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High Schools in America Teaching Intolerance?; Stun Guns Overused by Police?

Aired January 9, 2007 - 20:00   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everybody. Thank you so much for joining us tonight.
Across America, racism and intolerance lurk just below the surface. And, every night, we're finding and talking about these hidden secrets, bringing them right out into the open.

Tonight: pulling the trigger -- allegations that police are way too eager to use stun guns and too often use them against minorities.

Also: pillow angel -- your response has us taking another look at the story of parents who have stunted the growth of their severely disabled daughter.

And are high schools teaching intolerance? We're going to hear from a gay student, a hearing impaired student, and a young woman who pretended to be overweight, all of them exposing the hidden intolerance in schools all across the country.

The first story we're bringing out in the open tonight involves allegations that police are overreacting and overusing their stun guns. Now, you might be tempted to ask, what's the big deal? At least they aren't using real guns. But, all over the country, we are seeing complaints that officers are zapping people, especially minorities, in questionable circumstances.

Ed Lavandera found a surprising example in Houston, Texas.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): On a November afternoon a 6'4'' black male weighing more than 300 pounds was pulled over on a Houston highway for failing to use his signal to change lanes.

Police say, the driver became verbally combative, and then made a threatening move toward the officers, so one officer Tasered him. He dropped to the ground. The driver turned out to be Fred Weary, a lineman on the Houston Texans football team.

CHARLES DAVIDSON, ATTORNEY FOR FRED WEARY: I think the police, these two officers, drew the completely wrong impression and decided they were going to stop with this guy and they were going to jack with him.

LAVANDERA: Weary's attorney says he's left wondering if race played a role in the altercation.

Weary was charged with resisting arrest, but a judge dismissed the charges. The case has triggered a high-profile controversy, raising questions about whether Houston police officers are unfairly using the Taser weapon against African-American suspects.

(on camera): According to the department's statistics, in the last two years, 63 percent of all suspects Tased by Houston police officers were African-American. But that number represents less than 1 percent of the total number of arrests made during that time.

(voice-over): The mayor is asking for an independent review of how the department uses the weapon. Until the report is complete, City Councilwoman Ada Edwards is calling for a moratorium on the use of Tasers.

(on camera): When you look at those statistics, someone who might say, oh, maybe it's just a coincidence, you don't see that?

ADA EDWARDS, HOUSTON, TEXAS, CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: I don't think that -- if it was 60 percent white males in that age group, I don't think that it would be looked at as a coincidence. I think people would at least like to know why.

LAVANDERA (voice-over): Police Chief Harold Hurtt says race does not play a factor in Taser incident. He says that because disenfranchised minorities are more likely to interact with police, that that explains why more African-Americans have been Tasered. Fifty percent of all suspects arrested by Houston police in the last two years were black.

HAROLD HURTT, HOUSTON, TEXAS, POLICE CHIEF: We're not indiscriminately going out, selecting individuals, and Taser them. We are, in most cases, 60 percent of the cases that we use them against African-American males, or black males, as a result of calls from people in the community or their own family.

LAVANDERA: Supporters of the Taser even suggest that the weapon has saved lives.

Houston City Councilman Adrian Garcia worked as a police officer for 24 years. He says, since the Taser was employed on the force, there have been 40 cases where police officers could have used their gun, but instead used the Taser.

ADRIAN GARCIA, HOUSTON, TEXAS, CITY COUNCIL MEMBER: The Taser, I had understood it, would be a alternative to a firearm, that it would be a device that could be used to prevent a physical confrontation from escalating into a deadly-force confrontation.

LAVANDERA: Officers stunned Fred Weary with two Taser shots. Houston police say the officers acted properly. But Weary says the Taser shot numbed half his body, and that was more painful than anything he's ever experienced on the football field.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Houston. (END VIDEOTAPE)


ZAHN: And Fred Weary joins me now.

Fred, do you think you were Tasered and treated the way you were treated because you're a black man?

FRED WEARY, NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE PLAYER: I don't know exactly, you know, what reason were in those two officers' minds that day.

I mean, it's -- a conclusion can be drawn about it, you know, from looking at what they said about the incident and what they said about the situation.

ZAHN: How would you characterize what your behavior was once you got pulled over? You -- you were pretty mad, weren't you, that you got stopped in the first place?

WEARY: I wouldn't say I was mad. I mean, I was a little concerned.

You know, after being followed, and, you know, really thinking they were, you know, kind of messing with me, you know, I was a little concerned about just the way that, you know, they followed me for I think it was about five or six miles. Looking our my rearview mirror, I saw that they made a move to get into traffic.

And I knew right then that they were going to get behind me and follow me, to pull me over, or, you know, do something at that point.

ZAHN: Describe how it felt the minute you were penetrated by the stun gun?

WEARY: I mean, it knocked me down. It knocked me to my car door. You know, my body, it was just, you know, spasming up, from the, you know, electricity and the voltage and everything.

