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Ebola orphan in Sierra Leone
UNICEF
Shitu survived Ebola, but both her parents died from the disease at Kenema Government Hospital in eastern Sierra Leone.

Remember Bentley, the Ebola-exposed dog adopted by a Dallas nurse who became infected with the disease?

The dog had to be isolated to ensure he was not carrying the highly contagious disease, and the city of Dallas spent $27,000 on facilities and personnel during his 21-day quarantine period.

These days Bentley enjoys a celebrity status, making the rounds at veterinary conferences, most recently in sunny Orlando. President Barack Obama took time to check on the 2-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel. Bentley’s mug even appears on a T-shirt, part of a fundraising effort for the city-run Dallas animal shelter that oversaw the canine’s quarantine.

Texas became intimately tied to the epidemic that broke out in West Africa last year when Thomas Eric Duncan fell ill in Dallas in September after a visit to his native Liberia—the only Ebola patient to be diagnosed and die in the U.S. By November, health officials had cleared the 177 people exposed to Ebola in Dallas and declared the city “Ebola-free.” In March, Bentley’s owner, Nina Pham, sued the parent company of the Dallas hospital where she worked claiming negligence was to blame for her exposure to the deadly pathogen.

The legacy of Ebola in Texas pales to its enduring effects in Africa. Even as experts predict the epidemic could be gone by the summer, and the crisis fades from the headline, international aid groups are struggling to meet their needs with limited resources. The legacy of Ebola won’t simply disappear for the children left orphaned by the disease. The Texans who donated to the Bentley cause and supported Dallas through its scare, should consider extending some support to the thousands of Ebola survivors most in need of help: the children.

UNICEF estimates that 16,000 children in West Africa have lost one or both parents to the disease. In the last year, Ebola has infected about 25,000 people, including adults across Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Approximately 40 percent later died.

I worked in public health in Africa on HIV/AIDS pediatric issues and international adoption. Caring for one child orphaned by AIDS costs roughly $700 to $2,000 per year, including primary school, preventive medicine and everything else that goes into keeping a child healthy and alive. The costs for treating Ebola are comparable, and that’s $25,000 less than Bentley’s stay in quarantine.

But there are some key differences. It can take years for a person to succumb to AIDS. Some Ebola patients often die within a week or two. In short, there’s less time to do any planning for who might take care of surviving children, whether they are infected or not.

Imagine your child is the one in an Ebola treatment ward. He or she screams, cries, begs to be picked up and held. Any Ebola patient, child or not, is likely to have vomiting and diarrhea. Nobody gets much hugging because no-touch is the rule.

Three weeks later, the child has been tested to make sure he or she is no longer infectious, leaves the Ebola ward and emerges into a world of stigma. His or her parents may be dead or perhaps just can’t be located. Relatives often don’t want to touch or take in the surviving child.

In Texas, we saw a similar reaction. Months after the Dallas cases were cleared, doctors and nurses who work at the hospital reported that even pizza places won’t deliver to them. Pham’s attorney has said that she’s been stigmatized and that some people are apprehensive about being near her.

Imagine the stigma in West Africa. Shunned by their community and family or orphaned, the children emerge from illness alone and with nothing. UNICEF and other charities have teams working to place the orphans with extended family members or in special children centers.

It’s important to support the people who care, feed and give these Ebola orphans some of the affection heaped on Bentley.

UNICEF guidelines define a child’s basic material needs as having been met if he or she has at least one pair of shoes, two sets of clothes and a blanket. In West Africa, that would be a good but minimal start, along with having a safe and stable shelter.

A city and country that thinks enough of animals to save a dog should do better by the orphans in West Africa.

Guantanamo Bay Diary

Ellen Sweets
Jen Reel
Ellen Sweets

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, CUBA — We arrive midmorning on Saturday. Some of us have been traveling since before dawn to get to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then on to a three-hour flight to Cuba, a 30-minute ferry ride to the base, and a 25-minute drive to Camp Justice, the encampment where we will live.

A few miles away are detention facilities, including the one housing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators.

Sometimes characterized as “high-value detainees,” they are the alleged masterminds of 9/11. Also nearby is the only known military “black site” on American soil. A place where torture happened.

We are here to see the quintet some might call the 21st century’s most reviled alleged felons. Already convicted in the court of public opinion, they are still awaiting their day in military court. We’re here to see how far the hearings will get this time. We’re scheduled to be here for two weeks. It is the first time the hearings have been convened since August of last year.

