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

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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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.

“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.”

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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.”

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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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Plaintiffs ask for panel of judges to reconsider ruling on Alabama voter ID law

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Plaintiffs suing Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill alleging the state’s voter ID law discriminates against minorities on Monday asked a panel of judges to reconsider an appeals court decision that affirmed the law. 

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund on Monday filed a petition Monday asking that all of the judges on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reconsider the July 21 decision by a panel of three judges that fell 2-1 in favor of the state’s voter ID law. 

The 2011 law requires voters in Alabama to show a valid, government-issued photo ID to vote. The NAACP, Greater Birmingham Ministries and several minority voters sued, arguing that lawmakers knowingly crafted the law to prevent Black people and other minorities, who are less likely to have such photo IDs, from voting. 

The three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in its July 21 opinion found that the burden of Alabama’s voter ID law is minimal, and does not“violate the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the Constitution, nor does it violate the Voting Rights Act.”

Merrill has argued that the state’s voter ID law is meant to deter in-person voting fraud and that the state makes available mobile photo ID units able to provide voters with the necessary IDs.

District Judge Darrin Gayles in his dissenting opinion wrote that voter fraud in Alabama is rare, and that “while there have been some limited cases of absentee voter fraud, in-person voter fraud is virtually non-existent.”

Gayles wrote that Merrill presented evidence of just two instances of in-person voter fraud in Alabama’s history.

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“Despite the lack of in-person voter fraud, Secretary Merrill claims Alabama enacted the Photo ID Law to combat voter fraud and to restore confidence in elections — a dubious position in light of the facts,” Gayles wrote.

Gayles noted that former State Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, before his retirement in 2010, sponsored similar voter ID bills.

“During this time, Senator Dixon made repeated comments linking photo identification legislation to race, including ‘the fact you don’t have to show an ID is very beneficial to the Black power structure and the rest of the Democrats’ and that voting without photo identification ‘benefits Black elected leaders, and that’s why they’re opposed to it,'” Gayles wrote in his dissenting opinion.

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“It is clear from the statements of the legislators who enacted Alabama’s photo ID law that they passed it for the unconstitutional purpose of discriminating against voters of color,” said LDF senior counsel Natasha Merle in a statement Monday. “As long as this law is intact, Black and Latinx Alabamians will continue to be disproportionately excluded from the state’s electoral process.”

Attorneys in the filing Monday told the court that “roughly 118,000 Alabamians lack qualifying photo ID, and Black and Latinx voters are twice as likely to lack qualifying ID as compared to white voters. Given this evidence, a trial was required to determine whether HB19 violates the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.”

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AARP Alabama asks for details on $50 million federal COVID-19 aid to nursing homes

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama chapter of AARP is asking the state to ensure federal coronavirus relief funds are spent wisely and in the open. Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced $50 million in grants would go to state nursing homes to aid in the fight against COVID-19.

Candi Williams, AARP’s Alabama state director, told APR on Monday that the organization, which advocates for the elderly, wants a better understanding of how that money will be spent and to ensure some is spent for ongoing COVID-19 testing.

A spokesman for the Alabama Nursing Home Association says details on how the money can be spent is already publicly available, however, and Ivey in early June announced the award of $18.27 million in federal CARES Act funds to be spent toward regular nursing home COVID-19 testing.

“What we’re looking for is specifics on how it will be used, and we want those specifics to be made publicly available,” Williams said.

Ivey on Friday said the money is to be administered by the Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation. The Alabama Hospital Association is to administer up to $50 million in grants to state hospitals through another program.

“This allocation of up to $50 million will be for operational costs that are COVID-19 related, such as PPE, cleaning, personnel costs and other costs incurred related to the pandemic,” Ivey’s office said in a press release Friday.

“In partnership with the state of Alabama, the Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation will administer the funds fairly and impartially on behalf of the people of Alabama, for all of Alabama’s nursing home facilities,” the statement goes on to say.

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Williams said the public deserves to know how the federal funds will be used, and said Ivey’s office hasn’t yet signaled whether those details will be made public.

Ivey’s office, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment, and referred a reporter to the Alabama Nursing Home Association.

John Matson, communications director for the Alabama Nursing Home Association, told APR that AARP Alabama need only read the memorandum of understanding published along with Ivey’s announcement about the grants on Friday to see how the money must be spent.

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According to the memorandum, the Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation can only disburse the funds to nursing homes “for the purposes of responding to or mitigating the COVID-19 public health emergency” and details what facilities must do to receive the money.

