Monthly Archives: August, 2007

Crayon Boxes and Art Sets Recalled for Lead

They really are trying to make us parents of toddlers go insane, aren’t they? From Bloomberg:

Toys `R’ Us Recalls 27,000 Crayon Boxes After Lead Is Found

By Tom Randall

Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) — Toys “R” Us Inc., the biggest U.S. toy-store chain, recalled 27,000 crayon and paint box sets made in China because ink on the wooden cases contains lead.

The recall covers Imaginarium brand 213-piece sets, which include crayons, watercolors, pastels and colored pencils in a light-tan wooden carrying case, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said in a statement. Some of the black watercolor paint also contains “excessive” levels of lead.

The $20 sets were sold at Toys “R” Us stores in the U.S. and at the company’s online store from October 2006 through this month. The safety commission said no injuries have been reported and advised consumers to take the products away from children and return them to a Toys “R” Us store for credit.

Earlier this month, Toys “R” Us pulled baby bibs made by Hamco Inc. and other vendors because some contained too much lead. Hamco manufactures most of its products in China, according to the annual report of parent company Crown Crafts Inc. [full text]

If you would like to sign the “Don’t Lick Elmo” petition to urge Congress to improve product safety, you can go to the Care2 Network petition here.

How NCLB is Robbing Our Most Talented Students

This editorial from The Washington Post highlights concerns raised in an earlier post about the consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act. The Washington Post piece suggests that our best learners are not getting cultivated in the public schools, creating a snowball effect of talented students moving toward private education. From WaPo:

[...] Perhaps if more policymakers sent their children to public schools they would address these unintended but disastrous consequences of No Child. Rather than trying to rectify this situation, however, many politicians advocate a voucher program that would only encourage more parents to desert public education.

Some politicians justify vouchers with the Orwellian claim that taking money from public schools to pay private tuition will improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students. This claim is absurd given the uneven playing field between public and private schools.

Most obviously, private schools can reject any student who would require extra time from teachers. Thus it is left to public schools to handle children with behavior problems or severe learning impairments, and non-English speakers. Until private schools receiving vouchers are required to accept all applicants, vouchers simply allow them to cherry-pick public school students, giving them an insurmountable competitive edge.

Ironically, the private schools to which President Bush and his allies are so anxious to hand public funds are also exempt from the standardized testing these politicians declare to be the critical measure of educational success. Private schools need not impose upon their students the drudgery of preparing for and taking weeks of standardized tests and can offer an enriching curriculum beyond the basics without worrying about No Child sanctions. Given these one-sided constraints, no one could honestly claim that vouchers do anything but drain resources from the public schools this act was supposed to improve.

In adopting the No Child law, Congress finally addressed the shameful neglect of students in failing schools, particularly inner-city schools. Now it must address the fact that the requirements it imposed are driving away many of the concerned and involved parents critical to our ailing public school system. [full text]

Of Necessity, Cancer Society Points Out the Obvious

Kudos to the American Cancer Society for pointing out that the treatment and cure of disease cannot adequately occur when health care is largely inaccessible and unaffordable to tens of millions of citizens. Without a doubt, the health care crisis in this nation is an accessory in the deaths of countless Americans. What will it take for our so-called leaders to stand up, put the common good ahead of the corporate good, and take action?

From the New York Times:

Cancer Society Focuses Its Ads on the Uninsured

In a stark departure from past practice, the American Cancer Society plans to devote its entire $15 million advertising budget this year not to smoking cessation or colorectal screening but to the consequences of inadequate health coverage.

The campaign was born of the group’s frustration that cancer rates are not dropping as rapidly as hoped, and of recent research linking a lack of insurance to delays in detecting malignancies.

Though the advertisements are nonpartisan and pointedly avoid specific prescriptions, they are intended to intensify the political focus on an issue that is already receiving considerable attention from presidential candidates in both parties.

The society’s advertisements are unique, say experts in both philanthropy and advertising, in that disease-fighting charities traditionally limit their public appeals to narrower aspects of prevention or education.

