Sunday, October 29, 2017

We’ve Still Got a Long Way to Go, Baby, When it Comes to Economic Justice for Women

For all the positive things we see happening in New York State for women economically, and there has been a lot of progress, we are still a long way from where we need to be.

On the plus side, for example, on Halloween this year, a new law takes effect in New York City prohibiting employers from inquiring about a candidate’s salary history during the hiring process. The law is designed to delink lifelong pay inequalities for women by uncoupling them from their salary histories. From October 31 on, any such inquires are unlawful and discriminatory.

PowHerNY and our many allies worked hard during the 2017 legislative session to get a similar salary history bill passed in New York State legislature. Hopefully we’ve laid the ground work for passage in 2018.

On January 1, New York will institute most one of the most progressive paid family leave policies in the nation. Phased in over several years, the new law will apply to newborns, adopted or foster children, as well as ill family members, including children, in-laws and domestic partners. Those families with a member called to active military service also qualify. And since the payment of benefits comes out of payroll deductions, employers do not bear the burden to cover costs.

But – and there is always a but - New York City sits atop a list of 10 worst megacities for women in terms of economic opportunity, according to a new survey ranking the world’s metropolises for their sexism. The Thomson Reuters Foundation looked at 19 of the world’s biggest megacities and ranked them based on how safe they are for women, as well as the level of access to healthcare, education and economic opportunities.

Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to experts on women’s issues in each of the cities and rated the cities based on their scores in four categories:
·       Sexual violence (“Women can live in this city without facing the risk of sexual violence including rape or sexual attacks or harassment.”)
·       Access to healthcare (“Women have good access to healthcare including control over reproductive health and maternal mortality.”)
·       Cultural practices (“Women are well protected from potentially harmful cultural practices including female genital mutilation, child, early or forced marriage, female infanticide.”)
·       Economic opportunities (“Women have access to economic resources such as education, ownership of land or other forms of property, and financial services such as bank accounts.“)

This past weekend the Women’s Convention was held in Detroit, a convening of nearly 4,000 people, mostly women, as a follow up to the wildly successful Women’s March held in Washington, DC and many other locations following the Trump Inauguration in January. The issues under discussion in Detroit included the same ones women rallied over last January:

Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, threats to the environment, mass incarceration, reproductive rights, workplace rules, the accessibility of child care, treatment of immigrants, protections for transgender people, and sexual harassment and assault.

The answer to the question, Why these issues are still unmet?, even in relatively progressive places like New York City and New York State, is simple:  It is the lack of women at the table in the state legislature and the halls of Congress.

Women make up just over half the population and are the majority of voters, yet women – especially young women with the most to gain or lose - are not exercising their full electoral power, either at the polls as voters or as candidates.

Election Day 2017 is just around the corner, yet we know these off, off year elections attract the fewest voters, on average. However, it is through local elections that voters have the greatest power to effect change. We’ve seen over and over again that when progress is stalled in Washington and the state capital, it is through leadership at the municipal level that real change can begin. Paid Family Leave was a New York City innovation before it passed in Albany.

Across the country, the majority of Americans are dissatisfied with the political state of the nation:

Seven in 10 Americans say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War, according to a new poll, which also finds nearly 6 in 10 saying Donald Trump’s presidency is making the U.S. political system more dysfunctional.
But dissatisfaction extends well beyond the executive branch: Even more Americans, 8 in 10, say Congress is dysfunctional, and there is limited trust in other institutions, including the media.
While the poll finds similar levels of distrust in the federal government as before Trump took office, it also finds that pride in U.S. democracy is eroding. The share of Americans who are not proud of the way the country’s democracy is working has doubled since three years ago — from 18 percent to 36 percent in the new survey conducted among a nationwide sample of more than 1,600 adults by The Post and U-Md.’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship.
Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans say America’s politics have reached a dangerous low point, though more Democrats (81 percent) than Republicans (56 percent) hold that view.

This has been deliberately cultivated by cynical politicians and organizations who want to foster helplessness, fear and apathy in our citizens. Because apathetic, depressed citizens won’t do the one thing that can change the direction of the country: Run for office and vote for candidates who offer a new vision for the country.

There is a power vacuum in this country. Robert Reich, who served in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton from 1993-97, has pointed out that the old Democratic and Republican parties are exploding.

"When you take a closer look, America actually has 6 political parties right now. Whoever can put together elements of a governing coalition among these groups will win future elections." Watch his video essay on this question.

But in order to take advantage of these dynamic shifts in political power, we have to be willing to step up to claim the opportunity. The good news: there is evidence this is starting to happen.

