For Thanksgiving, we want to share with you our gratitude for a few New Jersey public servants who have proved to be champions of civil liberties this year.
Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson and the NJ Supreme Court
In September, Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson made history with a decision declaring civil unions unconstitutional. Just a few weeks later, the NJ Supreme Court unanimously rejected Gov. Chris Christie's request to delay marriage equality. A few hours after the first marriages began at midnight on Oct. 21, Gov. Christie dropped his appeal. Judge Jacobson and the NJ Supreme Court – and, above all, the tireless advocates, especially Lambda Legal, Garden State Equality, and all of our partners in NJ United for Marriage – cleared the way for NJ to become the 14th state to recognize marriage equality.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and State Senators Teresa Ruiz, Nellie Pou and Sandra Cunningham, primary sponsors of the NJ Senate's Tuition Equality Act
After years of community and student activism, tremendous credit goes to these legislators for leading the charge for tuition equality in the NJ Senate. If enacted, the Tuition Equality Act (S2479) will allow undocumented NJ high school students who meet certain requirements to qualify for in-state tuition and financial aid opportunities. Gov. Christie announced support for tuition equality on the campaign trail, but then backtracked, saying the Senate's version of the bill "goes too far." We will keep pushing to end discrimination in access to higher education in NJ this year.
Senator Cory Booker and Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio
Just before Cory Booker left Newark to become the state's newest U.S. Senator, he and Police Director Samuel DeMaio instituted two measures to increase safety and protect civil liberties. First, the Newark Police Department (NPD) now publishes data about its use of "stop-and-frisk" tactics each month. Second, the NPD stopped honoring "ICE holds" – warrantless requests from federal immigration authorities to hold people in custody. These new policies increase accountability, transparency, and public safety.
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop
Mayor Fulop signed a city ordinance requiring certain Jersey City businesses to give paid sick leave to employees, the first such policy in NJ. The ACLU-NJ believes that a person can only fully exercise their rights when basic needs are met. This policy helps make Jersey City a place where civil liberties can thrive.
These are only a few of the NJ officials who have stood out this year for their commitment to civil liberties. Do you know a public official who has shown outstanding commitment to civil liberties in 2013? Share them on the ACLU-NJ's Facebook page.
Above all, we're grateful for you this Thanksgiving and every day. Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the ACLU of New Jersey!
TRENTON -- Advocates from across New Jersey today called for the state to end its use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for children in its custody. Nine advocacy groups submitted a petition to Kevin Brown, the Executive Director of New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission, urging the state to adopt new regulations in its treatment of juveniles in their care.
“We hope this petition is just the first part of a productive conversation with New Jersey officials to eliminate the use of solitary confinement of children in state custody,” said Udi Ofer, Executive Director of the ACLU of New Jersey. “At every level of society, we recognize that one-size-fits-all does not work with children, and nowhere is this more critical than in the juvenile justice system. There is no justification for subjecting children to solitary confinement as punishment, period, and New Jersey’s laws must change accordingly.”
A broad coalition of groups – Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the American Friends Service Committee, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, New Jersey Association on Correction, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, People’s Organization for Progress, Rutgers Children’s Justice Clinic and Rutgers Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic – submitted a petition urging New Jersey to end solitary confinement of juveniles, a practice recognized internationally as torture.
“All of the children in New Jersey’s detention centers will be released eventually, no matter how long their sentences, because young people legally cannot receive a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole,” said Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel. “When young people do rejoin society after incarceration, we have to ask ourselves who we want to emerge: someone capable of living a productive life, or someone who has been psychologically damaged by solitary confinement. For the safety of society, for the safety of corrections officers, and for the long-term health of our young people, solitary confinement of young people needs to end in New Jersey now.”
The groups are proposing changes to the law that would eliminate the state’s authority to isolate juveniles in solitary confinement for five days at a time as a form of punishment or pending a disciplinary hearing. New Jersey law currently allows juveniles to be placed in solitary confinement for up to five days at a time, even though humane alternatives such as graduated sanctions and positive reinforcement exist. Yet one juvenile inmate held in detention in New Jersey spent up to 41 consecutive days in solitary confinement in 2009 according to the lawsuit Troy D. and O’Neill S. v. Mickens et al. The other plaintiff in the case spent more time in solitary confinement awaiting his disciplinary hearing than the actual length of solitary confinement he was given to serve as a result of that hearing.