But the leaders of several such organizations, including the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Alzheimers Association, said they applauded the campaign’s message that progress against chronic disease would be halting until the country fixed its health care system.

As in the past, the heart association is using its advertising dollars these days to promote more rigorous exercise and healthier diets. The most recent cancer society campaign encouraged screening for colon cancer, including a memorable commercial in which a diner plucked — and then ate — a lima bean polyp from the intestinal tract he had carved in his mashed potatoes.

But John R. Seffrin, the chief executive of the cancer society, which is based here, said his organization had concluded that advances in prevention and research would have little lasting impact if Americans could not afford cancer screening and treatment.

“I believe, if we don’t fix the health care system, that lack of access will be a bigger cancer killer than tobacco,� Mr. Seffrin said in an interview. “The ultimate control of cancer is as much a public policy issue as it is a medical and scientific issue.� [full text]

Jesus and the Devil down in New Orleans

There was nothing much left on the street but the bar. It was empty except for the Devil, who was able to make the place seem too small just by being there. He was wearing a cheap suit and drinking Caribbean rum — one of his favorites from the old days. He sprawled across his chair and orated across the room to the bartender.

“I got the best job.” he bragged, “I hardly have to do anything, I just go with the flow.”

“Some people say you’re pretty busy here.” the bartender said, pushing up her beehive hair.

“I’m never busy,” the Devil smirked, “I work smart, I have a system. Like this levee breach, once you have the system in place, the results are guaranteed. I just get people to look at the short-term gain.”

The bartender stared at him blankly.

“The short-term gain, Nola,” he laughed. “No new taxes! That’s one of my favorites. We just move some funds from line item A to line item B on the state budget and everyone’s happy. No one’s thinking about the levees, they’re thinking about how their politicians are stealing their tax money — and you bet, the politicians are on the take, I’ve got that covered too. I was there when the Army Corps of Engineers were doing it fast and cheap. I’ve got my guys in the Federal bureaucracy, timid and career-minded. They don’t want to be Chicken Little. I got so much mileage out of greed and denial I hardly even had to play the race card till after Katrina. Then I spread those lies about gangs of rampaging Negroes with guns and the reporters fell for it. The friggin’ Red Cross wouldn’t even go in. What a laugh– they go into Lebanon and Bosnia, but they were scared away from New Orleans when little old ladies were dying in their wheelchairs. The race card is my ace, it never fails.”

Right then, the door opened by itself, and a moment later Jesus walked in.

“What up, bro?” called the Devil, trying to sound Black. It sounded weird coming from him, because he was wearing the aspect of Jerry Falwell.

Jesus sat down next to the Devil. “The usual, Nola,” he said in a voice like violins. The bartender brought him a bottle of Fiji water.

“I love that stuff,” said the Devil, “It’s seriously underpriced when you consider the carbon footprint. Plastic bottle, transport, waste disposal, and those poor Fijians who ain’t got no water now. What a bargain!”

“I appreciate quality.” said Jesus meekly. He passed his hand over his glass and the water turned red as blood.

“Folks giving you credit for all this.” the Devil said, waving his hand at the window where boarded storefronts and weedy lots baked in the sun. “They say you sent Katrina because you don’t like sin.”

“Hey, I took a loss like everyone else.” Jesus said. “I had a church on every block, almost as many churches as you have bars. Anyway, I’m not a weather god, and even if I was, the hurricane didn’t do all this damage. It was the levees.”

The Devil smiled modestly. “You have to know how to work with human nature. Keep them focused on the short-term gain. Invite them to cut corners, steal a little when no one’s looking. I got to give you some of the credit too, keeping their eyes on the hereafter. If they built something for themselves instead of sending their money to our televangelists they might have had some clout. They might have got those levees fixed before the storm. They might have had some buses to take the old people out. But I’m working on a new trick for the race card. Listen to this…”

The Devil sat up straight and deepened his voice, just like a talk-show host. He sounded righteously indignant. “We gave billions of our tax dollars to these people and what good did it do? Murders are up, trash in the streets, they’re chronic, you can’t help them.”

