but he managed to muster a smile and embrace visitors with his bandaged stumps. Evilio Gonzalez had fallen off and then under a train he was riding on — a vain attempt to leave Honduras, cross through Mexico and get into the United States.

I met Evilio 10 years ago, while I was a reporter based in Latin America for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cox Newspapers chain. Catholic nuns at the eight-bed Rosa de Tepeyac Hospital in Mexico City were caring for the youth’s wounds and shattered spiritual health. Among others in the clinic was Edgar Suniga, 14, whose left leg had been severed.

“Compared to what Jesus Christ suffered, this is nothing,” Evilio told me, demonstrating how the nuns were helping him learn to draw with his toes.

That same year, in Guatemala City, I also met Drik Borgan Godoy de Leon, a teen who spoke of his struggle to extricate himself from a gang. The 18-year-old was shot dead, just two months after our interview. I also met in Sandra Zayas, a beleaguered special prosecutor of crimes against women and children. One of her cases involved the murder of two Guatemalan sisters, 11 and 14, who were chopped to pieces because the elder sister spurned a gangster’s advances.

CenterForPublicIntegritySince I reported those stories, the grip that organized crime has on Central American countries has tightened further. Justice systems remain notoriously incapable of handing the crisis.The region has a long history of stark inequality, dictatorships and brutal civil wars that led to massacres of many poor inhabitants, including mass killings of Guatamala's Maya native people in the 1980s. The United States invested billions in military spending during that time to support select regimes in the area and is now financing drug war efforts there.

Many of the minors who are now turning themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border speak of joining parents in “El Norte,” or talk of how they dream of finding a job. But more and more are now speaking of the horror at seeing friends and relatives killed, raped, extorted and the pressure they receive to serve gangs — or else.

Here is some illuminating information about deteriorating conditions in Central America, long in the making, and the U.S. debate over how to deal with the influx of minors showing up at the border.

A Syracuse University project known as TRAC released a report this week analyzing more than 100,000 juvenile cases filed in the nation’s immigration courts over the last 10 years. Only 43 percent of kids in these cases were or are currently represented by lawyers who help plead for asylum or another form of legal status, according to TRAC, the acronym for the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Immigration courts are clogged with backlogs, but juvenile cases only represent about 11 percent of all cases currently pending.

Kids, like adults, do not have the right to the appointment of attorney in immigration proceedings.

But TRAC found that having a lawyer increased the odds that kids would win their claims against deportation: In cases that have been resolved, nearly half the children who had attorneys — 47 percent — were allowed to remain in the United States. When children did not have legal representation, courts allowed only one in 10 to remain here.

A group of civil rights advocates filed suit this month arguing that it is an unconstitutional violation of due process not to provide minors with legal representation in immigration hearings, as the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Within 72 hours of their detention, such children are supposed to be transferred to shelters supervised by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There they are supposed to have an opportunity to speak to social workers and receive a talk about their legal rights and options. Those options include asking for an immigration hearing before a judge rather than being deported immediately. Deportations of non-Mexican or Canadian children can take many days to coordinate in conjunction with their consular officials.

Mexican or Canadian children, by contrast, can be handed over to child-welfare officials in their countries within hours if they volunteer to be returned during screenings that Border Patrol agents are obliged to perform of these children. Mexican and Canadian minors can also ask to be transferred to a shelter and request an immigration hearing. But after quick screenings, many end up quickly returned at various ports of entry.

Legislative proposals — with some bipartisan support — are emerging in Congress to alter the anti-trafficking act, a move that's dividing lawmakers. Changes to the law could give Border Patrol agents a role in screening Central American children shortly after they're detained and then deporting them more quickly if they agree to being removed.

As the Center has reported, the Obama Administration has also supported the idea of streamlining interviews of minors, with officials suggesting that many children are not likely to qualify for asylum or other forms of legal status.

Speedy screenings that end in children agreeing to leave are controversial because Mexican minors have been deported back to dangerous circumstances, including servitude as drug "mules" and as sex workers, as the Center found in 2011. An in-depth report by the Texas legal aid group Appleseed, which led observations of such screenings, also found that kids were sent back to perilous conditions in Mexico.

For years, researchers who study Central America have warned that organized crime was gaining strength.

A Congressional Research Service report in February of this year surveyed the gang problem in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the struggle to address it. The U.S. Department of Justice has archived many reports assessing the growing threats of gangs. The Washington Office on Latin America also has a wealth of studies over the years warning of the need to address dysfunctional justice systems and continuing migration of kids and families that are divided. A 2010 report explores brutal practices by people smugglers.

