I write about SB 260, treatment of juvenile offenders, and LA Probation Chief Jerry Powers for Justice Not Jails.
Diane Lefer is the author of The Fiery Alphabet, her tenth small press book to be published. It was released on
September 5th by Loose Leaves Publishing after making the rounds of publishers since 1986. She Writer Dorothy Bendel, author of Expatriate (poems) and a novel-in-progress, wanted to know more about Diane’s novel, as well as her thoughts on agents, the self-publishing option and, most of all, persistence. Here’s what Diane had to say.
Dorothy Bendel: Set in the 18th century, the story that unfolds in The Fiery Alphabet deals with faith, feminism, history… What inspired you to write this novel?
Diane Lefer: I hope you’re not expecting an erudite answer! Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, was one of my favorite TV shows when I was a kid, and one scary episode was about the 18th-century occultist Cagliostro. I became fascinated by the idea that
Cagliostro was an actual historical figure and yet his life was shrouded in mystery. At the age of 10, I decided I would someday write a book about him.
Someday was a long way off! Decades later when I read Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, it recalled Cagliostro to mind, but at that
stage of my life, I was no longer so intrigued by charlatans. I was more concerned with the way people–especially women–get taken in by deceit. And so Daniela was born in my imagination. The more I tried to learn about the world she lived in, the more excited I got.
The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, of science and rational thought, but religious institutions and dogma still had
great power while orthodoxy was being challenged by radical mystical movements in Judaism and Islam. Occultism–with the secret rites of Masonic lodges–played a role in the secular movement for democracy. As I tried to understand how these currents affected Daniela, I had to go back a lot further than the 18th century, to women’s pre-history, to books by Riane Eisler and Mary Daly, including Daly’s Gyn/Ecology, her radical feminist attack, not on men, but on patriarchy. Painful reading, but it helped fuel my writing.
Dorothy Bendel: Can you describe the long and winding road to publication?
Diane Lefer: I finished the novel in 1986 and it’s only being published now in September 2013. So that road truly did have twists and turns.
In 1986, I actually had an agent. A famous one. I lived in New York City at the time, so I brought her the manuscript in person.
The Famous Agent said “It weighs too much. Cut 100 pages.” I said, “I wish you’d read it first.” She said, “If I enjoyed reading, I would have become an editor, not an agent.” Soon after, she called and asked me to come in. Of course my fantasy was that she’d actually read my work and loved it, maybe even sold it. Instead, I entered her office and found her standing on the window ledge
throwing things and screaming she was too stressed out to get her hair done. When a sheaf of pages landed at my feet, I bent to retrieve them. She hollered, “Freeze!”, then jumped down, grabbed me with her fingers around my throat and started to squeeze. We struggled. When I broke free, the Famous Agent said, “Don’t you ever tell anyone what happened in this office.” It was Christmastime and I thought I should wait till after the holidays to fire her. In January, I sent what I thought was a polite letter. She phoned me right away. “No one fires me ever,” she said. “You are not getting your manuscript back.”
She had the only original. I had a messy carbon copy because I hadn’t been able to afford a photocopy. (Does anyone reading this
remember carbon paper?) So I had to retype the manuscript–which back then was 500 pages long. That turned out to be a good opportunity to revise and edit what I’d written.
Then I made another change. In the original version, Daniela wrote two journals: one which she left lying around for Balsamo
to find in which she presented a self designed to attract him, and the other in which she was honest. I thought this was psychologically important, but then A.S. Byatt published Possession which also features the split between a public and a private journal and I was afraid people would say I’d stolen the idea from her, so I reluctantly got rid of the concept. I now think simplifying the manuscript’s structure was not a bad idea.
I found another agent–a lovely person who was well respected in the business. Soon after she took me on as a client, everything
started getting screwed up. Unfortunately, the problem turned out to be early Alzheimers.
I figured I could do a better job representing myself but overnight the policy in mainstream publishing changed. Only agent
submissions were read and I had no luck finding a new representation. Since then, with the advent of POD and e-books, we have more small independent presses than ever and once again there are actually some editors out there who will consider your work. I started sending out queries and sample chapters. I also reread the manuscript and found myself cutting about 100 pages. The Famous Agent might have said “I told you so,” but if I’d tried to cut back in 1986, without guidance I don’t think I would have recognized which pieces needed to go.
Finally, in 2012, I heard from Jessica Knauss at Loose Leaves Publishing. She had loved the manuscript when she worked for a
different publisher but her boss turned it down. Now she had the authority to make an offer and she wanted to know if the book was still available. YES!
Besides being an astute editor, Jessica is a specialist in medieval history, especially medieval Spain–a place that’s figures briefly in the background of my novel because Balsamo believes Daniela has inherited the secrets of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century Jewish mystic who claimed to be the Messiah. Jessica and I both love Spanish language and literature. It really does make a
difference when you find an editor with whom you share common interests.
It also occurs to me that the cultural tensions in the 18th century–science vs. religion; the subjugation of women–may have seemed irrelevant to contemporary life when I started sending the manuscript around. Sad to say, not anymore.
Dorothy Bendel: How has your writing process changed from the time you wrote The Fiery Alphabet to the way you write now?
Diane Lefer: The computer! In the old days, the chore of retyping made me reluctant to make changes even when I recognized awkward language or unnecessary paragraphs, or sections that would work better if moved. The computer made me–or let me–set the bar higher. But it came at a price. In 2003, I developed a severe case of computer vision syndrome from so much staring at the screen. My focusing muscles went slack and it was eight months till I was able to read, write, or drive again. These days I have to limit my hours at the computer. That may account for why I used to write from point A to point B but now find myself working in
fragments that then have to be pieced together. Completed manuscripts still read as though they are more or less continuous–at least I hope so–but they aren’t created that way.
Dorothy Bendel: Daniela, the protagonist of the novel, is a strong and determined woman. While reading The Fiery Alphabet, the root of her character reminded me of the tenacity required to push the novel forward to publication. Do you see any parallels between your own journey and Daniela’s?
Diane Lefer: Not so much the tenacity as her weaknesses! The idea of the two journals got dropped but it came from my own memories of being 10, when I had a diary with a lock but even so I never told the truth in it. I wrote the sentiments that I thought a
girl my age was supposed to have. And Illusion vs. Reality, Truth vs. Lie — it’s a personal obsession. Three times in my life, I’ve been duped by a pathological liar. Three of them! Once can be understood. But three times? And I don’t mean lies like “No, I did not have sex with that woman.” I mean Big Lies.
Dorothy Bendel: What advice can you give to those who are struggling to get their work published?
Diane Lefer: Never give up! Publishing is important. We write because we want to communicate with others,
not just mumble (or scream) to ourselves. But don’t let that desire spoil your joy in the process of creation.
To tell the truth though, I did give up. Writing fiction had begun to seem thankless and pointless. And then there were the
Famous Agent’s parting words: “You will grow old, embittered, and unpublished, and you will blame the publishing industry but it will not be the publishing industry’s fault.” I didn’t want to become bitter so I self-published my novel Radiant Hunger, decided That’s all, folks! and devoted myself to social justice work. But I have to write, so I started writing for the stage. It was
reinvigorating to explore a new outlet for creativity and to see my plays brought to life, but I did miss the texture and heft of fiction. I decided So what if no one publishes me? I started writing new stories and began a new novel and also revisited old manuscripts. Some I cringed at and abandoned. Others, including The Fiery Alphabet, I still believed in.
