An Inclusive Litany


Andrea Skoros, mother of two school-age children, filed a federal lawsuit against the New York City public school system, alleging that its ban on Nativity scenes constitutes religious discrimination. The Board of Education's lawyer responded: "The display of secular holiday symbol decorations is permitted. Such symbols include, but are not limited to, Christmas trees, Menorahs [sic], and the Star and Crescent [sic]."

But in nearby Yonkers, New York, public school superintendant Angelo Petrone sent out a memo early in December instructing teachers to remove all Christmas and Hanukkah-related decorations from their classrooms. After teachers abruptly removed their children's artwork from school bulletin boards, parents—none of whom had earlier complained about the decorations—responded with unbridled outrage. In reversing his decision, Petrone declared that he had only meant for teachers to "have sensitivity to the diversity in the district," and to use "common sense."


The Commonwealth of Massachusetts approved a special "certificate of attainment" for students who have tried three times and failed to pass the state assessment test that is required for a high school diploma. "It's to recognize and honor the effort and persistence of students who have stuck it out through 12th grade, who have given it their best," commented James A. Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education.

Octavio Romano in the San Francisco Chronicle, December 30, 2002:
Actually, probably no other people on earth go to such extremes as Americans to conceal the true features of women, particularly when they go out in public. This concealment is a multibillion-dollar industry, and it deals not in cloth, but in cosmetics.

Cosmetics is but another word for a burqa.


California's Contra Costa Times reports that the School of Social Justice and Community Development, a public school in Oakland, features lesson plans in "systems of oppression." As part of a particularly creative chemistry assignment, students were to write a ransom letter to President Bush in which they pretended to hold an element in the periodic table for ransom, listing its various properties and why it is important, along with their demands.


The National Collegiate Athletic Association ordered the University of North Carolina-Pembroke to explain why it still used an Indian as a logo and "Braves" as a nickname for its athletic teams. One of the reasons, it turns out, was that the college was originally founded for the Lumbee Indian tribe.


A new "Lingerie Barbie" doll became available for purchase this Christmas season, featuring "sexy black [or pink] garters, stockings, and... stiletto heels," reports Deborah Roffman in the Washington Post. The doll is accompanied by the following promotional text: "Barbie exudes a flirtatious attitude in her heavenly merry widow bustier ensemble accented with intricate lace and matching peekaboo peignoir."


The Columbian of Vancouver, Washington, reports on an address delivered by Senator Patty Murray (D, WA) to a group of high school students, December 19, 2002:
Murray concluded the session by challenging the students to consider alternatives to war.

"We've got to ask, why is this man [Osama bin Laden] so popular around the world?," said Murray, who faces re-election in 2004. "Why are people so supportive of him in many countries ... that are riddled with poverty?

"He's been out in these countries for decades, building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day care facilities, building health care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. We haven't done that.

"How would they look at us today if we had been there helping them with some of that rather than just being the people who are going to bomb in Iraq and go to Afghanistan?"

[Ed.: This stupid comment came in the midst of a major controversy over another stupid comment made by Senator Trent Lott (R, MS), who expressed apparent sympathy for Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run on the staunchly segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. As a result, Lott had to step down as Senate Majority Leader.

Amid widespread ignorance of Murray's comments throughout the mainstream media, the Washington Post ran an editorial in her defense on Christmas day—the morning when people are most attentive to their newspapers—entitled: "Inept but Entitled to Her Say." The Post criticized "the massive overreaction to perfectly useful ideas that have been badly stated or misinterpreted." While admitting Murray's version of the facts was "very wrong," the editorial pleaded that "it ought to be possible to discuss America's image in the Islamic world, and the kinds of mistakes the United States has made there." Murray subsequently turned down Washington state Republicans eager to debate her ideas.]

The Associated Press reports that in Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, "a Venango County elementary school performance was canceled after parents objected to scenes in which third- through fifth-grade students re-enacted human sacrifices in the Aztec civilization."


