The Legal Standing of Free-Range Parenting

A provision tucked deep within a gargantuan education bill passed in December clarifies the murky legal standing of free-range parenting—sort of. Advocates for the practice—that is, encouraging kids to build self-reliance skills by traveling their neighborhoods solo—are hailing the 101-word section as a victory, though the law still leaves parents and journeying kiddos subject to state and local guidelines.

The amendment is on page 857 of the Every Student Succeeds Act, and is the work of Mike Lee, the Republican senator from Utah who has become something of a political patron saint of anti-helicopter parenting. The provision declares that nothing will “prohibit a child from traveling to and from school on foot or by car, bus, or bike when the parents of the child have given permission.”(Note that the language does not specify how parents are to give legitimate permission.)


It also shields parents who allow their kids to travel “reasonably and safely to and from school by a means the parents believe is age appropriate” from civil or criminal charges.

The state and local exemption could be a killer in this case, and one lawyer consulted by StreetsBlogUSA called the amendment a “symbolic effort.” But the legislation proves that people are heeding the call of the free-range movement, whose adherents believe that children need to be entrusted with independence in order to grow into independent adults. It also proves a point that Amanda Kolson Hurley highlighted at CityLab last year: Legislating when children are old enough to do anything is a tricky, tricky business.

Governments at all levels—city, state, and federal—have a patchwork of laws surrounding kids being alone. Some states have legislation prohibiting leaving children under a certain age in homes by themselves. (The cut-off in North Carolina is 10, in Illinois, 14, and Maryland, 8.) But most leave the question of what constitutes too much trust in children up to local agencies and law enforcement.

eventually dismissed both charges, the Metievs went on to sue CPS and the police department for Fourth Amendment violations. (That’s the one that deals with unreasonable searches and seizures.)

Sankaran advocates for a more collaborative child-welfare model, one in which authorities only get involved in “those extreme situations where … it’s below the standard that any parent should be treating [a] child.”

There still are no bright lines here, though the newest amendment is a motion toward that direction. Which leaves an important question: Should you let your children travel by themselves?

In September, the journalist Selena Hoy tackled the unique independence of Japanese children for CityLab, noting that kids in that country often venture onto public transit by themselves at age 6 or 7. She found the big difference between Japan and the U.S. to be an “unspoken” sense of community. Hoy writes:

What accounts for this unusual degree of independence? Not self-sufficiency, in fact, but “group reliance,” according to Dwayne Dixon, a cultural anthropologist who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Japanese youth. “[Japanese] kids learn early on that, ideally, any member of the community can be called on to serve or help others,” he says.

The path to giving American kids greater autonomy may have nothing to do with laws, but with parents putting trust—misplaced or no—in the kindness of strangers.

Related Video

In the late 1960s, nearly half of American children walked to and from school each day.

This article appears courtesy of CityLab.

The Steep Costs of Keeping Juveniles in Adult Prisons

On December 14, 2015, Philip Chism, of Danvers, Massachusetts, was convicted of raping and murdering his high-school math teacher, Colleen Ritzer. Chism, now 16, was 14 when he committed the crime, but was tried as an adult due to a Massachusetts state law requiring juveniles 14 and older accused of murder to be tried as adults. Massachusetts has policies in place that prevent juveniles from being sentenced to adult prisons, policies meant to protect youth from the increased risk of sexual abuse, injury, and death they face when imprisoned alongside adults.

Juveniles constitute 1,200 of the 1.5 million people housed in federal and state prisons in this country, and nearly 200,000 youth enter the adult criminal-justice system each year, most for non-violent crimes. On any given day, 10,000 juveniles are housed in adult prisons and jails. These children lose more than their freedom when they enter adult prisons; they lose out on the educational and psychological benefits offered by juvenile-detention facilities. Worse, they are much more likely to suffer sexual abuse and violence at the hands of other inmates and prison staff. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission described their fate in blunt terms in a 2009 report: “More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk of sexual abuse.”

The National Inmate Survey conducted by Department of Justice indicates that “1.8 percent of 16- and 17- year-olds imprisoned with adults report being sexually abused by other inmates.” Of these cases, 75 percent report having been victimized repeatedly by staff. However, due to the imbalance of power between children and adults, not to mention between children and prison staff, sexual abuse of juveniles in adult prison is underreported; fewer than one in 10 of the juveniles surveyed reported their abuse. Given the lack of services and safety, it’s hardly surprising that juveniles housed in adult prisons are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than juveniles housed apart from adult offenders.

The federal government has taken steps to protect juveniles from being housed with adults through two federal statutes: the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 (JJDPA) and the Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 (PREA). Under JJDPA and PREA guidelines, juveniles must be housed separately from adult inmates. Despite these statutes, states continue to house juveniles with adult inmates, and a few have chosen to forfeit federal-grant dollars rather than comply with PREA.

PREA defines juveniles, or, in PREA language, “youthful inmates,” as “any person under the age of 18 who is under adult-court supervision and incarcerated or detained in a prison or jail.” PREA’s “youthful inmate” standard is the first time a federal statute has defined juveniles as anyone under age 18. The JJDPA, however, allows states to set their own definition of “juvenile” as they see fit, and exempts youths being tried as adults from the JJDPA. Nine states (North Carolina, New York, Missouri, Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, and Wisconsin) set the upper limit for “juvenile” at 16 years of age; in New York and North Carolina judicial systems, youths are automatically considered adults at age 16. This discrepancy in age definitions has resulted in disagreement, discord, and ultimately, slow progress toward compliance with PREA’s youthful-inmate standard in many states. Texas recently agreed to comply earlier this year, albeit conditionally and with great reluctance, and in Utah, progress has stalled altogether.

annual report on the states’ progress toward PREA compliance, 11 jurisdictions (Arizona, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, and Washington) certify they are in compliance with PREA guidelines, up from two states in 2014. Most other jurisdictions have submitted assurances of their intent to comply with the guidelines. Alaska, Arkansas, and Utah have either ignored the guidelines or report they have no plans to comply, citing undue financial burden and the right of states to oversee their criminal-justice system.

