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Ivey’s school safety council makes 10 recommendations, avoids gun regulations

Chip Brownlee

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A group started by Gov. Kay Ivey to make recommendations to enhance school security across the state released a report this week that highlights 10 ways to improve school safety through physical security, better threat assessment and coordination with law enforcement.

The group avoided any recommendations for changes to the state’s gun regulations, despite calls for reform from some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle earlier this year, and stayed silent on sources of funding for its proposed changes.

The Securing Alabama’s Facilities of Education (SAFE) Council — which Ivey created in March after 17 students and staff died during a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, a month earlier — released its 36-page report through the governor’s office Monday.

The ten recommendations from the council include finding more funding for school resource officers, the creation of district safety coordinators, better coordination between law enforcement and schools using linked surveillance systems, better tracking of school violence and enhanced reporting of threats to educational facilities.

The council also called for a bond issue for school building safety enhancements as part of system-wide security plans that meet “standardized security levels.” The amount for the bond issue was not specified in the report.

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“Some are historical landmarks, many are hubs of their communities, several serve fewer than 100 students, and a few are as large as college campuses,” the council’s report reads. “With such diversity, the common thread that weaves them together is the challenge of maintaining school safety. Each school requires a level of safety that must address physical security for all students, employees, and visitors on campus.”

Funds available through the proposed bond issue would be used for safety upgrades that include security cameras, exterior and interior door locks, monitored exterior access points, emergency response technology and visitor entry systems.

District safety coordinators would oversee the installation of the new safety equipment and enforce safety and security policies based on the needs of each individual school district, according to the report.

“I am very pleased with the findings of the SAFE Council and I am already having discussions with agency heads about implementing some of these recommendations immediately,” Ivey, a former teacher herself, said in a statement Monday. “Other recommendations need further consideration and will need some actions by the Alabama Legislature.”

Ivey said she would continue to review the recommendations within the report and other options that are not directly addressed in the report to “ensure that all Alabama schools are as safe and secure as possible.”

“I am confident that once these recommendations are fully implemented they will greatly reduce the chance for tragedy in our schools,” Ivey said, though she did not commit to any of the recommendations included in the report.

Members of the SAFE Council included Interim State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson, Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker, ALEA Secretary Hal Taylor, Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear and Acting Information Technology Secretary Jim Purcell.

The report of the Council isn’t binding for the governor or the Legislature, which would need to act to make many of the recommendations possible. The Legislature will return later than usual next spring because of statewide elections this fall.

“The only thing more important than making sure Alabama students receive a quality education that prepares them for the future, is making sure they are safe from hurt, harm, and danger when in our care,” Richardson said.

The interim state superintendent said it is the state’s responsibility to use whatever resources necessary to keep schools safe.

“The only thing more important than making sure Alabama students receive a quality education that prepares them for the future is making sure they are safe from hurt, harm, and danger when in our care,” he said.

The full list of 10 recommendations fall into three categories, according to the report:

Physical Security

  • Funding for school resource officers and district safety coordinators
  • A bond issue for enhancing school building and facility security
  • Surveillance linked to law enforcement

Threat Assessments and Mental Health

  • School-based mental health
  • Identifying warning signs
  • Reporting threats
  • Tracking school violence

Coordinated Training and Planning

  • Empowered and accountable district safety coordinators
  • Building a culture of safety
  • School safety training and compliance teams

A wide variety of gun and school safety legislation arose during the final month of the 2018 legislative session earlier this year, but most of them failed to beat the calendar as lawmakers prepared to return home to their districts a bit earlier than the constitutionally mandated end to the session that would have come in mid-April.

It’s common for lawmakers to end the session early during an election year.

The Parkland shooting in Florida along with a school shooting at Birmingham’s Huffman High School in early March added a sense of urgency to lawmakers’ proposals, none of which made it into the SAFE Council report.

