Thursday, May 28, 2015

No Suspension for Swearing – Punishment Unfair to Minorities

The Oakland Unified school board in California voted unanimously last week to eliminate willful defiance as a reason to suspend any student.

Willful defiance is a broad category of misbehavior that includes offenses such as ignoring requests to stop texting and swearing at a teacher.

KRON-TV reports the new policy is expected to be in full effect next July.

Civil and child rights advocates have been lobbying for such changes based on statistics showing that minority students are disproportionately punished for disobedience.

According to EdSource, superintendent Antwan Wilson wrote a letter to the community saying, “If we are to ensure that success for Oakland children is not determined by cultural background or neighborhood, it means that we must build strong relationships with our students at school and invest deeply in restorative practices.”

The school district will now invest at least $2.3 million to expand “restorative justice” practices in its schools.

With the $2.3 million, “Oakland is on the way to full implementation of restorative practices in all their schools,” said Laura Faer, an attorney with Public Council, a public interest law firm that has been advocating for positive disciplinary practices, according to EDSource.

“That’s real school safety and real school climate transformation. It doesn’t work when it’s underfunded,” Faer added.

The U.S. Department of Education publication “Guiding Principles: A Resource for Improving School Climate and Discipline” defines restorative justice practices as, “non-punitive disciplinary responses that focus on repairing harm done to relationships and people, developing solutions by engaging all persons affected by a harm, and accountability. A variety of restorative practices can be used in schools, ranging from brief on-the-spot responses to student behavior in the classroom to community conferencing involving multiple parties, such as students, parents, and teachers.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland has been criticized for disproportionate suspensions, leading to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education and a 2012 voluntary agreement that required the district to employ a range of practices that reduced suspensions


Student Debt Is Hot Topic for 2016 Field

The rise in college costs—and student-loan burdens—is breaking through as a hot issue in the 2016 presidential race as contenders float proposals that rethink what college should cost and who should foot the bill.

Republicans, who generally point to easy access to federal student loans as the culprit inflating the price of higher education, are focusing on driving down tuition prices and creating alternative pathways to degrees. Democrats are concentrating on pumping significantly more federal money into public universities to reverse years of state budget cuts.

The debate comes amid rising concern about the cost of higher education. In April, a Gallup poll found that only 21% of Americans view higher education as affordable. Another Gallup poll found that 73% of parents with children under the age of 18 are worried about paying for college.

The idea of a massive infusion of federal cash to guarantee “debt-free college” gained traction this week when presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton told reporters in Iowa it was critical to “move toward making college as debt free as possible.”

On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who also is seeking the Democratic nomination, introduced legislation that would eliminate undergraduate tuition at public four-year colleges and expand work-study programs to help students at private universities. Mr. Sanders estimates the plan would cost $70 billion a year and would be partially paid for by a tax on financial transactions.

GOP presidential hopefuls have approached the issue by focusing on the price tag. In 2011, Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, began calling for $10,000 undergraduate degrees, a challenge that some colleges heeded.

Last month, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) told reporters in Iowa he wanted to enable college students to deduct the cost of education during the course of their careers.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla), who has called for the government to back new, less costly routes to postsecondary degrees, also has introduced legislation that would allow private investors to cover the cost of college for students in exchange for a percentage of their future earnings. Such income-share agreements are popular in South America.

The issue resonates beyond the 2016 field. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.), who heads the health and education committee, has suggested schools should have more “skin in the game” by being held financially accountable for students who are unable to pay back their loans.

Mrs. Clinton’s choice of words in Iowa was a victory for the progressive wing of her party, which began championing the concept after left-leaning think tank Demos floated the idea in September. A paper from the group calls for the federal government to kick in about $30 billion to partly match state funding for higher education.

Progressives received a boost in April when three senators, including Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.), introduced a resolution calling for debt-free college and highlighting the 300% increase in public college costs from 30 years ago.

The backdrop is a broader debate between baby boomers and millennials. Boomers graduated from college with little or no student debt and oversaw a significant drop in spending on public higher education.

Now, nearly three-quarters of college graduates have student debt; the average is about $35,000. This year’s class will be the most indebted ever.

“This is the first generation we’ve saddled with this kind of debt and frankly we don’t know what the consequences will be,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos and the author of the paper championing debt-free college. “I think you’re seeing an entire generation, the millennial generation, for whom this is the most acute financial issue they’re facing.”

President Barack Obama helped set the stage for the student-debt debate with a January proposal to make community-college tuition free for every American. He hoped to cover part of the cost by scrapping the tax deductions for 529 college saving accounts, but Democrats attacked that idea and he dropped it.