Assurances do not equal compliance, however, and many of these states, such as Michigan, New York, Texas, and Florida, continue to house juveniles with adults, and as Florida has the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization and staff sexual misconduct, juveniles imprisoned in that state face a much higher risk of sexual abuse.

Recommendations under PREA are designed to ensure juveniles get the educational, psychological, and vocation services that only juvenile-detention centers can provide, but they also ensure physical separation between juvenile and adult prisoners when the state has no choice but to house juveniles at the same facility as adults. It requires that youthful inmates be housed apart from adults, share no common spaces, such as showers or day rooms, and where they do share facilities, there must be “sight and sound” separation between youths and adults.

Some states, citing a lack of PREA-compliant facilities, transfer juveniles to other states. Kansas, for example, sends its 16- and 17-year-old prisoners to Nebraska in order to keep them out of adult prisons. While this solution keeps juveniles safer from sexual abuse, it interferes with juveniles’ access to visits from friends and family and the emotional support they can provide—the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated strongly for family involvement in any juvenile’s health-care treatment. Juveniles housed away from their home state or county can also lose access to their lawyers, rendering them even more powerless from a legal and emotional standpoint.

Access to legal counsel is not only guaranteed by the Constitution, it is also essential to guarding against abuses of power, argues Carmen Daugherty, who serves as the policy director for the Campaign for Youth Justice. “When youth are sent to prison outside of their counties or states, it makes it that much more difficult for that youth to access lawyers who can assist with complicated appeal issues. Instead, you have youth missing out on opportunities for review or opportunities to report prison abuses to attorneys who are often the only people able to visit inmates at any time,” Daugherty explained in a phone interview.

Housing youthful inmates in adult prisons is bad public policy, both for incarcerated juveniles and society at large, she argues. “The impetus behind transferring kids to the adult system has always been public safety, but research has shown the exact opposite. Kids who are placed in the adult system are 34 times more likely to recidivate than their counterparts in the juvenile system.”

less likely than their counterparts imprisoned in juvenile centers to get the vocational training and education they need in order to function after release in an adult prison, society is essentially setting them up to fail, and priming them for recidivism. Most juveniles, even those convicted as adults, are released while they are still young. “Approximately 80 percent of youth convicted as adults will be released from prison before their 21st birthday, and 95 percent will be released by their 25th birthday,” according to the Center for Youth Justice.

However, the United States maintain a separate legal system for children in this country for a reason, because American society believes in the goal of rehabilitation and treatment for juveniles. Given this goal, Daugherty argues, housing juveniles with adults is counterproductive. “We live in a society where we believe in redemption, that youth are redeemable. And if they are not, we place them in facilities that can treat them. Some of the offenses kids commit are violent, and atrocious, as in the Philip Chism case. However, the vast majority of kids are imprisoned for non-violent offenses, and we should be working to rehabilitate these youth while they’re still young, as opposed to throwing them away in the adult system.” Laurence Steinberg, the author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, agrees, adding,

Compared to adults, [juveniles] are more likely to be harmed by exposure to stress and trauma, but they are also more likely to benefit from rehabilitation. In view of what we know about conditions of confinement in correctional facilities, it’s no surprise that juveniles who are released from adult facilities are in worse shape, and are more likely to reoffend, than their counterparts with similar criminal histories who are released from facilities designed with adolescents in mind.

Daugherty suggests that it’s difficult to get people to care about the plight of juveniles in prison due to longstanding tolerance of prison sexual abuse. “The joke is that you go to prison, and learn quickly not to drop the soap. The assumption of prison sexual abuse has become so entrenched in American culture that it is assumed to be part of the punishment, but it’s not. You get sentenced to jail and prison, not to be raped and abused behind bars.”

Taking More Action Before Affirmative Action

That’s the general question addressed by our latest round of reader emails on the subject, who are taking a step back from the more specific areas we’ve tackled so far, such as mismatch theory, the discrimination against high-achieving Asian-Americans, and the stigma felt by some recipients or perceived recipients of affirmative action. This reader criticizes the policy:

Any time one chooses on the basis of politics rather than qualifications, you are reducing efficiency as well as angering the losers. If we reward people based on ability, it both motivates ability and reduces the value of being a victim. So long as we allow people to declare themselves victim and benefit from it, we will face an increasingly fragmented society as people try to place themselves in a politically benefited group to gain advantages.

This reader has a more measured take:

I worked at UCLA in 1996 when Californians were debating, and ultimately passed, Proposition 209. The law banned consideration of race, sex, or ethnicity from being considered in public employment, contracting, or education. It has since been upheld after numerous court challenges.

Prop 209 debates dominated campus at the time. I will never forget being at a university “town hall” where the director of the affirmative action program was attempting to explain what AA was and why it should remain.

I raised my hand and asked, “How does the federal government measure compliance with affirmative action?” After having just ended a long explanation of how it was not a “quota system,” he dodged. “Well, I’ll tell you what, when an institution is not in compliance, they sure get into a heck of a lot of trouble, as we’ve recently seen” (referring to a recent citation of UC San Diego for non-compliance).

His dodge really explained the unspoken reality of AA: It is about getting minorities placed in employment and education by hook or crook. It is not, as it theoretically goes, only about choosing the minority when up against an equally-qualified white person.

However well-intentioned and even perhaps necessary, it is in fact about counting by race, something which should give us pause even if we see its numerous benefits.

This reader, on the other hand, doesn’t see what the big deal is:

To be honest, I’ve never particularly understood why affirmative action is so controversial. I think there are meaningful arguments about whether it should be based on race or socio-economic class, especially if many of the benefits are accruing to middle and upper-class African Americans, but that’s a matter of implementation more than existence.

