Texas Youth Commission
October 18, 2007, 5:43 pm
Filed under: News Stories

Abuse scandal rocks TYC


Inmates at the West Texas State School in Pyote move around the facility in single-file lines.

About the investigation:

Since Feb. 18, The Dallas Morning News has been writing about the sexual and physical abuse scandal inside the Texas Youth Commission. Our coverage began in Pyote at the West Texas State School, where documents obtained by the newspaper revealed how supervisors had abused young inmates and traded favors for sex. For years, no one did anything to stop it.

Reacting to the revelations, state officials moved quickly to overhaul TYC’s management, even as the scope of the scandal expanded to the entire agency and its prisons throughout Texas.

Below is a complete listing of the Morning News‘ coverage of events and its ongoing look at TYC:


10/07/07: Jail operator GEO’s troubles not limited to Coke County youth lockup
The private operator of a juvenile prison, closed last week because of fetid conditions and alleged mismanagement, has similar problems at other lockups throughout Texas.
Link: Interactive map of GEO Group-managed facilities
Download: E-mail statement from TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons regarding the agency’s contracts with GEO Group (.pdf)

10/06/07: TYC official blasts GEO Group over Coke County facility conditions
The Texas Youth Commission said Friday that a privately run prison in West Texas was a fire trap where inmates’ medical needs were ignored, schooling was “almost non-existent” and a pattern of “physical and psychological harm” was routinely tolerated.
Download: Audit report on Coke County Juvenile Justice Center (.pdf)
Download: Photos taken during audit of Coke County Juvenile Justice Center (.pdf)

10/03/07: TYC investigates how ‘deplorable conditions’ at closed prison escaped detection
The Texas Youth Commission is investigating why juvenile inmates endured squalor and deprivation at a privately run West Texas prison that was repeatedly praised by TYC’s own quality-assurance monitors.
Document: Read TYC ombudsman Will Harrell’s report describing serious problems at Coke County Juvenile Justice Center (.pdf)

09/16/07: TYC is finding new leaders – in state’s troubled prison system
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice, itself a troubled institution, has been tapped to supply new leadership to another prison system brought down by physical and sexual abuse of inmates, official cover-ups and mismanagement – the Texas Youth Commission.
Documents: Abuse and misconduct in TDCJ
Opinion: Youth prisons need expert leaders, not refugees

09/13/07: Advisory group criticizes TYC’s pepper spray policy
In a report obtained by The Dallas Morning News, TYC’s Blue Ribbon Task Force makes a number of recommendations for changing TYC, which was rocked this year by a series of scandals involving physical and sexual abuse.

08/30/07: Lawmakers grill TYC officials on reform
Lawmakers revisited the Texas Youth Commission scandal publicly for the first time since the end of the legislative session on Wednesday, questioning top officials on their progress in rehabilitating the embattled agency and addressing youth parole and use-of-force concerns that have resurfaced in recent months.

08/05/07: Feds knew about TYC abuse cases
Read Texas Ranger Brian Burzynski’s report detailing allegations of sexual abuse at the West Texas State School in Pyote. (.pdf)
Letters to state officials regarding the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation into allegations of abuse at TYC facilities.
Letter from Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee encouraging U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to investigate the TYC (includes reply from Deputy Attorney General Richard A. Hertling)

07/29/07: Texas’ youth jail operators have troubled histories
Firm’s leaders linked to problems
GEO Group’s facilities were closed in Louisiana, Michigan
Nonprofit is no stranger to scrutiny
Interactive graphic: Texas private contracts around the nation
Interactive graphic: Mistreatments at TYC contract facilities


–> 05/13/07: Mistakes, mismanagement wrecked TYC
A chain of administrative failures, executive inattention and bureaucratic missteps brought the Texas Youth Commission to institutional collapse. State government records, legislative archives and interviews with current and former officials show a breakdown of authority at all levels.
TYC Executive director Dwight Harris and board Chairman Pete Alfaro downplay problems within TYC
Audio: Senators question TYC officials
Timeline: Repeated warnings of TYC abuse sent to governor’s office
Chart: Money issues: Annual state and federal funding for TYC (.pdf)
E-mails show TYC officials obsessing over image


TYC urged to shut down another lockup: The privately run facility in North Texas is dangerous, youth advocate says
October 18, 2007, 5:24 pm
Filed under: News Stories

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The assessment from TYC’s independent ombudsman Will Harrell follows the sudden closure earlier this month of a privately run West Texas lockup in Coke County where officials said young offenders lived in deplorable conditions, including cells smeared with feces.

