Editorials from around New England:
Portland Press Herald, Feb. 16
We are not hopeless in this.
As we absorb the news of another school shooting, as more students learn what it means to feel terror in a supposed place of safety, as more parents hear the most devastating news possible, we cannot forget that we can do something.
It doesn’t always feel like that, as we go back through the familiar cycle that ends with the tragedy fading from popular memory, then starts anew with the next breaking news alert.
But that can’t be the end of it. We can’t let that cycle be hijacked by politicians and lobbyists with no interest in an uncorrupted discussion on gun violence, or in reflecting on this uniquely American phenomenon.
They offer thoughts and prayers, then empty criticisms of the country’s mental health care system, which has been systematically weakened by many of these same politicians. They avoid any mention of the problem staring us in the face.
Since 20 kids were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, more than 400 people have been shot at a school in the United States.
But they are not just school shootings — they are part of an epidemic found nowhere else; among high-income nations, 91 per cent of the children under 15 shot to death are American.
There are nearly 13,000 gun homicides a year in the United States — 96 a day, including seven children and teenagers. That’s 3.6 for every 1,000 residents, more than seven times the rate in Canada, 18 times the rate in Australia, and 90 times the rate in Great Britain.
And, no, the criminals in those countries don’t just find another way to kill. You’re as likely to get robbed in London as in New York City, but the stateside robbery ends in death 54 times more often than the one in England, all because of the presence of a gun.
We are a nation that owns 42 per cent of the world’s firearms but only 4.2 per cent of its population. It is absolute lunacy to discuss gun violence and not focus on that fact. Other nations have mental illness, poverty and violent crime, but only the United States has so many guns, and only the United States has a problem on this scale with gun violence.
Addressing that problem is not easy, but it is also not impossible or impractical. There are effective gun laws that would likely cut down on the number of shootings without infringing unduly on anyone’s rights, and they don’t include giving teachers guns, or placing armed guards at every school, mall, nightclub, movie theatre and church. A better background check system and further restrictions on domestic abuse perpetrators and other violent offenders are two good ideas. Cutting access to the kind of deadly rifles present at almost all of these shootings is another.
That’s not to say that schools should not have a police officer present, or that the mental health system is not in need of reform.
But we can’t stop gun violence without dealing with guns. We are not hopeless in this, as long as we are honest about what it is.
Rutland Herald, Feb. 15
The fatal shooting of a man on Sunday marks the third time in less than six months that Vermont State Police troopers have been involved in a fatal shooting.
The first involved 32-year-old Michael Battles of East Poultney, who pointed a pellet gun that looked like a revolver at troopers in September. That shooting was determined by investigators to be justified.
State Police and a Montpelier officer shot and killed Nathan Giffin, 32, of Essex, on Jan. 16, on a field behind Montpelier High School following a reported robbery at the credit union across the street from the school. That shooting is still under review, but police said Giffin made threats, was carrying a handgun (which they later determined was a pellet gun) and defied police orders to stop and drop the weapon. The most recent shooting happened Sunday afternoon, when Trooper Christopher Brown and Richmond Police Cpl. Richard Greenough shot and killed Benjamin Gregware of Sheldon on Interstate 89 in Bolton.
Gregware, according to the police account, refused repeated directions to drop the weapon and was shot and killed when he advanced on officers while holding a gun to his head. The gun, a Masterpiece Arms 9mm tactical pistol commonly known as a MAC 10, was loaded and had a bullet in the chamber. That tragedy is also under review.
Three officer-involved shootings in six months is alarming in a bucolic state like ours, where, we have long told ourselves, such things are not supposed to happen — as if being small and sparsely populated insulates the state from the realities of the harsher world that exists elsewhere.
Vermont is small and lightly populated compared to most other states, but the past several years have taught us that our rural insulation — if it ever existed — has worn thin.
Vermont is awash in heroin, guns are easy to get, and hardship and despair reside in far too many homes because economic opportunities are lacking.