First off, to deny that African Americans have been systematically and uniquely disadvantaged throughout history is silly. The Civil Rights Act wasn’t until 1964, and society doesn’t suddenly transform the minute a law is enacted. But, even if you go back further, black families were systematically split up and slaves were purposefully denied an education during slavery. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the books with a rightful claim to “Great American Novel” status, centers on Jim running away from his “Master” because she broke her promise not to split up his family. He runs away and joins Huck to escape to the North with the primary goal of making enough money to buy back his family (Django Unchained is a more contemporary story with the same theme).

In addition, central to most slave narratives is some trickery or happenstance that allowed them unlikely access to education. Frederick Douglass bribed poor neighborhood white kids with bread in exchange for lessons on reading, which was highly frowned upon. He wrote, “I
 me, but 

But, honestly, even if that weren’t the case, I’m not certain that I see much difference between affirmative action and any other need-based scholarship, many of which are awarded by race, gender, or socio-economic status. Sure, if I found out I was the theoretical “person whose spot was given to someone less qualified based on affirmative action,” I might be personally miffed, but the odds of that are highly unlikely.

This reader wants a more nuanced approach when implementing AA:

Rather than argue about whether it’s permissible or useful to use race in admission criteria, it would be a good idea to go directly to indicators of social disadvantage. Students who do well in challenging situations deserve credit for that. Rather than “race” (whatever that is), look directly at household income, parents’ educational level, various indicators of school quality, crime rates for the student’s home neighborhood.

The result would, of course, include a lot more students of color, and also a lot more disadvantaged white students. The biggest problem is that it would reduce the advantage of privileged students. The well-off would howl. A student who attended a good school, wasn’t (involuntarily) hungry, got tutoring and other help as needed, and did well in school wouldn’t get the benefit of pretending that all students had those advantages.

Using direct measures of social disadvantage is so obvious that it’s hard to believe admissions officials haven’t thought of it. It’s also hard to believe that the reason for not even trying it is the expected opposition of the privileged. It’s easier to argue about race than to confront entrenched privilege.

One more reader for now:

Everyone watching these issues from the sidelines gets up in arms and takes one side or the other. As a result, we naturally frame the issue as underprivileged groups against colleges when we should actually frame it as one unified team against entrenched, systemic disadvantage.

All of those discussing here are basically looking for the same thing: We want everyone to get a fair shot. So how do we reduce the rate of mismatch? Better high schools for the disadvantaged? Perhaps, but we’ve struggled with issue since well before Brown vs Board of Education. Free tutoring during the year? Maybe, but considering the isolating effects of effectively singling out students for remedial education combined with the likely burden of working to pay their way through college, I doubt the merits of this option.

Why not take advantage of secondary educational systems already in place around the country? Nearly every major university has community colleges in close vicinity. Why not work to allocate money to these oft-ignored and neglected environments and create “equality pipelines” that could bring intelligent and hardworking individuals up to speed? It’s a ready-made vehicle for advancement that just needs to be tweaked to run effectively.

The reality of the situation is that in order to reduce mismatch, a significant time commitment is needed. Creating a place designed specifically for this purpose is an active step against entrenched advantage while accepting the realities required in order to receive a high-level education. On average, you can’t bring everyone up to speed without a significant time and energy commitment. Acknowledging this undeniable reality is the first step to developing realistic solutions to universal problems regarding equality, disadvantage, and academic accomplishment. Ignoring the facts of obtaining a quality education does everyone a disservice.

P.S. The Atlantic is my favorite venue for online intellectual thought. I appreciate the forum you guys provide for discussion. If you guys post this can you make sure my name is not attached? I work in an environment where I need to remain apolitical.

Yep, all emails are posted anonymously in Notes unless a reader gives us permission otherwise. And thanks to everyone taking the time and effort to write in over this controversial, ongoing issue. Still more of your emails to come. Update with another one right now, from a long-time reader:

Here are the assumptions that I see in the emails you posted that shouldn’t go without examination:

1) That the objective of a university’s admissions process is to reward 18 year olds who have worked hard and deserve a spot on their campus, rather than to assemble a student body that fits its own needs, or, in the case of public institutions, fulfill its obligation to produce benefits (economic or societal) for the taxpayers of the state that supports it.

2) That the selectivity of an institution relates to the difficulty of its classes. (Community college courses are not primarily remedial versions of “real” college. They’re often the same material provided without the big ticket opportunities or the whole-life support system of a prestigious residential college and classmates who are all already high achievers. Students who do well enough to transfer probably would have done well if they had been admitted in the first place.)

The Schools Taking in Syrian Refugees

HARTFORD, Conn.When N.A. told her three young daughters in 2010 that they were only going to New York City for a few weeks to visit their grandmother, she meant it. She left their summer clothes—along with most of their belongings—behind in the house she planned to return to in the city she loved.

But a few months after arriving on the East Coast, A realized it would be a long time before she could call Damascus, Syria, home again. The city, where mosques keep their doors open all night long for those in constant prayer and the pious gazed at the burial sites of ancient religious figures, had become the scene of a dangerous and brutal civil war.

Uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad’s repressive regime turned deadly as opposing factions fought for control of the country and in the process claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians—including A’s cousin and her sister-in-law’s husband. Millions more were displaced.

Soon after A’s arrival, her husband also fled Syria to join his family in the United States. He had learned authorities were looking to arrest him and—he feared—kill him for being a nonviolent protester.

While the young mom choked up at television sets blaring the violence taking place in her homeland, she sought to build a life for her family in America. She landed in Connecticut after a local lawyer there helped them get asylum. Everything from figuring out how to get immunization records so her daughters could register for school to learning English to securing asylum was a struggle, A said.

“I also had to find a way to live here,” said the 28-year-old. “I have three young girls. I need to find them a life. They don’t understand that there is a war. We have lost everything. We have lost our house. They have nothing to do with it… They deserve to go to school and have everything they want.”

Her family did find a way to start over again in the Connecticut suburbs. A’s husband found work at a restaurant, and later driving for Uber, a web-based taxi service. Her daughters— ages 9, 6, and 4—are enrolled in public school in Connecticut.