President George W. Bush—purportedly egged on by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld—decided to forgo proceedings that follow principles of law and rules of evidence traditionally applied to criminal cases in U.S. district courts.

Now, almost 15 years later, I’m reporting on the hearings designed to bring these men to trial and ultimately to justice. Our group includes: observers from human rights groups; survivors of relatives killed on 9/11; an author writing a book about concentration camps; a reporter from The Miami Herald who probably knows as much about this military tribunal as its participants; one from the Associated Press who covers the Middle East; another from NPR; and a three-member crew from Fox.

By evening we have settled into our quarters in a canvas-covered, Quonset-like building reminiscent of lodgings at a summer camp. For the first time I become aware of how racially mixed the workforce and diners are. I have seen more black people here in 24 hours than I see in a week in Austin.

SUNDAY: An afternoon press conference with Brig. Gen. Mark Martins, the government’s lead prosecutor, goes on for more than an hour. Snatched into service within months of retirement, he answers questions succinctly and directly. Where a response would expose strategy, he demurs. I find myself surprised by his candor, and I have a pretty good bullshit detector.

MONDAY: We head to court, barely a 10-minute walk from Camp Justice, passing through a melodramatic four-point sequence of identification stops before being directed to assigned seating behind triple-paned bulletproof glass. The detainees are brought into the courtroom one by one. Each man sits at the end of a row, one behind the next.

All seems to go swimmingly until the third person queried, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, says he recognizes a newly installed translator as a CIA linguist from a previous black site where he and others were tortured. Shocked silence. The hearing is recessed until 9:33 a.m., resumed at 10:40, and recessed for the day at 10:57.

TUESDAY: No public hearing; closed sessions. The CIA guy’s name, previously published by Reuters, is now a state secret and has been retroactively declared classified information. So much for transparency.

WEDNESDAY: The hearing is recessed until April. The press conference with defense attorneys is as informative as it can be, since they cannot answer questions about torture.

THURSDAY: We tour Radio GTMO (“Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard”).

FRIDAY: Packing. Lunch. Dinner with a retired officer, who whipped up a splendid meal of corn and crab bisque, oven-roasted salmon, tortellini salad, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and peach cobbler with French vanilla ice cream. If she thinks Guantanamo should be shut down she doesn’t say so.

SATURDAY: Seven days shy of our scheduled departure, we’re reversing our field.

Back at Andrews, luggage is collected, goodbyes said. Everyone heads off to wherever. Except one.

He Who Cannot Be Named stands alone, face concealed and bundled up against the wicked Arctic air whipping across the airport grounds. Waiting for his CIA connection?

I wave. He doesn’t wave back.

Dan Huberty
Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston)

The anti-testing sentiment that drove lawmakers to scale back high school tests in 2013 was back on display at the Capitol late Tuesday night, as a House committee considered new bills that would reduce standardized testing even further.

House Bill 743, by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Houston), would reduce the amount of time students in grades three through eight spend taking state assessments.

Huberty held up a stack of papers several inches thick as he introduced the bill shortly after midnight.

“I have petitions from over 20,000 people who have actually said we’re taking too much time on the test, we’re spending too much time on the test, we’re wasting our children’s time on the test,” Huberty said.

The bill would place time limits on tests—two hours per test for students in grades three through five, and three hours for students in grades six through eight.

The bill also calls for an evaluation that shows Texas’ standardized tests are “valid and reliable,” to be performed by a group other than the Texas Education Agency or the test developer.

During the last several years, parents, teachers and school administrators have revolted against Texas’ testing regime, saying the tests are simply not an accurate measure of what students learn in school. They argue the tests have led to a too-narrow curriculum, teaching to the test, wasted instructional time and increased anxiety in students. Nearly 900 Texas school boards have signed a resolution urging lawmakers to deemphasize testing.

Some of those critics were in the committee room Tuesday, cheering lawmakers who’ve come to share their concerns.

In an exchange with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston), Huberty said the current testing system is “seriously flawed” and must be changed.

“If we follow that strain of logic, we might as well get rid of centralized testing completely,” Bohac said.

“Yes, I’m happy—let’s do it,” Huberty said, prompting cheers and applause from the audience.

Standardized testing is big business in Texas. The state currently has a five-year, $468 million contract with Pearson Education to create and grade the STAAR test. It’s a delicate time for the publishing giant, which is one of two finalists for the state’s next testing contract, which could be announced later this month. Some have criticized Pearson for soliciting test graders on Craigslist.

Bohac asked if the problem was Pearson or the tests themselves.

