- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 29, 2015

San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 21, 2015.

DWI arrests cost lots of money, time

The recent jury sentence of 75 years in prison for a repeat DWI offender in the death of a motorcyclist in 2012 should be a strong warning to those who might consider drinking and driving this holiday season.

Today’s Bexar County juries have a low tolerance for repeat drunken-driving offenders.

While the 75-year sentence assessed William Rhomer for murder arising from a felony DWI, his fifth, was not the harshest ever returned by a Bexar County jury in such a case, it ranks near the top.



Two life sentences have been returned in DWI felony-related murder cases in Bexar County since the district attorney’s office began filing those type of charges. The other cases resulted in prison sentences of 30 to 55 years.

Harris and Tarrant counties began upgrading intoxication manslaughter cases to felony murders for habitual drunken drivers about a decade ago, but most other Texas counties, including Bexar, waited until the first cases were upheld by appellate courts.

Before that, all DWI death cases were tried as intoxication manslaughter cases, second-degree felonies, punishable by a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison compared to a maximum life sentence on a DWI-related murder case.

Now, all those who have been convicted of at least two misdemeanor DWIs and are facing a third DWI involving a death are likely to be charged with felony murder. A felony murder occurs when a death results while committing another felony.

Repeat DWI offenders are a big problem in Bexar County. At the end of September, there were 2,875 DWI second-offense cases on the docket in local county courts, according to records on file with the Office of Court Administration in Austin. There were an additional 12,869 first-offense DWI cases pending.

While many of the DWI cases that flow through the Bexar County criminal justice system result in plea agreements, a majority of defendants who chose to go before a jury are convicted.

Since the start of the year, there have been 40 jury trials for first-time DWI offenders; 22 of them resulted in convictions. Only two of the 11 second-time DWI offenders who asked for a jury trial won acquittals.

An arrest for DWI can be financially devastating. It can cost a driver tens of thousands of dollars in fines and legal expenses. It can also result in the loss of a driver’s license and a criminal record that may impact all future employment opportunities.

Too often the injured parties in a drunken-driving crash are innocent motorists and pedestrians.

There is too much at stake to risk driving while drunk. Volunteering to be the designated driver or hailing a cab for someone who has been drinking might make the best gift this year.

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The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 21, 2015.

As Armaan can confirm, bomb jokes are likely to end badly for pranksters

How does the mind of a middle-school student work? Pretty poorly sometimes.

Plenty of evidence exists to back up that statement - not just the behavior of young people today, but memories of our own junior high stupidity.

One thing’s different these days: The margin for error is about zero in 2015. Most everyone is on edge, and law enforcement is on high alert.

That brings us to the prank involving Arlington seventh-grader Armaan Singh Dec. 11. Twelve-year-old Armaan landed in juvenile detention after a classmate reported that he had threatened to blow up Nichols Junior High School.

Armaan told police he was only joking when he told the other student that he had a bomb in his backpack; Armaan’s family maintains that the fellow classmate actually was behind the prank.

Police say they knew it was a hoax, but they took Armaan into custody because he confessed to making up the threat.

It’s murky as to which student started this nonsense, but this much is certain: Joking about blowing up anything these days is likely to end badly for you.

In just the last couple of weeks, students have been arrested on charges of making threats against schools all over the country - in Florida, Utah, Vermont and Virginia, to name a few.

In Dallas, threatening messages recently rattled teachers at DISD’s Pinkston High School and Martinez Elementary.

Just last week, Los Angeles schools canceled classes for 640,000 students after a bomb scare. This threat came less than two weeks after two Islamic radicals opened fire at a workplace party in nearby San Bernardino, killing 14.

The perpetrators in many of the school cases haven’t been caught. Those who have been nabbed mostly claim that they were just joking around.

With most young people now out of school for the holiday break, it’s probably not a bad idea for parents to make sure any aspiring spring-semester pranksters get the message loud and clear: You can’t scream fire in a movie theater. You can’t joke about hijacking on an airplane. And you can’t kid around when it comes to bombs.

Police have their hands full dealing with real threats these days. The manpower that goes into exhaustively checking out each report - whether in Arlington, Texas, or, just Monday in Nashua, N.H. - is time taken away from investigating other crimes.

So, parents, try out these wise words from Arlington police spokesman Lt. Christopher Cook after middle-schooler Armaan’s arrest: “People have got to learn they cannot make these types of threats, which cause alarm, which cause evacuations. Just because you say it’s a joke, it doesn’t get you out of trouble.”

Young people’s brains are still developing in the middle school years. They need adults to help them understand that idiocracy isn’t funny. It’s a crime.

___

Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Dec. 22, 2015.

Munchausen syndrome is rare but very real

People who read the Star-Telegram special report on medical child abuse, a form known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy, might be on high alert.

It’s natural to wonder if a neighborhood mom might have ulterior motives for getting a medical second opinion or if the kindergartener with hypoglycemia might be not be ill after all.

But before your mind wanders down into this dark territory, consider this: “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras.”

Not every sickly child is being abused. And certainly not every overprotective mom is an abuser.

It hard to get an estimate on how common Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a severe form of a factitious disorder, might be.

By nature, someone suffering from a factitious disorder is dishonest, so it’s difficult for doctors and/or therapists to get an accurate count.

