Archive | June, 2011

South Milwaukee Lake Bluff Apartments – Final Chapter in Housing Discrimination Challenge Settled

27 Jun

Fair housing advocates announced the settlement of a long-running court challenge to protect the Lake Bluff Apartments, an integrated, affordable and accessible development in South Milwaukee. After a 2009 jury verdict found that tearing down Lake Bluff would have a discriminatory effect in violation of the Fair Housing Act, and after nearly two years of subsequent negotiations, Lake Bluff will remain a diverse and accessible place to live.

The tenants’ counsel issued the following statement about the settlement: “Legal Action of Wisconsin, Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin Foundation, who represented tenants at Lake Bluff Apartments, applaud the City of South Milwaukee for resolving this case in a way that promotes fair housing and integration. The City negotiated this settlement in good faith. We are satisfied that with the settlement, which allows our clients to remain in diverse, affordable and accessible housing in South Milwaukee, the City has fully complied with its obligations under the Fair Housing Act not to discriminate in housing and with its obligations to affirmatively further fair housing.”

“We’re happy that the residents of Lake Bluff will be able to stay in their homes,” said ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation Legal Director Larry Dupuis. “Finding affordable and accessible housing during an economic downswing hits people with disabilities and limited incomes the hardest. At the same time, the verdict and settlement in this case demonstrate that cities cannot afford to deny affordable, diverse housing. The results of this lawsuit will ensure that the buildings will stay up and tenants will no longer face the prospect of housing discrimination.”

The Lake Bluff tenants were represented by Dupuis, ACLU of Wisconsin Senior Staff Attorney Karyn Rotker, Legal Aid Society’s litigation director Peter Koneazny, and Legal Action Staff Attorney Mark Silverman. You can download the official statement online or read the combined press release on the ACLU of Wisconsin website.

The ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation is a non-profit civil liberties and civil rights organization working to protect the rights of Wisconsinites. For more on the work of the American Civil Liberties Union and Foundation of Wisconsin, visit our webpage. You can also get news and opinion on civil liberties in Wisconsin on our Cap City Liberty blog. Find us on Facebook and Twitter at ACLUMadison and ACLUofWisconsin.

Established in 1968, Legal Action of Wisconsin is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal services in 39 southern Wisconsin counties. Legal Action serves low-income, elderly and other clients through six offices statewide. More information is available at http://www.legalaction.org

The Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee is one of America’s oldest, public-interest law firms and was founded in 1916 with a unique charter “to do all things necessary for the prevention of injustice.” Each year the Society provides free legal services to 8,000 of Milwaukee’s most vulnerable residents. More information is available at http://www.lasmilwaukee.com.

Racial Profiling Law Could Have Helped Cops End Biased Policing

22 Jun

Today Governor Scott Walker signed a bill to repeal a law designed to help police managers identify biased policing. The law had only just gone into effect and set up a system to collect and analyze data on the race and ethnicity of motorists when police officers initiate certain types of traffic stops or conduct searches of vehicles.

The ACLU of Wisconsin asks, shouldn’t Wisconsin law enforcement agencies make it a priority to protect and serve all of the members of the public without bias, including motorists of color?

Governor Walker signed the repeal of the law that took effect January 1, 2011 and gave Wisconsin law enforcement managers a new tool to identify biased policing during traffic stops. The new law set up a system to collect traffic stop data and have the Office of Justice Assistance analyze it to determine if minority motorists were being stopped or searched disproportionately compared to non-minority motorists.

ACLU of Wisconsin’s Executive Director Chris Ahmuty served on the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance advisory committee that helped design the traffic stop data collection system. This advisory committee was mostly composed of law enforcement professionals. It conducted listening sessions around the state where we heard compelling testimony from residents who felt they were victims of biased policing. The advisory committee also heard from many law enforcement professionals who had significant input into the creation of the system.

Most professional law enforcement leaders nationwide recognize the importance of identifying bias where it exists and addressing it. The Wisconsin legislators and Governor Walker repealed this law without giving it a chance.

While some small departments may have legitimate technical and financial issues in complying with the new law immediately, assertions regarding expense and labor costs are overblown. It is disturbing that opponents of addressing biased policing chose to repeal the law rather than attempt to make the system work. Their haste calls into question their commitment to solving the problem of racial profiling and bias among law enforcement officers in our state.

