- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Editorials from around Pennsylvania:

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PEPPER SPRAY A PRACTICAL TOOL TO KEEP STATE PRISON CORRECTIONS OFFICERS SAFE, Oct. 29

It goes without saying that working in a state prison or county jail is a dangerous job.

So why has it taken so long for corrections officers working in Pennsylvania’s 26 state prisons to receive pepper spray to ward off attackers or break up inmate fights?

House Bill 2084, approved by the state Legislature last week and awaiting Gov. Tom Wolf’s signature, will arm every prison guard with pepper spray in what the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association hopes will protect them.

The legislation was written by state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, and state Rep. Timothy Mahoney, D-Uniontown, after the two legislators earlier this year toured SCI-Fayette prison, just across the Monongahela River from Fredericktown, after various assaults on staff members.

SCI-Greene near Waynesburg has its own history of assaults on officers in the past year.

Last November, a corrections officer was hospitalized after being stabbed more than a dozen times by an inmate who got his hands on a shank.

In March, an inmate slashed an officer trainee and, just a month later in April, another corrections officer was injured while trying to break up a fight between two inmates.

These are just the publicized attacks.

In all 26 state prisons across Pennsylvania, there were 979 assaults on staff members between January 2015 and March 2016, according to a report issued last month by the state auditor general’s office. That averages to about 65 assaults per month during that time span.

“We know it’s a dangerous profession,” Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association union President Jason Bloom told the Observer-Reporter last week. “When you actually see that number on paper - that’s high.”

A pilot program to arm corrections officers at SCI-Fayette had already begun, but the new legislation is a much-needed initiative to help staff members at every prison.

Bloom said it will not only protect corrections officers, but also inmates who are being attacked.

“It is a good thing for everybody inside the institution,” he said. “Currently at 105.8 percent of capacity, our state prisons are bursting at the seams and our officers are grossly outnumbered.”

But why has it taken this long to implement?

Although the total cost of the program is still unclear, it surely will save money and be less expensive than the medical leave corrections officers undergo upon being injured or the hospitalization costs for inmates involved in fights.

Once Wolf signs the legislation, which is expected soon, the state Department of Corrections will be in charge of writing a policy, bidding out for the pepper spray and then equipping the staff.

This is the best non-lethal way give corrections officers the protection they need, while also protecting the general population.

Hopefully the wait isn’t too much longer for those working in Pennsylvania’s state prisons.

- The (Washington) Observer-Reporter

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MORE DIPLOMAS MAY NOT MEAN BETTER EDUCATION, Oct. 26

Essentially, a diploma is nothing more than a sheet of parchment with embossed lettering and a few fancy words.

It has no real intrinsic value.

When a high school graduate goes to look for a job, however, that sheet of paper can have real worth. It’s usually the bare minimum needed to find even marginal employment.

Students who leave high school without a diploma will likely struggle to make ends meet for the rest of their adult lives.

That’s why the recent report that graduation rates are up, both across the United States and here in York County, seems like welcome news. Since the 2010-11 school year, national graduation rates have risen four percentage points, from 79 percent to 83 percent. Even better, gains were reported across all major subgroups, including minorities, low-income students and English learners.

Locally, the results are even more promising. Every York County district, except York City at 73.4 percent, is above the national average. Most are well above average, including a sterling 98.28 rate for Southern York County.

President Barack Obama attributed the upswing to his administration’s efforts to better public education and make it accessible to all. Obama specifically cited growth in early childhood education programs, a focus on rewarding excellent teachers and a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind legislation as reasons for the rising numbers.

That shouldn’t be surprising. All politicians love to pat themselves on the back.

The president, however, shouldn’t get too carried away with the plaudits for his administration.

The news is not universally good.

While graduation rates are up, test scores have not shown a similar bump.

In fact, the Associated Press has reported that some test scores are declining. Last year, math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders dropped for the first time in a generation on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress - also known as the Nation’s Report Card. Reading scores weren’t much better: flat for fourth-graders and lower for eighth-graders compared with 2013. Average scores on college entrance exams have also shown declines.