Among the requirements, nursing homes in their applications must provide supporting documentation, which can include invoices, purchase orders, payroll records and financial records, according to the memorandum. The foundation must also provide the Alabama Finance Director’s Office with a detailed report on the 15th of each month noting how the money was spent, according to the document.

“I think it would be helpful for them to read that,” Matson said, referring to AARP Alabama and the memorandum of understanding.

AARP Alabama is also asking that the money be used for ongoing and methodical testing of all residents and staff in the state’s long-term care facilities.

“We’ve seen across the country that testing can be hit or miss, and testing frequency can vary,” Williams said. “We’ve seen in other states where that has helped curb the loss of life and helps protect residents.”

Matson noted that Ivey in early June also announced a separate $18.27 million in federal CARES Act funds to be spent toward regular nursing home COVID-19 testing and “proactive surveillance” through the end of the calendar year, which is also being administered by the Alabama Nursing Home Association Education Foundation.

Alabama’s long-term care ombudsmen, who are tasked with protecting residents’ rights and investigating health and safety concerns, have been largely banned from entering Alabama’s long-term care facilities since early on in the pandemic when the facilities ended visitations to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Williams said AARP would also like to see the safe reentry of ombudsmen into state facilities and for those details to be included in a publicly-released plan.

“We also have been advocating for transparency and real-time data about the COVID cases and death in Alabama nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That continues to be a struggle,” Williams said.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is collecting that state data, but it’s weeks old by the time it’s published on the federal agency’s website, Williams said.

“Having that information would help us protect the residents, staff and surrounding communities, but also making sure families have that information,” Williams 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. Many other states do release that information, however.

According to CMS, there have been 3,841 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 562 deaths among residents in Alabama nursing homes as of July 26. AARP Alabama said COVID-19 deaths of nursing home residents make up approximately 42 percent of the state’s total coronavirus deaths.

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There may be one more red snapper weekend coming

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced Thursday that their preliminary 2020 red snapper numbers show that Alabama fisherman may have not reached their quota on the pounds of red snapper taken this year. This opens the possibility that the state may add a fall opportunity to catch the fish, which is highly prized by saltwater anglers.

Scott Bannon, the director of the Alabama Marine Resources Division, said that the preliminary harvest numbers for the private recreational sector indicate about 100,000 pounds remain in the quota of 1,122,622 pounds.

The red snapper season for private recreational anglers, which includes state charter vessels, was supposed to have originally lasted 35 days, beginning the Friday of Memorial Day weekend; however, state regulators cut the season to just 25 days when they noticed an uptick in the number of boats on the water this year compared to previous years.

It now appears that the state did not reach quota.

Bannon said he and Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Chris Blankenship are discussing options that would give Alabama anglers another option to catch Alabama’s most prized reef fish species.

“The private recreational angler season went really well even though we closed a little earlier than we anticipated,” Bannon said. “The data showed a tremendous number of people took advantage of the season, especially with the opening earlier on May 22.”

Bannon said that the MRD detected a significant uptick in angler participation this year when they analyzed the data.

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“The average vessel trips for the season were 713 trips per day,” Bannon said. “That means a lot of people went fishing compared to the last two years, which had an average of about 530 vessel trips per day.”

Bannon believes that the coronavirus crisis was a major factor in more Alabamians going fishing this year.

“I think people took advantage to go snapper fishing when they could not participate in other activities,” Bannon said. “They could not get on cruise ships. They couldn’t go to Disney. People were not playing travel sports. Boating was considered a safe outdoor activity, so I do think the COVID-19 pandemic affected the snapper season. I think it prompted more people to go snapper fishing than we had in the past.”

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Bannon said that they might have shortened the snapper season even further than they did without Tropical Storm Cristobal, which significantly limited fishing on the third weekend of snapper season.

“Even after the second weekend, I had people tell me about the high number of boats they were seeing offshore,” Bannon said. “They said there’s no way we’re going to make it to July 19. My thoughts were that as the season progresses the fervor dies down in July, and fishing gets a little tougher. Again, with not having other activities available, the weather outside that Cristobal weekend was really good and people went fishing.”

“The Cristobal weekend slowed down the catch effort,” Bannon explained. “You can also see the weekend days had much higher catch effort.”

The five Gulf states were granted control of red snapper management in 2018. Alabama added Mondays to the weekend to try to spread out the effort and provide more opportunities to fish.