“Think about the inner turmoil inside every teenager, and then imagine a young person stuck inside a windowless cell, alone, for 23 hours a day,” said Laura Cohen, professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark. “Children occupy a unique place in our society and are more likely to successfully rehabilitate through other, more humane forms of punishment. Solitary confinement is harmful, costly, and doesn’t protect the public.”
The proposal to eliminate long-term solitary confinement would not preclude corrections officials from short-term, structured isolation for protection of adolescents when circumstances demand it.
Several states -- Alaska, Connecticut, Maine, Oklahoma and West Virginia -- have banned punitive juvenile solitary confinement outright, and several others, such as Mississippi, have placed strict limitations on the use of the practice. Experts from a range of fields and affiliations, from the Department of Justice to the United Nations, have warned of the deleterious effects solitary confinement has on children.
Advocates in New Jersey call for these changes amid a nationwide movement to end the practice of routinely isolating young people in cells or rooms for 22-24 hours per day. In the past several years, the Supreme Court has issued several decisions reiterating the American legal system’s long-held belief that the most severe punishments – life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and the death penalty – are not appropriate for children given the special circumstances of their developmental stages of life. Studies have shown that solitary confinement can be especially traumatizing to young people because of the tremendous physiological changes they undergo in their adolescence.
Experts across disciplines, from corrections officials to social scientists, have observed that solitary confinement causes or worsens mental health problems in adolescents, and mentally ill children in solitary confinement often lack access to psychological counseling during that period. As a result, the potential for rehabilitation by virtue of their age weakens because of the irreversible harm solitary confinement causes to their intellectual and emotional development.
NEWARK – As debate concerning New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy carries on, the city of Newark today issued one of the most comprehensive policies in the nation requiring the tracking and public reporting of the police department’s stop-and-frisk practices.
The Newark Police Department issued a general order, known as the “Police Transparency Policy,” requiring officers to document each stop regardless of the outcome, explain the reasons for the stop and the demographic information (including race, sex, age, and language proficiency) of the person being stopped, and note whether the person was frisked or whether force was used. Police will also be required to note whether the person stopped is a student.
A summary of the data collected by the officers will be released to the public on a monthly basis, allowing the public to determine whether the practice is administered judiciously. Concurrently, Newark Mayor Cory Booker introduced a resolution to the Municipal Council in support of the general order.
“Newark has taken an important step today in instituting greater transparency in policing practices, and in building the trust and confidence of the public in our police force,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “This new policy gives New Jerseyans a close look into how policing is administered in our largest city, and should serve as a model for the rest of the state and nation.”
Specifically, this new policy will require that the Newark Police Department:
“With this policy in place, New Jerseyans will have a much clearer sense of who is stopped and for what reasons, and whether this tactic is being used against innocent people or in a discriminatory manner,” said Ofer. “The ACLU-NJ commends Mayor Booker, Police Director DeMaio, and the Newark Municipal Council for working together to institute this important policy.”
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) filed a petition with the state Department of Education against the Cape May County Special Services School District, a public school district, for segregating students with multiple disabilities based on sex. The petition was filed on behalf of Susan Coll-Guedes, an Atlantic County parent who wanted her son to be placed in a co-educational class because she believes he excels academically and socially in an integrated environment.
For the past several years, the district has provided co-educational classes in all grades for students with multiple disabilities, except for grades six through eight.
“Like any parent, I want my child to be in a nurturing learning environment that is conducive to his education,” said Coll-Guedes. “I believe my son should be in an environment that reflects society and prepares him to be comfortable and confident when interacting with others, including girls.”
Coll-Guedes’s 12-year-old son has attended Ocean Academy in the Cape May County Special Services School District since pre-kindergarten. When he reached sixth grade, she requested that he have classes with girls. The district refused and even rejected compromises, such as having time to interact in the hall with girls.
Coll-Guedes turned to the ACLU-NJ for help. The organization filed a public records request, seeking the district’s policies on single sex classes. The district claimed it did not have any polices segregating students based on sex and instead placed students based on “age, disability and level of functioning.” The complaint alleges that it is not plausible that the school district has made an individualized assessment of all sixth through eighth graders with multiple disabilities that has resulted in sex-segregated classes at Ocean Academy year after year.
“The law requires that all children should have equal access to educational programs, regardless of their sex,” said Frank Corrado, an attorney with Barry, Corrado & Grassi, who, along with ACLU-NJ Deputy Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero, represents Coll-Guedes. “Segregating students is a violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and it limits opportunities for boys and girls alike.”
