Category: Law & Politics

NEW STUDY SHEDS LIGHT ON SEXUAL ASSAULT AT UT

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 Find the full story here: https://texasnonosvamos.squarespace.com/

 

After Zoë was raped by her coworker, she went home to her empty apartment and cried for hours.

She felt confused. She didn’t think of the incident as rape until weeks later. She still doesn’t like to say the word aloud.

“It just sounds, like, so horrible,” Zoë, now 22, said. “I can’t bring myself to say even though I know that’s what it is.”

In the weeks following the incident, Zoë, who at the time was enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, found herself calling UT’s crisis hotline.

I think I remember being like my room in my apartment and having a panic attack,”  Zoë said. “They were trying to talk to me, trying to calm me down and give me resources.”

With the hotline’s help, she scheduled an emergency meeting for the next day at UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center.

 

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Third year neuroscience major Jackie Roth was friends with Haruka Weiser prior to Weiser’s disappearance and death in April of 2016. Weiser’s murder shocked the UT community and jump started discussions about campus safety. Jackie says that Weiser’s death was not a reflection of holes in the UT’s safety policies, but rather a rare event that is a result of wider systemic issues facing the community.

 

 

The counseling center is one of many small pieces that make up a great puzzle of prevention programs, counseling, advocacy services and reporting options at UT. In addition to asking why students often choose not to report incidents of sexual assault or rape, our reporting team set out to make sense of this puzzle and ask whether these programs are effective.

Sexual assault and rape are not rare incidents among college students. In March, UT released a survey showing that 15 percent of undergraduate women at the university say they have been raped. The survey of 280,000 students found that 18 percent of students said they experienced “unwanted touching,” and 12 percent said they experienced attempted rape.

The lead researcher of the survey and many of the people interviewed for this article have stated the statistics provided by the report are unfortunately unsurprising. They are reflective of national data, both on college campuses and of the general population.

“UT is a microcosm of what’s happening around country, the world,” said Katy Redd, the associate director for prevention and outreach at the CMHC. “Gender based violence is all too common.”

The survey also says very few victims — 6 percent — disclosed incidents to someone involved with the university. Of the 32 percent of victims who said they told someone about the incident prior to taking the survey, 4 percent reported to the CMHC. Just one percent reported to the University of Texas at Austin Police Department.

“I think there’s a whole host of reasons [for non-reporting],” Redd said.

Breall Baccus is a Title IX prevention coordinator and confidential advocate at UT. She said students may feel hesitant to come forward “because they don’t know what the next steps would be.”

“They might also not realize what happened to them was assault,” Baccus said.

 

 

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The university hired Baccus in January to fill a gap in the Title IX office. By law, the university must comply with Title IX, which “prohibits sex discrimination in education,” according to UT’s Title IX information page. Unlike other members of UT’s compliance team, Baccus is not required by law to open incidents for investigation. When students come to her to disclose an incident, Baccus can explain their options, which could include filing an official report depending on how the student chooses to go forward.

The university amped up security and sexual assault prevention efforts following the on-campus sexual assault and killing of freshman Haruka Weiser last spring. In addition to increasing police presence, the university’s Be Safe campaign has used social media and student art to promote safety messages such as walking in well lit areas and not walking alone.

“It’s just a softer way of addressing things that are going on in campus and the way to increase their safety,” said UTPD Sgt. Samantha Stanford.

Stanford’s hire, like Baccus’s, was in part to address issues of interpersonal violence on campus. As a detective, she has received specialized training to help victims of sexual assault or rape. UTPD also offers free self-defense courses for women upon request, and Stanford said the department is looking into holding separate self-defense classes for men.

UTPD’s jurisdiction ends beyond the campus borders, and Stanford said that incidents in a private residence or in West Campus might be transferred to the Austin Police Department. Stanford also said sometimes the legal definition of sexual harassment or sexual assault differs from what the university or community may use. Despite these limitations, Stanford said she is available to meet with students to answer questions or explain the legal process.

“We’re trying to… brainstorm on how we can make the process a little bit easier for victims of sexual assault to come forward and feel comfortable with reporting to us,” Stanford said.

“I think that every student should have a right to feel safe and get the education that they want to get,” Breall said, “and not have a traumatic experience get in the way of that.”

