Mindful Learning: Adding Meditation to Education

A girl sitting outside and meditating.
Girl Meditation. Source: Best Picko, Creative Commons

If you have ever struggled to fall asleep or dealt with significant anxiety or stress, you may have tried to calm down and relax yourself by listening to a guided meditation or yoga practice.  Data from the 2017 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) found that 14.2 percent of American adult and 54. Child participants had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months.  The survey also found that 14.3 percent of adults and 8.4% of children had practiced yoga in the past year. Some schools have now seen the positive impact that meditation and yoga can have on children’s behavior and mental health and have decided to integrate these practices into their procedural structures.  Instead of sending children to detention or the principal’s office for traditional disciplinary methods, these schools have rooms designated for mindfulness and meditation.  This results in a complete shift in how both educators and students cope with behavioral issues and emotional struggles in the classroom. 

What Is Meditation? What Are the Benefits? 

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation is, “Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.”  While there is no single method or rigid guideline for how to meditate, there are four main elements that most meditation methods include: an environment with minimal distractions, a comfortable posture (such as sitting or lying down), a focus of attention, and an “open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”  In this context, yoga combines meditation with specific physical postures and breathing techniques. 

While there is still much research to be done on meditation and its impact on people, studies thus far suggest that it can help reduce blood pressure, aid in coping with anxiety and depression, improve sleep, reduce pain, improve ability to focus, and much more.  There is also research that suggests practicing meditation could lead to physical changes in the brain which support numerous aspects of mental and physical health.  For example, one study that was performed in 2012 compared brain images of 50 adults that did not regularly meditate and 50 adults who had been doing so for years.  The results suggest that the brains of those who had been practicing meditation had undergone gyrification, which means the outer layer of their brains had more folds, potentially increasing their ability to process information.  Another study from 2013 suggests that regularly practicing meditation may slow, stall, or reverse certain changes in the brain that typically result from aging.   

It should be noted that every individual’s relationship with and response to meditation can differ.  One person may work well with a certain meditation strategy, while another person might find that strategy extremely difficult or uncomfortable.  Some people who suffer from mental health issues, such as anxiety, may find that certain forms of meditation make them more anxious.  Some people may have physical limitations that prevent from sitting on the floor, which is a common posture for many meditative practices.  It is a very personal experience and should not be treated as one-size-fits-all. 

Children learning yoga outside.
Learning Yoga. Source: Amanda Hirsch, Creative Commons

How is Meditation Being Implemented in Schools? 

In 2013, Robert W. Coleman Elementary School of West Baltimore created the “Mindful Moment Room,” a space used for meditation and yoga.  This is where students are sent when they are being disruptive in class or aggressive with their classmates.  The space is warm and inviting, smelling of essential oils and decorated with pillows and yoga mats.  Here, students who are feeling angry or frustrated can have an opportunity to breathe and do activities like yoga and meditation to calm down.  The Holistic Life Foundation is the nonprofit that helped the school to establish and run the Mindful Moment Room.  The staff helps students talk about why they had to leave class and guides them through mindfulness exercises.  Mindfulness in not limited to being encouraged when students are misbehaving.  Students listen to a 15-minute guided meditation over the intercom at the beginning and end of every school day and can practice yoga both during and after school. 

Not only is this beneficial in helping kids work through problems at school, but it also helps them build skills that can help them to cope with strong negative emotions in the future.  The students themselves have been able to recognize the benefits they have experienced from practicing mindfulness.  Dacari Crawford, a third-grader at Robert W. Coleman, said, “When I get mad at something or somebody, I just take some deep breaths, keep doing my work and tune everyone out.  It gives you good confidence when you need to do something important.”  Inspired by the impact mindfulness practices have made on the elementary school, Patterson High School has started its own Mindful Moments Room. 

A Mother’s Testimony 

Dana Santas, a yoga trainer to many professional sports teams, was invited write an article for CNN discussing her experience of guiding her three children (the youngest of which being on the autism spectrum) through yoga.  In her experience she has found three main reasons why mindfulness-practices like yoga and meditation should be taught in school:   

The first is “teaching breathing as fundamental to well-being.”  She points out that the impact that breathing has on us is not as simple as the fact the we cannot live without breathing.  Our breathing patterns, our postures while breathing, and the way we breathe in general impacts both our mental and physical health in ways that are hard to notice if we do not know to look for them.  This be related to things like the basic mechanisms of breathing or using breathing to calm down when one is overwhelmed.  Santas developed a breathing exercise called “peace palm exhaling” to help her son with Asperger’s syndrome when he becomes overwhelmed.   

The second reason is that yoga can help children “move with control and confidence” because it can help them gain self-control and respect for their own bodies and improve their balance and movement abilities. 

The final reason she discusses is that yoga can promote the power of mindfulness, helping children to learn skills that they can use to cope with anxiety and stress. 

How Does Mindfulness Impact Human Rights? 

One significant impact that the use of meditation and mindfulness in schools has on human rights is that it helps to improves students’ ability to access and fully utilize their right to an education.  The right to an education is recognized in Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).  Article 26 of the UDHR also recognizes the right of every person to an education that works towards the full development of their personality, and that right is also supported by meditative practices.  With fewer class disruptions, an improved ability to focus, and a calmer school-environment, students can spend more quality time learning and gaining knowledge that they can use in the future.  Practicing mindfulness also helps to create an environment that supports one’s health and well-being, which is recognized as a right in Article 25 of the UDHR and Article 24 of the CRC.  The impact that meditation and mindfulness can have on education and personal development can help a person better prepare for future experiences, helping them have better access not only to these rights, but also to their other rights as well. 

Our Rights Under Fire

by Pam Zuber

a photo of a gun store rack
and more guns. Source: Patrick Feller, Creative Commons.