“That problem that we keep coming back to is that Pearson sucks when it comes to grading the test,” Bohac said.

A similar bill to Huberty’s, filed by former Rep. Bennett Ratliff (R-Coppell), passed last session, but was vetoed by former Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas is the epicenter of the national fight over standardized testing. In 1993, the Legislature first required all public school students to take an annual state assessment that would be used to measure student and school performance.

In the late 1990s, testing proponents, including former Gov. George W. Bush, boasted that testing and test-based accountability improved student achievement and lowered dropout rates. Boston College researcher Walt Haney has found that the “Texas education miracle” was more  statistical manipulation than reality, but the myth of Texas’ test-driven improvement was nevertheless widely accepted.

By 2010, Texas required a maximum of 32 state assessments over nine grades. In 2013, the Legislature reduced that number to 22.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act requires elementary school students to take 17 standardized tests in math, reading and science, but Texas requires additional writing and social studies tests in some grades.

Another proposal from Huberty heard last night, House Bill 742, would eliminate the tests not required by federal law. “It’s time to have the discussion about what we’re doing with our kids and the testing, “Huberty said.

Both of Huberty’s bills were left pending in committee.

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban

Even before voters in Denton passed a measure that made their city the first in the state to ban fracking, state lawmakers were talking about filing legislation to block the ban. On Monday, more than four months after the Denton vote, a House committee discussed two bills that would derail local efforts to curb fracking. House Bill 40 would generally block cities from regulating oil and gas activity, and House Bill 539 would make cities and municipalities that do ban fracking pay for it—literally.

The hearing Monday at the House Energy Resources Committee drew an overflow crowd of oil industry boosters, environmentalists, city officials and citizens. Most of the debate centered on HB 40, authored by Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo), the committee chairman.

Darby argued that the state already has the authority to regulate subsurface oil and gas activity, and that its authority preempts local governments from banning fracking. Local entities can continue to regulate surface activities and write ordinances that govern noise, traffic and odors, but they can’t control what goes on below the ground, he said.

But much of the day was spent parsing the confusing language of the legislation pertaining to what a city can and cannot do. The bill stipulates that local government is limited to regulating “only surface activity that is incident to an oil and gas operation” with ordinances that are “commercially reasonable” and don’t “effectively prohibit an oil and gas operation.” Elsewhere in the bill, “commercially reasonable” is defined as a “condition that permits a reasonably prudent operator to fully, effectively, and economically exploit, develop, produce, process, and transport oil and gas.”

Did you follow all that?

Opponents say the bill would undermine current city ordinances and allow operators to do whatever they want if they can prove that city ordinances aren’t “commercially reasonable.”

“We are experts in fracking loopholes,” said Sharon Wilson, a North Texas drilling reform advocate who was instrumental in getting the fracking ban on the ballot in Denton. “We know what they are; we live with them. [House Bill 40] is a fracking loophole.”

Darby and Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland) tried to convince local government representatives that existing ordinances would likely hold up even if the bills passed.

State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)
State Rep. Drew Darby (R-San Angelo)

“This bill … would have taken a whole different tack,” Darby said. “It could have done what you’re saying, what you think it’s going to do—it could have said there will be no city ordinances, no regulations, no rules that affect the operation of oil and gas. It did not. And that’s why I’m confused. Did any of you even read the bill?”

Rep. Phil King (R-Weatherford), who is also on the committee, introduced HB 539, which would require cities and municipalities wishing to ban fracking to determine how much money their local and state governments would lose in tax revenue. Entities would have to spend the next five years paying the state and schools back for lost revenue.

Later, Darby and other committee members took turns grilling Denton officials, including Mayor Chris Watts.

Would the bill prevent a city from banning fracking, like Denton did?

“In my opinion if this bill passes as written today, it would make it very unlikely that a city would be able to ban fracking,” Watts finally said. Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland), a stalwart friend of the oil business, asked Watts how he voted when the fracking ban went to the City Council. “I voted against it, we passed it along to voters.”

“So you passed it?” Craddick responded, to laughs and “ooos” from the packed room. It was only one of many tense moments during the hearing, which lasted for almost nine hours.

Industry representatives, a couple of mineral rights advocates and a handful of elected officials were happy with the bill’s current language, but most everyone else wasn’t. “If HB 40 was clear and concise, there wouldn’t be a room full of local elected officials here to testify against it,” said Calvin Tillman, a former mayor of Dish, a small North Texas town where many residents claim that fracking has made them and their animals sick. “I don’t think any of us would have driven all this way if we had interpreted HB 40 the way you guys have described it. We’re here because we have concerns and with all due respect, you and the industry telling us that everything will be OK is not quite as reassuring as we need.”

