SAN DIEGO — Racial and gender biases and systemic inequality have a deleterious effect on military readiness, and the U.S. Navy is adopting dozens of recommendations to address it, the service announced Wednesday. The Navy released a comprehensive review of these issues by a task force launched amid last summer's racial justice protests. The task force's 56 recommendations span all aspects of the Navy's sprawling organization, from recruiting and promotion disparities to the names of ships that honor Confederates and white supremacists. It also recommends adding a fourth "core value" to the se...
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A cotton field planted at a Hollywood school to teach students about the horrors of slavery caused emotional distress to an African-American girl, according to a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in damages in California.
Rashunda Pitts says her daughter has been traumatized by the episode, according to the Los Angeles lawsuit, which alleges discrimination and negligence.
"She has uncontrollable anxiety attacks and... experiences bouts of depression when she thinks about the cotton picking project," says the suit, filed this week.
The child, identified only as S.W., started attending Laurel Span School in Hollywood in late 2017.
After an enthusiastic beginning to the term, S.W. became sullen and tired, the suit says.
A short time later, as Pitts was dropping her daughter off at school, she noticed cotton plants on the campus.
"Bewildered as to why a cotton field would be growing in Hollywood, let alone on public school property, she called the front office to speak with the principal," the suit says.
She was told "children in S.W.'s class were reading the autobiography of (reformer and abolitionist) Frederick Douglass and that picking cotton was one of the experiences that he wrote about in the autobiography."
The assistant principal to whom she spoke explained the field had been planted to give youngsters an idea of what slaves were forced to do, the suit says.
"Completely incensed with the idea that the school would have her daughter and other children pick cotton as a school exercise to identify with the real-life experience of African-American slaves, Ms. Pitts expressed her disappointment and hurt in regards to the culturally insensitive and incompetent project."
Pitts' daughter told her that her "social justice teacher... required the students to 'pick cotton' to gain a real-life experience as to what the African-American slaves had endured."
"S.W. further explained that discussion of the project in school terrified her and she (was) horrified at the idea," the claim says.
The filing says parents were not asked for permission for their children to take part, and had not been told of the project in advance.
Na'Shaun Neal, attorney for Pitts, told AFP he was seeking a quarter of a million dollars on behalf of S.W., who is now 17 years old.
According to the suit, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which oversees the school, said in a statement it regretted that an "instructional activity" had been deemed culturally insensitive.
"When school administrators became aware of a parent's concern about the cotton plant, they responded immediately by removing the plant," the statement said, according to the suit.
In a statement to AFP, a spokesperson for the school district said: "Los Angeles Unified does not typically comment on pending or ongoing litigation."
If you had the choice, would you rather go to the Moon or Mars?
The question is utterly theoretical for most of us, but for US astronaut Jessica Watkins, it hits a bit differently.
"Whichever comes first!" Watkins says with a laugh, in a lengthy interview with AFP from her post on the International Space Station (ISS).
At 34, Watkins has many years ahead of her at the US space agency NASA, and could very well be one of the first women to step foot on the Moon in the coming years, as a member of the Artemis team preparing for upcoming lunar missions.
Missions to Mars are off in the future, but given that astronauts often work into their 50s, Watkins could conceivably have a shot.
Either way is just fine, she says.
"I certainly would be just absolutely thrilled to be able to be a part of the effort to go to another planetary surface, whether it be the Moon or Mars."
In the meantime, Watkins' first space flight was a history maker: she became the first Black woman to undertake a long-term stay on the ISS, where she has already spent three months as a mission specialist, with three months to go.
The Apollo missions that sent humans to the Moon were solely staffed by white men, and NASA has sought over the years to widen its recruitment to a more diverse group of candidates.
The agency now wants to put both women and people of color on the Moon.
"I think it is an important milestone for the agency and the country, and the world as well," Watkins says. "Representation is important. It is true that it is difficult to be what you can't see."
The Maryland native added that she was "grateful for all of those who have come before me... the women and Black astronauts who have paved the way to enable me to be here today."
Geologist at heart
Born in Gaithersburg in the suburbs of Washington, Watkins grew up in Colorado before heading to California to study geology at Stanford University.
During her doctoral studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, her research focused in part on Mars and she worked on NASA's Curiosity rover, which just celebrated 10 years on the Red Planet.
Watkins still has a soft spot for Mars. In fact, she has published a scientific study on the planet during her stint on the ISS.
"I would certainly call myself a geologist, a scientist, an astronaut," she says.
Watkins remembers the moment that she realized space and planetary geology -- the composition of formation of celestial bodies such as planets, moons and asteroids -- would be her life's work.
It came during one of her first geology classes, in a lecture about planetary accretion, or when solids gradually collide with each other to form larger bodies, and ultimately planets.
"I remember learning about that process... and realizing then that that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what I wanted to study," she recalls.
"The notion of being able to be a part of an effort to actually do field work on the surface of another planetary body is super exciting, and I look forward to being a part of it."
