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Many ideas, few answers from School Security and Student and Teacher Safety hearing

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

“I want to pledge to the people of Alabama that both the House and the Senate will do everything in our power as a legislative body to make sure the public schools across Alabama are safe and secure,” These words spoken by Alabama Speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, (R-Auburn) set the tone for Wednesday’s “School Security and Student and Teacher Safety,” meeting.

The hearing was organized following the massacre of 20 first graders and six adults in an elementary school in Newtown Connecticut. None of the adults in the school were armed with their own personal firearms and there was no trained and armed security present in the school.

The meeting chaired by House Education Committee Chair Mary Sue McClurkin (R-Indian Springs) and Senate Education Committee Chairman Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), was a moments thoughtful and at others wildly provocative.

From needing more mental health offerings to arming teachers to warnings of al-Qaida threats within Alabama the hearing covered a gamut of possible realties.

Senator Brewbaker opening remarks seemed to evoke a need for wisdom and caution, “I hope that we can—as Senator Figures has already—take a broad view of this. Very often in legislation the very obvious answers are the worst ones, or at least the most ineffective.” Brewbaker went on to remind those gathered that the Connecticut massacre was perpetrated by a man who was mentally ill and that schools are not always equipped to help such people.

Brewbaker expressed the need to make sure that Alabama school could say, “yes,” when a student needed help with mental health.

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“There is no guarantee that an evil person will not commit a heinous act but we has policy makers can make sure that there are the resources and training for school councilors or professional,” Brewbaker said, “ We need to make the money available for principals and schools to be able to offer help in these situations this is a step in the right direction.”

Not everyone seemed to share the Senator’s plea for more resources to fight mental illness rather they saw and immediate need for armed intervention.

Representative Kerry Rich, (R-Albertville), said that armed, “resources officers in all the schools I think that is the best way.” Rich said that school districts that could not afford such officers should be given the option to, “have someone carry a weapon, [in the school] as long as they have the same training as polices officers.”

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However, Alabama Director of Homeland Security Spencer Collier pointed out that only 27 percent of Alabama’s law enforcement officers are certified in, “Active Shooter,” training.

Representative Thomas E. Jackson, (D-Thomasville ), said that, “Arming people with guns is not going to stop the violence.” He said that we had to find a way to, “Touch the hearts and minds of these troubled people, hardware is not a solution.” He again pointed to the fact that Alabama has closed mental health facilities across the state at a time when they were most needed.

Senator Vivian Figures, (D-Mobile), was one who also emphasize the need for a mental health approach. She pointed out that in these mass murders that have happened in our country that the perpetrators all had signs of mental illness. She also said that there are, “indicators with these children,” and that, “educators need to know the indicators, and recognize those that need help.”

Figures, reminded the hearing that, “These shootings are not just going on in schools, the are happening in theaters, at rallies in public places, we have to get to the root of the problem.”

Spencer Collier, director of Homeland Security said that his goal was to take an, “overall, comprehensive, strategic view of the issue.”

In December Collier was tasked by Governor Robert Bentley to develop a plan, to provide a strategic plan to prevent, if possible, and respond, if necessary, to an active shooter scenario in the state of Alabama.

“Just as Senator Figures said and she said correctly even though this is particularly about school safety, the active shooter, worse case scenario is going on in work places, entertainment venues, houses of worship and particularly schools,” said Collier.

Collier said that the data indicates that there is no one set pattern to these events. “ So, we must prepare, we must control expectations, number one, I don’t think we are doing an incredible service by saying that we can prevent this from ever happening. We must control it through education. But what we can do is minimize it and mitigate it and that is part of what we have done.”

Collier told the legislators that number one, to his plan is to, “train each law enforcement officer in this state to be active shooter prepared and active shooter trained.”

Number two, goal was to educate the public, not just law enforcement, in what to do in an active shooter situation. “Prior to Newtown we were working on a program called “Run, Hide, Fight” that we partnered with and used in the city of Houston. That educates the public in what to do in an active shooter scenario.” However Collier admitted that this was not necessarily the answer for the K-12 system. “But we really must begin to educated the public and it is just that simple,” said Collier, “Run, escape if you can, if you can’t then hide, or if all else fails then you must fight and not be passive but be aggressive.”

Dr. Tommy Bice, Alabama Supernatant of Education offered an extensive overview of Alabama’s school preparedness saying, “All 1500 Alabama Public schools are required to have a comprehensive safety plan. The strength of these plans—which is not always acknowledge—is the collaborative process in which these plans are developed.”

Bice says that Alabama schools have been working on a program on, “How to plan, how to prepare, how to mitigate, how to respond and how to recover.” It is a strategic plan developed by National Incident Management System, (NIMS).