More than 15,000 women across the country have contacted Emily’s List in 2017 to express interest in running for office—a new record for the organization. They’ve watched as senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are interrupted and silenced by their male colleagues, and lamented that at an all-male cohort of senators retreated behind closed doors to draft a Senate health-care bill that would have imperiled millions of women’s health, from maternity care to access to birth control.

According to a She Should Run spokesperson, in a normal month the organization sees “at best, and with significant effort, anywhere between a few dozen to a few hundred women” sign up. But in the three months since the election, co-founder and CEO Erin Loos Cutraro said 8,100 women have indicated their interest in running foroffice by registering for She Should Run’s online incubator program, which teaches them how.

Female donors are skyrocketing and more women are considering runs. The number of female donors to federal candidates and committees has skyrocketed by roughly 284 percent so far in the 2017-18 election cycle compared with this time in the 2015-16 cycle, according to research from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The number of women donating to a federal campaign has increased by a staggering 670 percent when compared with the early months of the 2011-12 cycle.

Having a critical mass of women decision-makers, rather than a token presence, will allow new ideas and new voices to be heard with new perspectives and solutions to old problems. This idea is taking hold. In Detroit at the Women’s Convention:

In small rooms, speakers led detailed training sessions for candidates at all levels: how to get the vote out, how to give a campaign speech, how to register voters, how to run for office.
“The goal here is for people to go back to their local communities and prepare for 2018 and to build power, register voters, engage more people, organize on a very hyper level,” said Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers of the Women’s March and of this convention, which leaders here view as the first of its kind since women met in Houston in 1977. “We’re excited to see what happens in 2018.”

Women – and society – have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Remember:

Monday, October 16, 2017

2017 Ballot Propositions – Don’t Forget To Turn Over Your Ballot on Nov. 7!

There are three propositions on this year New York State ballot. You’ll find them on the back of your paper ballot, so don’t forget to turn your ballot over before and vote on them before you hand it in to be scanned on Election Day.

New York State does not provide a path for citizen initiatives, unlike some other states (California is the best known-example of this). However, the New York Constitution does provide for an automatic ballot referral for a constitutional convention (the "ConCon") question at 20-year intervals, with one in 2017. Prop 1 this year is the referendum on that.

There is a non-ConCon method to amend the constitution, however. All other ballot measures must be referred by the New York State Legislature. A majority vote is required in two successive sessions of the legislature in order to qualify a constitutional amendment for the statewide ballot. Prop 2 and Prop 3 met that requirement this year.

Let’s take a closer look at each of them, saving Prop 1, the Constitutional Convention (“ConCon”) question, for last.

New York Proposal 2, the Pension Forfeiture for Convicted Officials Amendment, would amend the NYS Constitution by authorizing judges to reduce or revoke the public pension of a public officer convicted of a felony related to his or her official duties. A YES vote will pass Prop 2 and a NO vote will oppose it.

If you think state officials who violate state ethics laws or abuse their positions for personal gain, are caught and convicted should not get a state pension, this is the Prop for you.

New York Proposal 3, the Forest Preserve Land Bank Amendment, would          
1. create a 250-acre land bank, which would allow local governments to request state Forest Preserve land for qualifying projects in exchange for the state adding 250 new acres to the preserve; and
2. allow bike paths, sewer lines, and utility lines within the width of highways on preserve land.
A YES vote passes the amendment; a NO vote denies it.

Creating the 250-acre land bank would allow municipalities (towns, villages, counties) inside the Adirondack Park to be able to do away with the current requirement for local road, bridge, telecommunications, and water and sewer projects to be put up on a state-wide ballot in order to gain the easements necessary to do this work. The Park would not lose any land, because Prop 3 requires the State to buy an additional 250 acres in exchange for the land bank.

It is important to note that Prop 3 prohibits the construction of a new intrastate gas or oil pipeline that did not receive necessary state and local permits and approvals by June 1, 2016. So passing Prop 3 will not open up the Park to destructive heavy industry development.

Both environmental and pro-development groups are backing passage of Prop 3.

Now we come to Prop 1, the once every 20 year question so see if the voters agree it is time to hold a Constitutional Convention in New York State – the so-called ConCon Prop. A bit of history: New Yorkers have voted on 12 constitutional convention questions during the 239 years between 1777 and 2016. In 2017, citizens are voting on it for the 13th time.

For example, the 1894 ConCon enacted the Forever Wild clause, creating the Adirondack Park to protect state forest tracts. The 1938 convention brought new state responsibilities regarding social welfare and established labor protections for public projects.