Next year, Aqueous Books will bring out The Still Point, and that novel had been making the rounds of publishers since 1978. (It seems even when I write contemporary fiction, by the time it’s published, it’s historical.)
So I repeat: Never give up! There will always be people like the Famous Agent who will try to paralyze you with the curse of self-doubt. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been vulnerable at least for a while. I had to remember that writing well is a joy in itself–as well as the best revenge. Today I have three short story collections, three novels, and a co-authored nonfiction book in print. While I wonder if the Famous Agent found a safe way down from her window ledge.
In today's LA Progressive:
Restorative Justice in Los Angeles Schools
In May, when the LAUSD board voted to end the practice of suspending students for "willful defiance," the blogosphere
heated up. Monica Garcia, then board president, was called a moron, and students were referred to as thugs, animals, and savages. Well, guess what, haters? You ain't seen nothin' yet.
On Wednesday, after the school year began with LAUSD rolling out a plan to replace punitive disciplinary measures
with the practices of restorative justice, Garcia was applauded by community advocates at a meeting at Loyola Law School. In return, she gave the activists their props: "It's because of your advocacy," she said.
The restorative justice initiative was championed by community groups including CADRE, Community Rights Campaign,
Dignity in Schools, and Youth Justice Coalition, all committed to keeping kids out of the criminal and juvenile court system and in school. This approach asks, Who was harmed? How can that harm be repaired? What are the needs and
responsibilities of the parties? How can the parties be held accountable in a positive and healthy way?
"Here lies the solution to a lot of issues that arise in juvenile justice," said Donna Groman, and she ought to know. As a Superior Court judge serving at Eastlake Juvenile Court, she has years of experience with the current system. "I see 10-year-olds in court. Why are they there? They are arrested by school police," and she pointed out, "We are not talking about crimes that endanger the community." She sees young children who sit in a waiting room with older gang-involved youth. "They are missing school. Their parents are missing work." She has seen how slowly the court system moves, so that a troubled family may wait months without anyone asking questions or providing services or taking action. In the meantime, children may be denied reentry to school. And school, she believes, is where the response to disciplinary
infractions should happen. "School is the center of the community. Court is not the center of the community and the community is where the problems of youth should be addressed."
A panel of administrators, teachers, and advocates then spoke of their own experiences in working for change.
Michelle King, Senior Deputy Superintendent, LAUSD, acknowledged there was resistance at first to discipline reform. Teachers complained that if they couldn't suspend disruptive students, they wouldn't be able to teach. But teachers now recognize the old ways don't work and are asking, What can we do differently?
It starts, said Joe Provisor, with council circle. As the director of the Ojai Foundation's Council in Schools initiative, he has trained more than 2,000 LAUSD teachers in the simple and ancient practice of people sitting in a circle and speaking from the heart. "For most of history, this is how we learned," he said, "in circles, facing each other," a model very different from what has become traditional in our education culture, with the teacher being "the sage on the stage." In a circle, a talking stick is passed around so that everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone listens, attentively and compassionately, without judgment or criticism.
For skeptics who are averse to anything that smells like a therapy session or what they might consider New Age
crap, King cites a simple solution. Administrators and teachers should participate in circles before introducing them in the classroom. What she has seen is not only do they gain competence in the technique, but they embrace the idea after they see it's helped them resolve tensions and communicate and collaborate more effectively with colleagues.
Twenty-five LAUSD schools now regularly use council circles, either incorporated into instruction (so that personal responses and critical thinking can be encouraged, for example, in literature and social studies classes), or with specific times to address school issues allocated on the schedule, or called for when problems in the classroom arise.
Circles are a first step, says Provisor, to creating a web of connectedness, making sure each kid feels seen, listened to, and respected.
Cynthia Castillo, who uses circles in her South LA classroom, reported the response from a student: "You made me feel
like I'm human and that you want to know who I am."
Once the sense of community and of trust is created, successful school-based behavioral interventions become possible. Then the restorative justice model can be used to address disciplinary infractions and for conflict resolution or, as Provisor prefers to say, conflict exploration. It's not as though students are allowed to get away with anything. They are held accountable for their behavior, but it's "accountability," he said, "in a context of care."
That can make all the difference.
"It's relationships that change children," said Schoene Mahmood, of the Center for Urban Resilience Restorative Justice Project at Loyola Marymount University. Before coming to LA, Mahmood facilitated conflict resolution and court diversion
cases at the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and saw restorative justice successfully resolve problems in some of that city's toughest (as per "The Wire") neighborhoods.
Ben Gertner, assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, first taught there in 2002 and was
dismayed that, for years, students coming late to class were either sent to waste time in a "tardy room" or ended up in court with truancy tickets. Of course it looks easier (even if it's ineffective) to send a kid to the tardy room than it is to address the real underlying issues. But, he reported, after two teachers attended training offered by the California Conference for Equality & Justice, they spoke up in a meeting of 120 RHS teachers and heartily endorsed the restorative justice approach. One said, "It has transformed my teaching." Today, there's a restorative justice coordinator at Roosevelt.
"Restorative justice is not just like this magic solution," said Castillo. "You have to lay the groundwork with the
community building, slowing down and really listening to each other. It's hard. But we have to stop outsourcing discipline."
"We have an addiction to over-policing and punitive measures," said Julio Marquez who was, himself, pushed out of school. Now he's a graduate of Free LA High School and an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. We call the police right away, he said, because "people don't want to believe in this radical notion of just talking to someone."
He shared a recent experience when he saw an old friend from elementary school who was bleeding and apparently
suicidal. Relying on their old relationship and trust, Marquez talked him down and calmed him enough so that he could get him to accept medical care. But when Marquez phoned for the paramedics, the police arrived first. They immediately
slapped on the handcuffs. So much for trust.
Marquez prefers to talk about transformative rather than restorative justice. It's not enough to repair harm and go back to the status quo. He wants to see our society change in profound ways for the better.
All of the panelists believe that by whatever name, this new way of envisioning and implementing justice has ripple
effects in the wider community.
When Castillo explains about circles to her students' parents, they often react with excitement and say they are
going to try it at home with their kids. Provisor has trained officers with the South Gate police department who now participate in circles with students at the International Studies Learning Center. He has also trained community
members who then sit in on student circles, by their presence letting every young person know there are adults who listen to them and who care.
Face-to-face caring conversations in our classrooms: this is very different from teaching to the test.
For now, the change in our schools is just beginning. Full implementation of restorative justice will take years but
LAUSD hopes to be a model for the nation in creating an educational climate in which students feel like valued members of the school community – open to learning academic subjects and life lessons in a way that is nurturing, respectful, and humane.
A few years back, after I spent an evening at a
halfway house for men on parole, Sister Mary Sean Hodges challenged me. She has worked tirelessly through the Office of Restorative Justice, LA Archdiocese, on behalf of incarcerated men and women and those seeking to reenter society. She liked what I'd done advocating for gang members, prisoners, and criminal justice reform, but in her view I had fallen short. "You have to meet the victims, too," she said.
I did, and soon felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of so much pain and rage. I wished there could be another way--a better way--to cope with such grief, but when I heard of other ways, I was cynical. I loved Reginald Denny for forgiving the teens who beat him unconscious during LA's civil unrest, but, hey, with his head injury, he remembered nothing of the attack and I figured that made it easier to forgive. As for other cases I heard about, seriously, would you open your heart to your child's murderer? I wanted to admire such compassion but it seemed more like delusional naïveté. You'd have to be a saint--or crazy.
