Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

June 27, 2019

Rapid City Journal, June 27

Public accounting of Aurora Plains abuse necessary

Troubling stories of longtime abuse at Aurora Plains Academy in Plankinton correctly led Gov. Kristi Noem to order a series of wide-ranging reforms.

The director of the privately run, government-funded intensive residential treatment facility for youth contends the true picture differs significantly from the abusive culture depicted by South Dakota News Watch. That disturbing portrait emerged from accounts told by a dozen former staff, residents and families — all offering similar tales. The ring of truth resulting from the weight of testimony provides adequate credence and demands action.

Things may have improved in recent years, as the director and Gov. Noem contend, but only evidence will provide necessary reassurance. We expect an eventual public accounting of the problems found and actions taken.

This is far from the worst case of institutional disarray ever uncovered. Many of those interviewed told of how most staff kept residents foremost, but it would be reckless to ignore repeated warnings that the academy’s culture has been infected by needless aggression, even bullying, encouraged by supervisors who look the other way.

Most telling: The News Watch report showed that 400 child abuse or neglect complaints were filed against Aurora Plains over the past 10 years, but that the state investigated only 39 of them and issued four corrective-action reports. That track record does not evoke confidence in state regulators.

The vulnerability of residents, the medical secrecy that surrounds them — the ease with which their complaints can be swept away as youthful embellishment — make a public accounting necessary.

Noem ordered the Department of Social Services, which has regulatory authority over youth treatment facilities, to review and reform licensing and inspection processes, improve child safety, increase transparency surrounding complaints and push state agencies to do more unannounced inspections. Only one annual, pre-announced inspection of each facility is done by the state now.

Noem’s list constitutes a good start, but the tales told by former staff suggest the root cause of ongoing problems may be fundamentally related to pay and staffing.

Former staff reported unexceptional pay, frequent turnover, positions often going unfilled, mandatory double shifts, and staff working for weeks straight without days off. Conditions like these typically render it impossible to keep good staff, especially in a rural community where everyone talks.

Difficulty in filling open jobs leads inevitably to desperation and a culture of looking the other way. Not everybody is a good fit for working with an inherently difficult population. We all know that some people would prefer to dominate rather than control an emotional outburst. That’s not therapeutic. It’s corrosive to vulnerable souls.


Madison Daily Leader, June 25

South Dakota should resist legalization

A 19-year-old Sioux Falls man pleaded guilty Tuesday morning to fatally shooting his friend last year.

Stasek Alexandr Stefanyuk was showing off a shotgun when he shot and killed his friend Darias Tiger in September. Stefanyuk admitted he had been using drugs at the time.

The case is merely the most recent in a long string of tragedies and killings involving drugs. We’ve read far too many stories of people who are high involved in fatal “accidents,” and others who charge law enforcement officers with loaded weapons, often resulting in their own deaths.

Legalizing mind-altering drugs is on a roll nationwide, with marijuana leading the charge. Forty states have adopted a patchwork of laws involving some form of legalization. South Dakota is not among them.

Advocates point to the benefits of marijuana or its derivatives, often describing harmless situations, like a solitary person smoking a joint at home, or an elderly person getting pain relief from pot.

Killing another person while high is the other side of that story. For some people, the trade-off of increased enjoyment by some while endangering others is worthwhile. We don’t think so.

Legalization bills will certainly be introduced in the South Dakota legislature in upcoming sessions. We urge legislators (and voters when legalization appears on a ballot) to resist such a movement.


Black Hills Pioneer, June 22

Feds should share airport study

The city of Spearfish wants to do the right thing concerning placement of a proposed new runway at its Black Hills Airport-Clyde Ice Field, but the federal government has made the process a guessing game.

Federal Aviation Administration officials say a study found that there are at least 80 sites of cultural significance in the location of the city’s proposed crosswind runway, but what those sites are or exactly where they are remains a secret.

The city has been told that it is the position of the FAA that the study revealing the significance is a process between two nations (the U.S. government and Tribal Nations) and the city is not entitled to a copy of the study nor its content.

Wait! What?

The city must now halt the process on its preferred alternative for a new runway, and is being directed to embark on creating a plan for a second location hundreds of feet away from the original without being privy to any of the things that cannot be mitigated.

We understand there are culturally sensitive areas in the Black Hills.

Leonard Little Finger may have said it best. He wrote at culturalsurvival.org that the Black Hills is a sacred grandmother to the Native Americans filled with sacred power sites.

Little Finger, who died in 2017, was a respected Lakota elder and the founder-director of Sacred Hoop School, a Lakota language school in Oglala.

We are confident that Spearfish leaders want to proceed with caution and would not want to disturb areas of significance to Native Americans.

The city has discussed its concerns with elected representatives, sent formal correspondence to the FAA, and met with representatives from the FAA to discuss concerns.

Spearfish can’t proceed without knowing all there is to know about this land.

The Black Hills Pioneer has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking answers that the FAA refuses to provide to the city. We believe the studies are public information.

We urge the federal government to allow Spearfish officials and all to see this cultural assessment of the proposed construction area before embarking on another study that may end in the same result at an alternate runway location.

The federal government is funded by the public and is required to provide information to the public, which in this case includes the city of Spearfish, in an open manner.

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