Coll-Guedes decided to keep her son back in the fifth grade coeducational class for the current school year. The petition has been filed with the Department of Education, which is expected to transmit it to the Office of Administrative Law for a disposition.
On May 15, the ACLU-NJ withdrew the complaint and submitted a letter to the New Jersey Department of Education and New Jersey Division of Civil Rights, asking officials to investigate the segregation of students at Ocean Academy based on sex.
|Linda Richardson with her daughter
Shaina Harris in front of Burger King
NEWARK – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) has filed suit against the Borough of Wanaque after its police department issued a citation to a teenager for violating its juvenile curfew ordinance.
Shaina Harris, 17, was given the citation after she walked to a Burger King located across the street from her home around 11 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2012. Harris had parental permission to visit the restaurant to buy a milkshake.
“Wanaque’s curfew is an assault on the basic constitutional rights of juveniles in the borough to come and go as they please with their parents’ consent,” said Edward Kiel, an attorney in the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard, who is handling the case for the ACLU-NJ. “These curfews wrongfully punish law-abiding people just trying to go about their daily lives freely, like our client.”
Wanaque’s curfew prohibits any juvenile from being in a public location in the town from 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., unless they satisfy one of several narrow exceptions set forth in the curfew ordinance.
Harris received her GED at age 16 and was already attending community college at the time of the incident. The Burger King she visited is directly across the street from where the family mailbox is located and garbage is collected.
When Harris walked back from the fast food chain, an officer stopped her near her family’s mailbox and asked why she was outside without adult supervision. Harris called her stepfather, who came immediately. The officer issued Harris a citation for violating the borough’s curfew. The citation carries a $100 fine and potential for 15 hours of community service.
“I was really surprised,” she said. “I had permission from my parents to go out and didn’t realize the police could write me up for something as harmless as walking across the street to Burger King.”
The ACLU-NJ recently represented Harris in municipal court where the court postponed the municipal hearing so that today’s lawsuit challenging the ordinance could be filed.
“I think parents are the ones who should determine and set curfews for their children, not the borough,” said Linda Richardson, the plaintiff in the case on behalf of her daughter. “My daughter already attends college; I trust her to walk across the street to Burger King.”
The ACLU-NJ has challenged juvenile curfews in the past. In 1999, it won an injunction preventing West New York from enforcing its curfew, which prohibited anyone under the age of 18 from being in a public place from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., unless accompanied by their parent or guardian. In 2004, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court upheld the 1999 injunction and ruled that West New York’s ordinance was unconstitutional. The court also recognized there was a “strong constitutional presumption in favor of parental authority over government authority.”
“Criminalizing ordinary, harmless teenage behavior shifts valuable and limited police resources away from crime prevention,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer. “This juvenile curfew law does not protect communities, but instead needlessly funnels young people into the criminal justice system.”
The lawsuit Richardson v. Borough of Wanaque was filed in Superior Court in Passaic County.
Attorneys David Kohane and David Gold of the Hackensack law firm of Cole, Schotz, Meisel, Forman & Leonard are also representing Harris.
Newark — The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) applauds today’s decision by the state appellate division to strike down a Bergen County school district’s policy that allowed officials to discipline students for activities that occurred outside of a school setting. The ACLU-NJ had submitted a friend-of-the-court brief which explained that New Jersey law prohibits school districts from imposing consequences for off-campus conduct that does not negatively impact school safety.
“A disciplinary policy that seeks to control a student’s conduct 24 hours a day, seven days a week threatens the rights of students and parents both,” said Edward Sholinsky of the law firm Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, who along with colleagues Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon and Sam Silver, wrote the amicus curiae brief for the ACLU-NJ. “The court’s decision represents a key first step in tempering student discipline policies that are overreaching.”
The court’s decision, which upholds prior rulings by an Administrative Law Judge and the Commissioner of Education, sets an important precedent against so-called “24/7” school discipline policies, a growing trend in which districts have tried to exercise greater power over students outside the classroom. The appellate division held that New Jersey statutes do not grant “unlimited power to boards of education to impose disciplinary consequences on students for conduct occurring away from school grounds” but, rather, limit that power only to situations where “there is a close nexus between the misconduct and the school.”