The Seventy Four

N.A. asked that only her initials be used because she fears for her safety and that of her children. While her journey to America four years ago was perilous, the fate of Syrian refugees is far more so today. Their numbers have exploded, engulfing Europe, and fear that ISIS terrorists will slip into the U.S. during the crisis prompted more than two dozen U.S. governors to bluntly refuse to accept Syrians within their states. President Obama responded that states were not free to violate federal anti-discrimination laws but A’s unease was only heightened when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared in early December that all Muslims be banned from entering the U.S.

A’s timing was better but so was her choice of location. Connecticut stands in contrast to other states in openly welcoming Syrians that manage to reach Governor Dannel Malloy, who has rejected his fellow governors’ stance. Catholic Charities—where A now works helping other families displaced by violence abroad—and the Hartford Public Schools have joined forces to create an action plan to make sure these fragile families are finding their footing in a strange land.

“It’s just consistent with our values of equity and access and we wanted to say ‘This is what we do here. This is what we stand for. We stand ready to welcome you,’” the Hartford Superintendent Beth Schiavino-Narvaez told The Seventy Four.

Much of the nation does not feel the same way. The country has been politically polarized over Syrian refugees in the aftermath of the November 13th terrorist attack in Paris. About 54 percent of Americans say they are opposed to taking in Syrian refugees and 52 percent are not confident that government authorities will be able to screen out possible terrorists, a recent Washington Post and ABC News poll found.

When A hears about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, inspired by Islamic extremism earlier this month or Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, she wonders how long her newfound life will last.

“I left everything behind in Syria just for my safety and my kids’ safety,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go? Can Donald Trump answer me that question? I don’t think so…Sometimes I think if we are not welcome here, where can we go? I don’t find the answer and that’s really hard.”

The president’s message has been that A’s family and others like hers do belong here.

“Nearly four centuries after the Mayflower set sail, the world is still full of pilgrims—men and women who want nothing more than the chance for a safer, better future for themselves and their families,” Obama said recently in a rebuke of the anti-Syrian fervor. “What makes America, America is that we offer that chance. We turn Lady Liberty’s light to the world, and widen our circle of concern to say that all God’s children are worthy of our compassion and care. That’s part of what makes this the greatest country on Earth.”

In Connecticut, Malloy expressed faith that the U.S. could separate the dangerous from the desperate.

“Women were raped. Children were damaged. People have lost limbs. We have an obligation as Americans to do our part in those situations, but do it at a very high standard with a very good background system, which I think the federal government has,” he told Eyewitness News.

The Democrat made headlines earlier this year when he personally greeted a Syrian family that had been scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis, Indiana, but was diverted to New Haven, Connecticut, after Governor Mike Pence ordered state agencies to halt resettlement activities after the Paris attacks. French authorities later found a falsified Syrian passport near the body of one of the suicide bombers.

“I was thankful we have a governor who was saying welcome. Happy to be in a state where we have that kind of leadership,” Schiavino-Narvaez, the Hartford schools chief, said. “The people who come to our door are children and we have an obligation to educate every child that comes to us in the highest quality manner as possible. Whoever comes to us, we need to give them a great education.”

The Hartford Public Schools committee formed to deal with refugee students will incorporate members of the district’s policy, communications, family, and community engagement teams as well as Catholic Charities managers.

The group may work to identify a school with a higher Muslim-student population that has space for new Syrian students. Other questions facing the committee are whether the district will need to hire more teaching staff with bilingual skills—state law requires that districts provide bilingual education whenever a school has 20 or more students whose dominant language is not English. An influx of new students could cause a ripple in busing plans for the roughly 21,200-student district. Hartford Public Schools’ managers are also preparing to find additional money to address students’ other academic needs that could arise.

“We’re doing everything from soup to nuts,” Schiavino-Narvaez said.

But whether these swath of services will be needed remains an open question. Seventeen Syrian families have resettled in the Hartford area in the last two years, according to Catholic Charities. The nonprofit was asked earlier this year by its national office, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, to expand its capacity to resettle Syrian refugees. The Hartford branch agreed to help 80 more families, but a week later more than 100 people were killed in the Paris terrorist attacks, complicating the path for Syrians entering the U.S.

“Now, there is not a clear indication that families are coming right away,” said Paula Mann-Agnew, the director of programs at Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Hartford.

“We are prepared to work with 80 more families. If they come, we’re ready.”

The Myanmar-refugee community is a textbook example of just what kind of support Syrian-refugee students and their families may receive in Hartford. The Southeast Asian nation, also known as Burma, has been entrenched in a decades-long civil war as ethnic and religious communities fight for power and autonomy in a region fueled by rice production and a large opium trade.

As reports of murder, rape, and rioting raged on, thousands of displaced Burmese have fled to the safety of refugee camps in Thailand. Some refugees started new lives in the United States, including 52 families over the last two years in Hartford, according to Catholic Charities.

Refugees are picked up from the airport by a Catholic Charities representative who speaks their native language. Then they are taken to a furnished apartment, where they receive a stipend from the charity for rent and basic needs for 180 days.

In addition to financial support, a case manager will show them how to navigate Hartford: where to do their grocery shopping, how to find a doctor and make an appointment, and how to select the right school for their children. Hartford is a choice district, offering magnet schools with specialized curriculum in areas like STEM or the performing arts. Last school year, Hartford reported that its classrooms were about 31 percent black, 50 percent Hispanic, 12 percent, while 6 percent were not defined.

Refugee families in Hartford are often referred to the school district’s welcome center, a small office filled with toys, books, and computer stations for parents. There, the foreign students take a 20-minute written and spoken English test. A school-placement officer will work with families to assign the student to their preferred school depending on their needs such as location or curriculum.

The support for refugee students doesn’t stop at enrollment.

Catholic Charities secured an annual $105,000 grant from the Connecticut State Department of Education to hire a translator and tutor to help Burmese-refugee students at Bulkeley High School understand their class material. Hartford’s Burmese are mainly Karen, a Southeast Asian ethnic subgroup with its own languages and culture.