It’s worth noting that calls to police have surged in recent years, even as the state’s population has declined. We have many of the same problems as other states, and they have made policing more difficult.
Nobody wants police to hesitate for even a second when they legitimately believe a life is at stake and there are no alternatives to using lethal force. The last thing anyone wants is for an officer to lose his or her life.
Nor does anyone want police to pull the trigger a second earlier than is necessary. Such is the tightrope police are asked to walk. “These situations are very dynamic, and they are decisions that are made minute-by-minute as to what you’re going to do,” said Col. Matthew Birmingham, head of the State Police, after the shooting in East Poultney. “We have to be scrutinized. These are incredibly difficult situations for the police to deal with. They’re incredibly difficult for the police after the fact. And they’re unfortunately becoming more common.”
At the time Birmingham made those comments about the need for scrutiny and the frequency of such incidents, he didn’t know his officers would be involved in two more fatal shootings in just a matter of months — incidents that could undermine the agency’s standing with the public if not properly addressed.
But as much as those shootings may cause some Vermonters to question the actions of Vermont State Police, steps taken by VSP leadership in the days before and after the latest shooting suggest that nobody is asking harder questions about these events than the police themselves.
Last week, the head of the Vermont State Police Tactical Services team and one of its members — Trooper Brown — were reassigned from the SWAT team. (Brown was involved in the Poultney and Montpelier shootings and was the trooper who fired on Gregware in Bolton on Sunday.)
That police were open about those changes is an encouraging sign.
Then, on Monday, Birmingham released a 1,400-word statement that was remarkable — perhaps unprecedented — for the depth and candour with which it addressed not only the latest shooting, but the impact the rash of shootings has had on State Police and what the department is doing about it.
Birmingham spelled out — in detail — the steps taken by VSP to examine not only each shooting, but to cast a critical eye on the department’s policies in several key areas.
An important part of that scrutiny is soliciting input from law enforcement experts outside the department, Birmingham said.
“The purpose of this external review is to look closely at operational decision making and policies related to State Police special teams.”
The fact that VSP are willing to take a hard look in the mirror and subject themselves to outside scrutiny is evidence that State Police recognize that the public’s trust is important to what they do.
And their willingness to be open about the process they are undertaking is evidence that they still deserve public support.
Portsmouth Herald, Feb. 16
In the movie “Back to School,” a young Thornton Melon, played by Rodney Dangerfield, is lectured by his father that a man without education has nothing. Yet, the younger Melon goes on to make his fortune through a chain of Melon’s Fat and Tall clothing stores with little education, despite his father’s urging.
In the end, Melon does go back to school to earn a college degree, but only as a way of getting his son to stay in school.
Dangerfield was known for his self-deprecating humour. But as is the nature of good satire, Dangerfield’s wit looked to attack some traditionally held beliefs.
One of those is that you must have a college education to become a success and earn a fruitful living.
“Back to School” doesn’t universally challenge the value of a college education, but it does look to debunk the idea it is a requirement for success.
Since Dangerfield’s movie in 1986, there has been what we would call an all-too-slow awakening that a college degree is not a guarantee of a good and well-paying career.
That reality, however, has become more apparent as the cost of college has skyrocketed.
Over the lifetime of the generation heading off to college this fall, tuition and associated costs of a four-year degree have risen, in some cases by more than 200 per cent.
This has forced some very tough choices. One of those has been to reassess the value of that four-year degree. Another is to look elsewhere for a road to success.
A recent Seacoast Sunday feature story, “Area tradesmen warn of growing lack of workers,” took a look at some successful alternative careers.
One of those is Steve Turner who opened Turner’s Upholstery in Rye 30 years ago and is urging young people to take a hard look at the trades as an alternative.
“I turn down more jobs than I can take,” said Turner, who upholsters high-end vehicles.
Yet, he can’t hire the talent he needs.
Al Lawrence, owner of Artisan Electric of Madbury, learned the electrical trade at Minuteman Tech, and says it’s been very good to him. He’s put two children through college, his wife was able to stay home while they were in school and he employed 10 to 12 people at any given time.