 

 

For those with mental illnesses, health care is not always within reach

Photos by Elise Cardenas
Article by Selah Maya Zighelboim

Standing on the southern steps of the Texas State Capitol, Texas state representative Garnet Coleman addressed a crowd about the importance of funding for mental health care. For Coleman, who spoke in a lineup that included other state politicians, activists and health workers, the fight to improve access to mental health care is personal.

Coleman has bipolar disorder. He attributes his ability to have a successful life today to his access to the care he needs.

“What I hope to be at any time is an inspiration to people, so they know you can manage your illness,” Coleman said. “You can recover, you can do the things you want to do in life, just maybe with a few more pills than other people.”

The crowd cheered and waved signs with slogans like, “Decriminalize Mental Illness,”  “Mental = Physical Health” and “We Matter.” Several hundred people — those with mental illnesses, their family and friends, healthcare professionals and activists — had come to spend the day at the Texas State Capitol on Feb. 8, where they participated in advocacy training, attended a rally and met with legislators.

Though sometimes forgotten about in conversations involving health care, individuals with mental illnesses make up a significant percentage of the populace. According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans will have a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, an estimated 57.7 million people.

 

Video by Elise Cardenas and Yelitza Mandujano

The concerns these individuals have  as diverse as them. They include tackling stigma, providing more resources in schools for children with mental illnesses and making sure people with mental illness don’t wind up in jail.

“People who need services deserve access to them,” said Greg Hansch, public policy director at the National Alliance for Mental Illness Texas. “No waiting lists. People need individually tailored services that meet their needs. People need access to community-based treatment. People need access to inpatient services. People need crisis services.”

Mental Health America, a mental health non-profit, ranked Texas 45, out of 51 states and the District of Columbia, in terms of mental health care accessibility.

Daniel Dawes, healthcare lawyer and author of 150 Years of Obamacare, says that the main obstacles in accessing mental health care include high costs and a need to integrate mental health services into primary care. Perhaps one of the biggest problems is simply a dearth of available mental health workers.

Rally attendees, like University of Southwestern Medical resident psychiatrist Sarah Baker, expressed a frustration with this lack in treatment options.

“There’s a huge shortage of psychiatrists in the states, so the patient load for psychiatrists can be really high, especially in the public sector,” Baker said.

According to Dawes, the Affordable Care Act has a number of elements to it that specifically bolser mental health care. These include provisions such as integrating mental health care into primary care, requiring rehabilitative and habilitative coverage and strengthening mental health parity. Mental health parity is a requirement for health insurance companies to provide coverage to mental health care at the same level they do other types of health care. Since 1996, health parity has been a requirement for employer-provided health insurance plans, and the Affordable Care Act expanded this to other types of health insurance as well.

“We actually strengthened the parity law,” Dawes said. “Not only should parity apply to the employer-sponsored coverage, it should also apply to any plan you buy in the Obamacare exchanges. It should also apply to Medicaid and Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

Dawes says he isn’t sure what to think about a potential repeal and replace of the Affordable Care Act. On one hand, he says, President Donald Trump had indicated his support for mental health care during the campaign. On the other hand, he does not find the leading plans to repeal and replace promising.

At the moment, the future of mental health care is uncertain. Potential solutions to this uncertainty may be strengthening access on a more local, state level. For example, Allison Mohr-Boleware and Monica Villarreal, fellows at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and the Center for Public Policy Priorities, said that Texas should have its own mental health parity law. That way, even if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, all health insurance plans will still be required to provide mental health care at the same level as other types of care.

“It has taken us 150 years to get to where we are today, in terms of mental health reform,” Dawes said. “That is something [legislators] need to seriously consider, if they care about this issue of mental health, about addressing the opioid issue in our country. There are now provisions in [the Affordable Care Act] that will help us tackle that. If we get rid of them, imagine how much further behind we are going to be.”

 

Finding Acceptance in Peer to Peer Communities
Audio by Julie Gomez

 

A Step in the Right Direction for Women’s Rights

Written by: Mackenzie Palmer

The day after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, women and men untied across the nation to march in protest of his administration, policies and overall disregard towards women’s rights.

What started as a mere Facebook post by Teresa Shook, a retired lawyer and first-time activist, soon turned into a movement that gained over 10,000 followers in one night.

On January 21, more than 5 million people participated in the Women’s March on Washington.

Video: Women’s Day March in Austin on January 21, 2017 // Taylor Gantt

 

“We knew it would be a fairly large turnout, but no one knew for sure what the numbers would be,” Shook said. “To see the reality was just mind-boggling.”

