Across the United States, children living with disabilities face the torture of school seclusion

In Loudon County, Virginia, 13-year-old Gigi Daniel-Zagorites lives with Phelan-McDermid syndrome, “a disorder that hampers her ability to speak.” In her middle school, one day in September, a fellow classmate took a picture of Gigi being “secluded”. Someone, teachers presumably, took a bookcase and a cabinet and built an enclosure in the corner of the classroom. Gigi was dumped in there, and two adults stood, or sat, guard. In the picture, Gigi is trying to get out or at least see over the barricades. Months later, her mother, Alexa Zagorites, is still asking questions and still getting no answers. Gigi Daniel-Zagorites and her mother are objects of the national pogrom against children living with disabilities. Like so many others, both Gigi and her mother refuse to be or become the victims that national policy intends for them.

Earlier this month, the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center released a report concerning the abusive seclusion and restraint of a 14-year-old child, called Zach, at the Sununu Youth Services Center. First, Zach was dumped into seclusion which led to two staff members throwing Zach to the ground and “restraining” him face down there. The staff fractured the child’s shoulder blade. Despite New Hampshire law, the restraint and, even more, the injury was not reported for two months. Months later, the Sununu Center continues to withhold information. New Hampshire has “restraint and seclusion” laws, but they all rely on the staff to self-report. The levels of violence form a network of threads of immediate, intimate violence and those of structural violence, all held together by the violence and suffering of family, friends, and community.

Similar stories have been recently reported in IndianaIowa, Florida, and Arizona, to name a few from only the last month or so. Across the country, children in school learn that living with a disability is a crime. It must be a crime, otherwise why would the adult staff members be punishing them so?

Last month, U.S. Department of Education released a report on school climate and safety for 2015 – 2016. It found that Iowa rates had just about doubled. For example, in 2013, 23 school districts in eastern Iowa had 2514 reported instances of seclusion or restraint. In 2015, that number rose to 4,904. A recent Iowa State report describes Davenport as in “systemic non-compliance” of Federal laws concerning the education of students living with disabilities. According to the report, the situation for students of color in Davenport is particularly dire, systemically so. Both of Iowa’s U.S. Senators are calling for a Federal investigation into the use of seclusion rooms. Davenport’s U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack has called for a ban on seclusion rooms.

The report on school climate and safety merely confirmed what we already know. In a nutshell, students living with disabilities constituted 12% of all students enrolled. 12 percent. That very small sector of students living with disabilities constituted 71% of all students restrained and 66% of all students “secluded.”

What crime have these children committed? What is their terrible sin? Why do we continue to send these children into solitary confinement? Why do we continue to torture those who are most vulnerable? When will we stop this practice? What do you think we’re teaching children, all the children in all the schools, when we torture their classmates and then call it “seclusion” and “restraint”?

 

(Infographic Credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Children are disappearing into the night and fog of solitary confinement in jails and schools

A seclusion room in Horn Elementary School in Iowa City

Across the United States, we continue to torture children by throwing them into segregated, solitary confinement, and this happens as often in schools as it does in jails in prisons. Children are disappearing. That children are disappearing is not new. That we continue to disappear children is also not new, but it is shameful, and it’s a shame that reaches every day deeper and deeper into our collective spirit and individual souls.

Last week, the civil rights division of the United States Department of Justice gave formal support to a lawsuit filed last year against the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office for its ongoing and regular practice of placing 16- and 17-year-olds in solitary confinement at the county jail. Last year, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Legal Services of Central New York charged that, between October 2015 and August 2016, the Onondaga County Justice Center dumped 80 teens, mostly youth of color, into solitary confinement. The Department of Justice endorsement of the case noted, “The Civil Rights Division has previously exercised the United States’ authority under CRIPA and Section 14141 to address issues related to the use of solitary confinement on juveniles in jails, including in the Jefferson County Jail in Alabama, the Hinds County Jail in Mississippi, the New York City Department of Correction Jails on Rikers Island, and the Baltimore City Detention Center in Maryland. The Division also has addressed the use of solitary confinement in juvenile detention facilities, including in the Scioto and Marion Juvenile Correctional Facilities in Ohio and the Leflore County Juvenile Detention Center in Mississippi.”

According to Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director, “The Department of Justice’s involvement shows that what is happening to children at the Justice Center is not simply a tragedy for Syracuse, but it is a national disgrace. Children must be protected from the tortures of solitary confinement.”

The disgrace is not limited to prisons and jails. Last month, a complaint was filed against the Iowa City school district, charging that the district’s use of seclusion rooms violates Federal law, primarily because parents don’t know that the seclusions rooms exist and are being used and because the use of seclusion rooms is broader and more `ordinary’ than the law allows. During the 2013-14 school year, most of the students dumped into solitary confinement were students with diagnosed disabilities and individualized education plans. Half of the students with education plans who were sent to seclusion rooms were Black. Other than students with education plans, ALL of the students dumped into seclusion rooms in the 2013 – 2014 were Black. Black students comprise about 19% of the school population.

The good news, such as it is, is that these dismal mathematics are being challenged, and that occasionally something like decency wins. Torturing children is wrong. Children do matter. So do the adults who surround them. At the same time, consider how much energy, labor, work, investment is required to protect children, our children, your children, their children, from torture, every single day. Every single day, across the United States, children are disappearing, forgotten children who haunt the days and ways of our world.

 

(Photo Credit: The Gazette)

Iowa: Gay man gets 25 years for one-time non-disclosure to a single complainant

Nick Clayton Rhoades speaks at the World AIDS Conference

Given the things I write about on this blog, I thought I was inured to outrage.

