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AL House Minority Leader to Propose Plan for Improving Public Education

Lee Hedgepeth

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By Lee Hedgepeth
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY— State House of Representatives Minority Leader Craig Ford (D) will hold a press conference today on the topic of education in Alabama. Ford, who represents Etowah County, and is a lifelong native of Gadsden, has been an outspoken opponent of the Alabama Accountability Act since its passage last legislative session.

The law provides tax credits for parents whose children attend schools labeled as “failing” to attend a private school of their choice.

Other Democrats from around the state have also spoken out against the policy; Dallas County Representative Darrio Melton, in a recent op-ed published here on APR, said that Republicans passed the law in order to “codify segregation.”

In his own op-ed on the subject, Minority Leader Ford voiced many other shortcomings of the law. As he points out, to date only 51 students have actually transferred out of “failing” schools under the plan, even when, as he says, Republicans have called the legislation “historic” and “life-altering.” Only eight private institutions in the state have even decided to accept these students, despite the 1,500 public schools decreed “failing.”

The law is also currently being challenged in court by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Education Association on various state constitutional grounds. The Department of Justice also stated concerns about the law, especially considering the evident impact transfer opportunities in the law have on the ability of local school districts to implement racial balancing transfers in order to comply with federal desegregation orders still in place. For example, in August the Federal Government ordered Huntsville to ignore transfer quotas in the law because of their impact on racial balancing.

Many of these perceived legislative failures are sure to be addressed in tomorrow’s press conference. However, thankfully, Ford is not slated to speak only on the alleged failures of Republican policy.

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The press conference, scheduled for 2:00 at the State House, will also showcase the Minority Leader’s proposal on “a way to improve academic performance in every public school in Alabama.”

Many people around the state have long called for a Democratic proposal to replace the legislation the Party deems failed, so these steps by Rep. Ford, rumored to be a contender for the 2014 gubernatorial run, are a positive step forward for progressives in the state.

Alabama Political Reporter will cover the event and report on the Minority Leader’s comments on the Accountability Act, and his future plans for education in our state.

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Crime

Internal report on Alabama inmate’s death backs statements by concerned whistleblowers

Almost all of the information in the report has already been published through APR’s own independent reporting on McMillian’s death, and the report corroborates much of APR’s reporting. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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Many of the allegations made by concerned workers at an Alabama prison about the death of an inmate were corroborated in a report filed by an officer who was involved in the incident. 

Many of the allegations made by concerned workers at an Alabama prison about the death of an inmate were corroborated in a report filed by an officer who was involved in the incident.

Darnell McMillian, 38, was on suicide watch when he died on June 22 after correctional officers placed him in a cell with another inmate, Demetris Eatmon, who was also on suicide watch. Statements by the two workers and a narrative in the report shed light on what happened in the moments of McMillian’s death.

According to the workers’ statements and the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) internal report, once McMillian was placed in the cell with the other man a fight ensued and officers used pepper spray to break it up, but while the report notes two cans were used one of the workers say three cans were sprayed into the cell, and the excessive amount may have resulted in his death.

The two Alabama Department of Corrections workers spoke separately to APR with concerns about McMillian’s death – one by phone on July 1 and another worker on July 9. Each said they had worked with both of the inmates and the officers involved, and all knew that the other inmate who fought with McMillian was violent and that no other inmates were to be placed in his cell.

“Eatmon is a very volatile inmate. Very violent. Very big guy,” one of the workers told APR.  “You never put anybody in the cell with him.”

One of the workers told APR previously that once the two inmates were in the cell together they were enticed by the officers to fight, and that while they were uncertain of why they did so in this instance, such tactics are used by officers regularly when an inmate angers them, the person said.

Demetris Eatmon of Midfield pleaded guilty and is serving a 20-year sentence for attempted murder and robbery for an incident on January 12, 2004, in which he shot a man, according to court records. The duty officer report on McMillian’s death lists Eatmon as a member of the Black Gangster Disciple gang, and McMillian as a member of the Imperial Gangster Disciple gang.

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The lieutenant and three correctional officers who were involved in the incident all were assigned to work the mental health area of the prison, all knew the inmates well and all knew that no one else was to be placed in a cell with the other inmate, both workers said. The captain who was involved in the incident had just recently been promoted and may not have been aware, however, one worker said.

According to the duty officer report, which was completed by one of the officers involved in the incident, McMillian started hitting the other inmate while the officer was attempting to take handcuffs off the other inmate through a tray slot in the cell door. The other inmate broke free with one handcuff still attached and the two began fighting, according to the report and statements to APR by the employees.

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APR isn’t naming the officers or other ADOC employees involved with the incident, as there have been no criminal charges filed against any of them.

The worker who spoke to APR on July 1 said officers sprayed three cans of pepper spray into the cell, an excessive amount that may have killed him.

