Occasional Planet http://www.occasionalplanet.org progressive voices speaking out Tue, 02 Sep 2014 12:00:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Health risks demand a moratorium on fracking http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/09/02/health-risks-demand-a-moratorium-on-fracking/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=health-risks-demand-a-moratorium-on-fracking http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/09/02/health-risks-demand-a-moratorium-on-fracking/#comments Tue, 02 Sep 2014 12:00:10 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29926

Fracking in New York State. [2014, Les Stone]

A rapidly growing body of research demonstrates that hydraulic fracturing poses dangers not only to the environment but to people’s health. Once contamination occurs and people become ill, it’s incredibly difficult and costly to remedy, and often impossible to reverse.

Last week, Concerned Health Professionals of New York released a major new compilation – a compendium – of the scientific, medical and media findings demonstrating the risks and harms of fracking (read it online at ConcernedHealthNY.org/Compendium).

Based on the results of hundreds of studies nationwide where fracking already exists, it’s clear that permitting fracking in New York could harm the air, water, health and safety of residents statewide.

In January, for instance, an Associated Press investigation analyzed state records from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas that documented many cases where fracking activities are linked to water contamination. Such records build on multiple studies from Duke University finding risks of nearby groundwater contamination from fracking and a University of Missouri School of Medicine study documenting dangerous hormone-disrupting chemicals in ground and surface water near fracking sites.

The fracking process also has given rise to concerns about increased air pollution. A Colorado School of Public Health study found air pollutants near fracking sites at levels that can raise risks for cancer, neurological deficits and respiratory problems. It’s noteworthy that the American Lung Association in New York also supports a moratorium on fracking in New York. In Utah, fracking has grown rapidly in the past few years, and the once immaculately clean Uintah Basin now ranks as one of the 25 most-polluted counties in the country. There is a continuing investigation into the cause of elevated rates of stillbirth and infant death in that region.

The significant body of compelling findings is why I recently joined more than 250 medical organizations and health professionals in urging Gov. Andrew Cuomo and acting Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to enact at least a three- to five-year moratorium on fracking in New York to allow time for the results of continuing scientific and medical research to emerge. New Yorkers should not be placed in the crosshairs of these public health threats. We need to prioritize the health of all of our residents. It’s inexcusable to consider a pilot project that brings fracking into any part of our state, putting some of our residents immediately in harm’s way and releasing contaminants that do not stop at municipal boundaries drawn on a map.

The Assembly listened to scientists and medical experts June 16 by overwhelmingly passing a three-year moratorium on fracking in New York. Unfortunately, the state Senate refused to schedule a vote. Ultimately, however, the responsibility rests with Gov. Cuomo, who can – and must – protect New Yorkers by implementing a three- to five-year moratorium.
Though a growing number of studies point to serious potential health risks related to fracking, there is quite a lot we still don’t know. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that drilling and fracking clearly pose “inherent environmental and public health risks” and that the full extent of those risks is not yet known. Countless prominent researchers have called for more studies, especially of the cumulative, long-term health impacts.

The gas industry has been secretive with information – limiting disclosure and keeping crucial data out of researchers’ hands. As a result, the pace of scientific research has been impeded. Yet, results of a number of important studies tracking short- and long-term health effects of fracking are due to come out in the next few years.

That is why my colleagues and I think a three- to five-year moratorium – at minimum – is prudent.

Clean water, clean air and a safe home and community are not privileges; they are rights. It’s up to Gov. Cuomo to ensure the health of all New Yorkers and enact a statewide moratorium on fracking.

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared on 8/02/2014 in the Poughkeepsie Journal. It is reposted by permission of the author.]

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Who Am I? Guess the progressive http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/31/who-am-i-guess-the-progressive-4/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=who-am-i-guess-the-progressive-4 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/31/who-am-i-guess-the-progressive-4/#comments Sun, 31 Aug 2014 17:19:18 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29938 Can you identify this person?179_Pyatok_extended

Occasional Planet’s “Who Am I” series features people who have made important contributions to liberal thought, progressive politics, human rights, enlightened education, environmental awareness, and “small-d” democratic principles–both in the US and internationally.

The abbreviated bios in our “Progressive Hall of Fame” only hint at the scope of our hall of famers’ struggles and accomplishments. We hope that curiosity will impel you find out more about these inspiring people, whose professional efforts and personal sacrifices deserve to be remembered—and emulated.

.To see a gallery of the progressive role models previously featured on Occasional Planet, click here.

This week’s featured progressive role model is:

179_Pyatok_studioMICHAEL PYATOK (1944 – )
Architect, author

Claims to progressive fame

Dedicated to the theory, design, and planning of low-income and affordable housing.

Advocates for vibrant, sustainable, inclusive communities through design that is sensitive to context and need.

