Tag Archive | "Sheff v. O’Neill"

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New Federal Lawsuit Takes on Hartford’s 30-Year School Desegregation Effort — and Challenges the Value of Integration Itself


By Mark Keierleber

Standing outside one of the city’s high-performing magnet schools, LaShawn Robinson decried an enrollment process she believes was stacked against her black son.

Year after year, her oldest son, Jarod, applied to attend one of the city’s magnet schools, which enroll pupils through a competitive lottery. First on a waiting list three times, he was never selected. Without a chance for a quality education, he dropped out of school.

On this chilly October afternoon, Robinson spoke at a press conference outside Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts to explain why she is bringing a federal lawsuit against the state, its education department, and Hartford’s board of education.

The legal battle follows years of efforts to integrate Connecticut’s public school system, among the nation’s most segregated, with one of the widest racial achievement gaps.

But this isn’t your typical school desegregation lawsuit. It’s the process to integrate Hartford schools that Robinson is fighting.

In the federal lawsuit filed earlier this year, Robinson and seven other Hartford parents allege the magnet schools employ an unconstitutional “racial quota” that limits the number of black and Latino students to 75 percent of total enrollment while the lottery system to select students gives preference to white and Asian students from the more affluent suburbs.

“There are hundreds of empty seats, and we’re telling kids, ‘No, you can’t come in there because your quota is already met,’” said Robinson, a mother of five.

The suit is only the latest chapter in a thorny legal saga that has dragged on for close to three decades and has raised tough questions about the meaning and value of integration. The magnet school system, Robinson and her fellow plaintiffs allege, violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Relying on that same amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that intentional racial segregation is unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The lawsuit could have major ramifications, not just for Connecticut’s magnet schools but for the future of desegregation efforts nationwide as well. Attorneys with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian law firm based in California that represents the parents pro bono, make no secret of their aim to use the case to set a federal court precedent. Should the case progress to the Supreme Court, said Pacific Legal attorney Joshua Thompson, it could set a new standard that education leaders are “not permitted to discriminate against black or Hispanic kids in order to achieve a diverse student body.” In other words, they aim to prohibit educators from considering race as a factor when assigning students to schools.

If some of Thompson’s rhetoric sounds familiar, it’s not by accident. The legal battle in Connecticut is unfolding against the backdrop of a federal lawsuit challenging Harvard University that could reshape affirmative action admissions policies in higher education. In that lawsuit, Asian-American plaintiffs argue that Harvard’s admissions process, which considers a student’s race among other factors, is discriminatory. That case is largely expected to send the question of affirmative-action-based admissions back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cara McClellan of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Connecticut’s decades-long segregation battle, also represents Harvard student and alumni organizations that claim the elimination of race as a factor would lead to further discrimination against applicants of color.

Traveling from Boston to attend a recent Hartford town hall devoted to the Robinson case, McClellan argued that segregation is at the heart of academic achievement gaps between white and minority students.

“As long as we continue to segregate kids and send them to school based on segregated housing patterns, we’re going to continue to see the achievement gap play out,” she said. That inequity, she continued, is present in everything from resource allocations to hiring quality teachers.

A generation-long battle

In order to understand the stakes in the Robinson case, it is necessary to go back almost 30 years to an earlier — and still ongoing — lawsuit. In many ways, the fate of LaShawn Robinson and her son is bound up with that of another African-American family: Elizabeth Horton Sheff and her son, who began the legal fight to integrate Connecticut schools in 1989.

In its decision in that case, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that segregation between the city schools, which primarily serve low-income students of color, and those in the whiter, more affluent suburbs, violated the state constitution. As a result, Hartford’s magnet schools and an interdistrict transfer program, both designed to encourage voluntary integration, were created. A controversial part of the agreement declared a school segregated if its black or Latino student enrollment exceeds 75 percent.

Horton Sheff acknowledges that the magnet system is imperfect — in fact, her desegregation lawsuit is back in court nearly three decades later. But she argues that the plaintiffs in the Robinson suit, if successful, could dismantle years of progress at the expense of thousands of children in integrated schools.