Yet again, there are not enough licensed electricians in New Hampshire. In addition, Lawrence, himself 54, said the average age of an electrician in New Hampshire is 51, meaning they’re within sight of the end of their careers with too few to follow in their footsteps.
Another who was confronted with the reality of a college education not always meeting a need is Alan Van Wert, owner and operator of Dufresne Plumbing and Heating of Rye.
Van Wert studied forestry management in college and when he finished, couldn’t find work in his field. His cousin owned the plumbing and heating company, offered him work and gave him on-the-job training.
“I just stuck with it,” said Van Wert, 56, who ended up buying the company.
For the past few years, Van Wert said he’s been unable to keep up with the demand for work.
He has two daughters, neither of whom is interested in being a plumber, and no young prospects interested in learning the business.
He said the average age of people now in the plumbing trade is in the low 50s. “There’s going to be a large number of us retiring,” he said and predicts “a big shortage” that will drive up rates to hire a plumber.
All this means even more demand and better paying opportunities for young people now working their way through school and looking for career paths.
Thankfully there are steps being taken to address the shortage of those skilled in the trades.
High-tech businesses like Safran Aerospace Composites and Albany International in Rochester have partnered with Spaulding High School and Great Bay Community College to fast track high school students into the workforce and into well-paying jobs. And for those still looking at four-year programs, the University of New Hampshire has a well-established track record of working with business leaders to craft education programs already in demand.
Young people today have a world of options available to them and need to be encouraged to choose those that best fit them. In the end, this serves students and the needs of a state whose workforce is aging toward retirement with too few to replace its numbers.
The Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, Feb. 13
As the old rock diddy goes, “Everybody knows that smoking ain’t allowed in school.”
The same goes for vaping.
It’s been almost a decade since the first electronic cigarette and vape pens hit store shelves. The Sharpie-sized devices, which vaporize liquid nicotine rather than burn tobacco and create tar, are designed as a healthier alternative to cancer-causing conventional cigarettes.
Local school officials have seen a trend towards student use of these e-cigarettes and are trying to crack down.
That’s a good thing.
Because of its relatively short existence, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific evidence on the effects of vaping. But a study released last month provides solid evidence that vaping is, in essence, a gateway to cigarettes for young people and something that should be prevented.
The report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that while vaping may help adults quit conventional cigarettes, the practice may also encourage young people to start smoking. In fact, the study found substantial evidence that young people who vape are at a higher risk for ever using a conventional cigarette than young people who don’t. Vaping also comes with health risks, the study said, though it is likely to be far less harmful overall than smoking conventional cigarettes. Another national study says cigarette smoking among teens has dropped from 16 per cent to less than 10 per cent while the use of e-cigarettes has tripled.
Local school officials say students used to get caught vaping once in a great while, but it is now becoming a more regular situation.
“It’s a growing fad,” North Attleboro High School Principal Peter Haviland said. “It impacts kids at a disproportionate level.”
The state, which has already banned the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, is also concerned.
“In Massachusetts, nearly a quarter of high-school students reported using vape pens and e-cigarettes and nearly half have tried those products at least once,” Department of Public Health spokeswoman Ann Scales said. “More high school students used e-cigarettes than all other tobacco products combined, and they used them nine times more often than adults.”
The penalties for vaping in school are generally the same as for smoking. At Attleboro High School, for instance, that can mean between one and three detention sessions with punishment increasing with additional offences.
Administrators at King Philip Regional High School are so concerned that they have planned a forum for parents in the school library.
We commend local officials for getting out in front of the issue. Vaping fits a pattern of teenage rebellion, but there is just too much evidence that it’s not a smart idea to allow young people to experiment with e-cigarettes.
We’re glad vaping ain’t allowed in school.
The Connecticut Post, Feb. 15
Ill-equipped in many cases to meet the challenges of the outside world, released prisoners often revert to the lifestyle that put them behind bars in the first place: criminal behaviour.
That we often refer to our prisons as “correctional” facilities could be considered a bit of dark humour.