The last time a ConCon was called for (by the state legislature in that case) was in 1967, but ultimately those proposed changes were rejected by the voters.

Convening a ConCon is a three-year, multi-step process:
  • November 7, 2017: Public votes on whether to hold constitutional convention.
  • November 6, 2018: Delegates elected if public votes for convention.
  • April 2, 2019: Start of convention.
  • November 5, 2019: Public votes on proposed changes to constitution.

If a convention is approved, in the second year (2018) voters will elect three delegates from each of the state’s sixty-three Senate districts and fifteen at-large delegates for a total of 204. While elected by the people, the ConCon delegates are in a sense an extra set of legislators charged with tinkering with the basic governmental document of the state. Keep in mind that fully one third of the people who ran for the state Assembly and Senate in 2016 were unopposed, then ask yourself who will come forward and have the name recognition to get elected as delegates in 2018, a state-wide election year for both state houses.

If the ConCon is called and delegates are seated, they have a few months to work on changes to the state’s constitution before bringing those changes back to voters. They can decide to either bring all the amendments up on one ballot – aye or nay in one vote – or bring them up for individual votes separately on the ballot in 2019. It is solely their call which method they decide to use. On more than one occasion, the work of the entire ConCon has been scrapped because one proposal sent all the others down in flames in a single ballot vote on all.

One of the concerns about holding a ConCon is the cost. The 1967 convention, which was called for by the state legislature in the middle of the regular ConCon cycle, cost about $15 million. Fifty years later, if there is one thing we have learned, it is that the cost of anything never goes down when it involves people and government.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli estimated a constitutional convention could cost the state at least $50 million — a figure he said was a “conservative” estimate. Speaking with reporters at a news conference in his office, DiNapoli said the convention would have to spend money on pay for delegates and staff and their pension credits. DiNapoli [like much of the state’s political leadership] is opposed to holding one. “Our conservative estimate based on ’67 number is $50 million,” he said, referencing the 1967 convention, the last time one was held to consider revising the state constitution. “I think it could be a lot higher than that. I’d rather see that money put to other issues. I’d rather see our attention focused on other issues.”

And speaking of money, a lot of it has already been spent on both sides of the question, trying to influence voters to vote yes or no on this year’s ballot. If that is any indication, the spending in 2019 to influence the delegates will go through the roof. And thanks to Citizens United v. FEC (2010), corporations are “people” too, for a first time with a ConCon. 

The campaigns for and against a constitutional convention may be only every 20 years, but spending by supporters and foes this year is on par with expenditures in a hotly contested election. Top pro and con convention forces have spent more than $1 million combined this year, according to filings with the state Board of Elections. Additional spending is expected before voters head to the polls on Election Day to cast ballots on whether to hold a constitutional convention, which would take place in 2019.

Those opposing a ConCon worry about what might be lost – labor rights, pensions, environmental protections, etc. They are a diverse group of people and organizations not usually associated with each other on policy matters.

Those in favor of a ConCon all seem to have the same hope that goodness and mercy will prevail and all of the thorny issues the legislature has been unable or willing to address can be resolved by rewriting the state constitution. Strangely enough, many of these folks are from the political class and ought to know better. Hope, as the US Army is wont to say, is not a plan.

In the end, the decision is in the hands of the voters on Election Day to determine the fate of all three of these Proposals. Educate yourself about the details of each, think about how passage or failure would affect you, and don’t forget to turn your ballot over on November 7 and make your choices known.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Gender and Culture Wars - Reproductive Health

Let’s start this discussion with the premise that Health Care is health care, no matter who it is for. A child, a woman, a man – they all need health care. In fact, society needs them to have health care, because public health – for the good of everyone – functions best in non-epidemic situations.

Women’s health care is not separate from Health Care – it is integral to it. This fact is lost on the Trump Administration and the GOP majority in Congress. A Congress, I might add, that has no problem including Viagra under Medicare (given their average ages) or in every heath insurance policy out there (given their numerical majority in both Congress and the corporate world).

But let the topic of women’s health care – which is code for reproductive health care – enter the discussion, then the conversation changes and that starts up the beat on the gender and culture war drums.

This is hardly a new conversation; it has been going on for generations. Men know the way to control women is to make sure women can’t control their own fertility. Men run most governments – and religions – so controlling contraception and access to reproductive health is a way to keep and enhance their own power.

The first birth control clinic was opened in New York City just over 101 years ago on Oct. 16, 1917 by Margaret Sanger. The powers that be couldn’t wait to throw her in jail to halt the heresy she preached.

