- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Recent editorials from North Carolina newspapers:

May 5

Fayetteville (North Carolina) Observer on military sex assault reform still falling short:

Statistics can tell a compelling story. Or they can hide one. It depends on who’s interpreting the numbers.

So it is with the story of sexual assault in the military, a problem that may be getting worse, may be getting better or may have been worse than we ever knew.

But beyond dueling interpretations, we do know this: Military efforts to reduce and deal more effectively with sexual assault are still lacking in transparency.

The Defense Department’s annual report on sexual assault in the military was released Friday. It said sex crimes are decreasing and more victims are reporting them. Service members, the Pentagon said, are showing more confidence in the military-justice system, trusting that offenders will be brought to justice.

But the problem has hardly disappeared. Last year’s National Defense Research Institute anonymous survey found about 20,000 active-duty service members reporting they were sexually assaulted in the previous year. About 60 percent of them said they experienced retaliation.

At Fort Bragg, sexual assault and harassment reports increased slightly, from 103 in 2012 to 107 in 2013. In the first three questers of 2014, there were 96 reports, but post officials refused to release the final numbers for the year, or any data on dispositions, saying the partial numbers were released by mistake. The Department of the Army also refused to release the complete 2014 report.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said sexual crimes in the military are far more prevalent than the Defense Department has reported. She said spouses of service members and women who live or work near military bases are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, but “remain in the shadows” because they aren’t counted in the surveys.

Gillibrand also lashed out at the Pentagon for refusing to provide information she requested on assault cases. She said her staff analyzed 107 cases - more than half with female civilian victims - and found lenient punishments or none at all. Less than a quarter of the cases went to trial. Only 11 resulted in a conviction.

Dan Christensen, former chief prosecutor for the Air Force and now president of Protect Our Defenders, said Gillibrand’s report “should be a wake-up call for President Obama and anybody that thinks the military can solve this problem without creating an independent and impartial justice system.”

Sadly, it appears he’s right. There may be signs of progress but they’re small and not satisfying. Tougher measures may be in order. It will start with transparency. There will be no solutions without a full, public accounting of the problem.




May 4

The Herald-Sun, Durham, North Carolina, on setting school calendars locally:

It seems clear momentum is building to demand a change in state law that sharply constricts local boards of education in setting the calendar for the school year.

A tenacious winter left many districts, here and across the state scrambling to make up an unusually large number of days when schools closed due to inclement weather. Liberal policy groups, education associations and limited-government groups are coalescing in an unusual alliance against the state-mandated calendar limits.

But despite the growing opposition to state intrusion from legislators who espouse support for local control (until they don’t..), any change seems unlikely this legislative session. Bills before the State Senate to remove the calendar restrictions have been sent, as the Associated Press’s Gary Robertson put it this week, “to a committee where bills that GOP leaders don’t like sit and die.”

The legislature, in its wisdom - wisdom nurtured by the state’s free-spending tourist-industry lobby - decreed more than a decade ago that traditional calendar schools couldn’t start school until late August and had to wrap up classes by early June. The dates have been altered a bit for a little more flexibility, but local districts, including Durham, have been crying out for more.

“The clear message is one size doesn’t fit all,” Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said in Robertson’s report on the status of the controversy. The filing of dozens of local bills seeking waivers from the requirements and bills that would allow local control statewide “says this isn’t working,” Cotham said.

But Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, the powerful leader in the State Senate, is firmly opposed and invokes the fig leaf of concern for families in defending the state’s meddling in local school calendars. “We don’t want to revisit the issue of preserving the summers for the kids, for the parents so that people can take their vacations and our businesses that depend on summer tourism have an opportunity to flourish,” he said.

Not covered by the state’s restrictions on when school years can start and end are year-round schools, like many in Durham, and charter schools. We do find the charter-school exemption more than a little ironic. The past couple of legislative sessions have opened the door to a rapid expansion of charters and, presumably, legislators are eager for students to attend them, rather than traditional public schools.

It seems odd, then, that their concern about protecting summer vacations does not extend to those kids. The concern, in any event, is misdirected. It’s time to return calendar decisions where they belong, at the local level.




May 5

Charlotte Observer on reducing drunk driving:

A drunk driver kills someone in North Carolina nearly every day, on average. Close to 400 people a year are killed in the state each year, and many more are injured, by drivers with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit of .08.

On any given night, you are sharing the road with more drunk drivers than you care to think about. Most don’t get caught, and most do it again. One study said that the average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before his first arrest.

There’s a way to drastically cut down on that kind of dangerous recidivism: ignition interlock systems, which check a driver’s breath for alcohol before allowing the engine to start. North Carolina uses them on offenders convicted of driving with a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher, and for certain other drivers.

Now, the legislature is considering two bipartisan bills that would require ignition interlock systems for any convicted drunk driver, not just those with extremely high blood alcohol levels. It has been an effective tool in 24 states, and North Carolina should join them.

An interlock system is about the size of a cell phone. The driver must blow into it; if the level is above a preset minimum (.02 in these bills), the car won’t start.

That’s more effective than just suspending a DWI offender’s license. Those drivers frequently get behind the wheel again. The Centers for Disease Control found interlock systems cut repeat offenses by 67 percent, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving says drunk driving deaths dropped by more than 30 percent in states such as Oregon, Arizona, Louisiana and New Mexico after proposals like the ones in North Carolina were passed.

An interlock for a first offense and without an extremely high alcohol level might seem tough. But studies show first offenders’ recidivism is similar to that of repeat offenders, and that offenders just over the legal limit are almost as likely to drive drunk again as those with high alcohol levels.

The two N.C. bills would not change the amount of time the ignition interlock would be on an offender’s car. That would remain at one year for those whose license was originally revoked for a year; three years for those with a four-year revocation; and seven years for those initially given a permanent revocation.

Some, like the American Beverage Institute below, argue that “marginal offenders,” with blood alcohol levels below almost twice the legal limit, shouldn’t face such restrictions. But statistics show that such drivers kill thousands of people nationwide every year.

Ignition interlock systems work. Requiring one for a year after you’ve been convicted of driving drunk is not too much to impose. The legislature should pass HB877 or SB619.



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