Even city staff from Forth Worth—whose city ordinance was lauded by industry, legislators and others in favor of the bills throughout the hearing—testified against the bills. “I do not want to sit down with every single operator and decide whether it is commercially reasonable for that operator to drill,” Fort Worth City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider said late in the night, about seven hours into the hearing.

At that point, Darby appeared fed up with having to reassure local officials that his bill wouldn’t undo their ordinances. He yelled at Fullenwider, “Yours works! Not all jurisdictions’ [ordinances] work!”

Both bills were left pending.

Cecil Bell Jr.
Rep. Cecil Bell Jr. (R-Magnolia) is the author of four anti-LGBT bills, the most of any legislator.

Texas lawmakers have filed at least 20 anti-LGBT proposals this year—likely the most in the history of any state.

It’s the type of onslaught that was widely expected among LGBT advocates, due to backlash over the spread of same-sex marriage.

Daniel Williams, legislative specialist for Equality Texas, said the group is “well-positioned” to defeat every piece of anti-LGBT legislation. Williams called it the worst session for LGBT rights since 2005—when the state’s marriage amendment passed and a proposal to ban gay foster parents was defeated on the House floor.

But things have changed since then, he said, pointing to the Texas Association of Business’ decision to oppose one well-publicized anti-LGBT proposal—a “religious freedom” amendment that would protect discrimination—prompting its author to back down.

“What’s different about this Legislature than 2005 is that Texas, like most of the nation, has evolved on LGBT issues, and that mainstream voice is emerging and is being heard in the Texas Legislature,” Williams said. “It damages the Texas brand, and I think that’s why you’re seeing so many business voices get involved. … We also know how this process works better than our opposition does.”

Williams wouldn’t elaborate on strategy, but out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) suggested the best one may simply be to run out the clock.

“I feel good about our chances of stopping it, because there are so many major issues out there, that these small hateful and divisive bills will get pushed to the back of the agenda,” Israel said. “We’re going to run out of time, and we will be able to make a statement that there’s no place for that kind of law in the state of Texas.”

If LGBT advocates needs signs of encouragement, they can look north. Oklahoma lawmakers introduced 16 anti-LGBT bills this year, but 15 have already died. Israel noted that many of the anti-LGBT proposals in Texas are similar to those in other states—an indication they’re being shopped by national groups.

“I’m assuming that whatever they’ve seen in Oklahoma, they’ve brought that trash to Texas, and we’re going to clean it up,” Israel said.

Rep. Cecil Bell (R-Magnolia), the author of four anti-LGBT bills—the most of any legislator—said he’s “very confident” one or more will pass.

“Unfortunately, I think it gets couched as ‘anti.’ It’s not about ‘anti.’ It’s about being pro-states’ rights. It’s about being pro-traditional values,” Bell said. “We’re seeing the results of a federal court system that doesn’t seem to be respecting the rights, the sovereignty, of the states and of the people. Because of that, you see the state legislatures pushing back.”

Three of Bell’s bills directly target same-sex marriage, while the other would allow business owners to turn away customers on religious grounds. It’s one of several similar religious freedom proposals, including two constitutional amendments, that critics say would establish a “license to discriminate” against LGBT people.

Other bills would bar cities from enacting or enforcing LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances, and restrict access to restrooms and similar facilities for transgender people.

“This bill really is trying to establish the students’ rights to privacy,” said Rep. Gilbert Pena (R-Pasadena), who wants to make schools liable for damages if they allow transgender students to use restrooms based on how they identify. “How many girls in our high schools are going to be willing to allow some transgender male into their bathroom? Would you allow that for your daughter? I would not allow it for my daughter.”

Sarah Warbelow, legal director at the nation’s largest LGBT group, the Human Rights Campaign, said Texas has “the largest number of bills we’ve seen in a single state intended to harm the LGBT community at least in a very long time.”

Warbelow said based on what’s happened in other states, she believes bills targeting same-sex marriage have an “extraordinarily low” chance of passage.

“There is not an appetite among moderate Republicans to pass bills that are so blatantly unconstitutional,” she said.

But Warbelow said she’s concerned about proposals that would undermine local nondiscrimination ordinances.

“As we as a movement have greater success at the municipal level in states that are controlled by more conservative legislatures, it is something that we worry about,” she said.

