Middleton: How to turn grief into reform
JANUARY 3, 2016 11:25 PM
At a quiet holiday lunch, a friend who is a faith leader and activist surprised me by asking, “Do you think the good will is going to last into the next (legislative) session?” He was referring to the collective grief and longing for unity that followed the tragic violence of 2015 in our state.
I didn’t know how to answer the question. The optimist in me believes that progress toward more justice and fairness is really possible, and that the revulsion against racism and violence felt by so many of us in South Carolina can lead to positive change. The realist in me recognizes that the legislative session is short and the agenda is packed.
Unfortunately, it is packed with measures that don’t advance public safety or ensure equal treatment under the law for everyone in our state. In fact, some bills would promote intolerance and discrimination based on race, ethnic origin or other personal qualities. Not one but at least three measures are aimed against refugees who are fleeing terrorism in their home countries. Some bills aim to protect civil servants who refuse to provide government services to others based on their sexual orientation. Others would exclude some of our fellow South Carolinians from protection against hate crimes.
More promising are the bills that aim to reform historic biases in our criminal justice system. Measures that would end the practice of allowing children to be tried as adults, reduce detention for violation of status offenses and make it easier to expunge minor offenses from the record — all of these are smart reforms to replace the “tough” approach that has filled our jails and prisons. These changes would make it possible for more people in our state to stay in school, apply to college and hold a job.
Proposals to end harsh school discipline, dramatized in the Richland 2 school arrests this autumn, also are directed against over-reliance on law enforcement. Criminalizing student misconduct all too often results in school pushout that disproportionately affects children of color. Several bills would promote better policies and less policing in schools.
And in a year in which our state logged a record number of police shootings, most notably in Seneca, Columbia, Walterboro and North Charleston, we hope to see real progress in reforming police practices. Our legislators can and should protect citizens’ right to record the police, while ensuring that video from police dashcams and body cameras can, as appropriate, be accessed by the press and public.
Real public safety and security depends on citizens’ ability to trust the police. It depends on recognizing the rights of our neighbors to be treated with dignity, despite our differences. It depends on a collective sense that justice must be administered equally, without regard to race or ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity, or income.
Our hope for 2016 is that our legislators will be moved by the tragedies of the past year to make enacting these reforms a priority. But hope is not a strategy, so our New Year’s resolution is to turn from remembrance to action and advocate for smart justice and equal treatment to prevail in South Carolina.
S.C. should accept refugees, reject bias against Muslims
BY VICTORIA middleton
Jan 2 2016 12:01 am
In the holiday bustle, some may have overlooked the irony implicit in two stories about Syrian refugees that ran in this paper a couple of weeks ago.
On Dec. 18, one article reported that North Charleston High School students had raised money and even gave up some prom funds to aid Syrians who were fleeing terrorism in their home country.
On the same day, some of our elected officials were quoted as saying that Syrian refugees are “not wanted” in South Carolina, playing on fears of threats in our midst.
Politicians both at the state and national level have appealed to our worst instincts rather than our values as a country.
Religious intolerance and fear of foreigners are not new in our country, sadly. The ACLU was one of the few organizations to argue against internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Fear ran rampant, in the name of security.
The government did little to mitigate mistrust of foreigners, even of people who looked “different” from the majority of Americans. Nearly 50 years later, the government apologized, recognizing the unconstitutional violation of people’s rights that had transpired.
Now politicians in South Carolina are preying on similar fears, and an understandable desire for security. Bills aimed at banning Syrian refugees are political gestures that have no force, since the state has no authority over refugee resettlement.
Worse, they send the message that people of a particular ethnic group, faith or nationality are unwelcome in South Carolina. This, despite widespread recognition that Syrians and other Muslim refugees are themselves victims of international terrorism.
Since 2000, the vast majority of terror attacks have occurred in Muslim-majority countries of the Near East and Africa. The overwhelming majority of victims of ISIS and Al-Qaeda have been Muslim.
Politicians’ fear-mongering tactics threaten not only new arrivals but established members of our community. American Muslims, first brought over as slaves, not immigrants, have been in our country since its founding.
It’s well known that South Carolina has had a Muslim community since the colonial era. A number of interfaith leaders in the Lowcountry and around the state have recently raised concerns about the safety of its members.