And it's -- you know, it's a, you know, terrible feeling. I don't think I felt anything like that in my life. You know, I have been playing football a long time, and I think that's probably the -- my worst blow I ever took.

ZAHN: Do you think, had your two arresting officers been black, you would have been Tasered?

WEARY: I don't think so.

ZAHN: And why?

WEARY: I think that they probably would have handled the situation a little different.

ZAHN: What does it mean to you that, in the city of Houston, that, in 63 percent of the cases involving the use of Taser guns, blacks were involved, when, in fact, they make up some 25 percent of the general population?

WEARY: You know, I didn't know that and everything up until this situation, and all. But I mean, that's -- that's -- that's very concerning. And I think that's something that needs to be looked at.

ZAHN: We appreciate your joining us. Thank you.

WEARY: Thank you. Appreciate it.


ZAHN: And that was Fred Weary.

Let's see what tonight's "Out in the Open" panel has to say about all of this. Amy Holmes is a Republican political strategist, and was a speechwriter for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Michael Eric Dyson is a humanities professor at the University of Pennsylvania. And Michelangelo Signorile hosts his own show on the Sirius Satellite Radio Network.

Good to see all of you.

I think one of the things we need to make very clear, there are varying accounts from the police officers about how he behaved. They said he was verbally aggressive. In -- in one case, they thought he was being physically aggressive, almost pushing, they claim, one of the cops towards the traffic.

He denies that he ever was at all combative. But, had he been arrested by black officers, do you think he would have been Tasered?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: Maybe not. I think that -- although the distinction is not simply between black and white. Sometimes, it's between black and blue. Police officers tend to act with a group mentality, depending upon the circumstances and depending upon their training.

But what's striking to me, what can't be debated, Paula, are the statistics. If 60-some percent of people who are Tasered happen to be African-American people, this would be unacceptable among white men would the same number prevail.

There's got to be some preset stereotypical representation of what a big black guy -- and he's a big guy. So, that kind of thing certainly plays a role in who gets Tasered and who doesn't.

ZAHN: All right. But let's -- let's talk about what the Houston police chief was saying, who is black himself.

DYSON: Sure.

ZAHN: He's saying, yes, that statistic is true, but you need to understand that more black people come in contact with law enforcement than white people. There are more arrests of black people... AMY HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: That's right, Paula.

ZAHN: ... the majority of the arrests.

HOLMES: And what we do know is that Houston uses a technique called STOP (ph), where they have targeted enforcement in high-crime areas. And, unfortunately, those areas tend to be disproportionately minority.

So, it could be, as the police chief argues, that the rate of Tasering tracks the rate of law enforcement in these communities.

MICHELANGELO SIGNORILE, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: But -- but the larger problem is the use of the Taser for compliance, not because of a threat.

And, when you're using it for compliance, just because somebody is mouthing off or, you know, behaving in a way that you don't like, you're going to be making assumptions. And that gets to what was said, that -- that you're making stereotypical assumptions about a big black man, who is going to, you know, maybe do something, but he hasn't done anything yet.

And, if it was a firearm that they were using, instead of a Taser, they would never have...


ZAHN: The facts are so disputed in this case.


ZAHN: And we need to acknowledge that.


ZAHN: Could there have been something provocative? When the cops say it took three requests for him to actually get his license out of his wallet, could that have been...

DYSON: Well, it might -- it might have -- it might have been the case...


ZAHN: ... the sheer act of pulling something out of the wallet look provocative at the time?


DYSON: It might have been the case. But here's the point, too. That still doesn't get us off the hook.

What you construe as provocative is predicated upon, depends upon what you see as threatening and who you associate that with. A white guy making the same gesture may not be -- I'm not saying it's necessarily the case -- may not appear as provocative or threatening.

And then to this case that black people come into greater contact with police, well, I guess so, if you target them specifically. And we know that high-crime-rate areas should be targeted.

HOLMES: But...

DYSON: If you go out into suburbia cases where they exist, then, you might have a lot more white people come into contact with the police.

HOLMES: And let's jump in here.


ZAHN: But -- but -- but let's look at the statistic. In Houston, they're saying less than one-half percent of those arrested have any contact at all with a Taser gun. So, you're really talking about a -- a tiny sliver here.

HOLMES: Tiny percentage. But...

DYSON: Unless you have been Tasered.

HOLMES: But I think we can actually look at the original...

ZAHN: Well, I -- I understand that.

HOLMES: ... cause of this, which was, all he was doing was changing lanes without signaling. Now, we can look at...

ZAHN: He also was missing a license plate on the front of the car.

HOLMES: He was missing a license plate. We don't know the particulars of when they saw that license plate, before they pulled him over or after.

I think most people would say nobody deserves to be Tasered simply for switching lanes. And I would actually ask the question, had that driver been white, would they have pulled him over just for switching lanes without blinking?

SIGNORILE: And the Taser is supposed to be used as an alternative to a firearm. And I think the question here is, if they would not have pulled out a gun at that point, would they -- should they have been using the Taser? And I don't think they would have pulled out a gun. I don't think they would have subdued him in that way.

