- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:


April 8

The Johnson City Press on District Attorney offices that are short-staffed:

While hundreds of new laws have been passed in Tennessee in the last few years, the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference says prosecutors across the state have seen the size of their staffs remain the same.

In fact, few new positions have been added in Tennessee since 2011.

It’s been a problem for a number of years now, and it doesn’t appear to be one that state lawmakers are eager to remedy anytime soon. Meanwhile, it is the justice system in Tennessee that suffers. DAs say their offices need at least 100 more prosecutors statewide just to get the job done.

The same also is true of public defenders across the state, which have seen their caseloads surge while resources dwindle.

Can we truly say justice is being served under these conditions?

Before you answer that question, consider the impact this lack of staffing is having on the courts. Cases are being delayed as prosecutors (and public defenders) try to cope with growing workloads.

In our own 1st Judicial District, beleaguered assistant DAs assigned to handle child support cases are scrambling to keep up with more than 10,000 open cases.

Is that justice? We don’t think so, and we urge state lawmakers to take steps to correct this glaring problem.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/


April 9

The Tennessean on why rural areas need a suicide lifeline:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in March that showed suicides on the rise between 1999-2015, with 600,000 Americans taking their lives.

The highest annual rate was in 2015, the last year for which data was available. The authors found suicides increased across all levels of urbanization but noted a widening gap between urban and rural areas. In other words, they saw a trend where people were more likely to commit suicide in rural areas than in urban.

Preliminary numbers and the trend are similar for Tennessee. Some 1,065 Tennesseans committed suicide in 2015, up from 945 recorded in 2014, according to Scott Ridgway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network.

“Preliminary data shows that rural areas, some in Middle Tennessee, with rates based on per 100,000, our top ten counties are rural counties,” Ridgway said.

The federal researchers found that suicides increased during the study period from 11 per 100,000 population in 1999 to about 11.5 in 2015 or about 5 percent in large central metropolitan areas. In rural areas, the numbers increased from 15 per 100,000 population in 1999 to 22 per 100,000 in 2015 or about 32 percent.

Researchers attribute the increase and the trend in rise of rural suicides to a number of issues.

Those include limited access to mental health care, social isolation, the opioid overdose epidemic - because opioid misuse is associated with increased risk for suicide - and the economic recession.

People in rural areas often have no access to mental health facilities or services. Ridgway said that not that long ago Tennessee had community health centers in every county. Now, you may have to drive two or three counties away from your home to get help because mental health professionals tend to establish practices near urban centers.

“Our state did not take the affordable care dollars, and we lost $5 million a year that could have gone to a safety net or hospital for mental health services,” Ridgway said.

He added that Gov. Bill Haslam did include $3 million his budget this year to support mental health crisis services.

Rural areas by nature are isolating, and people don’t like to talk about mental health issues or suicide for fear of being stigmatized.

“Because we live in the Bible belt, we never have those conversations,” he said.

That could be solved, Ridgway says, with training at clinics, emergency rooms and family practices and the use of a routine screening question: Have you thought about suicide in the past two months?

“If we ask the questions, people will answer us correctly,” he said. “They will feel their anxiety lowered and may begin to feel comfortable about discussing suicide.”

Rural areas have been hard hit by the opioid epidemic, and the researchers suggested opioid misuse as increasing the risk of suicide. Ridgway says that because Tennessee doesn’t do toxicology tests on every suicide or every overdose death, it’s hard to determine how many were because of opiates.

The economic recession of 2007-2009 also affected rural areas greater than urban areas and involved a longer recovery time. Factories closing, folks losing jobs. Even if they had access to mental health services, how would they pay for them?

The effect of a single suicide impacts family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In rural communities, the CDC report suggests it is a growing public health threat that needs a comprehensive preventive approach. Resources targeted toward rural communities, enhanced training for front-line health providers and relocation incentives for mental health professionals are ways we can begin to prevent suicides.

Online: https://www.tennessean.com/


April 11

The Knoxville News-Sentinel on the University of Tennessee’s alleged secrecy:

An independent commission tasked with examining Title IX policies at the University of Tennessee had a prime opportunity last month to let some sunshine in on its review.

Instead, the commission chose to exclude a large set of stakeholders - anyone outside the university community - from a session at the university to listen to the concerns of students, faculty and staff. That included the media.

The listening session was billed in a campus newsletter as an opportunity to gain feedback from the campus community but was not open to the general public. None of the commission’s sessions have been.

Because the commission was hired by UT President Joe DiPietro rather than appointed by the board of trustees, its meetings are not subject to open meetings laws, according to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government (TCOG), unless the commission chooses to do so in order to gain public feedback.

The group’s correspondence also would be privileged.

A public report on the findings of the commission is expected to be released later this spring, according to DiPietro.

This trend of silence and secrecy at the university is troublesome.

“All the stakeholders in the university, including the community, want to understand what the problems are at the university and have confidence in whatever solutions are offered,” Deborah Fisher, the executive director of TCOG, said in an interview when the commission was announced last September, and it became known it would work in secret.

“So the commission should try to share, or the president should try to share, as much information as possible about that and should try to not make it too secretive, because when they come out with the final report, we shouldn’t have these questions.”

The commission is comprised of four lawyers recruited by DiPietro with the help of Nashville attorney Aubrey Harwell, a founding partner of the Neal & Harwell firm. Harwell and university auditor Sandy Jansen, who reports to the board of trustees, are working directly with the commission during the review.

The process was begun in the aftermath of a $2.48 million lawsuit settled last summer over allegations the university fostered a “hostile sexual environment” on campus and mishandled sexual assault cases, especially accusations against student-athletes. The university admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, saying eventual costs of trying the lawsuit could reach $5.5 million so it was prudent to settle.

The lawsuit, which had been scheduled for trial in May 2018, would have more fully aired the allegations and the university’s defense against them. The settlement quashed that happening.

As of last November, the lawsuit cost to the university was $3.27 million, including the settlement, fees and expenses to Neal & Harwell, and an outside public relations consultant.

The cost of the commission’s work could reach $250,000, including $45,000 plus expenses for each of its members.

We, the community not invited, hope the public report is more transparent than the process.

Online: https://www.knoxnews.com/

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