“Our major focus on the school level is limited access. We can’t control everything that is going to happen,” said Bice, but a program developed on the ideas of NIMS is an important one.

Bice, said that they have plans loaded and available through Virtual Alabama. According to the website, Virtual Alabama “provides the common operating picture and situational awareness needed by Alabama’s first responders to protect lives and safeguard citizens before, during, and after a disaster.”

Bice also cautioned that a , “One size fits all,” approach is not the answer to the complexities of any given school or situation.

Marla Vaughn, a Valley Elementary teacher, from Shelby County, and the President of the Council of Educators spoke from the point of view of an educator.

“There has been much discussion about training school personnel to carry firearms while on campus. I do not believe that this is an effective choice due to the fact that teachers and/or administrators having a firearm in the building just poses another security measure for students,” Vaughn said.

She did say she was open to non lethal weapons but warned, “Of course, that raises another security question and they require training.”

Vaughn said in her opinion, “each and every school school [should] have and armed uniformed officer or a plain-clothes officer who is walking inside and outside the perimeter at all times before school, during school and after school.”

She also suggested alternatives such as, “security systems that lock all doors including the front main entrance doors upon the starting bell and keep them locked throughout the day.”

Vaughn put forward many ideas as did a host of other individuals. encluding the President of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association Grover Smith, the President of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association Jimmie Harp, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard, as well as members of both committees in the state legislature.

There appears to be a wide gulf between ideas on how best to address the threats that may face our schools, from mental health to armed teachers the opinions ran in many directions.

The only thing for certain is that the Alabama Legislature will act. Perhaps Senator Brewbaker’s words of caution will prevail and a meaningful policies will be enacted to protect Alabama’s children and teachers.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Doug Jones applauds signing of veterans mental health and suicide prevention bill

The legislation is aimed at bolstering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

President Donald Trump over the weekend signed into law legislation cosponsored by Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, that aims to bolster mental healthcare for veterans and address veteran suicides. 

“Too many veterans – in Alabama and across the country – lack access to affordable, compassionate and effective mental health care. Through increased access to local and innovative treatment options, this new law will help veterans get the life-saving mental health services they may need,” Jones, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Wednesday.

U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, introduced the landmark Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, which would bolster the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce to serve veterans. 

The law also increases telehealth access for rural veterans, implements a pilot program to give veterans access to complementary care and establishes a grant program requiring the VA to better partner with agencies helping veterans to identify earlier those who are at risk of suicide. 

The law also strengthens how the VA will be held accountable for addressing veteran suicide, and it will allow the studying of the impact of living in high altitudes on veteran suicide risks and diagnostic biomarker research to identify depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and other conditions.

More than 20 veterans die by suicide every day, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates, and of those, 14 have received no treatment or care from VA. 

“The social isolation and increased anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated many of the issues our veterans face,” the senators wrote in a letter to Senate leadership before it was approved and signed into law by the president. “Our nation’s veterans and their families are waiting on Congress to take action to deliver these desperately needed resources. We must act now to provide this vital assistance to Americans who have sacrificed so much for our country and who deserve the best our nation has to offer. As such, we are seeking immediate passage of S. 785 when the U.S. House of Representatives reconvenes in September.”

The law is named in honor of
Commander John Scott Hannon, a member of the Navy SEALs who served in the U.S. Navy for 23 years. Hannon was helping other veterans even while he was receiving mental health treatment himself. He died by suicide on Feb. 25, 2018.

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Veterans can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255, and then press 1, or text to 838255. 

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Congressional candidate James Averhart endorsed by list of U.S. dignitaries, retired military leaders

The 1st Congressional District Democratic candidate has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Congressional candidate James Averhart

James Averhart, the Democratic candidate in Alabama’s 1st Congressional District and a retired U.S. Marine, has been endorsed by a list of retired U.S. dignitaries and retired military leaders, his campaign said Wednesday.

“James Averhart is an integral leader — a man of principles and a patriot. He is the best choice to represent District One on The Hill,” said Ambassador Theodore Britton, a World War II Veteran who was nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. General Walter E. Gaskin, who served as commanding general of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, said Averhart is experienced in matters of government and policy and understands the lay of the land in Washington D.C.

“He will be ready to hit the ground running to get things done for the district, and moreover, be that bridge to unite the parties in Congress as well as the nation,” Gaskin said in a statement.

“James Averhart is a strong dynamic leader who will get the job done. He is meticulous and a consummate professional that will advocate and work for all citizens of our district and Alabama,” said Ambassador J. Gary Cooper, a retired Marine Corps major general who was nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as assistant secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, and was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica.