ZAHN: Would you like to see the use of stun guns curtailed all over the country? Is that what you're suggesting?

SIGNORILE: No. What we need are uniform guidelines across the country. And police departments everywhere have all different guidelines. They haven't been taught how to use it. The company selling these Tasers are marketing them in a way -- I mean, right now, they have put out a designer Taser for the average person to buy soon.

So, they're really pushing them on police departments, without providing -- and the police departments are not and the cities are not providing guidelines.

DYSON: I think they need to reduce them. And, then, secondly, they need better training. And, thirdly, they need community relations.

I think community policing results in the best kind of relationships between African-American and other minority populations and the police department.

ZAHN: Let's remember, in closing, though, that Mr. Weary himself did not accuse these cops of being racist, and says you could come to that conclusion...

DYSON: Right.

ZAHN: ... but he is still waiting for this case to be investigated.

HOLMES: Right.

DYSON: He's a ballplayer.

He's -- there -- there are consequences in apoliticism all over.

ZAHN: All right, Amy Holmes, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelangelo Signorile, please stand by. I will be talking to all of you in just a little bit.

First, though, we are going to do a follow-up of a story about some parents' very controversial decision. They gave their severely disabled daughter drugs to stunt her growth, so she will be easier to take care of. Can anyone defend that decision?

And, then, a little bit later on, high school intolerance, including one school that won't let a hearing-impaired boy bring his service dog to class.

We will be right back with more. Please stay with us.


ZAHN: The story we brought you last night about the girl whose parents call her their pillow angel is bringing some incredibly emotional reaction out into the open.

The little girl from Seattle is known only as Ashley. She's 9 and is severely brain damaged, unable to do anything more than simply lie on a pillow, and unable to develop past the mentality of an infant.

Well, the controversy exploded after her parents decided to stunt her growth, using radical surgery and hormone treatments. They think her childlike size will make it easier to take care of her and will also improve her quality of life.

But not everyone sees it that way.

Medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen has been sorting through some strong opinions on the Internet.

What are they saying on the blogs tonight?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Paula, strong, to say the least.

It seems like everyone who blogs these days has an opinion about what these parents have done to Ashley. Namely, they had her uterus removed. They made sure that she will never grow breasts. They have made sure that she will stay around 75 pounds for the rest of her life.

Some of the most scathing criticism, interestingly enough, has come from other parents of severely disabled children, who say: We would never even dream of doing something like this to our child.

Let's take a look at this first blog, a woman who goes by the alias nufsaid. She had to say: "Ashley's parents need to be charged with child abuse. Her -- quote, unquote -- 'physicians' need to be locked up for life for mutilation. I am just revolted."

Another mother of a severely disabled child said: "My son is 11, doesn't walk, doesn't talk, et cetera, et cetera. I don't understand. I don't understand removing healthy tissue and functioning organs. Growing is not a sin or a disease. It's what kids' bodies do, even disabled bodies."

Paula, one theme of the criticism that you see on blogs is that these parents that -- the -- the critics say, did this for their own convenience; they did this so that Ashley would just simply be easier to take care of.

And parents that I talked to said: Look, my child is now 150 pounds. They're teenagers, and I manage to carry them around. These parents can do that, too.

Ashley's parents say, that's not why they did it. They said, Ashley will be happier, will be more comfortable at a smaller size -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, Elizabeth, it -- it is not just the parents of disabled children that are blasting this couple. You also have pretty heated criticism coming from disabled people themselves. What do they have to say?

COHEN: Well, they seem to identify, of course, in many ways with Ashley. They say: She's disabled. I'm disabled.

Of course, if they're able to write a blog, they're not as disabled as Ashley is.

But here's what one young man had to say. His name is David. He has severe cerebral palsy, and he has a Web site that's called Growing up with a disability. And he said: "I have a severe disability. I cannot sit up by myself. I cannot walk. I cannot go to the bathroom independently. I have been disrespected and mistreated at times in my life. My parents have always gone to bat for me, and now with me. What strikes me tonight about the Ashley treatment and has brought me to tears is that the very people in all of our -- in our society whom this child should trust have betrayed her."

This is very similar to what many people with disabilities have written on their blogs -- Paula.

ZAHN: But you have also seen some positive things written about this family and the very difficult choice they made, along with, I -- we should say, doctors and a team of medical ethicists.

COHEN: That's right. It wasn't just the parents. Obviously, the doctors consented to do this. And they did this after consulting an ethics board at their hospital.

So, this was a decision that was done over quite a long period of time. And, so, there have been people who are supportive of the parents, some of them other parents of disabled children. But a lot of people just in the general public have been quite -- quite supportive.

Let's look at two comments from the Web site. One woman said: "We want our children to be happy. And, in the face of such a heartbreaking disability, why wouldn't we do everything in our power to obtain that happiness?"

Another person wrote: "I would challenge anyone -- I would challenge anyone who criticizes them to spend a day, a month, or a year providing daily -- no, hourly -- love and nourishment and care from such a human being."

