Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh Arizona...

Oh Arizona!  How I wish I wasn't blogging about you so constantly.  Often when one is featured often, it is (hopefully) for good things, such as when Meryl Streep wins her third Oscar.  But in this case, Arizona is just being disgraced on a constant basis, similar to the many mentions of Rick Santorum each day running up to the 2012 US elections.  First it was the banning of various texts on an individual basis, then the dismantling of the Ethnic Studies programs in Tucson, and now teachers may be in trouble if they bring books into their classrooms that aren't on pre-approved lists.

Kellie Mejdrich reports in the Tucson Sentinel that "Teachers could have their licenses revoked if they bring any supplemental books into the classroom that aren’t pre-approved by the district and posted on a website for parental view."  Teachers, understandably, are not too pleased with this development.  They are even less impressed, however, that Bibles may become mandatory to have in classrooms, violating what many consider a necessary separation of education from biased religious teaching.
The article goes on: "Currently, Arizona law requires the school board to “exclude from school libraries all books, publications and papers of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character,” state statute says. But if the bill were to pass, an exception would be included for the Bible as well as any materials for this elective course. Disciplinary action over religious preaching in the classroom would also be softened—from the outright revocation of a teaching license, to providing teachers immunity from liability as long as they teach the class 'in good faith.'"
Many consider this a violation of constitutional rights, being that the Christian Bible will be used to the exclusion of other religious texts or even other versions of the Bible that include extra books, as in the case of the Catholic version which contains Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, and others.
Anjali Abraham of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona agreed that introduction of the Bible as a state-sanctioned religious text to the exclusion of others was a serious violation of constitutional rights.
“In designing a curriculum to familiarize students with recorded history of the bible, schools are going to have to decide what counts as recorded history and our concern is that invariably means embracing a particular religious viewpoint or a couple of religious viewpoints and then as a consequence rejecting others and that's a real First Amendment problem,” Abraham said.
Abraham added that the lenient language for chastising preachy teachers as well as the establishment of a specific Bible course to the exclusion of other texts was problematic.
While I have no problem with the Bible being taught in school, except when it is included in classrooms while other religious texts are excluded.  Some of those in favor of the legislation say that the Bible is the most important religious text in Western culture, so that is the main reason.  Professor John Ulreich had the following to say in regards to focusing on a text such as the Bible:
“The Bible teaches you whatever you want to learn. You want to learn that men should dominate women? You can find it in the Bible. You want to believe that god hates gay people? You can find it in the Bible. You can also find places in both testaments that tell us that the fundamental spiritual and moral obligations are to love God and love our neighbors,” Ulreich said. “The Bible can be inspiring but it offers rich examples of very bad behavior. People who believe that the bible is all good for you, just haven’t really read the Bible.”
And as I said before, the legislation is also attempting to keep other texts out of the classroom: "legislators are trying to keep other speech out of the classroom, and threaten revocation of licenses for teachers engaged in 'uni-partisan activities' in the classroom, using FCC-defined obscene language, and bringing in books not pre-approved by the school board."

Arizona representatives who are in favor of this legislation make me so angry!!  The last year or so has seen the emergence of ridiculous, explosive, and religiously destructive legislation and politicians.  While up here in Canada I watch it as some sort of spectacle, I understand how terrible it is that these sorts of decisions are taking America into a very scary, overly-conservative and incredibly biased age, mostly based on erroneous understandings of religious doctrine.  In light of this, I worry greatly over the teaching of the Bible in elementary, middle, or secondary school classrooms.  I can only hope the legislation does not go through, or that Arizona is finally encapsulated under an indestructible bubble that will discourage the spread of such horrendous ideology.

I apologize if this post doesn't make as much sense as some, or if I sound like I'm rambling too much, but it's late, and this sort of news makes me quite frustrated.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

School District Ordered to Stop Censoring LGBT Sites

February 15, 2012

Robyn Shepherd, ACLU national, (212) 519-7829 or 549-2666;
Debbie Read and Anthony Rothert, ACLU of Eastern Missouri, (314) 669-3420;

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A federal district court ruled today that the Camdenton R-III School District must stop censoring web content geared toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities through discriminatory filtering software. The ruling orders the district to not block content based on the viewpoints expressed by the website.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri filed a lawsuit against the district in August 2011 after repeated warnings that its custom-built filtering software discriminates against LGBT content. The filter has a category that blocks LGBT-supportive information, including hundreds of websites that are not sexually explicit in any way. The filter does, however, allow students to view anti-LGBT sites that condemn homosexuality or opposed legal protections for LGBT people.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Camdenton High School student and LGBT organizations whose websites are blocked by the filter: PFLAG National (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Campus Pride and DignityUSA, a Catholic LGBT organization. The plaintiffs were also represented by Thompson Coburn LLP.

“The court correctly recognized the constitutional rights of all students to viewpoint-neutral access to information,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney with the ACLU LGBT Project. “It is absolutely possible to protect children from sexually explicit content while also protecting their First Amendment rights. Like thousands of other school districts across the country, Camdenton R-III will now begin using a filtering system that blocks pornography without discriminating against LGBT-related content.”