Jesus looked pained. “You know that most of those billions are going to your friends in Washington, or tied up in red tape.”

“Yeah, pretty slick, huh?” chuckled the Devil.

A shadow passed across the door and a small dusty man walked in. He stood waiting for the bartender to notice him. “Nola, cherie, can I have a glass of water?”

“You ever going to buy a drink here, Least?”

Least smiled, a little embarrassed. Nola turned her back on him, and then turned around with a big glass of water with ice and a straw. As Least reached for the glass Jesus and the Devil vanished in a puff of cigar smoke and a whiff of dead carnations. It was as if they had never been.

“How’s the house coming, Least?”

“Got the windows in, Nola, in time for the rain. We’re still in the trailer but it’s getting there. Little by little, shovel by shovel, cherie, step by step we’re coming home.”

Lose a Husband, Get Deported

Here’s an area of immigration law that is sorely in need of reform, as reported by the Associated Press:

Foreign-born widows face deportation

SAN FRANCISCO –Jacqueline Coats’ husband drowned after he dove into a fierce Pacific Ocean riptide to rescue two boys. Now the immigrant from Kenya might be forced to leave the United States because he died before filing her residency application.

She is among more than 80 foreign-born widows across the nation who face possible deportation because their husbands died before immigration paperwork was approved. Some attorneys want to challenge the government’s policy of rejecting green card requests if an immigrant’s American spouse dies before the application is processed. At least one lawyer plans to file a class-action lawsuit.

“This is a wrong that definitely has to be righted,” said immigration attorney Ralph Pineda of Orlando, Fla.

A group of California state lawmakers filed a bill in January asking the Legislature to grant Coats legal status, but similar measures for other immigrants have seldom passed.

“It is an outrage and an injustice to the memory of this courageous hero that his wife should suffer the loss of family and livelihood once again,” said Democratic Assembly member Mary Hayashi.

The government has also generally denied applications for permanent residence — so-called “green cards” — for surviving spouses of U.S. citizens if the death occurs during the first two years of marriage. [full text]

Shocking Stuff About How We Treat Children

The next time I’m feeling sorry for myself for how hard my job can be at times, maybe I’ll go back and reread the article below about the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. No matter how much I sometimes feel like I’m in Dante’s Ninth Circle when I’m at work, this place sounds so much worse. But then, I would never take a job at a place like this because I don’t agree with how they treat their employees or their children. I am willing to accept that for some severely retarded or autistic children, pain may be the only way to get them to stop self-abusive and assaultive behaviors, but I do not believe these practices can be broadened out to work for “higher functioning” children with behavior and mood problems. From Jennifer Gonnerman, writing for Mother Jones:

Rob Santana awoke terrified. He’d had that dream again, the one where silver wires ran under his shirt and into his pants, connecting to electrodes attached to his limbs and torso. Adults armed with surveillance cameras and remote-control activators watched his every move. One press of a button, and there was no telling where the shock would hit—his arm or leg or, worse, his stomach. All Rob knew was that the pain would be intense.

Every time he woke from this dream, it took him a few moments to remember that he was in his own bed, that there weren’t electrodes locked to his skin, that he wasn’t about to be shocked. It was no mystery where this recurring nightmare came from—not A Clockwork Orange or 1984, but the years he spent confined in America’s most controversial “behavior modification” facility.

In 1999, when Rob was 13, his parents sent him to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, located in Canton, Massachusetts, 20 miles outside Boston. The facility, which calls itself a “special needs school,” takes in all kinds of troubled kids—severely autistic, mentally retarded, schizophrenic, bipolar, emotionally disturbed—and attempts to change their behavior with a complex system of rewards and punishments, including painful electric shocks to the torso and limbs. Of the 234 current residents, about half are wired to receive shocks, including some as young as nine or ten. Nearly 60 percent come from New York, a quarter from Massachusetts, the rest from six other states and Washington, D.C. The Rotenberg Center, which has 900 employees and annual revenues exceeding $56 million, charges $220,000 a year for each student. States and school districts pick up the tab.