“It is a voluntary system, so if people choose to stay in segregation, that is their right,” she said. “But they should not try to thwart the efforts of people who want a different kind of education, of families who seek choice.”

Elizabeth Horton Sheff speaks during a recent town hall event at the Hartford Public Library about her 30-year fight to desegregate the city’s public school system. A new federal lawsuit challenging the schools’ enrollment process threatens to derail efforts to integrate the city’s schools, she said. (Mark Keierleber)

Over the past decade, Connecticut has spent $3 billion on the desegregation effort. Nearly half of Hartford’s students — 22,000 in total — are enrolled in integrated schools, said Deuel Ross, an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Although the Defense Fund deems the effort a success, several recent investigations by the local media have offered a more critical appraisal.

One report by the Hartford Courant challenged whether half of Hartford students actually attend integrated schools, putting the percentage closer to a quarter. Another found that the state hasmanipulated the enrollment lottery to benefit white and Asian students at the expense of black and Latino students in segregated neighborhood schools. Because some magnet schools struggle to enroll enough Asian and white children, the investigation found, some minority students have been stuck on the waiting list.

The result is that some schools have eliminated entire grades and others have lost their magnet status altogether. Critically, according to the Courant, some magnet schools that are unable to attract enough white or Asian children leave desks unfilled rather than enroll additional minority children, in order to maintain diversity. Meanwhile, the Connecticut Mirror found that while more suburban students applied to attend the schools last year than children from the city, Hartford youth have better odds of winning than those from the suburbs.

A state education department spokesman didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the lawsuits.

The Courant investigations drew the attention of Pacific Legal’s Thompson. “I thought it was a grave injustice,” he said, adding that children should be able to attend the magnet schools without race being a factor. “Schools are there to educate the kids, and the kids that are most in need of this education are being kept out because of their skin color.”

Ross rejects the notion that Hartford’s schools are constrained by quotas set in the Horton Sheff agreement. Schools are under-enrolled, he said, because the state caps the number of magnet seats it’s willing to fund. Moreover, he said, a handful of magnet schools each year are noncompliant, enrolling minority students at rates higher than 75 percent.

This year, with thousands of students on the magnet school waiting list, state officials aimed to increase the 75 percent segregation threshold to 80 percent but were rejected by a Hartford Superior Court judge.

“Does anybody like the lottery?” Horton Sheff asked during the recent town hall. “The devil himself doesn’t like the lottery. Give me an alternative way to provide this opportunity. I can name one: Have the state fully fund all of the seats that are in demand.”

‘Unintended consequences’

Just hours after the press conference in front of Kinsella Magnet School, plaintiffs and attorneys from both the Horton Sheff and Robinson lawsuits sat at the same table and offered their perspectives to a crowd of about 50 people who showed up at the public library on Main Street. The town hall discussion was designed as an opportunity to hear arguments from both perspectives and to reach some common ground.

Dubbed “The True Cost of Integration,” the event, if anything, seemed only to underscore the pervasive divisions between the two sides. Participants vehemently disagreed, not only about the facts surrounding Hartford’s magnet schools and the state’s desegregation efforts but about the value of integration itself.

Horton Sheff believes that integration helps children become global citizens, regardless of their race and ethnicity. “If you are in a diverse setting and you are exposed to people who think differently than you, then that promotes your own awareness,” she said. “You can’t do that in isolation.”

That notion, however, was not self-evident to some who were featured at the event, including Chris Stewart, a Minnesota-based education reform advocate.

“Nobody goes to Idaho and goes to all-white schools and says, ‘Y’all need some Negroes in here,’” said Stewart, who noted that a similar desegregation lawsuit is ongoing in his state. “I don’t want this, and I don’t want it for you either.”

On a national level, a significant body of research supports the notion that integration offers educational benefits for students of color and from low-income families. One study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that desegregation increased educational and occupational attainment among black youth and improved adult earnings while reducing the probability of incarceration.

Connecticut’s efforts to encourage integration have been lauded as a national model, including by John King, who served as education secretary under then-President Barack Obama. But earlier this year, the Trump administration scrapped Obama-era guidance that outlined strategies for schools to consider race as a way to promote student diversity, such as by looking at the racial composition of neighborhoods — a strategy used in the Hartford magnet school lottery.

