Monday, August 19, 2013

The police state mindset in our public schools

Once upon a time in America, parents breathed a sigh of relief when their kids went back to school after a summer’s hiatus, content in the knowledge that for a good portion of the day their kids would be gainfully occupied, out of harm’s way and out of trouble. Those were the good old days, before school shootings became a part of our national lexicon and schools, aiming for greater security, transformed themselves into quasi-prisons, complete with surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs and strip searches.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, instead of making the schools safer, we simply managed to make them more authoritarian. It used to be that if you talked back to a teacher, or played a prank on a classmate, or just failed to do your homework, you might find yourself in detention or doing an extra writing assignment after school. Nowadays, students are not only punished for transgressions more minor than those—such as playing cops and robbers on the playground, bringing LEGOs to school, or having a food fight—but they are punished with suspension, expulsion, and even arrest.

As a result, America is now on a fast track to raising up an Orwellian generation—one populated by compliant citizens accustomed to living in a police state and who march in lockstep to the dictates of the government. Indeed, as I point out in my book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, with every school police raid and overzealous punishment that is carried out in the name of school safety, the lesson being imparted is that Americans—especially young people—have no rights at all against the state or the police. In fact, the majority of schools today have adopted an all-or-nothing lockdown mindset that leaves little room for freedom, individuality or due process.

For example, when high school senior Ashley Smithwick grabbed the wrong lunch sack—her father’s—on the way to school, the star soccer player had no idea that her mistake would land her in a sea of legal troubles. Unbeknownst to Ashley, the lunchbox contained her father’s paring knife, a 2-inch blade he uses to cut his apple during lunch. It was only when a school official searching through students’ belongings found the diminutive knife, which administrators considered a “weapon,” that Ashley realized what had happened and explained the mistake. Nevertheless, school officials referred Ashley to the police, who in turn charged her with a Class 1 misdemeanor for possessing a “sharp-pointed or edged instrument on educational property.”

Tieshka Avery, a diabetic teenager living in Birmingham, Alabama, was slammed into a filing cabinet and arrested after falling asleep during an in-school suspension. The young lady, who suffers from sleep apnea and asthma, had fallen asleep while reading Huckleberry Finn in detention. After a school official threw a book at her, Avery went to the hall to collect herself. While speaking on the phone with her mother, she was approached from behind by a police officer, who slammed her into a filing cabinet and arrested her. Avery is currently pursuing a lawsuit against the school.

Unfortunately, while these may appear to be isolated incidents, they are indicative of a nationwide phenomenon in which children are treated like criminals, especially within the public schools. The ramifications are far-reaching. As Emily Bloomenthal, writing for the New York University Review of Law & Social Change, explains:

"Studies have found that youth who have been suspended are at increased risk of being required to repeat a grade, and suspensions are a strong predictor of later school dropout. Researchers have concluded that “suspension often becomes a ‘pushout’ tool to encourage low-achieving students and those viewed as ‘troublemakers’ to leave school before graduation.” Students who have been suspended are also more likely to commit a crime and/or to end up incarcerated as an adult, a pattern that has been dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline.”"

Moreover, as suspensions and arrests for minor failings and childish behavior become increasingly common, so does the spread of mass surveillance in our nation’s schools. In fact, our schools have become a microcosm of the total surveillance state which currently dominates America, adopting a host of surveillance technologies, including video cameras, finger and palm scanners, iris scanners, as well as RFID and GPS tracking devices, to keep constant watch over their student bodies.

For example, in May 2013, Polk County School District in Florida foisted an iris scanning program on its students without parental consent. Parents were sent a letter explaining they could opt their children out of the program, but by the time the letter had reached parents, 750 children had already had their eyes scanned and their biometric data collected.

Making matters worse, these iris scanning programs are gaining traction in the schools, with school buses even getting in on the action. As students enter the school bus, they will be told to look through a pair of binocular-like scanners which will either blink, indicating that the student is on the right bus, or honk, indicating that they’ve chosen the wrong one. This technology is linked with a mobile app which parents can use to track their child’s exact whereabouts, as each time their eyes are scanned the parent receives a print out with their photo and Google map location, along with a timestamp. Benefits aside, the potential for abuse, especially in the hands of those who prey on the young, are limitless.