Sanger challenged the status quo by providing contraception and other health services to women and men and educating the public about birth control and women’s health. It is not an exaggeration to say that women's progress in recent decades — in education, in the workplace, in political and economic power — can be directly linked to Sanger's crusade and women's ability to control their own fertility.

Planned Parenthood, as Sanger’s American Birth Control League eventually became known, recently received the Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award, in recognition of its role as a critical provider of women’s medical services from breast-cancer screenings to tests for sexually transmitted diseases. The Foundation noted that Planned Parenthood helped 2.4 million women in 2015, including many who had no other source of care. (More about this later.)

The Affordable Care Act finally busted down the locked door to contraception by mandating that contraception was health care and had to be provided, free of charge, to women under most health care plans. And the ACA is still the law of the land, despite the best (or worse) efforts of Congress and the Trump White House to kill, repeal, or replace it.

Frustrated by the inability of Congress to enact legislation on his agenda, Trump has tried to kill the ACA by executive action. His administration issued rules that immediately carved out broad exceptions to the Affordable Care Act’s promise of no-cost contraceptive coverage, touching off lawsuits and renewed debate about the proper scope of religious liberty.

There are bumps in road, however, thanks to legal action by states Attorney Generals across the country. These efforts were led by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who was the first to bring suit against the federal government over these newly issued rules giving employers the right to deny women birth control coverage by claiming religious or moral objections.

This is about taking away women’s access to birth control under the guise of religious liberty,” Healey told reporters during a conference call. The suit charges that the new rules “promote the religious freedom of corporations over the autonomy of women.” [Shades of Citizens United.]

This is another instance of where you live determining how you live in this country. Trump’s executive action on the birth control mandate doesn’t affect women in New York State. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration immediately clarified that despite the Trump administration’s move to roll back a federal requirement that birth control be covered by health insurance plans, New York’s regulations still mandate such coverage.

This Congress and Administration have been targeting Planned Parenthood funding especially hard in 2017. Why is this bad for Health Care in general and women’s health care particularly?

Planned Parenthood clinics offer a wide range of health services, including contraceptive care, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HIV testing, and cancer screenings. Further, PP clinics are what public health people call “safety-net health centers”: a last-chance offering for those who couldn’t pay full price if they had to, but who are covered by Medicaid. In two-thirds of the counties in which a Planned Parenthood clinic is located, that clinic serves at least half of the women who turn to a safety-net health center to get contraception.

Earlier this year, then-HHS Secretary Tom Price wanted to see a list of counties where Planned Parenthood is the only option for women who need subsidized birth control. In 105 counties, Planned Parenthood is the only full-service birth control clinic. Did you know that 17 of those counties are here in New York State? A state where contraception is still mandated health care, but where there are still significant problems with access.

Did you know the US could save $12 billion a year if every woman had access to birth control? Not only is access to birth control reproductive and social justice, it is cost effective. A study from Child Trends commissioned by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund found that if every woman in the United States had access to the most effective birth control possible, it could save as much as $12 billion a year in health care costs.

In addition to attacking women’s health care access, the Trump Administration has been also defunding other programs, like pregnancy prevention programs. Trump cut $214 million in funding for teen-pregnancy prevention programs in July at a time when teen-pregnancy is at an all-time low. In a released statement, Leslie Kantor, the study's coauthor and the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, explained:

"Withholding critical health information from young people is a violation of their rights. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse."

Although we are living in the 21st Century, what is happening to health care and women make it look like the country is poised to take a giant step backward to the 19th. Why does this matter in 2017? Because when you go to the polls on November 7, who you vote for in your local and municipal elections help set the stage for 2018, when all the state legislators in Albany and every House seat and one third of the Senate in Congress are up for reelection.

People thinking about running in 2018 are looking to see who wins in 2017 and what issues top the voter’s concerns to gauge the success of their campaigns next year. We won’t change the culture of Washington, DC or Albany, NY by reelecting the same old, same old candidates, culture war dividers, or ideas.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Dreamers Are Caught in a Political Nightmare

Political disconnects between the People and the Government (as embodied by the Trump Administration) are the order of the day in 2017. Caught in the middle are group of young people known as the Dreamers. Brought to the United States by their parents as children, the Dreamers took a big chance in 2012 when they came out of the shadows through DACA.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was American immigration policy established by the Obama administration in 2012 that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit.

As of this year, approximately 800,000 individuals—referred to as Dreamers after the DREAM Act bill—were enrolled in the program created by DACA. The policy was rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017.