The worker said sometime around 6 p.m. on June 22 three correctional officers placed McMillian into the cell with Eatmon, who was known to be violent. The duty officer report notes he was placed into the cell close to 6:15 p.m. that day.

The first worker to speak to APR in July said that officers enticed the two men to fight, and once Eetmon began threatening McMillian, McMillian took the first swing. The report also notes that McMillian swung first, while the other inmate was still partially handcuffed.

One officer “drew his Aerosol Deterrent Spray, Sabre Red can #6099417” and sprayed several bursts into the cell and ordered them to stop fighting, according to the report, which states that a  separate officer “retrieved the Sabre Red Cell Buster from the cube and administered a burst into the cell, with more verbal orders to stop fighting. Both inmates then complied.” The cube is a secure area for officers located in the center of the cell blocks.

“The inmate was yelling that he couldn’t breathe,” the employee told APR on July 1 referring to McMillian.

The other inmate was taken to the infirmary decontaminated and released back to ADOC custody by a nurse, the report states.

McMillian was taken to the infirmary in a wheelchair at around 6:25 p.m., according to the report, where a nurse “observed that inmate McMillian was non-verbal and unresponsive” and three nurses “began administering CPR and utilizing the Automatic External (sic) Difibulator.”

The report states that prison’s warden was notified and arrived at the prison at 7 p.m.. About 35 minutes later, paramedics arrived and at 7:49 p.m. called a UAB doctor who pronounced McMillion dead.

The first officer to have sprayed pepper spray into the cell then “secured cell S-11 with tape and the triage room in the Infirmary. Pictures were taken of S-11 and the triage room,” according to the report.

The worker who spoke to APR on July 1 said that before photos were taken, officers had inmates clean the cell of everything except for several spots of blood, which the worker said might make it appear to have been a homicide by the other inmate.”

Jefferson County Coroner Bill Yates told APR in July that McMillian’s final cause of death awaits toxicology and other lab results, which can take between four and six weeks, but that there did not appear to be any external injuries that could have caused his death.

“From our autopsy, I don’t believe we found any type of trauma that would explain death,” Yates said at the time.

The duty officer report notes the incident as “Death – Inmate-on-Inmate.”

ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in a message to APR on Aug. 7 said that the investigation into McMillian’s death is ongoing, and therefore the department cannot comment on the matter.

Rose also verified that the duty officer report is authentic, but said that it doesn’t tell the whole picture.

“Please note this file represents an initial reporting of the incident and does not include nor is reflective of information gathered during the course of the ADOC’s ongoing investigation into Darnell McMillian’s death,” Rose said.

Rose also cautioned a reporter against publishing the report, saying that doing so could jeopardize the investigation.

“The information not only was unethically provided to you, it was provided in violation of the law. The disclosure of this protected information compromises the integrity of our active investigation, and we strongly advise you to consider the consequences of publishing it,” Rose said.

APR decided to publish the report in redacted form for several reasons. Almost all of the information in the report has already been published through APR’s own independent reporting on McMillian’s death, and the report corroborates much of APR’s reporting.

Additionally, the U.S. Department of Justice in a report released July 23 on the excessive uses of force against inmates by Alabama correctional officers, investigators note systemic problems of unreported or underreported excessive use of force incidents, a failure to properly investigate them and attempts by correctional officers and their supervisors to cover them up.

“These uses of excessive force—which include the use of batons, chemical spray, and physical altercations such as kicking—often result in serious injuries and, sometimes, death,” the report continues.

Federal investigators also noted that despite the large number of use-of-force incidents, a small fraction are investigated above the prison-level and sent to ADOC’s Investigations and Intelligence division.

APR also decided to publish the redacted report because it sheds more light on what those federal investigators said were inappropriate uses of pepper spray on inmates, and instances of officers ignoring ADOC’s policies on the use of pepper spray.

“Chemical spray is regularly used as retribution. These kinds of applications of chemical agents violate the Constitution,” the report reads.

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Elections

Voter Protection Corps recruiting local organizers in Alabama

Micah Danney

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The national nonprofit March On is recruiting regional leaders for its Voter Protection Corps. (GRAPHIC VIA MARCH ON)

The national nonprofit March On is recruiting regional leaders for its Voter Protection Corps, a grassroots network of organizers who will be trained to spot and counteract voter suppression ahead of the 2020 election in 14 key states, of which Alabama is one.

“With closed polling places, broken machines, long lines and the assault on mail-in ballots, voter suppression efforts have reached dangerous new heights in 2020,” said Andi Pringle, March On’s director of strategic and political campaigns. “Coupled with a global pandemic, these efforts threaten our ability to hold a free, fair and safe election in November. March On is looking for young leaders who are fired up to turn out the vote and protect democracy.”

Selected recruits will function as captains who then recruit at least five volunteers to form a squad. There will be about 20 squads in each state, Pringle said.

Captains will be trained by lawyers to know the ins and outs of their local election laws. They will train their squads to help voters exercise their rights to mail-in voting and early voting and will establish relationships with local election protection initiatives, election officials and community leaders.

