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Vigilante Desegration: Ohio Mom Jailed for Sending her (Black) Children to a Better (White) School

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By TaRessa Stovall, Special to the NNPA from thedefendersonline.com –

While various states and the federal government play policy ping-pong on the issue of school desegregation/diversity, the plight of one mother has starkly symbolized the obstacles that often confront less-than-privileged parents who seek quality education for their children.

When Kelley Williams-Bolar, a single Black mother living in public housing in Akron, Ohio, was sentenced to 10 days in jail for sending her daughters to the Copley-Fairlawn school district outside of her educational jurisdiction, the issue of what parents—especially Black, low-income parents—will do to get their children a better education burst into the national consciousness.

“This is not the first time that a family has lied to get their children a better, safer education,” writes Lisa Belkin on The New York Times Parenting Blogs. “Throughout the country, financially strapped school districts have been increasing surveillance in the weakened economy … reluctant to spend money teaching students who are not legally entitled to be there.”

Williams-Bolar’s father lives in the Copley-Fairlawn district and in November, 2009, she was arrested and charged with two felony counts of tampering with official records for putting her father’s address on her daughters’ school records. “She was also charged with grand theft—the school wanted $30,000 in tuition for the two girls—but the jury could not reach a unanimous decision,” reported Newser.com.

“Williams-Bolar is not even the first parent accused of sneaking into this particular district during the particular years in question,” Belkin wrote on the Times blog. “As … noted in The Beacon Journal during the trial, ‘….school-district officials testified that some 30 to 40 similar residency issues had arisen with other families during the two years at issue in Williams-Bolar’s case. No one else faced criminal prosecution or civil court action, the school officials said.’”

The Superintendent admitted that similar cases are normally resolved without legal intervention. Ironically, the beleaguered mother was a semester away from completing an education degree at the University of Akron. She worked as a special needs teaching assistant at a local high school, but as a convicted felon, could no longer qualify for that position.

For days, the blogosphere was aflame with updates and opinions from all sides. Many debated whether race was an issue. Several wondered why the charges were so harsh but in spite of several pre-trial hearings, “the state would not move, would not budge, and offer Ms. Williams-Bolar to plead to a misdemeanor,” the Akron Beacon Journal stated.

The activist blogs Colorofchange.org and Change.org gathered more than 100,000 signatures on petitions in support of Williams-Bolar.

On January 27th, the notorious mother was released a day early, facing two years of probation and 80 hours of community service. In early February, Williams-Bolar met with the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton about her case. A rally is being planned in Ohio, and Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. “is working to secure a Constitutional Amendment to guarantee all children access to an equal and high-quality education,” according to Newser.com.

On February 1st, Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican, issued a statement saying he was “really struck” by the issue. “Karen and I work hard to make a better future for our girls so when I first heard about Ms. Kelley Williams-Bolar’s case last week it really struck me, as it has many other people … Our laws exist for a reason and they must be enforced, but the idea that a woman would become a convicted felon for wanting a better future for her children is something that has rightly raised a lot of concern with people with people, including me.”

From the school district’s perspective, it boils down to dollars and cents. The school district spent about $6,000 to hire a private investigator to follow Williams-Bolar and her children and bring them to trial, according to NewsNet5 in Akron. “Copley-Fairlawn Superintendent Brian Poe said the district has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars because of children illegally enrolled in its schools. ‘If you’re paying taxes on a home here…those dollars need to stay home with our students,’” Poe reportedly told NewsNet5.

Which raises the question: what about those 30 to 40 other cases?

At the heart of the controversy is a parent’s drive to seek the best for their children, and the question of what parents will risk for better opportunities “I did this for them, so there it is,” Williams-Bolar told ABC News . “I did this for them.”

TaRessa Stovall is Managing Editor of TheDefendersOnline.

Upcoming Court Date Set in Medgar Evers College Case

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By Cyril Josh Barker, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

As the saga continues at Medgar Evers College, a judge recently granted a temporary restraining order stopping the City University of New York from evicting the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions at the college. The college had said that the center had to be out by Dec. 30, but a judge overturned the eviction, giving more time for the plaintiffs to prepare their case.