Shook said the purpose of the march was to demonstrate solidarity within all communities and to stand for the protection of women’s rights, safety, and health.

Organizers and supports believe that this past election allowed for demonizing, insulting, and threatening language towards women, minorities, immigrants of all statuses, those with diverse religious backgrounds, the LGBT community, and those economically impoverished.

“This march is the first step towards unifying our communities,” Shook said. “To create change from the grassroots level up.”

The Women’s March on Washington prompted more than 300 sister marches around the world. Official marches were planned in all 50 states in the U.S. and more than 10 international countries including Puerto Rico, Canada, and London.

In Austin, an estimated 50,000 people attended the march, which led from the Texas State Capitol all the way to Congress Avenue. The event gathered Austin locals and those traveling miles to get to the capitol via 35 chartered buses.

“This march is the first step towards unifying our communities”


The city added 14 extra buses and saw a bump of more than 2,400 additional mobile tickets purchased on its app. According to Austin B-Cycle, it registered 839 rentals compared with a typical 435 on a Saturday in January.

Melissa Fiero, one of the organizers for the march in Austin, stated that this isn’t about being anti-Trump.

“It’s about being part of a historic social movement and sending a bold message that women’s rights are human rights,” Fiero said.

Inspired by the Women’s March on Washington, Fiero said that she decided to bring the movement to Austin. She said she spent many nights at the kitchen table, planning and organizing, with a powerful group of dedicated women.

“We were up early, stayed late, held down jobs, took care of families, all just to make it happen,” Fiero said. “That is just what women do.”

Around the world, prominent activists, such as Angela Davis, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, actresses America Ferrera and Scarlett Johansson, and many more were invited to speak on behalf of the movement.

In Austin, Former Texas Senator Wendy Davis spoke to the growing crowd and stated that it is time for women have it all. She was joined with U.S. Congressmen Llyod Doggett who stated the importance of staying joined together.

“We are joined together to say no to racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia,” Doggett said.

Protestors marched toting their signs in the air. Many expressed their desire to reclaim power to their bodies.

When asked why she marches, Olka Forster, from Baltimore, said it is to reject the new administration.

“It means standing up for ourselves and for other people that the people who are now in power have said that they are not worth anything,” Forster said.

Fiero thanked more than 100 local and national sponsoring partners that helped achieve the goal of this march, especially Planned Parenthood.

Among the many reasons to march, sustaining funding to Planned Parenthood is of the groups main motives.

Under President Trump’s administration, protesters fear his ability to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides free breast cancer screening and health services for women and men.

“We’re here today to thank generations of organizers and troublemakers and hell raisers who formed secret sisterhoods and demanded the right to control their own bodies,” Richards said.

After the marches and protests ended, many organizers and activists vowed to stay involved.
The Hear Our Voice Campaign was unveiled, where there would be 10 Actions for the first 100 Days. This effort would keep those who supported the march focused on future joint activism.

In the presidents first 100 days, huddled groups will meet throughout participating cities weekly to push for change in women’s rights. At these events women are encouraged to give their testimony and share how to effectively make changes by calling and writing lawmakers.

“Our focus is to take actual action after the march instead of just making our statement a one time event. Marching is just a small piece of the action we want to take,” Austin Regional Clinic Doctor and group leader, Serena Hon said.

Many activists have taken the initiative to create their own equal rights movement. Jessica Daniel, the starter of Love Letters for Social Justice, hosted a letter-writing event to protest against Governor Greg Abbott and his reactionary laws towards women’s rights.

Jessica Daniel at Love Letters for Social Justice // Mackenzie Palmer

Jessica Daniel at Love Letters for Social Justice // Mackenzie Palmer

Activist writing letters to Gov. Greg Abbott // Mackenzie Palmer

Activist writing letters to Gov. Greg Abbott // Mackenzie Palmer

“Governor Abbot has required cremation or burial for any aborted fetuses, which is an overwhelming expense,” Daniel said. “The government should not have its hands on my body.”

Daniel said protesting and attending events such as these are important for women to have their voice heard. Moving forward, Daniel said it is necessary to give the government harassment in order to have their voices heard.

“Keep calling senators. Keep calling your congressmen. Get on Facebook and social media and look for events like these,” Daniel said.

What started as a small Facebook post has turned into a movement that will not be silenced. Men and women of all backgrounds have decided to dedicate themselves to the continued fight for equal rights.