Elections have consequences, as many have observed, and none more so that the election of 2016, which turned our national policy on its head in many areas. As it turns out, one of those big disconnects is between what citizens of the US think about the Dreamers and what the government wants to do with (or to) them:

Most Americans, 83%, think “dreamers” should be allowed to remain in the United States. This includes nearly six in ten Americans, 58%, who think “dreamers” should be permitted to stay and become citizens and 25% who believe they should be granted legal residency but not citizenship. Only 12% of U.S. residents say “dreamers” should be deported. Not surprisingly, there is a partisan divide. But, even 74% of Republicans, including a plurality — 42% — who say “dreamers” should be allowed to become citizens, oppose deportation. Most Democrats, 95%, and independents, 81%, say “dreamers” should be allowed to remain in the United States.

Like many other dilemmas faced in this country, the current situation is a direct result of inaction by Congress. The Dream Act, which has been languishing in Congress for the last 16 years, would create a pathway to legalize the status for these 800,000 young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents - if it were passed by Congress and signed into law by a president.

When Mr. Trump announced the end of DACA, the response was swift – depending on where you live. Here in New York, both state and municipal leaders were quick to protect the Dreamers who live in the state. Both Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman promised legal action to protect those DACA residents, if President Donald Trump succeeded in ending the program.

There are about 30,000 New Yorkers who would be impacted by the DACA repeal who live in New York City alone. Another 20,000 reside in upstate New York.

At the state level, Gov. Cuomo issued Executive Order 170 to prohibit state agencies and officers from inquiring about or disclosing an individual's immigration status unless required by law or necessary to determine eligibility for a benefit or service. Law enforcement officers were also prohibited from inquiring about immigration status unless investigating illegal criminal activity. This prohibition against inquiring into status included, but was not limited to, when an individual approaches a law enforcement officer seeking assistance, is the victim of a crime, or is witness to a crime.

"As Washington squabbles over rolling back sensible immigration policy, we are taking action to help protect all New Yorkers from unwarranted targeting by government," Governor Cuomo said. "New York became the Empire State due to the contributions of immigrants from every corner of the globe and we will not let the politics of fear and intimidation divide us."

Cities like New York and Syracuse were quick to declare themselves “sanctuary cities” and to press for legal action. Syracuse joined other cities, counties and national organizations in supporting a Chicago lawsuit challenging the new regulations by the Justice Department that target sanctuary cities. In mid-September, a federal judge did block the Trump administration's rules requiring so-called sanctuary cities to cooperate with immigration agents in order to get a public safety grant.

"I want to be clear, this is not just a victory for the city of Chicago," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "It is a win for cities, counties and states across the country who also filed amicus briefs on behalf of our lawsuit, and also the business leaders who also stepped forward on our lawsuit."

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions threatened law enforcement funding, another federal court stopped him from withholding public-safety grants to the sanctuary cities. The decision issued was a setback to the administration's efforts to force local jurisdictions to help federal authorities crack down on illegal immigration.

Putting the immigration status of these young people into limbo has consequences far beyond their ability to go to school or work. About 450,000 of them will forfeit health insurance and other benefits offered through employers, according to the National Immigration Law Center. Another 290,000 recipients could lose their eligibility for state-subsidized health coverage when their protection expires. More than half of DACA beneficiaries will be forced to relinquish driver’s licenses, as well as most occupational licenses, like those required for nursing and cosmetology.

New York is one of the few states that provides health insurance to non-citizens, or people residing under the color of law (PRUCOL). That’s because of a 2001 Court of Appeals ruling that said denying Medicaid to any legal resident violated the equal protection clauses of the New York and U.S. constitutions. As a result, immigrants in New York who are not citizens, but are living in the state lawfully, are entitled to Medicaid. Because the federal government does not recognize the state court’s decision, New York, which usually receives a 50 percent match for Medicaid expenses, pays the full cost for insuring these immigrants. If they lose their DACA status and revert to being undocumented immigrants in the eyes of the law, they may also lose their right to Medicaid.

Tens of thousands of dreamers are enrolled in schools – both public schools and colleges. State education leaders were quick to stand up for them. The New York State Education Department issued a statement condemning the president’s action.

“By ending the DACA program, President Trump ignores the vast contributions Dreamers have already made to our nation’s economy and society, as well as their vast potential for future contributions. Now it is time for our Congressional leaders to demonstrate true leadership and embrace Dreamers for what they are – productive, hard-working, tax-paying members of our communities.”