So it was with a sense of relief, hope, and gratitude that I watched a sneak preview of Leslie Neale's new documentary, Unlikely Friends, about victims who reached out to the perpetrators whose brutal crimes had caused so much hurt and pain. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the remarkable relationships she documents is that they actually make sense.
You can see the trailer here: http://www.unlikelyfriendsforgive.com/trailer
The seed for the film was planted about 20 years ago by a bank robber named Nelson who was featured in Neale's first documentary, Road to Return, about an innovative post-release program for the formerly incarcerated. After serving his time, Nelson had returned to the crime scene out of an urgent need to apologize. What struck Neale was not only Nelson's sense of guilt, but the impact his act had on the teller who'd had his gun held to her head. For twelve years, she said
she'd lived with the fear he would come back and kill her. Meeting him, sharing stories and family photos, and hearing his apology freed her at last from the terror that had refused to let go. There was a bigger story here, and Neale knew immediately she wanted to tell it from the victims' perspective.
As she recently explained, "Just as reformers say that prisoners need to be involved in prison reform, I think victims need to have more of their voice heard as well." Usually when that voice is heard, it's from survivors such as Harriet Salarno who appears in the film and founded Crime Victims United, a nationwide organization that has been in the forefront of putting victims rights on the public policy agenda. Her work lobbying for tough-on-crime legislation, supporting victims and their families as they attend parole board hearings to present their objections to release, is both easier to understand and strongly validated by the adversarial system. "Victims who choose to forgive aren't really given the time of day," Neale says. People are enraged by them. People call them crazy. Some keep quiet about the choice they've made, but some are willing to speak and Leslie Neale wanted their stories told.
She began to learn about the movement for restorative justice which is based on the understanding that when a person
commits a crime, it's not just a law that's been violated; someone--or a whole community--has been harmed. Punishment alone--though necessary and often satisfying--will not repair damage or help victims move forward with their lives. Restorative justice brings offenders and victims together to provide a chance for perpetrators to make amends and to promote social and individual healing.
In recent years, some California schools have successfully used the restorative justice model to address school discipline issues. Some police departments have worked with community-based facilitators to address offenses such as vandalism and shoplifting. But could restorative justice really be appropriate for murderers? After watching Unlikely
Friends, I began to think that victims of violent crime and their perpetrators are the people who need it most.
To cite just one of the unlikely friendships in the film, there's Steve Watt.
Self-described as pro-gun, pro-Republican, he was a Wyoming state trooper who believed "if you're not a cop or a family member of a cop, you're a dirtbag." Not exactly a bleeding heart. Then a bank robber named Mark put five bullets in him, taking out one of his eyes and leaving him in constant pain, unable to get around without crutches. "I wanted Mark dead," he recalls. Today he calls Mark one of his best friends.
Please watch the documentary before you jump to the wrong conclusion that Steve Watt must be soft in the heart or the
Steve and other crime victims in Unlikely Friends didn't met the offenders in order to love them. They went seeking relief and answers, sometimes confrontationally as when Debbie in Arizona insisted that her son's killer look at photos of the young man whose life he had taken. For Debbie, who had been obsessed with the desire to see her son's killer dead--whether by the death penalty or by her own hands--what she calls "forgiveness" was at first simply saving herself from that all-consuming hatred and bitterness. Today she is grateful that capital punishment was not imposed.
According to Azim Khamisa, whose son Tariq was shot dead by a 14-year-old boy, "Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die." The author of the book From Murder to Forgiveness, Khamisa reached out to the shooter's grandfather and together they founded the Tariq Khamisa Foundation, dedicated to stopping youth violence. He says, "Forgiveness is a gift I am giving myself."
But if victims reach a place of peace for their own well being through forgiveness, Neale found while doing research and
interviews that offenders were also deeply affected. Profound transformation can occur in the perpetrator when victim and offender meet in dialogue--something usually prevented under our adversarial legal system. Victims usually address
perpetrators only at sentencing hearings when, still reeling with shock and loss, they may call the offender a monster and demand the most severe punishment. Defendants are told not to apologize to their victims and victims' families. If they ignore their lawyers and try to plead guilty and accept responsibility, the judge may refuse to accept a guilty plea. Many prison officials refuse to allow victim-offender dialogue. (And even when they do, many stories don't get told--including those that Neale had to leave out of the film when prison authorities did not allow access.) Upon release, ex-offenders are
often prohibited under penalty of law from contacting their victims--a protection that may be essential in some cases but also prevents victims like the bank teller from finding relief.
Mark admits that when he shot Steve, he didn't see him as a person but merely as an object standing in his way. Now he sees many prisoners who twist everything around so they can blame the victim for their circumstances. He cannot do that. Every time Mark sees Steve or hears from him, he can't avoid facing the awful reality of the impact of his crime. If you never see the pain you've caused, he suspects you'll never learn empathy.
And that affects everyone. Most incarcerated people are eventually released and if they return to society filled with
resentment instead of insight, we're all in trouble.
In Unlikely Friends, I saw a demanding kind of forgiveness: one that insists first on punishment according to the law
but doesn't stop there. It moves beyond the law to catalyze rigorous self-examination and moral growth on the part of those who've done wrong. If it's love, it starts as tough love.
"Most offenders suffer from guilt," says Khamisa, and as I watched Unlikely Friends, I thought about how easily a person can twist the facts and seek out someone else to blame when the burden of guilt is just too much to bear.
What I witnessed in the film was mutual recognition of shared humanity, a connection that may lead to forgiveness or
friendship but is healing to both parties even if it doesn't. Some offenders may be--at least for now--beyond reach. For many, I think the victim reminds the perpetrator of that all but unbearable guilt but by recognizing the offender's
humanity makes it possible to acknowledge the guilt and carry it.
Ideas planted by Unlikely Friends are still revolving in my mind. It occurs to me that when the perpetrator becomes human to me, I can't hold the same volume of hatred inside me. Besides, I would rather accept that we live in a world in which we all experience pain and sorrow than believe we live in a world populated by monsters.
A special screening of Unlikely Friends on April 27 in Los Angeles will benefit the Amity Foundation. Among its many programs, Amity provides services to incarcerated men and women as well as men, women and families transitioning from residential treatment or incarceration to the greater community. Amity has used Neale's earlier documentary, Juvies, about teens tried as adults, extensively in their educational programs. (And for those of you who have been following Duc Ta's life as reported at the site, he will go to transitional housing provided by Amity upon his release in August.) For tickets, please click here.
If you are interesting in hosting a community screening of Unlikely Friends, please request more information here. You can also check the website for updates, to sign up for the newsletter to be informed about additional screenings, or to contact the filmmaker if you wish to order a copy.
To learn more about restorative justice around the world, please click here.
This article appeared on April 10 in New Clear Vision and April 11 in LA Progressive.
Just a quick note for those who check in here from time to time to find out what’s happening with Duc.
I am so happy to report that his parole hearing ended today with the recommendation that he be released in five months.
It’s about time!
The decision still has to be agreed to by the whole Board and by Jerry Brown, but we don’t anticipate any glitch there.
And many thanks, as always, to Leslie Neale who has been an enduring support to Duc
ever since she featured his story in her documentary, Juvies.
Today, she let me know the good news.
And I’ll be reporting soon about her new documentary, Unlikely Friends, about the healing relationships that
have grown between violent perpetrators and their victims.
