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North Carolina editorial roundup

February 28, 2018

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

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Feb. 26

The Charlotte Observer on the stigmatization of troubled kids in the light of recent school shootings:

While we struggle to find common ground on sensible ways to reduce gun violence, we must not become blind to potential unintentional harm, such as stigmatizing every troubled teenager.

In the case of Parkland, Florida, shooter Nikolas Cruz, it’s hard not to wonder why warning signs weren’t enough to stop the 19-year-old before he killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The FBI had been warned. Multiple police departments were warned. School officials tried a variety of methods to deal with his disturbing behavior.

Cruz had threatened fellow students, allegedly put a gun to a person’s head and posted online threats using his real name. More than one person who knew him thought him to be a real threat and believed it so fervently they took the “See something, say something” mantra to heart.

“I know — I know he’s going to explode,” an unidentified caller told the FBI, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” Cruz said in a comment on YouTube.

That’s why it’s tempting to use Cruz’s example to increase the surveillance of and harsh punishment for troubled teens who say and do disturbing things. No school district wants to be the site of the next mass shooting. But the Parkland case shows how these difficulties unfold over several years, beginning when students are young. That’s why the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system’s recent grappling with what to do with even the youngest students who act out — should they be expelled or handled differently? — makes sense.

But these questions and debates can be taken too far, as happened in the aftermath of the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. Zero-tolerance laws sprang up everywhere and students who weren’t real threats were caught up in the overreaction, including an infamous case of a little boy suspended for eating his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. (He was later given a free lifetime membership to the NRA.)

A 2013 Broward County School board policy, the Promise Program, that encouraged the “least punitive means of discipline” — warnings, conflict resolution programs, etc., instead of immediate arrests — is now being debated in the state and cited by some as the reason the shooting was not prevented. But it would be a mistake to respond to this shooting by making the lives of already-troubled kids worse instead of helping them.

Most troubled kids don’t shoot up schools, even those who post ugly messages on social media. The mentally ill are more likely to hurt themselves than others. Further stigmatizing wayward youngsters will lead to more false positives for law enforcement to investigate. It’s akin to looking for a needle in a haystack by first adding more hay. We must try to prevent as many shootings as we can. That starts by not making the task more difficult than it already is.

Online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/

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Feb. 26

The Fayetteville Observer on Army fitness standards:

This probably won’t surprise you: Most Americans are overweight and out of shape. We eat food that’s not good for us and we eat too much of it. We don’t, however, tend to overdo our exercise. We’re a pretty sedentary bunch.

This, however, might come as a surprise: The Army has a fitness problem too. At any given time, more than 100,000 soldiers are unable to deploy, more because of injuries suffered in training than for any other reason. Some Army leaders believe healing is delayed for many soldiers because they aren’t as physically fit as they should be.

And then the news gets worse. Replacing soldiers is harder than ever. The Army’s target recruiting market — young adults between 17 and 24 — is in lousy shape. It’s so bad that 72 percent of them are ineligible to serve in the military. Nearly a third of them are simply too overweight. That’s 24 million of the 34 million in that age group who wouldn’t be eligible for a military career even if they wanted one. And now that the national economy has improved and we’re at full employment, most of those remaining 10 million who might qualify for military service are taking their careers elsewhere.

Among the nation’s young people, those from this region tend to be the least fit of all. As a story in Sunday’s Observer reported, a study conducted by the military school, The Citadel, in conjunction with the Army Public Health Center and the American Heart Association, found that recruits from 10 states — including the Carolinas — are “significantly less fit, and consequently are more likely to encounter training related injuries than recruits from other U.S. states.” And yet, those 10 states account for more than 37 percent of the Army’s new recruits in recent years.

The Army is studying ways to overcome problems of recruit and soldier fitness, and is developing new standards for physical testing, as well as moving toward creating Soldier Performance Readiness Centers in combat units that include strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists, nutritionists, sports psychologists and counselors. The centers would aim to prevent injuries and speed the recovery of soldiers who do get injured.

This would be yet another place where the military could provide leadership for civilian society — which needs the help. As obesity becomes a greater national problem, we’re also seeing epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and other severe health problems that are as taxing to the civilian workplace as they are to Army combat units. Even as American youth are getting heavier and less fit, schools have cut back or even eliminated physical education and other school programs that get kids up and moving. And in an era when young eyes are perpetually glued to phone, tablet or PC screens, most time out of school is spent in sedentary pursuits as well.

Again, those problems are greatest here and in the states around us. The Citadel study shows rates of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are greater here than in the rest of the country, and that the rates of obesity and physical inactivity are correspondingly higher as well.

This is a societal problem that is costing us a fortune in lost work time and in health care costs. The trend lines are going in the wrong direction — it’s getting worse, not better.

The solution? Paying attention to what the Army is doing would be a good place to start. Not only is the service revamping its physical training requirements, it’s also putting a strong emphasis on healthy eating. Education is a key — helping soldiers understand the damage they can do to themselves by failing to stay in shape and by consuming a diet heavy in fast food and refined ingredients. America needs a similar program. Continuous education about tobacco’s harm has led to substantial decreases in America’s smoking habit. A similar effort on good food and exercise could pay off as well. So would school systems’ increased emphasis on physical training.

It’s worth a try. Lives are at stake.

Online: http://www.fayobserver.com/

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Feb. 25

The News & Record of Greensboro on using the National Guard as a stopgap measure in prisons:

We think of the National Guard as the cavalry or white knights, riding in during times of disaster to aid the helpless, guard the defenseless and restore a sense of order in times of chaos.

We see members of the Guard most during our profoundly saddest times, following hurricanes, during floods, after tornadoes and, worst, when citizens take to the streets in a dangerous power struggle.

But how would you feel about sending the North Carolina National Guard into the state’s prisons to preserve order where there isn’t enough prison guards to do so?

That’s a consideration being offered to Gov. Roy Cooper, encouraged by at least two legislators and others, and one that we are told is on the table with every other possible solution for a significant shortage of prison guards.

You likely recall the tragedies last year when five prison employees were killed, four during a failed escape Oct. 12 at the Pasquotank Correctional Institution.

Those deaths were underscored by the significant vacancies among guards in state prisons.

The News & Observer of Raleigh and Charlotte Observer investigated and found that 16 percent of the positions at state correctional facilities were vacant.

The newspapers’ investigation revealed that, during the deadly uprising at Pasquotank, the vacancy rate was 28 percent and that a lone guard was overseeing 30 inmates in the prison’s sewing plant, where the violence began.

Obviously, this is an emergency situation that requires immediate special aid.

“Understaffing has to be addressed — not in the future, but now,” state Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham) told the Observer, which also said she recently met with a representative from Cooper’s office to reinforce that point.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper, said the governor has told officials to look at “all available options for making prisons safer, and nothing is off the table.”

This is not a problem unique to North Carolina, nor is deploying the National Guard an untried solution. In West Virginia, for instance, Gov. Jim Justice called in the Guard to fill 80 openings in prisons there.

But that should be seen as a stopgap, and Cooper’s all-options approach is the right one.

What the prison system needs is an effective process to identify, recruit, train and retain employees in a job that has significant stress, danger and constant turnover.

Many of us derive our sense of what these jobs must be like from novels, movies and television, but dealing daily and intimately with, in some cases, brutally violent and sociopathic individuals is like working daily in a war zone.

Some leaders have suggested that prisons be outsourced to private security companies, just as some similar jobs are awarded to contractors in war-torn regions where the United States is involved.

But that system, too, has its problems, and we aren’t sure we favor its adoption.

Nevertheless, studying solutions such as that require time to analyze and execute.

We don’t have time.

Experts such as retired prison psychologist John Schwade are encouraging Cooper and the General Assembly to address these issues because, as he said in a letter to Morey, the situation is a “severe threat to public safety.”

There are 12,000 soldiers and airmen in the N.C. National Guard. They work part-time, serving 39 days a year and deployed at the discretion of the governor.

By all means, in a moment of great need, deploy Guard troops to those prisons with the greatest potential for danger.

Just don’t make this a regular rotation.

Online: http://www.greensboro.com/

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