“Of all the facilities I’ve visited, Victory Field seems the least adequate,” Harrell wrote in a report shared with lawmakers Wednesday but dated before he visited Coke County. The facility is located in the North Texas town of Vernon, near the Oklahoma border.

“The (physical) plant is structurally suffering, dangerous and unclean, staff morale is low, youth are idle and agitated, programming is meager … and there is a serious understaffing and training issue,” Harrell wrote of the lockup.

TYC is expected to close more units as its youth population declines.

“If it were my decision to make, that would be one of the first ones that I would recommend closing,” he said after his testimony.

Harrell was among TYC officials testifying before members of the House Corrections Committee, which pelted Acting Executive Director Dimitria Pope with detailed questions about the agency’s progress in improving safety.

Security improvements

For instance, lawmakers complained about an earlier decision that Pope has now reversed that had called for using pepper spray before physically restraining a disruptive youths.Also, TYC’s plans for installing more security cameras critical to the safety of youths and staff had been set for completion next summer. Pope said that’s now moved up to March.

TYC’s troubles erupted last spring when the public learned that two administrators at a West Texas lockup were accused of molesting scores of boys in their care. A rash of sexual and physical abuse allegations followed.

“My concern is that they’re not providing the level of safety to the youths that are there that we had intended to provide,” Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said in an interview after hearing hours of testimony.

“Coke County highlights it, but in Coke County, there was a shift and definitive action once it was determined by Ms. Pope that this facility was unsafe,” Hochberg said. “The question is, what else is out there?”

Harrell brought up TYC’s Victory Field unit after lawmakers asked if there was any other TYC lockup that he felt was on par with the level of problems that led to the shuttering of the Coke County Juvenile Justice Center.

“I don’t totally agree with his assessment of Victory Field,” Pope testified, noting that children there were not forced to live in cells smeared in feces.

“I’m not saying it’s an ideal place,” she said.

Harrell said he doesn’t have the authority to order closure of Victory Field, but he hopes TYC will follow up on his preliminary findings.

For instance, there are “huge blind spots” in the security camera system with no coverage of recreation areas or behind buildings and an inability to freeze frames. Plus the monitor constantly switches, making it impossible to follow an incident unfolding, his report notes.

Talked to youths and staff

The report is based on interviews with youths and staff but not the superintendent. Harrell said he could not reach TYC’s hot line, set up so youths can report abuse allegations, from any phone at Victory Field. Plus, youths complained of staff retaliation when they file grievances.Harrell noted that youthful offenders in one volatile area can easily disable a lock on a door that leads to a blind spot containing dangerous chemicals and sharp objects. He was told by the offenders that they had used the area in the past for sexual acts, fights and tattooing.

“What concerns me also,” Harrell said in an interview, “is it is so remote that none of the kids that I met with have had a visit. Parents and community involvement with a kid while they’re in TYC is critical to their rehabilitation as well as oversight.”


October 15, 2007, 7:09 pm
Filed under: News Stories


Recommendations from both Washington and Texas legislators (and their staff) have arisen in light of this week’s lobbying effort for the DREAM Act. Among these strong suggestions is that EVERY DREAM student/supporter that we know write a “1-2 pages biography or summary of your own experience(s) and/or those of friends”. These letters should be handwritten and should be very simple:

1. Who I am: name (not necessarily full name, to protect your identity), how old you are, are you a student? supporter?.

2. Where I come/came from: a supporter from an organization? a parent of DREAM students from…? a student from what country?

3. This is my DREAM: if you’re a student, what are your aspirations? How do you plan to excel in life? If a supporter, why should the DREAM Act pass?

