Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley

Oct. 31 2014 3:50 PM

The Downside of School Police Using Pepper Spray on Kids

Police officers at Boston schools want to start carrying pepper spray in order to better deal with threats from violent students, reports the Boston Herald. According to school police chief Bill Kelley, pepper spray could be used to subdue a school shooter who stops to reload.

Across the country, the changing role of police in schools—and what kinds of weapons they can carry—has been affected by a broader militarization of police forces


Earlier this fall, the Washington Post reported that more than 120 schools had received hundreds of pieces of equipment and weapons from the Department of Defense via the same program that allowed local police departments to receive such equipment.

Items issued through the program included "at least five grenade launchers, hundreds of rifles and eight mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, the hulking machines designed to withstand the kind of roadside attacks seen in Iraq and Afghanistan." Major beneficiaries of the program included Los Angeles school police officials, who received dozens of M16 rifles and three grenade launchers, and Florida's Pinellas County Schools Police Department. Both departments returned some items after criticism. Steve Zipperman, chief of the Los Angeles Unified School District Police, said they'd had the grenade launchers since 2001 but would return them because they were "not essential for our mission." He defended hanging onto an armored transport vehicle in case of "extraordinary circumstances." In some cases, like at the University of Central Florida, grenade launchers have been converted to be able to fire tear gas.

Students can receive misdemeanors, fines, and even prison sentences through the judicial system for disruptive behavior and other minor infractions committed in schools. According to the Guardian, Texas police gave nearly 300,000 "Class C misdemeanor" tickets to kids as young as six in 2010. Austin's school police department was found to be armed with guns, pepper spray, dog units, and sometimes Tasers. The Guardian report also chronicled a disturbing incident in which a mentally disabled boy was charged with assault on a public servant when he lashed out in reaction to being pepper sprayed. From the piece: 

According to the department's records, officers used force in schools more than 400 times in the five years to 2008, including incidents in which pepper spray was fired to break up a food fight in a canteen and guns were drawn on lippy students.

Though relatively innocuous compared with grenade launchers and semi-automatic weapons, pepper spray has brought its own host of problems into schools in several states. In 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center brought suit against schools in Birmingham, Alabama, because of the alleged wide use of pepper spray as a disciplinary measure. SPLC officials said that pepper spray had been used about 100 times in Birmingham schools in the five years leading up to the suit, and described students pepper sprayed for infractions like cursing and being "loud and boisterous." Pepper spray has been used as a tool to break up high school fights from St. Paul to St. Louis, with one incident in the latter city leading to the hospitalization of 12 students for chemical exposure, including some students who weren't even involved in the fight. According to the SPLC lawsuit, pepper spray can aggravate existing respiratory conditions like asthma.

For some law enforcement officers, though, the introduction of pepper spray is seen as a necessity. “Over the last several years we’ve taken 300 knives and several guns,” Sgt. Bill Kelley told the Boston Herald.  “Times have changed with school shootings. We can save lives if we have pepper spray.”

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Oct. 31 2014 3:40 PM

Virgin Galactic Private Passenger Spacecraft Crashes in California During Test Run, Pilot Killed

A private passenger spacecraft belonging to Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic company crashed during a test run in southern California today with two pilots aboard; one was reportedly killed.

The company has taken payments or deposits from more than 800 prospective customers for its  suborbital space flights, but even before today's events were not expected to begin operating the service until next year

Oct. 31 2014 3:12 PM

Maine Judge Sides With Science, Rejects State’s Attempt to Quarantine Kaci Hickox

Make that Kaci Hickox 2, quarantine-happy governors 0.

A Maine judge on Friday rejected the state’s request to quarantine Hickox in her home, ruling that the Doctors Without Borders nurse does not pose enough of a health risk to justify her forced confinement. Judge Charles LaVerdiere’s order states matter-of-factly that Hickox "currently does not show symptoms of Ebola and is therefore not infectious." That's more or less the argument the public health community and the White House have been making for weeks.


LaVerdiere agreed late Thursday to temporarily restrict Hickox’s movements while he considered the state’s request to quarantine her for the remainder of the virus’ 21-day incubation period. There could still be a full hearing on the matter on Tuesday, although that now appears to be mostly a formality given the force of Friday's decision. "The court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science, and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola," the judge wrote. "The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational."

The order does pose some restrictions on Hickox, most notably that she must coordinate her travel with state public health officials and submit to daily monitoring for symptoms—but those requirements are largely in line with the federal government's recommendations, which she had already agreed to follow. The New York Times reports that that within hours of the decision, "state troopers who had been parked outside the nurse’s house for days had left."

The ruling appears to bring an early end to the first legal battle over just how far the United States should go to contain a deadly virus that has ravaged West Africa but has so far claimed only one life on U.S. soil. It marks a rather stunning defeat for Gov. Paul LePage, who had pushed for Hickox's home confinement since she arrived in Maine earlier this week after being quarantined in a New Jersey hospital against her will last weekend. It's also a small but significant victory for the public health community and the White House, both of which have been vocal critics of states that attempt to forcibly quarantine returning medical workers.