Authored “Good Neighbor: The Design of Affordable Housing” (1998), which proposed that good design results from collaboration between the client and the community as equal partners.

Develops strategies for non-profits to develop decent and affordable housing in an era of shrinking public resources.







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The 9-year-old and the Uzi: What were they thinking? http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/29/the-9-year-old-and-the-uzi-what-were-they-thinking/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-9-year-old-and-the-uzi-what-were-they-thinking http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/29/the-9-year-old-and-the-uzi-what-were-they-thinking/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 12:00:45 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29919 kidwithgunThere are times when words fail. The news that a nine-year-old child accidentally shot and killed 39-year-old Charles Vacca, an instructor at a shooting range in White Hills, Arizona, represents one of those times.

There are no words that adequately capture the tragedy of such an unnecessary loss of life and the trauma that will plague this young girl for the rest of her life. What words can describe the poor judgment of the parents and the instructor? With what words could we possibly address the surfeit of responsibility on the part of individuals, businesses, the gun industry, and government?

There’s only one relevant word I can find. And that word is “why?” Why was a child of nine allowed to fire a weapon at a shooting range? Why did the instructor believe that a child would have the strength to control a weapon capable of firing off six hundred rounds per minute when set on automatic mode? Why are shooting ranges in the majority of states allowed to adopt their own minimum-age policies? Why are there so few states with laws setting minimum-age requirements for rifle and shotgun possession? Why are military-style weapons readily available in the first place?

In truth I don’t believe there are any words that even begin to answer questions like those—those horrible after-the-fact questions.

Still, there’s one more question that begs to be asked. “Why would parents and the operators of a shooting range put into the hands of a child a powerful and deadly military-style weapon?”

Every answer to that question is ridiculous, absurd, or completely crazy. But here are a few.

  • Because the name Uzi sounds like a cool toy a kid might want to cuddle up with at night?
  • Because the child wanted to know what it feels like to be a soldier fighting in the Six-Day War, the Vietnam War, the Sri Lankan Civil War, or the Falkland Islands War?
  • Because the young girl heard about the adventures of the Mexican drug cartel and their preference for the Uzi and she imagined she might one day want to join them?
  • Because the parents got bored with the slow slog of observing wildlife in Red Rock Canyon and wanted a more memorable activity for their daughter?
  • Because the young girl’s mom and dad wanted to see if the money and time spent on ballet and karate had given their daughter the strength of an adult?
  • Because the child’s math teacher gave her a summer-vacation assignment to practice counting to six hundred in one minute?
  • Because the young girl was feeling the normal pull of peer pressure and had heard other nine-year-old Arizonans at the hotel pool bragging about firing Uzis since they were eight?
  • Because the parents just couldn’t wait another year, when the child would turn ten, for her to be able to try out weapons at a shooting range in her home state of New Jersey?

These are crazy answers, aren’t they? But isn’t it also crazy that federal law prohibits handgun ownership by any person under the age of eighteen—but there’s no federal minimum age for possession of rifles and shotguns? Isn’t it crazy, too, that in thirty states it’s legal for a child of any age to possess a rifle or a shotgun?

And isn’t it crazier still that we’re outraged when this kind of tragedy happens but then we shrug it off and do nothing until the next tragedy inevitably comes along?

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Food-stamp participation declines by almost 10% in Missouri: Not a pretty picture http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/28/food-stamp-participation-declines-by-almost-10-in-missouri-not-a-pretty-picture/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=food-stamp-participation-declines-by-almost-10-in-missouri-not-a-pretty-picture http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/28/food-stamp-participation-declines-by-almost-10-in-missouri-not-a-pretty-picture/#comments Thu, 28 Aug 2014 15:13:14 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29900 MO SNAPIn Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder, having just hoisted a body from a grave says “What a filthy job.” Marty Feldman replies, “Could be worse,” to which Wilder asks, “How?” Feldman notes, “Could be raining.” And, of course, it then starts to rain.

Well, here in Missouri it’s raining on those who ought to get food stamps.

The state Department of Social Services is not issuing the 160+ page Monthly Management Reports for the Family Support Division and Medical Services due to issues with the MO HealthNet/Medicaid program. Folks in DSS research are sharing the SNAP numbers with me.

They are not pretty: From July 2013 to July 2014 a total of 89,768 people have left the food stamp rolls – a drop of 9.8 percent in one year.

That would be good news if Missouri had a booming economy with tens of thousands of new, middle class jobs being created each year. As we all know, we don’t.

Across the nation food stamp state totals have been trending down around 3 to 4 percent a year. I am convinced that Missouri’s “extra 5 percent” in recipient drop is due to the fumbled implementation of the reorganization of the Family Support Division. I have talked to pantry folk who routinely hear from families who have waited two and three months for a routine reauthorization of the food stamp account. Many pantry customers talk of lost documents, the inability to talk to a person who knows their case when they call, and, general confusion in the system.