But most experts agree that Munchausen syndrome by proxy is rare, only about 200 to 1,200 cases a year in the U.S.

By comparison, there are 2,500 new cases a year of cystic fibrosis. The rare genetic disease was what Hope Ybarra, one of the “Munchausen moms” profiled in the Star-Telegram report, tricked doctors into believing her daughter had, among other ailments.

But how does someone spot that fake needle in the medical maladies haystack?

And how can someone tell the difference between an overprotective caregiver and a medical child abuser?

Every such question has a difficult answer, followed by an even more difficult process of proving it.

Which makes the Tarrant County district attorney’s crimes against children unit and Michael Weber’s investigations all the more important. The office is prosecuting these cases criminally, which is rare outside of the county, and is also creating awareness about this not-commonly known disorder and crime.

Cook Children’s hospital’s Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment has medical staff trained in detecting the signs of Munchausen syndrome by proxy and the means to investigate further.

Tarrant County is fortunate to have professionals who are experienced at telling which parents or caregivers exhibit the telltale signs of this terrible syndrome.

Most hoofbeats will be from horses, but some will indeed be zebras.

___

Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Dec. 27, 2015.

Premont ISD’s survival is a gift and a challenge

With another Christmas concluded, we nominate the small town of Premont, population about 2,700, for recipient of the best gift - the continued existence of its school district. It’s the gift that keeps on demanding - as well it should. There is no higher purpose for a community than to prepare the next generation for life’s challenges.

The Premont Independent School District wasn’t meeting that responsibility when the state decided in 2011 to close it. It was guilty of lax maintenance of its academics and its facilities, with unacceptably low test scores, inadequate science labs and a mold problem.

But as inexcusable as the district’s performance had become, the state’s solution - folding Premont into the neighboring San Diego ISD - was unrealistic. It would have put an unfair strain on both communities and probably would have doomed the town of Premont because the school district is its primary employer and economic engine.

Premont didn’t accept this defeat. It appealed the decision and responded to the challenge by upgrading its teaching staff and facilities, suspending sports programs and raising taxes precipitously, with voter approval, to pay for it all. The district also entered an agreement with Texas A&M; University-Kingsville, a first-of-its-kind innovation in which the school district would be an academic performance-boosting project for the university.

The state relented in 2013. But continued low test scores prompted another decision to order the district to close after the end of this school year. The district also was in a leadership quandary, operating under an interim superintendent because its superintendent left unexpectedly for health and personal reasons.

The state decided again earlier this month to allow the school district to continue operations under the following conditions: hire a permanent superintendent, allow a Texas Education Agency-appointed managerial group to oversee the school board and bolster the alliance with A&M-Kingsville.;

Those conditions are considerably more surmountable than what Premont ISD faced previously. They could be viewed as an acknowledgment of how much progress Premont has made in upgrading its teaching staff and facilities. Also the kids are playing sports again, a healthy sign. Adults who are quick to dismiss sports as a frill have forgotten how important sports programs are to a well-rounded education.

The charge to hire a permanent superintendent should be considered an opportunity. The best ones love a challenge. That’s how they got to be the best. School trustees will need to bring their best game to the search and evaluation process, heed the advice of the TEA’s monitors and respect the community’s right to know. The community’s trust in the process and the decision-makers is crucial.

Premont has a willing, enthusiastic participant in A&M-Kingsville; President Steve Tallant. This cutting-edge partnership would enhance the university’s reputation if successful.

Closing a poor-performing school district is rare for good reason. It can do more harm than good. Consolidating a poor-performing district with an adequately performing neighboring district isn’t likely to raise the adequately performing district’s performance. State education officials need to think realistically about what closing Premont ISD would accomplish.

The Premont community has surmounted more than is left to be surmounted. But as long as the ISD is allowed to continue, so must the efforts to maintain and improve it. The latest reprieve was a reason to celebrate - and to step up the effort.

___

Waco Tribune-Herald. Dec. 29, 2015.

Making sense of killer tornadoes in Dallas, blizzards in West Texas and flowers in Waco

A national meteorologist discussing this Christmas weekend’s climatological calamity said scientists would be studying the different and conflicting weather patterns in Texas for years to come - blizzards in West Texas, tornadoes in North Texas and, till a few days ago, downright balmy temperatures in Central Texas. The fact that much of the Dallas region suffered death and destruction does make this more than a climatological footnote.

Some long in the tooth have seen at least some of this before, though not to the degree we saw over the weekend. The state of Texas is so large and geologically diverse it’s not impossible to see snowfall in West Texas and people frolicking in the waves along the Gulf Coast on the same day. On Christmas Eve, one member of the Trib editorial board noticed a neighbor’s Lantana - a hot-summer plant - in full bloom as a chorus of crickets chirped in the background.

Evidence of global warming discussed in Paris this month? Who knows? Best to let scientists hash this one out without premature conclusions by politicians (unless they have a degree in something besides political science) and pundits (ditto). For instance, much of the unseasonably warm weather in the Northeast as well as throughout the South this month can be credited to a traditional source: El Nino.

The more immediate focus should be ensuring that weather notification systems worked as planned and that government relief for hard-hit areas such as Garland and Rowlett is prompt and targeted. And when science finally makes its studied call on what happened this past weekend, we should take that seriously as well.

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