What’s clear is that the continued negotiations have major implications, not just for Hartford children but for desegregation efforts nationwide.

For Robinson, victory in the federal courts would eliminate a system that’s keeping black and Latino students from quality schools. Although Robinson’s son Jarod dropped out of school after being denied admission into a magnet school, he now attends an adult education program. Meanwhile, her three youngest children had better luck and now attend Kinsella Magnet School.

Magnet schools were designed to encourage integration, and Horton Sheff worries that a Robinson victory would come at the expense of children currently enjoying an education at one of the city’s integrated schools.

“You’ll totally destroy the magnet school system and disrupt the lives of 22,000 children,” Horton Sheff said, pivoting to a Pacific Legal video that was presented during the town hall. “When the video said, ‘No racial quotas will mean Jarod can go to a magnet school,’ well, there won’t be any magnet schools for Jarod to attend.”

At the end of the day, both sides may be right, said Hartford School Board Chairman Craig Stallings, a defendant in the Robinson lawsuit. In Hartford, he sees a system beset by unintended consequences. Although he recognizes the value of integration, he said the district’s students would be better served if the system focused on improving quality in all district schools.

“Those unintended consequences translate to young men and women being stranded in the inner city,” Stallings said. “You can go to any desolate, blighted block in our city and you’re going to find young men and women standing there because they didn’t get a quality education.”

Mark Keierleber is a senior writer-reporter at The 74, where this was first published.

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State Reaches Agreement on Sheff v. O’Neill Case, Again


2,500 Hartford students to have chance to attend different school

By Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

HARTFORD — Having run out of time to comply with a court order to desegregate Hartford’s schools, the state has entered into a new agreement that will expand school choice opportunities for 2,523 more students.

The new order — agreed to Tuesday by the Connecticut Attorney General and the plaintiffs in the state’s landmark Sheff vs. O’Neill supreme court decision — requires the state to pay to open four new magnet schools, offer more Hartford students seats in vocational-technical high schools and send more children to suburban schools.

“For all the children that have benefited, this is terrific,” Superior Court Judge Marshall Berger said before signing off on the one-year agreement.

The state has spent billions to open integrated schools since the state Supreme Court ordered the state nearly 20 years ago to eliminate the inequities caused by segregating students.

But despite these efforts, the state has routinely fallen short of the benchmarks they have agreed upon.

This school year, 37 percent of Hartford’s students are attending integrated schools — 4 percentage points shy of the number the state agreed to reach in a settlement five years ago.

Addressing the court before the new one-year agreement was approved, the mother responsible for successfully suing the state nearly 20 years ago on behalf of her son told the court she is growing impatient for parents with children still in school.

“I am the person in the street that parents go to and say, ‘I didn’t get into a magnet school,'” Elizabeth Horton Sheff said. “We are making progress. We are not there,” she said.

Sheff’s son, Milo, was 10 when she filed the lawsuit against the state. He’s now 34 years old.

The cost of expanding school choice opportunities is expected to cost the state $6 million in the fiscal year that begin July 1.

Asked about a provision in the new agreement that allows the plaintiffs to come back to court if that funding is not appropriated by the General Assembly, an assistant attorney general said no funding has yet been secured from the legislature.

“There remain challenges, your honor,” Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban responded.

Education Commissioner Stephan Pryor has proposed a variety of initiatives to expand school choice, many of which cost much more than $6 million.

Pryor said Tuesday that it is important this new agreement did not divert money away from the needy Hartford schools.

“While we present more opportunities to our young people, we invest in Hartford,” he told the court. “We are pleased with this outcome.”

It’s unclear what happens if the state meets the requirements outlined in the agreement that 41 percent of Hartford students be attending integrated schools or that 80 percent of those who wish to leave their neighborhood school be provided the opportunity to do so.

Martha Stone, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, said she expects the state to enter into a new three- to five-year year agreement to further desegregate the schools beyond 41 percent.

However, the attorney general’s office feels differently.