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri said that the district’s filtering system “systematically allows access to websites expressing a negative viewpoint toward LGBT individuals by categorizing them as ‘religion,’ but filters out positive viewpoints toward LGBT issues by categorizing them as ‘sexuality.’” Although the district argued that it would unblock individual websites upon request the court held that “students may be deterred from accessing websites expressing a positive view toward LGBT individuals either by the inconvenience of having to wait twenty-four hours for access or by the stigma of knowing that viewpoint has been singled out as less worthy by the school district and the community.”

The court also concluded that other filtering systems are available that “are much more effective” at filtering out pornography “and do so without burdening websites that express a positive viewpoint toward LGBT individuals.”

“The filtering system that had been installed at Camdenton R-III was arbitrary, ineffective and discriminatory,” said Anthony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri. “Today’s ruling affirms that students will be free to search for resources for their gay-straight alliance, seek support against bullying and research history as it pertains to LGBT people, just as they would for any other subject.”

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Walk-outs and Teach-ins: How Students are Taking a Stand in AZ

This is really amazing to see.  Students walking out of schools and staging Teach-ins to show the Tuscon Independent School District that not only were they irresponsible for getting rid of the Ethnic Studies program, but also that the students actually want to learn.  Let me say that again, because sometimes it's hard to believe: These students want to learn!  Check out this news footage:

Here's a great quote from the video (cited from the official transcript of the newscast posted on The Real News), if you don't have time to actually watch the clip:
NOLAN CABRERA, PH. D., COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: When students do walk out its frequently framed in the media as these students just don’t want to be in school, they’re cutting class it’s like senior skip day, and so really what the students did was they went and they created their own school, the school of ethnic studies, the teaching of the forbidden curriculum, and so it was on Jan 24 it was their big act of both educational activism and civil disobedience they had well over 100 students from across the district show up at that event and having personally attended it it was absolutely beautiful seeing students who were so engaged and willing to fight for their own education because educational apathy is something endemic in this country, these students were fighting for it.
This is so important.  In this case it's not only academics, scholars, teachers, and politicians who are making a stand against the stupidity of this whole situation.  The students are fighting for something important: their right to learn, and not only to learn, but to learn about what is relevant and necessary in a multicultural nation!

Of course the most infuriating part of this whole scandal, to me at least, is the reaction of Superintendent John Pedicone of the TUSD stated that he thinks the outcry against the decision to remove the program is just a distraction, according to AlterNet.  He also refuses to comment on why the books have been removed from display and library shelves as well as from classrooms.  According to the AlterNet article, "the violation-ridden Tucson school district under [Pedicone's] leadership will apparently celebrate next week’s centennial without any textbooks or special recognition of Mexican American history and heritage or the Mexican American founder of Tucson public schools, Estevan Ochoa."

Pedicone even went so far as to write a letter to University Faculty members who helped the students with their Teach-in, basically scolding them and blaming them for the students skipping classes in protest.  He then proceeded to make sure that students were punished, by first attempting to assign them janitorial work.  After realizing what a terrible move that was, he changed the punishment to detentions, stating that suspension would be the next step for students who continue to skip classes in protest.  The fact that he actually scolded university faculty members for helping students to learn what should be in the school curriculum is laughable!  But if you want to read the whole letter, you can get to it here.

Many well-known authors, scholars, and activists have been out in force trying to get the program reinstated, or at least get the books out of the warehouse where they are sitting uselessly, gathering dust, instead of being used to teach.  As Norma Gonzalez stated, the program is needed so that "Tucson children can learn their state’s full history and rich heritage."  Noam Chomsky even chimed in.  While in Tucson this week, Chomsky "referred to Tucson’s removal of Mexican American Studies books and curriculum materials as an 'international disgrace.'"

Henry Giroux, noted education scholar, had a few things to say in an article posted this week on Truth Out.  He concluded the piece with a very stern warning:
The Arizona censorship of ethnic studies, the destruction of associated knowledges and the silencing of dissent is one of those events that flash before us in ways that might at first suggest nothing more than a silly, irrational or anomalous happening. But that is far from the actual case. Placed within a long view of history, it clearly signals the formation of those antidemocratic forces waiting in the shadows for an opportune moment to enshroud the entirety of the United States in what the philosopher Hannah Arendt once called, “dark times.”
It is truly unfortunate that these events are taking place to begin with, and every time I start reading the news about Tuscon specifically, and Arizona generally, I find my insides beginning to boil.  I want so badly for the school district, especially the superintendent, to see reason and figure out a way to bring the program back.  I want to see those protesting students see a resolution for their efforts!  At least there are people out there, like Henry Giroux, Christ Crutcher, Norma Gonzalez, Debbie Reese, and so many others, who are working their asses off to make change, and I can't thank them enough for doing what I can't do from outside of the country!

And now, before my blood starts to boil and I get overwhelmed with the craziness, I will sign off for the night.  Thanks, as ever, for reading and for caring.