The Artemis program, a successor to Apollo, is aimed at slowly establishing a lasting human presence on the Moon. The end goal is to set up a base that would be a forward operating station for any eventual trips to Mars.
The first uncrewed mission under the Artemis banner is set to take off for the Moon at the end of August.
Watkins is one of 18 astronauts assigned to the Artemis team, to either provide ground support or eventually take flight.
Officially, every active NASA astronaut (there are currently 42) has a chance to be selected to take part in a lunar landing.
'Push the limits'
While previous mission experience may weigh heavily in NASA's choices for personnel for the first crewed Artemis flight, Watkins's academic background certainly should boost her chances of being chosen.
Being good-natured and having a healthy team spirit are also key for space flight teams, who spend long periods of time confined in small spaces.
Watkins says her colleagues would call her "easygoing," and her time playing rugby taught her the value of working on a team.
So how does she define being an astronaut?
"Each of us all have that sense of exploration and a desire to continue to push the limits of what humans are capable of. And I think that is something that unites us," she says.
Watkins says she dreamed of going to space when she was young, and always kept it in the back of her mind -- without ever thinking it could be a reality.
"Don't be afraid to dream big," she says. "You'll never know when your dreams will come true."
Iran's rulers bear responsibility for the attack against the British writer Salman Rushdie as the Islamic republic never repudiated a 1989 order issued by its founder calling for the novelist to be killed, activists and opponents charged Saturday.
While the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini over Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" has for some time not been part of daily discourse in Iran, the clerical leadership under his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also did nothing to indicate it no longer stood and on occasions underlined the decree was still valid.
The multiple stabbing of Rushdie at an event in New York comes at an intensely sensitive time for Iran, as it considers an offer by world powers to revive the 2015 deal on its nuclear program which would ease sanctions that have battered the economy.
During a period of relative thaw between Tehran and the West under former president Mohammad Khatami, ex-foreign minister Kamal Kharazi had in 1998 pledged that Iran would not take steps to endanger the life of Rushdie, who for years was in hiding.
But an answer posted to a question on Khamenei's website Khamenei.ir in February 2017 said that the fatwa was still valid. "Answer: The decree is as Imam Khomeini issued," it said.
The @khamenei_ir Twitter account, which repeats Khamenei's views and activists have repeatedly said should be suspended, in 2019 posted that the fatwa was "solid and irrevocable".
Activists also insist that a bounty of over 3 million dollars for Rushdie's life offered by Iran's 15 Khordad Foundation remains on offer.
'Real Islamic republic'
“Whether today's assassination attempt was ordered directly by Tehran or not, it is almost certainly the result of 30 years of the regime's incitement to violence against this celebrated author," said the Washington-based National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI).
The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an opposition group outlawed in Iran, said that the attack had taken place at the "instigation" of Khomeini's fatwa.
“Ali Khamenei and other leaders of the clerical regime had always vowed to implement this anti-Islamic fatwa in the past 34 years," it said in a statement.
New York state police identified the suspected attacker as Hadi Matar, 24, adding the motive for the stabbing remains unclear. He was detained in the immediate aftermath.
Commentators pointed to a Facebook account belonging to a man named Hadi Matar littered with images of the Iranian leadership which was deactivated in the hours after the attack. There was no immediate confirmation it belonged to the attacker.
A source close to the investigation told NBC news that Matar "is sympathetic to Shia extremism and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) causes" even if as yet there was no evidence of a definite link to the key Iranian security force.
"This is the real Islamic Republic; you negotiate with such a regime and allow its supporters and lobbyists into your society. Can you understand how we feel as this regime's hostages?" freedom of expression activist Hossein Ronaghi, one of the most outspoken critics of the leadership inside the country, tweeted in response to the attack.
'Never backed off'
Iran's actions are also under intense scrutiny in the United States where Tehran has in the last weeks faced accusations of seeking to assassinate former US national security advisor John Bolton and the US-based Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad.
The Islamic republic has a record throughout its history of seeking to eliminate opponents outside its borders and is now accused also of abducting foreign-based dissidents and hauling them back to Iran for trial and possible execution.
Alinejad, who was previously the target of a plot to abduct her from New York by speedboat back to Iran via Venezuela, is now in a safe house after a man with a AK-47 was found outside her residence.
"There's been a fatwa on Salman Rushdie from Khomeini since 1989 and the Islamic Republic of Iran never backed off the fatwa. @khamenei_ir repeated it on Twitter as well. Now Islamic Republic promoters are praising the assassination and threaten me with the same fate as Salman Rushdie," said Alinejad.
In its news report about the attack, the official IRNA news agency described Rushdie as the "apostate author" of "The Satanic Verses" and recalled the fatwa.
The daily Kayhan, whose editor is appointed by Khamenei, hailed the attacker as "this courageous and duty-conscious man... who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife."
Iranian authorities have yet to make any official comment. Mohammad Marandi, an adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiating team, wrote on Twitter that while he would "won't be shedding tears" for Rushdie the timing was "odd" at a critical moment in the nuclear crisis.