Our elected officials should heed these concerns, since American Muslims around the U.S. have been the target of hostility, increased scrutiny, and even violence, fostered by anti-Muslim rhetoric.
To counter suspicion and intolerance, Charleston’s Central Mosque invited the public to visit during an open house in mid-December. The hosts represented over two dozen nationalities, while guests in the standing-room-only audience identified as being from a range of faiths and no faith.
Many of us who attended were encouraged by the mutual effort to reach across divisions of race, nationality and belief.
But it is not only up to the Muslim community of the Lowcountry to affirm our common values.
Our leaders in government should, as well. We hope that the New Year will start on a more positive note of respect for the civil liberties of all South Carolinians, based on the equal treatment that our Constitution guarantees.
Victoria Middleton is executive director of the South Carolina office of the ACLU.
More counselors, fewer cops in classrooms
BY VICTORIA MIDDLETON
Nov 5 2015 12:01 am
South Carolina made national news again recently when a School Resource Officer (SRO) was caught on video using violence to compel a student to comply with his orders. The SRO was terminated, but the problem runs much deeper than this individual deputy, and the solution must go further as well.
School discipline is often framed as an either-or choice between putting up with disruptive classroom behavior or arresting, tackling, or tasing kids. Are these the only alternatives? We don’t think so.
Read the Op-Ed in The Post & Courier.
Other states are proof that positive discipline and school safety can go hand in hand.
In 2004, under the leadership of Judge Steven Teske, Clayton County, Ga., adopted an agreement to ensure that “misdemeanor delinquent acts” — things like fighting, disrupting the public school, disorderly conduct, etc. — do not result in immediate court referral. Instead of arrest, young people receive warnings first, then are referred to mediation or school conflict workshops.
The protocol has been heralded as a national model. After it was adopted, school referrals to juvenile court dropped more than 70 percent, and serious weapons incidents on campus dropped nearly 80 percent. Graduation rates have also risen significantly.
Just last year, Philadelphia implemented a groundbreaking delinquency diversion program that provides an alternative to arrest for students accused of minor or first-time offenses, especially for those considered unlikely to re-offend.
Within the first year of the program, the number of arrests dropped by 54 percent, and there were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents in the Philadelphia school district.
In addition, the Philadelphia school district’s police department now refuses to deploy officers for low-level conflicts and classroom management matters, such as not following classroom rules, the inappropriate use of electronic devices, and dress code violations.
South Carolina communities invest a lot of money in stationing officers in schools, often without enough training or guidance about their mission. We don’t invest as much in teaching positive discipline, providing counseling or mediation, or implementing restorative justice practices and other proven remedies. That is a costly choice.
The ACLU of South Carolina has joined with other community groups around the state to call on our schools and elected leaders to prioritize counselors and other supports for students over police and arrests.
We have called on them to end arrests for minor misbehavior and fix South Carolina’s outdated and unfair “disturbing schools” law, which can lead to children arrested for being “obnoxious.”
Minor offenses should be handled by educators, who must have adequate classroom management training. All our schools should be equipped with guidance counselors who can help resolve conflicts, and we should reinvest our resources into positive community alternatives to better address discipline and prioritize students’ educational needs.
All police who work in schools should also be trained in youth development, non-violent conflict resolution, implicit bias, and interacting with students with disabilities.
Most of this can be achieved at the school district level through written policies that distinguish between school discipline and serious crimes, and through a commitment to shift resources to supporting students rather than arresting them. And the legislature can and must reform “disturbing schools.”
All of this is doable. Other states have taken on school-to-prison pipeline reforms with remarkable results. Our school districts and our Legislature have the tools to reform school discipline statewide, if the political will is sufficient. We owe it to our students to make better decisions about discipline, not false choices.
Transparency is needed for Body cameras
July 9, 2015. By Victoria Middleton.
As your June 28 article “Body camera issue pushed to the forefront” indicates, high-profile incidents, including in South Carolina, have led to a rush to record encounters with law enforcement.
A bill to require police to wear body cameras received overwhelming support in our legislature and was signed into law. The speed with which our elected officials acted was understandable in the wake of Walter Scott’s death in April and other controversial incidents documented on video that involved use of force by the police.