ZAHN: Well, we are going to talk more about this...

COHEN: Paula.

ZAHN: ... Elizabeth Cohen, with a -- a man who himself has a disabled son.

Elizabeth, thanks.

We're going to move on to that now.

There are many parents who care for children like Ashley. Attorney Stephen Rosenbaum's son, David (ph), is nearly 21 years old with severe mental retardation. He can't walk. But he does attend public school with an aide. Stephen Rosenbaum is an attorney who specializes in disability cases, and he joins me now.

Thanks so much for being with us.


ZAHN: So, you, more than anybody else, can understand the challenges this family has had in taking care of Ashley. Do you support their decision to stunt her growth, because they say, ultimately, it will improve her quality of life, and make it easier for them to take care of her?

ROSENBAUM: Paula, I have a lot of compassion for this family. And I'm not here to shoot darts at them.

I think it was a very difficult position. I'm concerned that some of the information-givers and some of the helpers in this child's life and in this family's life, the doctors, the ethicists, the teachers, the therapists, the social workers, didn't tell them that there are other options out there besides this.

ZAHN: What would have been some of those options they should have considered?

ROSENBAUM: That they should know that Ashley has a right to develop as a human being. We talk about self-determination in the disability rights and independent living movement.

There are ways. There are supports that are out there. There are services in our school districts, in our hospitals, in our communities. There are teachers and therapists and other professionals and what we call natural supports and family members and friends who are out there to help this child develop into a young person and a young adult, whatever her capacity may be.

ZAHN: Are you convinced, though, that that would have improved her quality of life, because her parents, in their blog, make it pretty clear that they think that the only way to have preserved what little quality of life she has today was by stunting her growth?

ROSENBAUM: I don't think we can presume what -- to talk about what her quality of life would be. I don't think any person can talk about another person's quality of life.

We have to respect the fact that disability -- as our own Congress recognized in the Americans With Disabilities Act, disability is a natural condition. We're now living in the year 2007. This family is in Seattle, in a developed, Western, industrialized country. There are resources out there -- not enough, and not enough money. But there's a changing viewpoint, a changing philosophy and social viewpoint that will give support and possibilities to Ash -- Ashley and her family.

ZAHN: On their Web site, Ashley's parents say that this procedure will allow her to be carried, held, and shown affection much more easily. Aren't those important things in her life?

ROSENBAUM: Paula, of course they're important. We want to show affection for our children, for all of our children. But any adult child, you don't cuddle an adult child. She can't be a doll for the rest of her life. There are ways to express intimacy and affection for adult children.

We have wheelchairs, which are improving with technology all the time. So, a child and a young adult need not be carried around. There are ways to enhance her mobility. There are ways to relate to her, to communicate with her. And, all the time, we have people in our research institutions, in our schools, and in our society who are working harder and harder, with academic research, with practical application and technology, to make life a little bit easier.

We need to find more funding and resources, but we need to strive in that direction.

ZAHN: So, Stephen, had this procedure been available and -- and supported, the idea of doing it, by a medical team, would you ever have considered it for your son 10 years ago...


ZAHN: ... 15 years ago?

ROSENBAUM: No, I wouldn't, Paula.

And it's been difficult for my wife and I. And I don't want to deny that for a moment. It's been a very difficult period. There are some bright moments. There are some dark moments. And, so, it's rough. And, again, I empathize with any family that has to go through this.

But we need to become an interdependent -- as much as an independent society, we need to become an interdependent society, and find ways that we can help each other through these processes, and not by artificially limiting a person's abilities and growth.

ZAHN: Stephen Rosenbaum, we really appreciate your perspective tonight. Thanks.

ROSENBAUM: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate it.

We want to bring out tonight's "Out in the Open" panel back into the conversation. Is this a case where no one can judge a parent's decision without being in their shoes? I will ask our panel next.


ZAHN: Welcome back.

You just saw the emotional reaction to the idea of surgically preventing a severely disabled child from becoming an adult. Now I want to turn to our "Out in the Open" panel, Republican strategist Amy Holmes, professor Michael Eric Dyson, and Sirius Satellite Radio host Michelangelo Signorile.


SIGNORILE: That's it.

ZAHN: But I'm going to call you Mike tonight...

SIGNORILE: Mike is fine, yes.

ZAHN: ... because we're new best friends here.

So, Amy, we have seen this family eviscerated in the blogs. People are calling this surgery mutilation. They say these parents are playing God, along with the -- the team of doctors and medical ethicists that agreed that this was the right thing to do.

Do you understand that criticism?


ZAHN: Or do you agree with it?


And I have to say, Paula, I find this deeply disturbing, like something out of a Ray Bradbury novel. I thought that Mr. Rosenbaum in the -- before the break, had some very thoughtful things to say.

And we -- I think we have to remember that this surgery was entirely elective. And it's based on a subjective and -- determination by the parents of whether or not this child...

ZAHN: Isn't that the way a lot of surgery is?

HOLMES: Yes, but this is irreversible.