Tickets for the screening on April 27th in Los Angeles to benefit the Amity Foundation can be purchased by clicking here.
Reverend James Lawson and the Power of Nonviolent Action
March 2, 2013
I am more than thrilled that much of the extensive interview I did with
Reverend Lawson back in 2007-08 has finally seen print, in this month’s issue of
The Believer. Here’s the excerpt they put on their web page. I’m waiting for the
hard copy to give to Jim Lawson who may have forgotten by now that he ever
talked to me.
Here's a link to the excerpt The Believer posted at their website.
To read the full piece, if you're not a subscriber, the magazine is available from The McSweeney’s Store.
One billion women violated is an atrocity.
One billion women dancing is a revolution.
That was the statement sent out by the One Billion Rising campaign urging women around the world to dance in the streets on February 14 and demand an end to violence against women and girls.
While "Break the Chain," the campaign's music video, screened in the background, three dozen women and a few men in the meeting room of the Los Angeles chapter, National Council of Jewish Women got up and danced before settling down to the serious business of a panel on teen dating violence.
Teen relationships "mimic adult relationships," said Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence (formerly the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women). "If we are really going to stop domestic violence, we have to work with the young."
"It's more complicated than hitting and physical abuse," said Barrie Levy. We have to look at emotional abuse as a girl's self-confidence and healthy functioning are undermined by "a pattern of coercive control."
Levy, a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and UCLA faculty member, has decades of experience working with families affected by domestic violence and teens affected by abuse in intimate relationships. She offered a typical
A boyfriend uses verbal attacks and humiliation to stay in control of his girlfriend. He constantly criticizes her, making her feel bad about herself. He's possessive and jealous, calling or texting her all the time to make sure where she is and
to accuse her of being with other guys. He knows exactly how to hurt her and so she is watchful, afraid to upset him. She apologizes all the time. She is aware that she can't do anything separate from him and so she stops spending time with
her best friend. The emotional abuse begins to escalate to physical. In the beginning, sex was special but he's been rough lately. He uses or threatens to use physical force. He's pushed her against the lockers at school. Now he's hit her a couple of times. And she can't stand the thought of losing him.
hat's wrong with these kids anyway? Just more examples of teens and bad decision making? Lindsey Horvath, Regional Coordinator for the One Billion Rising campaign, asked therapist Ava Rose if science has some answers.
Rose, the director of Women Helping Women, the community counseling and support services at the NCJW, said, "We're hardwired to stay in connection." As humans--unlike most other animals--we remain vulnerable and in need of care for many years of life. "Relationships are essential to survival," she said, which is why "when somebody becomes attached, that can feel like a life-and-death story." So breaking up isn't just hard to do: it may feel life-threatening. This is particularly true for teenagers.
Contrary to stereotype, "teens are perfectly capable of making good decisions when their minds are calm," Rose said. But the part of the brain that helps us manage emotions is still developing at that age. Teens therefore "have a harder time calming their emotions down" and that's when bad judgment comes into play.
But the great part about working with adolescents--the reason Levy loves it--is they are still developing. Which means, she says, "they can change."
Levy reminded the audience what teens may envision as the ideal romance. "It's what you see in the movies. He loves me so much, he wants me all to himself," she said, "but what starts out romantic becomes a prison. You're locked in and can't move."
If we look back honestly at our own lives, "How many of you thought, I want to be in a healthy relationship?" asked Patti
And what does one look like? Terra Slavin, attorney with the Domestic Violence Legal Advocacy Project at the LA Gay and Lesbian Center, challenged the audience to name a high profile gay couple. Society has changed enough that the media gives us many positive examples of gay and lesbian individuals, she said, but what we don't see are the healthy
She also pointed out that lesbian-identified women report abuse by intimate partners at a higher rate than
straight-identified women, and for lesbian teens, it may be particularly hard to leave the relationship. "The fear of being outed to family and school is a threat a same-sex partner can use on the other. LGBT youth are still a
disproportionate number of the homeless youth -- 40%," she said. "So when an abusive partner threatens to out them to their family, it can mean they don't have any place to go."
Giggan's Peace Over Violence organization has now introduced a pilot program in a few LAUSD schools to train teachers to be aware of the signs of teen dating violence and to take appropriate action. If teachers see a boy push a girl up against the lockers and ignore it or just walk by, it's "the worst thing that can happen," she said. It sends the message that people accept this behavior as normal.
Miguel Angel Perez, coordinator of the Male Violence Prevention Project in Santa Monica, acknowledged this as he talked
about transforming "bystanders" to "upstanders," adult men who model a different sort of masculinity for the next generation. "Masculinity is at the root of violence," he said, "so men need to step up and change the culture about
The project works, for example, with athletic coaches who may use sexist language to motivate their players. If coaches
continue to use misogynistic insults, the assistant coaches and players themselves are encouraged to speak up and challenge this. With fifth-graders, discussions focus on the kids' idea of what makes an ideal man. What does it
mean to be strong? Tough?
Yes, boys need a different concept of manhood and identity. Whether we look at gang violence or the recent examples of Adam Lanza and Christopher Dorner, we see men turning to guns and killing to erase stigma and shame and to reclaim a sense of respect and honor.
Slavin added, "We code masculinity in terms of men. We assume that masculine-identified people are the ones
perpetrating violence." This leads to automatic--sometimes incorrect--assumption that the more feminine person in an LGBT relationship is the victim.
Altogether, too many teen relationships--Giggans cited an estimate of 25-30%-- involve coercive control. And if you think it doesn't apply in your home because your kid doesn't date, think again. Many kids today don't even use that language, Giggans and Slavin agreed. They aren't "dating." They are just "hanging out."
How can you know if your own daughter (or son) is affected?
Levy said a tip-off can be behavioral changes. A girl has become more self-conscious, self-critical. She's begun dropping
activities, afraid to do anything that will get her boyfriend upset. She's become isolated, not seeing her friends anymore as the unhealthy relationship demands all her emotional and cognitive attention.
So what do you do? Telling her not to see the boy leaves her caught between a controlling boyfriend and a controlling parent. And if you ask her to choose, the boyfriend will win.
According to Levy, a parent should accept that it's not easy to end a relationship. Focus on keeping your daughter safe. Ask her, Are you emotionally safe? Physically safe? What are you doing to get yourself safe?For example, does she have a way of not being in the car when he's been drinking? Does she know how to get away when he's in a jealous rage? At the same time, focus on building her strength and support. Encourage her participation in other activities and a
life outside the relationship.
Parents of a boy should be aware if he's temperamental, volatile, quick to blow up. A mother might hear her son being
cruel and critical to the girl. She might realize he's obsessed with his girlfriend because she notices how he pays constant attention to everything the girl is doing.
Levy acknowledged some of the behavior would be hidden, but "You have to assume it's worse than what you see." A boy may try to blame the girlfriend for his behavior with excuses like, You don't know how she pushes me." Of course a mother wants to believe her son is not at fault. But he needs everyone in his life to point out to him that the way he is treating his girlfriend isn't healthy.
"The best thing parents have to offer their kids," Levy said, "is a strong relationship. Your kids should know you're there
to support them and help them make good decisions no matter how you feel about the choices they're making."