Whether the state would remain under a court order to desegregate after next year is “up for discussion at this point,” Urban said.

Read details of the new schools and the agreement here.

This article was first published by ctmirror.org Photo Credit: ctmirror.org (Elizabeth Horton Sheff (center) leafs through the new agreement).

 

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Hartford Plans to Open Two Magnet Schools


HARTFORD —  The Hartford Board of Education on Tuesday approved proposals to open two new Sheff Magnet schools and expand the Betances STEM Magnet School at a larger space downtown.

Tuesday’s votes immediately activate the process for developing an operations plan for all three schools, school officials said.

Under the first measure, the board accepted a grant of $600,000 from the state Department of Education to find a new location for the Betances STEM Magnet School to accommodate an expanded student body of 4th-through-8th graders by the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.

The second item approved by the board would convert the current Montessori program at Moylan Elementary into a magnet school housing 84 Hartford students and 63 suburban students. Moreover, it creates a new Hartford Pre-K Magnet School for 180 children of ages 3 and 4 also by the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year.

Both proposals were made possible under the terms of the new one-year negotiated agreement between the State Department of Education and the plaintiffs to the Sheff vs. O’Neil lawsuit.

With the addition of the Montessori program at Moylan and the Hartford Pre-K Magnet School, Hartford Public Schools will now be home to 17 magnet schools, seven of which specialize in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. The district’s portfolio also includes a number of themed schools such as, the Renzulli Gifted and Talented Academy, the Hartford Insurance and Finance Academy (High School, Inc.), the Hartford Nursing Academy, the Hartford Law & Government Academy, the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy and the Hartford Academy of Culinary Arts.

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State Schedules Another School Lottery


HARTFORD — In an effort to meet a school desegregation mandate, the state Department of Education will hold another school choice lottery to fill 500 seats in Greater Hartford magnet schools.

The deadline to submit application is May 25.

State officials said families in Hartford, Bloomfield, Manchester and Enfield  should send applications to the Regional School Choice Office at 165 Capitol Ave. in Room 270.

For more information or to download an applications visit www.choiceeducation.org.

 

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Adams To Discuss “Origins of Sheff v O’Neill”


HARTFORD –- Dr. Ann-Marie Adams will give a talk about her upcoming book based on her dissertation, “The Origins of Sheff v. O’Neill: The Troubled Legacy of School Segregation in Connecticut.”

The discussion will be on Thursday, July 28 from 12: 10 to 1: 50 p.m. at the Downtown Hartford Public Library’s Café Space.

The book talk is a part of the library’s Novel Destinations, a summer reading program for adults.

Participants borrow books, audio books, and magazines, read them, and then complete and submit an entry card for each item read. The more someone reads the more chances that person has a chance to win prizes.

Over the summer, area authors, including Adams, will read from and discuss their books, or upcoming books, on Thursdays, June 30 through August 25, from 12:10-12:50 p.m., at the Downtown Branch, in the Café Space on the Main Floor.

Attendees are invited to bring their lunches and the Library will provide beverages. Each time that someone attends, he/she will receive an entry for the Library’s adult summer reading program, Novel Destinations, prize drawing.

Dr. Adams is a postdoctoral associate at Rutgers University’s Center for Historical Analysis. She teaches Twentieth Century U.S. history.

 

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Dr. Ann-Marie Adams to Speak at Otis Library


NORWICH — Historian Dr. Ann-Marie Adams will present a Women’s History program at Otis Library on March 10.

The event will include a talk distilled from her dissertation while at Howard University. Her dissertation, Sheff v. O’Neill: The Troubled Legacy of  School Segregation in Connecticut, was published in 2010 and is the first detailed scholarship that examines the history of blacks in Connecticut from colonial period to the 1990s.

The program, “Sarah Harris: Courage and Commitment in the Quest for ‘a little more’ Education” will begin at 6 p.m.

Her talk on Thursday will detail Prudence Crandall’s fight against the prevailing racist sentiment of antebellum Connecticut after she opened the first school for black women in 1833.  Crandall’s courage is heralded across the nation and inspired a museum in Canterbury, Conn.  But the courageous act of Sarah Harris is rarely examined, or heralded in public, Adams said.  In her presentation, the journalist and historian will discuss the role of Harris, the young black girl who dared to ask for a “little more” education in the ongoing quest for citizenship.