The four plaintiffs in the case, including Eddie Ellis and Dr. Divine Pryor, maintain their stance against CUNY's attempts to dissolve the center. In operation for the last seven years at Medgar Evers College, NuLeadership helps formerly incarcerated individuals through the use of education.

Ellis said he feels optimistic about the case and that CUNY will not be able to show just cause to shut down the program.

“I think it's going very well. I think we were encouraged by the fact that they did grant the temporary restraining order,” he said. “We have a good solid ground and there needed to be a full examination of the issues. All of the elements are in our favor. There is no legitimate reason why our center was evicted. We have been in Medgar Evers for seven years.”

According to the Medgar Evers College Coalition, the school's administration has also reduced support mechanisms and faculty resources, including the elimination of the Writing Center and the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the reduction of tutors and staff of the library computer lab and learning center.

The coalition held a public information meeting with students, faculty, and the community recently to discuss the coalition’s demands, the ongoing petition drive and next steps.

CUNY did not return a request for comment on the case. The Center for NuLeadership will appear back in court this week.

Study: Blacks in Illinois Five Times More Likely to Get Prison Sentences

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By J. Coyden Palmer, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –

A commission convened to examine the impact of Illinois’ drug laws on racial and ethnic groups released its findings Jan. 31st, during a news conference at the James Thompson Center.

The results of the study show African Americans in Cook County were eight times more likely than Whites to be sentenced to prison if convicted of a Class 4 possession, low-level drug crime. Statewide, the data also indicated that sentencing was racially disproportionate based on the rate of drug arrests in 62 of the state’s 102 counties. The findings of the study prompted several recommendations to close the disparity gap.

“We need to change certain policies and practices so that justice is administered fairly across racial and ethnic lines, said State Sen. Mattie Hunter, of Chicago, who served as co-chair of the commission. “We need to divert non-violent drug offenders from expensive incarceration to rehabilitation programs, such as court-ordered drug treatment.”

The study also found that Afri- can American families are being affected by the sentencing laws, especially when it comes to Black males. Based on testimony during community hearings from family members and social workers, the study shows that families are affected when their loved ones return from prison and have a hard time finding legitimate employment.

“There is a public safety issue here, but we also have to look at the families that are being destroyed because their parents are not in the household,” Hunter said.

An unnamed local business owner suggested to the commission the creation of a special class of contracting provisions, similar to current minority- and women-owned business provisions, for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people.

Social service providers who testified for the study also said the problem of drug crimes need to be addressed on a more holistic approach. They say there is too much focus on law enforcement and punishment rather than treatment for those struggling with addiction, as was recommended by the commission.

Pamela Rodriguez is the president of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC). She said the yearly cost of incarceration for one inmate is more than $25,000 whereas a drug treatment program for the same time frame is only $7,000. She said with the state being in such a financial crunch, not only is it a more effective and ethical way of looking at the problem, but it is sounder from a financial aspect as well.

“As a community-based agency that has worked with thousands of criminal justice clients since 1976, TASC strongly supports the recommendations presented in this report,” she said. “One of those recommendations is that there is a need for better data collecting because we need a more complete picture to see how widespread this problem is. And the solutions need to be as comprehensive as the problems.”

Rodriguez added the cost savings of alternative sentencing reduce the disproportion of ethnic minorities being sent to prison, in addition to saving money. She believes the current drug laws are ruining Black and Latino communities across the state, but stopped short of blaming any one entity. She said instead it is a “system failure” that needs to be addressed.

The commission also recommended that drug seizure monies, which currently go to local law enforcement agencies after the successful prosecution of a bust, have a fixed portion go to support treatment and diversion programs. The Crusader asked Sen. Hunter what amount of money Illinois law enforcement agencies receive from these drug seizures.

“We have no idea,” Hunter responded. “That is one of the best kept secrets around. When it comes to those forfeiture funds it’s kind of like ‘hands off’ to us. That is going to be a battle to find out that amount and how it is used. But, we hope to sit down with a lot of people to discuss this report while moving forward and perhaps then we can answer that question.”