These letters are to be “brief and to the point,” as specified by the attaches; and they are “powerful tools” to “put an individual face on the ‘undocumented’ so that they can be seen as people, not just an impersonal mass.” Again, these are guidelines straight from political offices that know what works! And what works are “personal stories.” Please take the time to write a couple of these, but the more, the better. These letters are to be PERSONALLY handed and explained by our Houston representative(s) to high-ranking staff and/or Senators themselves while meeting with them to educate them about the DREAM Act.

PLEASE don’t take this opportunity for granted. In a last push to pass the DREAM Act this year, we must do EVERYTHING in our power to stand together as a supporting community and make a difference. Please reply to johnacontreras@gmail.com or call (832) 423-9522 to have your letters picked up or for instructions if you’d like to mail them to us. Thank you.

“The DREAM will NEVER die if we don’t let it…”


HPD Officer Who Shot Boy Failed Firearms Test
October 15, 2007, 5:05 pm
Filed under: News Stories


In 2005, officer Arthur J. Carbonneau was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide

and sentenced to 60 days in jail and five years’ probation. He was allowed to resign from the department.



The rookie Houston Police Department officer who shot and killed a 14-year-old special education student in one of the decade’s most controversial shootings earned his badge and gun despite flunking a crucial test of firearms handling as well as initial police field training, according to documents recently made public as part of a civil rights lawsuit.

Officer Arthur J. Carbonneau also failed 16 of 30 subjects in his mandatory Texas peace officers’ test, including “use-of-force law,” “use-of-force concepts” and “arrest, search and seizure,” records show.

In field training, records show, he repeatedly got lost trying to find locations he was called to and became so rattled that trainers had to take over his calls. When the 23-year-old rookie was assigned to remedial training because of the problems, he mishandled the subduing of an agitated person — a mistake his instructor said could have cost lives.

Yet, Carbonneau still became a full-fledged officer in December 2002. Eleven months later, he killed Eli Escobar II, 14.

Revelations about Carbonneau’s previous mistakes come in personnel documents made public only because of the civil suit. The Escobars’ lawyers argue that Carbonneau was not a rogue officer as HPD claims, but rather the product of inadequate firearms training, supervision and screening by the department.

Carbonneau was convicted of negligent homicide for the Nov. 21, 2003, shooting of Escobar, who was being held down by another officer at the time. Escobar, a middle school student, was unarmed and not involved in the playground petty crime that Carbonneau had gone to investigate.

Just before being shot, Escobar called out “Mama, come and get me! Mama!” according to police records.

Suit’s advancement rare

Escobar’s parents, Lydia and Eli Escobar of Houston, filed a civil suit seeking damages and calling for improvements in firearms training for all HPD officers.Despite objections from HPD, a federal judge has decided their case can move forward to the pretrial stage. It appears to be the first major lawsuit in years involving an officer-involved shooting in Houston that has been allowed to advance so far.

U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled that the city of Houston had failed to prove it could not be held liable for the shooting because of systemic training failures. The record raises “issues as to whether HPD provided sufficient training for its cadets and officers … to minimize the risk of accidental firings that can injure or kill,” Rosenthal wrote in a 93-page opinion that summarized much of the evidence.

In its response to the lawsuit, the city of Houston has argued that its training was not only sufficient, but superior, and blamed the officer’s errors alone for Escobar’s death.

“There is no objective evidence” to indicate department training is “deficient,” concluded the city’s expert, Albert Rodriguez, who is commander of the Texas Department of Public Safety Training Academy in Austin, according to an affidavit filed as part of the lawsuit.

HPD defends hire

Rodriguez also defended the department’s hiring of Carbonneau, despite his training errors and having two car accidents in one day as a new officer. Carbonneau was able to advance through officer training because of HPD’s reliance on overall average performance scores rather than success or failure in a particular area, like use of force.”In my expert opinion, there is no evidence to indicate that former officer Carbonneau exhibited any deficiency in handling firearms and/or that he had a propensity for using poor judgment prior to Nov. 21, 2003, incident,” Rodriguez wrote.

An attorney for Carbonneau, Robert Armbruster of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, declined comment.

Houston Attorney J. Michael Solar, who represents the victim’s family, criticized the city for failing to apologize or make any real effort to learn how to prevent similar shootings.