The major changes in the way food stamp cases are handled began last summer htable_MO_foodstamps3ere in the St. Louis area. The decline in the participant total from July 2012 to July 2013 was 20,053 people – 2 percent of the caseload. If we had the same decline percentage from 2013 to 2014 we would have 70,000 more Missourians receiving food stamps, adding $8.4 million a month to the state’s economy.

In July 2014 the average benefit was $120.18 per person–$1.29 per person per meal. Statewide, $99,628,234 in benefits were issued.

Of course, people who ought to get food stamps but don’t receive them are not starving to death in the streets. They are filling food pantry lobbies and building nutritional debts which their bodies will pay later.

Food stamps in Ferguson

The state folks also shared the total number of food stamp recipients in a number of north St. Louis County Zip Codes. While post office boundaries don’t directly follow city limits, the food stamp numbers were extremely interesting:63135 (downtown Ferguson and some surrounding smaller municipalities): 2,413 recipients

  • 63136 (the W. Florissant apartment area of Ferguson & Jennings): 8,035 recipients
  • 63135 (downtown Ferguson and some surrounding smaller municipalities): 2,413 recipient
  • For comparison, 63130 (most of University City): 2,041 recipients.

Remember that Missouri has better than a handful of northern counties with fewer than 8,000 residents: the concentration of struggling families in one zip code is scary.

The 2009 conundrum

The other month I shared data from the Food Research and Action Center, which, using numbers from USDA, showed that Missouri was the only state in the nation to show a decline in food stamp recipients from 2009 to 2014.

People in certain buildings in Jefferson City were not amused.

The Department of Social Services admitted in late 2009 that Missouri overcounted the number of food stamp recipients. Basically, the different computer systems didn’t listen to each other. While new people were added to the rolls, those within families who should have been removed (moved out of the home, etc.) weren’t. The problem apparently went on for several – perhaps seven – years.

For example, in April 2009 Missouri claimed it had 1,041,077 food stamp recipients, and that is the number FRAC cited this summer. Now the state says the correct total for April 2009 was around 800,000 recipients. They note that USDA has changed some (but not all) published numbers from Missouri for 2009 and the “whoops” era.

The problem appears to have been fixed by the end of 2009: the January 2010 food stamp total was 894,418 people compared to 1,119,067 in September 2009 despite the rapid increase in folks getting help due to the recession.
Now we need to back-up a step. The data FRAC used is from USDA reports on what the federal government paid Missouri for the food stamps issued. In other words, even if the correct number was 800,000 Washington gave Missouri money for a million people. The families getting the bonus money had no way of knowing they were getting too generous benefits. (A more important yet unanswered question is did Missouri ever pay that money back?)

So, what number should be used?

Despite the state’s protestations, evidence shows that Missouri issued benefits to 1,041,077 people in April 2009. If the benefits were issued – even in error – they went to families and the stamps went through cash registers all about the state.

My files from back then show the average benefit was $1.09 per person per meal. (By the way, April 2009 is when benefits soared due to the recovery act’s bonus payments. In March 2009 the average benefit was 93 cents per person per meal.)

In other words, the overpayments probably didn’t allow families to buy steak and lobster. They just made their lives a bit easier. I can live with that.

A quick swipe at Fox News

The GAO recently issued a report on errors in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The headline: Payment Errors and Trafficking Have Declined, but Challenges Remain. The report put the fraud rate at 1 percent of benefits issued and included a chart documenting dramatic improvements since 1999 in case accuracy.

Fox News, of course, headlined their story “Food Stamp Fraud Rampant: GAO Report.”.

I expect their lead story tomorrow to be, “Despite Obama, the Sun Rose This Morning.”

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Rich Hill: An intimate look at poverty’s impact on kids http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/27/rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/27/rich-hill-an-intimate-look-at-povertys-impact-on-kids/#comments Wed, 27 Aug 2014 13:12:48 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29876 rich hill2On the recommendation of someone who said everyone should see the movie “Rich Hill,” I attended the early show this morning.

I hadn’t read anything about the film before going and didn’t know it was a documentary about three families in Missouri. Rich Hill is near the Kansas border on highway 71 between Kansas City and Joplin. One of the families also lived temporarily in Thayer and Nevada, MO.

The movie focuses on three adolescent boys and lets them tell about their lives in their own way and their own words. To say they live difficult lives doesn’t begin to describe the tragic circumstances they are dealing with. None of the boys has a stable family or capable parents. One boy does receive some affection from his drug-addicted mother and mentally challenged father. The other two boys are constantly criticized for their behavior, which, of course, makes them act out even more.

This evening, I called up the list of programs on my DVR to find something to watch that wasn’t about Ferguson, the police, protests and the racial divide in our country. I chose an episode of Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” and the guest was Tracy Droz Tragos, the woman who made the Rich Hill documentary. What are the chances of that?