Thousands of Central American adults hold temporary “protective” visas in the United States due to natural disasters, but cannot legally bring their children into the United States to live with them. The children are left behind in precarious circumstances — just one of the “push and pull” factors that help explain why children migrate, as an analyst with the Brookings Institution wrote.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute also has produced a number of pieces describing the complex roots and difficult choices for addressing the influx of minors. In 2006, a report on the history of violence and migration explained that U.S. officials often resisted giving asylum to certain Central Americans during the civil wars in the 1980s.

“The United States,” the report says, “sided with conservative governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, labeling its actions anticommunist, and invested billions of dollars. When hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their homelands and sought asylum in the United States, this aid became the primary reason for denying the refugees' tales of torture, forced recruitment, and other crimes. To accord them political asylum would have undermined the U.S. government's policies.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees produced a report this year called “Children on the Run,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported in March. The report presents surveys of children explaining growing fear of violence and personal threats that U.N. officials argue constitutes a refugee crisis.

 

The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.

Federal Complaint Challenges Texas Town’s New Ban on Housing any Border Kids

texas_Border_control_housingFrom the Center for Public Integrity: 

Civil rights groups filed a federal complaint Tuesday challenging a Texas city’s ban on providing housing to “refugees” or foreigners such as the Central American children who’ve been turning themselves in at the border.

The complaint against an ordinance adopted July 8 by League City, a Houston suburb, was filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and Appleseed, a Texas public-interest law group. Appleseed has researched dangers faced by Mexican and Central American migrant children.

The complaint argues that the ordinance — one of a number being contemplated in Texas — is discriminatory and violates the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “There is particularly ugly language about Muslims in this League City ordinance also,” said Maddie Sloan, an Appleseed attorney.

CenterForPublicIntegrityThe number of children from Central America showing up along the U.S.-Mexico border has surged this year.  Since last October, more than 52,000 minors, many of them without parents, have been detained, double the total number of such kids detained during all of last year. For some kids, a Department of Homeland Security assessment found, violence in their countries is so great that the risk of traveling alone “is preferable to remaining at home.”

Marisa Bono, a MALDEF attorney, said the complaint against League City “is a warning to other municipalities that are considering similar resolutions. Cities can’t accept federal funds, and then use them to discriminate.”

The complaint asks the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate and halt ordinances aimed at “vulnerable children.”

The League City ordinance, approved in a 6-2 vote, lists a number of allegations that elected officials say motivated them to outlaw the provision of housing for children.

Language in the housing ban makes the claim that illegal immigrants carry diseases “endemic” to their countries of origin — an allegation that international health experts say is factually unfounded, as the Texas Observer reported.

The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that 93 percent of children in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are vaccinated against measles, compared to 92 percent of American kids.

Federal officials have not approached League City about placing children there at federal cost, as they have in other communities with suitable shelters.

But supporters of the ordinance said they wanted to take a stand, and protect taxpayers from having to shoulder costs for schooling or other services for children. The ordinance also asserts a need for a ban because “radical Islamist terror groups continue to exploit the situation to infiltrate the United States” — an allegation that has also not been proved or linked to the influx of Central Americans.

“Be it resolved,” the ordinance says, that all agencies in League City are “instructed to refuse requests or directives by federal agencies to permit or establish any facility for the purposes of processing, housing, or detaining any illegal aliens, designated as ‘refugees,’ or otherwise.”

Heidi Theiss, the council member who wrote the ordinance, talked to KPRC television in Texas about why she proposed the housing ban. “We are a very safe city, here in League City,” she said, “and it’s that way because we’re proactive.”

Some minors taken into custody at the border say they fear gang violence and reprisals and other dangers in Central America, an impoverished region struggling with organized crime and drug cartels, as the Center for Public Integrity has reported.

Debate is on over whether to alter existing federal legislation so that Border Patrol agents can quickly deport more of the minors rather than put them in shelters where social workers can assess them and they can get immigration court dates.

Advocates for children argue that as children, the minors need a safe place to reveal their circumstances and talk about whether they might be eligible to seek asylum or another type of legal status, or agree to be returned to their home countries in an orderly fashion.

 


The Center for Public Integrity is a non-profit, independent investigative news outlet. For more stories on this topic go to publicintegrity.org.