How this situation will end for the Dreamers has yet to be determined, but your municipal votes this fall could determine how your city, town or county reacts to these and other policy reversals from the federal government. It is pretty clear that the Trump Administration has lost the support of the governed in many states and areas on this question.

But as AAUW Chief Executive Officer Kimberly Churches pointed out, this is fundamentally a civil rights issue:

“AAUW is proud to be part of a community that fights for the civil rights of all Americans, including immigrants. We stand, and will continue to stand, with the nearly 800,000 Dreamers and DACA recipients. This action by the Trump administration is a firm rejection of one of America’s founding principles: that with hard work and education anyone can achieve their own version of the American dream. AAUW will continue to stand by immigrant students and strongly defend their right to an education. The future of our nation depends on it.”

And civil rights - for ourselves and others - should always be one of the ideals we carry into the voting booth each November.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Responding to Title IX Rollbacks by the DeVos Department of Education

The two areas of the federal government oversight that have undergone the greatest change – and not in a good way – under the Trump Administration have been the environment and education – particularly Title IX. Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, we made great strides forward in making college campuses and all schools safer for students. We finally got serious about sexual assault on campus.
There is a reason why Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was the most controversial of his cabinet appointees and why she has a higher "very unfavorable" rating than any other cabinet member in a recent National Consult/Politico online poll. Of those polled, 28 percent have a very or somewhat favorable view of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, while 29 percent have a very unfavorable view of her.

On September 7, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos promised to replace what she called a “failed system” of civil rights enforcement on matters related to campus sexual assault. In her view, the government failed under President Barack Obama to find the right balance in protecting the rights of victims and the accused. The Obama Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights had declared in 2011 that schools should use a standard known as “preponderance of the evidence” when judging sexual violence cases that arise under the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX.

In the DeVos Education Department, the new standard is no standard at all. In a phone briefing with college lawyers on Sept. 28, Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Candice Jackson said that colleges can use informal resolutions such as mediation to resolve Title IX complaints -- even those involving sexual assaults.

The ugly truth is that the rape culture that has prevailed on far too many college campuses for far too long has a new champion in Betsy DeVos. She has elevated male privilege to the top of the pecking order once again, after the steady progress we have made as a society to start to create the opportunity for real justice for victims.

The members of the American Association of University Women have worked tirelessly to strengthen the provisions of Title IX for the women and girls it was designed to protect since they were enacted in 1972. AAUW CEO Kimberly Churches responded to the DeVos announcement:

"The Department of Education should have heeded the comments submitted this week–including more than 10,000 from AAUW advocates–urging them to protect Title IX. The department’s willingness to ignore the overwhelming grassroots to national support for Title IX, its regulations, and prior guidance is proof that the agenda was not to listen and take into account input from the community but rather to move forward with a predetermined plan of action. AAUW looks forward to weighing in as the Department of Education engages in its stated rule-making process. In the meantime we call on schools to continue to uphold students’ civil rights. AAUW stands with survivors and will vigorously defend Title IX and the protections it affords all students.”

The voice of AAUW is one among many condemning the step backwards on Title IX protections that will only endanger more women on the campus to the threat and reality of sexual assault and violence. The data on those effects is clear, as a recent UNH study shows:

Sexual assault on a college campus can cause a considerable number of physical and emotional issues for the victim. While much needed programs, and past studies, have predominately focused on the mental health effects of such violent acts on students, new research by the University of New Hampshire shows that aggressive sexual acts can also adversely impact school work and overall college experience.

The study, recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, found students who experienced sexual violence on campus had significantly lower academic efficacy, higher stress, lower institutional commitment, and lower scholastic conscientiousness than other students.

Researchers used questionnaires to survey 6,482 students (men and women) from eight universities in New England. They identified stressors around four areas of sexual violence; unwanted sexual contact, unwanted sexual intercourse, intimate partner violence, and stalking.

The study measured four academic outcomes that are important for college success and that might be impacted by sexual violence including academic efficacy, collegiate stress, institutional commitment, and scholastic conscientiousness. Overall, there were significant findings for three of the four forms of victimization, across all four of the academic measures.

The response to the DeVos roll back of Title IX protections has been immediate and wide spread. In the days following the announcement, Betsy DeVos has been met by protesters at college campuses in Boston and Washington since pulling back Obama-era guidance that outlined how schools should investigate sexual assault. Angry victims and their advocates have shown up at her speeches.

“We’re here to show up for survivors of sexual violence and for transgender students who are being harmed by her policies,” said Eve Zhurbinskiy, a 21-year-old George Washington senior. “And we’re here to advocate and hold her accountable for a stronger Title IX.”