Her bones are fused. She's had her uterus removed. She's had her breasts -- or budding breasts, as they say -- removed. I -- I'm just very uncomfortable with this. And I think that that first reaction is -- is the right one.

ZAHN: Do you think these parents were justified...

SIGNORILE: This is...

ZAHN: ... to go through this procedure?

SIGNORILE: ... such a wrenching thing for any of us to think about. And none of us can judge these parents.

Now, I would never say, this is what should be done in every single case like this. It has to be a case-by-case basis. They went to ethicists. They spoke with doctors. It is about her quality of life. And it's about whether or not they're going to be able to take care of her when she's older. If she grows bigger, it's going to be difficult. And I think...

ZAHN: Does she have the right to what Dr. -- Mr. Rosenbaum was saying, the right to self-determination?

SIGNORILE: Well, but they're already determining.

They have a feeding tube in her. Medical technology has made that available. If we didn't determine that she should be alive, she would not be alive. So, of course, she is in their care. And she doesn't have self-determination. She's only the mind of a -- of a, you know, less than 1-year-old.

And I think these decisions have to be made in consultation with ethicists. And I think they did a difficult, but something none of us can judge.

ZAHN: Do you think this is a slippery slope?

DYSON: Oh, absolutely.


ZAHN: And -- and, first of all, do you support what the parents did?

DYSON: Look, I'm -- I'm torn on this.

On the one hand, you know, I have a Ph.D. in ethics. So, I understand the -- in religious ethics -- I understand the critical considerations you have to give to what decision you make about another human being.

Other-abled people, so-called disabled people, have argued that: We have a right to self-determination, and we have a right to live our lives out as full and as flourishing as the context and circumstances of our lives provide.

However, the question is for these parents, who have to take care of these -- this child, of Ashley. Ashley is not just a cog in the machinery of somebody's medical ethics. She's a person. How do you determine personhood? How do you determine identity?

It's very difficult. Unless you walk in somebody else's bedpan, unless you understand what it means to change them and to deal with that child, you don't know the -- the wrenching, gut-tearing...

ZAHN: All right.

DYSON: ... circumstances to try to deal with that.


ZAHN: But, on the other hand, you feel that there is a potential downside to this...

DYSON: Well...

ZAHN: ... as other parents see this procedure taking place.

DYSON: ... of course.

ZAHN: What is it that you fear?

DYSON: Well, one thing you fear is that this will be rapidly proliferated; a lot of people who have access to it will end up doing it. That's what you feel on the one hand.


ZAHN: This is a very rare condition.


DYSON: Well, but -- but it is...

ZAHN: But are you talking about making a similar decision...

DYSON: About other areas.

ZAHN: ... with other -- when someone is...


ZAHN: ... mentally compromised...


DYSON: It's an analogous situation for other medical procedures that are -- that are severe and that demand extreme intervention and intrusion by the -- by medical professionals. That's what I'm saying. It's very difficult.

HOLMES: But let's also say that this is irreversible for the parents speculating that they may have trouble being able to deal with her, if she were to become fully grown.

ZAHN: But they didn't make this decision in a vacuum.

HOLMES: They didn't. But they did go to the doctors. And the doctors' first reaction was horror and recoiling at the idea of doing this.

I think that it's important to remember, medicine -- the first principle of medicine is to, first, do no harm. And medicine is supposed to be allowing the person to be growing into a full person. And, in this case, I mean, we're using the words...


HOLMES: ... "stunting her growth." DYSON: Well...

SIGNORILE: Her condition is irreversible.

DYSON: Right.

SIGNORILE: She will always be in this condition. And there were many doctors who supported their decision.

And none of us could possibly understand what it was that they went through. And none of us could understand what she is going through. For any of us to make this decision for them, I think, is.

HOLMES: But I'd like to jump in there because the parents did -- they did start their own blog. They call it the "Ashley Treatment". And it was -- the purpose is to reach out to other parents who might be dealing in similar circumstances. So they have invited our criticism and our analysis.

DYSON: But they've also tried to...

ZAHN: But they're not trying to convince other parents to do it. They're sharing.

DYSON: ... but they're looking for help otherwise. Look, they had a panel of medical experts and ethicists. You can have an ethicist that will say it's a good thing. You can have an ethicist that says it's a bad thing. So we don't know. Ultimately, it is irreversible. But her condition was irreversible. So what do we do in the light of the fact that these parents have to hour by hour take care of Ashley and deal with her? We don't know the difficulty of doing that.

ZAHN: Quick short answer from all of us. If this had been your child, could you have made the same decision?

SIGNORILE: Wrenching, wrenching decision...

ZAHN: Would you have possibly made the same decision?

SIGNORILE: I think I could have based on...

ZAHN: And what about you, Mike?

DYSON: I don't know.

ZAHN: You don't know.

HOLMES: I think the parents deserve tremendous compassion for taking care of her in and out every day. A lot of parents would have walked away from this. But I don't think that's a decision I could have made.