The policy at issue in this case, known as regulation 6145, was passed by Board of Education for the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District. The policy called for students to be removed from extracurricular activities for wrongdoing outside of school -- even if the allegations were unsubstantiated. The district argued that it could take such administrative actions because participation in extracurricular activities is a privilege, not a right. The appellate division properly rejected that argument, stating, “The Board's clear intent in adopting regulation 6145 was to use the control it has over students' participation in extracurricular activities as a form of discipline to enforce its code of conduct.”
“Schools play a dominant role for most children, but that unique status does not grant them carte blanche in the lives of students,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “The close institutional ties between a school system and a young person do not extend authority to administrators in spheres entirely separate from the academic environment. Unless a student’s behavior outside of school directly and substantially disrupts the school, discipline rests with the parents and the juvenile justice system.”
The decision in the case, captioned GDM v. Board of Education of the Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District, can be read online, as can the ACLU-NJ’s amicus brief.
NEWARK – An honor roll student who was suspended from middle school in 2008 because he had an allergy tablet in his backpack will have his record expunged. Pinelands Regional School District in Ocean County has agreed to remove the suspension from the student’s record in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ).
The ACLU-NJ and the school district settled the lawsuit in May. As part of the settlement, the district also agreed to end its zero tolerance drug policy, by eliminating mandatory suspensions for possession of drugs.
“Zero tolerance policies violate New Jersey law and the due process rights of students,” said Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado and Grassi, P.C., who represented the student on behalf of the ACLU-NJ. “We hope this case serves as a lesson for all school districts.”
Under New Jersey law, a school official cannot impose automatic discipline on a student without taking into account the age of the student, his or her discipline history, and the severity of the offense. The only exceptions that would permit immediate suspension or expulsion are for offenses that involve firearms, assaults with weapons or assaults on employees.
The student, P.P., whose identity is protected because he is a juvenile, was in the eighth grade when he was suspended on April 17, 2008. School officials suspended the student for five days after discovering a single over-the-counter allergy tablet inadvertently left in his backpack. In addition to suspending the student, the district stripped him of his membership in the school honor society and barred him from participating in music activities.
“School officials went overboard by treating my son like a criminal for having an allergy pill in his backpack,” said Anne Spollen, who is P.P.’s mother. “I’m relieved that this suspension will be removed from his record and am glad that the district has changed its policy to prevent this from happening again.”
After the suspension, Spollen said other students treated her son differently based on rumors that he had been suspended for drug possession, but the students didn’t realize the drug that landed him in trouble was an allergy pill.
“It became tough with his peers and it had a deleterious effect on him,” Spollen said. “He was in the honor society, but everyone thought he did drugs. He never did drugs.”
Spollen’s son is now a high school senior and will be attending Stockton College in the fall.
NEWARK — Although we do not agree with the sentiments expressed on Union Township teacher Viki Knox’s personal Facebook page, her beliefs and comments are protected by the First Amendment. But because her postings raise questions about her conduct within school, the school district can and should investigate whether she is performing her job in accordance with school policies and the state's Law Against Discrimination.
The ACLU believes that the response to offensive speech is not the restriction of speech, but more speech, which is why the ACLU has created programs like the "Don’t Filter Me" project, which ensures the public schools aren’t illegally denying students access to positive, affirming information about LGBT issues. The ACLU-NJ has participated in this program and successfully advocated for a school in Vineland to remove a filter blocking sites that were supportive of LGBT issues.
Ms. Knox’s Facebook comments highlight the work that still needs to be done to help people understand why LGBT equality is so important. The ACLU will continue working hard to make sure public schools are safe for all students, including LGBT students, in New Jersey and in communities across the country.
NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey school district has removed filters that blocked lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender related websites after receiving student complaints and the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the district about its use of Internet filters. The inquiry is part of a national “Don’t Filter Me” campaign by the ACLU and Yale Law School to combat illegal censorship of pro-LGBT information on public school computer systems.
The Vineland School District in Cumberland County had been using filtering software provided by Blue Coat, which has a specialized filter called “LGBT.” The district removed the filters from its high school computers on March 31, 2011 — just days after the ACLU of New Jersey submitted an open records request for documents about filtering software. The district subsequently agreed to remove the LGBT filter from middle school computers as well.
Other ACLU affiliates in Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Virginia sent letters today demanding they stop similar viewpoint-based censorship of web content geared toward LGBT communities.