Your article correctly noted that the ACLU has taken a position in favor of body cameras despite our long-standing concern about widespread government surveillance of civilians. In May, the ACLU released a model bill that strikes a balance between protecting privacy and ensuring transparency in problematic encounters involving law enforcement
In the case of some videos that are particularly of significance to the public, transparency needs to trump privacy. Unfortunately, the South Carolina law does not ensure that. In a situation where a police officer uses deadly force against an unarmed citizen, the public has a legitimate interest in knowing what took place and how the police officers behaved.
South Carolina’s law is not the only one that needs to strike a better balance between transparency and privacy. The L.A. Police Department policy undercuts transparency by hiding virtually all body camera footage from the public. And in Florida, even the best department-level body camera policies could conflict with a new state law blocking large classes of body camera footage from disclosure in the name of protecting privacy.
If body cameras aren’t merely a public relations tool used by law enforcement but a means to foster public confidence and trust, then we need to do more to guarantee transparency in controversial encounters between police and citizens.
S.C. locks UP too many children
June 1, 2015. Greenville News. By Victoria Middleton.
A new report from the Children’s Law Center reveals that Greenville is one of the harshest places in the state for children who skip school, miss curfew or who run away from home. These behaviors — known as “status offenses” — are unique to children. These offenses violate the law only because the person committing them is a minor.
South Carolina is one of a shrinking number of states that still incarcerates children in secure detention centers for status offenses. According to the report, South Carolina locks up a significant number of children charged with status offenses before their case is even heard in court. Research show that incarcerating children — even for very short periods of time — increases the likelihood they will have further involvement in the juvenile justice and adult prison system.
More than three-fourths of children detained for status offenses in South Carolina are from just four counties — Charleston, Richland, Berkeley and Greenville. The report cites Greenville’s easy access to a secure detention center as one reason for the county’s overuse of secure detention for status offenders. Unlike most counties that rely on a centralized state-run juvenile detention center in Columbia, Greenville opened its own brand-new juvenile detention facility in 2013. Notably, Greenville had the highest number of South Carolina youth admitted to detention in Fiscal Year 2013-14.
As we are an organization working to stop the unnecessary incarceration of children, these numbers concern us.
Youth who commit status offenses have often experienced severe traumatic experiences. For example, a child might run away or skip school or come home after curfew to avoid exposure to violence or sexual assault at home. A child might be truant because of family illness or social anxiety. We might find that a child labeled “incorrigible” is dealing with family substance abuse issues. Incarcerating a child who expresses these types of needs doesn’t help the young person get better. These behaviors may very well be normal responses to the issues a youth is dealing with — calls for help that we as adults should respond to with something better than punishment.
The report recommends that the state invest in community-based family services to reduce the incarceration of status offenders. In these programs, trained staff members work directly with families to address the underlying issues of why a child acts out. Greenville, like most communities, lacks an adequate crisis response system to support families that require immediate assistance. Currently, there is often a long wait period for families to receive services which may lead families to seek assistance through the juvenile court system, which in turn increases the likelihood of a police officer or a judge removing a child from the home.
Community-based programs can effectively work with children and their families for a fraction of what it costs South Carolinians to incarcerate a child in a secure detention center. According to the report, South Carolinians pay over $300 a day to incarcerate a child who is truant or runs away from home. That’s nearly $110,000 per child annually. Community-based-programs, like the Youth Advocate Program in Greenville, can effectively work with five to six young people and their families for that amount of money and help these youth and their families in ways that incarceration cannot.
Greenville can lead the state in reducing the number of young people it locks up for status offenses. To do this, we need to build up community-based supports that strengthen families. Incarcerating youth for status offenses does not help children in need and costs too much for no return — and in many cases, a negative return – on the investment.
We all want kids to stay in school, contribute to their families and communities, and be safe at home. To help achieve that for the county’s neediest young people, Greenville should implement policies to divert more status offense cases from court and prohibit children from being jailed. We should invest in community-based services that support families and provide effective alternatives to the court system.
May 29, 2015. Statehouse Report. Columbia.
By Victoria Middleton | Our state is hazardous to women’s health.
