Briefly Stated: October 27, 2021

October 26, 2021 8 min read
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Florida School Shooter Enters Guilty Pleas to Parkland Murders

Nikolas Cruz pleaded guilty last week in the 2018 high school massacre in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

Cruz, 23, entered his pleas in a courtroom attended by a dozen relatives of victims after answering a long list of questions from Circuit Judge Elizabeth Scherer aimed at confirming his mental competency. He was charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted first-degree murder for those wounded in the Feb. 14, attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The guilty pleas will set the stage for a penalty trial in which 12 jurors will determine whether Cruz should be sentenced to death or life in prison without parole. Given the case’s notoriety, Scherer plans to screen thousands of prospective jurors. Hearings are scheduled throughout November and December, with a goal to start testimony in January.

Cruz killed 14 students and three staff members on Valentine’s Day during a seven-minute rampage through a three-story building at Stoneman Douglas, investigators said. They said he shot victims in the hallways and in classrooms with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle. Cruz had been expelled from the school a year earlier after a history of threatening, frightening, unusual, and sometimes violent behavior that dated back to preschool.

The shootings caused some Stoneman Douglas students to launch the March for Our Lives movement, which pushes for stronger gun restrictions nationally.

Since days after the shooting, Cruz’s lawyers had offered to have him plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, saying that would spare the community the emotional turmoil of reliving the attack at trial. But then-Broward state Attorney Mike Satz rejected the offer, saying Cruz deserved a death sentence, and appointed himself lead prosecutor. Satz, 79, stepped down as state attorney in January after 44 years but remains Cruz’s chief prosecutor.

His successor, Harold Pryor, is opposed to the death penalty but has said he will follow the law. Like Satz, he never accepted the defense offer—as an elected official, that would have been difficult, even in liberal Broward County.

By having Cruz plead guilty, his lawyers will be able to argue during the penalty hearing that he took responsibility for his actions.

White House Outlines Plans for Vaccinating Millions of 5- to 11-Year-Olds Starting in Weeks

Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Parents of young school-age children may soon by singing that chorus when it comes to COVID-19.

In a matter of weeks, children from 5 to 11 are likely to be able to get a COVID shot at their pediatrician’s office, local pharmacy, and potentially even their school, the White House announced last week as it detailed plans for the expected authorization of the Pfizer shot for younger children.

Federal regulators were expected to meet over the next weeks to weigh the benefits of giving shots to children, after lengthy studies meant to ensure the safety of the vaccines.

Within hours of formal approval, expected after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory meeting scheduled for Nov. 2-3, doses are to begin shipping to providers across the country, along with smaller needles necessary for injecting young children, and within days will be ready to go into their arms on a wide scale.

The Biden administration notes the nationwide campaign to extend the protection of vaccination to the school-going cohort will not look like the start of the country’s vaccine rollout 10 months ago, when scarcity of doses and capacity issues meant a painstaking wait for many Americans. The country now has ample supplies of the Pfizer shot to vaccinate the roughly 28 million children who will soon be eligible, White House officials said.

More than 25,000 pediatricians and primary-care providers have already signed on to administer the shots to children, the White House said, in addition to the tens of thousands of retail pharmacies that are already administering shots to adults. Hundreds of school- and community-based clinics will also be funded and supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help speed up putting shots into arms.

The White House is preparing to mobilize a stepped-up campaign to educate parents and children about the shot’s safety.

While children are at lower risk than older people of having serious side effects from COVID-19, those serious consequences do occur. Officials note that vaccination dramatically reduces those chances and the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant in communities.

Children, Teenagers Are in a ‘Mental-Health State of Emergency,’ Child Health-Care Groups Warn

A quieter, parallel pandemic has been happening alongside COVID-19: a spike in significant mental-health problems among young people, spurred by isolation, uncertainty, fear, and grief.

Mental-health emergency visits among children are on the rise. Between March and October of last year, they increased 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent for those 12 to 17. There was also a more than 50 percent spike in visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls ages 12 to 17 early this year, compared with the same period in 2019.