“At a time when it seems that the Republican leadership is in lockstep with a president, who considers those in service to our great nation to be ‘suckers’ and ‘losers,’ is antithetical to what this country needs. We have over 30,000 citizens hospitalized and over 211,000 deaths due to coronavirus, which could have been prevented with sound, methodical leadership. We have been disappointed by this President and the Republican leadership standing with him. It is time for substantive change in our Nation’s Capital,” Averhart said.

“The American citizenry deserves and expects more of its leadership. We should no longer settle for those who continue to promulgate untruths and spew divisive rhetoric. We deserve leadership who will extol the truth and hold in high regard a united nation,” Averhart said.

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Avergart’s Republican opponent in the Nov. 3 election is Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl.

The following are a list of Averhart’s endorsements, according to his campaign:

Ambassador Theodore Britton

  • Nominated by President Gerald Ford to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the island nations of Barbados and Grenada
  • Served as the U.S. Special Representative to West Indian island nations of Antigua, Dominica, St. Christopher, Nevis, Anguilla, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia
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Ambassador J. Gary Cooper 

  • Vietnam Veteran and Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General
  • Nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica.
  • Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to serve as Asst Secretary of the Air Force, Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Lieutenant General Ronald L. Bailey

  • First African American to command the 1st • U.S. Marine Division
  • Served as Deputy Commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Retired in 2017 following 41 years of service.

Lieutenant General Walter E. Gaskin

  • Served as Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, NC Served as Commanding General, Marine Corps Recruiting Command, Quantico, Virginia
  • Served as Chief of Staff, Naval Striking and Support Forces-Southern Europe
  • Served as Deputy Commanding General, Fleet Marine Forces-Europe in Naples, Italy

Major General Cornell A. Wilson, Jr.

  • Served as Director, Reserve Affairs Division, Manpower and Reserve Affairs – Headquarters, U.S. MArine Corps, Quantico, Virginia.
  • Appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, NC, to the position of Secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Lieutenant General Willie J. Williams

  • Served as Director of the Marine Corp Staff
  • Retired in 2013 after serving 39 years in the U.S. Marine Corp.

Brigadier General John R. Thomas

  • Served as Director for Command, Control, Communications and Computers, U.S. Marine Corps.
  • Served as Director and Chief Information Officer, U.S. Marine Corp.

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AARP’s COVID-19 dashboard shows Alabama nursing home lagging behind national averages

In each of five parameters Alabama fared worse than the national average.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recently-released dashboard shows that Alabama’s nursing homes, residents and staff alike, are suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s concern over what may happen in the coming days and weeks. 

“We know we’re moving into a very dangerous time right now, with flu season, and weather getting colder and people moving indoors,” said AARP Alabama spokeswoman Jamie Harding, speaking to APR on Monday. 

AARP partnered with the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Ohio in the creation of the dashboard, which in this first set uses data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to look at five parameters for the four-week period ended Sept. 20. 

In each of the five parameters — nursing home resident deaths per 100 residents, resident cases per 100 residents, staff cases per 100 residents, supply of personal protective equipment and staffing shortages — Alabama fared worse than the national average.

In the last month, there were 1.03 COVID-19 deaths among Alabama nursing home residents per 100 residents, tying with Mississippi as the second highest death rate in the nation, coming just behind South Carolina, which had the most, at 1.2 deaths per 100 residents, according to the AARP reports. 

As of Oct. 14, 45 percent of Alabama’s total COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic were among nursing home residents, totaling 1,088 resident deaths at the time, according to the dashboard. For the four weeks ending Sept. 20, nursing home residents made up 48 percent of the state’s deaths. 

Harding also noted that by the time CMS publishes the nursing home data “it’s about two to three weeks old” so the public isn’t getting up-to-date information on what’s happening in nursing homes, but she said at least the AARP’s dashboard will show trends in the data over time. 

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“We want the state, we want our leadership to take this data seriously, to see that we are not performing well on these five metrics, which are very critical metrics, and we want to know how this is going to be addressed,” Harding said. 

The Alabama Department of Public Health has declined to release county-level or facility-level details on coronavirus in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, citing privacy concerns. 

“So that’s the problem, and Alabama has stubbornly refused to release daily reports, and remains one of just a handful of states still refusing to release the daily report, and we really have no good answer,” Harding said. 

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Harding also discussed a COVID-19 outbreak at the Attalla Health and Rehab, first reported by AL.com, in which the facility had to be evacuated due to a huge spike in cases there, peaking on July 10. Some residents were taken to a local hospital, while others were taken to Gadsden Health and Rehab and Trussville Health and Rehab, sparking an outbreak of COVID-19 at Trussville Health and Rehab. 

AL.com’s reporting noted that while at least 10 states have special strike teams ready to send staff and supplies to nursing homes experiencing an outbreak, Alabama does not. 

