On Tuesday, the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued explicit guidance barring schools that receive federal Title IX funds from discriminating against transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
"Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation. Similarly, the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the parties does not change a school’s obligations," the guidance reads.
Human rights advocates are praising the new policy: "We hear from hundreds of students each year who simply want to be themselves and learn at school,” Masen Davis, Executive Director of Transgender Law Center, said in a statement. "Sadly, many schools continue to exclude transgender students from being able to fully participate. Now, every school in the nation should know they are required to give all students, including transgender students, a fair chance at success."
"This guidance is crystal clear and leaves no room for uncertainty on the part of schools regarding their legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination," said Ian Thompson, ACLU legislative representative, in a statement. The ACLU notes that the guidance builds upon the 2012 ruling from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission protecting transgender employees from workplace discrimination.
The Title IX program is a Nixon-era law that bans schools that receive federal funding from engaging in sex discrimination. But the requirement hasn't always extended to transgender students. The Transgender Law Center is currently representing a transgender man who filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the University of Pittsburgh violated his rights under Title IX, among other laws. While he was a student, the university allegedly banned him from using the men's restrooms and later expelled him after he continued using the men's facilities.
Last month, Medrobotics, a corporation associated with Carnegie Mellon University, announced that it will start marketing robotic snakes to surgeons in Europe. These "snakes," when fed down a patient's throat, can help doctors access hard-to-reach locations within the human body during head and neck surgery, leading to faster recovery times.
But this is hardly the only use for robotic snakes, which swim, slither, crawl, and climb much like the real thing. For the past few years, researchers at labs around the world have been coming up with innovative new ways to put these cool (and terrifying!) robots to use. Here's what you need to know:
Who made the first robotic snakes?
Howie Choset, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon, is widely credited with fathering the robotic snake. He cofounded the company that's making the surgical robot snake, and he told the Huffington Post last year that, in fact, he's "afraid of snakes," but he notes that his snake robots are "nice and friendly."
How do robotic snakes move?
According to the Biorobotics Lab at Carnegie Mellon, there are at least 10 main "gaits" robotic snakes perform, including sidewinding, corkscrewing, rolling, swimming, pole climbing, and cornering. The researchers say that they have been able to mimic all "biological gaits" found in snakes, and in some cases, develop those that "go beyond biological capability." Researchers also develop gaits for specific tasks, such as "stairclimbing, gap crossing, reaching into a hole in a wall [and] railroad track crossing." Here is a video of a robotic snake moving up a pole:
Wait, robotic snakes swim?! How?
Robotic snakes are buoyant, so as long as they're covered in waterproof skin, they can skim the top of the water, utilizing wireless control. Other designs can swim entirely underwater—up to 200 feet deep—which is cool if you care about things like getting rid of water pollution, and totally terrifying if you like to go swimming. Here's an example of an underwater robot snake, designed by the Tokyo-based HiBot.
What can robotic snakes be used for?
Robotic snakes have lots of cool uses. For example:
1. Search and rescue
Search and rescue dogs are vital to sniffing out survivors after an urban disaster, like a building collapse or earthquake. But there are places rescue dogs can't reach. That's where the search-and-rescue snake robot—developed by Carnegie Mellon's Biorobotics Lab and Ryerson University's Network-Centric Applied Research Team—comes in. The researchers came up with a method called "Canine Assisted Robot Deployment," whereby once a dog nears a victim, its bark triggers the snake robot to leap from its pack and start wiggling around, providing live video feed for rescuers.
2. Removing pollution from oceans and lakes
Designers at the Fortune Institute of Technology in Taiwan have proposed a way to use robotic snakes to rid bodies of water of harmful metals. The snakes are packed with bacteria that makes these toxins disintegrate. As the snakes "swallow" water, the bacteria break down the pollutants, ultimately draining out clean water. The bacteria also generate electricity that keep the snakes swimming. The idea is still in the early stages of development, but researchers say these robotic snakes could be used to clean up lakes, rivers, and oceans as early as 2020. Whether they will be still sadly swimming the oceans, long after humanity's demise, remains to be seen.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) first developed a robotic snake back in 2009. The robot could be used to survey buildings, sewage systems, and other structures during urban and subterranean warfare, Defense Update reported. According to the news outlet, IDF aimed to use robot snakes to to deposit sensors in buildings to monitor activity and deploy explosives. The US Army has also worked on developing robotic snakes to investigate improvised explosive devices.