The federal government proposed setting aside 1.2 million acres of public and private land around Tucson, Arizona, as critical habitat for 18 endangered pygmy owls. Each bird, which weighs 2 pounds and spans 6 inches, apparently requires over 66,000 acres of habitat.

Writing in Reason magazine, Lisa Snell examines the dramatic increase in learning disability diagnoses, concluding that the trend is largely driven by perverse economic incentives.

Nearly 12 percent of K-12 students in American public schools are assigned to the special education system, only about 10 percent of whom suffer from severe disabilities such as mental retardation, autism, blindness, or deafness. The rest have received a variety of less substantial diagnoses such as speech and language delays, emotional disorders, mild mental retardation, and specific learning disability (SLD). SLD diagnoses are the most common, rising 34 percent since 1991 and accounting for over half the students covered under the federal Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), which dispenses $60 billion annually to schools districts with disabled students. Indeed, SLD diagnoses have increased as other special education categories have declined.

A learning disability is defined at the federal level simply as a "severe discrepancy" between student's achievement level (as typically measured on standardized reading tests) and intelligence (as measured on IQ tests), leading to the possibility that instructional failures become defined as disabilities. States also have their own widely divergent definitions, under which researchers have found 80 percent of all American schoolchildren could qualify. A 2001 report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development concluded that it was impossible to clearly distinguish between a learning disorder in reading and low achievement. Another report in 2002 from the President's Commission on Special Education concluded that 80 percent of students diagnosed with SLD are assigned to special education "simply because they haven't learned how to read." And a 2001 joint report by the Fordham Foundation and the Progressive Policy Institute concludes that nearly 2 million students would not be classified as disabled had their schools provided rigorous, early reading instruction, which the authors say "begs the question of what constitutes a disability." Worse still, the longer students stay in special education, the less likely they are to learn to read.

Yet as Wade Horn and Douglas Tynan observe in The Public Interest, parents have a short-term incentive to get their poor-performing children classified as disabled. Special education students often get personal tutors and note-takers, extra or unlimited time on tests, and freedom from many disciplinary rules. It thus comes as no surprise that 27 percent of students who received special help on their SATs came from families with incomes over $100,000, even though they only comprise 13 of those taking the SAT.

The incentive to identify students as disabled is also strong in schools with large numbers of low-income students, but for a different reason. The Title I program already funds remedial reading and math instruction for children from poor families, presumably at an educational disadvantage because of their economic background. But when school administrators consider Title I along with the IDEA program, Horn and Tynan write, "low-income, low-achieving students can be twofers when it comes to maximizing procurement of federal and state funds." The money tends to be spent on the same set of remedial programs, regardless of whether the students using them are considered poor or disabled.

Special education students cost an average of $13,000 each year compared with the national per-pupil average of $6,200, but the designation also brings in more outside funding. Still, the federal IDEA program only covers about 12 percent of the $41.3 billion states and localities spend on special education, which Horn and Tynan say is "perhaps the largest unfunded federal mandate for education ever placed on state and local government." House and Senate reauthorization plans both call for full funding of the IDEA program, covering 40 percent of state and local costs. The House Republican plan would increase funding by $1 billion a year over 10 years, while the Senate plan calls for a $2.5 billion annual increase over six years.

[Ed.: I recently took my daughter to the local children's library and was struck by the contrast: a bunch of seemingly normal kids playing games, drawing, running, talking, and reading, while the parents' primary topic of conversation was their kid's various learning disabilities.]


In Hamilton, Ontario, the parents of a sixth-grader at Chedoke Middle School pulled her from a "Substance Use and Abuse" class after a teacher gave a step-by-step lesson on how to snort cocaine, ostensibly to help prepare children to avoid illegal drugs. The controversy erupted when the father asked his daughter, "What did you learn in school today?"


Two men who served on juries in product liability cases in Jefferson County, Mississippi, sued CBS's "60 Minutes" program for defamation after it aired a story identifying the county as a haven for excessive litigiousness and large jury awards.