The new outlet quoted Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer with the Alabama Department of Public Health as saying that the department doesn’t have the staffing to form such teams. 

“That is an indication that this was a problem they were never prepared for, and they should have been,” Harding said.  “They are the Department of Public Health. This is their work. This is their job.” 

Harding also said that as of at least the end of September, the Alabama Nursing Home Association hadn’t yet begun spending the $50 million in CARES Act funds, which Gov. Kay Ivey announced on Aug. 7 would be made available to reimburse state nursing homes via the hospital association’s Education Foundation for the cost of fighting against COVID-19. 

John Matson, ANHA’s spokesman, told ABC 33/40 reported on Sept. 28 that the funds were in a holding account and the first claims should be paid in early October. Matson said an accounting firm had been hired  to help handle the administration of the funds. 

Harding expressed concern that the federal aid wasn’t being spent to help protect state nursing homes quickly enough, and said that the Attalla nursing home outbreak was made worse by a staffing shortage as workers either became sick themselves or quit to protect themselves and their loved ones. Alabama nursing homes weren’t overstaffed before the pandemic, she said. 

“We would like to see some of that $50 million dollars spent to address staffing emergencies,” Harding said. 

Matson, in a response to APR on Monday, said that since mid-March, Alabama’s nursing homes have been in the center of a fight to defend the most vulnerable citizens of our state from the most insidious and infectious virus attack in the last century. 

“Every resource has been pushed to the extreme,” Matson said. “While critics have the luxury of creating dashboards generated from government databases, the caregivers of Alabama’s nursing homes have relentlessly fought day-by-day, risking their own health, to care for the residents who depend on us. Our people are heroes and our nursing homes have met an unprecedented challenge.” 

Matson said every dollar of the $50 million spent must be justified by documentation, every claim is to be audited by an independent auditing firm before reimbursements are approved and ANHA filed regular reports to the Alabama Department of Finance which are publicly viewable. 

ANHA’s report for September, filed Oct. 15, states that many facilities were just then become eligible to apply for some of those $50 million due to requirements that the facilities deduct from amounts claimed any other coronavirus aid the facility may have received from other sources, such as the “Medicaid COVID add-on of $20 per day per Medicaid patient, DHHS Provider Relief Funds; and SBA payroll Protection payment loans attributable to payroll, if any.” 

“Therefore, due to the application of these mitigants, many facilities are just now becoming eligible to apply for and receive funds,” the report reads. 

The September report also states that to guard against funds not being available “in the event of a second or later COVID-19 wave, the Foundation is holding back 25% of approved claims.” 

The report also says that 12 facilities as of Sept. 30 were approved for $6.5 million in claims, with $1.6 to be held back for possible future COVID-19 waves. As of Oct. 13, there were $10.4 million in pending claims filed by 65 facilities, according to the report, and there were $16.9 million on total claims paid or pending.

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Birmingham refinances $179 million in debt

“When I became mayor in November 2017, it became apparent the city was not on sound financial footing,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin.

John H. Glenn

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Birmingham's skyline (STOCK PHOTO)

Birmingham has refinanced $179 million in general obligation debt, securing the lowest interest cost for the city in decades and accruing $44 million in present value savings from bond refunding. *Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Birmingham filed one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history. Birmingham has never filed for bankruptcy. However, Jefferson County was involved in one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history. The headline also said Birmingham paid off the debt. It has refinanced the debt.

“When I became mayor in November 2017, it became apparent the city was not on sound financial footing,” said Mayor Randall Woodfin. “A key reason was the city was not paying into its pension at the level that was needed. Today, we have dramatically increased our payment to the pension. I want to thank the council for their support in this effort. We have reduced the cost of borrowing money and have strengthened our financial position.”

Bond refunding reduces the payments for debt service in the general fund by upward of $5 million per year for the next five years, allowing $13 million in real cash savings for commercial development use in the future.

Stifel served as senior bookrunning manager for the issue and led the structuring of the financing, as well as the sales and underwriting.

Based on number of issues sold, Stifel is the leading underwriter in the country and has a major presence in the State of Alabama.

Birmingham has now nearly doubled its contribution to its pension fund since the 2017 fiscal year.

The city’s commitment to increasing its pension funds, coupled with a focus on maintaining services and infrastructure during the COVID-19 pandemic has generated confidence in the city’s finances among rating agencies.

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Four credit rating agencies — S&P, Moody’s, Fitch and KBRA — reaffirmed the city’s current ratings. A downgrade could have cost the city millions of dollars during the recent bond refunding and created bigger challenges for the operating budget.

Birmingham’s Porter White & Company and Atlanta’s Terminus Municipal Advisors LLC served as municipal advisors for the city during the refunding phase.

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