4. Inspecting nuclear power plants
Last year, Carnegie Mellon tested one of its robotic snakes at Austria's Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, which is inactive. Researchers hope that robots will be able to investigate the radioactive parts of nuclear plants and storage areas that might be unsafe for humans. According to the lab, their robotic snakes will be able to inspect and capture high-quality footage of "dry storage casks, waste storage tanks [and] piping within nuclear power plants." Hitachi Ltd. and Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy Ltd. also developed snake robots this year to probe one of the Fukushima nuclear plants.
5. Heart surgery
6. Exploring Mars
Researchers in Norway are developing a robotic snake to slither around the surface of Mars and work with a rover to collect samples. Researchers Pål Liljebäck and Aksel Transeth told Discovery News last year that while "the Spirit rover was lost after it became stuck in the sand on Mars," robotic snakes would be able to avoid these kinds of pitfalls. Carnegie Mellon's Choset told ABC News, "The snake robot could travel to cliffs and look underneath overhangs…It could find a crevasse, crawl down it, and extract a sample, which itself could tell us how Mars evolved as a planet."
When an incarcerated pregnant woman in Illinois slept too long through mealtime, a guard decided to punish her by placing her in solitary confinement. While in isolation, the woman—who had a long history of depression—was denied access to her prenatal vitamins and was not given water for hours. She soon became highly anxious. This is one of the disturbing ways that US prisons treat incarcerated women who are pregnant, transgender, mentally ill, or who report that they are raped, according to a new report published Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Many of the reasons women are placed in isolation are highly subjective, the reports notes: "Because many cases come down to the word of a prisoner against the word of a corrections officer, a guard’s bad day can easily turn into a solitary confinement sentence for a prisoner for retaliatory reasons, such as a prisoner’s filing a grievance."
Solitary confinement, where prisoners are isolated for 22-24 hours a day with greatly reduced human contact and access to sunlight, is common practice in US prisons, but its harmful effects are well-documented. A United Nations torture expert said in 2011 that solitary should never be used on people with mental disabilities, and should never last longer than 15 days. In February, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for US prisons to stop using solitary confinement on vulnerable populations, including pregnant women. And recently, the Justice Department sued Ohio for placing mentally ill boys in solitary confinement for excessive amounts of time.
According to the ACLU report, guards sometimes use solitary confinement to retaliate against women who report rape by corrections officers. As we reported in 2010, Michelle Ortiz, who was serving one year at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, alleged that she was sexually assaulted multiple times by a guard. When she spoke out, she was allegedly placed in solitary confinement. In another case, a prisoner named Lisa Jaramillo served more than 100 days in solitary confinement for allegedly lying about incidents of sexual assault.
"Women who have been sexually abused by prison guards are...forced to decide between reporting the attack and risking retaliation, or not reporting it and risking further assault," the report reads. The authors note that the lack of privacy in solitary cells can further victimize women. In solitary, a woman's attacker can closely watch her sleep, use the toilet, or undress.
But that hasn't stopped lawmakers in a number of states this year—including Connecticut, Illinois,New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Washington—from trying to pass vague and confusing laws to ban the game (which is already illegal everywhere assault laws exist). "We already have a lot of laws against punching people and attacking people in the street," notes Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Some of this legislation just lends itself for endless legal appeals."
State Rep. Joe Verrengia, a West Hartford Democrat, says he introduced his Connecticut bill to send "a clear message to the thugs who commit this cowardly act." His legislation makes it a felony—with a minimum two-year sentence—for intending to "cause serious physical injury to another person by rendering such other person unconscious," doing so "without provocation," and causing injury by "striking such other person in the head." (A previous version of the bill said that the injury had to be caused by "a single punch or kick.")
