Florida editorial roundup

July 10, 2019

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


July 9

The Miami Herald on recent tweets from U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta on Jeffrey Epstein:

Tuesday morning, we complained that the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta had yet to address his controversial, and reviled, sweetheart deal in 2008 with sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein.

Unfortunately, Acosta’s tweets later in the day put a sickeningly upbeat spin on things:

1. “The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific, and I am pleased that NY prosecutors are moving forward with a case based on new evidence.”

2. “With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.”

3. “Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.”

So, we’ll take it from the top:

1. Acosta’s right: The crimes committed by Epstein — molesting dozens of girls as young as 14 — are horrific. But they were also horrific a dozen years ago when, as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, Acosta failed to come down hard on Epstein, slapping him on the wrist instead.

2. With the evidence available more than a decade ago, Acosta and his team possibly could have put the creepy Epstein behind bars for the rest of his life. Federal prosecutors may have “insisted” that Epstein get jail time. Too bad they rolled over and agreed to an 18-month sentence, of which the sexual molester served only 13. Clearly, Acosta failed to come down hard on Epstein, slapping him on the wrist instead.

3. Please, we’re not dumb. It’s not about the new evidence that Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, had the spine to use to arrest Epstein on Saturday in New Jersey and charge him with sex trafficking. In 2005, Acosta’s prosecutors drew up a 53-page indictment, this after Palm Beach County police did the time consuming heavy lifting of gathering evidence against the hedge fund manager. It all went nowhere — Acosta failed to come down hard on Epstein, slapping him on the wrist instead.

Like we said, sickening.

Online: www.miamiherald.com


July 9

The Sun Sentinel on a principal’s remarks regarding teaching students about the Holocaust:

Some facts, one would assume, are beyond question.

The earth really is round.

American astronauts did land on the moon.

Vaccines do prevent disease and epidemics.

Slavery was cruel.

Children were massacred in schools at Sandy Hook and Parkland.

The Holocaust did happen.

In each case, however, there are people to whom facts don’t matter. Some of their absurdities, such as a flat earth, are simply silly. Others are malicious and dangerously harmful.

Holocaust denial is one of the evil ones. It’s an “essential manifestation of anti-Semitism,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. The ancient pestilence is a growing menace again in the United States, as well as around the world.

To deny that 6 million people were murdered simply for being Jewish is to dehumanize the living, as well as the dead. It glosses over the ghastly crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, the poison spouted by their counterparts at Charlottesville and the targeting of Jews at synagogues in Pennsylvania, California and New Zealand.

In much the same way, those who romanticize the anti-bellum South and gloss over the savagery of slavery - spinning the Civil War as having been about anything else - are perpetrating the racism that rationalized and survived slavery. Whether such people are consciously racist or not is a distinction without a difference.

We can’t say whether William Latson, the former principal of Spanish River High School, is an anti-Semite. His widely quoted remarks to a concerned parent don’t prove that he personally denies the Holocaust. But he did give Holocaust denial an undeserved and indefensible respectability, a false equivalency with historical truth. His belated apology doesn’t unring the bell.

Specifically, he refused to acknowledge that the Holocaust is “a factual historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

His duty as a school district employee was to teach that it is. That failure rightfully has cost him his principal’s posting.

It remains in question why it took the Palm Beach School District more than a year to act and whether he should be fired, not merely reassigned. His new position, still unannounced, should have nothing to do with instruction.

The parent who raised the issue with him was concerned that Holocaust education wasn’t a mandatory classroom study as Florida law requires.

Chapter 1003.42 makes clear the required instruction. It includes this:

“The history of the Holocaust (1933-1945), the systematic, planned annihilation of European Jews and other groups by Nazi Germany, a watershed event in the history of humanity, to be taught in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.”

We don’t see anything optional about that, or with the following paragraph that requires the teaching of African American history, including slavery and abolition.

In his e-mail exchange with the parent, Latson wrote, “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened and you have your thoughts but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs so they will react differently . not all parents want their students exposed so they will not be and I can’t force that issue.”

He claimed that an educator’s duty is to be “politically neutral but support all groups at the school.” That would be true with regard to Democrats vs. Republicans, but not for the malicious lie of Holocaust denial.

For a student or her parents to disbelieve that the Holocaust happened does not overcome the school’s duty to teach that it did. To the contrary, it makes the lesson all the more important.

It’s as wrong to let Holocaust deniers influence the curriculum, even indirectly, as it would be to make science classes optional to humor the Flat Earth Society.

Another question is whether Latson should be off the payroll, as demanded by Sen. Lauren Book of Broward, Rep. Randy Fine of Brevard and Florida Sen. Rick Scott.

Book and Fine say the principal is in violation of a new law that requires public schools and colleges to treat anti-Semitism “in an identical manner to discrimination motivated by race.” Examples of anti-Semitism include accusing Jews or the State of Israel of “inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.”

There’s nothing in the record to suggest Latson went that far, although catering to Holocaust deniers can easily be said to step on the line.

Book and Fine, who sponsored the legislation with others, posed a discomfiting question to the school district in the statement they issued Monday:

“Imagine if Principal Latson had said to an African-American parent that he could not and would not state that slavery is a factual, historical event. He would have been gone — one hundred percent justified — by the end of the day.”

Aside from being flat-out wrong, Latson’s behavior was monumentally reckless. It would be hard to find many schools with as large a Jewish student population as Spanish River’s, and they wouldn’t be in the South.

It’s not open and shut, though, that he should be fired. The new law is problematic. Indeed, we wrote earlier that it could inhibit and punish legitimate criticism of Israel’s conduct vis a vis the Palestinians, and Latson could make an issue of that if he were to contest his dismissal.

The better course is to make a teaching moment of this incident — for Latson, in particular. There are an estimated 400 Holocaust survivors in the Boca Raton area. It’s time for Latson to meet them.

Online: www.sun-sentinel.com


July 9

The Tampa Bay Times on SunPass tolling issues:

The company that botched last year’s rollout of the SunPass tolling system still can’t get things right. Airports across Florida continue to report a host of problems, from customers being double-billed to malfunctions and outages that cause backups in parking garages. This poor service has dragged on far too long, and it’s time Gov. Ron DeSantis held the vendor to account.

Conduent won the estimated $600 million tolling contract in a highly contested bid process, and it quickly fell behind when it started processing tolls last year. State officials said Conduent’s software was “completely overwhelmed,” leading to overbilling and a backlog of unpaid tolls, angering motorists and lawmakers alike. The state has fined the company about $8.3 million in penalties, though in June the Florida Department of Transportation announced that the situation with toll roads had stabilized.

The airports, apparently, are another matter. As Steve Contorno and Lawrence Mower of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reported Tuesday, service breakdowns continue to plague airport garages, creating hassles for travelers who expect a seamless and orderly process for getting on their way.

Thousands of internal airport emails reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times show airport officials have been exasperated by a problem largely out of their hands. One internal six-month study at Tampa International found SunPass problems outpaced all other parking technology incidents. Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said it has averaged three SunPass breakdowns a month. When SunPass is down, Miami International is sometimes forced to let cars through without paying. Orlando International Airport is still waiting to collect more than $1 million in SunPass parking fees, an airport spokeswoman said.

The problem isn’t limited to machines. Amid months of SunPass breakdowns at Tampa International, the airport’s vice president of operations, John Tiliacos, tried to get the company on the phone. He waited on hold for almost an hour. Emails showed Tampa airport officials struggling to arrange meetings with the company to fix systemic problems. Conduent’s service provider “is often difficult to reach” during outages at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, said a representative for the Broward County Aviation Authority.

The breakdowns are a hassle, and they sour the visiting experience at Florida’s biggest airports. After the SunPass system went down — again — on May 12, familiar complaints of long delays to exit Tampa International rolled in through email and social media. “SunPass is tarnishing an otherwise world-class airport experience,” one customer wrote. Conduent declined requests by the Times/Herald for comment, directing reporters instead to the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, which oversees state toll roads. So much for accountability from this private-sector partner.

A state transportation spokeswoman said the department is working with Tampa International on improvements to the system, and within eight months Conduent plans to put the airports on a different operating system, according to Tampa airport emails. Tampa International said last week that reliability has recently improved and credited state transportation officials for getting Conduent’s attention.

Getting the company’s attention appears to be the trick. DeSantis didn’t create this mess, but he moved decisively this year to hold the state and the contractor more accountable. He needs to intervene again.

Online: http://www.tampabay.com/


July 7

The Palm Beach Post approving Palm Beach County’s decision to crack down on vaping usage:

An e-cigarette is a marvel of the inconspicuous. It’s easy to carry and conceal. Instead of smoke, it emits only a vapor barely as visible as steam. The wisp might smell like fruit or menthol or practically nothing at all, and it dissipates in about 10 seconds, unlike cigarette smoke detectable a block away.

No wonder the e-cigarette business is booming -- but not among the intended audience of cigarette smokers trying to quit. Rather, it’s all the rage among high school and middle school students. And that’s not a good trend.

In a survey released in December from the National Institutes of Health, the percentage of high school students who said they’d vaped nicotine in the past 30 days almost doubled since 2017 -- to nearly 21% from 11%. It was the largest one-year increase ever recorded for any substance in the survey’s 43-year history -- twice as big as the previous record.

As Vox reports, the findings mean that one quarter of America’s 12th graders are now using a nicotine-delivery device “that’s so new we have no idea what the long-term health impact of it will be.”

For this alone, we commend the Palm Beach County School District for cracking down on vaping on its 185-plus school campuses.

This month, administrators may ask the School Board to approve changes in the student conduct code to specifically deal with the rapid spread of electronic cigarettes. In addition, school officials are stepping up efforts to educate students, staff and parents on the not-so-obvious problems with these seemingly benign devices.

They shouldn’t let up on this.

For the problem goes beyond nicotine. Teens are also vaping cannabis. And all too often, the high they’re seeking comes mixed with more dangerous stuff -- methadone and pesticide in the case of one girl sent to the hospital, according to The Palm Beach Post’s Sonja Isger.

At Seminole Ridge High School, Principal James Campbell has summoned ambulances no fewer than 15 times in the last year and a half to take students to the hospital after they’d vaped something, Isger reports. No wonder alarms are ringing at school district headquarters.

Just last week, Florida instituted a statewide ban on the use of vapor-generating electronic devices in enclosed indoor spaces. The ban was voted in as a constitutional amendment in November with almost 69 percent approval -- although the exact unpopularity of vaping is blurred because the measure was inexplicably combined with a very popular prohibition on offshore oil drilling.

True, e-cigarettes are less harmful than cigarettes because they don’t contain tobacco. But the vapor that comes out of an e-cigarette is not harmless. As the American Cancer Society warns, the vapor can contain two substances used to create stage or theatrical fog -- propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin -- “which have been found to increase lung and airway irritation after concentrated exposure,” the society’s website states.

That’s in addition to the nicotine, which remains addictive even in this different form, and which is particularly bad for young people. Evidence shows that nicotine harms the brain development of teenagers.

Dismayingly, the surge in teen vaping is taking us in the wrong direction. According to the NIH survey, nicotine use among high school seniors rose almost 5 percent last year -- from 23.7 percent in 2017 to 28.5 percent of 12th graders in 2018.

“Vaping is reversing hard-fought declines in the number of adolescents who use nicotine,” said Richard Miech of the University of Michigan, the study’s lead author and principal investigator. “These results suggest that vaping is leading youth into nicotine use and nicotine addiction, not away from it.”

Those e-cigarettes with marijuana hold another kind of peril -- a legal one. The THC in the oils, more concentrated than in a small baggie of weed, can mean a felony. As Isger reports, the number of kids facing vaping-related felonies in Palm Beach County soared from eight in 2017 to 115 in 2018 and to 46 in just the first three months of 2019.

The school district currently disciplines students for vaping the same way as for smoking tobacco (with a suspension). Possessing THC oil prompts a longer suspension and notification to police. Selling THC oil, expulsion. It’s unclear what new steps the district might take.

The most hopeful part of the schools’ response, however, may be this, as described by Campbell in a message to parents: “Every student caught is provided the opportunity to reduce their suspension length by attending a three-hour course on the effects of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, while being taught skills needed to replace high-risk behaviors with healthier life choices.”

Twenty years ago, more than a third of high school students were cigarette smokers. By 2015, that number was down to about 10 percent, according to the CDC -- largely because a slow and steady public health movement persuaded young people that smoking wasn’t just dangerous, it wasn’t cool.

Now comes a new epidemic among teens, and just like that one, fighting it will take time, persistence -- and education. It’s good to see that administrators are rolling up their sleeves for the battle ahead.

Online: https://www.palmbeachpost.com/

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