In some ways, Bulkeley High School is a prime candidate for an incoming refugee population. It’s one of the last of the school district’s comprehensive high schools, where students can choose to specialize in a humanities or teacher preparation track during their last two years.

In classrooms, decorated maps show students hailing from countries as far away as Ghana, Iraq, Pakistan, and Australia. Above one map reads, “We are from all over and we are all welcome.”

“I joke with our athletic director that we have international recruiting,” English-as-a-Second-Language coach William Conroy-Longow said.

During a recent geometry class, tutor and translator Ka La Noo barely caught her breath as Karen students flagged her down for help deciphering a worksheet on different types of angles. Sometimes she translated concepts that didn’t always have an exact counterpart in Karen, while other times she warned distracted students that their parents were only a phone call away.

Refugee students in the same grade can have vastly different levels of education; some were fortunate enough to attend school in their home country or in the camp while others had to work to help their families survive. On top of adjusting to a new city and language, many of their families expect these young people to help translate for them and do well in school but may not understand the difficulties their children face.

“They have to carry a lot on their shoulders,” said Noo, herself a Burmese refugee.

Eh Kaw Ku, 16, appears to have a life that would be familiar to many American students. He’s got a cool kid hair cut—short on the sides, tall on top—and a stable of friends in and outside the Karen-student community. The sophomore plays on the varsity soccer and swim teams at school, while still keeping up with his classes.

Things were not always so easy. Five years ago, Ku’s family traveled from the Thailand refugee camp he had lived in his whole life to Hartford to get a new start. They arrived in winter in short sleeve shirts with little knowledge of the new city they would soon call home, according to Noo, who picked them at the airport that day.

To Ku everything was different, from the school bus that picked him up to the teachers who spoke English too quickly. Making friends was hard at first and so was adjusting to the food. Even now, it’s hard not to miss his home and pet pig in Thailand.

Despite his homesickness, Ku is mulling the idea of going to college or maybe becoming a car mechanic.

A, who is a medical case manager for Catholic Charities, also dreams of a bright future for her own children.

Her three girls started kindergarten in Connecticut—first in the ESL class but then they integrated into mainstream classes. Her oldest is in the 4th grade but reads on a 6th-grade level and was recently accepted into her school’s gifted and talented program, A said.

She said her young daughters don’t seem to notice that their family has stayed in the United States far longer than they planned. And with the exception of one recent incident, the girls haven’t experienced much teasing or hostility because of their cultural or religious background, she said. She herself recounted feeling a receptionist eyeing her with an air of suspicion and dislike recently when she took a client to a hospital visit.

It was the first time she felt that way, A said, and she hopes it’s the exception—for her and her children.

“Connecticut welcomed me in the best way. I really want to say ‘Thank you Connecticut,’” she said. “I’ve never felt I’m unwelcome or being rejected for my name or my ethnicity…I’ve always felt like I’m just like anybody else.”

This story was produced in collaboration with

What About Legacy Mismatches?

2012 stats for undergrads at UC Berkeley, which under CA law doesn’t allow affirmative action

A reader of Asian descent makes a key distinction:

I strongly oppose the notion that Asian Americans should view affirmative action as being a competitive process only between minorities. Specifically, I am writing in to partially disagree with the Asian American reader who wrote:

When we talk at the group level, AA [affirmative action] is about “blacks getting the same advantage whites always had,” but at an individual level, it means smart Asian kids getting shut out in favor of black or other underrepresented minority kids.

I don’t think the statistics warrant his/her notion that Asians are being rejected for only underrepresented minorities. I think the unspoken quotas currently in place at Ivies are for protecting the Caucasian ratio. If you look at Cal-tech and the UC systems that have done away with affirmative action, it would seem to validate this view.

That seems to be true. Take UC-Berkeley: Their diversity statistics show 3 percent Black, 49 percent Asian, and 29 percent White. Harvard, where affirmative action is allowed, had a record high last year of 12 percent Black—a figure school’s website promotes alongside its 21 percent Asian figure … but it doesn’t provide a White percentage (though that figure appears to be roughly 50 percent when Harvard’s four non-White categories are subtracted from the whole). So if more Asians were allowed into Harvard, they would likely cut into that 50 percent, not the 12 percent Black or 13 percent Hispanic—figures that affirmative action was created to maintain.

This reader proposes a solution to prevent direct competition between underrepresented minorities:

The quotas and “negative affirmative action” practiced upon Asians (i.e. they must perform at a higher level than whites to have equal chances of admissions) can be ended without ending the “positive affirmative action” that exists for blacks (and Latinos, Filipinos, Cambodians, etc.). Admissions officers could simply place applicants into either a race-blind or race-conscious pool depending on the representation of that applicant’s race at the university relative to the overall population of the country (easily available from census data).

Overrepresented whites, Chinese, Indians, etc. would be in the race blind pool, while underrepresented blacks, Latinos, Vietnamese, etc. would be in the race-conscious pool (until they too are “overrepresented” in the university, after which point they would be placed in the race-blind pool).  In this way, positive affirmative action can continue, while quotas for Asians will be forced to end.  Furthermore, Asians will no longer be usable as rhetorical weaponry by the political right, as it could no longer be claimed that Asians are disadvantaged relative to whites by affirmative action.

The drop in black admissions and rise in Asian admissions at schools that ban affirmative action are due to two distinct factors: the ending of negative action for Asians and the ending of positive action for blacks. You can end the former without ending the latter, despite what the political left might believe.

From a “white/Asian” opponent of Asian quotas who poses some “practical questions”:

How should school admissions decide who is Asian? Should it be based purely on self-identification, or should we institute compulsory genetic testing or perhaps an “eyeball” test, just in case some try to pass as white? If an Asian person identifies as white in order to avoid discrimination, would that be morally wrong? In the case of a biracial (Black-Asian) candidate, should they be discriminated against? Or should we put them at the very top of our list?