The New Haven Registerreported last fall that there were six alleged knockout-game-style attacks in two days. Breitbart quickly picked up the news. Soon after, Sgt. Al Vazquez of the New Haven Police Department Detective Bureau told the Yale Daily News that the media was perpetuating the trend by continually covering it. Another case in Connecticut that conservative website WNDdeclared an example of the knockout game involved two teenage boys under the influence of drugs who jumped a man, according to local police. The man then allegedly stabbed the boys with a pocket knife, killing one of them.
"I'm not sure we have information indicating that the knockout game, one, was a real problem in this state and, two, is an ongoing problem in this state," another Democrat, state Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven, said at a hearing on the bill. A longtime public defender in Connecticut, "Gideon," who blogs anonymously for the Connecticut Law Tribune, tells Mother Jones that he sees numerous problems with the bill. "This legislation covers acts that are already exactly covered [and it] says that the intent has to be to render someone unconscious. How do you ever prove that?" He adds, "The legislator who proposed this bill couldn't point to a single instance of this knockout game. That should give people pause." (Verrengia did not respond to a request for statistics backing up his legislation.)
A prosecuting attorney testifying for the anti-knockout-game bill in Washington state noted that he had only seen "one or possibly two cases" in Spokane County that would fit the bill's definition, but feared that "it's been in the national news lately, and does appear to be…a trend that is spreading." Five Republican lawmakers sponsored the bill, which passed the state Senate and relevant House committee this year, but failed to get a full House vote before the legislative session ended in March.
The legislation would have made it a felony—punishable by up to five years in prison—to assault a person "randomly without any prior physical or verbal contact in a public place." Legal experts say that the bill's use of the term "random" doesn't make much sense. According to Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, "If, for instance, someone decides to attack someone because that person looks old, looks ugly, or seems defenseless, or is present in a place where there aren't any passers-by who can step in to stop the attack, that wouldn't be random, yet why would such nonrandom elements make the offense any less serious?"
Volokh also finds a serious problem with the South Carolina bill, introduced by Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen from Camden, who is running for South Carolina governor. Sheheen told WSPA.com that he introduced the bill to stop kids from filming the knockout game and posting it on the internet. The bill makes it a felony to film a violent crime, with exceptions for journalists, accidental recordings, or law enforcement. But Volokh notes that the bill doesn't protect bystanders who might record a crime on their phones to preserve evidence, so it appears to be "unconstitutional." The Oklahoma bill also includes a provision banning recording assault, but specifies that it's illegal only if published "on behalf of the attacker."
Many of these new bills also specifically target teenagers. The Republican-backed New York bill, for example, makes it so that juveniles will face prison time of up to 25 years if they are convicted of playing the knockout game. The Oklahoma bill would charge juveniles accused of the crime in adult court, and the Connecticut bill would do the same with 16- and 17-year-olds.
Gideon, the Connecticut defender, says, "What you have, essentially, is an assault of some sort, which is elevated to a different status because of what it represents: urban youth (black or Hispanic) attacking innocent white folk. No legislator will admit it, but the undertones are obvious." He adds, "This is nothing more than pandering to a certain white demographic, and we all ought to be ashamed."
Two abortion providers sued a Dallas hospital on Thursday, after the hospital revoked their admitting privileges. Because Texas law now requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, the revocation would mean that these doctors could no longer legally perform abortions. In a letter to the doctors, Chuck Schuetz, CEO of University General Hospital–Dallas, said they were disrupting the hospital's "business and the reputation" by providing abortions at their own facilities miles away. The lawsuit filed by the doctors, Lamar Robinson and Jasbir Ahluwalia, contends that the hospital discriminated against them because they perform abortions.
Last month, anti-abortion rights activists announced plans to hold a demonstration outside the hospital to protest its association with Robinson. But on March 31, the day before the protest was to take place, Schuetz canceled the doctors' admitting privileges. "Your practice of voluntary interruption of pregnancies...creates significant exposure and damages to UGHD's reputation within the community," Schuetz wrote to Robinson and and Ahluwalia. In the letter, Schuetz characterized providing abortions as "disruptive behavior." He claimed that the hospital was not equipped to treat complications related to abortion and that the doctors were increasing "the probability of malpractice." Robinson and Ahluwalia allege that Schuetz yielded to pressure from anti-abortion rights activists, promising them the hospital would be "pro-life" and not associate with abortion doctors.