Attorney Standish Willis, who also served on the commission, said there is a direct correlation between the findings in this report and how African Americans are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty in Illinois. Earlier this month the state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, but Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to sign the bill.

“African Americans and Latinos are filling the prisons so some of the problems pointed out in this report will address many of those questions of arrest and prosecution in more serious offenses,” Willis said. “But we need more data. We cannot fashion policy to address the issues of the death penalty or drug crimes without the right data.”

Dr. Terry Solomon serves as the executive director for the Illinois African American Family Commission. She said one of the significant recommendations of the commission that needs to be implemented is not using felony drug convictions for employment opportunities. She said by doing so society is not allowing people who paid their debt to reestablish themselves among the working class, thus forcing them back into a life of crime, poverty or both.

“Drug use is a mental health issue so we need to start using mental health approaches to treat these issues as opposed to just incarcerating people,” Solomon said.

Illinois State Sen. Mattie Hunter talks to the media about the state commissioned study on how drug sentences are given out based on race.

Congressional Black Caucus Confronts GOP on Budget

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By Charles D. Ellison, Special to the NNPA from The Philadelphia Tribune –

WASHINGTON — In sync with what football fanatics expect will be a bruising Super Bowl Sunday, political tensions on Capitol Hill are as hot as an Egyptian street fight with Democrats and Republicans poised for a bloody face-off over the nation’s finances. It’s the necessary, crucial time of year lawmakers love to hate, pushing their staffers to sweat over bulky Power Points and black ink in a complicated cage dance over how the federal government spends taxpayer money.

“The budget is a bold declaration of a nation’s priorities,” argues Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), the loquacious Methodist minister and former Kansas City Mayor who barely squeaked past a Republican challenge in his district during the 2010 mid-term election. “I always tell my church that if you want to know who a person is, look at their checkbook and how they handle their finances.” Back from what some observers described as near political death, Emmanuel sounds revived and recharged in his new role as two-year Chair of the Caucus, eager to tussle — and possibly deal — with conservative budget hawks circling over endless rows of line items.

Hill heads were turning and brows raised last week when the Caucus unveiled its budget recommendations for the year in a politico-studded event of the African-American Who’s Who in Washington, billing it as the first ever annual “Commission on the Budget Deficit, Economic Crisis and Wealth Creation.” Indeed it was a “first,” keeping in fashion with the dusty classroom clamor of Black History Month firsts and patronizing accolades.

The Caucus, that tightly-knit and reliably Democratic voting bloc that acts as a noisy thorn in the side of House Republicans, had been clowned for years about “the budget no one ever knows about,” quipped one amused and longtime senior Congressional aide at a recent staffer gathering. Press conferences and CBC Member statements were typically sporadic, with the CBC unable to coordinate an authoritative voice in annual budget swordfights.

Starting this year, Cleaver promises to change all that with an aggressive campaign waged on the Hill and beyond Washington. “You will find that, at least for the next two years, we will dramatize the CBC budget,” says Cleaver. “It is useless for us to present a budget that is virtually useless beyond the Beltway.”

As important to Cleaver is ensuring that the CBC agenda on national spending priorities resonates loud and clear with a core Black audience disproportionately crushed under the weight of a seemingly endless recession. While White House officials express cautious jubilance over the latest unemployment figures, with official rates dropping from 9.4 percent in December to an even 9 percent in January, attitudes in CBC offices are more reluctant. Black unemployment, for a multitude of reasons, remains stuck near 20 percent — officially. Many economists observing the situation are a bit more frank about the situation, and Caucus Members seem less inclined to celebrate incremental drops in high unemployment when they head back to districts where countless constituents are underemployed, out of benefits or off the grid.

“In Black America we need to stop the bleeding,” warns Cleaver.

As a prescription, the CBC Commission presented a three-prong approach, with prominent Black economists and Caucus Members mingling over topics such as: the balancing act between resource demand and fiscal restraint; getting in recession survival mode while “accelerating the recovery;” and finding ways to responsibly reduce the deficit without hitting damaged communities any harder.