The grim timeline:

  • On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He killed twenty children, six adults, and then himself. The gunman also killed his mother earlier in the day.
  • On March 15, 2019, another gunman traveled to two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire. As of April 2019, he killed fifty people and wounded fifty more.
  • On March 21, 2019, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that her country would ban sales of assault rifles beginning April 11, 2019, and reimburse people for returning rifles that they already owned. The country has also reclassified guns to make them more difficult to purchase.
  • On April 11, 2019, the United States still did not have substantial legislation against many types of weapons, even assault weapons that were once banned but were now legal.

Two countries, two tragic events, two very different approaches to gun ownership and legislation. What do the differences say about the two countries? What do the differences say about human rights? The shootings represent an egregious attack on human rights. Many victims in the Newtown attack were children. Many victims in the Christchurch attack were refugees and members of a religious minority. The attacks targeted some of the most vulnerable members of society. The shootings were also attacks on the greater society charged with protecting these vulnerable members.

Both shootings occurred in what should be safe spaces: schools and religious buildings. Advocates of gun ownership say that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution supports their stance. It states: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” One can argue, though, that the Christchurch and Newtown victims experienced violations of the First Amendment of the Constitution. The mosque worshippers in Christchurch were expressing their religion, a First Amendment right. The children and adults in Newtown were exercising the “right of the people peaceably to assemble,” according to the words of the First Amendment.

While the dead and wounded people in New Zealand were not obviously U.S. citizens, they definitely experienced a violation of their human rights, if not technically a Constitutional one. Could the banning of assault-type weapons in that country help protect the rights of future New Zealanders? If the United States government does not issue such bans, is it violating its own citizens’ rights? Maybe. After all, commentators often cite that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of the major reasons why U.S. legislators cannot or will not pass major legislation against guns. The NRA is a U.S. organization that finances the campaigns of many U.S. politicians who oppose gun control. The NRA also encourages voters to vote for such candidates, making it a well-organized effort that exerts consistent pressure in favor of gun rights.

Wouldn’t it be better to divert our resources elsewhere? Money and time that the NRA and other organizations spend on campaigns to support gun ownership would arguably be better spent on mental health screening, treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, and other forms of preventative health care. Time and money that could be better spent on law enforcement efforts that look for potential trouble instead of reacting to it after it occurs. This is not to say that all shooters struggle with their mental health and that governments should track our every move. But, “weaknesses and lapses in the educational and healthcare systems’ response and untreated mental illness” contributed to the “deterioration” of the shooter in the Newtown attack, according to the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate. The shooter in the Christchurch attack live streamed the attacks and may have posted his intentions on social media before he carried out his plans.

a photo of a large gun
gun. Source: skyandsea876, Creative Commons

New Zealand’s new laws are in line with regulations in other countries. Well-known for not participating in armed international conflicts, Switzerland also has strict rules about gun ownership. The country requires its male citizens to serve in its military. Sometimes Swiss men keep their weapons after their service, but this number has been decliningSwiss laws do not allow people to own firearms if they are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse or have been convicted of a crime. The country has laws that require people to obtain gun permits and typically only grant concealed weapon permits for police or security officers. Authorities in Swiss regions known as cantons determine if people are fit to own guns. They may talk with psychiatrists or authorities in other cantons to make such decisions. They also keep records of who owns guns in their cantons, although some semiautomatic long guns and hunting rifles are exempt from such records.

Switzerland had a population of approximately 8.5 million people and twenty-six cantons in a country of about 16,000 square miles in March 2019. The United States had a population of approximately 329 million people and fifty states in a country of about 3.8 million square miles in March 2019. It also has a federal district and various territories. Gun laws already vary widely in the fifty U.S. states, territories, and the federal district. Given the large population and geographic size of the United States, delegating the states to create and implement new gun laws may not be possible. Federal legislation would be more feasible to regulate weapons in the United States.

Another country, New Zealand’s neighbor Australia, may be a good example of federal weapon legislation. After a gunman killed thirty-five people in the Australian island state of Tasmania in 1996, the federal and state governments of Australia implemented a number of weapons ban from 1996-98. Under the Australian laws

  • Licenses and registrations are required to own weapons.
  • Police must determine whether people have satisfactory reasons for owning weapons.
  • Private firearm sales are prohibited.
  • People may not own weapons for self-defense and very few may own handguns.
  • Semiautomatic weapons are banned. Like New Zealand, the Australian government bought such weapons from private owners.

Australia’s gun control laws have produced dramatic results. While there were thirteen mass shootings in Australia from 1979 to 1996, there were none from 1996 to 2006. In 1979 to 1996, Australia witnessed an average of 627.7 firearm deaths every year. From 1996 to about 2003, Australia witnessed 332.6 firearm deaths annually. The country also experienced declines in firearm suicides, firearm homicides, and unintentional firearm deaths after the passage of the laws.

Limiting semiautomatic and assault weapons and passing stricter gun control legislation may mean fewer deaths. Australia and Switzerland know this. New Zealand may learn this. Given the reluctance of U.S. authorities to take such measures, it doesn’t look like the United States will learn this any time soon. If it doesn’t, more senseless firearm tragedies like Newtown (and Parkland, Las Vegas, Orlando, Christchurch, and so many other places) may occur. Until the United States limits and legislates guns, its citizens’ rights to peace and safety are in peril.

 

About the author: Pamela Zuber is a writer and an editor who has written about human rights, health and wellness, business, and gender.

Dr. Robert Bullard: Health Equity through Environmental, Economic and Racial Justice

a photo of Robert Bullard speaking to a crowd
Dr. Robert Bullard. Photo by UAB IHR.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been fighting alongside the citizens of various cities for their right to a clean environment. He positions himself as a dot-connector who utilizes the central theme of fairness, justice, and equity. He is a seeker of just equity. His fight began with the demand of his wife, Linda, in 1979 after she filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas and BFI, a national company seeking to dump waste in a Black community. Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corp. was the first lawsuit to challenge the notion of environmental justice using civil rights law. Bean found that while Blacks made up 25% of the population of Houston during the years prior to 1978, the communities in which they resided became the ‘new residences’ of 82% of the city’s waste. Environmental justice (EJ) reveals the disparate impact of the embedded disrespect White supremacy has for marginalized communities, specifically poor communities of color in the South. It exposes the interdependent relationship among pollution, corruption, and racism. oil containing PCBs dumping travesty in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, initiated the launch of EJ on the national level. Young Black activists put their lives on the line in protests. In 1983 a study found that 75% of waste sites were in Black communities in seven (7) of eight (8) Southern states. Bullard advocates for community-based participatory research projects.