That email reminds me of the following passage from Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In,” a superb essay on the history of college admissions:

In the nineteen-twenties, when Harvard tried to figure out how many Jews they had on campus, the admissions office scoured student records and assigned each suspected Jew the designation j1 (for someone who was “conclusively Jewish”), j2 (where the “preponderance of evidence” pointed to Jewishness), or j3 (where Jewishness was a “possibility”).

An Asian American critic of AA looks ahead to a lawsuit:

Now that the model minority myth is of no political use to the liberal elites who actually want to promote affirmative action, Asian American “over representation” is now considered a problem rather than a promise. We are now an invasive species that only affirmative action can help manage.

(Ironically, it is a discriminatory immigration policy that fuels the overrepresentation: Asians with highly developed skills or a promise to invest capital to hire U.S. citizens are pushed to the front of the line. We do well because it takes doing well just for us to get here.)

So it’s no wonder that Edward Blum, of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute (AEI), has seemingly taken Asian American issues to heart and has filed lawsuits on our behalf to halt or defeat the race-tinkering of the liberal elite. [CB note: Blum also encouraged Abigail Fisher to sue the University of Texas, resulting in the current Fisher case before the Court, and he’s also behind the current Evenwel v. Abbott, which, according to Garrett Epps in a recent piece for us, “would limit representation to eligible voters—favoring wealthier, whiter, and more conservative citizens.”] Asian American students are understandably apprehensive about his intentions, even if he is advocating for their immediate interests.

From a Reuters profile of Blum:

“It took a Jewish white guy to start this case,” said James Chen, who runs a San Francisco-based company called Asian Advantage College Consulting. The firm advises students to underplay their ancestry as one strategy for maximizing their chances of getting into a top school. Among some recent immigrants he has worked with, Chen said, “there is a tendency to keep their head down.” […]

Because Harvard reveals few details about its admissions process, Blum’s lawsuit relies mostly on data provided by outsiders. One example is a 2009 report co-written by Princeton University sociology professor Thomas Espenshade. The study contends that Asian Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than whites, all other variables being equal, to get into elite schools. Blum also cited research by professors he used in the Fisher case. In its court filing, Harvard denied that it discriminates and said it lacked information about the studies to specifically respond to them.

As always, hit up to join the debate. Update from a reader:

Some readers have previously suggested that “Asian Americans should [not] view affirmative action as being a competitive process only between minorities” and that “Admissions officers could simply place applicants into either a race-blind or race-conscious pool depending on the representation of that applicant’s race at the university relative to the overall population of the country (easily available from census data).”

This is a wonderful idea, but it is nearly impossible given the legal realities of affirmative action in America. A university’s ability to employ affirmative action at all is heavily predicated on its ability to justify how such policies are consistent with furthering its educational mission. Beyond general hand-waving about the value of diversity, this requires universities to espouse some metric for determining when they have “enough” diversity. After all, without such a metric, who’s to say they aren’t already diverse enough? Not the university, certainly; this was the central holding of Fisher I. And not only must they have such a metric, it must also be consistent and non-arbitrary, lest they open themselves up to attack from the likes of Fisher.

Most universities solve this problem by loosely employing a “proportion of the population” approach, wherein representation at the university should model representation in the population at large, which works very well for underrepresented minorities. But, under such a framework, overrepresented minorities necessarily get the short end of the proverbial stick, because their over-representation means that some other group must be underrepresented and is therefore a problem.

This is not the end of the story, though. Universities could adopt a different metric of representation. If they did so, overrepresented minorities could be fine. But to adopt a different metric would mean adopting that metric across the board: applying it only to some groups but not others would be deeply constitutionally suspicious. And this, in turn, could potentially harm underrepresented minorities, who just lost a very defensible argument for increased representation.

And operating in orbit around all of this is the ever-present threat of litigious anti-affirmative action groups who relish any opportunity to haul universities into court. This puts universities between a rock and a hard place, because they have to find some consistent, legally defensible way to argue that under-representation is both harmful (in the case of blacks, etc…) AND beneficial (in the case of whites) to their educational mission. I won’t go so far as to say it’s an intractable problem, but it’s certainly hard to find a happy ending for both over- and under-represented minorities.

The path of least resistance appears to be the proportion of the population approach, with the ensuing harm to over-represented minorities, at least until such time as it is ruled unconstitutional.

Salvaging Education in Rural America

Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute sits in the heart of Fentress County, Tennessee, high on the Cumberland Plateau within spitting distance of the Kentucky border. The area is a beautiful, bucolic place characterized by rising hills and encroaching forests, tumbling creeks and hard-won farmland. It can also be a pretty bleak place to live.

When teachers, theorists, and pundits analyze America’s educational system, they usually focus on urban centers, but rural school systems make up more than half of the nation’s operating school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Like many of their urban peers, children there fight to overcome scant funding, generational poverty, rampant malnutrition, and limited job prospects.

As the Southern Education Foundation announced last January, a majority of the schoolchildren attending the nation’s public schools now come from low-income families. The implications, for rural, urban, and suburban children alike, are serious. Students who come to school hungry often find it difficult to focus on learning. Students without computers or Internet access may have trouble with their homework. Students who are homeless or need clothing or lack medical care can develop behavioral problems.

Compared to students in urban or suburban schools, students in rural areas and small towns are less likely to attend college. Part of this is because of financial concerns. In Fentress County, close to 40 percent of children live in poverty. According to the Obama administration, it’s one of 301 rural counties (compared to 52 non-rural ones) in the country that suffer from “persistent poverty,” meaning poverty rates have exceeded 20 percent in every census since 1980. In the 2011, 65 percent of children in the county qualified for free or reduced lunches, a key marker of childhood poverty. That is 18 percent higher than Tennessee’s average. The community has some of the highest rates of premature death, sick leave, and injury-related deaths in the state. Thirty-eight percent of the county’s adults are obese.

Rural students in Fentress County and elsewhere also have limited opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities (another factor that boosts a kid’s chances of graduating from high school and attending college); many of them simply live too far away to stay after school for practice or club meetings. One bus from York drives over an hour-and-a-half and then drops off a handful of kids at a car, which takes them the rest of the way home.