The ACLU of Wisconsin will work with law enforcement officials, community leaders, racial justice advocates and any residents of Wisconsin to identify workable solutions to the problem of racial profiling. In response to the repeal of the traffic stop data collection law, the ACLU of Wisconsin will begin an effort to collect the stories from individuals who have experienced biased policing

WI Domestic Partner Registry Not a Violation of State Same-Sex Marriage Ban

20 Jun

Judge Daniel Moeser resoundingly rejected today an attack on Wisconsin’s Domestic Partner Registry brought by Board members of Wisconsin Family Action, an organization whose members pushed for Wisconsin’s anti-Marriage constitutional amendment in 2006. Despite securing passage of the amendment by assuring voters that domestic partnerships would still be allowed, the Wisconsin Family Action plaintiffs asserted that the anti-Marriage amendment prohibited the Domestic Partner law passed by the legislature in 2008 to provide crucial but very limited protections to same-sex couples.

“While, as the court recognized, the domestic partnership law is in no way equivalent to marriage, it is a lifeline for committed couples who seek the security and dignity of being able to provide for their families,” said John Knight of the ACLU’s LGBT & AIDS project.

In a well-reasoned 55-page opinion, Judge Moeser noted that proponents of the anti-Marriage amendment had repeatedly insisted that the amendment was about preventing same-sex marriage and “look-alike” civil unions that were marriage in everything but name, and reassured voters that it would not prevent domestic partnership laws.

The Judge also recognized that the few protections available under the Domestic Partner law were in no way comparable to the extensive rights and privileges that go along with marriage. Wisconsin’s law allows for same-sex couples to register as domestic partners, granting them hospital visitation rights, the right to make certain decisions about medical care and rights to family and medical leave. Same-sex couples are still denied crucial protections provided only to married couples, such as the right to decide what happens to their partner’s body at death, and are denied access to all federal benefits, such as Social Security and veterans’ benefits.

Larry Dupuis, the legal director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, added, “The court rightly rejected this mean-spirited and dishonest attack on gay and lesbian couples.  Our clients know what it’s like to worry about not being able to visit a partner in the hospital or to be left with nothing when a partner dies without a will.  The protections offered by the domestic partner law at least allay some of those fears.”

Government officials initially defended the domestic partner registry against the lawsuit, but Governor Scott Walker’s administration abandoned the defense.  That left several same-sex couples, Fair Wisconsin, Lambda Legal, and the ACLU as a friend of the court, to defend domestic partnerships.

Attorneys on the case include Knight of the ACLU, Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin and David J.B. Froiland, Linda E.B. Hansen, Daniel A. Manna and David B. Goroff of Foley & Lardner LLP.

Please visit the ACLU’s Appling v. Doyle page for more information on our involvement in this challenge including support documents such as our amicus brief. You can also find a link to the full text of the Circuit Court Judge’s decision on the ACLU of Wisconsin website.

News coverage of today’s breaking news was included in newspapers statewide including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal, the Wisconsin Gazette, Reuters, AP, the Chippewa Herald and the Capital Times. The AP story also ran in the Washington Post.

Voucher Schools Have Created a Separate, Unequal System

20 Jun

Private voucher schools are failing Milwaukee children with disabilities. When these voucher schools ignore their obligations to educate and accommodate children with disabilities, they force Milwaukee Public Schools to pick up the slack – while giving MPS fewer resources to do so. Voucher schools’ large-scale exclusion of children with disabilities has led to a segregated environment with a disproportionate share of children with disabilities attending MPS.

Indeed, if the state Legislature and governor have their way and expand the voucher program, the separation and exclusion of children with disabilities will only get worse.

That is why civil rights groups have filed the first systemic disability discrimination claim against a voucher program, at a time when well-financed pro-voucher lobbies are pumping money into voucher expansion efforts across the nation. The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin and Disability Rights Wisconsin have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the voucher program and to shut down expansion as long as exclusion and segregation remain.

The ACLU and DRW have requested a federal investigation because of families like our clients. K.S., for example, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but whose doctor has not prescribed medication, was told he would not be admitted to one voucher school unless his mother medicated him anyway. His brother, S.E., who needs speech therapy services, was discouraged from even applying to a voucher school and as of the time the complaint was filed had not been admitted – even though he applied in January.

Another voucher school expelled B.J. after she had an argument with another child and without the reasonable accommodations MPS would have to give her if she was in school there. The voucher school expulsion forced her back to MPS, which, of course, must accept and educate her. These are just examples of the children that the voucher schools will not serve – not the only ones.

Separate is not equal. But separate is exactly what is occurring in Milwaukee: Voucher schools educate about 20% of Milwaukee students, but a mere 1.6% of voucher students receive services due to disabilities. That compares to the more than 19.2% of MPS students who receive special education services. If the voucher program expands, it will take more non-disabled children and the segregation of children with disabilities in MPS will inevitably increase.