“The Escobars are still waiting for Mayor (Bill) White, HPD Chief (Harold) Hurtt or any City Council member to publicly acknowledge their wrongdoing and apologize for killing their only child,” he said.

Through his spokesman, White referred comment to the city attorney’s office. But the assistant city attorney handling the case could not be reached for comment Friday.

Author David Klinger, an expert hired by the family and a former officer and criminal justice professor, analyzed HPD internal memos and found 26 “accidental” shootings by officers, mostly in close-quarter struggles with civilians, in the five years before Escobar died.

Klinger counted five similar accidental shootings in 2003 alone — including another controversial incident just three weeks before in which an HPD officer shot and killed a 15-year-old. Those events, Klinger concluded, were “the inevitable consequence of inadequate training in gun handling.”

Carbonneau shot and killed Escobar, who had been playing video games at a friend’s house, after the officer went to an apartment complex in the 4600 block of W. 34th to investigate a fight between two boys that had ended in bruises and a broken window.

Escobar wasn’t involved.

The oversized 14-year-old sometimes rebelled, but he was used to police officers; his grandfather and uncle were both officers, according to his parents’ depositions.

Still he became nervous, frightened and belligerent when the two HPD officers questioned him, police records and witness statements show. When he tried to go home, they pulled him to the ground and tried to hold him down.

‘Accidental’ shootings

Carbonneau admitted he then deliberately drew his gun and pointed it at Escobar, who was unarmed, but later claimed the gun went off accidentally. He was allowed to resign.

In 2005, he was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 60 days in jail and five years’ probation.

The city vigorously defended HPD firearms training in the lawsuit, blaming the incident on Carbonneau’s “poor judgment” and failure to follow training.

Yet documents produced in the case show that senior HPD officers repeatedly called for improvements in firearms training, before and after the troubling shooting deaths of Escobar and another unarmed teenager just three weeks apart in “accidental” shootings in 2003.

The record includes a July 2003 memo from two senior HPD academy firearms trainers who complained to then-Chief C.O. Bradford: “We have no place to conduct hands-on officer safety/tactical training.” Instead, trainers are forced to use academy driveways and office spaces, “neither of which are suitable or appropriate.”

The city’s own expert, Rodriguez, testified it takes about 3,000 repetitions to develop “muscle memory” in weapons handling — training that helps keep officers from accidentally firing or putting their fingers on the trigger except when absolutely necessary. HPD cadets draw their weapons just 50 times on average at the academy, the judge’s opinion says.

‘Not nearly enough’

Houston Police Union President Hans Marticiuc said the department has made incremental progress in firearms training since 2003, adding new tactical training and weapons handling courses for all officers.”All these things are good,” he said. “The problem is it’s not nearly enough. In reality, there ought to be at least quarterly (firearms) training. The more you (practice), the more you don’t have to think about it. It becomes instinctual.”

From the evidence he reviewed, Klinger, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and author of a book on police shootings, concluded that HPD had known for years its firearms training was inadequate. He wrote that the department “acted with deliberate indifference to the inevitability of unjustified shootings” in circumstances such as those that resulted in Escobar’s death.

The city of Houston attempted to end the case and have Klinger’s evidence thrown out. But Judge Rosenthal’s opinion, issued in September, opened the door for the Escobars to proceed to trial and publicly challenge the adequacy of HPD training. Specifically, she allowed arguments to proceed on several alleged training problems, including:

•Failure to ensure officers do not point their weapons or put their index figure on the trigger except when prepared to shoot.
•Failure to provide adequate hours of firearms training.
•Allowing rookies who flunked tactical firearms training, like Carbonneau, to graduate the academy without additional remedial work.
According to the court documents, HPD academy students must complete several firearms tests, including the “stress-fire course.”

In the stress-firing test, recruits are required to run through the course, often in a parking lot, find cover, draw their weapons and fire a series of rounds at various targets. Lights flash and sirens blare to confuse and distract. In the June 2002 graduating class, 22 of 38 in his group, including Carbonneau, flunked the test.


Year of racial unrest in La. town
September 19, 2007, 10:01 pm
Filed under: News Stories

Grounds of discontent

Chris Graythen / Chicago Tribune

GROUNDS OF DISCONTENT: Last September, after a group of black students were allowed to sit under a tree on the unofficial “white” side of the grounds, a group of white students hung nooses from its branches.