Senate, House leadership divided over calendar realities of passing gun safety bills

The bills range from the conservative end of the spectrum to the more liberal end. A bill proposed by Rep. Will Ainsworth, R-Guntersville, would have armed teachers in the classroom and another from Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, aimed to create armed volunteer security forces supervised by local sheriffs.

Most Democrats and some Republicans were hesitant about Ainsworth’s plan, citing the many “variables” that would be present if a teacher were to intervene in the case of an active shooter.

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Rep. Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham, filed a bill after the Parkland shooting that would raise the age limit to purchase long guns like the AR-15 from age 18 to 21, while Rep. Laura Hill, D-Birmingham, had another that would have banned all semi-automatic rifles.

More bills followed. Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, proposed a law that would allow the courts to take guns away from people who have been deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

While leadership in the House under Speaker Mac McCutcheon worked with lawmakers on their proposals and seemed supportive of a vote on some of the bills, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said in March that he wanted to wait until the SAFE Council report was released, pushing the possibility of addressing the bills off until next year.

Some gubernatorial candidates including Democrat Sue Bell Cobb, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson, a GOP candidate for governor, have been critical of Ivey’s initiative.

In March, Dawson said Ivey was not acting fast enough on school security.

“When Kay Ivey assumed office after the resignation of Governor Robert Bentley, she disbanded 18 task forces which she claimed had been ineffective and promised to ‘make decisions ‘ not ‘ kick the can,” Dawson said at the time.

Dawson critical of Ivey’s “Smart on Safety Initiative”

Cobb criticized the report for its lack of funding options Monday in a statement.

“The report released by the SAFE Council makes recommendations that would make our schools safer, but without additional revenue to implement these recommendations, they are simply words on a page,” Cobb’s statement said.

The SAFE Council’s report is part of Ivey’s four-pronged “Smart on Safety Initiative,” which she announced at the State Capitol in March.

The plan included supporting a separate bill in the Legislature to make more funds available for school security, which passed, standardizing emergency operations plans for schools and emphasizing the “see something, say something” program to require schools to identify students who might be a danger to themselves or others.

The second step, which is underway, includes Ivey’s full review of the report and in-depth discussions with leaders of agencies affected by the recommendations, the Governor’s Office said. The third step includes implementation of the recommendations that do not require legislative approval.

The fourth step will include the ongoing review of school security needs by the SAFE Council.

 

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Veteran UA system trustee named interim chancellor

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Finis E. St. John, IV, a veteran member of the Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama System, will become Interim Chancellor of the three-campus UA System effective August 1. He will succeed C. Ray Hayes, who announced his plans in June to transition his responsibilities to a Systemwide behavioral health initiative and other administrative priorities. 

A member of one of Alabama’s oldest and most established law firms, St. John will take an unpaid leave of absence from St. John & St. John, LLC in Cullman and will serve without compensation in the interim System position. His wife and law partner Gaynor, who has been with the firm for more than a quarter century, will continue to practice law in Cullman.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby issued a statement Monday afternoon describing St. John as “one of the most influential people” in Alabama. “Fess St. John is ideally positioned to lead the UA System as Interim Chancellor, advancing its mission and bringing higher education and health care to a new level,” Sen. Shelby said. “I am thrilled that Fess has been selected for this role and look forward to witnessing the tremendous impact he will have in every area of the UA System.” 

The Interim Chancellor’s appointment was among several items considered today in a called meeting of the UA System Board. Calling St. John’s academic and professional credentials impeccable, Trustee Joe Espy also cited his leadership in helping manage more than 450 significant capital projects, well in excess of $3 billion, and his valuable role on the UAB Health System Board, which has been crucial to the turnaround in rankings and research funding at UAB.

“The fact that Fess St. John is willing to serve as our Interim Chancellor without compensation is a tremendous public service,” Espy said. “We are extremely grateful that he is willing to step in and take on these complex administrative duties at a critical time for our campuses and the UAB Health System. As the state’s single largest employer and a proven leader in building Alabama’s economy, our System will be able to maintain our positive momentum without missing a beat.”