For parents and other caregivers who want more information and support, Levy and Giggans have co-authored What
Parents Need to Know about Dating Violence as well as another book forthcoming in Fall 2013. (When they asked around for advice on a title, parents of daughters wanted to call the book I Want to Kill the Bastard while teenagers suggested Parents--You Don't Have a Clue.) This spring, Levy will also facilitate a two-hour workshop, Dating Without Danger, sponsored by Women Helping Women at the NCJW, 543 N. Fairfax, Los Angeles. The date is not yet confirmed but interested parents should contact Abha Verma at 323-852-8522 by March 4 for further information or to enroll.
Finally, a confession: As I left the meeting to meet a friend and go join the dance, there were memories I couldn't shake. I
remembered when instead of being an upstander, I was a bystander. Junior high. There was a girl in my class, a lovely girl, an honors student, friendly, liked and respected. Then the gossip started going round that she was seeing the local
"bad boy" and she was "letting him" hit her. And while we gossiped, we felt ashamed of being girls. Our classmate's situation made us feel uncomfortable, icky. Even disgusted with her. I used to have nightmares in which she'd be running from that boy, trying to escape. She'd come to me for help, crying and showing me her bruises. In real life, I never tried to talk to her. I certainly hope someone did, that she had a friend or parent who did more than just gossip about her.
And then wake at night from bad dreams.
ACTION ALERT: On February 12, the Senate
reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, S. 47. But now the VAWA measure
needs a vote in the House where conservatives wish to remove about 14 words (out
of 200 pages) intended to ensure that tribal women, immigrants, LGBT
populations, and communities of color are not discriminated against in funding
or services. Please contact your representative to urge support for the Senate
version of VAWA and protect all women.
My article published January 6 in LA Progressive:
Jorge Parra is speaking out--even though his lips are sewn shut.
Parra was a skilled trades welder when he went to work for General Motors Colombian subsidiary Colmotores. There, he developed herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel in both hands, and upper spinal tendinosis.
In a translated written statement, he explained, "I underwent three surgeries and now walk with a cane due to the injuries I sustained at GM. When I first started feeling pain in my lower back and legs...I went to GM’s medical center. They gave me injections of Oxycotin and Diclofenac and sent me back to work."
Parra, who now has several screws implanted in his spine, responded by organizing ASOTRECOL [Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores] in May 2011 and was promptly fired for "instigating resentment."
Today, he is in Detroit, his travel paid by a US-based NGO, coming up on the second month of a hunger strike as he seeks an appointment with GM's CEO Daniel Akerson to make a personal plea for GM to return to mediation with former workers who, like
him, were fired after being injured on the job and left without livelihood.
My friend Patrick Bonner, coordinator of the Colombia Peace Project, knows about hunger strikes from back in the day when he accompanied Cesar Chavez. More recently, he's been on ten fact-finding missions to Colombia with organizations including
Witness for Peace and Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Bogotá in July 2012, he met with fired GM workers who were then camped out across the street from the US Embassy, seeking justice. At the time, the US Treasury Department still owned a 32% stake in General Motors which probably gave the Embassy, along with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, enough leverage to help induce now profitable GM to negotiate with the workers.
The talks collapsed, however, in August when the workers rejected a compensation offer so low it would not have covered medical and surgery costs or supported their families for long. Besides which, as Parra explained, the men don't want hand-outs. Except for those totally disabled, what they want is the chance to keep working. They seek reassignment to different positions, with retraining if necessary, so that men who can no longer do heavy lifting or suffer from repetitive stress injuries can be transferred elsewhere in the plant or on the Chevy assembly line.
Sympathizers across the US began to fast in solidarity--without sewing
their lips shut.
And this past Saturday, at the urging of the Witness for Peace organization, I accompanied Bonner and Maggie Peña, financial corporate consultant who was born in Colombia, on visits to LA-area GM dealerships to find out if local managers knew what was happening in Bogotá and Detroit.
Of course local dealerships don't determine corporate policy but they also don't answer to GM shareholders or benefit from CEO compensation packages. It seemed they would instead be concerned with any bad publicity that could tarnish the Chevrolet brand.
Peña, who has worked for major corporations including Disney, Toshiba, and IBM, said "Companies are very sensitive to how they look. You embarrass them and they are going to react." And so we hoped that managers would join us in asking GM to agree to renewed mediation or arbitration. Still, as we traveled through the LA basin and the San Fernando Valley, we didn't know what to
At dealership after dealership, general managers and sales managers gave us
thoughtful attention. (I won't name any, in case there might be repercussions
When Peña said US corporations do things in other countries they couldn't get away with here, and began to explain how unlikely it was for workers to reach a just solution in Colombia, where union leaders are assassinated and labor laws are rarely enforced, one manager nodded and replied, "I wasn't born here in this country. I know what you're saying."
Everyone we spoke to said they would bring the subject up with the Detroit reps they deal with. GM might respond in the same way the corporation did in an email to the Wall Street Journal: "GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk."
GM has also released statements that almost all claims by former employees have been dismissed in court. ASOTRECOL members say their medical
records were falsified. Indeed, the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy reports that Jorge Parra's insurance carrier did indeed alter records so that his injuries would not be considered work-related. The company was found guilty for this and fined the equivalent of $16,000. However, in spite of this determination, the falsified documents remain legally binding and Parra's claim remains dismissed--exactly the kind of shenanigans referred to by Peña.
As Peña also pointed out in visit after visit, "With global communications and social media, it's instant. What happens in Bogotá is known right away in Los Angeles and Detroit." Even if the managers didn't express support for the workers, just having them raise the issue and ask questions would achieve our goal. We wanted GM headquarters to see that the struggle of the Colmotores workers cannot be kept under the radar.
Why should this matter to the average American? Due to the bailout, GM was owned by us, and the more US companies can
get away with exploitative practices in other countries, the more attractive it becomes to export jobs.
After arriving in Motor City, Jorge Parra had another compelling reason. "I have talked mostly with autoworkers from the Midwest, who have shared with me their horror stories: how the two-tier wage system gives companies an incentive to continually hire low wage workers and creates tension between workers; how supervisors forced their workers to continue working in nearly 100-degree heat; and how unions are becoming weaker and unable to guarantee workers’rights."
He heard about tier-two workers in the US who didn’t receive all the safety training they needed to handle dangerous equipment.
"I was surprised to hear that these practices were happening here...it seems to me that multinationals are testing out new systems
of worker repression in developing countries and now they are transferring those systems to the 'developed world.' GM implemented a two-tier system in Colombia before it did in Detroit. Now workers are only considered for wage increases after three years on the job, but few make it that far. It is easier for GM to dispose of its workers after they have forfeited their health and before they start to cost the company more money. ..This practice must not be allowed to continue in Colombia or the United States."
In the meantime, Patrick Bonner is planning more visits to dealerships, hoping to meet more managers like the man who said, "It's disturbing on so many levels--for humanity." While Maggie Peña explained her involvement this way: "It doesn't have anything to do with me being Colombian. It has to do with what's right."
If you wish to express your concern to General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, please write to him at 300 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243
Somehow I neglected to post this in the blah blah blog when it went live in Hollywood Progressive on October 14, 2012.
The Invisible War: Combating Military Sexual Trauma
After The Invisible War, a documentary about sexual assault in the US military, screened Thursday evening, a woman stood up from the audience to say she had just celebrated her 80th birthday and that, as a young woman, she’d been raped by a stranger. She wanted everyone to know that today she’s a happy person. Yes, she said to loud applause, “it is possible to heal.”