New York Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and her colleague Hawaii Senator Mazie Keiko Hirono have introduced a bill intended to defend Title IX protections. The “Patsy Mink Gender Equity in Education Act being proposed by Congresswoman Slaughter and Senator Hirono strengthens the original intentions of Title IX,” said Cynthia Herriott Sullivan, vice president of public policy at the Greater Rochester Area Branch of the American Association of University Women. “It is clear that in today’s environment for young women, addressing gender disparity has become even more critical, and we stand with them. The American Association of University Women of New York State understands that this bill provides the substantive resources needed to insure Title IX serves its original purpose—to promote gender equity in education.”

In addition, a group of former Obama administration officials is launching a legal aid effort to assist students who are defrauded or suffer from discrimination. The organization, called the National Student Legal Defense Network, will work with state attorneys general and other advocacy groups to bring lawsuits on students' behalf. The network's co-founder Aaron Ament, a former chief of staff and special counsel at the Department of Education under Obama, said that the deregulatory agenda of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos means there is a need for more groups to step up to protect students.

As is so often the case in far too much of these United States, where you live determined how you live. States like California, New York and Illinois have passed legislation that surpassed what federal rules required to protect students from sexual assault on campus. New York’s Enough Is Enough Act will stay in place, regardless of what the federal Department of Education does.

These laws are working. In a recent report, the majority of New York's colleges and universities are handling instances and allegations of sexual assault in accordance with the state's "Enough is Enough" law, according to the findings of a statewide compliance review released. Out of 244 institutions reviewed, 120 rated significantly compliant, 95 rated compliant and 29 rated not compliant. Institutions not fully in compliance will be notified by the state Office of Campus Safety, and required to submit an action plan to achieve full compliance within 30 days. 

Following the DeVos announcement, college-based professionals across the country rushed to reassure students that their commitment to preventing and punishing sexual assault remains unchanged.

In a blistering statement, University of California System President Janet Napolitano, a former HHS Cabinet Secretary herself, said that President Trump’s administration aimed to “undo six years’ worth of federal enforcement designed to strengthen sexual violence protections on college campuses.” Napolitano noted that both state and federal law are preserved. California has enacted one of the United States’ most stringent laws regulating how institutions of higher education investigate rape cases. “Even in the midst of unwelcome change and uncertainty, the university’s commitment to a learning environment free of sexual violence and sexual harassment will not waver,” Napolitano said.

What can we do as citizens? We can insist that the colleges and universities we send our children to maintain higher standards than those of the current federal Education Department when it comes to investigating sexual assault. We can always vote with our feet (and our wallets) away from schools with poor track records on campus violence. We can elect political leaders who take sexual assault and related crimes against people seriously and enact laws that protect victims and reduce the chances anyone will be a victim in the first place.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

America’s Epidemic of Gun Violence

Gun violence is not just a crime and punishment or law and order problem. It is a public health crisis in our nation that affects every community and member of society from the youngest to the most senior. Women are far more at risk to be victims of fatal domestic violence, and guns play a significant role in that violence. Of the 1,591 female homicide victims in New York from 2003 to 2012, 522 were killed as a result of a domestic violence incident. Firearms accounted for the murders of 569 women in New York from 2002 to 2011. 
A new FBI report says violent crimes such as shootings and robberies are on the upswing; 2016 makes the first time violent crime rose in consecutive years in more than a decade. It rose 4.1 percent in 2016 over 2015 rates. Homicides climbing 8.6 percent, violence increased 3.9 percent in 2015, and killings jumped by more than 10 percent.

The truth is, where you live in this country has an outsized impact on your safety. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence ranks states by the relative overall strength or weakness of their gun laws, where higher scores represent tougher gun laws. Laws considerations include background checks, dealer licensing, waiting periods and assault weapons bans. In a nutshell, the weaker the gun laws, the higher the death rate by guns in states.

State governments can do a lot to control access to guns and ensure the safety of their citizens. For example, in 2016 Connecticut adopted new laws to victims of domestic abuse from gun violence. That was after overhauling its existing gun laws in 2013 as result of the Sandy Hook school massacre. New York’s SAFE Act was also a response to Sandy Hook.

Politicians often hate to talk about their stand on guns and gun violence, but asking hard questions before an election can illuminate the difference between candidates on these important questions of public safety.   