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UA System Chancellor Emeritus Dr. Robert Witt strongly endorsed the decision. “Fess St. John is the perfect choice for Interim Chancellor,” said Witt. “He and I have worked side-by-side since I arrived in 2003, and the impact of his leadership is measured by strong academic programs on our campuses, the physical growth of facilities and student resources, and the global reputation of the UAB Health System. We are extremely fortunate to have him in this new role.”

President pro tem Ronald Gray thanked St. John for committing the time and energy to serve the System as Interim Chancellor: “Because Fess has agreed to accept this position, the Board can move in a deliberate and thorough fashion to evaluate all possibilities and secure the best possible candidate for the permanent role at the most opportune time for the System.”

Pro Tem Gray said the Board’s top leadership recruitment priority will be the search for a successor to UAH President Robert Altenkirch, who announced his plans to retire after the next president of the Huntsville campus is in place.

In making the nomination, past President pro tempore Karen Brooks referenced multiple occasions when Trustees have been asked to fill the Chancellorship on an interim basis. In 1989, Emeritus Trustee Sam Earle Hobbs of Selma filled the Chancellorship, and John T. Oliver, Jr., who was a sitting Trustee from Jasper, was Interim Chancellor in 1996-97.

Originally elected to the Board in 2002, St. John was President pro tem from 2008-2011, during a period of exponential growth for the campuses and the UAB Health System. He has chaired numerous standing committees and played a key role in recruiting senior campus leadership, including UAH President Robert Altenkirch. 

St. John, who will continue to serve as a Trustee, currently serves on the five-member Executive Committee, the Physical Properties Committee and the UAB Health System Board Liaison Committee. He chairs the Athletics Committee and co-chairs the Legal Affairs Committee. St. John has been a member of the UAB Health System Board of Directors since 2008 and serves on both the UAB Athletic Foundation and the Crimson Tide Foundation Board.

A cum laude graduate of The University of Alabama in 1978, he was inducted to Phi Beta Kappa, Omicron Delta Kappa and Jasons. He received his law degree in 1982 from The University of Virginia School of Law and was chair of the Moot Court Board. Five generations of family members have served the state of Alabama in public service roles, and his late mother Juliet St. John was the first woman attorney in Cullman.

Finis St. John is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, which is comprised of the best of the trial bar from the United States and Canada. Fellowship in the College is by invitation only. He is also a Fellow of the American Board of Trial Advocates and has been recognized as an Alabama Super Lawyer since 2007. He is the long-time chairman of the board of First Community Bank of Cullman.

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Deposition: Bentley was pressured by lawmakers, attorneys, major donors to upend Hubbard trial

Josh Moon

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Former Gov. Robert Bentley said during a recent deposition that he was pressured by lawmakers, attorneys and major donors on numerous occasions during the Mike Hubbard trial to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the Alabama Attorney General’s Office — a move that likely would have torpedoed the case against the former House speaker.

Under oath during a deposition in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Secretary Spencer Collier, Bentley said Great Southern Wood owner and mega-political donor Jimmy Rane contacted him three different times about appointing a special prosecutor.

Additionally, Rob Riley, son of former Gov. Bob Riley and a Hubbard attorney, also contacted his office about opening an investigation of the AG’s office. Two more of Hubbard’s attorneys, Augusta Dowd and Lance Bell, also contacted Bentley about appointing a special prosecutor, Bentley said. Bentley also said three sitting legislators pressured him, but he said he didn’t remember who they were.

“I did not want the governor’s office to be involved in that trial in Lee County,” Bentley said during the deposition. “I wanted to stay neutral, because I had been getting pressure to do other things. I told them I had no plans to do anything. I told them to leave me alone.”

The push to appoint a special prosecutor was widely viewed as a defense strategy by Hubbard’s lawyers, meant to undermine the credibility of the prosecutor on a case Hubbard’s attorneys couldn’t win. Hubbard’s defense team filed motion after motion claiming that lead prosecutor Matt Hart had overstepped the law during his investigation of Hubbard or that Hart had leaked grand jury information to the media.