“I think adding Mondays was a success,” Bannon said. “Some people felt that had a negative impact and reduced season length because of the Monday fishing. But if you add up all of the Monday effort, it is barely more than our peak Saturday. Mondays did exactly what we hoped it would do. It provided opportunities to avoid the Saturday chaos, allow people who work weekends an opportunity to go, and allow people who were on vacation who had to travel on Saturday to have an extra opportunity. And, if you were local, the feedback I got was they took advantage of Mondays instead of trying to fish on Saturdays when the effort was so high. They didn’t fish any more because it was open on Mondays; they just fished a different day.”

Red snapper season closed down after July 3.

“I know there was disappointment that we didn’t have red snapper for the Alabama Deep Sea Rodeo, being the nation’s largest fishing tournament,” Bannon said. “With all of the other challenges the rodeo had with the COVID-19 issues and all the events that were canceled, I think they had the best event they could under the circumstances.”

Alabama charter boat fleet still operates under federal management through NOAA Fisheries. The charter season opened on June 1 and ran straight through August 1.

“I think the charter season went really well, especially considering that, when the coronavirus first hit, a lot of people were canceling trips early in the year,” Bannon said. “As boating was considered a safe activity, many of the boats adjusted their capacity so people felt comfortable and safe. They lost the Cristobal weekend just like everyone else, but they got to fish pretty consistently for the 62 days they were open. From my discussions with the captains, they considered it a very good season considering the COVID circumstances. And I think they’ll have a good fall season as people still have limited outdoor activities. The charters will target other fish, like amberjack, which is scheduled to be open until October 31. They can also catch vermilion snapper (beeliners) and other reef fish species as well as king mackerel.”

Bannon said that he was encouraged by the variety of sizes of red snapper.

“We had a large number of smaller fish, which we attribute to a strong year-class of fish,” Bannon said. “Those younger fish will crowd those reefs. What you should see in the next year or two, those fish will be growing up around those reefs and then dispersing. We should be able to follow the year-class and see how it works out over the next few years.”

What state regulators will do to allow more fishing opportunities for red snapper, or even if there will be another red snapper weekend, has not yet been determined.

August is the month to renew your hunting and fishing licenses.

Alabama has an enormous variety of outdoor opportunities for hunters and fishermen. You can literally hunt and fish year-round in Alabama. Unlike youth sports or attending sporting events, concerts, movies, shows or shopping, the whole family can participate in both hunting and fishing while still socially distancing and protecting themselves from catching and spreading the coronavirus.

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Alabama Legislative Black Caucus holds meetings on racism in wake of George Floyd death

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, is the chair of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

Members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus in recent months have been meeting with Gov. Kay Ivey, state law enforcement officials and others to voice their concern over systemic racism in Alabama, the group said in a statement Friday. 

Alabama Legislative Black Caucus members in June met with Ivey, and in follow-up meetings with other state officials and leaders of higher education, members discussed what they believe needs changing to battle racism in Alabama, according to the press release. 

“We are very appreciative of Governor Ivey and all of the officials with whom we have met thus far,” said State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, chairwoman of the ALBC, in a statement. “Our dialogues have been very substantive and productive as the Caucus presented our concerns and recommendations. Our goal is to get to the root of and eradicate racism and anything that communicates hatred, bigotry or divisiveness within the State of Alabama. The tragic and senseless death of George Floyd caused us all to take a closer look at the systemic racism at work here in Alabama.”

ALBC members met with officials from Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Sheriffs Association, the Alabama Association of Police Chiefs and Katie Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama along with BCA’s Executive Leadership Committee.

Members also met with The University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John, and Jay Gogue, president of Auburn University. 

In the statement, ALBC members applauded the University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees for voting unanimously to rename Nott Hall — named for Josiah Nott, a doctor who believed in white superiority — Honors Hall. 

“The University of Alabama had already started this endeavor before our meeting with them this past Tuesday,” said State Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Gallion, vice chairman of ALBC, in a statement. “That was a great first step and strong leadership was shown. We are looking forward to the other institutions of higher learning in Alabama to do the same as well. The Caucus also hopes that all members of the Alabama Legislature have been inspired to adopt and make meaningful changes in legislation that governs our state.”

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Figures said the group of elected senators and representatives are holding these talks, with plans for others, “so that people will stop focusing on Alabama’s sordid past, and instead see a beautiful Alabama present, and the makings of a bright future for all Alabamians.” 

“During each of these meetings, our members have had the opportunity to voice what we feel the necessary changes should be. I just hope this openness to positive change continues throughout the upcoming 2021 Alabama Legislative Session,” said State Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, in a statement. 

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