And while some have characterized the current barrage of legislation across the U.S. as the last gasp of the anti-LGBT movement, Warbelow disagreed.

“I think this is likely to continue for some time,” she said. “I anticipate that this will not be the last year that we see a number of these bills move.”

State Rep. Eric Johnson
Courtesy Eric Johnson
State Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), with Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown), has proposed a dramatic expansion of state-funded pre-K.

Thousands of 3- and 4-year-old Texans would get free, full-day pre-K, under a proposal from Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Marsha Farney (R-Georgetown).

Their House Bill 1100 would offer state funding for school districts to expand their pre-K programs if they agree to meet curriculum standards and follow best practices for instructional day length, classroom size, teacher development and parental involvement.

Texas currently funds half-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds who are English-language learners, eligible for free or reduced lunch, homeless, in foster care, or the child of an armed services member on active duty or who’s been disabled or killed in action. Johnson and Farney’s bill would provide full-day pre-K to those same students—an extension that would help working parents. Today, districts that offer full-day pre-K must pay the difference from their own budgets or outside grants.

In an announcement about the proposal, Johnson cites research showing that quality pre-K can cut the achievement gap in half for children in poverty, the equivalent of a 4-year-old jumping from the 30th percentile to the 50th in one year. Johnson and Farney point to research from Dallas showing that students who attended DISD’s full-day pre-K program were 3.5 times more likely to be kindergarten-ready than those students who didn’t.

Other studies have shown that for every dollar invested in high-quality, full-day pre-K, there’s a return to society of $3.50 in increased earnings, reduced need for remedial or special education, lower incarceration rates and less reliance on public assistance.

“Many of our children never have the opportunity to excel in school because even by the time they enter kindergarten, they are so far behind that they never catch up,” Johnson said in a press release. “This proposal is aimed at improving outcomes where we can get the most bang for the buck—children in poverty and English language learners.”

To receive additional funding, schools would have to follow the Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines in their curriculum, and assess students with kindergarten readiness tools and reports on the students’ skills. The proposal pointedly does not include standardized tests—a particularly unpopular proposal Gov. Greg Abbott floated during his campaign last year. Participating school districts must also publicly report classroom and student progress data and implement program improvements if they fail to demonstrate adequate student progress.

“The children of Texas deserve a first-class education, but the taxpayers of Texas deserve to know their dollars are being well spent,” said Farney. The current system of half-day, state-funded pre-K does not include any of these requirements. Today, kindergarten readiness tests are only voluntary.

The bipartisan measure comes as momentum builds to improve early education in the state. Gov. Abbott has said such reforms are a top priority this legislative session. As the Quorum Report’s Kimberly Reeves noted last week, the Johnson-Farney proposal is a greatly expanded version of Abbott’s plan, providing more money and a faster timeline for the program.

Johnson said the framework has support from business associations, school districts, children’s advocacy groups, private schools and city leaders. Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings have also endorsed the bill.

“We are optimistic that it will get a hearing and a fair shot because there are many people that will support it and testify for the bill. I feel good about it,” Johnson told the Observer.

Andrea Brauer, the early education policy associate for Texans Care for Children, said there’s a strong possibility that early childhood education will see increased funding this session, but she can’t make predictions about HB 1100.

“I know there are a lot of pre-K bills,” Brauer told the Observer, “but I do think it’s a great thing our governor supports it. I am optimistic that we will get increased funding.”

The program would cost an estimated $318 million and serve 87,000 students, according to Johnson. (Abbott’s plan would cost an estimated $118 million.)

Several advocacy groups are supporting expanded pre-K this session. The education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas has made expanding pre-K its top priority this year.

The group’s CEO, David Anthony, said he’d like to see the Legislature budget for pre-K programs using per-student formulas as it does for K-12 education, rather than grant funding, which is generally less stable.

For now, though, Anthony told the Observer that the expansion Johnson and Farney proposed is an important step.

“Let’s stop doing what looks or feels good,” Anthony said, “and let’s start implementing what the research shows is working.”

Austin Wallis
YouTube
Screenshot from Austin Wallis' (right) YouTube video

Earlier this week, a 17-year-old YouTube blogger posted an emotional video in which he recounted how he was forced to leave his high school because he’s gay.

In the video, Austin Wallis repeatedly breaks down crying as he sits with his boyfriend and explains how administrators gave him a choice between going back in the closet or finding a new school. Wallis’ story has gone viral, getting picked up by outlets including Huffington Post, and as of Thursday morning, the video had been viewed more than 170,000 times in the four days since it was posted.