Another reason for their low college-attendance rates is that rural students come from places where higher education traditionally hasn’t been of much use. Previous generations could find good jobs in factories or agriculture, which is part of the reason why  in Fentress County only 58 percent of adults have a high-school diploma. Just 8 percent have a bachelor’s degree—by some estimates, remove teachers from that calculation, and only 1 percent of adults have graduated college.

These days, however, many of the jobs that used to sustain students’ parents and grandparents have disappeared. The coal mines, once important employers in the area, have petered out. Logging and paper manufacturing corporations are shutting down; Bowater, once one of the largest newsprint producers in the nation, is selling or giving away its land for preservation, recreation, and residential development. “The largest job market … is the local Walmart, the local hospital, and the school systems,” reported AdvanceED, an education consulting firm, in 2010. The county’s farms struggle to compete with corporate agribusinesses.

As in rural communities across the nation, Fentress County is the sort of place talented, educated young people flee as soon as they can. While urban populations are growing by 2 million people a year, rural populations continue to fall. Might York Agricultural Institute and other rural schools be part of reinvigorating their dying communities?

In Fentress County, the local government has been trying to draw new firms to the area, but the new businesses need workers versed in modern manufacturing techniques and able to use new technological innovations. Some of these industries have been partnered with York Institute to try to train a new generation of employees.

The World War I hero Alvin C. York—who only had nine months of schooling—funded and built the institute because he wanted to prove Tennessee’s rural youth could accomplish anything given a proper education. In 1937, he donated the building, along with almost 400 acres, to the state. Its students have become politicians, business leaders, and educators. The astronaut Roger Crouch went there.

For the last few years, York Institute has been fighting to exist. In the spring of 2010, the state unceremoniously announced it would turn the school over to Fentress County to fund, and all 94 employees received termination notices. “No type of transition, no ‘this is in the works,’ nothing,” Fentress County Director of Schools Mike Jones said to a Knoxville news station. “It bothers me.” The school only managed to stay afloat when, that summer, funding was restored on a nonrecurring basis. Every year, the school faced the same instability until this most recent budget cycle when the state finally announced they would continue to manage and fund the school, but the school’s budget was cut severely. Times are still tough.

I met with York Institute’s superintendent, Phil Brannon, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. “Thirty days ’til Christmas,” read a whiteboard beside the desk of the school’s office manager, who was decorating for the holidays. Brannon is tall, white-haired, and bearded. He would be an imposing figure if not for his ready smile; instead, in keeping with the season, he reminded me of Santa Claus.

Brannon graduated from York Institute in 1978 and then earned a degree in animal science at Tennessee Tech University. He returned to Fentress County planning to farm the land his family has cultivated for eight generations, and he supplemented his income by substitute teaching. After a year, he decided to teach full-time and farm part-time. As soon as he was certified, he was hired to teach remedial classes at York. “I would have English, math, and science, all in the same period” he told me. All but one of his students passed. He gradually rose through the ranks until he was tapped for the superintendent position a decade ago. The students call him Dr. Phil. “I tell them, I’m not a doctor; I just have a [Education Specialist degree],” he said. “They’re not changing.”

During the 10 years that Brannon has led York, No Child Left Behind has died; the Common Core and Race to the Top have arisen. College- and career-readiness have become popular catchphrases to explain the need for the latest round of education reform, leaving educators, parents, and students to work out what this will look like in their classrooms.

Larger consolidated or urban schools can offer multiple tiers of the same class, so students can choose whether to take general education or college preparatory classes. Some students are even able to get into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. Rural schools don’t have the teachers or classrooms needed to maintain these programs, so they have to rely on community partners for help.

At York Institute, that aid has come from Roane State Community College, which maintains portables across the street. For years, a private benefactor paid students’ tuition so they could begin taking dual-enrollment classes while still in high school, but after his death, the institute couldn’t afford the $52,000 tab. The school compromised: It covers the cost of the first class and half of it for the second, while students foot the bill for the third one. This fact surprised me because Tennessee’s governor has promised every graduating high-school student two years of community college or vocational education. Turns out, the money is not available until after high-school graduation, but York’s dual-enrollment classes are how they can offer their students college-preparatory classes without overloading teachers.

Brannon and the other educators understand that college-bound students might not be able to stay in Fentress County. So he’s developed vocational opportunities for the teens who may want to stay, working with local industries to establish programs that will lead them to good local jobs. Students in the health-sciences program, for example, graduate eligible to take the Certified Nursing Assistant exam. With that, they can either go straight to work or continue their education to become registered nurses. Other students who focus on auto mechanics or welding have jobs lined up before they graduate. Another business is partnering with the school to set up a pressed metal production workshop.

It’s been a bit more of a challenge to integrate technology into York’s classrooms. By next semester, the school should have 300 Chromebooks, a set of servers to replace the 10-year-old ones the school currently uses, and a new wi-fi system that won’t crash from overuse; ultimately, the goal is to equip each student with a computer. Brannon worries that without that daily computer use, his students will fall behind their urban and suburban peers. Plus, technology is economical. According to Brannon’s calculations, the school spends almost $80,000 a year on textbooks, but e-books are a third that cost.

The school is lucky because the local service provider in Fentress County used the Recovery Act to wire the community, so Brannon just needs the hardware. This is one place York has an advantage over some other rural districts. According to a recent study by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, rural districts pay up to 2.5 times as much as urban schools for internet service, and then it is too slow for teachers to use in their classrooms. This means 21 million students lack access to adequate Internet service.

And while technology isn’t, as Herold told me, “an automatic panacea for rural schools,” experts say access to the Internet can offset rural students’ disadvantages through dual-enrollment classes, adaptive-learning software, distance learning, and access to communities of educators.

