Do we ask too much of police officers?

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July 14, 2016 – Austin police officers stand at attention during the playing of Taps during a vigil held for the slain Dallas police officers held at the State Capitol Texas Peace Officer Memorial in Austin, Texas, on Thursday, July 14, 2016. RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Today my 7- year-old daughter told me she wants to be a police officer. Her announcement came just 20 minutes after viewing the latest shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer, this time in Oklahoma.

Her statement highlighted for me how complicated my own emotions are about the job performed by those who keep us safe. Fear for their safety, fear for my own safety, fear that a second of human misjudgment can haunt someone for the rest of  their lives and fear that unreasonable stereotypes can lead to an unnecessary blood bath.

I’ve written before about the false choice presented by some who suggest that it this i is and issue that can be solved simply by picking the right side: “Blue lives” versus “black lives” gets us nowhere.

But when it comes to perspective, often much of what we hear and read gets lost in outrage. So, today we have two columns about policing. One from the perspective of those asked to do this difficult job and one from someone who carries the fear that comes with loving someone who does such a dangerous job.

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, makes the argument that we’ve placed too much on the shoulders of our police force, expecting them to keep our streets safe while being “dogcatcher, counselors and child minders.”

We have the most educated and well-trained police force in the history of the country, and they are more than qualified to be a part of the solutions to the problems that we face. They are equipped with the knowledge and training to step in and assist and work to make the city safer from the front lines.

But our officers, no matter how well-trained and qualified cannot do all the things of which they have been asked. They want to serve our community, and they want to do it by working alongside city leaders who unfortunately seem unwilling to make the tough decisions necessary to find real solutions to solve our social problems. So the men and women who proudly wear the badge are tasked with the repercussions.

Tiffany Whoolery is the 26-year-old daughter of a 27-year veteran of the Travis County Sheriff’s office, who has been a sergeant on the SWAT Team for 15 years. She writes about growing up with the reality that accompanies being in a household where a parent is called to some of the most volatile incidents in the county.

I wish the world could see police officers the way I do and not just how much of the media portrays them. Police brutality is a very serious matter and I hold those officers accountable, but there are way more good officers than bad. We have to understand they are here to protect us. Trust me, a police officer didn’t pick this career path for the crap pay, long hours, countless missed birthdays and volleyball games, or the constant lack of respect. No. They chose this career path because they value human life and our safety.

I want my daughter to be that kind of person — the thought is both terrifying and humbling. Here’s hoping by the time she’s old enough to make that choice that our society has made more progress of the knotty questions around police, public safety, use of force and race. Law enforcement is an incredibly difficult job, and we need those who answer the call to be willing and able to do it.

Is Texas denying kids access to special education?

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A Houston Chronicle investigation suggests that the state’s policies on monitoring special education students are keeping many students out of the program. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

A massive Houston Chronicle investigation published last weekend nailed down the forces behind a public education phenomenon that’s been talked about for years, answering the question: Why are Texas’ special education numbers so low?

According to the Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal, state education policies have systematically pushed enrollments in special education classes down to meet an arbitrary benchmark of 8.5 percent — a benchmark that was enacted at a moment of state budgetary crisis and apparently plucked from the sky to “move the needle.”

It’s a suggestion that has been made before. The Texas Observer concluded as much, with far less detail than Rosenthal, in January.

That said, the data collected by Rosenthal is startling. Since the benchmark was implemented in 2004, the proportion of Texas students receiving special education services has dropped from near the national average of 13 percent to 8.5 percent last year. In all, among the 100 largest school districts in the U.S., only 10 serve fewer than 8.5 percent of their students. All 10 districts are in Texas, including Houston and Dallas.

According to Rosenthal:

“Their efforts, which started in 2004 but have never been publicly announced or explained, have saved the Texas Education Agency billions of dollars but denied vital supports to children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, epilepsy, mental illnesses, speech impediments, traumatic brain injuries, even blindness and deafness.”