Wallis doesn’t identify his former school in the video, saying he doesn’t want the controversy to reflect badly on teachers who supported him, but the Observer has learned that Wallis attended Houston’s Lutheran High North.

Dallas Lusk, head of school at LHN, sent the Observer a statement from Wayne Kramer, executive director of the Lutheran Education Association of Houston. The association covers three schools, including LHN, which has an enrollment of 162.

“Lutheran High North welcomes all students and their families to the LHN community,” Kramer said in the statement. “We profess and proclaim our Christian beliefs with the foundations and authority taught in the Bible, all within the teachings of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. We respectfully require students to adhere to these accepted values and moral beliefs. Sometimes, as in this case, students have to make choices and decide whether their beliefs align with our community and we respect their choices. We also respect student privacy and do not comment on any individual student or their actions.”

In his email accompanying the statement, Lusk wrote, “The allegations you received have been misrepresented.” Asked for clarification, Lusk said he couldn’t discuss specifics about Wallis but called the situation “frustrating.”

He also indicated that LHN students are barred from promoting “anything sinful” and referred the Observer to a “morals clause” in the school’s handbook.

“Lutheran High North reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission of an applicant and/or to discontinue enrollment of a current student participating in, promoting, supporting or condoning: pornography, sexual immorality, homosexual activity or bisexual activity; or displaying an inability or resistance to support the qualities and characteristics required of a Biblically based and Christ-like lifestyle,” the clause states.

According to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s website, the denomination views homosexual behavior as “intrinsically sinful.” The LCMS is the second-largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., behind the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America, which voted in 2009 to ordain gays and lesbians.

“The Missouri Synod believes the Bible teaches homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s Word and will, and the LCMS seeks to minister to those who are struggling with homosexual inclinations,” the denomination’s website states.

Wallis posted a coming out video on his YouTube channel six months ago. Since then, he and his boyfriend have posted dozens of others, including one in which they take off their shirts off and draw on each other’s chests.

In the video about LHN, Wallis notes that he had never previously mentioned the school on YouTube. Nevertheless, he alleges that approximately two weeks ago, he was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal said he knew Wallace was gay and was going to get his parents involved. The next day, Wallis returned to the principal’s office accompanied by his mother.

He said the principal told him that if he wanted to stay at LHN, he had to go back in the closet and delete his social media, including his YouTube account, which he said “means the world” to him.

“It means a lot to me that I can, you know, help a few people who might be feeling like they’re not worth it, or like being gay is too hard, or they need to hide from everybody, and I don’t want people to feel like that,” he says in the video.

Two days after the second meeting with the principal, Wallis says he decided to leave LHN. Although technically it was his choice, Wallis says he felt as though he was in danger of being expelled and didn’t want to attend a school that considered him immoral.

Wallis says he was a good student, and although it seemed the principal was doing everything possible to keep him at LHN, he was baffled by the fact that his sexual orientation had even become an issue.

“I think it’s ridiculous that in this day and age you can be excluded from your own school for being gay,” he said. “When I came out, I knew I was going to have bullies … but I never expected it to be from the people who are supposed to protect you from the bullies, who are supposed to try to stop that.”

Wallis goes on to call LHN’s actions “absolutely disgusting” and says he can’t believe they were legal, even though it’s a private religious school. He says he posted the video because he wants to change the world for the better.

“I am a Christian and I love my God, and I don’t feel like this is what He would have wanted, and I don’t feel like excluding someone for who they are is anything near Christian,” Wallis says.

Ken Upton, senior counsel at the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told the Observer he personally believes the school’s actions qualify as “abuse.” However, Upton conceded it’s unlikely school administrators violated Wallis’ rights to free speech or privacy.

“The short answer is that if it’s not a government school, if it’s a strictly private school, the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them,” Upton said. “If they’re a private school, then I think it’s game over. They’re entitled to discriminate.”

Sen. Jane Nelson and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick
Kelsey Jukam
Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson's budget proposal doesn't provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit.

 

The director of the state’s criminal anti-corruption unit told a key Senate committee Monday that “there is no one else” in the state that could handle the cases his office does.

The Public Integrity Unit, which is housed within the Travis County DA’s office, has long been a target of Republican legislators, who argue that its prosecutions are politically motivated. In 2013, Rick Perry vetoed funding for the agency after Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg refused to step down over her embarrassing arrest for drunk driving. Some lawmakers want to transfer the cases handled by the Public Integrity Unit out of Travis County. But Public Integrity Unit director Gregg Cox told the Senate Finance Committee that a constitutional amendment would be required to do that. Many of the cases the unit deals with occur in Travis County because Austin is the state capital, he said.