“I am actually pretty excited about this,” says Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie, author of Whose Black Politics?, a study on generational divides in modern African-American politics. Gillespie teaches an annual class on the CBC budget and, so far, she’s impressed with the presentation for 2011. “They’re ahead of the curve on this one. They’ve managed the public relations on this pretty well,” said Gillespie.

But, Gillespie — like many other CBC watchers — warns against what she sees as an ingrained habit of drinking old wine in a new bottle. The academic yearns for some legislative creativity from the Caucus. “Because every year [the CBC budget is] usually very predictable in what it suggests. There are still some things in the budget that are unrealistic. It can’t be just saying ‘no social program can be cut.’”

At this point, with political power greatly diminished by the loss of Democratic majority last November, mixing it up by camera, web and microphone is about as good as it gets for the embattled Caucus. Putting a stop to economic hemorrhaging in the Black community means the CBC will need to raise its game in a process where political dynamics are as complex and critical as the policy proposed. Budget handling is an annual Washington sport, a hazing maze of winners and losers — with a lot of stalemates in a creamy middle. But, the stakes are particularly much higher this year with Members of all partisan stripes (even freshman oriented tea partiers), faced with almost impossible balancing between walking home federal bacon and talking bank account restraint. For a Member like Cleaver, that’s even more precarious given the tenuous political situation in his Missouri district, where he’ll be backed into forced moderation by more conservative Midwestern constituents and representing a population that is less than 30 percent African American.

It could be a reason why he’s put the Caucus in front of the process, say observers, a shrewd and glitzy media move aimed at driving the discussion weeks before an anxiously anticipated drop of the massive Obama Administration FY 2012 budget. The CBC Commission, while days after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union, was still ahead of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) announcement recommending $32 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, including mind-numbing 20 percent agency budget cuts. Not only does it prompt both Congressional leaders and the White House to think clearly about the implications of budget choices on disadvantaged communities, it’s also an attempt to get an elbow in the discussion.

The problem, however, are incessantly partisan legislators searching for compromise in a sea where there is little of it. “How are we going to pay for last year’s tax cut?” asks Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), the bookish Black Caucus point-man on all things budget and the guy now best known for his voluminous amicus-like brief arguing against the censure of colleague Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). Scott believes the $850 billion tax cut compromise between President Obama and Senate Republicans has exacerbated an irreconcilable situation. “Nobody complains about how big it is, but everyone complains about how big this budget deficit is,” says Scott, pointing to the $1.4 trillion dollar federal deficit.

“Suggesting that you cut taxes before you cut spending is absurd,” adds Scott, ridiculing GOP plans for simultaneous tax cuts and what he argues are “draconian” spending cuts. Between Republican insistence on cutting and Democratic hopes for more federal spending, Scott is pessimistic about the chances of a bipartisan agreement during this budget cycle.

And when asked if the White House is giving any sign of absorbing any of the CBC recommendations, Scott’s voice seemed to retreat, masking any hint of what are widely known and infamous tensions between the Caucus and their former Member. “We make our recommendations and see what comes out.”

“We’ll see what’s in the bill,” added Scott. “It can’t be so good because we spent all the money last year.”

“I don’t see where the middle is on this,” agrees Artemesia Stanberry, political science professor at North Carolina Central University, a former CBC staffer and co-author of Stealth Reconstruction. “They’re not talking the same language. The middle ground was the tax cut compromise.”

 

U.N. Expert Examines Violence Against Women in the U.S., Gov't Response

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By Charlene Muhammad, Special to the NNPA from the Final Call –

Robin Levi has a simple point of view when it comes to violence against women in the United States and what the government should be doing to stop abuses. “What's really important is reminding ourselves the United States is not immune from human rights law,” said the human rights director of San Francisco Bay area-based Justice Now.

“Human rights law applies to everybody from the virtue of being human beings and that includes people in the United States and people in prison,” she said.

Though America regularly lectures other nations about women's rights and gender equality, activists and advocates say the U.S. has its own problems when it comes to women who are incarcerated and who find themselves in other vulnerable situations.

When a United Nations (U.N.) expert recently visited America to examine the status of women and violence, Ms. Levi, who works to end violence against women and stop their imprisonment, helped to coordinate the U.N. special rapporteur's visit to California.