Nationally, the rate of recidivism — the return to that criminal lifestyle — is 43.3 per cent within three years.
Figures fluctuate considerably, but a report on Connecticut recidivism issued by the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2012 found that of the 14,400 men who were released from prison in 2005, nearly 80 per cent had been arrested again by 2010.
Anything we can do to help ex-prisoners re-enter the workplace is good for them, and good for all of us.
That’s why we fully support a bill introduced in Washington this week by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal that would let inmates join the pool of students who apply every year for federal Pell grants, so named for U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I.
And what’s a bill without a snappy acronym? Blumenthal’s bill — introduced with fellow Democrat Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii — is named the Restoring Education and Learning Act, and now referred to as the REAL Act.
Applicants must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Financial Aid, also known as the FAFSA, a painstakingly comprehensive form whose completion is a sort of annual rite in many American households. The grant awards are calculated on need. And since they are grants, not loans, they don’t have to be repaid.
Until 1994, prisoners were eligible to apply for the grants.
Blumenthal cited a Texas study in proposing his legislation.
That study, issued by the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 2003 at Texas Southern University in Houston, found that an inmate who earned a high school diploma before release was 24 per cent less likely to return to prison.
The recidivism rate among inmates who completed two years of college was 10 per cent, and the rate among four-year college students was 5.6 per cent.
Inmates who earned a master’s degree had a recidivism rate of less than 1 per cent.
The benefits seem clear: If we truly intend to correct behaviour, we have to equip inmates for their future; the fewer people in prison, the fewer taxpayer dollars needed to incarcerate them; and a productive ex-convict is far less likely to pose a danger to the community.
If our prisons are to be something more than storage facilities for offenders, so many of whom are non-violent offenders, it is to all of our benefit to prepare them for life outside the walls.
We’re not suggesting coddling of any type. We believe that those convicted of crime should do their time.
Why not see that time put to a use that will be good for all of us in the long run.
The Providence Journal, Feb. 12
There is plenty of talk these days about making it easier for people to vote, but often such talk focuses more on what is helpful to politicians than what suits the public interest.
Consider a change proposed by Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea that would move the date of Rhode Island’s primary elections from the second Tuesday in September to the third Tuesday in August. Ms. Gorbea, a Democrat, says the change would make it easier for people in the military, and those overseas, to vote in general elections, because they would have more time to receive their mail ballots and send them back. She also notes that schools would no longer have to close on the day of the primaries.
She is correct that the legislation would accomplish those aims. But if we’re really trying to help all voters, why would we move the primary to August, when many people are still vacationing or otherwise distracted? Why not do what the majority of states — 29 of them — already do, and hold the party primaries before the end of June, when most people are still around and are more likely to be paying attention and to participate?
It’s a good bet that more people would vote if the primaries were held before they started heading off for vacations. Such an early primary could give people who are voting long-distance even more time to obtain mail ballots and return them to count for the general election.
Just as important: There would be more time for the candidates who emerge from the primaries to take their message to the voters. In the end, we would have more voters, and better-informed voters, on Election Day.
That should be the priority.
Critics of a primary in June, or earlier, protest that it would run up against sessions of the General Assembly. Lawmakers don’t want to be dealing with primary elections when they are still in session, we are told. What they are saying, in effect, is that their own interests — the interests of 113 state lawmakers — take precedence over those of more than 700,000 registered voters.
Another possible objection is that a longer window between the primary and the general election would give challengers more time to take their message to the general populace and, perhaps, win their votes. That’s not good for an incumbent who is seeking reelection. But again, who are really trying to help? If we are truly putting the interests of voters and our system of self-government first, then having better-informed voters is better for all.
An August primary would seem to empower well-financed and well-organized special interests, who would have a disproportional impact since many working people might be away on vacation. In June, when more people are focused on the business of the state, it would be harder to use those means to tilt elections.
Yes, we should move up the date of Rhode Island’s primary, giving voters a better chance to weigh the candidates in the general election. But if we really want to benefit the public, let’s move it up to June.