So what gives? Why are graduation rates up and test scores down?

Some believe that high schools are simply lowering standards and making it easier for students to graduate. In essence, the schools are being accused of “graduation inflation.”

The schools, of course, deny that is happening.

Ask any college professor, however, and he or she will likely tell you that many high school graduates, with diplomas in hand, are still woefully unprepared to do college-level work.

Ask any employer, and you’ll likely hear similar tales about high school grads who are often unable to perform simple tasks in the work world.

The bottom line? There is still much work to be done.

It’s definitely good news that more kids are graduating from high school. It will undoubtedly help more young adults get their foot in the door for that vitally important first job, or continue their schooling at the post-secondary level.

However, when they get that first job, or when they go on to college or trade school, they must have the tools needed to succeed.

If they don’t, that sheet of parchment with embossed lettering and a few fancy words won’t be worth anything at all.

- The York Dispatch

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ANOTHER CHILD’S DEATH SHOULD PROMPT DHS TO GET ITS ACT TOGETHER, Oct. 31

Another child under the supervision of a Philadelphia Department of Human Services contractor has died under highly suspicious circumstances. How many more must die before city and state officials realize that continuing to tinker with the symptoms of what plagues this vital agency doesn’t work? It needs to be restructured from top to bottom and take a different philosophical approach to caring for vulnerable children.

A 17-year-old boy died in a struggle with staff at the residential campus of Wordsworth Academy, one of 10 agencies contracted by the city’s DHS to serve as a community umbrella agency. The CUAs handle child welfare cases under DHS oversight, but too often that oversight has been lacking.

The teenager was declared dead after police arrived around 9 p.m. on Oct. 13 at the Wordsworth facility just outside Fairmount Park. State Department of Human Services reports said the boy had gotten into a fight with staff members who entered his room to search for a stolen iPod, which they apparently found after overturning a bed and throwing furniture.

The boy became violent, the reports said, and during attempts to restrain him one staff member held his legs while another began “throwing punches” at the teenager’s ribs. At some point, the boy began gasping for air. Children in the hallway said they heard him yelling, “Get off me, I can’t breathe.”

It took the state 11 days to complete an investigation and order Wordsworth to shut down its residential treatment program, citing it with “gross incompetence, negligence, and misconduct” in operating the facility. Specific accusations included abuse and mistreatment of a child and violating a child’s right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.

Almost as disturbing was a catalog of unrelated deficiencies, including broken heating and air-conditioning; unsanitary flooring; bathrooms with standing water; inoperable hallway lights; heaters with sharp edges, exposed electrical wires; and holes in the walls. Prisons are kept in better condition; but this was a residence mostly for children with developmental problems.

An earlier state report said a Wordsworth staff member had sexual contact with three children last year. Where was the oversight the city DHS is supposed to provide? More than 40 children under its umbrella have died since the city began its CUA system four years ago. Its license was downgraded by the state in May, which said the city had violated 71 child welfare regulations.

The state recommended that the city reduce its DHS staff and transfer those resources to CUAs. But if the recent tragedy involving Wordsworth is any indication, the city should not reduce its ability to monitor CUAs. New city DHS director Cynthia Figueroa must find a better way to protect children.

- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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AMERICA NEEDS BETTER PLAN FOR HEALTH CARE, Oct. 30

No one should really be surprised that there is yet another negative announcement regarding the troubled Obamacare system.

After all, the evidence has been mounting for some time that the program simply is not accomplishing what it was meant to achieve - to provide reasonably priced health care for people of all means and to increase access to basic care for those who, up until this point, might have been unable to get it.

Noble intent. Bad execution.

Over the last couple of weeks, Obamacare participants in states around the country learned that they would be seeing not only a double-digit increase in the cost of their premiums, but even higher deductibles as well.

And keep in the mind, the costs were already high, and those deductibles even higher.

That is not affordable care.