The organizers of Women’s March on Washington have taken the next steps to put on another event, “A Day Without a Women.” On March 8, International Women’s Day, they are calling women of all backgrounds and nationalities to come together, and “withdraw from corporations that harm us and find ways to support the businesses that sustain us.”

“In 2017, we are going to get together and we are going to be heard,” Daniel said. “We are going to stand up for ourselves and we will not be pushed around.”

 

 

- Group project by: Mackenzie Palmer, Taylor Gantt, Kathryn Miles, Peyton Yager

The Dirty Truth: Bar Closures on “Dirty Sixth” During Texas Relays

By: Samantha Grasso, Kristen Hubby, Ashley Lopez and Ashlyn Warblow

Sixth Street

Sixth Street

History of discrimination repeats itself at Texas Relays

Story by Samantha Grasso

Texas Relays weekend is an annual three-day-long track and field competition that hosts meets for high schools, colleges, and invitational participants. Beginning in 1925, Relays has become a large community spring event that attracts 80,000 people each year, an attendance on par with events such as Mardi Gras weekend, Republic of Texas motorcycle rally, Halloween weekend, and others.

On the night of Saturday, April 2 during the 2016 Texas Relays weekend, Kyle Clark was standing alone in a 6th street bar, behind a setup of tables, wires, and a DJ turntable. Looking intently at the screen of his Macbook Pro, Clark was working the crowd as “DJ Motivate,” throwing down hip-hop and Top 40 hits as the night went on.

Getting closer to midnight, the bar became packed with people laughing, dancing along, and sipping on drinks. Despite the electric, welcoming atmosphere Clark was creating, just down the street other bars were completely dead, lights off and doors locked.

“Even though it was Texas Relays weekend, I saw people representing many different races at the place that I was DJ-ing,” Clark said. “People spent money at the bar… I think if it’s a revenue-generating opportunity, why not be open?”

Earlier that evening around 9pm, Ben Carrington, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, took the 20 minute stroll from his downtown apartment to survey the scene. He knew establishments on 6th street closed every year during Texas Relays, and since he was in town, he wanted to check the area out for himself.

Carrington’s prediction was right. As he walked along the street affectionately called “Dirty Sixth,” Carrington snapped pictures of the closed bars: The Blind Pig Pub, Shakespeare’s Pub, Dirty Dog, Palm Door on Sixth, The Four Horseman, and Iron Cactus.

Later posting his findings to Twitter, Carrington posed an observation that the bar closures were an act of racial discrimination and refusal to serve black visitors: “Texas Relays = More Black Folks in Austin = Racist Bars on 6th Street Closing for the Weekend #KeepAustinWhite?”

 

 

While Carrington’s tweets received substantial attention in hundreds of likes and retweets, major news organizations in Austin failed to report on the closures. It wasn’t until the following week that Texas Monthly writer Dan Solomon tackled the issue in a blog post that questioned why all these bars chose to close during a weekend that historically brings in $8 million in revenue each year.

Bars gave different reasons for why they were closed. For example, Palm Door is a rental venue that is not open to the public in general. Dirty Dog manager Ben Davis told Texas Monthly the bar was originally scheduled closed for floor renovations. The vendor cancelled on them last minute, but Dirty Dog remained closed since the employees had already made vacation plans for the anticipated closure.

The Blind Pig Pub claimed to be closed for South by Southwest “recovery” for the staff, while Shakespeare’s Pub offered no explanation.

Some people speculated that bars closed to avoid underage drinking fine, as the weekend attracts many young competitors and spectators. Others said they closed because Texas Relays attendees congregate on Sixth Street, but do not go inside the bars and spend money.

In reply to the Texas Monthly article, one reader who claimed to work at Iron Cactus commented that the restaurant is rented out to a private Texas Relays event each year, denying any claim of racial discrimination.

Owners of the Blind Pig Pub, Shakespeare’s Pub, and the Four Horseman did not reply to requests for comment.

“I think [those reasons for closing] are highly dubious, if not just outright lies,” Carrington said.

Where the Shift Began

Over the 91 years Relays has operated in Austin, the event has attracted a largely African-American crowd, from participating athletes, to family members, and even patrons who come to attend events that have sprouted out of the popular weekend, such as car shows and the Austin Urban Music Festival.

But despite the massive successes and positive economic impacts brought by annual events including the South by Southwest Conference, Austin City Limits Music Festival, and Republic of Texas rally, Texas Relays weekend is one of the few events that bring an onslaught of bar, mall, and highway closures.