Rashida Manjoo, who is examining the causes and consequences of violence against women for the United Nations, went on a two week tour in California as part of a six-state tour designed to gather facts and testimony about the problem.

Manjoo began her tour of detention centers and battered women's shelters in late January and will report her findings and recommendations to a special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council this week.

The tour is a reminder that America is part of the international community and that it has to live up to its human rights obligations for everybody within its borders, Levi told The Final Call.

According to Levi, the current U.N. mission stems in part from a 1999 visit by then U.N. Special Rapporteur on violence against women by Radhika Coomaraswam.

Coomaraswam specifically looked at violence against women in prison, and Manjoo is here to see if changes and recommendations made a decade ago have occurred or not, Levi said.

The rapporteur found in 1999 that California (which had at the time the largest number of women incarcerated within the U.S.) had inadequate administrative or penal protections against sexual misconduct in custody. There was no comprehensive method for reporting or investigating allegations of sexual abuse in the state's facilities, and sexual misconduct became criminalized only in 1994.

Part of Coomaraswam's recommendation was that federal funding for state and correctional facilities should require that states criminalize all forms of sexual violence and misconduct between staff and inmates—whether consent was given by the inmate or not.

Levi said that what Manjoo could expect to find, certainly in California, is that sexual abuse has decreased somewhat, but racial disparities within prisons remain and have perhaps worsened.

In fact, she said, although the rapporteur in 1999 expected to find racial disparities in the make-up of women in prison, she was shocked at the overwhelming levels of racial disparity.

According to Human Rights Watch, 2.3 million people were incarcerated in the United States as of June 2009, with racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately represented.

A prison research and advocacy reform organization, The Sentencing Project, says Black women represent 30 percent of all women jailed in federal or state institutions and Hispanic women represent 16 percent.

“I think that she's going to find that the health problems are still there and perhaps worse. I'm hoping she'll look into some of the reproductive abuses that we've seen inside the California prison system in which primarily women of color have experienced increased levels of sterilization through hysterectomies, vasectomies and other methods,” Levi said.

Manjoo, a professor at the Department of Public Law at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, is particularly probing violence against women in prison and the military, sexual violence, gun violence, and the relationship between poverty and violence against women.

Visit coincides with federal legislation

“What we know is that domestic violence is the primary cause of homelessness for women and their children in the U.S. ... In some cases women who are in abusive relationships need to be able to flee their home, but if they don't have the option to go to a shelter or if they don't have another housing option, they may be forced to stay in abusive relationships,” said Attorney Sandra Park, of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

“Unless we look at how violence affects poor women, we are not addressing the issue at all,” Park told The Final Call.

Manjoo's visit is also critical because this year Congress will consider reauthorization of the Federal Violence Against Women Act, Ms. Park said.

The act was proposed in 2005 to help provide funding for domestic violence programs across the U.S., and provide protection against evictions of women after they were victimized.

The ACLU was instrumental in linking Manjoo to groups and individuals to make sure she received firsthand information about issues of violence plaguing American women.

Some landlords use “no criminal activity” provisions in their leases to evict women who have had to call police for domestic violence incidents.

Some workplaces penalize women who need time off for court appearances, or are being stalked by their abusers at work, Park continued.

Some companies have tried to improve on the issues and have adopted good policies such as informing security of an abuser's characteristics, changing employee phone numbers, or providing victims with escorts to their cars, she said.

Park hoped Manjoo's visit to New York to meet with the Service Women's Action Network about sexual assault in the military would raise awareness about how the U.S. military and Veterans Affairs Department largely ignore complaints.

According to Park, sexual assault and rapes in the military are extremely high and there are very few options for service members to pursue, except to report to their chain of command superiors.

There is no incentive for commanders to address complaints in serious ways because complaints reflect negatively on performance evaluations if commanders have reports of sexual assault within their units, she said.

“It's actually set up in a way that creates an incentive to try to squash those complaints or make them go away ... generally the military is treated differently from all other workplaces in the U.S. So the kinds of rights that a woman might have if she was sexually assaulted at work are totally inapplicable if you're a member of the military,” Park said.

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