The Obama administration is downplaying the increases as the first day of open enrollment looms - it is Nov. 1. Most of those costs, they say, will be covered with “grants” of sorts to offset the extra expense that Obamacare participants will face.

Pause for a moment to think. Exactly who do you think will be picking up that tab? Bottom line is, money the government spends is provided by the taxpayers. So, that’s where the extra funds will come.

But we digress.

Truth is there is a whole lot more to be concerned about when you talk about Obamacare.

Many states are finding that they now have only one plan to choose from. The reason? Excessive claims from really sick people have caused many of the insurance companies to pull out of Obamacare.

One company, Blue Cross Blue Shield has reported losses in the billions.

So, it is no surprise that costs are rising and that choices are dwindling.

And there is another consequence as well. All you have to do is look at your pay stub. Companies are struggling to deal with skyrocketing costs for health coverage for their employees. And they have no choice but to pass along those costs to their workers if they want to stay in business. Some are having to choose whether they will be able to provide a plan at all.

When insurance providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield face astronomical costs for providing Obamacare plans, what do you think happens to the costs? That’s right; they get passed along. And don’t think that some will not soon be asking for some supplement from the government as well.

There are many people who are hypersensitive about any talk of ending Obamacare. And they have reason to be. Congress passed a bill that many of our leaders admit they never read - or understood.

So while the concept might have been a good idea, the result has not lived up to the expectation.

And there is some responsibility in the Capitol for that.

So, it is past time to take another look.

You would be hard-pressed to find a person who does not want to make sure that those who need health care in this country can get it. No one should struggle to find insurance to cover themselves or a sick child because of a pre-existing condition. And no one should have to worry about finding a way to pay for basic care.

We are a better country than that. So while we need to acknowledge that Obamacare is not working, we need to do more than simply point fingers.

We need a plan that is workable, affordable and that does not interfere with the insurances costs of millions of Americans. We need access and choices and to be there for those in our country who need us the most.

And that won’t come until someone stands up and says, “Let’s get to work.”

Hopefully that will be sooner rather than later.

- The Sharon Herald

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POLICE BILLS IMPEDE PUBLIC’S RIGHT TO KNOW, Oct. 28

When those concerned about police officers’ use of force in Erie push for body cameras, we don’t recall them ever saying, “and please, make the footage secret.”

But that is what the state Senate spent some its last precious hours in session doing: advancing legislation that would throw up high, costly hurdles to members of the public wishing to view recordings of interactions between police and the public they are paid to protect and serve.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 45-5 to advance a troublesome two-pronged amendment to the state’s Wiretap Act.

One portion would overcome one concern police raise when the topic of body cameras comes up - would they violate the Wiretap Act’s prohibition of creating an audio recording of another person without his or her consent? The amendment would allow police to film in both public and private spaces and waive any requirement that they inform others that they are being recorded.

A second, more objectionable provision would seem to defeat the very purpose why so many want to see widespread implementation of police body cameras. The amendment would limit public access to the recordings.

Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, the prime advocate for the bill, said confoundingly that it would allow police to gather crucial evidence and also hold them accountable for their behavior while encountering the public.

But under his amendment, if someone from the public wants to access the recordings, they must file a written request with the police and must know the identity of every person in the recording before viewing the recording. That requirement alone could block many from even making the request.

If the police department denies access to the footage, a citizen would have to file an appeal in court, complete with a $250 filing fee.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association have rightly come out strongly to condemn this amendment.

We join them. It appears the House of Representatives will let this offensive end run around the public die rather than become law.

Neither the Senate nor House should seek to resurrect it in the future.

That goes, as well, for a measure the House advanced that would require that the names of police officers involved in incidents that cause death or injury to others be withheld for a month.

Lawmakers seeking to craft legislation to smooth the way toward widespread use of police body cameras or create a standard governing the release of information in episodes of police violence must next time also keep the public’s right to know squarely in focus.

These recent measures only seem destined to compound suspicion and division in volatile times.

- The (Erie) Times-News

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