Adams’ presentation is also the first to examine race, gender and class in antebellum Connecticut and the complex but simple relationship between two women: Crandall and Harris.

This program is free and open to the public.

For more information, please call (860) 889-2365, ext. 128.

 





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State To Open First of Several ‘Sheff Center’


HARTFORD — For many city residents, the idea of the school desegregation case, Sheff v. O’Neill, is simply that–an idea.

The idea is that thier children can learn only “if they sit next to a white child,” according to one parent.

That’s the perception.

In an effort to clarify the goals of Sheff, the state department, as mandated by the court, will open an information center on Friday at the Wilson Gray YMCA Center on Albany Avenue.

State officials said this effort is to help meet the demand of the court mandated Sheff. At 2:3 0 p.m., State Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan and Hyacinth Douglas-Bailey, Vice President of the Greater Hartford YMCA, will sign an agreement designating the Wilson-Gray YMCA as the first of several community centers that will help families with information and registration materials for students from throughout the region to enroll in a variety of public school choices.

In1996, the Court ruled that Hartford students must have access to quality educational programs in settings that are not racially or economically isolated.

The Greater Hartford Regional School Choice Office (RSCO) was established to provide opportunities for both urban and suburban students to attend schools outside their school districts in order to increase educational choices and reduce isolation.

McQuillan and representatives of the participating agencies will discuss how parents can use the new centers to access additional educational choices in the greater Hartford region. Community volunteers will be on hand to demonstrate the online resources that the RSCO is developing for use in more than a dozen planned satellite sites in Hartford and in the greater Hartford area. The Commissioner and RSCO officials will also detail other efforts to reach out to parents in Hartford and the region and to make available information and assistance in applying for the Greater Hartford Regional Choice Program, interdistrict magnet schools and programs, the technical high schools and an agriscience center.

School Choice Information Expo on Friday, Nov. 12 from 2:30 – 3:30 pm at the Wilson-Gray YMCA, 444 Albany Avenue, Hartford, CT 06120

Seven school “choice fairs” are planned to provide families in Hartford and from all over the Greater Hartford region the ability to obtain information from the Regional School Choice Office and its partners from each magnet school and become more informed.

Those dates and locations are:

November 20, 9:00-12:00 p.m., A.I. Prince Technical High School, Hartford

November 30, 5:30-8:00 p.m., Avon High School

December 11, 9:00-12:00 p.m., Mary Hooker Environmental Sciences Magnet School in Hartford

December 14, 5:30-8:00 p.m., Hebron Middle School

January 5, 2011, 5:30-8:00 p.m., University of Hartford Magnet School in Hartford

January 12, 2011 from 5:30-8:00 p.m., Granby High School

January 19, 2011 from 5:30-8:00 p.m., Cromwell High School

More information is available on the RSCO Web site at: www.choiceeducation.org

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Connecticut Students Still Waiting For Superman


By Ann-Marie Adams, Op-Ed

It was a noble plan: screen the latest film about America’s failing schools and hope to spark meaningful dialogue in Hartford, Connecticut, home of the nation’s widest academic achievement gap.

Last Wednesday at Bow Tie Cinemas in Hartford, that plan failed.

During the almost two-hour screening of the gut-wrenching documentary, Waiting For Superman, the audience winced, sighed and cried as they watched on screen five families (four are working-class black and Latino. One is white and middle-class) struggle for access to quality education for their children. Except for a few announcements afterward, the audience remained reticent about a film that had received plenty of media buzz.

Education advocates will not give up, however. In the coming months, other reform-minded individuals and groups in Connecticut will use this film as a catalyst for conversations about the lack of progress to fix Connecticut’s failing schools and to eliminate the achievement gap, a catch phrase lobbed around to describe the fact that some students’ national test scores are low and others are not; that more than 50 percent of students in some school districts drop out of high school and even fewer go on to four-year colleges.