Stiff charges for the ‘Jena Six,’ black teens who beat a white youth, draw wide attention. The raw atmosphere started with nooses in a tree.

By Miguel Bustillo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 15, 2007

JENA, La. — In December, six black boys jumped a white boy at the high school here and beat him while he lay unconscious.

The victim was taken to the hospital, but he was not gravely hurt. He attended a class ring ceremony later that evening.

Families unite

Families unite

click to enlarge

The black boys were charged with attempted murder, which threatened to put them in prison for most of their lives. The district attorney alleged they’d used a deadly weapon: their sneakers.

The case of the so-called Jena Six has elicited outrage around the world — not only because of the stiff charges brought against the black teenagers, but because of the stark contrast between the way black boys and white boys in the same town were treated.

The assault was the culmination of months of racial unrest in Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), a former sawmill town of about 3,000 people in the backwoods of central Louisiana. It started at the beginning of the last school year, when a black freshman at Jena High School asked the vice principal during a school assembly whether he could sit under the “white tree,” a gnarled oak on campus where white students gathered to escape the stifling Southern heat. He was told to sit wherever he wanted.

The following day last September, three hangman’s nooses were dangling from the oak’s branches. Two months later, the school was set on fire.

The three white boys who hung the nooses were identified but not expelled or charged with a hate crime; they were suspended for three days. No one has been charged in the arson.

The Jena Six were kicked out of school last school year. Five were charged as adults with crimes that carry long prison sentences. (The other boy is being tried as a juvenile and was recently allowed to return to classes.)

One of the six, Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted of aggravated battery by an all-white jury this year, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 15 years. On Friday, a state appeals court overturned his conviction after his defense attorneys argued that he was unlawfully tried as an adult.

Still, Bell remained behind bars late Friday, as he had been for the last nine months. It is unclear whether LaSalle Parish Dist. Atty. Reed Walters will seek to drop the charges, retry him as a juvenile or ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s decision. Walters did not return requests for comment.

“It’s not a complete victory; we can’t celebrate yet,” said Louis Scott, one of a team of Louisiana lawyers defending Bell pro bono. “But when we got in this game, we were a couple of touchdowns behind. Now the game is tied.”

The “white tree” at the high school was recently cut down by local leaders, and Walters has been reducing the charges against the Jena Six to aggravated battery; attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of more than 50 years.

But those actions have done little to quell the criticism of the way Jena authorities have handled the case.

“If a black person does something in Jena, they do more time than a white person. It’s always been that way,” said Bell’s mother, Melissa Bell. “The white kids here can run loose, drink beer, whatever. But if you are black, don’t you dare act like that.”

African American leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III argue that the case has raised disturbing questions about lingering racism and uneven justice in the Deep South.

Bloggers and student activists have taken up the Jena Six cause, saying the case is not unique: Studies have shown that black youths often receive harsher penalties than white youths.

Rallies to support the Jena Six are taking place around the country, and the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations had been planning a bus trip to Jena for Mychal Bell’s sentencing, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

It was unclear Friday whether the rally, which was expected to draw thousands including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, would still take place. Jena officials have called off classes at six schools in anticipation of possible unrest.

“Jena is a 1960 town in a 2007 world. It’s like going 47 years in the past,” said the Rev. Raymond Brown, a New Orleans civil rights activist. “The message being sent here is: ‘Don’t you touch any white people, because if you do you will get locked up for life.’ ”

But in Jena, about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans, some whites say their town is suffering the real injustice. They blame out-of-state activists and the news media for painting a sensationalized picture of Jena as a throwback to the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow era. They would prefer that the camera crews and ministers leave for good.

The noose incident was “nothing more than a bad joke. Whites and blacks stuck their heads in the nooses, poking fun at it,” said Billy Fowler, a local school board member. “The black students — it caused some tension for them, I’m sure, but it’s not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.”

Fowler said that though he and many others agreed that the Jena Six were being excessively punished, many had lost sympathy for the boys because of damage to the town’s reputation.