Using a variety of maps and graphs, Bullard located the roots of environmental injustice to the division of the country during enslavement. The data shows that racism can make people sick. “Your zip code is the most powerful predictor of health and well-being.” A 1994 Clinton executive order reinforced Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and by 1999, the Institute of Medicine found that persons of color were more impacted by pollution and contract more diseases than affluent White communities. The highest concentration of environmental injustices occurs in Southern Black communities, including North Birmingham and Emelle, Alabama. Emelle houses the largest chemical waste management site in the nation. This site receives waste from the lower 48 states and 12 international countries; however, this tiny town is in the heart of the Black Belt, 95% Black, and in a county that borders the AL/MS state line.

EJ is not simply about the release of pollutants into the atmosphere. It is also about the lack of accessibility in neighborhoods and the decreasing proximal distance between vehicles and pedestrians. Health connects to everything. We must redefine the environment, our understanding of it, and our relationship to it. Bullard argues that the environment, though it should be neutral and equally accessible for all, is not when the entitlement of equal protection is not applicable to some members of society. Health equity brings together all the segments which merge into intersections. EJ advocates and activists must call out the normalization of whitewashing in both the history and the present injustices plaguing marginalized communities. We need more equal partnership—with universities and communities, and among the marginalized. Marginalized communities must have a reclamation of space—free from the influence and presence of Whites—for the unshackling of all the ‘isms’ from their narratives to unify their voices and their messages. Whites must make room for, stand aside, and equally distribute finances and resources when confronted with the reality of EJ like Flint and the southern Black Belt. The erasure of history makes people ignorant but the failure to invite and listen to the voices of those most affected by EJ continues the perpetuation of the injustices.

Bullard concludes that justice has not been served in places like Flint because not only does the issue remain, the families are still poisoned, and the government officials have not received justice. For 40 years, Bullard has steadfastly shown that a commitment to EJ specifically, and justice broadly, is lifelong and intergenerational. It also requires an alliance with Whites longing to learn and build relationships. The process of mutual learning, regardless of race or age, must be met with clear expectations and a desire to focus on that which may seem ‘unsexy and unattractive’ because that is where the real need for attention lies. Community health is not just about the treatment of the sick; it is the exacting of liberty and justice for all.

The First Step Act: A Step Towards Criminal Justice Reform

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

On December 21 of 2018, Donald Trump signed the First Step Act into law.  This piece of legislation has been marked by some as a massive breakthrough in criminal justice reform.  The bill is intended to “ensure people are prepared to come home from prison job-ready and have major incentives to pursue the life-changing classes that will help them succeed on the outside and includes changes that will potentially lower the cost of upkeep for correctional facilities. 

Improving Experiences of Time in Prison and Their Outcomes 

Many of the aspects of the First Step Act are geared towards decreasing recidivism (people returning to criminal behavior after being released from prison) through opportunities and resources that help prepare people for their lives after incarceration.  For example, the bill creates strong incentives to encourage prisoners to participate in preparative programs that are available to them.  For every 30 days of “successful participation,” individuals can receive 10 days of prerelease custody, where they are transferred to halfway houses or home confinement.  Incentives can also include increased phone and visitation privileges, access to email, increased commissary spending, and other requested incentives. 

The bill also designates $250 million to be used over five years by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand and develop skill-building classes and vocational training opportunities.  It also allows the BOP to work with outside organizations that can provide such classes.  According to the First Step Act, prisoners who are at a medium or high risk of recidivism are to be prioritized for receiving these opportunities, as well as counseling and treatment.  Before leaving federal prison, all are to receive their ID, allowing people to re-enter society more quickly and avoid “collateral consequences of incarceration.” 

In order to make it less difficult for families to visit, the bill states that people should not be placed in prisons that are more than “500 driving miles” away from their families.  This improves their ability to maintain ties with their relatives, which can improve their quality of life while incarcerated and make the process of reintegration into society easier afterwards. With the help of a strong support system and the tools needed to find work, released prisoners have a better chance of finding their place in their communities and not being reincarcerated later. 

Decreasing the Population Actually in Prison 

There are some aspects of the First Step Act that help to decrease the population of people in prison.  Increases the number of days of good time credit, which is earned through good behavior, from 47 to 54 days per year.  This change also applies to everyone in federal prisons who has already earned good time credit.  It is estimated that this change will save $40 million in the first year.  Additionally, the bill required the BOP to transfer prisoners that are considered low/minimum risk to prerelease custody and expanded compassion release.  Eligibility for the elderly offender program of compassion release now starts at age 60 instead of 65, the minimum portion of one’s sentence that must be served has been decreased from 75% to 66.7%, and the program is now available in all prisons. 

Views of the Purpose of Prison 

One’s understanding of the importance of legislation like the First Step Act can be significantly impacted by their perspective on the purposes of prisons.  Some people believe that prisons should be used to achieve retributive justice, where the main purpose is to punish criminals for their wrong-doings and to have them suffer for their action.  For someone who believes in retributive justice, the changes made by the First Step Act may not seem so important.   

Alternatively, other people believe that the incarceration system should be used to rehabilitate prisoners and prepare them to re-enter society as individuals who can make more positive contributions to their community and avoid taking actions that would lead them back to imprisonment.  When you look at the First Step Act from this point of view, it is easy to see why the bill’s intended impacts are so significant.  It gives people a chance to learn from their mistakes and helps them become more productive members of society. 