Jon Stewart tried to describe the living conditions in the places where the three boys lived but had trouble verbalizing something so totally foreign to him. I would imagine the scenes in the movie would be foreign to many of us too, but they are just a short drive away from our safe, comfortable homes. A person doesn’t have to go very far off one of Missouri’s major highways to find conditions every bit as heart wrenching as those in Rich Hill.

Stewart commented that the congresswoman who represents that part of Missouri voted to cut SNAP benefits. I assume he was referring to Vicky Hartzler. Some of the progressive blogs mentioned her several times during the debate last year about the farm bill and food stamps. I’ve become so numb to the injustices committed by our U.S. Congress and Missouri General Assembly, that it takes a movie like “Rich Hill” to force me to experience them as real.

One of the scenes that made me shake my head was in the principal’s office when a boy suffering from having been sexually abused by his stepfather as a child wants to call his grandmother to come get him. The principal follows the rules and tells the boy he can’t keep going home pretending to be sick. In an exchange with the principal, the boy exhibits quick thinking and logic that reminded me of an attorney questioning a witness. But this is the same boy who is confused in the gun and knife store when he can’t find any money in his wallet to buy another knife.

I think about the conversations I’ve had with friends about why parents don’t take more responsibility for their children’s education. How can parents not know when school is beginning? Most of them have television, and they must see the “Back to School” ads. How can they not be curious enough to find out when the first day of school is? Why don’t they feed their kids a healthy breakfast and get them to school ready to learn?

This movie made me realize I’ve been asking questions based on all the wrong information. I’m reminded of a recent panel discussion about gun violence where the superintendent of the Jennings School District described why the school provides breakfast and lunch on Saturdays for their kids. She said that, in some cases, it’s a long time from Friday night to Monday for kids dealing with events in their neighborhood that no kid should have to experience.

The kids in Rich Hill shouldn’t have to live in such abusive situations either. Jon Stewart and the filmmaker talked about the boys’ resiliency. One of the boys is, in fact, the parent to his mother, father and younger sister. He keeps hoping God will help his father find permanent employment. When he realizes his father is not mentally or emotionally capable of sticking to one job very long, he rationalizes that his dad has hopes and dreams like anyone else. No rancor. No accusations. After failing at everything else, the dad decides to go west and look for gold or silver. He says he wants to have enough money to take his two kids to Wal-Mart and give them each $400 to buy whatever they want. The postscript on the screen after the movie said that the mother died of an overdose and the boy is living with his father and sister in Colorado.

As we left the theatre, my friend said, “Well, that was depressing.” That’s all she will probably think about the movie, but I always want to understand and ask why things are the way they are.

From “The Other America” by Michael Harrington to “Rich Hill” by Tracy Droz Tragos, have we, as a society, made any progress in the poorest parts of rural America? From the Civil Rights Acts of the mid-sixties to protests in Ferguson, have we made any progress in our attempts to treat all groups with respect and dignity?

Looking back 50 years, I think we can say, yes, there have been some good things happening. Child molestation is a serious crime with serious penalties. In the movie, the stepfather wasn’t arrested because the police said there wasn’t enough evidence. The boy’s mother is now in jail for trying to kill her husband. I’d like to think the police would handle a case like that differently today.

We’ve made progress in many ways, but, in many parts of the country, we still seem to be falling deeper and deeper into helplessness. I have to agree with those who say some people create their own failures by the choices they make. I’m thinking about how almost everyone in the movie smoked, including the 13 year old boy. One of the mothers lights her cigarette from the heating coil of the toaster. Several of them were smoking in bed. Where do they get money for cigarettes? One of the boys calls his grandmother and begs her to spend part of their food stamp money on an energy drink for him. She explains she has only $200 for the whole family, and it has to last a month. The boy who gets kicked out of 6th grade for assaulting other students plays violent video games at home. It makes me wonder what in the world those parents are thinking.

But then I see commercials on TV where scantily dressed supermodels are taking big bites out of enormous hamburgers. I see ads telling us to relax, pamper ourselves, call in sick to work to go to a baseball game, borrow money for cars we can’t afford, TGIF. No one ever says they are anxious to get back to work on Monday. We never hear people talking about how they love their jobs and feel good about making a contribution to society. We leave all of that to charities, churches and other non-profits.

I keep going back to a book I read in the early 1990’s by Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business was published in 1984 and analyzed how television and other forms of visual entertainment were changing the basic ways people see and process information. Most of Postman’s predictions have come true. We have become consumers not just of material things we don’t need but of political propaganda intended to keep us ignorant. There are ads on TV telling us how to get out of paying taxes. We’re encouraged to blame everyone else for our problems and sue anyone who causes us distress. There are lawyers who will gladly champion just about any case where there is money to be made. We’re more interested in the sex lives of celebrities than in what our kids are learning in school. Newspaper articles discuss what percentage of the tax “burden” the middle class bears. I remember when newspaper articles began with the facts (who, what, where, when and how) instead of an emotional story about one of the people in the story. Education has to be “fun” or kids tune out. But so do their parents, so what can we expect of the kids?