However, the 25 year jail sentence for a gay man in Iowa earlier this week for not disclosing his HIV status prior to one-time sex with a man he met online, reaches new lows in the history of criminalisation. This is a potential human rights violation almost on par with Willie Campbell’s 35 year prison sentence for spitting. (I’m thinking about the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause, a discussion of which can be found here.)

The Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier reports that Judge Bradley Harris sentenced 34 year-old Nick Clayton Rhoades to 25 years in prison, the maximum punishment under Iowa’s draconian (and mistitled) “criminal HIV transmission” laws, following a guilty plea. There was no tranmission: the male complainant has not tested HIV-positive, and it is now almost a year since the encounter. (The subtlety seems lost on the headline writer, who erroneously states:‘Plainfield man gets 25 years for transmitting HIV’ )

Not only was there no sentence reduction due to Mr Rhoades’ plea (after all, he saved the court a lot of time and money; and let’s face it, it was one person’s word against the other, which could have gone either way with a jury), but Judge Harris additionally placed Mr Rhoades on lifetime parole and ordered him to pay court costs and restitution.

In addition, he ordered that must Mr Rhoades must:

  • not contact the complainant for five years
  • register as a sex offender
  • and undergo a sex offender treatment programme.

“Simply because it happens regularly that people don’t disclose, doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Harris said. Despite improved treatments, he told Rhoades, contracting human immunodeficiency virus” does change your life, and you more than anyone else should know that.”

[…]

“One thing that makes this case difficult is that you don’t look dangerous; you don’t look like most of our criminals that sit here,” said Harris. “But the risk is still there, just like if you would have shot a gun.”

According to the report, Mr Rhoades met the male complainant, “in an Internet chat room” on June 26th 2008, and then went to his home to have sex.

Although the contact was consensual, the victim, who has since tested negative for HIV, said Rhoades denied he had any sexually transmitted infections. “I should have had the right to choose whether to be intimate with someone who was HIV positive,” the victim read in statement to the court. “Instead, Nick was manipulative and denied me that right. … He lied online, and he also lied to me in person when I asked him directly if he was ‘clean.’”

Rhoades said he doesn’t remember discussing his HIV status with the victim. He drank heavily and took prescription pills before having sex, a combination that he said clouded his judgement. In addition to HIV, the defendant also was being treated for herpes and genital human papillomavirus at the time of the incident, said assistant county attorney Linda Fangman.

Rhoades, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1998, was arrested in September. Living with the virus is like “carrying a concealed weapon,” he told the court, saying he felt guilty for exposing an unknowing individual to the disease.

“I always wanted to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” said Rhoades, who had previously participated in AIDS education efforts. “Clearly, I’ve fallen short in this case.”

Mr Rhoades sounds like a genuinely remorseful man. He believes that he should have disclosed his status, and didn’t. Even if you agree with HIV disclosure laws in general – notwithstanding arguments supporting the concept of shared responsibility of both parties under these circumstances, or the unreliability of disclosure as a way of protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections – there really is absolutely no justification for this outrageously long prison sentence.

To put this into perspective. A year ago I reported on a 12 year HIV exposure sentence in Arkansas (where the maximum penalty is 30 years) for a man who did not disclose to his girlfriend. At the time, it was the longest sentence I’d heard of for a single complainant. This is a single act!

Notwithstanding Johnson Aziga’s likely life sentence after recently being found guilty of murder, the previous longest-ever sentence in Canada was 18 years, and that was for Carl Leone, with 15 complainants, including five who tested positive.

The longest sentence that I’m aware of in Europe has been for Christer Aggett, sentenced to 14 years in prison in Sweden, with a dozen complainants, two of whom tested positive, and half of whom were under 15.

In 2006, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the law after Adam Musser, 25, appealed his four convictions – and 25-year-prison sentences – for having unprotected sex with four different women in 2002 and not telling them he was HIV-positive.

And yet, in 2007, a woman who also pleaded guilty after not disclosing her status to a single complainant during a three month relationship, had her 25 year prison sentence suspended and received four years probation.

Since Judge Harris has also ruled that he can adjust the sentence any time within the next 12 months (and there is already a precedent to suspend sentencing), I suggest that anyone who feels as outraged as I do, contact either Judge Harris, or Mary Stegmeir (mary.stegmeir@wcfcourier.com), the journalist who reported the case at the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Courier.

About Judge Harris, from the Iowa Judicial Branch website:

District Court Judge, Bradley J. Harris: District 1B Judge Harris, Grundy Center, was appointed to the bench in 2007. He received his undergraduate degree from Loras College in 1976, and his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1980. Judge Harris is a member of the Iowa Bar Association, the Grundy County Bar Association, as well as the Iowa County Attorney Association. Prior to his appointment to the bench, he was a partner at the law firm of Kliebenstein, Heronimus, Schmidt, and Harris, and also served as the Assistant Grundy County Attorney from 1995 to 2003, and the Grundy County Attorney from 2003 to 2007. Judge Harris is married and has two children.

[Edwin J. Bernard’s blog, Criminal HIV Transmission, “focuses on prosecutions for sexual exposure to, or transmission of, HIV around the world”. HIV crimes. And where there’s crime, there’s prison. We thought the links might be interesting. Thanks to Edwin for his work, and for sharing it here.]

(Photo Credit: Frankfurter Allgemeine Gesellschaft / Peter-Philipp Schmitt)