Three prison windows.
p1000578.jpg. Source: David Johnson, Creative Commons

Why It Matters 

As of 2016, there were 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States.  That year, $57.7 billion were spent in state expenses for the upkeep of correctional facilities.   

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “Chronic illnesses go untreated, emergencies are ignored, and patients with serious mental illness fail to receive necessary care,” which, in some cases, has led to the deaths of incarcerated individuals.  This violates Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that everyone has the right to a living standard that is sufficient to support their health and well-being and specifically includes things like medical care and vital social services.  Prison authorities are legally responsible for providing prisoners with their medical needs, based on the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Estelle v. Gamble.  The ruling recognizes the potential of ignoring these needs to “amount to cruel and unusual punishment” due to the pain and suffering they can cause.  However, overcrowding in prisons and a lack in resources makes giving prisoners the care they need a challenge. 

The intended outcomes of the First Step Act can improve the access to human rights of people who have been incarcerated.  As it is said in the UN’s Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, prisoners are entitled to all the rights that are declared in the UDHR and other human rights documents and should have access to resources that can aid their ability to successfully rejoin society.  Decreasing rates of recidivism, as the actions of the First Step Act hopefully will, helps to lower the number of people in prison overall.  This allows for a change in the allocation of funds to take better care of people living in prisons, giving them greater access to their human rights.  People living in prisons are human beings just like everyone else and should not be treated as anything less. 

Predatory Preparers: Exploitation Through Tax Returns

2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator.
2 tax return forms, a 2018 tax return form and 2017 tax return form, black glasses and a calculator. Source: DPP Business And Tax https://www.dpp-businesstax.com/, Creative Commons

For most adults in the United States, the year starts with the tax season.  During this time, they have their tax returns prepared and filed and either pay any taxes they owe or receive a refund if they overpaid their taxes throughout the prior year.  This year, the tax season began on January 28 and continues until April 15.  There are a few different ways one can go about filing their tax return.  One way is to purchase an IRS-approved tax preparation software, like TurboTax or TaxSlayer, and file their return on their own.  One could also prepare their return manually, but the IRS prefers that people file electronically to decrease potential errors.  The last method is to seek out the help of a professional through a commercial tax preparation organization or a non-profit one.  Commercial organizations often take advantage of the low-income filers whose returns they prepare and who often qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which results in a larger refund. 

The Earned Income Tax Credit 

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) provides a subsidy to households with low incomes.  It was created in 1975 with the intentions of temporarily lessening the tax-burden for the working-poor after the 1973-1975 recession.  In 1978, the Revenue Act turned it into a permanent credit.  Since its creation, the EITC has been adjusted many times to make it more effective and requires tax-filers to meet certain criteria to receive it.  Since being implemented, the EITC program has distributed about $67 billion to about 28 million families. 

Qualifications for the credit include being a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year, not being married while filing separately from one’s spouse, having an investment income of $3,500 or less, not being a qualifying child of someone else, and having a valid Social Security Number by the due date of the return.  The amount of money that qualified individuals receive for the EITC depends on factors such as “earned income, gross adjusted income, filing status and whether or not they have a qualifying child.” 

The Problem 

Many people choose to file their taxes through for-profit tax-prep organizations.  These organizations are often concentrated in areas where a large percentage of the population is made up of people with lower incomes who qualify for significant refunds through the Earned Income Tax Credit program.  They prey on the people who need the money from the EITC the most.   

In order to increase their profit, they put a great deal of effort into publicizing their services in a way that overshadows the far less expensive, sometimes even free, methods of filing tax returns.  Paul Weinstein, who co-authored a study on tax preparers with the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute, suggests that most taxpayers could “have their taxes prepared for less than $100.”  According to Weinstein, tax-filers spend an average of $275 on the preparation of their taxes during the filing season.  The authors of the study found that individuals filing for the EITC spent $309 in Washington D.C. and $509 in Baltimore.  This means that these individuals were spending between 13 and 21 percent of their return to cover the cost of tax-preparation. 

There has also been evidence that suggests that individuals who qualify for the EITC and file through professional tax-preparers are more likely to have errors in their tax return than those who do not qualify for the EITC.  According to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office in 2015, about 60% of all professionally prepared taxes had errors, while between 89% and 94% of filers who qualified for the EITC had errors in their professionally prepared taxes.  This is a problem of significant concern, since people with low incomes are more likely to be audited by the IRS.  For people who receive the EITC, this could result in their refund being withheld until the end of the auditing process. 

Predatory tax-prep organizations may often go unnoticed, but many are recognized and forced to face the legal repercussions of their actions.  For example, Laquinta Q. Fisher of Lawton, Oklahoma was found guilty of a tax fraud scheme on January 24, 2017.  After lying to her clients and telling them that they could receive a refund for simply having a dependent child, she added fake income and fake dependents to their returns to increase their EIC.  She “was sentenced to 18 months in prison, three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay $133,955 in restitution to the IRS…” 

Scrabble pieces spelling out "Earned Income Tax Credit."
Earned income tax credit stock photo. Source: Simon Cunningham, Creative Commons

Signs of a Predatory Tax-Prep Organization 

There are a few warnings signs you may want to look out for if you are concerned that a tax-prep organization may be predatory.  Since these groups target low-income tax return-filers, they often tell potential clients that they can promise them a large refund.  One red flag to watch for is if a preparer is being paid based on a percentage of the refund their client receives.  They have a clear source of motivation for trying to increase the refund.   

It is also possible that such an organization would have false credentials.  Every tax preparer is legally required to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN).  The IRS has a directory of PTINs that can be used to look up a preparer with their name and location.  The PTIN can tell you if the preparer is “a certified public accountant, enrolled agent or a lawyer.”  It is also important to note that the directory does not prove that a preparer is qualified.  It is also a red flag if an organization suggests that they are endorsed by the IRS, as the IRS does not endorse any tax preparers. 

