Georgia editorial roundup
The Associated Press
Mar. 07, 2018
Recent editorials from Georgia newspapers:
The Marietta Daily Journal on a community's responsibility to protect their schools' students:
Since the Florida high school Valentine's Day massacre, the thought of how to keep our Marietta and Cobb schools safe from psychopaths has weighed heavily on parents' minds. The nature of a school lends itself to being an easy target for those intent on doing harm, with children and teachers who enter and exit on a daily basis. But this isn't to say preventative measures can't be taken and enhanced.
Marietta Superintendent Grant Rivera believes two conversations are needed, with one on how to be proactive — encouraging students, staff and families to be alert and come forward when they encounter warning signs. Over-communicating is always better than failing to follow up on warning signs, as was the case in the Florida shooting.
Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn says his department recently released a template to help schools develop campus violence prevention policies. The template is designed to urge students and parents to look for warning signs and threats, then communicate them to school officials.
"Once a concern is reported to school officials, they are bound by policy to act on it, usually by at least consulting with the police to determine if further action is warranted," Flynn said.
A second conversation Rivera said needs to take place is how to make schools less of a target. Chief Flynn calls this strategy "target hardening" and his officers are certified in a process known as "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design," a service offered to all schools in Marietta.
For example, at several Marietta elementary schools, there are two locked doors to pass through before entering the school. The first locked door leads to a vestibule area where you are greeted by another locked door. Rivera says this is to ensure a greater degree of security where someone can see you and buzz you in. Other measures are confidential so as not to give bad actors advance warning.
There is debate over arming teachers, the idea being if teachers have weapons, they aren't sitting targets. Neither Rivera nor Cobb Superintendent Chris Ragsdale support that measure. Ragsdale says a teacher's plate of responsibilities is already overflowing. Ragsdale asked, would you pay them twice the salary then, given they would be performing two jobs, that of educator and protector? Better to leave firearms in the hands of law enforcement stationed at schools.
The idea of installing metal detectors at a school's front entrance has also been floated, yet Ragsdale and Rivera are not fans of this approach either. To begin with, they don't work because students get around them, the superintendents say. Aside from their ineffectiveness, there is the added challenge of how to funnel 3,000 high school students through metal detectors each morning, something it takes TSA hours to do at the airport.
What both superintendents do find effective is stationing police officers at the schools, officers who build relationships with the students, encouraging them to speak up when something is amiss. Ragsdale says the majority of incidents are avoided because a student brings information to adults at a school. In fact, were money no object, both superintendents would station a police officer at each of their schools.
The Cobb School District employs 65 police officers with 53 assigned to the district's 112 schools.
The school board would need to hire another 60 or so officers to have them at all Cobb schools — an added cost of $6.3 million the first year and $4.3 million thereafter, according to district spokesman John Stafford. While it may seem excessive to have a police officer at every elementary school in the county, think of what may have happened were one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when a psychopath, finding the main entrance locked, shot out a glass panel to gain entrance before fatally shooting 20 children and six adults?
In addition to quality police officers stationed at our high schools, another place where Cobb is ahead of the curve is with the crisis management system it rolled out last year called AlertPoint. The system, which, when fully implemented, will be in every Cobb school, gives staff the ability to activate an alert from anywhere on a school's campus. This means instead of, say, a custodian seeing a threat and sending word to the principal, who in turn puts the school on lockdown, said custodian can activate the code red the instant the threat is seen.
Moreover, Ragsdale says the county's special 1 percent sales tax program has allowed staff to rekey every door in the school district, so that Cobb has the capability to lock classroom doors when a code red is issued. Because if you're not able to lock a door, you have automatically put 30 children and a teacher in additional jeopardy.
Regular training for an active shooter scenario is also key to helping a school community prepare. Chief Flynn says Marietta excels in the training of its teachers, students and general public in how to survive and protect others in such scenarios. The police department offers nationally certified, ongoing and free seminars on the subject, and, to date, has presented them to about 16,000 people in and around Marietta.
With the AlertPoint system, the evaluation of protocols and the highly trained school police officers, Ragsdale believes the school district has gone above and beyond in efforts to keep safety the top priority.
A communitywide effort is needed with everyone on the alert to avoid the fate of Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland.
"If we can get to a place where I've got 2,400 sets of eyes and ears, maybe that's the power," Rivera said. "Maybe that's the social awareness that we've now come upon 19 years after Columbine that this is not OK. We have a collective responsibility. That's maybe the opportunity we have to redefine what's going on."
The Augusta Chronicle says schools should stand by students walking out of class on March 24 to protest the shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school last month:
It's likely that few mass protests in history will have been less inconvenient yet more impactful.
The National School Walkout at 10 a.m. March 14 - the one-month anniversary of the Parkland school shooting - is intended to call attention to the need for action, not just words, to better protect schools from attack.
Normally we would urge against such work or school stoppages. But, brilliantly, the demonstration is designed for minimum disruption and maximum effect: It will last only 17 minutes, in memory of the 17 slaughtered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
We hope the national protest raises the level of dialogue - not just the temperature - and it proves that an act of high-minded civil disobedience need not be one of civil disorder.
And how could the cause be any more pressing or paramount than the life or death of our young?
With the impending walkout doubtlessly coming to the Augusta area, writes The Chronicle's Amanda King, "local school districts are forming plans on how to respond if students take part."
Here's one suggestion: Help them. Give them cover.
If administrators want to avoid a walkout due to concerns over safety and disruption, good alternatives are being pursued in Columbia County schools. Superintendent Sandra Carraway says "we are working with them to have a meaningful opportunity for them to express themselves while we focus on school safety measures currently in place and potential improvements..."
Elsewhere, a brief walkout could be made all the more meaningful if teachers, administrators and other school staff stand with students in support of their right to live and their entitlement to an education free from the fear of deadly assault.
The bother of planning a 17-minute walkout may be well worth its lasting impression. A secondary danger to school shootings is our fleeting attention span: We can't just bow our heads and wring our hands and then move on.
"It's time that a president stepped up," Trump said at a meeting on the issue last week - where he suggested comprehensive action on tightening background checks, keeping guns out of the hands of those few mentally ill who are a danger to others, and bringing airport, courthouse and statehouse style security to vulnerable schools.
We would just add that both the prelude to Parkland and local law enforcement's response to it cry out for further investigation and accountability. Infamously, the FBI and local law enforcement missed myriad warning signs leading up to the shooting - and it now appears that the first officers on the scene, as well as one already there, chose to, or were ordered to, protect themselves by setting up outside the scene of an active school shooting.
That alone is a national disgrace.
A word of caution going forward: A third danger in this case is rash actions that erode law-abiding gun owners' rights to very little effect on the potential for violence. There is no easy fix for this complicated problem, which involves much more than guns - including mental health issues and institutions, parenting, a violent entertainment culture, an erosion in religion and basic morality, and more.
We suggest standing with students March 14 - and then standing together on a comprehensive strategy that actually has a hope of better protecting them.
The Rome News-Tribune says Sen. Chuck Hufstetler kept his word and passed historic income tax cuts:
When state Sen. Chuck Hufstetler became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in January 2017, he immediately spoke of the need to look at Georgia's outdated revenue and tax structure "to see if it's the best for taxpayers and the state."
The Rome Republican had the credentials for his new job, beginning his third two-year term in the Senate after serving as a Floyd County commissioner and chairing its finance committee for six years. Remarkably, during his tenure the county earned its first AA bond rating in modern history — and the tax rate went down while the general fund balance increased.
Upon taking the Senate committee helm, Hufstetler acknowledged that finance "was perhaps my biggest contribution at the county level and that this was a good fit for me at the state level." This was confirmed when the senator took on the challenge of tax reform in the 2017 General Assembly, calling for major changes in the tax code and pushing for cuts for all taxpayers, "from richest to poorest." Under his leadership, that's exactly what the Senate Finance Committee did, merging different bills passed by House and Senate. But with time running out in the 2017 legislative session, the two chambers deadlocked on a final bill, leaving the task to this year's General Assembly.
Hufstetler stayed on the job along with his House counterpart, Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, other Republican legislative leaders, Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston. Their efforts were given major impetus by enactment of the $1.5-trillion federal tax cut legislation which meant Georgia potentially would get a windfall of about $5 billion a year with an unintended consequence of hitting many state taxpayers with higher bills. State law required taxpayers claiming standard federal deductions to do the same on their state taxes, but many were counting on using itemized deductions on 2017 returns to reduce their liabilities. That, Hufstetler rightly said, would "put some people in a penalty situation."
The problem, along with other issues, was resolved when both House and Senate approved HB 918 which eliminated the windfall, cut income state taxes by $1.2 billion a year and doubled the standard deduction. Tax cuts range from 16 percent for a family of four earning $50,000 to 10 percent for the $150,000 earners. The bill doubles the standard deduction this year from $2,300 to $4,600 for individual filers and from $3,000 to $6,000 for married joint filers. Starting in 2019, the top income tax rate will dip from 6 percent to 5.75 percent and to 5.5 percent in 2020.
It's a triumph for Georgia taxpayers. "This is the first income tax decrease in the history of Georgia," Hufstetler said at a news conference. "And it's a true middle-class tax cut." He pointed out that nearly half of Georgians earn $50,000 or less and the bill provides an income tax break for every bracket. Gov. Deal said the bill "will save taxpayers more than $5 billion over the next five years."
To say it was about time taxes were cut would be an understatement. The standard deduction was last increased in 1981. The individual rate was set at 6 percent in 1937 and has not changed since, while the corporate rate has also remained at 6 percent since 1969.
One of the contested issues injected into the legislative debate on HB 918 was a $35 million jet fuel tax exemption, primarily benefiting Atlanta-based Delta Airlines, and many legislators including Hufstetler opposed the exemption. Originally, the Rome senator went along with a compromise approving the Delta tax break to preserve the historic individual tax cuts. But after Delta severed its relationship with the National Rifle Association in the aftermath of the Florida school massacre, sentiment among Republicans turned decidedly against the fuel tax break and it was eliminated from the final bill with Hufstetler joining the majority on that issue.
Now, finally, there will be tax cuts for hard-working Georgians, thanks in no small measure to the determination and leadership of Rome's own Chuck Hufstetler, who deserves kudos for a job well done! Keep up the good work for Georgia taxpayers, Senator.