“There is no legitimate reason why any public school should be using an anti-LGBT filter,” said Joshua Block, staff attorney at the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Project. “This is not a case where overbroad filters are accidentally filtering out LGBT websites. These filters are designed to discriminate and are programmed specifically to target LGBT-related content that would not otherwise be blocked as sexually explicit or inappropriate.”
Justin Rodriguez and Shaun Laurencio, two students at Vineland High School had been complaining to their school for three years about various LGBT websites being blocked, and renewed their complaints at the same time the ACLU asked about the district’s filtering policies.
“What really hit this home for me was when I was writing a paper for class about Harvey Milk, but every site with information about his life was blocked for having ‘LGBT content,’” said Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior at Vineland High School. Harvey Milk was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the U.S. and is a respected historical figure; his birthday is a state holiday in California.
Rodriguez added, “Seeing all these websites that are considered somehow unacceptable because of something I am was really offensive to me.”
Laurencio, an 18-year-old senior, said they had to badger the administration every time they discovered an obstacle.
“At first they’d unblock whatever specific site we’d asked about, but after a while they stopped unblocking the sites,” Laurencio said. “It was really discouraging.”
“Unblocking individual sites is not a viable solution,” said Block. “As long as the anti-LGBT filter is in place, students will be confronted with a demeaning and stigmatizing message that the site has been blocked on account of its LGBT-related content. It’s unfair to put students in the difficult position of asking special permission before being allowed to access LGBT viewpoints. Public schools have a duty to provide students with viewpoint-neutral access to the Internet.”
The ACLU of New Jersey has also filed open records requests with 26 districts in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties, requesting contracts with Internet filtering software providers, policies about the use of software and any communication with software vendors that mention filters related to gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender-related content.
A video showing students how to test whether or not their schools are illegally filtering content, and providing instructions for reporting censorship is available.
Students who want to report unconstitutional web filtering at their schools can fill out this form.
More information on the ACLU’s work on LGBT school issues can be found here: www.aclu.org/safeschools
TRENTON – The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Project Vote and the Fair Elections Legal Network today submitted a brief seeking to ensure that the Department of Education fulfill a twenty-five-year old mandate to protect the voting rights of private, charter, and public school students, which the DOE has thus-far failed to meet.
“It is appalling that 25 years after the High School Voter Registration Law was issued, there are still no regulations on the books protecting the rights of private and charter school students under the law, and only the most minimal of protections for district public school students,” said Ed Barocas, the ACLU-NJ legal director.
In 1985, New Jersey passed a law giving all eligible high school seniors the right to receive a voter registration form and voter education as they neared adulthood. The law required the DOE to pass regulations to effectuate the law and ensure compliance. But the DOE never did. And even when the DOE earlier this year created a minimal and insufficient compliance requirement for public schools, it still wholly ignored the rights of students at private and charter schools.
In June of this year, the DOE turned down the voting rights groups’ formal request to tighten the oversight requirements. The groups therefore took state educators to court. This appeal of the DOE decision is based on a section of the voter law that says the commissioner of education “shall adopt” regulations on the voting law.
“The result is that students in 40 to 60 percent of school districts are not being educated about a fundamental aspect of our democracy, or are not receiving the tools they need to register and to vote,” stated Robert Brandon, president of the Fair Elections Legal Network. “When Governor Tom Kean signed the law in 1985, it was out of a civic-minded purpose to fight low rates of voter registration and voting that tend to occur among youth. Today’s lawsuit asks the State to honor that promise to New Jersey’s students and enforce their rights under the voting laws.”
The case is especially important for the over 13,000 students who graduate from private and charter schools every year. The State doesn’t monitor those schools at all for compliance with the voter registration law.
The 84,000 students who graduate annually from New Jersey public schools will also benefit from this case, which asks the appeals court to bolster state oversight and monitoring over their voter registration practices for public schools. Currently, school administrators must check a box on a 144-page checklist, once every three years, to affirm compliance. That is the extent of oversight imposed by the State about the voting laws.
According to Census Department figures, youths age 18-24 vote at far lower rates than their older counterparts. The past two presidential elections years have shown gaps ranging from 12 to 23 percent between the rates of youth voter registration and turnout and the voter registration and turnout of the population as a whole.
Estelle Rogers of Project Vote noted that her group is engaged in a year-long project to register 100,000 high school students in five states. “Research shows that it is possible to create long-term change by encouraging life-long civic participation from young people,” said Rogers. “School-based voter registration drives are one of the best ways of accomplishing this change,” she added.