An extreme or alarmist statement? Not really.
Sometimes, we all just want more good news. There is some: S.C. teen pregnancy rates are dropping. Infant mortality rates are dropping. There’s some improvement on birth outcomes in recent years.
But there are facts we can’t sidestep, uncomfortable as they may be. We’re competing to be the worst state for women killed by men they know. If a criminal domestic violence bill passes, its supporters and victims’ advocates acknowledge that changing the climate of violence against women will take more than a piece of legislation.
We’re also in the bottom tier of states for women’s reproductive health. Eight of our state’s 46 counties lack an obstetrician. More than 25 percent of mothers of S.C. newborns who died last year received little, if any, prenatal care. In 2011, there were 76 live births to girls 10- to 14 years of age. Maternal mortality is still alarmingly, needlessly high.
Infant mortality is still high, as well, despite valiant efforts by the medical establishment to combat this. The second (in some years, the first) highest cause of death of babies in the first 30 days is “congenital malformation/deformation.” That does not mean the cause of death is low birth weight, extreme premature status or other factors. It means that approximately 35 newborns per year die within the first 24 hours because of fetal anomalies so severe that survival is impossible
At the same time, without regard to these facts, our legislature is on the verge of passing a bill (H. 3114) to criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy – before the point in pregnancy when a woman may first learn of a severe chromosomal or other fetal anomaly diagnosis.
The Senate just passed a version of the 20-week ban that does allow for critical, limited exceptions. One exception involves cases of rape or incest, so that a traumatized or intimidated victim retains the right to decide whether to terminate such a pregnancy. Another exception concerns the health of the mother, so that a woman is not forced to carry a pregnancy to term if doing so puts her life in danger. The final exception, covering the vast majority of these rare later abortions, is in the case of diagnosis of severe fetal anomaly.
The Senate version has returned to the House for concurrence or non-concurrence. If the harsh House version – the extreme ban — is ultimately adopted, then we can add a new blow to the existing list of hazards to the health of a woman in South Carolina.
This bill has nothing to do with accepted science and everything to do with lessening a woman’s ability to make the best medical decision for herself and her family. If politicians continue to play doctor, the positive trends will be fewer and the health outcomes for women in South Carolina worse.
Campaign Encourages Schools to Comply with Federal Law By Making All Students Feel Welcome Regardless of Their Beliefs
August 20,2012. Charleston, S.C. – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of South Carolina launched a campaign today to strengthen religious freedom in public schools. The “Religious Freedom Goes to School” campaign urges schools to protect both the right of free exercise for individuals of every faith and the right to remain free from governmental coercion and promotion of religion. It is aimed at addressing growing reports of unconstitutional violations of these fundamental rights in public schools across the state.
“It’s important that all students know that they’re going back to school to a place where they will be welcome no matter what they believe,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “We’ve received too many reports of religious freedom violations, especially complaints that many South Carolina schools continue to impose religion on students.”
The ACLU of South Carolina sent letters to all public schools in the state encouraging them to review their policies relating to religion and requesting information on these policies. In addition, an online survey is available for students, families or employees who wish to report possible religious freedom violations.
In the last two years alone, the ACLU of South Carolina has received complaints that include
- in-class daily prayer led by teachers;
- the distribution of Bibles to students;
- prayer and scriptural readings at graduation ceremonies, athletic events, awards ceremonies and other school activities;
- school-day assemblies featuring evangelizing and other religious content;
- coach-organized and coach-led prayer at football practices;
- opening prayers at school board meetings;
- school officials leading and participating in student religious clubs; and
- school involvement in the planning and promotion of religious baccalaureate services.
The campaign aims to uncover and correct these violations while also educating schools about their obligation to protect students’ rights to religious expression and exercise, as well as the rights of non-believers not to follow any faith.
“Religious freedom gives students of all faiths – or no faith – the right to hold and exercise their beliefs without discrimination or religious favoritism,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “We hope this campaign will help South Carolina public schools embrace the idea that decisions about students' religious practice and beliefs, if any, are best left to parents and their children, not public school officials.”
More information about the campaign, including the online survey, can be found here: www.aclu.org/religious-freedom-goes-school-south-carolina>