Another warning sign is if a preparer does their work in “temporary pop-up shops” that will be gone after the tax season ends.  In that case, there is no office for you to go to if any problems arise with your tax return.  It is a red flag if the preparer says that they will deposit you refunded into their bank account or asks you to sign a return that is incomplete.  

Why Is This A Human Rights Issue? 

In addition to being ethically questionable, the actions of commercial organizations that prey on low-income households also have the potential to negatively impact people’s access to their human rights.  For many people who are targeted by these organizations, every single dollar counts.  Every penny of the tax refund they receive is used to pay for the necessities, like food, water, power, rent, and clothing.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”  Many households rely on the refund they receive to access this right.  It is important that we spread awareness of this issue so we can prevent as many people as possible from being exploited by tax-prep organizations and connect them with the resources they need. 

Impact America: SaveFirst 

Impact America, originally Impact Alabama, is a non-profit organization that was founded to develop “substantive service-learning and leadership development projects for college students and recent college graduates.”  SaveFirst is one of Impact America’s programs, which provides free tax preparation services in communities which are often targeted by predatory tax-prep organizations.  College students who volunteer with SaveFirst are trained and IRS certified to prepare tax returns.  In 2018 alone, SaveFirst was able to prepare tax returns for 13,713 families and saved those families $5.5 million in fees.  Since 2007, they have prepared returns for 76,867 families and saved them $26.2 million.  The work done by Impact America helps to decrease the number of people that are being exploited by predatory organizations by giving them access to much better resources and services. 

If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with SaveFirst at one of their many tax-prep locations, you can do so here. 

 

Accessibility and Education

 

Parking spot reserved for people with disabilities
Wheelchair Only. Source: JoshuaDavisPhotography, Creative Commons

For most people, the importance of the right to an education is not unknown.  It’s through education that people gain the skills that they need to be active in their communities, join the workforce, and live their daily lives.  While there is certainly division in regard to people’s ideas of exactly how systems of education should work, there continues to be a shared understanding that these systems should exist in some capacity.  The importance of the right to an education for people with disabilities is not well known or, at least, not as actively recognized, but it should be.

Background of Disability Rights and Education in the U.S.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) took effect as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975.  It was meant to improve the access that children with disabilities have to “a free appropriate public education” and an environment that supports, rather than impedes, that education.  Part of IDEA is a requirement that public schools develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student with a disability who is enrolled.  IEPs are created and tailored specifically to the needs of each student, because even people who have been diagnosed with the same disability have differing experiences and face different circumstances.  These programs are reviewed every year by the student’s teacher, parent(s), the child themself and a qualified agency representative related to special education.  Other individuals can be brought in to review the program at the discretion of the parents or agency involved.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in employment, State and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.”  Title II of the act requires state and local governments to make their services and resources equally available to people with disabilities.  According to Title II, there are architectural standards that suggest buildings should be accessible to all people.  Buildings constructed after the act passed are expected to meet these standards upon when they are built, while buildings that were constructed prior to the passing of the act are to be altered.  Since the services/resources of state and local governments include public educational institutions, these institutions are expected to meet these standards, which helps to make education more accessible.

Acknowledgement Is Not Enough

Despite the American legislation put in place to ensure educational equality for students with disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done.  Laws have been created but are not always followed.

The Oregon Department of Education, for example, is being sued by Disability Rights Oregon (along with four other legal groups) due to its “lax oversight of special education programs . . . in small, rural communities.” Many schools in the state have been found to give students with learning or behavioral disabilities a shortened school day of only a few hours.  The schools have given a range of explanations for shortening student’s school days, from saying that they were responding to inappropriate behavior (some of which is related to the symptoms of the students’ disabilities) to teachers saying they had a feeling that “it was going to be a bad day.”  In many cases, the students would be able to get through a normal school day if they had the resources they need.  They simply have not been given the opportunity to try.  The lawyers involved in the lawsuit wrote, “Some children who are subjected to shortened school days due to their disability-related behaviors are eventually denied any instruction at all.”  This is a denial of their right to an education and it cannot continue.

The seclusion and unfair treatment of students with disabilities in the U.S. is not limited to Oregon.  According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, more than 36,000 students were secluded during the 2015-2016 school year, and 66% of those students were students with disabilities, despite only making up 12% of all students enrolled.  Students with disabilities also make up 26% of those who received out of school suspension and 24% of those who were expelled.  Part of the problem is that the federal government does not currently have any actual regulations related to the seclusion of students with disabilities.  It merely suggests that seclusion be used if a student is a physical threat to themselves or others and that the seclusion should end when the student is no longer a threat.  Due to its impact on students’ access to their education, this issue needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible.

Library books. Source: CCAC North Library, Creative Commons

An International Problem

This problem can be found around the world.  In Nepal, for example, children with disabilities are far from having their educational needs properly met.  In 2011, Human Rights Watch (HRW) estimated that more than 207,000 of the country’s children have disabilities.  In 2016, 30.6% of children with disabilities were not attending school.  In some cases, the students with disabilities who are enrolled in school are kept in classes that are completely inappropriate for their age group.  According to HRW report on the situation, one sixteen-year-old named Amman was placed in Class 2, where his classmates were between the ages of seven and ten years-old.  His disabilities are physical, limiting his movement and speech but not his mental development.  The school has steps at its entrance with no ramp available, forcing Amman to crawl to his classroom.  He was not able to use the restroom during the six hours school was in session, so another student would have to go to his house and get his mother to come to the school and help.  Not only is this an immense barrier to Amman’s access to his education, but it also an utterly dehumanizing way to treat someone.

The country is not ignorant of the fact that people with disabilities have a right to an education.  In 2010, the country even ratified the United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which aims to promote and improve the access to the rights of people with disabilities around the world.