Early in my research, I made an unannounced visit to York Institute. I parked behind the school. A teacher stuck her head in the car window. “Can I help?” she asked. She attended the school in the 1970s, and she gave me a tour of what the campus looked like then. She pointed out where a green used to be. “I tell my students there was a smoking area and a smoked up area,” the woman, dressed in an oversized school T-shirt and large khakis, said, apologizing for her appearance. It was testing week, and she had three students who weren’t in exams. Today, they’d washed the maintenance vans. Tomorrow, they would pick up trash.

I drove back out. A group of kids planted flowers in front of the school sign; another set cleaned out the health sciences department where three dummies lay splayed on stretchers set on the sidewalk. At first, I thought they were napping kids, but everyone was busy and self-directed. “We resemble a junior college more than high school,” Brannon said. “It’s expensive to run, but we manage to do it on a smaller budget than what we must have.”

Still, the country is in an era where educational analysts look at numbers not anecdotes. York Institute’s test scores are at or just above average for the state of Tennessee. Compared to the nearest high school, however, the students score a whopping 42 percent better in algebra and close to ten percent better in English. By the numbers, then, they may be onto something up there in Fentress County.

The Special-Education Charade

I am in hell—or its equivalent. Specifically, I am in an IEP (Individual Educational Plan) meeting for my 14-year-old daughter, a special-education student in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Sitting across from me is an educator who is describing one option that she says would be a great place for my daughter to attend ninth grade: a program at one of the county’s lower-performing public high schools for adolescents who have emotional disabilities or autism. (My daughter has ADHD, an auditory processing disorder, and some major anxiety issues, but she does not have autism and does not qualify as “emotionally disabled.”) Another option is a school for kids with language-based learning disorders. My daughter’s reading comprehension and vocabulary skills are ranked as “very superior,” according to the county’s own psychological testing; her learning issues center on math.

All this leaves us one more option: a school in Baltimore for college-bound kids with a variety of learning disabilities. That could be a possibility—but today is July 7. School starts in six weeks. Even if all the paperwork gets processed this week—and often this kind of thing takes a month or more, because there are so many special-education kids and so few special-education caseworkers—my husband and I would still be making the momentous choice of where to send our daughter to high school under deadline pressure, without the benefit of visiting the school when its students were actually there. School visits should have happened last spring, except there was a mixup with her paperwork, and these bureaucratic mistakes can take forever to rectify. But playing the blame game at this point just uses up time, which is what we don’t have. So here I sit, stifling my mounting rage with what I hope is a poker face.

How My Autistic Son Got Lost in the Public School System

Federal laws exist to protect kids like mine: specifically, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a 2008 amendment to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). All state that children with disabilities have the same right to a “free and appropriate public education” as any other child. Lots of people think the ADA and the IDEA exist to protect youngsters who are blind, or who have cerebral palsy or autism or other cognitive delays—the kind of things most people think of when they see the word “disabled.” And that’s true. But the laws also exist for kids like mine with invisible disabilities, including very bright students whose learning disabilities create huge disparities between their math and their verbal skills. In educational parlance, these are known as “twice-exceptional” students, or—sometimes—GSLN, for Gifted Students with Learning Needs. (The world of public education seems to have more acronyms than NASA.)

A child who simply needs certain accommodations in the classroom is covered under the ADA with what’s known as a 504 Plan. The idea is that with a little help organizing his schoolwork or a few minutes more to finish a test, the child will be able to succeed in the same environment as his peers, the same way a hard-of-hearing student might simply need a hearing aid. The other law, IDEA, gives students with more significant disabilities the right to specialized instruction, as outlined under the IEP. That could mean anything from a pull-out class period devoted to individual tutoring, a designated classroom aide for the whole school day, or assignment to a school dedicated to special education students. Having an IEP can also mean the stigma of being picked up at home by the “short bus,” and many parents will do anything to avoid it.

the problems faced by twice-exceptional kids in today’s increasingly regimented and test-driven public-school classrooms. Some teachers recognize their differences but lack the training or the time to alter their teaching methods; others just assume that a child who is smart in one area is simply being lazy or obstructionist by not being smart in another. The emotional toll exacted on a child who is told that his repeated failures are his own fault can be high. After three years at an elementary school where she was constantly told that she “just needed to focus,” my daughter collapsed to the floor one night sobbing. She’d spent two hours on homework and still wasn’t finished, but I told her she was done. “I’m not done! I’m not done!” she wailed. “There’s always something else, and I never know what it’s going to be!” One day I found bloody Kleenxes stuffed between the mattress and the wall, which made me suspect she was cutting herself. Maybe she was suicidally depressed. She was 10.

It’s not uncommon for twice-exceptional kids to fall apart in middle school. Up until then, many may have been able to fake success, but the demands of more classes, more homework, and a more challenging social environment can overwhelm them. Maybe the child has been spending hours on what should have been 30 minutes of homework, maybe he has begun to refer to himself as “stupidhead,” maybe he is reduced to tears three nights a week by Algebra 101 or essay assignments—but often all the school sees is a C student who “isn’t living up to his potential.”

At that point, even if parents ask the school to do some testing, they may meet resistance: Testing is expensive and time-consuming, campus psychologists are spread very thin, and schools are under pressure to put fewer kids in special education, in the name of “mainstreaming,” not more. So the parents often end up resorting to private testing, which can run as high as $2,000 and is seldom covered by insurance. Or they may simply stop and wait for their kid to flunk math, at which point the school will be forced to come up with some kind of plan—an approach called “waiting to fail.” In recent years, this approach has been supplanted by a more humane educational tactic called “response to intervention,” which is a fancy way of saying “tackling these problems early with specialized instruction.” But theories don’t always survive the collision with the reality: general-education teachers who are overworked, stressed, and under-trained in the discipline techniques that are most effective with kids whose brains are wired differently. As somebody (sadly, probably not Yogi Berra) once said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”

pilot programs here and there, there are small seeds of change. Those could take a generation to flower, and for parents like me the wait may seem more like a couple of centuries. Time passes slowly when you’re in an IEP meeting. Childhood doesn’t wait.