Voter suppression can take many forms, Pringle said, including misinformation about polling locations, voter ID laws and various legal and administrative obstacles that can prevent average people “who don’t live and breathe this stuff” from casting their vote. Fighting such tactics is generally talked about in terms of attorneys and happens on or after Election Day, but that doesn’t prevent bureaucratic disenfranchisement that occurs in the days and weeks before the election, Pringle said.

“So the vote is already suppressed before they even get to the polls,” she said.

March On is recruiting captains from the Divine 9 Black fraternities and sororities, as well as women, veterans, young professionals, college students and recent graduates. It plans to have more than 7,000 corps members nationally.

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Economy

Small businesses faring better than chain stores as sales economy rebounds, retail group says

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state collected more in sales tax from stores, restaurants and online retailers in the first half of this year than in the same period last year, and that bodes well for Alabama’s retail sector, according to the Alabama Retail Association.

Revenue from state sales taxes and the simplified sellers use tax program for online retailers was up nearly 6 percent during the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, according to the Alabama Department of Revenue.

Collections were down in March and April compared to 2019 but increased significantly in May and June. While sales tax collections for June were up 11.32 percent over June of last year — the first such double-digit growth since a 10.99 percent increase in April 2019 — part of the increase is due to some small businesses being allowed to delay remitting sales tax from February, March and April until as late as June 1.

That fudges the numbers somewhat, but the overall takeaway is that Alabamians have continued to spend despite the global health pandemic, albeit in different ways, said ARA spokesperson Nancy King Dennis.

When places like grocery stores and home improvement stores were the only businesses that were open, their sales went up. Consumers continued to buy even though their options were limited, many with help from federal unemployment insurance that created an influx to the local economy, Dennis said.

While some businesses, including large chain stores, have closed due to the pandemic, shops and restaurants that were able to pivot and adapt did better, she said. Businesses that sell on as many channels as possible — in-store and online, including using social media — have been particularly successful.

“Smaller retailers are actually probably doing better than the larger big chain stores because they’re closer to their customers, they know their customer base,” Dennis said. “For the time that stores were closed, they were selling over Facetime, they were doing a lot of social media sales.”

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The retail industry employs a quarter of Alabama’s private-sector workers, more than any other industry, according to the ARA. It provides the state with almost $2.5 billion in sales tax each year, which was about 20 percent of state revenue last year.

“When looking at the numbers back in March and April, my thought was we wouldn’t see an increase over the previous year for any months until probably 2021,” she said.

Rick Brown, president of the ARA, urged Alabamians to shop local in order to keep open small businesses that contribute to their communities.

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“Alabama’s retailers and restaurants are leading our state’s recovery,” Brown said in a statement. “They continue to put people back to work, pivot to make their businesses safe for their customers and employees and innovate to serve customers however those customers prefer.”

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News

Chancellor appoints Cynthia Anthony interim president at Lawson State Community College

Anthony has 30 years of higher education experience, most recently serving as interim vice chancellor for student success for the Alabama Community College System and executive vice president and dean of students at Lawson State.

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Cynthia Anthony will soon begin as interim president of Lawson State Community College. (VIA ACCS)

Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker has announced the appointment of Cynthia Anthony as interim president of Lawson State Community College after longtime Lawson State President Perry Ward recently announced his retirement effective Aug. 31, 2020.

Anthony has 30 years of higher education experience, most recently serving as interim vice chancellor for student success for the Alabama Community College System and executive vice president and dean of students at Lawson State.

Prior to her leadership at Lawson State, Anthony served at Bessemer State Technical College, which merged with Lawson State in 2005.  In addition to various other leadership rolls within the ACCS, she served as interim president at three other ACCS institutions: Drake State Community and Technical College, Shelton State Community College and Enterprise State Community College.

“Dr. Anthony has been an important part of the Alabama Community College System for three decades and I look forward to working with her as she leads Lawson State during this important transition,” Baker said. “Dr. Anthony is an insightful and intuitive leader whose career has been focused on helping students and expanding their educational opportunities. The students, faculty, and staff at Lawson State is in capable hands with Dr. Anthony at the helm.”

Anthony earned a bachelor of arts degree in Psychology from Talladega College. She received both her educational specialist degree in educational leadership and her master of education degree in counseling from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  She completed her doctorate in educational leadership through a joint program at UAB and the University of Alabama.

She was awarded UAB’s Department of Education’s Outstanding Alumni Award in 2005.

“Student success has always been at the very core of every role I’ve filled within Alabama’s community colleges and I look forward to this opportunity to continue the great tradition of student achievement at Lawson State,” Anthony said. “I care deeply about the Birmingham and Bessemer communities and I look forward to continuing to work alongside public and private sector leaders to ensure we’re helping our students meet their education and training goals.”

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Anthony’s tenure as interim president at Lawson State Community College will begin on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

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