In Austin ISD, the special education numbers have dropped, but not by as much as in its urban sister districts. In a phone conversation this week, Austin special education officials preferred to talk about the relatively stable rates over the last decade of between 9 and 10 percent, not the sharp decrease from 12.2 to less than 10 percent within a few years of when the benchmark system was implemented.

“[The benchmark] doesn’t affect us,” said Edmund Oropez, the Austin district’s chief officer for teaching and learning. “It’s more of a guide to be mindful. We’re going to serve our kids no matter what their needs are.”

Other districts tell a different story, one that includes worrying about fines and penalties from the state which tracks more than 20 special education indicators.Texas Education Agency officials say those fears are misplaced. TEA has no authority to assess fines, according to spokesman Gene Acuña, and no single indicator would trigger state intervention.

Failing to meet a single benchmark may not matter on its own, but if a district is facing multiple issues in its special education program, it’s hard to see how it can’t be a factor in district and campus discussions on how to implement the program. Evaluations are not cheap and by federal law, districts only have 45 days to complete them once they are requested. The district currently has 258 pending evaluations, the bulk of which are second, third and fourth graders.

In fact, Austin has been under a state special education improvement plan for four of the last five years. The reason according to Jean Bahney, executive director for Austin’s special education program, has been not  the benchmarking system, but rather failing to provide comparable services to students who transfer in and out of the district and not meeting the 45-day window required for evaluations.

Even so, the Texas Education Agency’s monitoring system  not only dinged Austin’s enrollment rate as above the enrollment benchmark, but cited the district for suspending large numbers of special education students in disciplinary proceedings. As many as 33 percent of special education students received out of school suspensions in those years, more than double the rate for the overall enrollment. Last year the out of school suspension rate for special education was reported at 21 percent, the state’s benchmark rate is 6 percent.

While Rosenthal concentrated his reporting on changes to the state budget in 2003, officials at TEA point out the federal education law changed around the same time as substantial changes to federal rules for educating children with disabilities.

A statement from Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath defends the agency’s benchmarking policy:

“All Texas students who are entitled to special education services at school should have access to the services they need. However, research shows it is not in the best interest of students who do not need special education support to be erroneously admitted into special education programs.

As a result, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) includes language to ensure states take steps to prevent over-identification and disproportionate special education representation. Consistent with this law, in 2004 the Texas Education Agency adopted a performance monitoring system to help draw attention to the risks associated with over-identification and disproportionate representation while still ensuring all students eligible for special education services receive those services.”

Holding districts to standards can be a useful way to make sure they are not inappropriately warehousing students. However, the benchmarks used need to be based in some type of sound best practices or demographic reality, and while the federal law was changed in 2004, it still doesn’t explain Texas’ race to the bottom. Just because the state wishes there were fewer disabled students does not necessarily make it so.

Children are not widgets, as common sense should make obvious. Holding school districts responsible for higher standards, under-funding public schools and then hounding districts for attempting to serve their entire special education population is morally repugnant and fiscally shortsighted. But so is using special education as a classroom management or discipline solution.

By withholding services until a child’s older years, the state may actually incur more long-term costs for mental health treatments, juvenile justice and more intensive special education therapies — not to mention the damage caused to children who view themselves of social and academic failures for conditions beyond their immediate control. Special education students who are suspended show far less academic progress than those that aren’t.

The Republican Legislative leadership has been silent on the Chronicle’s investigation, which is little surprise. Close examination of the benchmarks, by definition, means coming up with more money to pay for the programs that special education students require. That debate continues to be a non-starter for conservatives.

But Texas legislators should take care. They were stunned in 2013 when an army of parents rose up to finally protest the abundance of standardized testing, forcing them to back down from even stricter standards for graduation.

Special education parents are breed apart, having poured countless hours into filing paper work, attending teacher committee conferences, dealing with discipline issues, carting their children to therapies they can hardly afford and ordering private evaluations when campuses tell them to wait a little longer.

I suspect lawmakers will be seeing many of them at the Capitol dome come January.

Unusual times in elections yield nontraditional choices, voting

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate.
Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate.