The Rotenberg Center is the only facility in the country that disciplines students by shocking them, a form of punishment not inflicted on serial killers or child molesters or any of the 2.2 million inmates now incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons. Over its 36-year history, six children have died in its care, prompting numerous lawsuits and government investigations. Last year, New York state investigators filed a blistering report that made the place sound like a high school version of Abu Ghraib. Yet the program continues to thrive—in large part because no one except desperate parents, and a few state legislators, seems to care about what happens to the hundreds of kids who pass through its gates.

In Rob Santana’s case, he freely admits he was an out-of-control kid with “serious behavioral problems.” At birth he was abandoned at the hospital, traces of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol in his body. A middle-class couple adopted him out of foster care when he was 11 months old, but his troubles continued. He started fires; he got kicked out of preschool for opening the back door of a moving school bus; when he was six, he cut himself with a razor. His mother took him to specialists, who diagnosed him with a slew of psychiatric problems: attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Rob was at the Rotenberg Center for about three and a half years. From the start, he cursed, hollered, fought with employees. Eventually the staff obtained permission from his mother and a Massachusetts probate court to use electric shock. Rob was forced to wear a backpack containing five two-pound, battery-operated devices, each connected to an electrode attached to his skin. “I felt humiliated,” he says. “You have a bunch of wires coming out of your shirt and pants.” Rob remained hooked up to the apparatus 24 hours a day. He wore it while jogging on the treadmill and playing basketball, though it wasn’t easy to sink a jump shot with a 10-pound backpack on. When he showered, a staff member would remove his electrodes, all except the one on his arm, which he had to hold outside the shower to keep it dry. At night, Rob slept with the backpack next to him, under the gaze of a surveillance camera.

Employees shocked him for aggressive behavior, he says, but also for minor misdeeds, like yelling or cursing. Each shock lasts two seconds. “It hurts like hell,” Rob says. (The school’s staff claim it is no more painful than a bee sting; when I tried the shock, it felt like a horde of wasps attacking me all at once. Two seconds never felt so long.) On several occasions, Rob was tied facedown to a four-point restraint board and shocked over and over again by a person he couldn’t see. The constant threat of being zapped did persuade him to act less aggressively, but at a high cost. “I thought of killing myself a few times,” he says. [full text]

I recommend people read this full article, as Gonnerman does a nuanced job of showing the complexity of this issue, including how journalists such as Connie Chung were possibly silenced by parents of children treated at the Judge Rotenberg Center. The ending passage is also quite telling. It describes Dr. Israel in the “fix-it” room for the shockers, where he handles one which has the unfortunate problem of going off without pushing the button. I wonder how long the child attached to that device was being shocked for no reason.

There is also a response from Dr. Israel in the comments at the end of the Mother Jones article, in which Dr. Israel asserts that Ms. Gonnerman’s story was rejected by The New York Times Sunday Magazine because it obviously wasn’t balanced journalism. Ms. Gonnerman has stated that the story was rejected by the Times because they they said it lacked sufficient national interest.

Kitty Genovese Dies Again

I never watched Glenn Beck on C.N.N. before, but I tuned in last night. He’s kind of like a car crash — you can’t stop staring. He was going on pompously about a horrifying crime in Minnesota. A woman was beaten and raped in an apartment hallway for hours, and no one who heard her screams came to help, or even picked up the phone to call the police.

Glenn Beck’s opinion was that the people who lived in the apartment, Somali immigrants, need to get Americanized, so they can give up their refugee ways and learn to do the right thing. Political correctness is to blame for letting them keep their culture. Immigrants should learn to help one another, as Americans do.

My reaction, when I heard about the crime, was ‘Oh no, not again.’

In 1964 Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in the hallway of her New York City apartment building. Her neighbors heard her fighting for her life, screaming for help. One turned his tv up loud to drown out the noise. One said, ‘I didn’t want to get involved.’ That was Kitty Genovese’s epitaph. Murdered by a violent attacker and the indifference of her neighbors.