In 2009, Highland Mall closed early during Texas Relays weekend, and the city of Austin decided to shut down downtown exit ramps on IH-35 in an effort to alleviate traffic.

In 2011, bars owned by self-proclaimed “Mayor of Sixth Street” Bob Woody The Blind Pig and Shakespeare’s Pub notoriously boarded up for the weekend. The same two bars closed for the weekend in 2012.

Brenda Burt, who has spent 28 years at the University of Texas at Austin, is an adjunct assistant professor for African and African Diaspora Studies and an advisor for the Big XII Council on Black Student Government. Burt recalls when the city’s general reaction to Texas Relays began changing, saying she remembers discussions about revenue that the weekend generates, and the closures at Highland Mall.

“I began to realize that we [the black community] was congregating at Highland Mall as well, but also, [myself] raising a teenage son [back then] he and his friends…were out at all those malls [in Round Rock],” Burt said. “I just remember a difference in the way people were beginning to be treated, and it was like, ‘C’mon Austin, what is this?’”

The seemingly racially-motivated reactions to black attendees at festivals is not isolated to Texas Relays. In early April, Austin Chronicle writer Kevin Curtin anonymously quoted a reaction by a “local businessman who co-owns multiple bars on Sixth” to the crowds at South by Southwest. “Too many n******,” the businessman replied, not knowing Curtin was a reporter. The bar owner then threatened to sue Curtin if he was quoted.

According to the Texas Bar & Nightclub Alliance, five of the TBNA board members own two or more bars in Austin, Houston, and College Station. One of them is Blind Pig and Shakespeare’s owner Bob Woody, who also owns The Ranch, Buckshot, Pecan St. Café, and Micheladas. None of the other listed board members own any of the bars that Carrington found closed during this year’s Texas Relays.

Burt states that though UT Austin attracts many successful black students, Austin’s negative reaction to Texas Relays audiences is one of the many turnoffs that cause graduating students to leave the city.

While many students enact change at the university, Burt argued that the treatment of the black community in East Austin, compounded with tangible closures seen during Texas Relays and similar micro-aggressions toward black students at UT Austin, cause students to take their talents and passions for resolving social issues elsewhere.

“Austin is losing a reputation, and the black community, in particular… It doesn’t bid well,” Burt said. “You [students] are leaving because of things like this, or the community not providing cultural outlets for people of color.”

Looking toward the finish line

Carrington said he feels the general lack of reaction to the bar closures and the racial slur thrown around by the local businessman in Austin Chronicle is indicative of Austin’s general feelings toward the black population as a whole. However, he hopes he has helped to shed light on the issue.

“Part of the reason why I went was because there hadn’t been any discussion [about Austin’s attitude toward Texas Relays],” Carrington said. “If I hadn’t done those Tweets… then you wouldn’t be speaking to me right now. I think now at least there’s a chance we can organize… and put the spotlight back on an issue.”

Despite the general lack of mobilization, the city may be able to look forward to increased accountability and transparency over Texas Relays bar closures in the future. In reply to a request for comment on Mayor Steve Adler’s reaction to these closures, Jason Stanford, communications director for Adler’s office, released this statement:

“The Texas Relays are an important event on Austin’s calendar, and we love having them here and want the participants and visitors who come here for the relays to feel welcome,” Adler said. “Reports that bars are closing during the Texas Relays are troubling, and we’re looking into it.”

 

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Planned Parenthood Loses Medicaid Enrollment In Texas

By: Vanessa Pulido, Alex Wilts, Michael Baez, and Jessica Stovall

When Traci Kirby, a University of Texas nursing student, started experiencing vaginal irritations this summer, Planned Parenthood was not the place she thought she would get treatment.

Kirby had previously visited multiple health clinics to help solve her medical issue, but the doctors had all prescribed her antibiotics, which weren’t working.

“I got on the Internet and looked for different places and I found Planned Parenthood,” Kirby said. “I thought they only did abortions, so I was surprised to see that they actually have full women’s clinics. I went there, and it wasn’t expensive at all.”

According to Planned Parenthood, abortions represent only 3 percent of its services despite popular belief that it’s the only medical procedure the women’s health group offers.

On Oct. 19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that Texas would end Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid enrollment following the release of controversial videos of group officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue.