Recent Developments

Though many problems still exist in the field of education for people with disabilities, progress is being made.  On January 17, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to “work with schools to reduce incidents of improper restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities”.  They will use “compliance reviews” of school systems under suspicion of improper restraint and seclusion of students and “offer guidance on obligations under federal civil rights law.”  According to Elizabeth Hill, spokesperson for the Education Department, they plan to do more than 70 interviews each year.

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

In public conversations about human rights, people with disabilities are often left out or overlooked.  It is important that we intentionally work towards being more inclusive.

Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (which the United States has still not ratified) focuses on the right to education.  According to the document, countries associated with the UN are expected to “ensure an inclusive education system at all levels and lifelong learning”.  This involves making sure that people with disabilities are not kept separate from the rest of the education system and receive the support they need.

In addition to acknowledging the right to education for people with disabilities, Article 24 includes an explanation of why education is incredibly vital, both in general and specifically in the lives of people with disabilities.  Education facilitates the development of one’s view of others and themselves, their personality, their creative talents, their mental and physical abilities, and their ability “to participate effectively in a free society.”  These developments shape the role that each individual plays in the world, making education an absolutely priceless and fundamental human right.

Resources at UAB

Students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham can contact the campus’s Disability Support Services (DSS) to request accommodations through their website or at 205-934-4205.  This process involves completing an online application, submitting documentation of their disability, and having an Accommodation Planning meeting.  Accommodations that are often used include reduced distraction testing, extended time on exams, note-taking services, assistive technology, and captionists/interpreters.

Keep up with the latest announcements related to the upcoming Symposium on Disability Rights by following the IHR on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

ADA: Civil Rights Legislation for All

* This is a repost from summer 2017

by ABBY ROSS

July 26 1990 ADA Signing Ceremony
July 26 1990, Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Source: United Spinal Association

Today marks the 27th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). This was a truly groundbreaking piece of civil rights legislation that finally took permanent steps towards ensuring equality for all Americans. The ADA requires private and public entities to not discriminate against people with disabilities, and was crafted with the goal of integration in all aspects of society – employment, social settings, government, transportation, and beyond.

James Weisman, President & CEO of United Spinal Association – a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the lives of people with spinal cord injury/disorder – has been a disability rights attorney for nearly forty years and had significant involvement in drafting portions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. He sued New York City as a young lawyer over inaccessible buses and subway stations. The implementation of mandatory bus lifts and key subway stations with elevators for wheelchair access were direct results of his lawsuit. This became the basis of the transportation sections of the ADA, and created a precedent across the country giving individuals with physical disabilities access to transportation and thus increasing independence.

Unbeknownst to Weisman, it was just the beginning of his advocacy work specifically related to transportation accessibility for wheelchair users. In the 1990s, United Spinal Association again brought litigation against the City of New York this time related to curb ramps – the corner of sidewalks that are altered to allow wheelchair users and parents with strollers to access the sidewalk from the street. The City was ordered to install ramps on all sidewalks and some twenty years later is still working to fully complete the project. He works on wheelchair accessibility in the taxi and transportation realms with companies like Uber and Lyft. With technology transforming transportation services, he remains committed to ensuring that accessibility is a priority from design to implementation across the transportation industry. Transportation is only a slice of the work that he has been involved in throughout the last forty years as disability rights truly extend to every aspect of an individual’s life. I wanted to hear his thoughts on this important anniversary, forty years of activism as well as reflections on today’s disability rights movement.

Senator Tom Harkin, ADA Sponsor & James Weisman at the NYC ADA25 Disability Pride Parade. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: What is the connection between disability rights and human rights?

JW: Disability rights has always been the bastard child of the rights movement. There is no real “ism” attached. Ableism is the closest thing but that is not definitive. Disability is in every group. There is no country, population or demographic that doesn’t include people with disabilities yet they still can face the hallmark issues of human rights discrimination. Poverty, isolation, inadequate healthcare, underemployment and exclusion are all barriers to independence and equality. People with disabilities face these issues day in and day out.

AR: Where do you see disability rights discussions and action moving in the future?

JW: For a few years, we were making significant progress across the board but with the new administration, we are back to basic rights. Now, the choice to live in the disability community is gravely threatened. Funding for support services that would allow people with disabilities to live independently, work, go to school, shop, go to the movies – live a “normal” life – is being slashed and the impact is tremendous. The proposed changes to healthcare would also have a dramatic effect on quality of life, self-sufficiency and frankly, life expectancy for severely disabled individuals. Simply staying alive is becoming a goal of advocacy again.

Apart from these issues of the day, which will likely always be present in some form, mental health stigma is the next biggest issue and will take the most work to overcome. The complexity of diagnoses and treatments paired with the lack of education and familiarity has created enormous barriers and misunderstanding.

And of course, transportation is always an issue. Innovation must include accessibility. Every new modality should be accessible from inception. – in 2017 it is ridiculous to even consider developing technology that wouldn’t include everyone and consider an aging population in design.

AR: Where have you seen the most progress in disability rights in the last 27 years?

JW: Without a doubt, it is the built environment. Physical accessibility is the easiest to measure, quantify, regulate and learn how to fix. There have been amazing advancements in what is considered normal in terms of building design and features. Automatic entries, lever style door handles, accessible restroom stalls – all things many people don’t even notice but are essential for wheelchair users and others with mobility impairments.

James Weisman and Ian Ruder at United Spinal’s Roll on Capitol Hill Advocacy Event, 2012. Source: United Spinal Association

AR: In your opinion, what is missing from the movement?

JW: Collective identity with the rest of the country. People with disabilities are a tremendous minority group but generally not understood or engaged in the same respect that the able-bodied public is in terms of employment, education, media, advertisers, athletics, etc. Society seems to perpetually need to be re-educated about disability. The image of people with disabilities used to range from heroic to pathetic – that has changed and I believe now ranges from needy to competent but continues to be somewhat one dimensional. For instance, the wheelchair user who is the leading man’s best friend but not the leading man. One in five Americans have a disability. – We all have a friend, uncle, neighbor or colleague with a disability that we consider “our disabled guy” – we know they operate in the world, go to work, school, church, buy groceries and socialize but somehow our personal experiences are not extrapolated out to our experiences with the greater disability community.