Why had so many people stood by and done nothing while an innocent person was killed before their eyes? ‘Seldom has The Times published a more horrifying story than its account of how 38 respectable, law-abiding, middle class Queens citizens watched a killer stalk his young woman victim without one of them making a call to the Police Department that might have saved her life,’ The Times wrote in an editorial on March 28. It seemed to be too much for everyone to digest, though psychologists had several theories to explain the depressing conduct of the people in Kew Gardens.

People were sick about it. We wondered how we had come to this. What kind of people were New Yorkers? Were they like other Americans? What flaw in human nature lets people keep their heads down, waiting for someone else to take action? It’s an ugly phenomenon, that sheep-like passivity that causes decent-enough people to become complicit in an atrocity. But if any of us searches our soul, we will acknowledge a time when we should have done something, but didn’t.

There were a number of social psychology experiments that were widely discussed in the decade of Kitty Genovese’s murder. Dr. Stanley Milgram induced college students to follow orders, even when they thought they were torturing experimental subjects with electric shocks. Milgram had a sadistic imagination. Some of the students who were conned into ‘torturing’ Milgram’s confederates were so shaken in their sense of themselves that they needed counseling. Another experiment had students taking a test in a room that was slowly filling up with smoke. People sitting at the other desks (who were playing a role for the researchers) seemed to ignore the smoke, and the student subjects, confused and uncomfortable as they were, went along with the group and sat filling out papers as smoke poured from the air vents.

Last week on my street a police officer pulled a toddler and a woman from a crashed SUV just before it caught fire. We love these stories, we would all want to be like that policeman if we saw someone in trouble. Heroic courage is admirable, but not all that rare. It’s one of the good things in human nature.

Human nature also has its perverse side. The group-think that lets us get by every day, that keeps us out of trouble, can lead us into degradation. If we never make trouble, how will we cope when trouble comes to us? If we ignore a cry for help, who will be there for us in our hour of need?

“The Fog of Obfuscation”

From the New York Times (via AlterNet), a nice editorial by Paul Krugman that attempts to “dispel the fog of obfuscation right-wingers use to obscure the true nature of their position on children’s health”:

On the Right, Public Healthcare for Children is a Socialist Plot

Suppose, for a moment, that the Heritage Foundation were to put out a press release attacking the liberal view that even children whose parents could afford to send them to private school should be entitled to free government-run education.

They’d have a point: many American families with middle-class incomes do send their kids to school at public expense, so taxpayers without school-age children subsidize families that do. And the effect is to displace the private sector: if public schools weren’t available, many families would pay for private schools instead.

So let’s end this un-American system and make education what it should be — a matter of individual responsibility and private enterprise. Oh, and we shouldn’t have any government mandates that force children to get educated, either. As a Republican presidential candidate might say, the future of America’s education system lies in free-market solutions, not socialist models.

O.K., in case you’re wondering, I haven’t lost my mind, I’m drawing an analogy. The real Heritage press release, titled “The Middle-Class Welfare Kid Next Door,” is an attack on proposals to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Such an expansion, says Heritage, will “displace private insurance with government-sponsored health care coverage.”

And Rudy Giuliani’s call for “free-market solutions, not socialist models” was about health care, not education.

But thinking about how we’d react if they said the same things about education helps dispel the fog of obfuscation right-wingers use to obscure the true nature of their position on children’s health.

The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. It’s just a matter of historical accident that we think of access to free K-12 education as a basic right, but consider having the government pay children’s medical bills “welfare,” with all the negative connotations that go with that term.

And conservative opposition to giving every child in this country access to health care is, in a fundamental sense, un-American. [full text]

The Great Pretenders

Pretending to be something that you are truly not is inordinately difficult. It is an enterprise that requires great effort and energy and, more often than not, ends in disgrace. Take Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), for example. For who-knows-how-long, he has been pretending to be a straight guy who does not enjoy an occasional rendezvous with anonymous men in the stalls of public restrooms. Unfortunately for Mr. Craig, his true inclinations have been exposed after word got out yesterday that he “pleaded guilty earlier this month to misdemeanor disorderly-conduct charges stemming from his June arrest by an undercover police officer in a men’s restroom at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.” Oops, don’t you just hate when that happens?