The show quoted one town resident who successfully sued the makers of diet drug Redux as saying that jury members might be motivated to expect to receive a portion of the award. Also, local newspaper owner Wyatt Emmerich, who is also named in the suit, commented that local jurors are relatively poor and powerless, and may feel no compunction to stick it to Yankee companies.

The lawsuit demands $6 billion in combined damages.

Iraq Daily, an official media outlet for the regime of Saddam Hussein, reported that visiting American actor Sean Penn has "confirmed that Iraq is completely clear of weapons of mass destruction."


A sign posted at the service counter of San Francisco's Rainbow Grocery Cooperative read: "Thank you for your concern. We currently do not have a storewide boycott on Israeli goods. After a lot of storewide discussion and debate, some departments have decided to continue to sell products from Israel and others have decided to not carry them any more in support of freedom for Palestinians and all people."

After a shopper realized that she couldn't buy Israeli gelt (chocolate coins) for Hanukkah, her husband distributed e-mail about the year-old policy, resulting in many phone complaints to the store. The Cooperative's public relations committee issued a statement removing any mention of Palestinians, while assuring shoppers that only two departments—package and bulk—had voted to boycott Israeli products and that they were not motivated by anti-Semitism. "The decision made by these departments does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Rainbow Grocery," the statement read. "Our workforce is an extremely varied group. We have a variety of opinions, and we don't always agree."

A subsequent statement posted on the store's website removed any reference to department-level boycotts, insisting there is "no boycott at Rainbow Grocery Cooperative against Israeli products. At no time did a boycott of Israeli products come up for a vote by the Membership." The statement expressed intolerance for "any workers... who support hatred, racism or any form of religious oppression in or outside of our workplace," while endorsing the Middle East peace process. "It is dialogue that ultimately will provide the avenue for resolution of the difficult and complex issues in the Middle East," the statement read. "Your feedback and commentary are important to us. We hope that the outpouring of intense communication in the past week can be a step in the process of peace, not a step towards the escalation of conflict."


Visitors to a Berlin arts center mistook a woman lying motionless on the street for a performance art act, whereas in fact she had leapt to her death.


African-American Muslim Murad Kalam comments on his pilgrimage to Mecca, a city in which only Muslims are allowed to set foot, on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," December 4, 2002:
People of rival tribes, sects, even warring countries, rival politics marching side by side.... The beautiful diversity and unity of Mecca is an Islamic phenomenon. It was Meccans, not Americans, who had embraced [Malcolm X], Muslim pilgrims who first judged him by the content of his character.... The profound unity I experienced here was something even more universal than religion. It was a shared deference to the place and the idea of the place. Pilgrims came from all over the world to experience Mecca, like immigrants coming to America in pursuit of a lifelong dream, to feel as an equal. From wherever they came they should not be dissuaded, treated differently, ridiculed, abused. To do so would be to profane the place itself. How familiar. How naive. How American.


Carl Dykes sued the city of Birmingham, Alabama, claiming it is an illegal endorsement of religion to place on public land a restored statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of smiths and metalworkers. The statue, created in 1904 as part of the Louisiana Purchase Centennial, is one of the largest iron statues in the world, cast as a tribute to Birmingham's iron industry. Dykes, a devout Christian, says he is offended by the placement of the deity in a public park.

The Nashville Tennessean on angry reactions to Governor Don Sundquist's refusal to proclaim a state "Vegetarian Month." "He is discriminating against vegetarians," said Lige Weill, president of the East Tennessee Vegetarian Society. "They sign proclamations for everything: baton twirling, anything."

The proclamation read, in part: "Our food supply should be safe and wholesome, rather than laced with pathogens, fat, cholesterol, hormones and carcinogens leading to heart disease, stroke, cancer and other chronic afflictions that each year cripple and kill millions." The proclamation also said that meat farms destroy public lands and waterways, deplete water, soil and energy resources, and that animals raised for food are often mishandled and mistreated.