- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Recent editorials from Louisiana newspapers:


Aug. 1

The Advocate on projects that could help Louisiana’s highway problems:

The driver heading to Baton Rouge who bumps along the badly deteriorated stretch of Interstate 10 between Lafayette and the Atchafalaya Basin then can look forward to the often-standstill traffic at the Washington Street exit in the capital city.

Those are two of Louisiana’s worst highway problems that, with initiative from state and federal leaders and some judicious shifting of money, will one day be dramatically improved for drivers.

Louisiana will receive $60 million in federal grant money to fast-track a few major road projects in south Louisiana, including the relocation of the Washington Street exit off Interstate 10 near the Mississippi River bridge.

The grant money will directly fund the Lafayette-area project on Interstate 10, already on track for construction. Pavement replacement and added lanes will be huge benefits for the traffic on the highway.

By supplanting those state dollars with federal dollars, state money is freed up to speed up a handful of other projects - like the Washington Street exit - that were slogging along.

Shawn Wilson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, said that thanks to the grant, Louisiana will have funds to complete the relocation of the Washington Street exit. This project is expected to be opened up for construction bid by early 2018, maybe sooner.

“Whether it’s morning or afternoon, it’s a very, very dangerous intersection, and it’s created ungodly bottlenecking for years and years and years,” East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Kip Holden said.

We agree and it is a national problem that Louisiana officials pointed out to President Barack Obama when he visited in January. As with most major public works projects, this victory has many fathers.

DOTD sought $100 million under a competitive grant program in the new highway bill, including a key provision authored by U.S. Rep. Garret Graves. It’s a big win for the freshman member, but of course he had a lot of help from the Louisiana delegation’s senior members, who also applauded the grant.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and DOTD can now free dollars for designing a reconstructed interchange at Loyola Avenue for the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, improving railroad crossings on the freight-rail corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and advancing the design plans of the Interstate 20/220 interchange into Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City.

Louisiana’s drivers will be better off for this initiative, and we congratulate all those making it possible.

But for all the benefits it provides, they would not exist were the state not investing its own resources into roads, bridges and rails. Edwards has set up a task force looking at ways to finance the big projects - such as a new bridge over the Mississippi, or completing Interstate 49 to New Orleans - that require a lot more than $60 million.

Adam Knapp, president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, pointed that out: “Traffic congestion isn’t fixed by one project but by many mega-projects on many transportation modes over many years.”

That’s our future challenge.




Aug. 2

The Courier of Houma on improving schools:

Louisiana Schools Superintendent was in Houma on Monday talking about some of the changes that will soon be coming to the state’s schools.

The changes aren’t specific just yet. Teams of education advocates and officials will be doing that this fall when they try to align Louisiana’s statewide goals with those of the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

At the center of the plan going forward will be deciding how to define “quality” schools. And it might end up being a bit more difficult than it appears at first.

“Advocates have shared that a good school is not just one where every student scores ‘advanced,’” White told the crowd in Houma. “It is also one where students are making regular progress and have access to enriching experiences.”

Although some criticized the current state grading system as unfair to teachers, what we have now is a vast improvement over what we had just a few years ago.

The system now emphasizes student achievement, but it does not do so in a vacuum. The grading system rewards improvements from year to year - and that emphasis should remain a strong part of any new system.

Overall, the state’s shift toward accountability for districts, schools and educators has been a huge step forward. At one time, there was little in the way of accountability, and students, parents and other stakeholders had few options for knowing how their local systems and schools compared to others.

Now, as we look for further improvements, we have to be careful to keep the reforms that have worked.

We must continue to value improvements and focus on accountability.

This is a vital task.

Our schools continue to lag far behind in most national rankings, meaning our students have to work hard not to be at a great disadvantage to students from elsewhere when they enter college or go into the workforce.

Louisiana has to find a way to continue its improvement and to do so within a new set of federal expectations.

White has shown a great ability to pull Louisiana schools forward - even when political considerations sometimes brought interference from other statewide officials such as former Gov. Bobby Jindal.