Healing, being able to move forward with their own lives, is surely what everyone wishes for survivors of sexual violence. But as documentary producer Amy Ziering suggested to the audience during the post-film discussion, in the military, it’s a lot harder to recover if you are far from home, have no support, are called a liar and threatened with retaliation or even death if you tell, and surely worst of all, have to report to your job the next day to the very person who raped you.
Kori Cioca was stalked and harassed by her commanding officer in the Coast Guard for weeks before he attacked her. He’d call her at 3:00 AM. She’d come in from training and find him waiting in her bed. Then, in 2005, he smashed her jaw during the violent rape. By the time The Invisible War screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year and won the Audience Award, Cioca was still in pain, still unable to eat anything but soft food, and had still not been able to get the VA to approve the jaw surgery she needed. An audience member stepped forward and footed the bill for her at last.
Hers is only one of many stories. The Department of Defense itself estimates that in 2011 there were 19,000 violent sex crimes in which a military service member was assaulted by other military personnel.
The Invisible War brings us close into the lives of survivors, letting us see not only the long lasting damage of Military Sexual Assault (MST) but the toll on families struggling through recovery along with them as they deal with suicide attempts, physical and psychological consequences.
Over the years, I have known several women vets from around the country who were raped while serving. What I didn’t know till I watched The Invisible War was how widespread the crime has become and how the system of military justice in its very structure fails to address it. I learned a woman serving in Iraq or Afghanistan is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. And that almost half of the survivors of military rape are men.
Men tend to be even less willing than women to speak openly about what they endured. But Ziering and director Kirby Dick were able to include brief interviews with several male survivors, including Amando Javier for whom the seven Marines who gang raped him still “live in my head.” Michael Matthews kept silent for 30 years after he was knocked to the ground en route to the mess hall
and then raped by two fellow soldiers. He struggled alone with the demons born of his trauma, fearing his wife would leave him if she knew. When he told his story at last to her and the filmmakers, his wife put her arms around him and, he says now, “this great weight had been lifted off me.”
These male-on-male assaults are not about sexual orientation. The perpetrators aren’t gay. The men aren’t targeted as gay. It’s about dominance, about predators going after targets they believe they can prey upon.
The majority of men in the military are not predators. But a recent US Navy survey which assured anonymity found that 15% of incoming recruits reported commiting rape or attempted rape in civilian life–a frightening statistic especially if Russell Strand, Chief of the US Army Family Advocacy Law Enforcement Training Division, is right when he states that the average sex offender is a repeat offender with about 300 victims.
And the military is “a target-rich environment for a predator,” according to Brigadier General (Ret.) Loree Sutton, M.D., who served as the highest ranking psychiatrist in the US Army. New recruits must obey the orders of commanding officers, the only people to whom an assault can be reported are often themselves perpetrators or close friends of the perpetrators. How do you think Jessica Hinves felt when she reported she’d been raped and her accused assailant was named Airman of the Year while the investigation was ongoing? Taliban-worthy logic often prevails as women including Andrea Werner and Elle Helman were charged with adultery when they reported being raped.
Myla Haider had doubts about the effectiveness of military justice when she served as a Special Agent in the Army Criminal Investigation Command. In investigating a rape complaint, instead of treating the men as suspects, she was ordered to interrogate the women, seeking to prove they were making false statements. Then she herself was raped by a serial rapist. When she reported it, Haider was administratively discharged without benefits after 9-1/2 years of service.
In their interviews on-screen, the survivors talk about their love for the military, their pride in serving, but when asked if they would want a daughter to serve, the answer was No.
Several years ago, I met a bright, self-possessed, and self-confident high school senior who intended to join up after graduation. Admittedly, I didn’t want to see any young person enlist and go to war, but this was a young woman and I knew the additional risk. I gave her scholarship and loan information and warned her about sexual assault. She remained determined to pursue a military career but I was relieved she decided to go to college first and enter the military service with officer rank. I hoped this would, at least, make her less vulnerable.
But at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington–which handles security for the White House–both Ariana Klay–back from service in Iraq, and Elle Helmer had the rank of lieutenant and this did not protect them from being harassed and later raped by superior officers. The culture of the unit was one of partying, drinking, and misogyny. The women were called “walking mattresses” and “sluts.” According to Klay, a senior officer in her command, the very first time he spoke to her, said, “Female Marines here are nothing but objects for Marines to fuck.”
The attitude of the post commander can make all the difference. As Ziering pointed out, most of the women in the film had entirely positive experiences for most of their military careers.
“Everything I wanted to be,” said Cioca, “they taught you that.” “Everything about the military inspired me,” said Klay who
cited the challenges of being smart and fit, and her love of the professionalism and camaraderie. Indeed, the powerful sense of camaraderie, once it’s turned against you, makes the women feel all the more betrayed. Cioca enjoyed the discipline of military life, till she encountered an undisciplined superior.
Trina McDonald breezed through basic training in the Navy but was then sent to an isolated post in Alaska where she was immediately made to feel “like a piece of meat on a slab.” She was raped soon after. After separation from the Navy, McDonald went through a period of homelessness and addiction before finding a stable life with marriage and children. But she is not free of the effects of the trauma. Says her wife, “The biggest hurdle was not taking PTSD personally.”
McDonald’s account made me think of a friend who loved the military life but received transfer orders to a post with a reputation for violent misogyny. “I knew I couldn’t go there,” she said and so she outed herself during the era of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in order to be discharged from the Army.
After Thursday’s screening, an audience member told Ziering, “I hope you made money on this so more work like this can be made.” Money? No. But Ziering and Dick are now so committed to serving those who served their country that Ziering paid her own way to LA to speak and waived the payment of an honorarium. The filmmakers have created a second website, Invisible No More, http://www.notinvisible.org/ which offers lists of resources for veterans, a petition to the Pentagon to advocate for new policies, discussion guides and information about hosting a screening. Ziering and Dick are now setting up a fund to assist vets whose PTSD/MST and physical needs aren’t being adequately addressed.
Since the Sundance screening, the invisible war has become much more visible. The major networks have–coincidentally?–aired brief segments about the issue, even when the documentary isn’t mentioned. Ziering first learned about MST through the work of Columbia journalism professor Helen Benedict. Now Benedict’s Salon article from 2007 and her books are getting deserved attention. Veterans interviewed in the film are now subjects of feature articles in print around the country. The scandals that have occasionally made the news over the last decades are no longer seen as isolated incidents. The Invisible War has received almost
entirely laudatory coverage in the media–except for some voices in the blogosphere. Because of my great respect for the filmmakers, I want to address some of the negative responses, including the charge of “demagoguery,” that can be found on-line.
• The confessed and alleged perpetrators weren’t given screen time to respond. True. But would they want to appear? The documentary shielded their identities. Each one of us can judge whether this was the right call or not.
• The film shows women vets going to court and having their case dismissed because rape is considered an occupational hazard in the military. This claim gets called “demagoguery” because the court decision in question never cites anything like “occupational hazard.” So I looked this up and find the filmmakers did simplify the legal situation. I don’t fault them for this. If you care to read more than could easily fit into the documentary, keep reading this paragraph and see what you think. Otherwise, please skip ahead. A case that went up to the Supreme Court in 1950, Feres v. the United States, established a doctrine that persons in military service are barred from suing the government for any injury that occurs “incident to military service” — i.e., in laymen’s terms, an occupational hazard. The Feres doctrine has so far precluded women (and men) from bringing suit over rapes and assaults in which the Department of Justice or branches of service were negligent or complicit. Attorney Susan Burke has been trying to make a strategic end run around Feres by asserting Constitutional arguments, filing cases and appeals in different jurisdictions. As for the US District Court case we see being filed in The Invisible War, yes, the judge’s eventual decision to dismiss came down on other grounds and didn’t mention occupational hazards. But when the women’s case was not allowed to proceed, this left the Feres language about “incident to military service” still standing as an obstacle in the way of access to the civilian justice system.