Education advocates are also mindful that the storyline in Superman is not new. After watching the film, some parents became frustrated. It didn’t take long for them to realize the documentary was an old story repackaged as something new.

When pressed for comments about what they had seen in the film, the audience sat in awkward silence. Minutes later, one woman from Waterbury punctured that silence. And she was blunt.

“I’ve seen The Lottery. Now this,” she said referring to the other documentary, which tells the story of low-income students in the Newark, New Jersey school district entering a lottery to win spots at top performing charter schools. “I’m not going to anymore of these screenings. I’m frustrated that there is still no change. Let’s talk about the resistance out there.”

No one did.

They talked around it, though.

State Rep. Doug McCrory added:

“Let’s deal with the reality here,” he said. “We have studied the problem. And we know the solution.”

But there was no discussion about what exactly the problem is.

And although Davis Guggenheim’s documentary zeroes in on the political underpinnings of America’s public educational system, it presents an ahistorical view of contemporary poor, black and brown students fighting for quality education.

Davis’s documentary presented the story as though those children’s troubled situation popped up in 2010. However, the reform-minded filmmaker concluded that the issue is complex and the powerful teacher’s union is at the crux of the problem. He might be true. But the lingering problem is that the filmmaker puts that problem in a vacuum and apparently has forgotten that past is prologue.

That’s because America has a history of not educating some of its students; that less than 50 years ago, there were vicious verbal and physical attacks on those who tried to integrate schools after the Supreme Court decided in 1954 that separate schools were unequal and therefore unconstitutional; that immediately there was white flight from city schools after some states implemented the first phase of the Brown remedies.

More than 50 years after the Brown decision, Connecticut has New England’s only ongoing school desegregation case because the state is moving with deliberate speed (translation: slow) to enforce court mandated remedies. Plaintiffs in Hartford’s 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill case will return to Court this month for a status conference about the implementation of the court-mandated remedies.

Those remedial efforts—even though it would benefit all students—are moving at glacial speed, mostly because of a strong resistance to regionalism—a true solution that would give children access and choices to quality schools, many argue.

But there’s a larger—and more insidious– issue at play. And it’s also an inconvenient truth: many people think some students cannot learn, especially students who are black and brown. This sentiment is undeniably the classic definition of racism. Embedded in this notion is that these students are intellectually inferior. And no matter which charter school pops up and produces all college-bound students, intellectual inferiority among these children will persist when they go on to college and enter the workforce. That’s because the idea that some people are inferior is deeply ingrained in the psyche of many white people—and increasingly some black and brown people—that not all students can learn. And there’s nothing soft about this kind of bigotry.

In April 2009 after the Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network ran an episode of Where We Live with host John Dankosky about the 20th anniversary of the 1996 Sheff lawsuit, an anonymous commentator posted this on the radio’s website:

“The cognitive abilities of these poor descendants of agri-workers will not increase no matter where you attempt to educate them for the greater part.”

(See more here—link).

Davis does not address the issues of the kind of race or bigotry displayed by that anonymous commentator, but he chooses instead to focus on the economic implications of this familiar American story about the ongoing struggle for quality education.

In the coming weeks, there will be more forums and debates among whites who have ideas about how to create a solution for everyone, including the majority of black and brown students in “drop out factories.” This kind of paternalistic behavior in Connecticut continues to foster the belief that only whites can be Superman. The students get that. The adults get it, too. But most of them can only silently oppose this kind of showmanship displayed by top business and civic leaders in the area.

But know this: If Connecticut is to close the achievement gap, it ought to start first with candid dialogue with racially and economically diverse stakeholders. As an education reporter and educator, I’ve been to many conversations about education. And I have yet to see that in all the talks and forums I’ve been to in the last decade. Feeble attempts at dialogue will not effect change, nor create an environment for anyone to boldly “speak truth to power.” It’s going to take many current leaders with political will to speak and act boldly

And while we wait for individuals already in key positions to act decisively, Connecticut’s children continue to wait for Superman.

Ann-Marie Adams is a Ph.D. Candidate at Howard University and is writing about the Sheff v. O’Neill lawsuit.



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