Obviously I am not talking about 100% of Americans. No need to list the hard workers and their achievements. They get their share of attention, and good for them. But can we honestly say the values needed to keep a society functioning properly are strong enough to keep us afloat much longer? The stock market is doing great, but wages haven’t kept up with inflation. CEO’s earn 400 times as much as their employees. Corporations are not embarrassed about using “inversion” tactics to open an office overseas and avoid paying taxes. Sea levels are rising but we can’t do anything about it because fossil fuel companies control Congress and the media.

So who can blame those people at the bottom of the economic ladder for not setting goals, planning ahead or trying harder to be self-sufficient? Letters to the editor blame parents for not providing a stable, healthy learning environment for their kids. But what if those parents didn’t have a nurturing home as children, and their parents didn’t either?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it will take programs like that in the Jennings District to open up opportunities for success to students whose families are not up to the task. Students in that district receive good nutrition, after school tutoring and activities, home visits by school personnel including the superintendent, help with buying uniforms and keeping them clean, and challenging classroom activities. Not to mention dedicated teachers. To increase attendance at PTA meetings, parents receive a bag of groceries as they leave. This may be what will have to happen all over the country. There probably are many more examples of communities raising children and giving them the positive environment they need to develop character and ambition.

In Missouri it will be an uphill battle because there are profiteers who have been sabotaging districts that need more help, not defunding. They set up impossible goals and then punish districts that can’t compete. Anyone who goes to see “Rich Hill” will recognize the futility of making more and more demands on students whose splintered lives make it impossible for them to meet our expectations.

I, for one, will not be making any more judgmental comments about a world I know nothing about.

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What I learned from a rabid raccoon http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/26/what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/26/what-i-learned-from-a-rabid-raccoon/#comments Tue, 26 Aug 2014 12:00:07 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29846 Raccoon2Just over a month ago I came face to snout with rabies, one of the world’s oldest identifiable diseases and one of the most dreaded.

Dreaded, because rabies—which is transmitted via saliva when a person (or animal) is bitten by an infected animal, such as a dog, bat, raccoon, skunk, or fox—has one of the highest case-fatality ratios of any of the infectious viruses. (Ebola is one of the viruses that is even more virulent.) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only three individuals in the U.S. are known to have survived rabies without having received the post-exposure vaccine.

Doing a bit of research, I learned that raccoon bites account for 44% of all cases. Skunk bites for 29%. Bat bites for 13% and fox bites for 6%. Shockingly, in 6% of all cases, there’s no traceable evidence of a bite at all.

The gap between rabies fatalities in the U.S. and worldwide is shocking as well. Prior to the twentieth century, rabies fatalities in the U.S. were approximately one hundred per year. Today the number has been reduced to two to three per year, due to a long-term, aggressively promoted national campaign of control and vaccination begun in the 1940s and continued in the 2000s  with widespread oral rabies vaccinations.

Sadly, the American success story is not shared worldwide. The World Health Organization reports that the number of rabies deaths worldwide, particularly in Asia and Africa, remains at crisis levels. Each year there are 55,000 reported deaths, mostly resulting from dog bites.

How did rabies intersect with my daily routine? It was mid-morning when I spotted a middling-sized raccoon on my driveway, weaving its way toward me. My first thought was that the animal’s unsteady gait seemed to indicate an injured leg. However, the longer I observed the animal’s movements, the more concerned I became. For although I’d never encountered a rabid animal before, I knew that the raccoon’s confused and oblivious behavior, coupled with the fact that a nocturnal animal was wandering about in the light of day, were signs that something might be seriously wrong.

I quickly went inside to call my local health department to seek guidance. The voice on the phone confirmed that the behavior I described sounded like symptoms of early-stage rabies. To my surprise the voice recommended that I call 911 in order to inform the state troopers and/or local sheriff’s office of the situation. The police? I was more than surprised to learn that they—rather than a public-health organization—would be my frontline defense against a public-health threat.

A few minutes after the 911 dispatcher signed off on my call, a police car pulled into the driveway. A young man dressed in a dark blue uniform ambled toward me. I noted that as the officer approached, his right hand was cupped over his holstered pistol—a sign that I took to mean that he was at the ready to un-holster if the need should arise.

I felt myself stiffening a bit—not out of fear but because I realized in that moment that in any encounter with enforcement officers my behavior, the tone of my voice, and my general demeanor would be sized up from the moment an officer caught sight of me. In short, even though this call was about something as potentially non-threatening as a brown furry animal wandering my property, the officer was sizing me up.