To some degree we are missing the next generation of disability rights leaders. Many of my colleagues have been involved in these battles for thirty years or longer when the fights were about the basics – access to buildings, transportation, education. Fortunately, we have progressed since then to more sophisticated issues but there are still barriers on many fronts. The next generation of leaders will need to understand the history of the movement, the landscape of the challenges and the best possible outcomes for the disability community. We have so many bright individuals, disabled and able-bodied, that are doing wonderful work around the country – I am sure that the disability rights movement will be in good hands.

AR: What lessons have you learned in your decades of disability activism?

JW: Good ideas eventually come to fruition. It just takes time. You must keep them on the table, keep talking, keep pushing. Nothing changes if you don’t push. That often means you lose and it is one step forward three steps back but I’ve seen dramatic change in a relatively short time so I know it can happen.

Bias goes away if you expose it. Again, not necessary quickly and not completely, but every little bit helps.

I’ve found that it is extremely rewarding to be a part of this community and social fabric. I have developed extremely meaningful relationships through my work in disability rights. It is a very effect way to mature as a person – to understand the grand scale of the movement and issues as well as the microcosm of individual struggles and concerns.

AR: Finally, why should disability rights matter to every American?

JW: Dependence is expensive. Way more expensive than independence. Dependence is person specific and labor intensive whereas independence often requires only one-time investments. Motorized wheelchairs, building alterations and other assistive technologies certainly aren’t cheap but are essential tools for personal liberty.  The goal of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the goal of all the work that we do around rights is simple – to give opportunity. I always say that the greatest opera ever written or the cure for cancer or other remarkable achievements may be locked in the head of an individual with disabilities who without the services, tools and right to independence will never have the opportunities they deserve to share, create and succeed. Do we want to pay to take care of everyone when the alternative – increasing access to education, employment and opportunities is by far the better alternative?

Disability rights are human rights. People with disabilities are individuals of all ages and backgrounds who are striving to be independent and active participants in society. They are moms, colleagues, wounded warriors, uncles, kids with big dreams, best friends and neighbors. They have families, jobs, hobbies, likes and dislikes and problems and joys. While the disability is an integral part of who they are, it alone does not define them.

 

Abby Ross is the Chief Operating Officer of United Spinal Association headquartered in NYC.

James Weisman was the General Counsel of United Spinal Association for 35 years prior to becoming President & CEO in 2015.

Children’s Rights in the United States

A baby sitting on a blanket in the grass.
Cal. Source: Torrey Wiley, Creative Commons

Despite the many different viewpoints that exist on the political spectrum within the United States, one of the few things we all seem to be able to generally agree on is the importance of protecting children.  Their life and well-being completely rely on adults actively working to keep them safe and nurture them.  On September 2, 1990, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was put into effect by the United Nations to aid in the protection of these most vulnerable members of society.

Despite the resolution’s wide acceptance, the United States is the only one that has not ratified it out of the world’s 195 countries.  Why is this?  What are its implications?

What Is Included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The CRC does exactly what the title suggests: it outlines the rights held by children.  It covers the rights to parental guidance, survival, development, nationality, identity, freedom of expression and thought, privacy, education, healthcare, and much more.

It states that, above all else, adults should be focused on ensuring that all their actions have as positive an impact on children as possible.  Governments are responsible for protecting children’s rights in all situations, and any legislation that affects children should support their development and well-being. The CRC also addresses government responsibility in trying to keep families together (so long as it is the best thing for the child) and the fact that child refugees, children with disabilities, indigenous children, and children of minority groups have the same rights as any other children.  Governments should take any extra action necessary to see that these rights are fulfilled.

Article 42 states that adults and children should be made aware of the rights put forth in the Convention.  It emphasizes the importance of adults teaching children about their rights.

The United States and Violations of Children’s Rights

The United States is currently involved in the violation of many of the rights set forth in the CRC, but if it were to ratify the CRC, it would then be expected to begin working towards fixing them.

Children Facing Life Without Parole

One way in which we are currently violating the CRC is through the fact that, in many states, children can be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole.  More than 3000 people are currently serving life sentences without the possibility for parole for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.  In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional for children to be given mandatory life-without-parole sentences.  However, in 28 states it is still a possibility for a child to face life in prison without parole.  This number does not include states that allow sentences lasting decades, even 90 years, which are in effect life-sentences, despite not being labeled as such.  This violates Article 37 of the CRC which states that children should not be sentenced to life without the possibility of release.

A young girl looking over her shoulder at the camera.
Child. Source: Florencia&Pe, Creative Commons.

Children in Adult Prisons

We are also violating the CRC because there are around 10,000 children in the United States who are being held in adult prisons and jails.  This fact within itself violates Article 37 of the CRC, which states that children should not be kept in prisons with adults.  This also violates Article 34, which states that “Governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse,” as children are five times as likely to experience sexual assault in adult prisons than juvenile detention centers.  Children are 36 times more likely to commit suicide after being held in adult facilities than those who have been held in juvenile facilities.  This violates Article 27, which states that children “have the right to a standard of living that is good enough to meet their physical and mental needs.”

Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration Policy

The United States has also recently violated the CRC through the “zero tolerance immigration policy” that The Trump Administration put in place earlier this year.  As a result of the push for prosecution of undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border and “rules on holding children in either criminal or immigration detention,” thousands of children were separated from their parents.  This violates Article 9 of the CRC which states that children should be remain with their parents unless it is more harmful for them to be together than separated.

Despite the rules that relate to holding children in criminal or immigration detention, the children who were separated from their families were held in what were essentially cages: holding areas surrounded by “chain-link fences,” with 20 children being held in each of them and “few comforts besides foil blankets.”  They were kept in inhumane conditions, violating Article 27 of the CRC, which describes the right to an adequate standard of living.  It is difficult to see how these conditions could possibly have had a better impact on the children than finding a way to allow them to remain with their parents.