The stakes are high, and our expectations for our students and our schools must be high, lest we fall even farther behind.

White and his fellow education officials have much work to do in crafting a new system. But they must do it in a way that keeps the hard-fought reforms our state has made in the past decade or so.




July 31

New Orleans nola.com/The Times-Picayune on understanding mental illness:

Christopher Olmsted backed his pickup truck through a gate in his driveway, rammed a house across the street and hit two cars along Chartres Street on the morning he died. After his truck came to a stop, a bystander flagged down an off-duty New Orleans homicide detective. Police say the 60-year-old man hit the officer in the head with an object before he was shot to death. Investigators found that the shooting was justified.

Mr. Olmsted’s grieving family wonders whether he might be alive if police had responded differently to his emotional crisis last July.

That is impossible to know, of course. The officer who was waved over to help didn’t know that Mr. Olmsted had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression. Officers who patrolled the neighborhood had been called to the house multiple times and perhaps would have known Mr. Olmsted was emotionally unstable. Things unfolded too quickly for them to respond.

But his death ought to lead us to a better understanding of how police can recognize mental illness and defuse those incidents.

New Orleans has struggled with this problem since Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches. The disaster left many residents deeply wounded and without sufficient treatment and support services.

In January 2008, New Orleans Police Officer Nicola Cotton was shot to death during a struggle with a man who had recently been released from a mental hospital. She was 24 and expecting a baby when she was killed.

Then-Police Superintendent Warren Riley said Officer Cotton did not perceive the man, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, as a threat when she started questioning him. The two of them ended up struggling, and he grabbed her weapon and shot her 15 times, police said.

In 2010, New Orleans police shot and killed a man who was described by his family as suicidal. A federal judge ruled the shooting was justified because the man was moving toward the officers with a knife. But the judge said she found the department’s “whole approach to this type of situation troubling.”

Shortly after Mr. Olmsted died in July 2015, NOPD launched a Crisis Intervention Team to help officers understand the best way to deal with people who are mentally ill. Federal court monitors had been pushing the department to create the team and criticized the fact that it hadn’t been done in a December 2014 report. That is when NOPD announced it was starting to put the team in place.

A Crisis Intervention Team is considered a best practice nationally. The goal is to minimize the use of force on mentally ill people and to get them into services instead of putting them in jail.

Cecile Tebo, who oversees the new NOPD program, said officers learn to perform “rapid assessments” to recognize symptoms of mental illness. They are taught how to recognize different conditions so they can use the best techniques to calm down the situation and understand how dangerous a person may be.

So far, 69 officers have completed the 40-hour crisis intervention training since the program launched in August 2015. NOPD expects to meet its goal to have 20 percent of the force trained by next month, a department spokesman said. The more officers who are trained, the better.

Ms. Tebo, a licensed clinical social worker, is the perfect choice to run this program. For seven years, she led NOPD’s volunteer-staffed mobile crisis unit, which responded to calls involving mentally ill people. When she left the force in 2011, she and her team had helped thousands of people in crisis.

NOPD has been dealing with an increasing number of mentally ill people, in part because of limited mental health services post Katrina. Better training can keep both mentally ill suspects and the police safer.

“It’s all about communication, slowing the scene down, really sort of being non-tactical,” Ms. Tebo said when NOPD announced the new unit in 2014. “What it does is it puts another tool in their tool belt. You’ve got your gun, you’ve got your Taser and then you have this.”

The city Health Department and the Metropolitan Human Services District have worked in recent years to make it easier for families and authorities to find the mental health services that are available.

The Health Department put together a directory of counseling, detoxification and in-patient care options in 2012, and the services district launched a comprehensive electronic records system.

Still, there are gaps. The Medicaid expansion that went into effect July 1 may help because it pays for mental health services for patients and could make it easier for them to see a doctor or counselor. As many as 81,000 more Louisianians who need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse could now qualify for coverage, according to federal health officials.

Improving mental health care is essential, but officers still will be first-responders during a crisis in many cases. Ensuring they are trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness, calm people down and get them into care is the best way to keep everyone safe.



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