“If they’d kept their mouths shut, they might have gotten those charges taken off,” he said. “But with the way this town’s been done wrong, I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”

Fowler and others assert that there’s no direct connection between the noose incident and the later beating, a position supported by U.S. Atty. Donald Washington, who has been reviewing the case for possible federal intervention.

But supporters of the Jena Six argue that the nooses divided the town and sparked an ugly series of racial fights that culminated in the six-on-one beating.

After the nooses were hung, Jena High Principal Glen Joiner recommended expulsion for the white students responsible. But he was overruled by LaSalle Parish Schools Supt. Roy Breithaupt — a decision that angered Jena’s 350 or so black residents. Breithaupt did not respond to requests for comment.

After the decision, black students at Jena High gathered under the tree in protest.

Fights between blacks and whites broke out for days, and the principal ultimately called an assembly in which Dist. Atty. Walters, flanked by armed police, addressed the school.

“With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear,” Walters said. In a court hearing where an attorney tried to have Walters removed from the beating case on grounds that he was biased, Walters, who is white, admitted making the statement. But he denied that he had been looking at black students when he said it, as some have said he had been.

Just before the incident that resulted in stiff charges for the Jena Six, white youngsters had attacked one of the six black boys, Robert Bailey, 17, striking him with beer bottles as he tried to enter a party. Only one of the attackers was charged — with simple battery.

The next day, a white man who had been at the party brandished a shotgun during an altercation with Bailey and several other black boys.

He was not charged, but the boys, who wrestled the gun away from him, were charged with stealing it.

At a hearing last month in which Mychal Bell’s new attorneys tried to get him released on bail, prosecutors revealed that Bell had been on juvenile probation and had been involved in other violence. Supporters of the stiff charges called the disclosure proof that the charges were just.

On Friday, Bell’s attorneys said they would now seek school reinstatement for Bell — an honor student and star running back who was being courted by top football colleges including Louisiana State University — while he fought his legal battles.

“I just hope this doesn’t mess up his mind, being locked up with grown men,” Melissa Bell said tearfully as she stared at a picture of her son in black-and-white prison stripes. “He had such a bright future in front of him. I really hope he can get his life back.”


Alabama Plan Brings Out Cry of Resegregation
September 17, 2007, 4:59 pm
Filed under: News Stories

September 17, 2007

SAM DILLON TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black — and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.

Black parents have been battling the rezoning for weeks, calling it resegregation. And in a new twist for an integration fight, they are wielding an unusual weapon: the federal No Child Left Behind law, which gives students in schools deemed failing the right to move to better ones.

“We’re talking about moving children from good schools into low-performing ones, and that’s illegal,” said Kendra Williams, a hospital receptionist, whose two children were rezoned. “And it’s all about race. It’s as clear as daylight.”

Tuscaloosa, where George Wallace once stood defiantly in the schoolhouse door to keep blacks out of the University of Alabama, also has had a volatile history in its public schools. Three decades of federal desegregation marked by busing and white flight ended in 2000. Though the city is 54 percent white, its school system is 75 percent black.

The schools superintendent and board president, both white, said in an interview that the rezoning, which redrew boundaries of school attendance zones, was a color-blind effort to reorganize the 10,000-student district around community schools and relieve overcrowding. By optimizing use of the city’s 19 school buildings, the district saved taxpayers millions, officials said. They also acknowledged another goal: to draw more whites back into Tuscaloosa’s schools by making them attractive to parents of 1,500 children attending private academies founded after court-ordered desegregation began.

“I’m sorry not everybody is on board with this,” said Joyce Levey, the superintendent. “But the issue in drawing up our plan was not race. It was how to use our buildings in the best possible way.” Dr. Levey said that all students forced by the rezoning to move from a high- to a lower-performing school were told of their right under the No Child law to request a transfer.

When the racially polarized, eight-member Board of Education approved the rezoning plan in May, however, its two black members voted against it. “All the issues we dealt with in the ’60s, we’re having to deal with again in 2007,” said Earnestine Tucker, one of the black members. “We’re back to separate but equal — but separate isn’t equal.”