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Ultimately, Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker dismissed those complaints, and a quick investigation by ALEA determined that Hart had not leaked grand jury information during the case.

Hubbard was convicted two years ago on 12 felony counts and sentenced to four years in prison. He remains out of jail as his appeal awaits the slow-moving Court of Criminal Appeals.  

Oddly, some of the major players in that case have gone from calling for investigations of the AG’s office to financially supporting Steve Marshall, the incumbent AG appointed by Bentley.

Rane, who was directly involved in one of the counts for which Hubbard was convicted, has dumped hundreds of thousands in donations into Marshall campaign account or into political action committees that have donated to Marshall.

Through his Great Southern Wood company, Rane has contributed more than $1 million in Alabama over the last year, with almost all of that money going through PACs. In total, Great Southern Wood dumped $218,000 into 11 PACs that donated to Marshall. Those 11 PACs gave Marshall $217,500.

Through his law firm, Rob Riley, who is still listed as an attorney for Hubbard — a man with a pending appeal that Marshall’s office is fighting — has donated $2,500 to Marshall.

While Bentley initially resisted calls to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Hart, the idea apparently stuck with him. In April, APR cited information from several sources saying that Marshall received the appointment to AG — replacing a departing Luther Strange — after Marshall agreed to investigate Hart. At that time, Hart was deep into an investigation of Bentley that would ultimately end in the governor’s resignation and guilty pleas to two misdemeanor campaign finance violations.

Marshall has denied that his appointment came with any strings attached.

 

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Bill Britt

A move to reunify BCA is underway

Bill Britt

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Reconciliation efforts are underway to salvage the Business Council of Alabama after a very public split with some of its most influential members.

Those close to the negotiations speaking on background say recent talks have been productive, but there are still many details that must be agreed upon before a reunification occurs.

The forced exit of President and CEO Billy Canary earlier this month was the first step toward restoring BCA’s reputation and mending fences.

Individuals who are negotiating rapprochement are looking to restructure BCA’s governance to ensure that any future leader will not exercise the unchecked authority wielded by Canary. They also want to make BCA more equitable, fair and balanced in its representation of its members.

Beyond the mechanics of structure is the need for a strong leader who can restore not only confidence in the once powerful organization but also one who can navigate the state’s political landscape while enduring the inevitable discord that comes with change.

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There is a level of hope that an improved structure and new leadership might be in place by BCA’s summer conference, which begins August 10 at Point Clear. But even those involved in the process know it’s a tall order to fill given the short window of opportunity.

Perhaps the most significant challenge is identifying an individual who can articulate a vision for BCA, inspire confidence in its members and ensure elected officials that they are dealing with an honest broker.

There is much at stake in the upcoming legislative session, not only because it is the first year of the quadrennium, when hard tasks are generally achieved, but the 2019 session will also welcome many new legislators not necessarily in step with BCA due to a bruising primary season.

People may forgive, but they often do not forget, and there are many bridges to build.

Lawmakers will be wise to remember the warning of President Ronald Reagan, “Trust but verify.”

For a revitalizing transition to occur, a clean sweep of BCA’s leadership team is imperative, as those who served the old guard must be replaced or else it’s a false start doomed to fail.

BCA would be wise to move away from the partisan approach taken over the last eight years and look to establish relationships that favor business-friendly legislation without bright lines of division.

In business as in life, sharp breaks are sometimes required and often are inevitable, but this doesn’t have to be one of those times.

Now is an hour for wise deliberation, difficult choices and bold resolve to strengthen the entire business community and not merely to fortify the narrow interests of a few.

Over the last year, good and honest leaders called for BCA to do what was right. That fight hopefully can be put aside to now do what is best.

 

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Ivey’s school safety council makes 10 recommendations, avoids gun regulations

by Chip Brownlee Read Time: 6 min
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