Cox balked at Sen. Joan Huffman’s suggestion that cases could be referred to the counties where the defendant resides. Cox pointed out that an illegal action in Travis County might be beneficial to the home county of the “bad actor.” As a result, hometown prosecutors and juries may not be as keen to indict.

Cox also stressed that public corruption has never made up more than 7 to 8 percent of the Public Integrity Unit’s total caseload—and of the 19 public corruption cases currently pending, only one involves an elected official. (Cox declined to name the official; Perry’s prosecution is being handled by a special prosecutor not affiliated with the Public Integrity Unit)  The majority of the caseload, he said, has historically been ones in which the state is the victim, such as unemployment or welfare fraud.

Since Perry vetoed funding, Cox and his team have been referring fraud cases to other DA’s offices, but few have led to indictments. Such cases require specialized staffs that most prosecutors don’t have.

The Senate budget proposal doesn’t include any funding for the unit, which was defunded by Perry in 2013, making good on a threat that lead to his indictment in August on abuse of power charges. In a press conference last month, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he didn’t see a reason to replace that funding in the next two-year budget.

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) said in the meeting that she believes “the functions of the Public Integrity Unit are very important.” But she left funding out of the budget bill because the Legislature might decide to create another agency or assign cases to other offices.

Before the committee adjourned, Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) asked whether there was any constitutional obligation to provide funding for the Public Integrity Unit. The answer doesn’t bode well for the corruption watchdog:  no.

 

George P. Bush
John Savage
Land Commissioner George P. Bush addresses crowd at school choice rally

Of the half dozen or so rallies during the first three weeks of the legislative session, today’s rally for school choice wins at least three awards: Largest, Slickest and Youngest.

Billed as the largest school choice rally in Texas history, hundreds of people, mostly children in matching yellow scarves (signifying their support of school choice) marched on the Capitol.

Among the marquee speakers were new Land Commissioner George P. Bush and Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels), one of the most hardcore school choice champions in the Legislature.

Bush, channeling his voucher-loving father, gave the crowd a now-familiar pitch.

“A majority of our students are trapped in schools that are underperforming,” Bush said. “Some schools don’t work and refuse to change, and that’s why we need school choice.”

“We want our voices to be heard,” said Rebekah Anthony, a fundraiser for the charter school chain IDEA Public Schools. “Parents and families make the conscious effort to enroll their students here because they believe it is the best opportunity for their students.”

The Capitol rally was part of National School Choice Week—a slick nation-wide campaign funded by deep-pocketed organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

The event comes with the trappings of corporate-funded public relations campaigns: expensive advertising, celebrity endorsements, and even an official song and dance.

In Texas, voucher plans have been scotched repeatedly at the Legislature, thanks largely to an alliance of rural Republicans and big-city Democrats.

Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), told the Observer the school choice movement doesn’t have popular support.

“The majority of Texans are against privatizing public schools,” Malfaro says. “This is a damn sideshow, and to waste time on it is still irrelevant to the vast majority of students in the state.”

Some voucher opponents, including Karen Miller, the former legislative chair for the Texas Parent Teacher Association, raised concerns about students missing school to attend a political rally.

“If busloads of public school kids missed school for a rally,” Miller said, “conservative groups would be hot on the case and very critical.”

Several charter school administrators said that the rally was a good learning experience for the students. “This is an opportunity for them to learn what it means to be engaged in government,” Anthony told the Observer.

Research has shown that vouchers and charter school have failed to improve student achievement consistently. Opponents also argue that the initiatives drain money from public schools and may lead to increased racial segregation.

Analysts say that vouchers have a better chance of passing this legislative session because of the elevation of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a diehard voucher supporter, and other conservative Republicans who favor school choice.

Advocating for these initiatives has become part of a larger right-wing agenda of privatizing government-run services.

Vouchers have been around for more than a century, but it wasn’t until the economist Milton Friedman’s influential 1955 paper, “The Role of Government Education,” that vouchers became a pet cause of the right. Friedman’s birthday has been an occasion for free-market advocates and school choice supporters in Texas to celebrate his ideas.

The popularity of charter schools has made them the fastest growing school choice option across the nation. A few states and city school systems have also adopted some form of school vouchers. The movement has attracted super-rich supporters and profiteers into what Jeb Bush dubs the “education marketplace.”