That boils down to a “mental-health state of emergency” for children and adolescents, according to a statement last week from three organizations that represent child-health practitioners: the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association.

“Part of the reason why we came together now is that we’re continuing to see real increases in mental-health concerns, and tremendous increases in visits to pediatricians’ offices, [as well as] in child and adolescent psychiatry offices and in hospital emergency departments,” said Dr. Lee Savio Beers, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a professor of pediatrics at Children’s National Hospital. “And at the same time, we’re not seeing good movement around increasing the access to the services that students need.”

The health-care organizations are calling on policymakers to take steps including increasing federal funding for mental-health services, bolstering access to telemedicine, supporting school-based mental-health care, stepping up integration of mental health in primary-care pediatrics, and intensifying efforts to reduce the risk of suicide in children and adults.

State policymakers have already taken modest steps toward addressing the crisis, with respect to teenage suicide attempts.

For instance, in 2020 and 2021, at least nine states passed legislation requiring suicide-hotline numbers to appear on student-identification cards for K-12 and in some cases, college, according to the Education Commission of the States. And at least three states approved broader pieces of legislation aimed at teenage mental health and suicide prevention, ECS found.

Senate Confirms Lhamon to Head Civil Rights Office

It was close, but she is coming back.

Catherine Lhamon will once again lead the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights, one of the most prominent jobs in the federal education bureaucracy, after Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate to seal Lhamon’s confirmation.

Many education civil rights groups and activists have hailed Lhamon, who was assistant secretary of civil rights during the Obama administration, as a champion for students of color and others who are often discriminated against in public schools. Yet her critics say she’s sought to impose “progressive social policy” on schools regardless of legal and other concerns, with “divisive results.”

During her first tenure under Obama, Lhamon oversaw the office when it helped draft 2016 guidance to schools directing them to allow transgender students to use facilities like restrooms and locker rooms that matched their gender identity.

She also signed off on 2014 guidance that told schools they might be violating federal civil rights law if they had major racial disparities in their discipline decisions.

And her office issued Title IX guidance about sexual assaults at schools and on college campuses during the Obama administration. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s education secretary, rescinded that guidance in 2018, stating that the guidance did not sufficiently protect the rights of the accused.

Lhamon, in turn, harshly criticized new Title IX regulations issued by DeVos last year, stating that they wind the clock back to a time “when it was permissible to rape and sexually harass students with impunity.”

That comment as well as Lhamon’s past actions came under intense scrutiny from GOP senators during her confirmation hearing in July.

Ohio Mother Gets Ordained to Sign Waivers for Masks

Within seconds, an Ohio mother became an ordained minister, and the very next day, she began offering her services to sign off on students’ religious-exemption requests to go maskless at school.

In her 1,800-student district, Valley View, Kristin Grant signed more than 150 requests, along with more for students in surrounding districts near Dayton.

What’s more, Valley View accepted the exemptions. Superintendent Ben Richards said despite the strict requirements on his district’s form, his school board “did not want to restrict people” too much, so the district approved all 169 religious-exemption requests it received.

“I think there was a belief that most people would just do the right thing, for lack of a better phrase,” Richards said.

Valley View instituted its indoor mask mandate on Sept. 2—five days before school started this year.

On Sept. 3, Grant posted on Facebook that she had been ordained by the online Universal Life Church—which allows people to “become a minister within seconds.”

In offering her services, Grant pointed to a few Bible verses, including one from 1 Corinthians, saying, “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God.” She didn’t ask the students she signed for whether they believed that.

“It’s not my job to prove, or really ask, and it’s not my business what their religion necessarily is,” Grant said.

To get an exemption, the district also required a personal statement from families “describing the religious basis” for their mask objection. Richards said a majority used “very similar language,” including the Corinthians verse Grant cited.

Valley View also requires a parent to sign a statement that says, “I understand that choosing not to wear a facial covering places all at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19.”

While the number of COVID cases across the region began to drop in mid-September, Valley View reported a surge the week of Sept. 27, with 39 students and staff testing positive—three times the previous level.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; Tribune News Service; and Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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