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Expanding Opportunity and Hope for Children in America

Nahal Zamani,
Human Rights Program
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November 20, 2009

(Originally posted in Daily Kos.)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights. The convention has been ratified by nearly every country in the world, except for the United States. The convention would fill current gaps in U.S. laws, and provide all children in America with the same robust protections that children in 193 countries are already entitled to.

Kevin is serving the rest of his life in prison without the opportunity for release for a crime he committed as a child. He’s not alone. Each year in the U.S., children as young as 13 are sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison without any opportunity or hope for release. Approximately 2,570 children are sentenced to juvenile life without parole in the U.S. We are the only country in the world where children are serving such cruel sentences — and we stand alone with Somalia in failing to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

When we look to the CRC, a pragmatic guide for creating a better and more stable world, we see that sentencing children to life without parole clearly denies young people the opportunities they are due.

Nurturing communities and access to a full range of opportunities has a significant impact on children. It’s common sense. Children represent our future, and we all have a stake in their development by creating and sustaining programs that support them and providing them access to a full range of opportunities throughout their childhood. We can do much better, and we must. We must ensure that the most vulnerable members of our society — our children — receive fair sentences for the crimes they commit and that they are given an opportunity for rehabilitation.

The sentence of life without parole violates not only the CRC’s prohibition of life sentences for juveniles, but also violates the consideration of the needs of children — concepts outlined explicitly within the treaty.

When we look at access to education, we’re seeing another disturbing trend taking place here in the U.S. We are falling behind when it comes to the treatment of our children in schools.

In 2008, the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive analysis that found that children in Texas and Mississippi ranging in age from 3 to 19 years old were routinely physically punished for minor infractions such as chewing gum, talking back to a teacher, or violating the dress code, as well as for more serious transgressions like fighting.

Corporal punishment, which is actually legal in 20 states, typically takes the form of “paddling,” during which an administrator or teacher hits a child repeatedly on the buttocks with a long wooden board. As a result of paddling, many children are left injured, degraded, and disengaged from school.

We found that some students are targeted more than others. Students with disabilities and students of color are punished at disproportionately high rates; this hinders a fundamental right to education and freedom from discrimination.

For example, African-American girls in Mississippi are 2.2 times as likely as Caucasian girls to be paddled, a number that exceeds rates in other states. There is no evidence that these students commit disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates.

When we examined the corporal punishment of students with disabilities – ranging from paddling, to throwing children into walls — we found that the punishment could actually worsen these students’ medical conditions and undermine their fundamental right to an education.

Many parents noted that their children with autism became more fearful or angry after receiving corporal punishment, especially around their schools. Consider the story of Anna M.’s son, a 7-year-old with autism in Florida. He changed after he was restrained and received corporal punishment. His mother told us:

He’s an avoider by nature, before he was never aggressive. Now, he struggles with anger; right after the incidents he’d have anger explosions… He would never leave my side. He had major nightmares, screaming. He wouldn’t go to Walmart, anywhere. He’d say ‘we’re going to run into him [the person who administered physical punishment].’

Students with disabilities— like all students —need safe, secure school environments in which they can effectively learn. No child should be hit, especially the most vulnerable. Corporal punishment cannot function as part of that environment: it causes pain, injury, and degradation of the student’s medical condition. And it is ineffective.

There are positive solutions that create effective school cultures. Positive behavioral interventions and supports are proven to allow educators to respond to each child, teaching them why what they did was wrong and how they can correct their behavior. Creating caring school climates and positive approaches to discipline guarantees the human right to education for all young people in the United States.

Looking to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we see clearly the right thing to do. Every child has the right to be free from any form of physical or mental abuse, and every country should “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.” The child rights treaty recognizes the “right of the disabled child to special care” which should “ensure that the disabled child has effective access to and receives education … in a manner conducive to the child’s achieving the fullest possible social integration and individual development. The treaty also expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. It just makes sense.

On this day, the 20th anniversary of the child rights treaty, the ACLU is examining how we’re faring in light of a global strategy for creating a better and more stable world. Providing children access to a full range of opportunities throughout their childhood is effective and essential. We just can’t afford to let another 20 years pass.

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