Not only could such bans deter American medical professionals from volunteering to go where they’re desperately needed, such measures are also unlikely to do any good in the first place. Ebola is highly infectious but not highly contagious. It takes only a small amount of contact with the virus to become infected, but the only way for that infection to be transmitted is via the bodily fluids of someone who is sick. That’s why experts say there is no need to quarantine nurses and doctors who have been exposed. Even if they have been infected, they’ll have a chance to self-diagnose and get themselves to a hospital before they become contagious.

Still, Friday's decision won’t end the national debate over how far states can and should go in the name of public health. Recent polling suggest that roughly 4 in 5 Americans are in favor of mandatory quarantines for travelers returning from West Africa. Meanwhile, laws vary by state, so a similar case in a different court could end in a different result. "At the end of the day," Wendy Parmet, the director of Northeastern University’s Program on Health Policy and Law, told me Thursday, "the precedent is going to come when we get an appellate court decision down the road."

Oct. 31 2014 11:27 AM

Judge Orders Maine Nurse Kaci Hickox to Abide by CDC Recommendations

A judge in Maine issued a 24-hour order yesterday restraining the movement of Doctors Without Borders nurse Kaci Hickox—but the order only requires that she follow guidelines that for the most part match the recommendations that the CDC has already issued for individuals who have had Ebola exposure but do not show signs of the disease. From the Portland Press-Herald:

The state’s petition, filed Thursday, asks the court to require Hickox to: submit to monitoring, coordinate all her travel with public health officials, not be present in any public places, maintain a 3-foot buffer from others while engaging in outdoor public activities such as jogging or biking and not leave Fort Kent.

And from the CDC's Ebola guidelines for "asymptomatic individuals in the high risk category":

The individual should be ensured, through public health orders as necessary, to undergo direct active monitoring, have restricted movement within the community, and not travel on any public conveyances. Non-congregate public activities while maintaining a 3-foot distance from others may be permitted. These individuals are subject to controlled movement which will be enforced by federal public health travel restrictions; travel, if allowed, should occur only by noncommercial conveyances, with coordination by origin and destination states to ensure a coordinated hand-off of public health orders, if issued, and uninterrupted direct active monitoring.

Hickox reportedly agreed to abide by the ruling until this morning; a "further decision" on her status is expected later today.

Oct. 31 2014 10:18 AM

Hong Kong Politician Says Protesters Can Wait for Voting Rights Like American Slaves Did

A prominent Hong Kong political figure says protesters in her city shouldn't be upset by the slow pace of democratic reforms because black Americans also had to wait many years for voting rights. From The Standard:

The chairwoman of the Financial Services Development Council, Laura Cha Shih May-lung, has spelled out her stand on pushing for election reform.
She says be patient.
"American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later, so why can't Hong Kong wait for a while?"

Cha's statement has, not surprisingly, been criticized as historically inaccurate (for one, the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 and the Voting Rights Act 102 years later in 1965; for another, many black Americans were able to vote in the interim despite widespread discrimination) and insensitive (for insinuating that the conditions of slavery are an appropriate baseline for the introduction of democratic reforms).

Oct. 30 2014 11:32 PM

Crash Test Dummies Are Bulking Up to Try to Keep America’s Overweight Drivers Safe

America has a super-sized weight problem—one in three Americans are obese.  And while the country’s ever-expanding waistlines create many well-documented health dangers, there’s one hazard you might not expect: Obese drivers are far more likely to die in a car crash. To help isolate exactly why that is, America’s crash test dummies are about to get a potbelly.

“Studies show that obese drivers are 78 percent more likely to die in a car crash,” Chris O'Connor, the head of the only U.S. producer of the dummies, told ABC News. Part of the problem, O’Connor says, is safety features in cars—such as seat belts and air bags—were designed to protect thinner people and the crash test dummies designed to test whether those features actually worked are similarly based on an outdated, svelte American driver. “O’Conner said crash-test dummies are now typically modeled after a person who weighs about 167 pounds with a healthy body mass index,” according to ABC News. “His company is designing new dummies based on the measurements of a 270-pound person with a BMI of 35, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other health groups, consider morbidly obese.”

Oct. 30 2014 8:17 PM

Suspected Cop Killer Is Caught After Seven-Week Manhunt

After a 48-day manhunt U.S. marshals captured suspected cop killer Eric Frein on Thursday. Frein, described by police as a survivalist, is accused of killing a Pennsylvania state trooper and seriously injuring another officer in an ambush on Sept. 12.

The capture of Frein—who was among the FBI’s most wanted—brings to a close a manhunt that stretched for weeks and involved as many as 1,000 officers at times, according to CNN. “Frein was described as a survivalist and expert marksman who role-played as a Serbian soldier,” according to USA Today. “Firing from woods across from the barracks, the gunman used a high-powered rifle to kill Cpl. Bryon Dickson and wound Trooper Alex Douglass during shift change.”