Voucher supporters claim that they really serve a greater number of children with learning disabilities, but they have no proven data to support their arguments. Besides, their own numbers say they are only serving half as many children with disabilities as MPS.

Voucher supporters also talk only about serving children with learning disabilities. Meanwhile, MPS serves children with a wide range of disabilities – such as deafness, autism, cognitive delays and mental illness, as well as profoundly disabled children whose expenses the district also must absorb.

The vouchers were sold as a better alternative for all of Milwaukee’s families. But the truth is that even though they do not serve students with disabilities, voucher schools are failing Milwaukee children. Testing data released this year shows that overall MPS performs better than voucher schools.

Realizing they are losing the argument on quality, voucher supporters now try to emphasize that they educate cheaply. But the voucher schools do not just get state and local tax dollars. In fact, one of the reasons we are asking for an investigation is that the voucher schools receive millions of dollars a year in federal money and services. The receipt of federal money obligates the private schools to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

This failure of voucher schools to serve children with disabilities has led to the segregation of children with disabilities within MPS, while reducing resources the public school system needs to educate all students. That’s a separate – and unequal – system that cannot continue, let alone expand, in its current discriminatory form.
Courtney Bowie is senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union Racial Justice Program; Karyn Rotker is senior staff attorney, American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin; and Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick is managing attorney, Disability Rights Wisconsin.

This editorial was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Saturday, June 18 2011A counter-opinion editorial was also published from School Choice Wisconsin which paints the federal complaint as an attack on the voucher program, but fails to adequately address the trend of increasing segregation of students with disabilities in public schools in Milwaukee which prompted the request for a federal investigation.

Gay-Straight Alliance in West Bend School Approved – But It Shouldn’t Take a Lawsuit to Support LGBT Youth

16 Jun

On Monday, the board of the West Bend School District narrowly voted in favor of allowing a Gay-Straight Alliance at their high school. The ACLU of Wisconsin was there to live-tweet from the meeting (you can see the tweets on the @ACLUofWisconsin Twitter page). Many LGBT rights advocates are applauding the victory this week. Unfortunately, the school board’s narrow vote came about, not because it was simply the right thing to do for equality and freedom of expression and association, but because a potentially costly lawsuit has forced them to acknowledge that the law is against them.

When the school board originally voted in May to not allow the club official recognition, lawyers on behalf of students who wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal district court to overturn the board’s decision on the basis that it violated both federal equal access protections and first amendment rights.  As a public school that receives federal funding, the West Bend School District must not have policies that discriminate against students or deny them basic rights.

Students at West Bend have been trying to organize a GSA for nearly a decade but have faced one barrier after another (the legal complaint tells the students’ compelling story). It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit for the school board to make a decision that recognizes all student clubs. But their decision could have been better. They could have voted unanimously in support of the club. They could have taken a strong public stand against discrimination and bullying.

On Monday, the West Bend School Board barely approved a decision that should have been made in support of their diverse student body back in 2000. But from this point on, we expect the best in accommodation and support for the GSA in West Bend. The West Bend School district needs a real process to not just approve but cultivate student clubs and promote leadership development in a way that is clear, fair and consistent. Teachers who champion diversity should be applauded, not criticized. Perhaps school board seats in the future will be filled by community members who represent and protect all students, rather than a narrow ideology.

The school board vote got media coverage on the AP wire, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, TMJ-4, Fox News 6 (both with video) and WISN. The Department of Education also recently reminded public schools that Gay-Straight Alliances have the right to organize.

Ethics Files Less Open in Budget Provision

15 Jun

While the Assembly takes up the state budget today and discusses the state’s near fiscal and policy future, do you ever wonder if your state legislator has a financial relationship with a big polluter or a bank getting a government bailout? How about a financial relationship with an ideological think tank? How about a noisy night club down your block?

A majority of the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee wanted you to keep wondering.

Those legislators have approved a budget provision that would require you to travel to Madison in order to inspect or copy any of the statements of economic interest filed by state public officials, including all state legislators.

Currently, nearly 2,400 state public officials, candidates and nominees file statements of economic interest with the Government Accountability Board each year. The GAB on its website indicates that it “experiences virtually 100% compliance with the law.” On average, according to the website, the public examined 500 statements of economic interest each year.

Currently these statements are not online, but you can search indexes to them on the GAB’s website at gab.wi.gov/ethics/economic-interests. If there is something that interests you, you can request that the board mail or email you a copy of a public official’s complete statement.