ZAHN: All right, you three. We'll be coming back to you a little bit little later on because there's a lot more to talk about. Coming up, schools are supposed to set an example to help our children grow up to be good citizens. We hope. Coming up, we're going to bring some questionable lessons out into the open. Why won't another school allow a hearing impaired boy to bring his specially trained dog to class? You'll hear the debate when we come back.


ZAHN: Let's bring a single emotionally charged word out into the open: fat. A new poll just out today shows obesity as the top child health issue for most Americans. But overweight people often face major prejudice, as you're about to see in an outrageous experiment by a young high school girl.

Ali Schmidt (ph) had her doubts about fat people who complain about cruel treatment until she put on a fat suit that instantly made her look as though she weighed 250 pounds. That's when she got an unexpected shock.


ALI SCHMIDT, WENT UNDERCOVER AS OBESE TEEN: I felt like kids were just looking at me and basically judging me by my looks and basically just making fun of me because that's what they do and because fatness is so -- such a joke now. It's just something that's made fun of. It's like -- something like race. People don't go like, "Haha, you're white," or, "Haha, you're black." They see a fat person and they think that they have the right to laugh at them.


ZAHN: That experience as an overweight teen was chronicled in an ABC news documentary and was the inspiration for a TV movie called "To Be Fat Like Me", which aired just last night.

Ali Schmidt is now in college, and she joins us tonight.

What a project.

SCHMIDT: I know.

ZAHN: Now, we should explain that you wore the fat suit for 20 hours. You had expected to wear it much longer.

SCHMIDT: Much longer than that.

ZAHN: But the experience was so degrading, so demoralizing you told the producers, "I can't handle any more."


ZAHN: What was the worst part of that experience?

SCHMIDT: I think the worst part of the experience was actually walking through the lobby of my hotel maybe, you know, ten minutes after I had finished getting all the suits on. And this 45 year-old man said to his friend, "Oh, my god, look at the junk in that trunk." And that was when I first realized how degrading this experience would actually be.

ZAHN: So you were teased, you were mocked.

SCHMIDT: Completely.

ZAHN: You thought you were discriminated against.


ZAHN: In the past, before you had sort of gone through this, I guess, sensitivity training that you witnessed in less than a day, did you think overweight people played the victim too often?

SCHMIDT: Yes. I mean, to be honest, I would make a fat joke every once in a while. I'd never be overtly mean to anybody. But I did discriminate myself against overweight people just because I looked at obesity as a choice, which is now what I see it is not.

ZAHN: Because you think some people's metabolisms are so compromised that no matter how they change their diet, they're not going to change their 250 pound body to 120 pound body.

SCHMIDT: And there are so many psychological factors that go into obesity that people just don't account for.

ZAHN: Tell us about the other discrimination you witnessed in that short window of time. We heard about the cruel language people used.


ZAHN: What else did you witness?

SCHMIDT: Well, boys would use cruel language. Boys would say, "Blub-blub." Boys would say, "Earthquake."

Girls, on the other hand, were completely silent. They wouldn't look me in the eye. They wouldn't listen to anything that I was saying when I was trying to help them. And one girl admitted after the show that it would be committing social suicide to even talk to me.

ZAHN: Do you think you had any appreciation for the discrimination that takes place against folks that are overweight?


ZAHN: Help us better understand this fight that's playing out between Rosie O'Donnell and Donald Trump. It's gotten very personal, pretty vicious language being shot back and forth. But he pretty much has called her fat.

SCHMIDT: Yes. I think that's terrible. When I first heard about it, I was completely shocked because I look at him as a respectable human being. And now I can't anymore.

ZAHN: But you hear a lot of people use that word and use it disparagingly.

SCHMIDT: I do. I do. But I just didn't expect it to be so overt from such a public man. And I think that's really harmful for Rosie, because he really doesn't understand what it's like to be overweight and all the trials and all the psychological issues that follow.

ZAHN: What do you think is the most powerful lesson people can learn from your experience?

SCHMIDT: That you need to be more empathetic, that you need to understand that an obese person is an actual human being and not an object of ridicule.

ZAHN: Well, Ali Schmidt, I think we've all learned from you tonight.

Thank you for your time.

SCHMIDT: Thank you.

ZAHN: Good luck at Amherst, where she is now in her freshman year.

We have found another case involving high school and intolerance. Coming up in this case, a hearing impaired boy wants to bring his service dog to class. So why are school officials saying no way?


ZAHN: The next story we're bringing out in the open tonight is about a teenage boy with a disability. He lost his hearing when he was just 10 months old, and now he wants to bring his hearing dog -- that's like a seeing eye dog for the blind -- to school with him.

Seems simple enough, but school officials say absolutely not. Is this intolerance, or is something else going on here? We sent Deborah Feyerick to find out.


DEBORAH FEYERICK, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When 14-year- old John Cave tried to bring his new hearing aid dog to class this week, school officials on Long Island blocked the ninth-grader, telling his mom ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The dog is not permitted in school.

NANCY CAVE, MOTHER: Under what law?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As per the superintendent of schools.