At today’s rally, his son George P. Bush said one thing that both sides of the debate can agree on.

“We are training the future leaders of Texas, right here and right now, and we have to do it right,” Bush said.

Students from Houston Quran Academy.
Kelsey Jukam
Students from Houston Quran Academy sing the national anthem during Texas Muslim Capitol Day.

While a couple dozen protesters at the Capitol today held signs decrying Islam and called for Muslims to “go home,” Najmus Saqib Hassan watched on placidly. “Wherever Muslims get together, there is this,” he said. “But they have a right to be here. It doesn’t bother me.”

Hassan joined several hundred other Texans at the Capitol today for “Texas Muslim Day.”

Over the course of the 140-day legislative session there are hundreds of lobby days—for towns, industries, farmers, veterans, universities and all sorts of other interest groups. But few attract the vitriol that Texas Muslim Capitol Day did today.

Hundreds of Muslims from all over the state attended the event, which started in 2003. Many were schoolchildren who crowded in close to the podium as CAIR-Texas Communications Director Ruth Nasrullah began to speak. Before she could barely get a word out, a protester pushed her aside and grabbed the microphone.

“I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over the Capitol of Texas. I stand against Islam and the false prophet of Mohammed,” Christine Weick yelled, before she was taken away by security.

On the “Taking a Stand Against CAIR” Facebook event page, 212 protesters said they planned on attending, but barely two dozen showed up today. Those who did were loud and relentless, shouting throughout the press conference, even when a group of teenage girls from Houston’s Quran Academy sang the national anthem.

Milly Wassum
Kelsey Jukam
Anti-Muslim protester Milly Wassum

Security was visibly high at the event, and police kept the protesters at bay.

Representatives from Texas Impact, an interfaith-advocacy organization based in Austin and co-sponsors of the event, had requested extra security because of a bomb threat posted on Facebook on Jan. 20.

Participants, for the most part, took the protesters in stride. Alia Salam, executive director of CAIR-Dallas Forth Worth, told the crowd: “When you see that out there, that’s America. That’s a good thing.”

“We may not like it, but one day you are going to protest against something you don’t like and it is important that you are able to do so,” she said. “Don’t let anything make you afraid to be involved.”

The purpose of the day wasn’t to push a particularly Islamic agenda on the Legislature, but to encourage members of the Muslim community to become more involved in the democratic process. Despite the angry protests, attendees were eager to make the rounds at the Capitol and talk about an agenda that was calibrated to have broad appeal. Event organizers encouraged the crowd to tell their lawmakers that they support the Texas DREAM Act, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduate high school in Texas, and legislation that would require law enforcement to wear body cameras.

“When you’re a part of society, you should support things that are good for everyone,” CAIR-Houston Executive Director Mustafaa Carroll told the Observer. “Muslims aren’t just here to see what benefits them, but what benefits everybody.”

Participants did single out one bill for protest: House Bill 670 by Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Canton), an anti-Sharia bill that pertains to the application of “foreign laws” in U.S. courts.

Several states have already passed similar bills, based on model legislation known as “American Laws for American Courts,” which was originally drafted by anti-Sharia activist David Yerushalmi.

In April 2014, Flynn claimed in an email to his constituents that the British Parliament would now be allowing religious Islamic law “a place in their legal system” and approving “Muslim religious precepts” that discriminate against women and children.

“There is no question the Judeo-Christian heritage we covet and aim to protect is under attack,” Flynn said in the email. “We the American people must wake up and recognize the Spiritual Warfare raging in America.”

Carroll says the the likelihood of Sharia law ever having any influence over American courts is “slim to none” and that the bill makes it looks as if Muslims “have some nefarious plot” to take over the judicial system.

Najmus Saqib Hassan
Kelsey Jukam
Najmus Saqib Hassan listens during a social activism session at the First United Methodist Church.

The day also featured an uproar over a Facebook post from state Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) that called on Muslims visiting her office to pledge allegiance to the U.S.

Ideas about plotting Muslims and other misconceptions of those who practice Islam are bred by ignorance, Hassan said. Prejudices could be reduced, he says, if people simply made the effort to talk to Muslims. He suggested that folks visit mosques and Islamic centers, and extended an invitation for anyone interested to visit the place where he worships: the Maryam Islamic Center in Sugar Land, a facility that can accommodate 1,300 people (there are over 50,000 Muslims in Houston).

“If you live in a tunnel, you will be seen in a tunnel,” he said.

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