Here’s more on the how authorities tracked Frein down from the Associated Press:

Police said they linked him to the ambush after a man walking his dog discovered his partly submerged SUV three days later in a swamp a few miles from the shooting scene. Inside, investigators found shell casings matching those found at barracks as well as Frein's driver's license, camouflage face paint, two empty rifle cases and military gear. Saying Frein was armed and extremely dangerous, officials had closed schools and urged residents to be alert and cautious. Using dogs, thermal imaging technology and other tools, law enforcement officials combed miles of forest as they hunted for Frein, whom they called an experienced survivalist at home in the woods.
They pursued countless tips and closed in on an area around Frein's parents' home in Canadensis after he used his cellphone to try contacting them and the signal was traced to a location about 3 miles away. At times police ordered nearby residents to stay inside or prevented them from returning home… Police spotted a man they believed to be Frein at several points during the manhunt, but it was always from a distance, with the rugged terrain allowing him to keep them at bay. Police said he appeared to be treating the manhunt as a game.

Federal officials say Frein was captured in a hangar and was armed at the time.

Oct. 30 2014 6:40 PM

Navajo Nation Presidential Contender Disqualified Over Language Fluency Requirement

One of two runoff candidates for the presidency of the Navajo Nation—which is the largest Indian tribe in the United States and is set to receive a $554 million settlement from the federal government—has been ordered disqualified because he may not fluently speak the Navajo language, a requirement for the office. From NPR:

In a 2-to-1 vote, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered Deschene off the ballot last week. Then the Navajo Nation Council voted to change the language requirement in an 11-to-10 vote, retroactively, so that Deschene could continue running. On Tuesday, that legislation was vetoed by current Navajo Nation president Ben Shelly.

Deschene, a Marine veteran who has law and engineering degrees, admits he is not a master of the language, but says he can communicate using it and would become fluent if elected. The issue has come to a head in recent weeks after an Aug. 26 primary. From the New York Times:

Last month, the tribal Supreme Court upheld the language requirement, saying it was crucial to maintaining Navajo culture, and ordered Mr. Deschene to take a fluency test.
He refused, saying he was proficient in the language and objecting that the test had never been used before and was illegitimate. Tribal officials then disqualified him from the race, and the court on Thursday ordered him removed from the ballot and replaced with the candidate who finished third in the primary.

In another twist of the crisis, NPR reports, the Nation's election commissioner has refused to actually reissue new ballots without Deschene's name—and early voting has already begun. Developing!

Oct. 30 2014 5:18 PM

Researcher With History of Disputed Amelia Earhart Discoveries Says He Definitely Has Part of Her Plane

Ric Gillespie is a pilot and former aviation insurance investigator who for the last several decades has advocated the theory that Amelia Earhart, on the day she disappeared during her around-the-world journey, crash-landed on a tiny Pacific island called Nikumaroro 350 miles away from her intended target. Gillespie isn't a quack, but his explanation of Earhart's disappearance and death (he presumes she died of thirst or hunger after being stranded on the island) is far from universally accepted. He's collected a number of intriguing artifacts on Nikumaroro, but his finds have never been definitive. When the New Republic profiled Gillespie two years ago, reporter Jesse Zwick wrote that the Earhart-ologist is as much a storytelling dreamer as a researcher:

“If [Earhart]'s a pioneer in something,” Gillespie told me near the end of my visit, “she and her husband were pioneers in media manipulation.”
When I spoke with Gillespie’s critics, I was struck by how much their descriptions of him echoed his own description of Earhart. “I think he’s a genius,” Susan Butler told me...“I understand why he does it—I think he’s having a wonderful time. He’s getting other people to bankroll a wonderful way of life. Nikumaroro is a gorgeous island. And I think he must also believe it.” Indeed, Gillespie’s search, the way in which his gifted showmanship has overshadowed the dubiousness of his discoveries and long odds of success, may be the most fitting tribute that the world could offer Earhart on the seventy-fifth anniversary of her death.

Gillespie and his organization, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), are planning another of their Nikumaroro trips for next year. And, perhaps not coincidentally, they've just announced that they "strongly" believe a scrap of metal found on the island—which had previously been shown not to match the material used to make Earhart's plane—is in fact a makeshift patch that was installed over what had been a window. You can see TIGHAR's analysis at its website; it's probably too technical for the layman to make a judgment on, but with the attention that the announcement has gotten via Wired, Discovery News, and other science-y outlets, outside specialists will no doubt weigh in. And either way, Gillespie and his group say their trip next year could uncover the fuselage of Earhart's plane, which they believe they might have found (via sonar image) under 600 feet of water near the island.

One of TIGHAR's sponsors, incidentally? FedEx, whose affiliation with Gillespie actually predates Cast Away by four years.

Oct. 30 2014 2:29 PM

Islamic Conservatives Add Creationist Content to Pakistani Science Textbook

Buried in a Reuters story about an Islamic-conservative makeover of textbooks in the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a nugget that will remind Americans of their own country:

Another official said a physics book for teenagers would include Koranic verses regarding the creation of universe and ecosystem.

Other changes include the removal of all images depicting women without headscarves and the replacement of information about non-Muslims such as Helen Keller with content about Muslims.