You can see a map of the country that will allow you to click on each state to review its score. Here is New York State’s scorecard from 2016:

Municipalities can also make changes. For the last four years, the state's 17 biggest jurisdictions outside of New York City have participated in Gov. Andrew Cuomo's GIVE -- Gun-Involved ViolenceElimination -- initiative. The program provides millions of dollars in funding, resources and training to the local agencies where 85 percent of upstate New York’s violent crime occurs. In 2017, GIVE provides $13.3 millions in technical assistance, training, equipment, and personnel to help communities reduce violent crime.

Nationwide in 2015, more than 1,600 women murdered by men and the most common weapon used was a gun. The report, titled "When Men Murder Women," is compiled annually by the Violence Policy Center. What they found was that a gun in the home, generally bought to protect residents from intruders, was far more likely to be lethally used against a woman by an intimate partner, such as a boyfriend or husband. Report authors cite U.S. Department of Justice findings that show women are not only far likelier than men to be the victims of domestic abuse involving a weapon, they are attacked in their own homes more than any other location.

When you look closely at the FBI’s report on 2016 crime statistics, one statistic jumps out: shootings by handguns. In fact, 73 percent of 2017’s recorded homicides were committed with a gun, the highest percentage ever reported. Handguns are literally everywhere. The number of pistols produced rose from around 728,000 in 2004 to 4.5 million in 2016.

It is all too easy to get a handgun. In 32 states, gun owners can sell weapons in unregulated private sales that don’t require background checks. According to data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, seven of the 10 calibers of gun found at crime scenes in 2015 are typically associated with handguns.

This availability of guns – particularly handguns - is important not just in violent crime, because more than 60 percent of people in this country who die from guns die by suicide. Suicide is the second-most common cause of death for Americans between 15 and 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Across all ages, it is the 10th-most common cause of death, and caused 1.6 percent of all deaths in 2012.

Guns in the home make suicide easier and with greater chance for death in the first attempt.
“The high rate of gun suicides in the United States is not a new problem. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when violent crime rates were much higher, gun suicides were still a more common cause of death than gun murders. But in recent years, as the gun homicide rate has flattened out, the gun suicide rate appears to be ticking back up slightly.”

The danger to children from unsecured guns is a clear and ever-present danger in too many homes. As one recent headline put it, A toddler has shot a person every week in the US for two years straight. A total of 668 children under the age of 12 were killed or injured by guns in 2016.

One recent Ohio State University study looked into this and found that exposure to gun violence does make a child more likely to pick up a gun and shoot it.
The study showed groups of kids, ages 8 to 12, different versions of the same movie. One had the gun scenes kept in, and one edited the gun scenes out. The children were then sent to a room to play where a real, unloaded gun was hidden amongst toys.
Stephen Cook, a pediatrician at the Golisano Children’s Hospital (in Buffalo, NY) says the results are interesting.
“When they looked at if kids found a gun, if kids had seen the movie with the gun violence, they picked up and held the gun for 53 seconds. Almost a minute. As opposed to the kids who saw the movie without gun violence. If they found the gun, they held it for about 11 seconds."
The trigger of the gun had a sensor on it to track how often it was pulled.
The kids who saw the guns in the movie pulled 2.8 times, while kids who had seen the edited version with no guns pulled the trigger .01 times.
[Only] 32% of children in the study who found the gun reported it to the researcher.

Guns are a particular problem for teenagers. Syracuse, NY is one of 10 cities with the highest rates of teen shootings, Syracuse, a university town that once cranked out air conditioners and televisions, now has a poverty rate of 35 percent. Social media accelerates the threats, and the danger. Teenagers whose brains are years from fully maturing are roaming the streets with a gun in one pocket and a smartphone in the other. "A juvenile with a gun is a heck of a lot more dangerous than a 24- or 25-year-old with a gun," said James Durham, the acting U.S. attorney based in Savannah. 

In the absence of federal leadership on gun violence, the states and localities can – and should – take up this work of ensuring public safety. Organizations like Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America was created to demand action from legislators, state and federal; companies; and educational institutions to establish common-sense gun reforms in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting. 

The organization is a leading force for gun violence prevention, with chapters in all 50 states and a powerful grassroots network of moms that has successfully effected change at the local, state and national level. Their Be SMART program provides five simple steps that we can all take to prevent children from accessing guns. 

In December 2013, Moms Demand Action partnered with Mayors Against Illegal Guns to unite a nationwide movement of millions of Americans working together to change the game and end the epidemic of gun violence that affects every community. 

Find out what your community is doing to promote gun safety and what local candidates for elected office stand for when it comes to gun violence. You can step up on this issue to take action if your community is not making this a policy priority.