As my spouse continued tracking the raccoon’s erratic path, the young officer calmly informed me that, taking into account the behavior I had reported, he believed the animal to be rabid. His conclusion, he continued, was based on his experience as a hunter (but not, I noted, as someone trained in diagnosing wildlife diseases). He informed me that the only action he was authorized to take would be to shoot the animal. Observing what must have been an undisguised look of shock on my face, he kindly reminded me in his soft-spoken way that rabies is a terrible disease and that infected animals (I noticed he didn’t mention humans) suffer horribly in the disease’s later stages.

To make a long story short, the young officer shot and killed the raccoon. To my surprise, it took three volleys to put the animal down. (Three, because, as the young officer explained, the animal could not take a shot to the head where the virus resides.) With my abhorrence and fear of guns, the sound of those nearby shots is not something I’ll soon forget.

But here’s where the story really goes off the rails. Not only was it up to an individual trained in law enforcement and not wildlife management or veterinary medicine to make the call about a rabid animal, but once the animal was dead, the officer informed us that he was not authorized to remove the animal from our property. Disposal would be our responsibility. I learned that our local health department, lacking money and personnel, would not pick up suspected rabid animals for testing unless there had been direct human contact—meaning a bite or a scratch (so much for keeping accurate statistics on one of the world’s most virulent viruses).

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what I learned that day. An infected animal, potentially posing a serious threat to humans, other wildlife, and domestic animals, was to be disposed of by individuals untrained in appropriate practices.

What did I do in the face of no information, no protocols, no guidance? I went to my computer, of course. Fortunately, the website of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation gave clear instructions about the safe disposal of a dead animal. Besides detailed instructions on disposal, I read that the rabies virus remains alive in the body of a dead animal either for a few hours in warm weather or for months in freezing temperatures. I also learned that cats and dogs may contract rabies from a dead animal through an open wound (the raccoon on my property had three) or by chewing on the carcass. I concluded that proper disposal was vital not only for the health and safety of my outdoor cat but also for the other domestic and wild animals in the area and, of course, my neighbors.

This first (and, I hope, last) encounter with rabies was instructive in many ways. Of course, I am now better informed about a highly dangerous disease. But beyond that, the most important was observing firsthand what it means to live in a small community in a rural area where government budgets and personnel are limited, and where making do with the resources at hand is a day-to-day challenge.

I now understand and appreciate that law-enforcement offices in small communities like mine are full-service agencies, and that the duties of their officers go well beyond the usual duties we expect and take for granted—duties like enforcement of vehicle and traffic laws; crime prevention and enforcement; responding to, investigating, and de-escalating domestic incidents; locating missing children; and responding to assaults, burglaries, robberies, homicides, and natural and man-made disasters.

After the deed was done with the raccoon, the officer stuck around for a while and shot the breeze with my spouse. In our low-crime area there was no immediate call for him to rush off. It was obvious to me that he too was a bit shaken by the necessity to fire off those three shots. When he eventually walked back to the patrol car and turned back to look at us, I noticed a certain resigned look on his face. It seemed to say, “All in a day’s work.”


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Women’s rights: 94 years and still counting http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/25/womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/25/womens-right-to-vote-94-years-and-still-counting/#comments Mon, 25 Aug 2014 15:24:05 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29738 womenunite“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Heck yeah. As of August 26th, 2014 it will have been 94 years since that beautiful sentence helped us further the feminist cause for women’s rights.

The Women’s Rights Movement started (officially) in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott joining forces with Susan B. Anthony to petition for women’s suffrage. It wasn’t until 1920, though, that the amendment received the 2/3 majority ratification by the states to become a national amendment. It took, however, another 64 years for the other 12 states (Mississippi being the last) to adopt the amendment.
In honor of this glorious feminist anniversary, here’s a compilation of some of the best things I’ve seen about women, feminism, misogyny, and how to spark your feminism.

First things first: A Beginner’s Guide to Contemporary Feminist Language Sometimes it’s hard to admit- especially to an intimidatingly hard-core feminist- that you don’t quite understand what intersectionality, transmisogyny, or SWERF is. This article can help.

We’re privileged. Somehow, we are privileged. So, sometimes it’s hard to notice that maybe we aren’t oppressed and don’t face systemic discrimination, but it’s a very real aspect of our society in certain instances. So here’s Why We Need Feminism. and Why Men Need Feminism, too.
Having a role-model for your beliefs can help you accept your own wishes. These 17 Famous Women on What Feminism Means to Them can help.

History is definitely an ally when beginning your adventure into feminism; these little-known 100 Inspiring Women Who Made History can help you out (and another one for good measure).

A big part of feminism today is unity–gaining solidarity with people of all walks of life. Here are some tips on How to Work with Muslim Women; the intersection of Race and Feminism, Women of Color, and how Feminism and LGBTQIA are One and the Same, and What You Can Do To Help.

Embrace your femininity with these 21 Inspiring Quotes Every Woman Needs in Her Life (featuring the intelligence and sparkling wit of Margaret Thatcher, Emma Stone, Charlotte Bronte, Malala Yousafzai, and Beyonce among others)
If you’re looking for something a little more long-term to help inspire you, these 15 books can help you Spark Your Feminist Awakening

We all know humor is the best way to convey seriousness about problems (think Saturday Night Live and the Colbert Report), so here are 19 Tumblr Posts on Misogyny and 31 Tumblr Posts on Being a Woman Today
Maybe you’ve heard of the new movement by some feminists to ban the word “bossy when referring to women. Well, here are 20 more Words That Are Only Ever Used to Describe Women (warning: there are some ladies showing off their middle finger in the GIFs). I mean have you ever described a dude as “bubbly” or “ditzy” or “high-maintenance”? Didn’t think so.

As with the last, irritation at a cultural norm can have a unifying effect. Lot’s of women are tired of hearing these 23 things. Are you?

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Teachers, tenure and Rex Sinquefeld http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/22/teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/22/teachers-tenure-and-rex-sinquefeld/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 12:00:04 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29779 tenureblackboardMissouri’s November 2014 ballot will include a constitutional amendment regarding a change to the the teacher tenure system in Missouri and development of a new standardized teacher evaluation system based heavily on test scores. Funding for the initiative is primarily from self-appointed Missouri state CEO Rex Sinquefield, who is once again using his millions to try to buy the state that he wants. Let’s be clear, this initiative has less to do with “rewarding and protecting good teachers” than emasculating Teacher Unions.

Tenure protects teachers who continue to push their principals, who may not have the same interest in trying new and innovative approaches rather than protecting the status quo. Tenure protects teachers from legislators’ indifference to public education, from being blamed for the failure of parents to actively engage in their children’s education, from reprisals from administrators who may be more concerned with their own perceived reputations within their district.

And how can we design a standardized evaluation system that relies heavily on test scores without also taking into consideration whether a student had a good breakfast, whether a student has engaged parents, how long a student spends on the bus. Whether we want to admit it or not, there are socio-economic differences from district to district, so how can we design a common teacher evaluation system based on test scores from, let’s say, the Sedalia district, the Mehlville district, the Kansas City district and the Ladue district.

Within one elementary school in one district, in the classrooms in the same grade level, one teacher may have a one or more students with a learning disability while another may not, making test scores just for the same grade in the same school difficult to compare. Successful schools have teachers who collaborate with each other, providing strong support systems for their students. Given the current emphasis on test scores, there is no incentive for any district to protect incompetent teachers. Rather than firing teachers, which will undermine moral, let’s give them the support and coaching that they need.

State legislators, doing Mr. Sinquefield’s bidding, are creating an environment in which current and future teachers will grow weary of the lack of respect, appreciation and support from the legislature, school administrators and parents, good teachers will get tired of being the focus of blame for the many variables that effect the learning experience, and will eventually just move on to another profession. How can that help our kids?

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Ferguson, as seen by editorial cartoonists http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/ferguson-as-seen-by-editorial-cartoonists/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 13:00:11 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29784 There’s nothing funny about what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting–by a police officer– of Michael Brown, an unarmed, African-American teenager. But there is plenty of anger and sadness–and a lot to think about. Sometimes, there are no words. And sometimes, some of the best commentaries are visual, as rendered by editorial cartoonists. Here’s a gallery of some of the ways that editorial cartoonists have expressed their views on the situation.

Click to view slideshow.



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10 reasons why school vouchers should be rejected http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2014/08/21/10-reasons-why-school-vouchers-should-be-rejected/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 12:00:44 +0000 http://www.occasionalplanet.org/?p=29644 public schoolRepublicans are for school vouchers because they want to privatize public education, turn education into a money making venture, and use taxpayer money to fund religious schools. Some Democrats support vouchers because of a genuine desire to improve education. They want vouchers for innovative schools with alternative curriculums, creative teachers, and enhanced learning environments. Yet, the truth is, this very small number of truly wonderful innovative private schools will serve a tiny percentage of children and will do nothing to improve public education for the majority.

The answer is finding and adopting best practices within the public and private educational system, not siphoning off money and resources to the private sector. Within public and private educational systems there are plenty of outstanding schools that less successful public schools can emulate. Finding ways to disseminate and integrate those practices is one key to improving public education. Vouchers and privitization are not the answer because ninety percent of American children attend public schools. A truly progressive view aspires to improve education for all children through better public policy, not through privatization of public taxpayer money.

And it’s not like voucher schools are all that successful. Last November, NEAtoday.org reported that 150 students in Milwaukee left their voucher schools, their parents opting to return them to Milwaukee Public Schools. The voucher schools had failed to provide for kids with learning or physical disabilities, or offer after-school programs, or offer art, music and physical education classes.

Since the state legislature created Milwaukee’s school voucher program more than 30 years ago, the program has paid for thousands of city students to attend private schools, of which 85 percent are religious. More than a billion dollars has been siphoned from the public school system to pay their tuition, including more than $50 million this year alone. But studies have shown that students don’t do any better in those private schools. In fact, it’s not such a great investment for the public—or those parents.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State offers a very good list of 10 reasons why private school vouchers should be rejected. The following is an edited and reworded version of the list. I encourage you to read the entire list and the full arguments here.

1. Vouchers force taxpayers to support religion

According to the U.S. Department of Education, religious groups run 76 percent of all private schools. Over 80 percent of students attending private schools are enrolled in religious institutions, which integrate religion throughout their curriculum and often require all students to receive religious instruction and attend religious services. Thus, publicly funded vouchers are paying for these institutions’ religious activities and education.

2. Vouchers divert public money to unaccountable private schools

Under most voucher bills, private schools can take taxpayer money and still deny admission to any student they choose. They are free to discriminate against the disabled, or children from other countries. Private schools are also free to impose religious criteria on teachers and staff, and discriminate against gays, people of color, or women. In other words, a voucher system forces taxpayers to subsidize discrimination that would be illegal in a public school system.

3. Vouchers violate many state constitutional provisions

Voucher advocates say that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) that Cleveland’s voucher program did not violate the church-state provisions of the U.S. Constitution. This is true, but the Zelman case did not address state constitutional issues. Some three-dozen states have church-state provisions in their constitutions that are even stronger than the U.S. Constitution. These provisions often more explicitly bar taxpayer money from being used to fund religious schools and education. Private school vouchers would likely be unconstitutional in most states—and some state courts have already ruled that they are.

4. Americans do not support vouchers

Americans have repeatedly expressed opposition to vouchers in public opinion polls. More tellingly, when people are given an opportunity to vote directly on vouchers through ballot referenda, they always reject the concept—usually by wide margins. Since 1967, voters in 23 states have rejected vouchers and other forms of tax aid to religious schools at the ballot box.

5. Vouchers do not improve student academic performance

According to multiple studies of the District of Columbia, Milwaukee and Cleveland school voucher programs, the targeted population does not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. The U.S. Department of Education studies of the D.C. program show that the students using vouchers to attend private schools do not believe that their voucher school is better or safer than the public school they left.

The study also showed that over a period of four years, there was no statistically significant difference between students who were offered a voucher and those who were not in their aspirations for future schooling, engagement in extracurricular activities, frequency of doing homework, attendance at school, reading for enjoyment or tardiness rates. Likewise, there was no significant difference in the student-teacher ratios in their classrooms or the availability of before-and after-school programs in their schools.

6. Vouchers do not improve opportunities for children from low-income families

Vouchers do little to help the poor. The payments often do not cover the entire cost of tuition or other mandatory fees for private schools. Thus, only families with the money to cover the cost of the rest of the tuition, uniforms, transportation, books and other supplies can use the vouchers.

7. Vouchers do not save taxpayer money

Vouchers do not decrease education costs. Instead, tax money that would ordinarily go to public schools now pays for vouchers, thus harming public schools. A 1999 study of Cleveland’s program showed that the public schools from which students left for private voucher schools were spread throughout the district. The loss of a few students at a school does not reduce fixed costs such as teacher salaries, textbooks and supplies and utilities and maintenance costs. Public schools run the risk of losing state funding to pay for vouchers without being able to cut their overall operating costs. In addition, voucher programs cost the state money to administer.

8. Vouchers do not increase education choice

Voucher programs do not increase “choice” for parents because it’s the private schools that will ultimately decide whether to admit a student. These institutions are not required to give parents the information necessary to determine whether the school is meeting their children’s needs. Under voucher programs, private schools are often not required to test students, publish curriculum or meet many other standards. Even when legislatures have attempted to mandate accountability standards in voucher programs, private schools have not done what was required of them.

9. Vouchers lead to private schools of questionable quality

In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the availability of vouchers led con artists to create fly-by-night schools in order to bilk the public purse. In Cleveland, one school operated out of a dilapidated building with inadequate heat and no fire alarms. Another school “educated” children by having them watch videos all day. Fundamentalist Christian academies, which are on the rise, offer education far outside the mainstream. They teach creationism in lieu of evolution, offer a discredited “Christian nation” approach to American history and put forth controversial ideas about other religions, the role of women in society, gay rights and other issues. Taxpayers should not be expected to pay for this.

10. Vouchers distract from the real issue of reform

Voucher plans usually allow a small percentage of children to leave public schools for enrollment in private schools. This does nothing for the large percentage of youngsters left behind. Most public schools do a very good job; those that don’t should be fixed, not abandoned.

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