It has been said that America’s schools are the training ground for future generations. If so, and unless we can do something to rein in this runaway train, this next generation will be the most compliant, fearful and oppressed generation ever to come of age in America, and they will be marching in lockstep with the police state.


CA: New state law opens doors for transgender students

Transgender students in California public schools will be allowed to participate in school groups and use school facilities based on their gender identities, in a change that turns a policy several school districts already follow into statewide law.

AB1266 will ensure that schools respect students' gender identity concerning sports teams, locker rooms, restrooms and all other "sex-segregated" programs and facilities. The bill, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday, was introduced by state Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco).

State law already prohibits discrimination in schools on the basis of gender identity, but backers of the measure say the extra clarity in the law will go a long way in making a growing population of transgender students feel comfortable and safe at school.

"Being accepted or not accepted at school makes all the difference in the world for these kids," said Shannon Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco organization that sponsored the bill. "That's in terms of both their abilities to succeed in school in the short term and their long-term health and well-being."

The law will go into effect on Jan. 1. Advocates hope that school districts will look for guidance from districts like San Francisco and Los Angeles, which already have long-standing policies to accommodate transgender students.

"We're in the middle of a very historic change," Minter said. "For the past few years, we've started to see more families supporting and accepting their transgender children. More of those students are being themselves at school as well. It's an issue that schools are increasingly seeing and dealing with. That said, it's going to be a relatively small group of students - a very small, discrete and vulnerable group of students."

Most school districts, even in more conservative parts of the state, want to know how to implement the law fairly, advocates said.

"I would say there's been more confusion and fear and some resistance," Minter said. "School officials care about kids. They care about their students. They want to do the right thing, but some school officials have been confused. They have no understanding of what the law requires or what it means not to discriminate."

A similar policy already applies to school athletics. School athletics programs must allow students to play on teams in accordance with their gender identity and not the gender on their school records. Those bylaws were approved unanimously in May 2012 by the California Interscholastic Federation, the organization that oversees school athletic leagues.

The new law underlines the CIF's current policies, said the organization's executive director, Roger Blake. Some school officials and parents fear the rules will be abused, but many don't realize the rules have already been in place.

"There's transgender kids playing sports right now," Blake said. "I haven't seen the world come to an end."

San Francisco Unified School District passed the state's first policies concerning transgender students in the early 1990s. Students who identify consistently and exclusively as a gender other than their birth gender have been allowed to participate in groups and use facilities associated with their gender identity for years, said Kevin Gogin, the district's director for safety and wellness.

"Our district has continued to meet the rights of our students who are gender variant and/or transgender, and our district has met the rights of our students who are not. It's never been an issue for us," Gogin said. Other districts in and out of the state have contacted San Francisco schools for guidance on implementing similar policies.

Opponents said the law is ripe for abuse because it does not have a legal requirement for how one determines gender identity. NCAA rules call for athletes to have undergone a year of hormone therapy to play on a team of that gender, but Blake said medical professionals advised that most students are too young and underdeveloped for hormone therapy.

Other opponents were concerned that the bill would harm some students. State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber (Tehama County) said students "now may be subjected to some very difficult situations and their parents to even more objectionable situations."

But for transgender students, the news is thrilling - and a relief.

"I'm very excited that it's passed," said Eli Erlick, an 18-year-old transgender woman who just graduated from Willits Charter School in Mendocino County. "This will help so many students in California - and I really hope this will inspire other states to create similar policies."

As a youth advocate for transgender students, Erlick hears from hundreds of transgender students who tell her about the struggles they face when the school fails to let them participate in classes and other programs because of their gender identity.

"These students are really forced to choose between fighting for the right to live as they are and the schools forcing them to live as a person that they aren't," Erlick said. "This bill will fix that problem."