FEYERICK: John's parents, Nancy and John Sr., are now fighting the school, saying banning the dog is outrageous.

N. CAVE: I was horrified, because this is blatant violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

FEYERICK: John, who lost his hearing as an infant, has had implants put into his ears, and now hears about 75 percent that of a person with normal hearing.

JOHN CAVE, HEARING-IMPAIRED STUDENT: Having the school do this to us, I think they're not being fair. They're not showing me any respect.

FEYERICK: The family waited more than a year for Simba, who arrived in December. Since then John, nicknamed JT, and the dog have been bonding. Simba acting as JT's ears.


FEYERICK: Now when anyone calls John, Simba pulls him in their direction.

J. CAVE: That's pretty much what he does when somebody calls me.

FEYERICK: But the dog is also trained to protect the 14-year-old from danger, alerting him if he hears oncoming cars or smoke alarms, even a ringing cell phone.

J. CAVE: Good boy. Good boy.

FEYERICK: John's mom says separating the two even during school interrupts their training and disrupts their bonding.

N. CAVE: He is a tool for independence, a safety net. He is a partner in John's lifestyle. And part of that lifestyle is going to school.

FEYERICK: Superintendent Robert Dylan of the East Meadow School District says the Cave family has refused meetings to discuss the matter. He adds the dog could be disruptive or even unsafe to other students, some of whom may be allergic. Quote: "This student has been provided and continues to be provided with equal access to educational programming, without the need for a service dog."

The school already provides John with a full-time interpreter and speaker system on his desk to amplify the teacher's voice. Still, child advocates say banning the dog is illegal.

(on camera): If the school has a blanket policy, is that legal? Keeping all dogs out, regardless?

ELISA HYMAN, ADVOCATES FOR CHILDREN: Absolutely not. Any blanket policy barring service dogs would be highly illegal and violating both federal and state law.

ROBERTO ROMERO, RESOURCES FOR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS: The law is clear. I mean, if he were to show up at a restaurant with a dog, the restaurant cannot deny him access to the restaurant.

FEYERICK: The controversy has taken a toll. John says his grades are suffering because of the stress. Still, he promises to not back down.

J. CAVE: We're showing the school that we're not giving up. We're not going to listen to them. And we're going to tell them that we want them to listen to us.

FEYERICK: New York's Division of Human Rights is now investigating.

Deborah Feyerick, CNN, Long Island.


ZAHN: In spite of this controversy, we need to point out the school has a great reputation in the community for handling students with disabilities, and some families have even moved to the district specifically for that special care.

Coming up at the top of the hour, Kiefer Sutherland and the cast of "24" are the guests on "LARRY KING LIVE." We'll be right back.


ZAHN: And we're going to go back to our "Out in the Open" panel right now. Amy Holmes, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelangelo Signorile. A lot to talk about.

First of all, we can react to some of what goes on in communities across the country. We just saw this story about this young man, who was hearing impaired. Seventy-five percent of his hearing restored by very sophisticated surgery. But the fact remains the school says you can't bring the dog to school. Do you understand that rule? Or does that appear to be intolerant?

DYSON: It's intolerant to me. It's rigid. I mean, I understand the rule. And if you have the rule made for a specific...

ZAHN: ... you know, allergic to dogs at school.

DYSON: Exactly. I understand that. But if this kid, this particular child has 75 percent hearing impaired but can still hear but needs the dog, then can we make some circumstances that allow him to do so in a particular space in the school that keeps him away from people who are, you know, allergic?

HOLMES: This sounds like bureaucrats run amok, a zero tolerance policy. It's harming this young man. And it looks like it could possibly be illegal. This is, you know, a learning aid for this young man. His parents have explained that he needs to be able to bond with this dog 24 hours a day so that this dog can be effective with him on school grounds or off of school grounds. So it seems to me we've got some school administrators who have kind of gotten into bunker mentality. ZAHN: We had hoped to discuss a story that we're having problems getting cued up right now about a young woman down in Florida that is making a lot of waves because she wanted to start a gay-straight alliance program at her school. The school district says, "Absolutely no way can you do that."

You have local ministers saying, "Hey, we should be preaching abstinence, not in any way dealing with sexuality at school in a group like this."

What do you say about the school district that says you can't have the club?

SIGNORILE: Well, this is clearly a violation of her civil rights. You know, the Equal Access Act was passed in 1984 so that evangelical Christians could pray in school meetings, students who are Christian could pray in school meetings, extracurricular activity on school grounds. And it said that if you're going to allow them you have to allow everybody. If you're going to allow sports teams, you have to allow Christians. And she's saying, "Well, you have to allow a gay-straight alliance."

The only reason she put this alliance together was because she was getting discriminated against and she was told she couldn't take her girlfriend to the prom. So she was asking for help and the school says, "No, you can't do this."

I think it's a clear violation. The ACLU is taking her case. I think they have a great case.