In his first term Mr. Obama put in place a program called “Pay As You Earn” that allowed student-loan borrowers to pay 10% of their annual discretionary income in monthly installments. Borrowers who work in the public sector—a government agency or nonprofit—are forgiven whatever debt they owe after 10 years. Borrowers in the private sector generally have debt forgiven after 20 years.

Enrollment in those plans have surged during the past year, in part due to outreach by the Obama administration. That growth has raised concerns that the cost of those plans could drive up long-term expenses. The Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank in Washington, said in a report last year that the most popular plan eventually could cost taxpayers $14 billion a year.


“Rape Culture” and the Implications for Liberty on College Campuses

College campuses are placing a stronger emphasis on reducing sexual assault. Unfortunately, universities and colleges often adopt heavy-handed policies to punish alleged offenders based on abstractions or simplistic understandings of college student attitudes and behavior. One of the more problematic overgeneralizations is the concept of the “rape culture”, and the pervasive use of the term interferes with our understanding of the nature of campus sexual assault and identifying practical solutions that are more consistent with individual liberty.

“Rape culture” posits that our colleges and universities are dens for sexual predators that promote violence against women and, more importantly, that this violence is institutionally supported. Since the problem is cultural, rather than individual, the solution is institutional–categorical policies that provide little room for context or individual circumstance. Also, because the problem is systemic, extraordinary means can be justified to bring it under control, including abrogating due process, tilting adjudication in favor of the accuser rather than the accused, and implementing draconian measures despite a lack of evidence to support the allegations. Emily Yoffe at does a nice job of laying out these dangers as does Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute.

But what if a rape culture doesn’t exist?

Take the case of Florida State University, a large urban campus that has been at the center of the national debate over sexual assault. More than half of its 33,000 undergraduates are female. Most students live off campus, and 6,500 are members of 22 fraternities and 19 sororities. The university hosts nationally competitive Division I athletic programs. All these factors should make the university a poster child for an institutionalized “rape culture.” Indeed, the university is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for violations of federal law over its handling of sexual assault.

So, does FSU exhibit a rape culture? Not if rape culture is defined as a set of shared values, institutional processes, and community environment supportive of rape and sexual assault. FSU has been tracking attitudes toward sex and consent among men since 2010. While this is a limited survey focused on heterosexual relationships and ignores female assaults on men, it’s illustrative of the broader cultural context for the university. The vast majority of men surveyed recognize that consent is necessary before having sex. In fact, nine out of ten men responding to the survey report obtaining consent before having sex.

But consent is sometimes problematic since men and women communicate sexual desires and intentions differently. Teenage men, in particular, often have difficulty interpreting nonverbal behavior and see “blurred lines” even when they are clear to women. At FSU, these lines have become noticeably brighter and less ambiguous. In 2013, for example, 88% of men disagreed with the statement: “When women are raped, it’s often because the way they said ‘no’ was ambiguous.” This percentage is up significantly from three years earlier, when 73% of men disagreed with that statement.

A greater concern might be the question of implied intent by women when they take certain actions. When men were asked if they agreed “if a woman is willing to go home with a man, consent to have sex is implied,” 23% said yes. By implication, the vast majority–enough for most survey takers to imply a social consensus–reported that they believed that consent to have sex was not implied simply because a women agreed to go home with them. This is still a disturbingly high number, but it’s a far cry from evidence of a campus-wide rape culture. Moreover, false or unrealized expectations are not the same as an actual assault.

Other questions elicited high responses from men in their willingness to intervene in cases when they believed a woman was being emotionally abused (94%) and when they witnessed another man pressuring a woman to leave with him (77%). Nearly all said they would admire someone that intervened to prevent sexual abuse, sexual assault, or stalking.

These data question the veracity of sweeping comments about the existence of rape culture at a university that has been in the national spotlight for its alleged failure to address sexual assault. I also doubt FSU is unique.

Does the lack of a rape culture mean that sexual assault and rape are not a problem on college campuses? No. Taking even the lower bounds of reported sexual assaults, an issue I will take up in my next blog post, female survivors of rape or attempted rape number in the hundreds at FSU and could fill two or more sororities. If we add men into the mix, the numbers are even higher.

So, what’s the solution? Is there a path that builds civil society and shifts the culture further toward individual freedom and liberty? I believe the answer is “yes,” and I think it’s an important libertarian issue (as I have discussed before here and here).

While I don’t have the space to go into a full explanation of the framework here, I believe it hinges on five elements: 1) directly addressing the moral case for respecting individual dignity and liberty, 2) transitioning social ethics on campuses from a bystander culture to one that supports active intervention when friends and acquaintances are threatened, 3) empowering individuals to neutralize threats through situational awareness and self-defense, 4) adopting policies that hold individuals accountable for the human damage inflicted on others, and 5) ensuring the consequences of poor decisions and judgement are transparent, consistent and equitable in their application.


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