Not surprisingly, like many a two-faced fellow nabbed by deceit of his pants, the Senator is denying and minimizing the whole affair. “I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct,” he asserted yesterday, guilty plea and previous allegations notwithstanding. It is doubtful that anyone finds his protests credible. He is still pretending, sharing the lie that he tells to himself to anyone who will listen. How sad.

Mr. Craig is not alone, of course. Our nation’s capital is replete with pretenders. On the same day that the Senator was outed, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales—who has been doggedly pretending to “stand up for the Constitution and the rule of law” instead of the partisan policies of a power-hungry administration—finally succumbed to his many critics and tendered his resignation. Repeatedly exposed as an incompetent toady who has politicized and polarized the Justice Department, Mr. Gonzales has opted not to live the lie anymore. Good for him. And good for America.

But the greatest pretenders of all, Bush and Cheney, remain atop their lofty, if shaky, perches. They are leaders in name alone. True leadership requires considerably more integrity and ability than these hacks have ever demonstrated. They pretend to have our collective back, but—as evidenced by the failures of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, along with the assault on our most cherished liberties and the cancerous growth of economic inequality in this country—they stab us in the back instead. Et tu, brutes?

I don’t know about you, but I am weary of all the deceit. I long for a modicum of honesty and decency from those who serve at the pleasure of the public. I yearn for leaders whose good intentions exceed their foul pretensions. Is that too much to ask?

Abstract Promises and Concrete Problems

Geoff Schoos writes this week about the concrete plant battle and all the litigation it has created, referring to it as a possible “lawyer’s relief program.” His piece is excellent in its description of the August press conference for the residents opposed to the plant, where they were joined by the American Lung Association of New England and several other organizations. What I found most valuable about the piece was how it shed light on the ways in which our local and state governments are failing to do what have promised to do. From The Cranston Herald:

[...] It did not have to come to this. If the city had changed its zoning laws, as required by state statute, to conform to the Comprehensive Plan approved and adopted in 1992, the land would currently be zoned as open space. There is little question that there would not be a controversy over a misplaced concrete facility today.

In the 2006 election campaign, the mayor promised that if elected, he would investigate the issuance of that building permit and revoke it if it were determined that any impropriety occurred. He said that on Nov. 1, 2006. I know – I was there. To date, no serious investigation into the matter by either the administration or the City Council has been conducted.

In March 2007, after the mayor agreed to the consent order and to do nothing pending the ZBR hearing of the CCRZD’s appeal of the issuance of the building permit, the mayor’s director of administration told the Eden Park residents gathered outside Judge Indeglia’s courtroom that a ZBR hearing could be held by the end of April. He told the residents that the city was committed to a quick resolution of the issue. I know – I was there as well. Last week he stated that the ZBR could hear the issue as early as this fall.

It’s no wonder that people feel like pawns in the game. They justly feel like victims of a government that forgot Immanuel Kant’s admonition to “always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.� [full text]

Schoos starts his piece off with a quote from John Locke — “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” The actions of our state and local leadership speak much louder than their words, and their actions are about talking the talk but not being able to walk the walk. The Comprehensive Plan of 1992 promised to designate the area open space, but that didn’t happen. Mayor Napolitano promised to do an investigation of the building permit given to Cullion, but that hasn’t happened. The DEM promised to hold a public hearing in July to allow residents to voice their opposition to the concrete plant, but that didn’t happen. The pattern of lack of follow-through is obvious. And they count on your apathy — the public’s unwillingness to hold them accountable — to do things like this.

Don’t let them get away with not listening to the public about the problems being created by the location of the Cullion concrete plant. Write a letter to the DEM. Do your part to hold our elected and appointed officials accountable.

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