Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Verbs, Nouns, Punctuation and Everything In Between

I always wondered how it is the ACLU determined which cases to pursue and which ones to dismiss and I finally found out how today when I was invited to join in on the intake process. The intake process is when the attorneys review complaint forms and then ask the big question: is this a constitutional issue? However, in order for the attorneys to start the intake process, there must be complaint forms, which are forms that people fill out describing an incident which they believe is unjust.

The complaints reviewed during today's intake touched on almost every topic from a driver being pulled over by the police during a traffic stop to prisoners writing the organization about their prison treatment. You would think that the biggest hurdle would be determining if an incident raised constitutional concerns, but in actuality, the biggest struggle was trying to understand the complaint forms.

In 2003, Mississippi education scores (reading and math) were ranked 48th in the nation and those scores were reflected in the forms. One complaint was filed by a high school student who felt he was being treated unequally in his school. I am very sure that to the student, his form made perfect sense, but it took three careful readings of the complaint by about six people to even understand that it had something to do with his high school. Luckily a staff member remembered talking to the student over the phone and could clarify the situation for everyone.

After the attorneys began to debate over whether or not the issue was something worth looking into, I could not help but question how effective a legal organization can be when people are not even educated enough to articulate what is happening to them.

Earlier in the day I was working with Shawna, the awesome Reproductive Freedom Project Director, on Teen Chat. (Teen Chat is the peer sexual health education program spearheaded by the MS ACLU to supplement the lack of sexual health education in the schools). In order to assess what the students already know about sexual health, I designed a pre-test which asked questions such as “True or False: A girl can't get pregnant if she has sex underwater” and “The birth control pill protects a person from getting: a) sexually transmitted diseases, b) pregnant or c) HIV.”

Shawna had warned me that the students from this one particular county did not have superb reading skills and to take this into account when I designed the survey. I took this to heart and tried my best to to not use big words or phrase questions in such a way that would be confusing. Shawna reviewed the surveys I had made and reassured me that they were very good but needed to be simpler. For instance, Shawna wanted me to not use the word “designed” because she noticed that during the program last year any word that had “gn” was confusing to the students; they didn't know how to pronounce those kind of words.

Now knowing how far behind Mississippi is in education, I have yet another item added to my list of things that need to change. After all, how possible will it be have sexual health education in schools if students can't pronounce “diagnosed”?

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