For decades school districts across the nation used rezoning to restrict black students to some schools while channeling white students to others. Such plans became rare after civil rights lawsuits in the 1960s and ’70s successfully challenged their constitutionality, said William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.

Tuscaloosa’s rezoning dispute, civil rights lawyers say, is one of the first in which the No Child Left Behind law has become central, sending the district into uncharted territory over whether a reassignment plan can trump the law’s prohibition on moving students into low-performing schools. A spokesman, Chad Colby, said the federal Education Department would not comment.

Tuscaloosa is not the only community where black parents are using the law to seek more integrated, academically successful schools for their children.

In Greensboro, N.C., students in failing black schools have transferred in considerable numbers to higher-performing, majority-white schools, school officials there said. A 2004 study by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights documented cases in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia where parents were moving their children into less-segregated schools.

Nationally, less than 2 percent of eligible students have taken advantage of the law’s transfer provisions. Tuscaloosa, with 83,000 residents, is an hour’s drive west of Birmingham. During court-ordered desegregation its schools roughly reflected the school system’s racial makeup, and there were no all-black schools.

But in recent years the board has carved the district into three zones, each with a new high school. One cluster of schools lies in the east of the city; its high school is 73 percent black.

Another cluster on Tuscaloosa’s gritty west side now amounts to an all-black minidistrict; its five schools have 2,330 students, and only 19 are white. Its high school is 99 percent black.

In contrast, a cluster of schools that draw white students from an affluent enclave of mansions and lake homes in the north, as well as some blacks bused into the area, now includes two majority-white elementary schools. Its high school, Northridge, is 56 percent black.

At a meeting in February 2005, scores of parents from the two majority white elementary schools complained of overcrowding and discipline problems in the middle school their children were sent to outside of the northern enclave.

Ms. Tucker said she, another board member and a teacher were the only blacks present. The white parents clamored for a new middle school closer to their homes. They also urged Dr. Levey to consider sending some students being bused into northern cluster schools back to their own neighborhood, Ms. Tucker said. Dr. Levey did not dispute the broad outlines of Ms. Tucker’s account.

“That was the origin of this whole rezoning,” Ms. Tucker said.

Months later, the school board commissioned a demographic study to draft the rezoning plan. J. Russell Gibson III, the board’s lawyer, said the plan drawn up used school buildings more efficiently, freeing classroom space equivalent to an entire elementary school and saving potential construction costs of $10 million to $14 million. “That’s a significant savings,” Mr. Gibson said, “and we relieved overcrowding and placed most students in a school near their home. That’s been lost in all the rhetoric.”

Others see the matter differently. Gerald Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Alabama, studied the Tuscaloosa school district’s recent evolution. “This is a case study in resegregation,” said Dr. Rosiek, now at the University of Oregon.

In his research, he said, he found disappointment among some white parents that Northridge, the high school created in the northern enclave, was a majority-black school, and he said he believed the rezoning was in part an attempt to reduce its black enrollment.

The district projected last spring that the plan would move some 880 students citywide, and Dr. Levey said that remained the best estimate available. The plan redrew school boundaries in ways that, among other changes, required students from black neighborhoods and from a low-income housing project who had been attending the more-integrated schools in the northern zone to leave them for nearly all-black schools in the west end.

Tuscaloosa’s school board approved the rezoning at a May 3 meeting, at which several white parents spoke out for the plan. One parent, Kim Ingram, said, “I’m not one who looks to resegregate the schools,” but described what she called a crisis in overcrowding, and said the rezoning would alleviate it. In an interview this month, Ms. Ingram said the middle school attended by her twin seventh-grade girls has been “bursting at the seams,” with student movement difficult in hallways, the cafeteria and locker rooms.

Voting against the rezoning were the board’s two black members and a white ally.

Dan Meissner, the board president, said in an interview this month that any rezoning would make people unhappy. “This has involved minimal disruption for a school system that has 10,000 students,” he said.

But black students and parents say the plan has proven disruptive for them.

Telissa Graham, 17, was a sophomore last year at Northridge High. She learned of the plan last May by reading a notice on her school’s bulletin board listing her name along with about 70 other students required to move. “They said Northridge was too crowded,” Telissa said. “But I think they just wanted to separate some of the blacks and Hispanics from the whites.”