This is not a typical election year – in fact, one might call it unusual, given a presidential race that features a former TV reality star and a former first lady whom many Americans see as untrustworthy. Evidence of the atypical popped up this week in endorsements by Texas newspapers.

The Dallas Morning News recommended that voters choose Hillary Clinton for president over Donald Trump. That was unusual turn for a newspaper that had not endorsed a Democrat in 75 years. Here is what the Morning News said about why they were breaking with tradition:

“There is only one serious candidate on the presidential ballot in November. We recommend Hillary Clinton.

“We don’t come to this decision easily. This newspaper has not recommended a Democrat for the nation’s highest office since before World War II — if you’re counting, that’s more than 75 years and nearly 20 elections. The party’s over-reliance on government and regulation to remedy the country’s ills is at odds with our belief in private-sector ingenuity and innovation. Our values are more about individual liberty, free markets and a strong national defense.

“We’ve been critical of Clinton’s handling of certain issues in the past. But unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has experience in actual governance, a record of service and a willingness to delve into real policy. . .

“Resume vs. resume, judgment vs. judgment, this election is no contest.  

“For all her warts, she is the candidate more likely to keep our nation safe, to protect American ideals and to work across the aisle to uphold the vital domestic institutions that rely on a competent, experienced president.”

The editorial also explained why Trump didn’t get the endorsement.

“Trump’s values are hostile to conservatism. He plays on fear — exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny — to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best. His serial shifts on fundamental issues reveal an astounding absence of preparedness. And his improvisational insults and midnight tweets exhibit a dangerous lack of judgment and impulse control.”

In another bizarre twist, a poll released this week showed Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were locked in a dead heat in Texas.

Those were the results of a new 50-state survey conducted by The Washington Post and the online polling concern, Survey Monkey.

The American-Statesman’s chief political writer Jonathan Tilove reported that The Post described the Texas outcome, based on a survey of more than 5,000 Texans, as the “most unexpected” finding in the poll, which was conducted of 74,000 registered voters nationally between Aug. 9 and Sept. 1.

The poll showed Clinton leading Trump in Texas by 1 point — 46 to 45 percent. In a four-way race, Clinton and Trump are tied at 40 percent each, Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson has 11 percent, Green Party candidate Jill Stein has 3 percent and 6 percent are undecided. The poll had no margin of sampling error because it didn’t use random sampling.

This week, the Houston Chronicle also broke with tradition by endorsing a Libertarian candidate for state railroad commissioner – the first time a major daily in Texas has endorsed a statewide candidate form the Libertarian Party. And here’s why:

“One plain-spoken petrochemical engineer who decided to run for this office clearly understands everything we need a railroad commissioner to know about doing this job right.

“Our editorial board interviews scores of candidates for political office every election year, but seldom do we find ourselves wholeheartedly endorsing a nominee from the Libertarian Party. Then again, seldom have we met a Libertarian candidate like Mark Miller.

“Ask this man anything at all about the Railroad Commission of Texas and he’ll give you a straight, smart answer informed not only by decades of working in the industry and teaching petrochemical engineering at the University of Texas, but also by a mastery of the issues facing the energy business and the state body that regulates it. He’s an affable retired oil and gas man with a doctorate from Stanford University who’s so interested in this agency he literally wrote a book on the railroad commission. . .

“If you’re one of those voters who’s unhappy with your choice of presidential candidates in 2016, another good reason to split your ticket is Mark Miller, the Libertarian who’s unquestionably this year’s most qualified candidate for Railroad Commission of Texas commissioner. He deserves the job, and yes, this commission deserves a new name.”

Splitting tickets might be the best way to go about voting this year because it requires that we think more about individual candidates and their platforms rather than their party affiliations.

Though the editorial board of the American-Statesman will not be endorsing in political races, its members – including myself — will be keeping an eye on the key issues driving elections and writing about them from time to time. Voting is one of the most important civic activities in which Americans participate. Remember that the election is Nov. 8, but early voting starts Oct. 24 and ends Nov. 4. Be sure to bring an accepted I.D. to the polls, whether voting early or on Election Day.