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Florida editorial roundup

February 7, 2018

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Feb. 6

The Miami Herald on Florida International University reinstating 16 Greek organizations with new rules:

Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg is firmly and effectively cracking down on Greek life at his school. The good news is other institutions of higher learning in the state are taking a hard look at fraternity culture, too.

But Rosenberg deserves praise for tackling the frat problem head-on and sending a strong message that fraternities have to do better if they want to continue to exist.

These are hard times for these student organizations, and often because they brought the difficulties upon themselves. Universities across the country are suspending fraternity and sorority chapters in response to troubling — and sometimes deadly — incidents on campus. They have sparked a national conversation about the future of Greek organizations, which some students defend.

At FIU, fraternities were seemingly out of control. A fraternity’s leaked group chat revealed photos of nude women, Holocaust memes, jokes about rape and pedophilia and conversations about drug sales. They’ve been caught serving liquor to minors at tailgate parties.

After a month-long suspension of the groups, FIU announced this week that the campus chapters of 16 Greek organizations have been reinstated. But they won’t return to business as usual.

Real change is on the way. During the suspension, administrators, Greek organization leaders and alumni met in search of ways to curb the bad behavior. Frat life needs to evolve out of the 1950s — or die.

Rosenberg’s first solid act: banning alcohol from all fraternity and sorority events for the rest of the semester. Good move. Keeping liquor away from a campus is going to be really, really hard. But alcohol is too often the common denominator when a frat tragedy occurs, so Rosenberg’s edict wisely goes right to the source.

Two troubled fraternities have been suspended for two years. A third, Pi Kappa Phi, was suspended for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time.

“The fate of Greek life has been hanging by a thread, and this pause gave us the opportunity to recommit to our values and end the age of permissiveness and ambiguity that has hung over our Greek organizations for far too long,” Rosenberg said. Those aren’t the words of a scold, or a prude. Rather, they represent the responsibility campuses have not to be parties to illegal or dangerous behavior.

The days of looking the other way in response to bad behavior in Greek life should be over. And like FIU, universities are getting more aggressive as the death count grows.

November saw the shocking death of a pledge to the Pi Kappa Phi chapter at Florida State University. Andrew Coffey, 20, a graduate of Pompano Beach High School, was found dead. FSU said, Enough, and suspended Greek life.

In 2011, FAMU was hit with the hazing death — beating death, really — of a marching band newbie. Offenders received prison time, and deservedly so.

At the University of Miami, the future of fraternities and their oversight are also being debated.

There, hazing is strictly prohibited, according to the dean of students, but a Miami Hurricane student newspaper editorial recently said the practice “is common knowledge among students and needs to be discussed.” The university has hosted workshops and town hall meetings on the issue. That’s the correct course.

Done right, frat life is a rewarding and life-long bonding experience for students. But they are becoming an anachronism in a #MeToo world.

Rosenberg is on the right track in his efforts to rein in fraternities.

Online: http://www.miamiherald.com/

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Feb. 6

The Sun Sentinel on the local impact of bipartisan legislation reforming how the U.S. Congress handles sexual harassment:

Despite the partisan divide on display at last week’s State of the Union address, bipartisan legislation to reform how Congress handles sexual harassment allegations is advancing. Lawmakers can’t act soon enough.

Last fall, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, attention turned to Congress. News reports revealed that lawmakers had settled sexual harassment and discrimination cases using a secret Treasury Department fund — not their own money. Between 2003 and 2017, the public spent nearly $300,000 on 13 settlements involving House members, according to the Committee on Administration. That does not include private settlements.

Revelations continued. Seven lawmakers accused of workplace sexual harassment have resigned in the last four months or announced that they won’t seek re-election. One served on the House Ethics Committee, which can recommend punishment apart from any criminal or civil investigation. He left the committee post.

Out of the controversy has come H.R. 4822, which would update rules that were supposed to make Congress more accountable but clearly haven’t. The bill would increase transparency in sexual harassment cases, protect the accusers and require lawmakers — not taxpayers — to pay any settlements.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, whose district includes Boca Raton and portions of Broward County, is the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee and a co-sponsor of the legislation. In an interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Deutch said the 1995 legislation that brought Congress under the same laws as other workplaces has become outdated.

“The process fails too many victims,” Deutch said. Under current rules, accusers have 180 days to bring a claim before the congressional Office of Compliance. The system is designed to steer accusers toward mediation and away from a lawsuit or a formal hearing. There are further delays for a cooling-off period and counseling. Not only does the public pay for settlements, the outcome can stay secret because of a nondisclosure agreement.

H.R. 4822 would eliminate the mandatory counseling and mediation requirements. Accusers who didn’t want mediation could move quickly toward an investigation by the Office of Compliance or a federal lawsuit.

After an investigation, the Office of Compliance would have to find reasonable cause for a claim, no reasonable cause or that a full hearing is necessary. Every six months, the Office of Compliance would have to report any settlements or cases that have gone to federal court. Lawmakers would have to pay settlements even if the case is resolved after they leave office.

Critics might say that requiring members to pay for their misdeeds could give less incentive to settle quickly. The counter argument is that disclosure would compel lawmakers seeking re-election to resolve a case. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who chairs the House Administration Committee and is the sponsor of H.R. 4822, said the disclosure rule is one of the bill’s key provisions.

It is still unclear, however, how and when the bill would apply to employees, not just members. In Florida, we saw recently the need for disclosure in all cases.

Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio fired his chief of staff for violating “policies regarding proper relations between a supervisor and their subordinates.” Clint Reed’s behavior “led to actions which in my judgment amounted to threats to withhold employment benefits.”

But Rubio did not reveal how many employees had been affected or how long Reed’s actions went on. According to news reports, Rubio heard about the violations on a Friday and fired Reed the next evening. His office issued just a four-paragraph statement and at first didn’t identify Reed.

Since then, Rubio has criticized The Miami Herald for seeking more details, saying that he wishes to protect victims’ confidentiality. Obviously, it would look bad if his top aide had been harassing staffers for years without Rubio being aware of it. Rubio said he would support legislation to reform policies on sexual harassment.

Ironically, accuser and accused in another Florida case believe that the system is unfair. A former staff member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation accused Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Miramar, of harassing her when he chaired the commission. Winsome Packer got a $220,000 settlement, but said she lost her job and her house. Hastings claimed that the settlement was made over his objections, calling Packer’s charges “ludicrous.”

Hastings is a cosponsor of H.R. 4822. “This legislation would do nothing for me, because I did nothing,” he said in a statement, “but it is important for Congress to address this issue.”

Like Hollywood, Deutch said, Congress faces its own “moment of reckoning” on sexual harassment. On Tuesday, the House voted to prohibit sexual relationships between lawmakers and their employees.

Deutch said markup of H.R. 4822 should begin soon. He hopes that the legislation can get to the House floor “within weeks.” The goal should be reform that doesn’t just punish sexual harassment, but deters it.

Online: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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Feb. 6

The Tampa Bay Times on awareness and resources for the deadly opioid epidemic across Florida:

Florida needs to take advantage of every opportunity to bring awareness and resources to the deadly opioid epidemic that is ravaging communities across the state. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions comes to Tampa today to discuss federal efforts to combat the crisis, but if he sticks to his script of late he will focus on enforcement and punishment instead of where the attention really needs to be: rehabilitation. Without a meaningful commitment at all levels of government to treating addiction, this crisis will continue claiming lives.

In speeches over the last week, Sessions has vowed a surge by the Drug Enforcement Administration in targeting pharmacies and prescribers that dispense unusually high amounts of drugs. Using data from drug manufacturers, Sessions has said DEA analysts will look for patterns that lead them to lawbreakers. Penalizing suppliers — not users — is a smart way to apply law enforcement muscle. But it doesn’t deal with addiction, which is what continually fuels demand for the drugs.

The scourge began with pharmaceutical companies pushing powerful, highly addictive opioid drugs to treat all kinds of pain. But taken beyond the prescribed amount, the drugs can also produce a high. Addicted patients and recreational users soon turned to pill mills that provided hundreds of pills with few questions asked. An appropriate state crackdown led by Attorney General Pam Bondi closed most of Florida’s pill mills, but that gave rise to a new demand for street drugs such as heroin. The epidemic now encompasses all forms of opioids, creating an unprecedented public health crisis that kills 14 people a day in Florida. Treating addiction is the only way to contain it.

Gov. Rick Scott, in his proposed budget, is seeking $53 million to fight the epidemic — $27 million of which would come from federal grants. The money would fund drug treatment, law enforcement efforts and help local fire departments acquire the overdose-reversal drug Narcan. It’s a decent start, but it’s not enough from a governor who made substance abuse treatment a low priority for too long. State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is asking for an additional $25 million just for treatment, which is likely a long shot but adds some perspective regarding the scale of this problem.

Scott is also backing legislation that limits prescriptions for narcotics to a three-day supply, with some exceptions to allow doctors to prescribe seven days’ worth. That’s still too restrictive for the many responsible patients who need opioids for legitimate pain, and requiring a doctor’s visit several times a month to renew a prescription would burden low-income people, the very ill and those with mobility issues. Lawmakers should listen to medical experts and fine-tune that proposal. The bill also gives broader authority to the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, enabling the sharing of data with other states, and requires doctors to check the database before writing prescriptions as well as undergo extra education. Those are smart measures that should be enacted.

Sessions’ stop in Tampa is an important moment to bring renewed attention to a crisis that cannot be ignored. But enforcement actions by the DEA will amount to nothing more than another failed push in the nation’s long drug war if not enough is done to help addicts get treatment and quit for good. State leaders should be ready to find more money to help meet that dire need.

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

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