Federal income-based repayment plan encourages skyrocketing law school tuition

A recent item in The Washington Post explains “how Georgetown Law gets Uncle Sam to pay its students’ bills,” averaging $158,888 over three years, taking advantage of perverse incentives in a federal student-loan program. A federal income-based repayment plan forgives the student loan debt of law students who go to work for the government or a “public interest” law firm 10 years after they graduate, as long as they pay a small percentage of their income in the first ten years after graduation towards paying off part of their student loans. Typically, much of those law students’ loans are not paid off by the end of 10 years, and thus are forgiven at taxpayer expense. But Georgetown has figured out a way to take things even further and make taxpayers pick up the entire tab through creative accounting. Under its Loan Repayment Assistance Program, a student can get his law degree “absolutely free of charge,” and entirely on the taxpayer’s tab. As the Post notes:

    "Georgetown has found a very clever way to exploit recent reforms to federal student loan programs so as to greatly reduce the price of law school for students without costing the school anything either. Georgetown Law students who use LRAP use loans from Grad PLUS — the federal government’s student loan program for grad students — to fund the entire cost of going to law school. That includes not only tuition and fees but living expenses like housing and food. Grad PLUS has no upper limit on the amount you can borrow, so there isn’t any constraint on how much you take out.

    Once out of school, the students enroll in an income-based repayment program, in which, if they’re working for a nonprofit, the federal government forgives all loans after 10 years. For that 10-year period, however, the borrower has to pay a share of their income. But under LRAP, Georgetown commits to covering all of those payments.

    Upon first glance, it looks like what’s happening is that Georgetown is paying for part of the cost of law school and the federal government is forgiving the rest. But as Jason Delisle and Alex Holt at the New America Foundation discovered, Georgetown’s cleverer than that. The tuition paid by new students — tuition they’re often paying with federal loans — includes the cost of covering the previous students’ loan payments.

    So Georgetown is ultimately paying its share with money its students borrow from the federal government. The feds are paying back themselves. At no step in the process does Georgetown actually have to pay anything. The feds are picking up the entire bill."

Here’s an over-simplified example of how Georgetown’s scheme works:

    "Let’s say that, without this program, Georgetown would be charging $10 for tuition. Let’s suppose further that, without this program and just using the normal federal income-based repayment program, these students would end up paying, on average, $5 over the 10 years before their loans are forgiven.

    Now suppose Georgetown proposes this program, wherein instead of the student paying the $5, Georgetown pays the $5. It then increases the starting tuition to $15 to cover the new expense. Under normal student loan programs, that would mean that students would have to pay more back because they would need to take out a larger loan to cover the increased tuition.

    But under income-based repayment, your payments vary with your income, not the size of the loan, so you still only have to pay back $5 before the loan is forgiven. So Georgetown gets $15 from the federal government, using $10 for education and using the other $5 to pay back the loan (or an equivalent earlier loan) before it’s forgiven. So the federal government is paying for all of this. Neither Georgetown nor the student pays a cent.

    Of course, the real version doesn’t end up costing just $15. . . the average LRAP student gets $158,888 in federal money. Not loans, but money they don’t have to pay back. So the program amounts to a massive educational grant to Georgetown law students, who are likely to make more as lawyers than the vast majority of Americans."

What is truly scary about this clever scheme to milk the taxpayers is that it could quickly catch on at other universities, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars. Georgetown and other universities could easily use these same accounting gimmicks to make taxpayers pay the cost of all law students, including those who go to law school solely to get rich and bring lawsuits that enrich themselves. As The Washington Post notes, “there’s nothing, in principle, limiting this to students who go into public interest. For students who don’t go into public interest careers, the federal income based repayment program only forgives debt after 20 years, and because private-sector lawyers make more, the income-based payments will be larger than for public interest lawyers. But if Georgetown wanted to, it could jack up tuition enough to cover 20 years worth of big payments on loans taken out by alums who go into the private sector. Their students would have to take out much bigger loans,” but the increased loan debt would all be written off after 20 years, entirely at taxpayer expense. As the Post observes, “Georgetown isn’t doing this yet. But it, or any other graduate or professional degree program in the country, could do it if they so chose. If federal policy stays the same, there’s nothing stopping grad schools from having the federal government fully fund them.”

There is no reason for Georgetown not to increase tuition perpetually faster than inflation, as long as the perverse incentives contained in the federal GRAD Plus program exist.

We earlier discussed how counterproductive federal financial aid policies like the 90-10 rule already encourage colleges to jack up tuition. Last year, the Obama administration made matters worse, effectively throwing gasoline on the raging fire of college tuition increases. It announced a new financial aid policy that will effectively bail out low-quality, high-tuition law schools and graduate schools at taxpayer expense, by enabling them to increase tuition and still attract students. These changes are the product of a revised income-based federal student loan repayment program that went into effect last December. The administration’s revised “Pay as You Earn” program allows eligible student-loan borrowers to cap monthly payments at 10 percent of discretionary income, and have their federal student loans forgiven after 20 years — or just 10 years, if they go to work for the government. An earlier version of the program capped payments at 15 percent and offered forgiveness after 25 years. For students who foolishly attended third-rate but expensive colleges and law schools, this could wipe out part of their debt, at taxpayer expense, since their salaries in the low-paying jobs they end up with will be insufficient to pay off all of their massive debt in 20 years if they pay only 10 percent of their leftover income towards repaying their student loans.