Parents looking for recourse turned to the No Child Left Behind law. Its testing requirements have enabled parents to distinguish good schools from bad. And other provisions give students stuck in troubled schools the right to transfer. In a protest at an elementary school after school opened last month, about 60 black relatives and supporters of rezoned children repeatedly cited the law. Much of the raucous meeting was broadcast live by a black-run radio station.

Some black parents wrote to the Alabama superintendent of education, Joseph Morton, arguing that the rezoning violated the federal law. Mr. Morton disagreed, noting that Tuscaloosa was offering students who were moved to low-performing schools the right to transfer into better schools. That, he said, had kept it within the law.

Dr. Levey said about 180 students requested a transfer.

Telissa was one of them. She expects to return this week to Northridge, but says moving from one high school to another and back again has disrupted her fall.

One of Telissa’s brothers has also been rezoned to a virtually all-black, low-performing school. Her mother, Etta Nolan, has been trying to get him a transfer, too.

“I’m fed up,” Ms. Nolan said. “They’re just shuffling us and shuffling us.”

Hands Across el Rio
August 22, 2007, 5:29 am
Filed under: call for action, News Stories

Calling all “HANDS”.  Amigas and amigos from both sides of el Rio Grande/Bravo…to form human chains across the bridges crossing the Rio Grande/Bravo and to show off our solidarity and friendship.  Calling all paddles.  Kayakers, canoeists, row boaters, inner-tubers…to form a flotilla upriver from the bridges and show off our geography and the Rio that unites us.

In two weeks we will kick off Hands Across el Rio at the downtown bridge in El Paso-Juarez.  We will do our best to keep everyone updated on www.borderambassasors.com <http://www.borderambassasors.com> .  We have folks in the different regions that are helping to make this historic event a success knowing the importance of this 1250 mile 16 day show of solidarity on both sides of the Rio Grande…in opposition to a grotesque wall that would divide we the people and destroy our environment and economy.

Here are some related news links to Hands Across el Rio.

USA Today.  http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2007/08/texans-raising-.html

KGBT 4…CBS…McAllen. (See video clip)  http://www.kgbt4.com/Global/story.asp?S=6907456&nav=menu90_3 <http://www.kgbt4.com/Global/story.asp?S=6907456&amp;nav=menu90_3>

El Paso Times.  http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_6575165

Rio Grande Guardian. http://www.riograndeguardian.com/rggnews_story.asp?story_no=14

The Daily Texan. http://media.www.dailytexanonline.com/media/storage/paper410/news/2007/08/08/TopStories/A.Line.In.The.Sand-2929832.shtml

Below are some of the diverse organizations that have already given their endorsement.  Followed by our wish list.

League of United Latin American Citizens
www.lulac.org <

Texas Border Coalition
www.texasbordercoalition.org <

Texas Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement/AFL-CIO
www.lclaa.org <

The Border Trade Alliance
www.thebta.org <

Cesar E. Chavez Legacy and Educational Foundation
www.sachavezfoundation.org <

Lone Star Sierra Club
www.texas.sierraclub.org <

No Border Wall
www.notexasborderwall.com <

We do need to ask for assistance.  Here’s our wish list.

We welcome any volunteer who would like to chronicle Hands Across el Rio.  Videographers, photographers, writers, reporters.

We welcome any individual and organization to help with handling the media, actual events and logistics, both locally as well as regionally.

We are also looking for a volunteer to be administrator of our blog and forum at www.borderambassadors.com <http://www.borderambassadors.com> .

With deep gratitude, we will accept any financial assistance, however small.  We will gladly list all who help out financially on a special “Amigos” page.  http://www.borderambassadors.com/donations.html

If a business or organization wants to be an official sponsor of Hands Across el Rio, we will give a banner on the website.

If anyone wants to advertise on Border Ambassadors you can go to this link. http://www.borderambassadors.com/advertising.html

We also ask that you consider signing and passing along the NO BORDER WALL petition to stop the proposed wall that would divide us and destroy our environment, economy and culture.   

Finally, we ask that you forward and share this with your friends and your own respective networks.  Be a part of this history altering and epoch event.

In solidarity…