• The claim is that contrary to the what the film says, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not announce a policy change two days after seeing the film because accusations of rape were always handled up the chain of command and not resolved at the unit level. In fact, Panetta made it mandatory that unit commanders refer all complaints up the chain of command. As the documentary
shows, in the problem units, commanders used their own discretion to close down investigations or bury complaints instead of moving them up.
Unlike some bloggers, the Pentagon is taking the film seriously. Ziering and Dick have been invited to offer a two-day training session at a major base. Their program is surely more likely to have an impact than past anti-rape initiatives undertaken by the military, including the informational poster: Don’t risk it! Ask her when she’s sober! which merely perpetuates the myth that women cry rape the morning after consensual sex. A better approach would be to tell soldiers they have a duty to intervene when they hear a woman like Navy recruit Hannah Sewell screaming for help. No one within earshot responded to her calls for help during the violent attack that took her virginity, injured her back, and left her bruised and bleeding. Oh, by the way, her rape kit and the photos of her injuries were “lost.” Her father, Sgt. Major Jerry Sewell was serving in Afghanistan during part of the time The Invisible War was being filmed but, back in the States, he decided to appear on-camera. He resigned his commission and gave up his military career in order to speak freely, at times in tears, about what happened to his daughter.
MST and the military’s failure to stop it is all very visible now. And with this visibility, Ziering is hopeful. As she told the audience, “When the military takes on an issue, they really can effect change more effectively than in civilian life. The military led the way in racial equality. If the military can take this on and model non-misogynistic behavior, maybe it will make a difference” not just for people in uniform but eventually in civilian life as well.
* * * *
Thursday’s screening and Q&A was hold at the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax, LA 90036. Due to public interest, a second screening is scheduled for Wednesday, November 7th from noon till 2:30. School groups are welcome, but as seating is limited, please inquire and reserve your places by contacting Ruth Williams, Director of Advocacy, at 323-852-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org/ As of this writing, it’s not known whether Amy Ziering will be able to attend.
To learn about hosting your own screening, please go to:http://www.notinvisible.org/host_a_screening
Hollywood Progressive, October 15, 2012
My article today in LA Progressive:
Graduate Them, Don’t Incarcerate Them! The Movement to Keep Young People in School
The problem isn’t a secret: California schools suspend more students than they graduate, tracking them to jail instead of to success. But Ramiro Rubalcaba was surprised when he found himself being part of the solution.
Rubalcaba told his story at a forum on school discipline held in Los Angeles
on September 10, sponsored by the California Endowment, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torkalson, and the Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Two years ago, when Rubalcaba was assistant vice principal at Garfield High School, the school was suspending 600 students a year and was challenged to bring those numbers down. He didn’t see how it would be possible to do so and still maintain order on a campus unfortunately known for violence, gangs, and drugs. After all, the approach throughout the US has long been to get unruly
kids out of the classroom so that teachers can teach.
“We were forced into these meetings,” Rubalcaba said, but “OK, we’ll comply.” This meant professional development for faculty and staff; meetings with students, parents, faculty, and law enforcement. One of those law enforcement sessions spun his head around as he watched a video interview and heard the words of a boy who’d killed his parents and then taken a gun for an attack on his school: I’d rather be wanted for murder than not wanted at all.
Rubalcaba was convinced the school culture had to change. Disruptive students couldn’t be made to feel that everyone would be better off without them. All students and their parents had to feel welcome and wanted in an environment where every effort would be made to keep kids in school instead of pushing them out.
It should seem obvious: when kids miss days of school for suspensions and court dates, they fall behind. When they fall behind, they are bored and frustrated in class and more likely to get in more trouble and be punished with more suspensions or to drop out altogether.
“We took suspension off the table,” Rubalcaba said. He then led efforts to implement a program of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Together, the entire school community worked on a document setting out expectations about behavior and the consequences of violations. The students themselves told the administration where on campus fights were most likely to break out and which sites most needed adult supervision. Instead of kicking a kid out of school for an offense, the violation is now seen as an opportunity for the young person to learn from his or her mistake–and for faculty and administration to learn more about the young person and the roots of the inappropriate behavior.
Garfield suspensions went down from 600/year to a single suspension from 2010-2011. (That one case was mandatory under the state education code because the student had carried a box cutter to school.) Keeping all those presumed troublemakers in class didn’t lead to disruption. Instead, achievement test scores went up.
Garfield’s success led to media attention and the doubters (“haters,” in Rubalcaba’s word) came to campus expecting to find fudged statistics and a troubled campus. “Those haters became believers.”
Overall, according to school board president Monica Garcia, the Los Angeles Unified School District has cut suspension rates in half, in part thanks to a new policy that was adopted after tireless advocacy by community groups: students are no longer cited for truancy when they are en route to school or arriving just after the bell.
That’s the good news.
Not good enough. “Thank you,” Garcia told the young people and community advocates in the audience, “for not being satisfied with our current status quo.”
The reality remains that 18,000 students are expelled from school each year in California and more than 700,000 suspensions are reported.
As LAUSD Superintendant John Deasy has acknowledged, “Multiple suspensions basically signal, Don’t come here anymore.”
The California Endowment, a health organization, cares about school discipline because suspended students are more likely to drop out and the Endowment sees high school graduation as a “protective health factor.” Going to jail usually leads to negative health.California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has frequently explained that being suspended triples a
young person’s likelihood of contact with the juvenile justice system within the year. Brian Nelson, speaking at Monday’s event on behalf of Attorney General Harris explained education is “a powerful tool for reducing violence” as truancy is an “on-ramp to becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.” Harris recognized the importance of keeping kids in school when she was San Francisco District Attorney and noted that “94% of San Francisco homicide victims under the age of 25 were high school dropouts.”
But in California today, young people are still being arrested and taken from classrooms in handcuffs for nonviolent offenses. Kids entering the juvenile justice system–for offenses as trivial as being tardy–get an inadequate education on the inside and are often denied re-enrollment in the public schools when they come out, leading to a lifetime of anger, frustration, lost opportunity, and an increased likelihood of criminal behavior.
Do we understand that when young people are repeatedly shamed and humiliated, we plant the seeds of aggression?
Forty percent of chronically truant children are in elementary school, losing the basic foundation in reading, arithmetic, and social skills. “We need to target their families,” said Nelson, “not to punish them but to find out what resources the parents need to get the kids to school.” At a time of budget cuts, where will those resources come from?
California still has one of the highest rates of push-out in the nation. Youth of color–especially African American males–receive harsh discipline at a much higher rate than their white peers even when the discipline history and offense are the same. In general, girls receive more lenient treatment than boys, except for African American girls.
“We ought to be outraged as a country,” said Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education. “Discipline sits within a larger context of inequity.” Where you see racial disparities in disciplinary patterns, she said, you also see other problems. The neighborhoods with high harsh discipline rates tend to be low-income with students of color and they also more often fail to offer the courses required for college admission. “Who gives students access early and gives them what they need to succeed?” she asked. “Who has access to gifted and talented programs?” She wasn’t just talking about Advanced Placement courses either. Many schools with a predominantly low-income African American student body fail to offer algebra in
7th and 8th grade. When the courses are offered, “African American students pass at the same rate as anyone else,” she said.