Texas Capitol

“The State has determined that you and your Planned Parenthood affiliates are no longer capable of performing medical services in a professionally competent, safe, legal, and ethical manner,” said a letter addressed to state affiliates from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Office of Inspector General.

According to the commission, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas receive a sum of approximately $3 million to $4 million a year in Medicaid reimbursements through the state. U.S. law tightly restricts applying federal funding to abortions.

Kathleen Morgan, the former president of Texas Students for Life, a pro-life organization on UT’s campus, said she is happy Texas has cut the Medicaid contract since Planned Parenthood makes most of its money off of abortions.

“Usually abortion goes for about $450 apiece, so that’s their money maker,” Morgan said. “They say that only 3 percent of their services are abortions. However, we know from people who have left the abortion industry, like Abby Johnson, that this is a skewed statistic.”

The Planned Parenthood on E 6th Street.

The Planned Parenthood on E 6th Street.

Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas, has argued that the organization has unbundled services so that someone who visits once and receives a pack of birth control, an STD test and a cancer screening is counted as having visited the clinic three separate times.

Democratic legislative director Stephanie Chiarello said the Texas government does not actually have the ability to cut Planned Parenthood out of its funding stream because the organization’s financial support stems from Medicaid dollars, which come from the federal government.

“So the state gets a certain amount of money from the federal government and then they allocate it to providers,” Chiarello said. “Planned Parenthood is a provider like anybody else.”

She said Texas has the option to cut itself off from the Medicaid program, but it is not feasible to cut off funding to a specific health provider.

“[State politicians] know they will score political points by saying [the government will] defund Planned Parenthood,” Chiarello said. “So they’re saying that they’re doing it even though they can’t.”

Medicinal Marijuana is (Barely) Legal in Texas

Cover Photo_Medicinal Marijuana Package

Texas may not join the states that have legalized recreational marijuana anytime soon, but medicinal marijuana reform will continue to be a discussion among legislators and advocates this next legislative session.

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

Texas lawmakers can’t blow smoke when it comes to marijuana laws anymore.

Texas voter views have changed dramatically in the last several years regarding marijuana use and decriminalization. A statewide poll by Texas Lyceum found that 46 percent of adults support legalizing marijuana completely. 28.5 percent of those who oppose legalization stated they would be in favor of decriminalizing it instead. Only 20 percent of Texans oppose reform in every way.

“Polling shows over and over again that Texans are ready for reform,” says Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “This isn’t a taboo issue anymore, it’s a very serious public policy issue.”

10 diseases

Texas legislators will not convene for the 85th session until January 2017 but many advocates of marijuana reform say the critical planning has already begun.

“Because Texas only meets to change laws every two years, if we do not act decisively in the 2017 session, we will be significantly behind the rest of the nation,” says Jax Finkel, Executive Director for Texas NORML, an organization that works to legalize the responsible use of marijuana by adults. “Our legislators need to come to terms with the fact that this is the change that Texans want.”

The 84th Legislative Session had roughly ten marijuana-related bills proposed but only one managed to pass.

“The fact that there were that many bills is really encouraging,” says Fazio. “It demonstrates there is an agreement that laws need to be changed.”

All of the marijuana-related bills passed out of the house, and several were able to pass out of committee but due to the time constraints of the legislative system, they died when the session ended.

“For HB 507, the Civil Penalties bill and HB 557, the Research Hemp bill, the clock ran out,” says Finkel. “For HB 3785, the Whole Plant Medical bill, the Chairwoman of the Committee would not let a vote be held on the bill, therefore killing it.”

The majority of these weed bills may have burned this session but supporters aren’t letting them cash out for good.

“We had authors come on board after the hearings last sessions,” says Fazio. “Next session, we would like to see fewer bills but with more people standing behind each of them.”

As for the bill that did pass, SB 339, otherwise known as The Compassionate Use Act was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in June therefore legalizing the limited use of marijuana extracts to treat severe forms of epilepsy.

Texas now stands among the list of 23 states who have legalized medicinal marijuana but before Texans start fearing reefer madness to strike again, they should know the strict regulations of this new law.

The act makes it nearly impossible for those needing the treatment to qualify, or find doctors willing to write the prescription since it exposes them to federal criminal sanctions. Doctors would potentially be opening themselves up to committing a felony since prescribing a schedule one drug is still illegal. Doctors in other states that have legalized medicinal use the method of “recommending” or “certifying” the drug instead.