DYSON: Well, what I don't understand is that if people who claim to be about family values -- here's a woman trying to forge connection and coalition between heterosexuals and homosexuals, between gay and straight. Why don't we facilitate that as opposed to preventing it?

I'm for abstinence like those ministers, abstinence from this absurd, patent application of narrow right-wing Christian theology to the situation. I mean, young people should be taught to tolerate, love, respect and engage in learning each other.

I'm a professor. The thing I tell my students is talk to somebody who smells differently than you, whose name ends differently than you and you don't go to the same school district. That's what college is for. That's what schools are for, to engage difference and to learn from it.

ZAHN: But there are a lot of people in this community that would love to fight the ACLU on this, saying that it's totally inappropriate to have this kind of club at school.

What do you think? Is there any justification for the school district's position on this?

HOLMES: I don't believe there's justification, but I also think that the ACLU getting involved just ratchets up the pressure here. I... ZAHN: And she's almost perceived to be a litigious kind of person, because as you say, she sued for the right to take her girlfriend to the prom, which -- she won that fight.


SIGNORILE: She needs to be able to go with the ACLU. That's what the ACLU is for. It is to protect people's civil liberties. And...

DYSON: That's like blaming Martin Luther King, Jr. for coming in because, well, if wasn't for Martin Luther King, Jr. racism wouldn't exist. Well, ACLU exists to deal with situations like this...


ZAHN: ... people say she's fighting...

HOLMES: ... there's other avenues to be working with school administrators. The point that I would make is that I would hope that this would be unnecessary, that we don't need these special groups, gay-straight alliances to be talking about tolerance. We need to be talking about common decency, just human decency than would be solving a lot of these problems.

SIGNORILE: I want to deal with this issue of abstinence. You know, just because the kids are gay and lesbian doesn't mean they're having sex. And maybe if they get together and talk about sexuality, they'll learn responsibility.

DYSON: Paris Hilton is not, as we know, a lesbian and yet she's quite active.

ZAHN: Oh! Did she tell you that?

DYSON: No, I saw the video. I'm a cultural critic. I have to watch the video.

ZAHN: You did see the video?

DYSON: Of course, I'm...


ZAHN: Oh, my God. He admitted it.

Amy Holmes, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelangelo Signorile, thanks.

SIGNORILE: Thank you.

ZAHN: We are just minutes away from the top of the hour and "LARRY KING LIVE". Tonight Kiefer Sutherland and the entire cast of the hit show "24" join Larry to talk about the show's new season.

We'll be right back.


ZAHN: In just a little more than 24 hours from now, we will be counting down to President Bush's address to the nation about his new Iraq strategy, where he is expected to tell us that he would like to add in another 20,000 or so troops, most of those to Baghdad, some of those in outlying provinces. And he's going to have to persuade a skeptical Congress and war-weary public to back a plan which sources say will put that many troops in Iraq. Now, the president would seem to have his work cut out for him, and Brian Todd now has more on that.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fine tuning what many believe is a make or break plan for stabilizing Iraq, the president works behind closed doors. Democrats and Republicans from Congress shuttle in and out to consult.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R-IA), INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE: This is a commander-in-chief who has decided not to fail in Iraq. I was -- I found his arguments and his strategies persuasive.

TODD: More daylight from White House officials, who refused to characterize this as a last ditch plan. But they say the speech will acknowledge that the president's optimism on Iraq has been tempered by events of the past year.

TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The terrorists did succeed in unleashing sectarian violence. And now that has created a new sense -- a new set of realities that one must contend with, and the president will talk about that.

TODD: A new set of realities that Mr. Bush will address, sources say, by sending at least 20,000 more troops, announcing a billion dollar jobs program, an ambitious reconstruction effort. But already, what the president is calling is "New Way Forward" faces a potential roadblock -- a bill proposed by Senator Ted Kennedy to force the president to seek Congressional approval for his planned influx of troops.

SEN. TED KENNEDY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: And we get real accountability and we'll find out who is standing up for the American people and who is going to be continuing to support this administration's failed and flawed policy.

TODD: Kennedy's effort will likely fail, but does put Democrats on record against escalation. A new "USA Today" poll shows a majority of Americans are already in that camp.

How can the president turn the tide?

SIMON HENDERSON, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: He's got to give this plan a real push and put it over with conviction. Mr. Bush might not talk of timetables, but there is a timetable out there. It's the timetable of the next presidential election.

(END VIDEOTAPE) TODD (on camera): Analysts say that means this plan could be what determines whether the next president inherits a successful turnaround in Iraq or more sectarian violence that could spill beyond Iraq's borders.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

ZAHN: And tomorrow I will be in Washington to join Wolf Blitzer for our coverage of President Bush's address to the nation. Please join us for a two-hour special that gets underway at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

We will have interviews with people all over the world, talking with correspondents in Iraq to gauge how quickly these 20,000 troops can be moved in. We will be talking to military leaders about the impact of that, in addition to politicians and their view of the president's proposal. So we hope you will join us for our two-hour special then.

Until then, have a great night. Thanks for joining us tonight. Good night.


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