You get to decide what seems significant. But you should know the current law requires the board to inform the public officials of your request. You may not inspect statements anonymously through the GAB. It is not an easy to use system – it’s even a little intimidating.

Copies of statements of economic interest have been posted online by private advocacy groups. This posting would not stop under the budget proposal approved by the Joint Finance Committee. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin believes that it would violate the constitutional rights of these groups to censor them. But the public should not have to rely on private groups for public information held by the public GAB.

If the full Legislature passes this new obstacle to financial disclosure in the budget and Gov. Scott Walker doesn’t veto it, ordinary Wisconsin residents will find it nearly impossible to access these documents.
There is no evidence that the limited online access to this information has been abused. Given the compliance rate with the law filing isn’t a burden, and even if it were, restricting access would not reduce any burden on filers.

As in most online posting of existing information the cost must be minimal. When men and women enter public service, they know that the public has a right to know about their significant financial relationships. Some people choose not to enter public service to avoid disclosure.

Apparently the reason for decreasing the already limited transparency of this reporting process is to save the public officials from embarrassment or the necessity of explaining their financial relationships to their constituents and voters.

Wisconsin residents deserve good government. They deserve to be able to make informed decisions about matters relevant to the public interest.

They have a right to speak freely with the knowledge of the contents of the statements of economic interest. Requiring Wisconsinites to travel to Madison to examine and copy these public records is an affront.
The Legislature should reconsider this scheme to subvert the liberties of Wisconsin residents.

This op ed, written by ACLU of Wisconsin Executive Director Christopher Ahmuty, has been updated since its original publication in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on June 11, 2011.

Milwaukee Voucher Schools Discriminate Against Students with Disabilities, Allege ACLU, Disability Rights WI: Federal Investigation Requested Today

7 Jun

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Wisconsin Foundation, and Disability Rights Wisconsin filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division today, charging discriminatory practices in Milwaukee’s private voucher schools have led to an egregious segregation of students with disabilities. The complaint was filed against the State of Wisconsin, its Department of Public Instruction and two voucher schools. The groups say that Wisconsin has failed to hold taxpayer-funded private voucher schools accountable for serving children with disabilities, and has created a program that segregates and isolates children with disabilities.

“Twenty years of offering vouchers to attend private schools in Milwaukee have demonstrated that children with disabilities are not welcome in Milwaukee’s private schools,” said Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin. “Even worse is when these voucher schools occasionally accept children with disabilities, take their voucher funds, and then expel them without recourse leaving the family no other option than to return to Milwaukee Public Schools. In fact our complaint includes one family whose children with disabilities were not admitted to a voucher school, and another whose disabled child was kicked out of a voucher school and sent back to the public school system.”

“This failure of voucher schools to serve children with disabilities has led to the segregation of children with disabilities within Milwaukee Public Schools, while reducing resources the public school system needs to educate all students,” added Courtney Bowie, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program.

“Right now only about 1.6% of voucher students have disabilities, while 19.5% of Milwaukee Public School students do,” said Karyn Rotker, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Increasing the size of the voucher program – as the state intends to do – will only lead to even more discrimination and more segregation of children with disabilities. We hope DOJ will step in to stop that from occurring.”

Read more on the national ACLU website. This story also received coverage in the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as well as the Huffington Post, WUWM-FM, WORT-FM‘s In Our Backyard and the 8 O’clock Buzz, Disability Scoop, The American Independent and Education Week.

Chippewa Valley: Chapter Volunteers Cheer on the ACLU at Bobfest North

1 Jun

On Saturday May 21 the Chippewa Valley chapter of the ACLU of Wisconsin sponsored a table at Fighting Bobfest North, the northern version of the progressive festival that has been a feature of the Baraboo area each fall for nearly a decade. Chapter volunteers met over 150 people from northwest Wisconsin and from around the state, answered questions and encouraged people to join as card-carrying members. It was great to meet members in the area.

Shu-Chuan, Ann and Stacy
Many people who spoke to us had questions and comments along a central theme: the abuse of power in Wisconsin and on a federal level. Even though some said that they had never felt such a divided Wisconsin, they came to Fighting Bobfest North to learn, get inspired and find some rejuvenation to keep the dialogue going in their home communities.
Photos – Jeremy Gragert
Thank you to everyone who stopped by the ACLU table to share your thoughts. If there are tabling opportunities in your area, let us know how you can help with our statewide outreach. Contact the ACLU of Wisconsin headquarters in Milwaukee at liberty@aclu-wi.org.