From the statistics collected by the Department, it’s become clear that minor offenses are punished more harshly when the student is black. Along with the numbers, Ali cited examples from around the US: A chronically tardy white student gets a conference at school; a black student tardy for the first time is suspended. Teachers and administrators often try to understand the white students and figure out why the kids are having the problem. With students of color, there’s an immediate jump to punishment. A black youth blurts out a bad word in gym class and is immediately suspended while at the same school, a group of white girls curses at the teacher and disrupts the class. Their parents get a phone call.
Is there an unconscious assumption that black parents wouldn’t care? Edward Madison, a South LA parent leader with the CADRE community organization, told the gathering “Parents–not just kids–are pushed out. Parents and caregivers have the right to participate in their children’s education.” But African American parents who do try to participate in school are told directly it’s their own fault if their kids “act out and don’t succeed.” Feeling unwelcome, they stop participating.
Rob McGowan, CADRE’s associate director of organizing, pointed out that most suspensions in California have nothing to do with drugs or violence. “Willful defiance is largest single reason for suspension”–a term that lends itself to subjective interpretation and bias.
“We want a moratorium on non-serious suspensions,” said Madison. “Replace a life sentence with life lessons.”
CADRE called for access to disciplinary data broken down by race, ethnicity, disability, language, and gender.
Statistics are valuable consciousness-raising tools. “Teachers don’t realize their split-second decisions are leading to discrimination,” said Ali, “until they see the aggregate.”
“You can’t apply a race-neutral solution to a race-based issue,” said Curtiss Sarikey of the Unified School District of Oakland, “a city that has a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of violence.” He explained that school superintendent Dr. Tony Smith considered specific needs in implementing the Thriving Students Model. For example, Manhood Development Classes designed for young African
American men almost eliminated suspensions and absenteeism among those attending and also upped their GPAs.
Although students with disabilities presumably have extra procedural protections, other disturbing data shows they are actually suspended at a higher rate.
And there’s a category that gets overlooked entirely in the statistics.
“As LGBTQ youth are more openly out in the school, increased visibility has meant less safety” said Geoffrey Winder of the Gay Straight Alliance Network. As a result, students may get in trouble for carrying a weapon they believe they need for self-defense. There’s bias on the part of administrators and, too often, gay students who have not come out at home find their parents are
notified of their orientation by the school administration, resulting in rejection, violence, kids forced to leave home.
Ali added that LGBTQ students are suspended when administrators see gender nonconformity as willful defiance or disruption.
Brandon Serpas, a youth leader, related his own experience as a bullied gay student. When he was harassed in class, the teacher ignored it. With the school supposedly committed to anti-bullying efforts, he went and talked to the assistant principal. The result: the offending boy was suspended, much to Brandon’s dismay. “Suspension doesn’t help harassment or bullying. It doesn’t address the attitudes.” The boy was back in school three days later, and Brandon had real reason to fear. What he had wanted was a program of restorative justice and a way to teach respect.
Restorative justice asks Who was harmed? What are the needs and responsibilities of all the parties? How do all the people affected work together to address needs and repair harm?
Programs based on this model are being used successfully in some California schools. According to MaryJane Skjellerup of the Youth Leadership Institute in the Central Valley, “Students want to be listened to, to tell us why they struggle with behavior problems. Each student has different needs,” she said, but “they all want to succeed.” The discipline model now in place in the Fresno Unified School District allows opportunities for student voices. They have the chance to learn from their mistakes and be held accountable. The focus is on improvement. Students are part of the solution, asked for their input on making a plan to make right what went wrong. The program addresses the needs of victims and also educates community leaders that harsh discipline leads to dropping out.
Administrators throughout California want to do better. On September 10, EdSource, an independent nonprofit research and policy organization, released a survey of school districts covering about 2/3 of all students in the state. The report documents that administrators overwhelmingly want to address discipline by hiring more counselors and support staff rather than by increasing security measures. They recognize and are concerned with the disproportionate effect of harsh discipline on students of
color. One in five administrators want more discretion, having regretfully expelled a student because the state education code mandated it when they would have preferred a different approach.
In the 90′s, said Manuel Criollo of the Labor Community Strategy Center, “there was robust funding for police in schools.” Today, how do we fund counselors instead while support services outside of school in the community remain underfunded and inadequate?
Laura Faer, education rights director for Public Counsel Law Center, pointed out that schools receive funding based on the number of students in attendance. Keeping students in class means more resources for the school. In fact, she said, a bill that would have taken suspension off the table completely in California died in the Appropriations Committee on the grounds that more
students in school would cost the state more money. (What are our priorities?!?!)
The audience, including at least 50 young people who attended after school, heard from a number of their peers, including Camerian Ponn. The American-born son of survivors of the genocide in Cambodia, Ponn told of growing up in Long Beach in a community affected by poverty and trauma. His cousin died in his arms, victim to a driveby shooting. His brothers and sisters were all dropouts and told him he would be the same–a prediction that seemed likely to come true when he was kicked out of high school for failing to bring a book to English class one day. Though Ponn was later able to earn the credits he lacked at a summer alternative school and is now in college, he looks back on high school as a place where he felt “unmotivated, unloved, and depressed.”
School is too often “a minefield of laws you can break,” said Criollo.
Schools need to rethink zero-tolerance policies and stop abdicating their responsibility for the young to the police. The criminalization of school-based offenses, usually nonviolent in nature, helps drive the juggernaut of mass incarceration that is crushing low-income communities of color. If we want young people to develop concern for others and values based in respect and fair play, school has to become a model of fairness, caring, and respect. When that happens and schools offer safety, welcome, respect, and nurture, more young people growing up in poverty and in violent environments will find refuge and sustenance inside those doors.
* * * * *
As part of the movement to reform school discipline, the state legislature has passed seven common sense bills that now sit on Governor Brown’s desk awaiting signature. Brief descriptions follow:
SB 1235: Schools with high suspension rates are encouraged
to adopt behavioral strategies and attend one of three annual forums to learn
AB 1729: Strengthens existing law that requires, in most
circumstances, that suspension be used only after other means have failed.
AB 1909: When a youth in foster care is pending explusion or
harsh discipline, bring to the table the adults responsible for that child’s
AB 2242: Students cannot be expelled from an entire school
district for willful defiance or disruption of school activities.
AB 2537: Provides some discretion for a principal or
superintendent not to expel if circumstances don’t warrant it; possession of
imitation weapon or over-the-counter or prescription medication will no longer
be automatic grounds for expulsion. (Discretion would have prevented a recent
insane outcome. A student talked a classmate into handing over a knife, then
took the knife to the principal’s office to turn it in and request help for the
classmate. After being praised, the good citizen received a mandatory suspension
for being in possession of the weapon.)
SB 1088: Prohibits schools from denying enrollment or
readmission to a youth who has had contact with the juvenile justice system.
AB 2616: Calls for schools to address root causes of truancy and create an
attendance plan rather than immediately referring the matter to law enforcement.
It also provides administrators with discretion as to whether to involve the
juvenile justice system. (Right now the Court takes automatic jurisdiction after
the 4th offense.)
To express an opinion on these bills, call Jerry Brown’s legislative affairs
office at 916/445-4341. Or download letters of support
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker