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Snake Oil

The family of Alfred Wright
Patrick Michels
The family of Alfred Wright, who was found dead near the East Texas town of Hemphill two weeks after his mysterious disappearance, at a press conference Friday with attorney Ryan MacLeod at the Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont.

On November 25, several days after the Observer‘s story on Alfred Wright’s mysterious disappearance along a remote East Texas highway near Jasper, a search party of Wright’s family and friends discovered his body just yards from the spot where his clothes and belongings had been found.

At that point, his family had already grown upset with the Sabine County Sheriff’s Department, which called off its ground search after a few days, declaring it had exhausted its leads on the scene. Sheriff Tom Maddox told the Observer those concerns were misguided—that his office was still busy with an investigation that went beyond a ground search. He and Jasper Mayor Mike Lout both said they were frustrated by community members who rushed to tie Wright’s disappearance to Jasper’s history of racial violence, or who said investigators gave up the search early because Wright was black.

But in the weeks since Wright’s body was discovered, his family has only grown more frustrated with local officials, and many community members have only grown more suspicious, as time passes with no new answers about Wright’s death.

This morning in Beaumont, dozens of concerned people from around Jasper, Beaumont and Houston joined Wright’s family and lawyers to discuss getting investigators from outside Texas to look into the case—and to hear the results of a second autopsy on Wright’s body.

Officials released the preliminary results of the first autopsy last week, which noted Wright’s body showed “no evidence of severe trauma.” The Bernsen Law Firm in Beaumont, which is representing Wright’s family, hired Houston forensic pathologist Lee Ann Grossberg to conduct a second exam.

“From what I can tell,” Grossberg said this morning, “I disagree. I would not have put that statement, I see findings that are definitely suspicious for homicidal violence.” Though she said it was a “preliminary opinion” while she waits for photos from the original exam, Grossberg said she had “a high index of suspicion that this is a homicide.”

Ryan MacLeod, an attorney at the firm, said Wright’s family was particularly frustrated that investigators have yet to ask for statements from family members or the volunteers who found Wright’s body. He said police have yet to search Wright’s truck. And it’s been two weeks since either the family or his firm have heard from local investigators or Texas Rangers about the case.

“We are blind,” MacLeod said. “We are asking law enforcement for answers to questions, but the door as of today has been slammed shut.”

Maddox has, so far, not returned a call requesting comment. When he spoke to the Observer last month, though, he said his office was being cautious not to share too much of their investigation prematurely. “Thank you very much, hey, we don’t release every single piece of evidence,” he said.

MacLeod mentioned other mysterious details this morning:

A patch of material from Wright’s medical scrubs (he was a physical therapist, and had just left an appointment when he disappeared) found on a barbed-wire fence is a “perfectly cut rectangular piece” that does not appear to be torn. The package store where Wright left his truck has a surveillance camera inside that either malfunctioned or was never recording, while the outdoor camera is missing from its mount.

And then there’s the fact that Wright’s body was found just 100 yards or so from where officials spotted his belongings weeks earlier.

Alfred Wright's family
Patrick Michels
Alfred Wright’s mother Rosalind, father Douglas, sister Kassilia and wife Lauren stand beside Beaumont lawyer Ryan MacLeod Friday.

“For anyone that has been down Coussons Road, I can’t explain it in any other way, but it is a creepy, creepy road. It is a dark road, God bless those who live out there, but I’m not going to. It’s not a place that I would be by myself at night, and it’s not a place that Alfred Wright would be on his own at night either.”

A crowd of friends and supporters packed the law firm’s office to hear the latest, and some called on federal investigators to take on the case.

“My suggestion is that everybody in this room reach out to your congressperson, and tell your congressperson to request a federal investigation into the murder of Alfred Wright,” said Deric Muhammad, a Houston activist whose name will be familiar to some readers from Emily DePrang’s reporting on police brutality in Houston. “If Alfred Wright were white, this investigation would not be going the way that it’s going.”

Cade Bernsen, another attorney at the firm, spoke up right after.

“We know there are some heated feelings about this disappearance and this whole situation,” Bernsen said. “Whether race was involved, we do not know. We’re not saying that. … I don’t care what color he is, he deserves justice.”

Cedar Creek High School students stage a walkout in honor of 17-year-old Noe Nino de Rivera, who was tased by a school security officer.
Cedar Creek High School students stage a walkout in honor of 17-year-old Noe Nino de Rivera, who was tased by a school security officer.

Noe Nino de Rivera is still in a coma after being tased by a campus police officer at Bastrop’s Cedar Creek High School last month. The 17-year-old had been in the middle of a fight—which he may have been trying to break up—when a “school resource officer” shocked him and he fell, hitting his head. (The boy’s parents have since sued the school district over the incident.)

A handful of groups led by the ACLU of Texas have noted there’s no statewide standard guiding Taser use by school cops, and in a letter sent last week, they asked the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to create one—by banning the use of Tasers, and pepper spray, on students.

Private security firms, in-house school police departments, city or county police and even undercover school marshals all provide for some measure of school security across the state, each with their own standards of force. But the groups that signed on to last week’s letter focused on creating a new guarantee for students in Texas schools.

“Schools should be safe havens from this type of police use of force,” said ACLU of Texas Executive Director Terri Burke in a statement. Disability Rights Texas, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Texans Care for Children, Texas Appleseed, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition all joined on to the letter.

The popularity of “non-lethal” weapons like Tasers and pepper spray is just one piece of a much larger problem all those groups have been  fighting for a long time: the school-to-prison pipeline that turns public schools—especially those in poor, nonwhite neighborhoods—into harsh, brutalizing institutions in the name of discipline and safety.

But as the Houston Chronicle‘s James Pinkerton wrote last week, many school officers see Tasers and pepper spray as important tools for their jobs:

The use of Tasers and pepper spray was defended by Chief C.A. “Chuck” Brawner, of the Spring Branch Independent School District police force, who said nonlethal weapons are necessary so officers don’t have to use firearms or nightsticks on unarmed students. His officers do not use Tasers but carry pepper spray and have used the caustic agent twice on students since 1987, Brawner confirmed.

“When you take away the pepper spray and you take away the Taser, what do you have left?” Brawner said. “What if there are several people and you have one officer and they can’t control them and they could get away and cause other problems, how do you stop them? When you start taking away other options other than a firearm or a nightstick, what else are you going to use?”

Other officers mentioned in the Chronicle story suggest better training helps to avoid misuse of Tasers or pepper spray against children. Houston ISD police have a pepper foam, which is less likely to hit bystanders, and have used it nine times in the last two years.

Even concerns about Tasers in school are nothing new. In 2006, Florida lawmakers introduced bills banning stun-gun use on children after officers stunned a 6-year-old boy “who was wielding a piece of glass in a principal’s office”—but the bills never made it out of committee.

In September, four Fort Worth-area police departments suspended Taser use, after their lawyers suggested they could be held liable for injuring people with the stun guns. One department has since lifted its ban.

The ACLU’s letter makes what seems to be a reasonable suggestion, that weapons like Tasers and pepper spray are even more dangerous to children than they are to adults, though that’s still an open question in academic research. The good people at National School Safety and Security Services note it’s “unlikely that there will ever be such a strong body of research reflecting real-life ‘tests’ actually on children/adolescents since ethical implications of scientific testing and the vast majority of parents will understandably not permit such testing.”

Unfortunately, there’s a growing sample size for any researchers who want to look into Texas schools. In a footnote, the letter lists 19 local news stories about Taser or pepper-spray use against students in just the last six years. Of course, many more aren’t even reported.

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Sid Miller, Lamar Smith and Ted Poe land in WTF Friday this week.
Patrick Michels
Sid Miller, Lamar Smith and Ted Poe land in WTF Friday this week.

WTF Friday returns this week from its Thanksgiving hiatus—as I fill in for Forrest, who’s on vacation—with three spectacular tales from the exotic political wilds: a Congress entertained by extraterrestrial visitors; unmanned flying objects  run amok in America’s very near, very dystopian future; and an aspiring agriculture commissioner with a troubling case of hoof-in-mouth disease.

The last of those is Sid Miller, the former Republican state representative from Stephenville jockeying to return to Austin and replace Todd Staples as the benevolent guarantor of Texas’ gasoline pump standards. (Thanksgiving weekend was another reminder that the gas station restrooms along I-35 remain well outside his office’s jurisdiction.)

Miller’s campaign has so far made headlines forhiring Ted Nugent as a campaign adviser and as a possible foil to Democratish challenger Kinky Friedman—and for tying Miller’s promise as ag commissioner to his legislative work on (human) reproductive issues. On Thursday, though, the Dallas Morning News turned up a complaint against Miller with actual relevance to agriculture. At a horse show in May, Miller was spotted “exercising” three prize-winning quarter horses by driving them in circles tethered to his trailer—which would have been dangerous enough even if he wasn’t hurling insults at them too, like a football coach yelling “hustle up!” from a golf cart.

To which Miller replied:

“If anybody thinks that I would tie three half-million-dollar horses to a trailer and they had a chance of getting a scratch on them or injuring themselves, I would have to be an idiot.”

An interesting choice of sentence structure, but in fact the American Quarter Horse Association did believe Miller’s horses were in danger, and issued him a warning. In his interview with the News, Miller followed his not-quite denial with a not-quite promise never to do it again:

“I shouldn’t have done it. I just wasn’t thinking. It’s just such a common practice for me that I really didn’t think nothing of it,” Miller said. “I just should have known better because not everybody understands it.”

In a less dangerous exercise Wednesday, Texas Congressman Lamar Smith’s House Science Committee held a for-real hearing on the search for extra-terrestrial life. While it was refreshing to see a Texas Republican talk about “aliens” without bringing up immigration policy, Smith’s hearing drew fire, as Andrew Sullivan noted, because he appeared far more open-minded about life beyond Earth than he has been about climate science within our atmosphere. At ThinkProgress, Rebecca Leber noted that just a day before the Congressman opened the floor to aliens, he doubled down on his global-warming skepticism:

Smith blasted the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules for carbon pollution from new power plants for lacking scientific grounds. In a letter to the EPA, Smith wrote that the proposed standards are “based more on partisan politics than sound science.”

At least our new alien overlords enjoy broad bipartisan support.

And finally, following 60 Minutes‘ ground-breaking investigative infomerical Sunday night, Humble’s humble Congressman Ted Poe shared his concerns about Amazon’s drone-delivery plans on the House floor Tuesday:

“Sounds like something out of the ‘Jetsons’ doesn’t it? Gone will be the days of the neighborhood mail carrier, soon there will be a drone to replace him.”

Such private-sector creep into government monopolies would be scary enough on its own, but he went on:

“Think of how many drones could soon be flying around the sky,” he said. “Here a drone, there a drone, everywhere a drone in the United States.”

Poe is no newcomer to the drone-a-phobia jam—last year he imagined a terrifying future with drones controlled by some “EPA bureaucrat who wants to snoop on somebody’s farm and watch Bessie the cow graze in the pasture.” Still, Poe just couldn’t resist one more jab at the Obama administration, even if it muddled his message a little. The drones, he said, were proof that,

“Amazon, unlike the glitch-ridden government websites, can efficiently use online Internet services that get a timely product to market.”

Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts
Patric Schneider
Meisha Washington reads a book in the newly reopened library at Houston’s Hogg Middle School. The library had closed due to state budget cuts.

There once was a time in Texas when adding more students and building new schools also meant hiring more school librarians. What magical, idyllic times those must have been, way back in 2010.

In the past three years, Texas has been hemorrhaging librarians. Even as the number of students in Texas public schools exceeds five million, the number of certified librarians in schools has dropped by 500, down to 4,640. Texas has about as many librarians today as it did a decade ago, when schools had 600,000 fewer students.

Even after absorbing $5.4 billion in funding cuts from the 2011 Legislature—damage only partially remedied this year—Texas schools have shed 3 percent of their counselors, 2 percent of their teachers and 1 percent of their nurses. But they’ve cut 9 percent of their librarians. (All while the student body grew by 3 percent.) Forced to skimp by the Legislature, many administrators went skimping in the library.

In early October, the Houston Chronicle told the story of Mary Burgert, a middle-school librarian laid off mid-year because of budget cuts. Houston ISD is a particularly tough place for librarians. The state’s largest school district has just 97 certified librarians, down from 169 four years ago, according to the Chronicle. About 60 percent of the district’s schools, the Chronicle reported, are without a librarian this year. In dozens of schools, the library is simply closed.

You might be wondering, So what’s the big deal anyway? Is it really that hard to find a book? Can’t kids just figure out how to Google on their own?

Gloria Meraz with the Texas Library Association says a little respect for librarians, particularly in the Legislature, is long overdue.

“Like every group, we were cut in 2011, but we’ve seen the steady erosion of support for several years now,” she says. “The fact that there are districts that are opting to reduce the ranks of school librarians really puts Texas schoolchildren at a significant disadvantage.”

Meraz cites a 2011 Legislative Budget Board report that called librarians “critical to campus effectiveness and student achievement,” and a 2001 study that found higher standardized test scores in schools with libraries than in those without.

Even in the years before massive school budget cuts, library staffing wasn’t keeping pace with student growth. Many schools that report having a certified librarian on staff, Meraz says, share that librarian with another school. The state doesn’t set minimum standards for library staffing.

Some schools are turning away from physical library stacks in favor of tablet and laptop-borrowing media centers. Some charter schools skip the library altogether.

“I think it’s telling that there is no mandate for school librarians to be on each campus,” Meraz says. “So many people have a very outdated image of what a school library is.”

Beyond clerical shelf-sorting work, librarians are there to instill good research techniques and help distinguish between good and unreliable information—skills that become even more important when you get your facts off the Internet.

“It’s a common misconception. People think that, well, everything is online, so we don’t need librarians. Truly, nothing could be further from the truth,” Meraz says. “What we find is that people need even more help.”


Texas Should Do More to Catch Cheating Schools, Feds Say

La Joya ISD singled out for problems with test administration
El Paso ISD School Board
Patrick Michels
El Paso ISD trustees, in happier times

The El Paso Times‘ Andrew Kreighbaum reported Sunday on a new federal audit into Texas’ school rating system, and how well the state is equipped to catch folks gaming the system. Like a recent state audit, the U.S. Department of Education’s review finds Texas’ internal controls lacking.

That lack of control been a popular subject in El Paso ever since former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was caught padding his paycheck with performance bonuses on the strength of bogus test score gains. But the El Paso scandal has rippled out to other Texas districts this year, prompting a handful of school administrators to leave or retire under suspicion of having replicated Garcia’s scheme.

This latest audit is one of the first in a state-by-state review by the feds, looking into how well local agencies control the integrity of their test results. At the Times, Kreighbaum summed up the assessment of TEA and its ability to spot cheating schemes like the ones that have scandalized schools in El Paso and Atlanta:

Computer analysis of erasures is one way to detect such cheating, but TEA hasn’t been doing that, the federal audit found.

TEA also did not ensure all school districts were testing 10th-graders — the issue at the heart of the El Paso Independent School District cheating scheme — or assess how those school districts could otherwise influence results.

The federal audit findings overlap with those in the state auditor’s report, which found the agency had relied on local school districts to police cheating themselves and did not have a consistent or defined process for conducting investigations when they were pursued.

That “erasure analysis” is a way to spot places where students’ answer keys might have been doctored to improve their scores, the way teachers and administrators did in the Atlanta scandal that surfaced five years ago. According to the new federal report, TEA has chosen not to perform a massive erasure analysis of all studentstests on the advice of Pearson and a statewide advisory committee. Both warned it was better to consider erasures only “within a larger review process” for specific districts. Last year, the Austin American-Statesman‘s Eric Dexheimer tried to get his hands on erasure data for his own analysis, but was told they were considered “audit working papers” and therefore exempt from open records laws.

The feds also reviewed three Texas school districts where the math and reading scores varied suspiciously—they prefer the word “anomalous”—year-to-year from 2007 to 2010. (Interestingly, that data analysis didn’t flag El Paso ISD for especially “anomalous” gains.) Of those three, only La Joya ISD, a 26,000-student district west of McAllen on the Texas-Mexico border had serious issues.

From 2007 to 2010, 16 La Joya ISD students were simply given the wrong test (including one entire classroom) and four students took tests with the wrong answer sheet. The district had records of 65 possible testing goofs over those three school years—but only ever reported 12 of them to the state.

La Joya ISD agreed with the feds’ ideas for improvement, including the helpful suggestion that the district try “properly administering statewide tests” for a change. TEA, too, agreed with the Department of Education’s suggestions, noting that they’ve already agreed to create an Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability.

As the trouble at La Joya ISD makes clear, though, districts still have great freedom to cherry-pick what they report and how they report it. Especially when, as the audit notes, TEA quit monitoring test days on campuses in 2011, the same year its budget was drastically cut by the Legislature.

"Vote here" sign
Patrick Michels
...if you can afford it.

Election Day last week brought plenty of complaints at the polls about Texas’ new voter ID law, but it also brought one major complaint in Corpus Christi federal court, where nine voters joined La Unión Del Pueblo Entero in suing the state over its tough new voting requirements.

The plaintiffs are long-time voters from South Texas who lack the photo ID now required to vote in Texas since the 2011 law took effect. “The State knew or should have known,” the suit says, “that Hispanic and African-American Texans disproportionately lack the forms of photo ID required by SB 14.” (Read the full complaint below.)

There are, of course, many other legal challenges to Texas’ voter ID law, including from the U.S. Department of Justice, groups like MALC and NAACP, the Texas League of Young Voters and a group led by Congressman Marc Veasey. As recently as September, the Texas Association of Hispanic County Judges and County Commissioners joined in those suits, and True the Vote sought to join the state in defending the law.

The new complaint is focused specifically on the burden the law places on poor, rural voters, according to David Hall, executive director of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which is representing the new plaintiffs.

“What we were trying to do is fill in a niche that didn’t seem to be addressed much by the Justice Department suit or the other plaintiffs,” he told the Observer. “Most of our clients don’t have a handy certified copy of a birth certificate, so they’re going to be paying some money.”

That cost varies from $22—for the copy of a birth certificate you’d need in order to get a new state ID—to $345 for a copy of citizenship papers, according to the complaint. For residents of rural Willacy, Goliad or Karnes counties, getting that paperwork together can mean long, costly trips to the closest DPS office.

These are all familiar concerns to critics of the voter ID law—often raised by Democrats during the Legislature’s debate over the law, and dismissed by Republicans as abstract worries. Each of the nine plaintiffs in this suit demonstrate the very real problems Texas’ voter ID law created.

Eulalio Mendez, Jr., is an 82-year-old man living in Willacy County whose driver’s license expired in June 2012, and who has no way to travel to the DPS office in Harlingen that issues ID cards. Roxsanne Hernandez, in the Goliad County town of Berclair, had her state ID card stolen last year and doesn’t have a copy of her birth certificate. Estela Garcia Espinoza is a 69-year-old Raymondville woman who no longer drives, and whose license expired four years ago. She was born on a Starr County ranch in 1944 and her birth was never officially registered.

All the plaintiffs had voted regularly before this year, according to the complaint, and have incomes well below the poverty line.

They’re joined in the suit by La Unión Del Pueblo Entero, a group founded by Cesar Chavez, which advocates for immigrants and poor people in South Texas. Juanita Valdez-Cox, the group’s executive director, told the Observer that she has personal reasons for joining in the suit. She compared the new law to the poll tax her own father had to pay to vote until 1966, and said her 92-year-old mother lacks the ID now required to vote in person because her state ID is expired. Local officials suggested she vote by mail instead, but Valdez-Cox wasn’t satisfied with that solution. “People make the choice, not the state, how they want to vote,” she said.

Valdez-Cox said she was frustrated by a news story in which the local elections administrator said the voter ID rollout went smoothly this year, and that nobody had been turned away at the polls. (That was a common report across the state.)

“She only speaks for the ones that showed up to vote,” Valdez-Cox said. “She doesn’t know how many stayed home because they already knew they didn’t have the required ID, they were already discouraged to show up. Those are the ones that we are concerned about.”

Roxanne Joganik, left, and Darlina Anthony outside their RV in Seven Points, where they moved after being evicted from a park in Athens.
David Taffet/Dallas Voice
Roxanne Joganik, left, and Darlina Anthony outside their RV in Seven Points, where they moved after being evicted from a park in Athens.

Roxanne Joganik moved into the Texan RV Park in Athens—the “black-eyed pea capital of the world,” halfway between Tyler and Corsicana—in April 2011. She was in her mid-50s, a Texas Army National Guard veteran living on Social Security in a trailer with her partner, Darlina Anthony. They had a happy, modest life in the park, enjoying the hillside scenery, grilling with neighbors and helping the owners, a couple who performed as a country gospel duo, fix the wireless Internet when it went out.

But when a man named George Toone bought the park in spring 2012, according to a federal lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, it was the end of Joganik’s good times in Athens—and the start of what could be a landmark civil rights case.

Trouble began, according to the Justice Department complaint, when Joganik explained to Toone that she’s a transgender woman and asked his permission to wear women’s clothes around the park. He refused, saying it would create the wrong atmosphere for the park. He worried about children seeing her at the pool.

Soon it became clear Toone wanted to force her out of the park altogether. As Joganik told the Rare Reporter blog in September, Toone circulated a new set of park rules that seemed aimed at her: a non-discrimination clause pointedly omitted any protections based on gender. Another clause outlawed killing wildlife on park grounds; Joganik sometimes killed turtles in the pond that stole bait off her hook.

Joganik says Toone refused to accept her rent. When Anthony, who is bisexual, offered to pay it instead, she says, Toone told her “he didn’t like my kind either.”

Within a month, Joganik and Anthony found an eviction notice posted on their trailer door. They insisted on a formal eviction hearing in a county justice of the peace court, and lost. In July, they were finally evicted by law enforcement.

“Fifteen deputies to evict two women,” Joganik told the Dallas Voice. “It was crazy.”

Joganik and Anthony filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which did its own investigation and decided their eviction violated the Fair Housing Act. The federal statute bars discrimination based on gender. Experts say it’s likely the first time the Justice Department has gone to court over housing discrimination against a transgender person.

Joganik’s case is the latest sign of HUD’s interest in protecting LGBT housing rights. In June 2012, the department banned any housing provider that receives HUD grants from asking questions about sexual orientation or gender identity. This summer, HUD released its first-ever estimate of discrimination against same-sex couples, showing LGBT couples were just as likely to face discrimination in states with laws against it.

A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality shows the situation is more dire when the person is transgender: One in five transgender people reported being denied a home or apartment, one in five said they’d been homeless and one in 10 had been evicted. For non-white people, the numbers were even higher.

Now that the Justice Department suit has been filed, Joganik wouldn’t discuss her case with the Observer—except to say this: “Anybody, no matter who you are and how you are, you should be able to live how you want in this country.”

"Vote here" sign
Patrick Michels
An Election Day sign outside the Travis County Clerk's Office

In the run-up to Election Day, county election officials around the state were almost uniformly upbeat about the first big test of Texas’ voter ID law.

During the early voting window, local papers were full of cooing headlines like, “ID law no problem in Galveston vote,” “Voter ID law no problem in Crossroads,” “New voter ID law working so far,” and maybe best of all, “Voter ID rollout smooth, despite complaints about women being turned away.”

Sure, maybe women were upset, but the line from elections officials around Texas was the same everywhere. Elections administrator Steve Raborn reassured Tarrant County voters that “we’ve really had no complaints, concerns or issues.”

And sure, Wendy Davis, Leticia Van de Putte and Greg Abbott all had to sign affidavits in order to vote because the names on their IDs don’t exactly match their voter registrations. But Abbott says the inconvenience of that extra step has been “overhyped”—how hard is it to sign an extra form?—and that “in reality, there has been no problems whatsoever.”

In reality, the problems with the voter ID law are the same ones they’ve always been.

The voter ID law still gives local election workers—and the tea party poll watchers over their shoulders—far too much leeway in determining whose votes get to count.

The photo ID requirement still adds an extra hassle to something that we should make as easy as possible. One Observer staffer voting today at Austin’s Carver Elementary School was told she couldn’t vote using her U.S. passport—one of the seven approved forms of photo ID—because the polling place didn’t have a machine to read it. She was allowed to vote only after insisting, and waiting for a poll worker to get approval from a call center.

As of 2011, around 600,000 registered Texas voters didn’t have an driver’s license. (By Monday, Texas had issued just 104 voter ID cards.) Some of those people may cast provisional ballots today, and some of those may return later with proof of ID so that provisional vote will count.

Some of them—like 90-year-old Jim Wright, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—won’t have the right ID and will need someone to drive them to a Texas DPS office for a voter ID card. Then they will need to go back again because they didn’t bring the proper forms of ID required to get the right form of ID to vote.

Most of them will struggle with this system, or choose not to, quietly. They won’t have time to miss work while a poll worker confirms their ID over the phone. They won’t have a personal assistant to drive them around town.

Texas’ voter ID law is so dangerous because its real harm is difficult to measure. The state that already has the lowest voter turnout in the nation just sinks a little lower. High-level election administrators will simply see a system running smoothly. And the prevalence of voter fraud will remain steady at almost zero.

This year’s early voting total actually far outpaced early voting in the last constitutional election: 318,000 votes this year compared to 167,000 in 2011. That could be because early voting is more popular, or because of big-ticket items like Prop 6 to fund the state water plan, Houston’s mayoral race or Astrodome renovations.

Secretary of State John Steen has floated the theory that so many more people are voting this year because of the new voter ID law—voting, in other words, to make sure they still can.

March in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance outside San Antonio City Council meeting.
Forrest Wilder
A September march in favor of San Antonio's LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last summer, it opened the door to state-by-state challenges to laws barring same-sex marriage.

Justice Antonin Scalia pretty well set the stage in his dissenting opinion: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”

Within weeks, a Pennsylvania county clerk and two lesbian couples in Virginia mounted challenges to their states’ bans on same-sex marriage. Gay couples in Tennessee and Ohio sued to have their marriages from other states recognized where they live.

And on July 2, a Galveston man named Domenico Nuckols filed a challenge to Texas’ constitutional amendment that bars him from marrying another man.

Less than two weeks later, though, he withdrew it, saying his case “would waste the courts [sic] time and resources.” He’d spoken with national groups like the ACLU and Lambda Legal, and heard the timing just wasn’t right for a challenge in Texas and the conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’m disappointed,” Nuckols told the Dallas Voice, “but when you have so many people telling you you’re beating a dead horse, you should listen. … There’s a fight out there, but you can’t pick it in Texas.”

Four Texans who disagree: Cleopatra de Leon, Nicole Dimetman, Victor Holmes and Mark Phariss. The two couples are plaintiffs in a suit filed Monday in San Antonio federal court, claiming Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage violates their constitutional rights.

“The State’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages is a very public rejection of Plaintiffs’ most significant relationship,” they claim, and “Texas’ prohibition of same-sex marriage does not bear any relation to a legitimate government purpose.”

The political climate that deterred Nuckols from his suit can’t have changed much in the last three months, but there are important differences between the two attempts to end Texas’ ban on marriage equality.

For one thing, Nuckols’ suit didn’t mention that he ever tried to marry in Texas. De Leon and Dimetman were married in Massachusetts in 2009, and want their license recognized in Texas. Holmes and Phariss say they want to marry here for the first time.

“We’ve talked numerous times of getting married and going to one of the states that allows gay marriage,” Phariss told the San Antonio Express-News on Tuesday. “The problem with that is we have no legal rights when we return.”

For another thing, the two couples in the new suit have some legal firepower behind their cause: three lawyers from the San Antonio office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld who took the case pro bono, including Barry Chasnoff, a partner at the firm.

Chasnoff told the Observer there was no special calculation in the timing of this case—the plaintiffs just asked him to take it on. He said he did speak with groups including the ACLU and Lambda Legal, “but I didn’t ask their permission. We coordinated with them in a sense, letting them know, and sought their wisdom and insights.”

Chasnoff says he hopes to file for a preliminary injunction within a few weeks, to get the case moving quickly. In the days since the case was filed, Chasnoff says he’s gotten supportive calls and emails from gay people who just want to share their stories.

“You think, looking from the outside into their lives, that you have some feel for the difficulties it creates,” but hearing their stories of unequal treatment, he says, “it’s pretty overwhelming.”

In September, San Antonio became the latest big Texas city to formally ban LGBT discrimination.

Texas Lawyer reached Bexar County Clerk Gerry Rickhoff—who’s named as a defendant in the case—about the case Thursday.

“As clerk of Bexar County, I’m restricted to do what the Legislature wants me to do,” he told the magazine. “I have strong feelings about these issues. … As I read through the lawsuit, it brings up an uncomfortable truth of what a reasonable person would expect as equal rights under the law.”

Youth in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Phoenix Program
Patrick Michels
Youth in the Texas Juvenile Justice Department's Phoenix Program, photographed in September 2012.

It’s been a little over a year since we reported on the Phoenix Program, Texas’ latest experiment in getting its troubled juvenile lockups under control. The program promised intensive counseling and extra staff attention for the most violent and troubled kids in state lockups, while also removing them from the general population.

Phoenix was a sort of pilot program, an extreme measure meant to curb a troubling spike in violence within Texas’ juvenile lockups. So how’s it going?

As the Austin American-Statesman‘s Mike Ward reported Wednesday, not well. The Phoenix Program, Ward writes, unraveled over the summer into an intense place where some guards even joined in fighting the kids in their custody.

The story, which is behind the Statesman‘s paywall, is based largely on a special report by Debbie Unruh, the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice’s independent ombudsman. You can read the full report below.

That report describes at least three incidents in which guards fought with juveniles, only some of which were caught on security cameras. In one case, a guard told the juvenile to cover the camera lens with a tissue before they began fighting. Many of the incidents described involve throwing youth to the ground, pinning them there and punching them in the ribs.

Ward points out these incidents reportedly happened with disturbing regularity:

Concerning the fights with guards, at least one youth told an investigator he “liked the behavior. … This is just the staff being friendly with them.”

“The youth stated that the practice was for the staff and youth to trade punches in the ribs until one or the other gave up,” the ombudsman report states. “Some youth claimed they did not want to participate but felt they would be made fun of if they refused.”

Three guards have been fired and four others disciplined. Those actions came in response to investigations by TJJD’s Office of the Inspector General, which operates separately from the ombudsman. Chief Inspector General Roland Luna told the Observer that their investigations were prompted by separate complaints about fighting in August and September, and that one guard in each incident was referred to a special prosecutor. Both were no-billed by a McLennan County grand jury. (The Phoenix Program is housed in TJJD’s Mart facility outside Waco.)

According to the ombudsman’s report, the inspector general’s earliest investigation “made the determination the activities were ‘horseplay,'” before taking further action. TJJD spokesman Jim Hurley told the Observer that while guards involved and even some of the youth used that word to describe the incidents, “it’s just totally unacceptable behavior. … There’s no such thing as horseplay at TJJD.”

According to the report, the agency has scheduled new training sessions for Phoenix Program staff beginning in November, and will consider reworking the program. “Clear lines of responsibility have been established and formal oversight of the Phoenix Program has been placed under the Assistant Superintendent,” the report says.

In its response to the investigation, TJJD also plays up its success stories:

Since its inception, 43 youth have completed the Phoenix Program with average stays of 104 days. Fourteen of the 43 youth have had no assaults following program completion, and 34 of the 43 have seen a significant reduction in the number of incidents following completion.

But the ombudsman’s report blames TJJD leadership, at least in part, for the lapse in oversight that let guards get away with nightly fights with the kids in their charge.

Lack of oversight was, of course, the only reason Texas Youth Commission guards were able to get away with abusing kids in their custody for so long. That scandal, which the Observer first reported in 2007, prompted a wave of reforms including the creation of an independent ombudsman, and the creation of the new TJJD to replace TYC.

Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) led the charge on those reforms. Quoted in the Statesman‘s story yesterday, he doesn’t sound too happy with the results so far.

“It’s time,” he told Ward, “for the buck to stop at the top at what appears to continue to be an inherently poorly run agency.”

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