Most of the families who were separated have now been reunited and new families are no longer being separated, but it is still important that we recognize the impact that such situations have on the children involved.

Basic Human Rights for Children in the United States

The United States also has a long way to go in taking steps to improve and preserve children’s access to their rights.  In 2014, 22% of children lived in poverty, and 30% had parents who did not have job security.  Between 2012 and 2014, 53% of young children were not in school, bringing concern to the right to education.  Also, the US is the only high-income country that does not provide paid leave for new mothers.

The United States’ withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council makes it difficult to be optimistic about the possibility of ratifying the CRC any time soon.  It is a country that is self-proclaimed as being one of the most progressive in terms of human rights, yet we have not even ratified the document created to protect the vulnerable members of society whom we all agree need to be protected.  At this point in time, the actions of the United States do not match its claims, and that needs to change.

The Impact of Child Abuse

A sad boy sitting outside and staring into the camera.
Sad. Source: tamckile, Creative Commons

Childhood is a time in life that should be filled with joy and imagination, and free of fear and any serious responsibility.  However, for many people, this not their reality, as abuse and trauma have warped their experience of it.  In 2014, about 702,000 children were found to be victims of some form of abuse in the United States – this number does not take into account situations of abuse that went unreported.  It is estimated that 1,580 children died “as a result of abuse and neglect” in that same year, though it is possible that this number is actually much higher due to “undercounting of child fatalities by state agencies.”  The general impact and potential trauma caused by abuse can have a significant harmful influence throughout childhood development and adulthood.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is “when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm, or risk of serious harm to a child.”  This includes many different forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect:

  • Physical abuse is “when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.”
  • Emotional abuse, which is recognized less often, is “when a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development or causes severe emotional harm,” and can include (but is not limited to) isolating a child, terrorizing, ignoring, and humiliating them.
  • Sexual abuse is “when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts,” but it does not have to involve physical contact with a child. In addition to “contact abuse,” it can also include inappropriate sexual language, “making a child view or show sex organs,” and forcing a child to watch a sexual act.
  • Neglect is “when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection, and support needed for a child’s health, safety, and well-being,” and it occurs when an adult fails to meet even the most basic requirements for taking care of a child that they are responsible for. Neglect can physical, emotional, medical, or educational.
    • Physical neglect relates to reception of “care and supervision.”
    • Emotional neglect relates to reception of “affection and attention.”
    • Medical neglect relates to “treatment for injuries and illnesses.”
    • Educational neglect relates to a child’s “access to opportunities for academic success.”

Effects of Child Abuse

Experiencing abuse as a child can have serious, long-term effects on an individual.  Those who have experienced child abuse are at an increased risk for intimate partner violence, substance abuse issues, and mental illnesses.  Experiences of abuse also lead to children having an increased risk of exhibiting criminal behavior.  In the United States, “14% of all men in prison and 36% of women in prison” experienced child abuse.  Children who are survivors of child abuse are about “9 times more likely to become involved in criminal activity” than those who are not.  Many survivors must deal with intense negative effects of their trauma for the rest of their lives.

Trauma and Child Abuse

Trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”  When considering the issue of trauma, people often think of veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Both PTSD and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) are common in survivors of child abuse, but they differ in exactly what circumstances causes them.  PTSD results from a specific event, while CPTSD results from repetitive experiences of trauma.  In terms of child abuse, PTSD is caused by a specific incident of abuse, while CPTSD is caused by experiencing numerous incidences of abuse over a period of time.

The three main categories of PTSD symptoms are “re-experiencing trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event,” “emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma,” and “increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated or angered.”  In addition to the symptoms of PTSD, people with CPTSD also experience problems with forming and maintaining relationships, negative views of themselves, and problems with regulating their emotions.  These symptoms negatively affect the ability of individuals with PTSD and CPTSD, including child abuse survivors, to live their lives in normal, healthy ways.

Treatments for coping with PTSD and CPTSD include individual and group therapy, medications (such as antidepressants) that help with some symptoms, and the establishment of a reliable support system.  Dealing with trauma is a life-long process.  Healing is possible for survivors of child abuse, but the impacts of their experiences will never fully disappear.

A sad boy sitting next to a dog on a couch.
Nathaniel. Source: Tony Alter, Creative Commons

The Cyclical Nature of Child Abuse

The presence of abuse can be seen as a cycle with the potential to perpetuate itself throughout the generations of a family.  According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, around one in three of all survivors of child abuse will “subject their children to maltreatment”.  This is because many survivors who become parents believe that the way they were treated as a child is the correct way to parent.  In other cases, parents believe that if they simply treat their children better than their parents treated them, then they are not being abusive.  This way of thinking is incorrect, because abuse is abuse, even if one example of abuse is not as overtly severe as another.  By spreading information and reporting incidences of child abuse we can help to interrupt the cycle.

Child Abuse is a Human Rights Issue

There are numerous ways in which child abuse can be clearly seen as a violation of human rights.  Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion,” and Article 25 states that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”  How can someone utilize these rights while living in fear (whether it be as an adult or as a child)?

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also deals with child abuse as a violation of human rights.  Article 19 calls for States Parties to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation…”  Article 24 states that children have the right to “the highest attainable standard of health,” which is a right that cannot be fully enjoyed in an abusive situation.  Article 27 describes the right “to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development,” and abuse is a known hindrance to childhood development.  Article 34 relates specifically to sexual abuse, stating that States Parties should do everything they can to “protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

It is important that we remember that children are limited in what they can do to help themselves in any given situation.  It is the responsibility of the adults around them to protect and nurture them.  Adults should be attentive toward the well-being of the children they contact.  Adults need to be able to recognize and report abusive situations when they witness them and/or are aware of them.

Resources

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors