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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

December 24, 2018

Omaha World Herald. December 21, 2018

Good to see reduced use of solitary confinement in many Nebraska juvenile centers.

Most juvenile detention centers in Nebraska have made needed progress over the past year in reducing their use of solitary confinement for detained youths. Significant challenges remain, but many of the latest findings by a state inspector general are encouraging.

Of 33 juvenile-focused centers around the state, seven use room confinement with some frequency, and most showed a reduction over the past year. As examples, Julie Rogers, the state inspector general for child welfare, cited the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva as well as youth centers in Sarpy, Lancaster and Madison Counties.

The trend at those centers is a welcome change from 2016, when a study by ACLU of Nebraska found that juvenile detention institutions in Nebraska kept youths in room confinement for some of the longest periods in the nation.

Mental health professionals warn that juvenile facilities’ use of solitary confinement risks great harm to young offenders and should be used sparingly. Practice around the country is moving toward reduced use of such confinement.

The Nebraska Legislature in 2016 responded by requiring that juvenile detention centers around the state adopt policies to reduce the times they resort to restrictive housing. The legislation, by State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, also required that the centers report the circumstances whenever they use room confinement.

The Douglas County Youth Center is an exception to progress over the past year at other Nebraska facilities, Rogers writes in her new report. More than 90 percent of the time, solitary confinement at the center involved stays exceeding eight hours.

Center personnel told Rogers that the main factors leading to restrictive housing are a youth’s significant mental health problems or gang affiliation. Also, “sometimes a youth feels safe in restrictive housing after having an altercation in the general population.”

The center is working to reduce its use of solitary confinement, the report says, by adding a licensed mental health provider to the evening schedule and using various rehabilitation programs. Staff keep track of gang membership to avoid housing members of rival gangs together.

Rogers’ report listed the elements of best practice for the use of restrictive housing for juveniles: It should be “used as a last resort when all other least restrictive measures have failed.” It should last no longer than 24 hours; some experts say limits of two or four hours are appropriate.

It also should be closely monitored, Rogers writes: “Youth should be checked on by staff frequently, and when the incident is for an extended period of time, the youth should be seen by a mental health professional.”

Some of Nebraska’s juvenile detention centers face significant challenges, no question, in managing youths with major mental health issues or violent and disruptive tendencies. At the same time, the expert findings about the dangers from extended solitary confinement are clear.

The overall trend line on this issue is encouraging for many Nebraska institutions. As much as practically possible, they need to keeping it heading in the right direction.

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Lincoln Journal Star. December 22, 2018

Nebraska has strong vision for its roads.

Back in July, the Journal Star editorial board lauded state officials for years of planning that prompted a record $600 million budget for roads in this fiscal year.

That vision once again was on public display before two legislative committees Monday, as Nebraska Department of Transportation Director Kyle Schneweis laid out the road forward during the annual State Highway Needs Assessment.

Schneweis pointed out that the state isn’t able to fund everything it wants to do at its current pace; the projects he discussed averaged $625 million annually over a 20-year span. However, Nebraska’s elected officials have demonstrated foresight by setting aside significant resources to tackle the never-ending work of improving and expanding infrastructure.

Legislative efforts such as the 2011 Build Nebraska Act sales tax earmark championed by then-Sen. Deb Fischer, a gradual fuel tax hike approved in 2014 over Gov. Pete Ricketts’ veto and Ricketts’ own Transportation Innovation Act from 2016, among others, have placed the state in a solid position going forward.

Take the item from Schneweis’ presentation that generated the most buzz: the state’s plan to expand to six lanes 17 miles of Interstate 80 between Lincoln and Seward.

The capital city’s population boom has spilled across city limits and county lines. As such, the traffic between the communities - particularly during rush hour - has stressed the current four-lane setup. Additional funding mechanisms have helped make the needed project (which is estimated to cost $212 million in 2023 dollars) more attainable in a more timely fashion.

Or look at Lincoln’s South Beltway, which was first proposed in the 1960s. More specific plans coalesced in the 1990s. But note that the $300 million project accelerated toward reality - with Schneweis telling lawmakers, “We’re going to finally build the Lincoln South Beltway” - as more money became available for infrastructure at the state and local levels.

We’re highlighting these Lincoln-area projects because of their proximity to a majority of our readers. But the 17 projects already funded by the Build Nebraska Act stretch from Nebraska City to Alliance. Countless other local efforts to fix deficient roads and bridges across the state were paid for at least in part by one of the other two bills.

Not every lane on the roughly 10,000 miles of highways and 3,500 bridges maintained by the state - especially given Nebraska’s size - can be perfectly smooth within the budget constraints. Quality infrastructure is imperative for travel, commerce and safety in all corners of the Cornhusker State.

As such, an ambitious but attainable roadmap is required. More funding will be required to convert all of the state’s goals into reality, but concerted efforts in recent years have closed the gap between needs and wants - while bettering Nebraska’s roads and bridges along the way.

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McCook Daily Gazette. December 20, 2018

‘Getting ahead of the story’ best course of action.

A staff member recently recounted a conversation with a friend, who expressed frustration about his ignorance of several important area stories.

The reporter was puzzled, since she had personally written stories about some of those stories, and the others had appeared in prominent positions in this newspaper.

“Where do you get your news?” she asked.

“Facebook” was the reply.

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and other social media are increasingly a source of “news” for many of us, but recent events show just how dangerous that is.

Recent, reputable investigations have shown how useful social media are to foreign powers such as Russia, who have quickly and effectively adapted them to longstanding propaganda efforts to sway public opinion.

A recent email threat caused McCook officials to evacuate the school out of an abundance of caution. When another potential threat was made against the Cambridge school, officials decided it had been addressed effectively and issued a general Facebook statement that has since been taken down.

Court records reported Wednesday, however, showed that three current students and a former student have now been charged with felony terroristic threats.

Officials can’t be blamed for trying to maintain order, but if basic questions are left unanswered, the public has always been quick to fill in the answers, regardless of any basis in fact.

Unlike traditional media, which must stand by their reporting, Facebook offers a wide audience to anyone with a smartphone, without regard to whether they have an agenda or any degree of knowledge or honesty.

Thus, rumors, half-truths and, yes, fake news can spread at the speed of light.

While it may be tempting to try to shut down public discussion of any incident, it’s much wiser to “get ahead of the story” and release as much information as can be done responsibly before the gossip mongers have a chance to spread speculation and falsehoods.

As a new phenomenon, Facebook’s proper role in commerce, privacy and politics is far from settled, and the company could face severe restrictions, especially in foreign markets, if it does not accept more responsibility for its business practices and culpability in the manipulation of elections.

For their part, traditional media must resist the temptation to lower journalistic standards in order to compete with social media.

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