In the short run, this will primarily benefit those eligible students. But in the long run, the primary beneficiaries will be low-quality but expensive colleges and law schools, which will be able to raise college tuition through the roof, since no matter how much debt their students run up in college, it will be written off after 20 years, effectively capping the cost to students, but not taxpayers, who will bear an ever-increasing share of students’ college expenses.

As Peter Schiff, the President of Euro Pacific Capital, laments, this plan:

    "will ensure students are able to commit to higher levels of federally backed student loans. By limiting student obligations to repay, and by passing more of the repayment burden onto taxpayers, colleges and universities will be able to continue to raise tuitions at a rate that outpaces nearly every other cost center in the American economy. The move will come as a great relief to the education establishment who otherwise may have needed to cut or cap tuitions.

    The Obama plan limits repayment obligations to just 10% of “discretionary income” which it defines as total income above 150% of the federal poverty level . . . The plan also limits the term of obligation to 20 years. . . A less successful graduate who earns say $50,000 per year, on average over the 20-year obligation period, would have a repayment burden of just $1,500 per year, or just $30,000 over the life of the loan. Any loan amounts above those totals will be forgiven.

    As a result, students need not fear the inability to repay large loans. . . . the less a graduate earns, the greater the amount of loan forgiveness. For the majority of students, who don’t become very high earners, it will make little difference if loan amounts are $90,000, $180,000 or even more. . . .

    These policies could remove all barriers for larger and larger loans, which will then allow universities to charge higher and higher tuitions. . . .The day of reckoning in which the higher education system would have had to offer programs that fit into the budget of average Americans has been postponed, if not entirely eliminated.

    Of course the losers in this new arrangement will be American taxpayers who will be on the hook for the unpaid balances. Recently, college loan debt passed credit card debt as the largest, non-mortgage, source of debt in the United States. . . . If college students were willing to rack up this much debt under the assumption they would have to actually pay it back, imagine how much debt they will be willing to amass now that they realize they do not? As a result, expect college tuition increases to not only continue but to accelerate."

Law school tuition has already risen nearly 1,000 percent after inflation since the late 1950s. Now, things will get worse.

Under the Obama administration’s new income-based repayment plan, the federal government will write off most of the loans of the students who chose to go to low-quality, high-tuition law schools, and they will not even have to repay what they are capable of paying, since their payments will be limited to less than 10 percent of their income. (By contrast, prudent students who attended cheaper or better law schools will not receive the same benefit, since their loan payments are already smaller compared to their incomes. Law school tuition is funded disproportionately by student loans, loans graduating low students at lower-tier law schools will not be able to pay back with just 10 percent of their income over 20 years. As law professor Brian Tamanaha notes, at 20 expensive low-tier law schools, most students never will be able to fully repay their student loans, since most graduates of these schools don’t find good jobs.)

These law schools will respond to the administration’s new program by increasing tuition even faster, since the increased tuition will be paid not by students, but by the American taxpayers when the borrowed tuition is later written off (moreover, the law schools can use increased tuition to attract students by “loading up their campuses with even fancier facilities,” and also pay their administrators a fortune. One fourth-tier law school paid its dean $867,000 per year).

This taxpayer subsidy for low-quality law schools is especially unfortunate, because such law schools are in many respects economically harmful, and many law schools teach their students so few practical skills (as candid law professors have admitted) that their students would be better off studying for the bar exam on their own, rather than attending law school (alas, the option isn’t available, since most states require students to attend law school before taking the bar exam, even though I found my time at Harvard Law School to be mostly a waste. Never mind that students can learn how to be good lawyers without ever going to law school).

Colleges have been able to increase tuition much faster than inflation, year after year, secure in the knowledge they can rake in ever-rising government subsidies and skyrocketing tuition. Meanwhile, college students are learning less and less.


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