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The Buzz 3/10/11

FARM PHOTO AGENDA State Sen. Jim Norman (R-Tampa) wants to make it a first-degree felony to photograph a farm without first obtaining written permission from the owner. The law was roundly criticized by conservatives, liberals and media experts for violating the U.S. Constitution and potentially making it a felony for someone to photograph cows and horses from the roadside.

Kelly Overton, executive director of People Protecting Animals and Their Habitat, believes Norman has another more dubious agenda. He says that SB 1246 is a dangerous bill for Floridians and food consumers across the nation.
“This is a food safety issue,” said Overton in a phone interview with the IN. “People would want to know if their hospitals, schools and restaurants were not following laws. If there is nothing that violates the law being done at farms and agriculture sites, then what is the fear of it being photographed?”

He believes the law targets whistleblowers who photograph or videotape safety violations at farms and processing facilities. “Have we not learned enough about trusting businesses to look after consumers’ best interests?” said Overton. “What if someone had photographed the safety violations going on atop the Deepwater Horizon prior to the explosion? I think Floridians would be better off today.”

He believes that in the current tough economy, farming operations are cutting costs and that food safety may be at risk. “I’m not some crazy PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) person,” he said. “I am concerned about our public safety. You only have to Google ‘E. coli’ and see the dangers.”

Overton has offered to work for a week side-by-side with Sen. Norman at an animal processing facility. “If there are no concerns about violation of federal regulations/food safety, this is a great opportunity for him.”
If the Florida Legislature passes Norman’s bill, Overton is considering a boycott of all agricultural products from Florida, including fruit and vegetables.

“If we consumers do not have the right to know our food is being produced in a safe environment, then you, the producer, do not have the right to my and millions of other people’s business,” said Overton.

PROTECT RETIREE BENEFITS Protectseniors.org, an advocacy group representing over 14.3 million American retirees who receive health benefits through their former employers, is calling on President Obama to back up his State of The Union pledge not to put current retirees at risk.

Paul Miller, executive director of protectseniors.org, told the IN, “Baby boomers and retirees were ignored during talks about the 2010 healthcare legislation. Last year’s healthcare reform provides incentives for companies to drop retiree prescription plans and supplemental coverage.”

Miller believes that retirees and baby boomers have been made the fall guy for the country’s economic ills. The pensions and post retirement healthcare benefits these retirees receive aren’t entitlements, according to Miller. “They earned their pensions and these benefits in exchange for taking less in salary and vacation time during their working years,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago, they had employment agreements that said if you work longer hours and for less vacation time, the company would then provide you healthcare for life once you retired.”

Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. Many retirees have seen their health benefits cut or in some cases eliminated entirely by their former employers, adding thousands of dollars in expenses to people already on fixed incomes. “These aren’t handouts,” says Miller. “These are earned benefits. The money saved went to the company’s bottom line and into higher and higher profits. So these people are retired and are saying, ‘We kept our part of the bargain, you keep yours.’”
In some cases, companies or divisions are sold off and the new entities have filed bankruptcy to avoid the pension and healthcare liabilities. In Pensacola, former Monsanto employees filed a class-action lawsuit against its spin-off, Solutia, over retiree medical benefits. That lawsuit was settled in 2001. Then Solutia filed bankruptcy in 2003, which put the medical benefits promised in limbo.

According to Miller, these legal attempts to shirk pension and other retiree benefits are becoming more common. “In 2000, companies started to dump, slash and burn their retiree healthcare benefits,” he said. “The Supreme Court has ruled that companies do have the right to change their minds, and we’re taking our case to Congress saying we need legislation to protect these retirees.

“We are urging President Obama and Congress to enact legislation to prevent employers from changing or eliminating post-retirement benefits for someone once they have actually retired.”
Promises made by employers to these retirees for benefits that they earned should be kept. It’s that simple.”

SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE CONTINUES The ACLU of Florida, Advancement Project, and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP has released a report on their study of the ongoing harmful impacts of Florida schools’ “zero-tolerance” policies. The study, entitled “Still Haven’t Shut Off the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s New Zero-Tolerance Law,” shows that although the state took a significant step forward by amending its harsh
zero-tolerance law in 2009, meaningful reform has still not reached most of the schools and students across the state.

SB 1540 revised Florida’s zero-tolerance law by urging Florida schools to limit the use of expulsions and referrals to law enforcement for minor offenses and to address school behavior in less damaging, more developmentally appropriate ways. The law also expressly recognized that zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students, regardless of economic status, race or disability.

However, after studying the school discipline policies of 55 school districts across the state, as well as the available data following the passage of SB 1540, the authors of the study conclude that the implementation of the new law has fallen substantially short of what is needed to adequately address the over-criminalization of Florida’s youth and the over-reliance on exclusionary discipline by Florida’s schools.

“This research shows clearly that, contrary to recommendations of the Department of Juvenile Justice’s Blueprint Commission, many school districts are needlessly referring too many students to the criminal justice system,” stated Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “These policies are called the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ for a reason, and they are funneling our children out of school and into the arms of the juvenile and criminal justice system–denying many Florida children the right to a quality education.”

“Unfortunately, the promise of SB 1540 has been unfulfilled, and this study makes it clear that we need to demand more substance be put into the law,” said Adora Obi Nweze, President of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. “In accordance with the NAACP’s policies, there must be incentives and sanctions in place to motivate our districts to eliminate zero tolerance, develop more humane alternatives that are proven to positively impact school climate and academic success, and eliminate racial disparities.”

The study includes the following data:
Nearly half of all Florida school districts had more or the same number of referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice following the passage of SB 1540 than they had the year before.
67 percent of student referrals to the juvenile justice system were for misdemeanor offenses, meaning there were over 12,000 referrals just for these lower-level offenses.
Racial disparities in referrals to the juvenile justice system actually got worse after the passage of SB 1540.
In spite of the new law, most school districts’ policies still allow for extremely severe punishments–such as arrest, referral to law enforcement, and expulsion–for relatively minor infractions.

In light of these findings, the report concludes with recommendations to the Florida Legislature, Departments of Education and Juvenile Justice, and school districts for the implementation of proven policies and practices that can ensure that Florida public schools provide a safe and effective learning environment for all Florida students.

“Zero tolerance is a failed policy that is both ineffective and counter-productive,” said Jim Freeman, Director of the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project at Advancement Project. “By following the lead of other districts and
schools around the country, Florida can reduce the dropout rate, build safer and more effective schools, limit the number of youth entering the juvenile and criminal justice systems, use the State’s law enforcement agencies more efficiently, save taxpayer dollars, and build healthier communities throughout the state.”