“The primary tenets that need to be changed for this law to work are expanding the qualifying conditions, expanding the number of strains allowed and altering the legal language to allow doctors to certify patients instead of prescribing,” says Fazio.

To qualify, a patient must have intractable epilepsy and can only access “low-THC cannabis” or that containing less than .05 percent THC.

A patient can only obtain the medicine from a licensed dispensary and to no surprise, none currently exist in Texas. The Department of Public Safety is required to license at least three dispensaries by September 2017.5 pills

There are thousands of different strains of marijuana plants and the current law prohibits using the psychoactive element of the plant.

But Fazio argues “that part is very important, that’s what helps the patient from suffering from the condition. Lawmakers want to keep it out because they think patients will get high.”

Currently, the Texas law limits the use to those whom suffer from severe epilepsy but studies have shown there are countless other illnesses and diseases that could also be helped.

“We all know someone who has been affected by a debilitating condition,” says Fazio “And if there is a natural medicine choice instead, more Texans would be willing to get the government out of the doctors office.”

Texas NORML wants to see more cannabinoids available for therapeutic use for patients. They also aim to pass another bill that will offer a more comprehensive whole plant program.

Finkel says she expects to see “an expansion of the Compassionate Use Program in 2017 and that we will likely see a civil penalties bill pass. I think that Texas is more likely to have a full retail market implemented in 2019.”

The first set of rule reforms for the Compassionate Use Act are expected to be released mid-November of this month.

In Texas, many electoral decisions are made during the primary elections which are coming up in March 2016.

“Our districts often know what political party will win in advance because of the gerrymandering of district lines. This means that the most competitive and active races are actually at the primary level,” says Finkel. “Since Texas is limited in how we can change laws, it is very important that we make sure that our state representatives and state senators are educated and compassionate when it comes to this issue.”

Advocates from Texas NORML say that the election period is a great time to talk to candidates about their stances and keep the conversations going.

While most candidates publicly announce their stance on issues like education and border security, many avoid sharing their opinions about the controversial drug. Representatives seeking re-election may not be able to stay neutral about the topic anymore.

 

A Grave Matter

Jess Brown, Victoria Espinoza, Mary Huber and Karla Martinez

The Historic Cemetery Master Plan, adopted by city council Sept. 17, aims to restore Austin’s five municipal cemeteries to their former glory.

The city’s parks and recreation department works to breathe life into the city’s five municipal cemeteries, which hold more than a century of history and more than a century of misuse.

By MARY HUBER

Saundra Kirk buried her mother Willie Mae two years ago in an east-facing grave just off the main road that runs through Evergreen Cemetery. She marked the spot with a red granite headstone and places flowering plants in the grass there from time to time.

“Mother, she was one who was always a doer,” Kirk said of Willie Mae, who was an educator, community organizer and early champion of civil rights in the city. “She had a reputation in the community of being very generous and very big-hearted.”

At Willie Mae’s head lies Kirk’s brother, Lee, who died in 2004, marked with a simple, gray headstone. To the left and right are prominent community members – police chiefs, firefighters, public servants.

While alive, most resided in a close-knit community, from Seventh to Nineteenth streets, East Avenue to Airport Boulevard, when the city’s Jim Crow laws forced segregation of the African American population to a small pocket on the eastside. In 1926, Evergreen was plotted as their designated resting place. It was a time when the separate but equal doctrine bled all the way into the soil that buried the dead.

“You wouldn’t know going there now what an important place it is,” said Kim McKnight, the parks and recreation department’s preservation planner, who has devoted herself to restoring the city’s cemeteries and making sure people care about them again.

McKnight worked with contractors and landscape architects to create a master plan that improves conditions at the city’s five municipal cemeteries – Evergreen, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, Plummers and Austin Memorial Park – which were deteriorating when the parks and recreation department took control of them in 2013.

At 510 pages, the Historic Cemetery Master Plan brings together historical accounts, photos, design plans, maintenance recommendations and a catalogue of every tree on the cemeteries’ combined 160 acres. It suggests improvements unique to each cemetery and was approved unanimously by city council Sept. 17.

If funded, it would allow the department to plant trees, reset gravestones, raise new fences and construct columbariums, where cremated remains can be stored.

It would also install signs and other wayfinding systems to help visitors find their loved ones’ graves, a challenge at all the city cemeteries, whose records are still handwritten and haven’t made the transition to the digital age.

Kirk has spent many days walking through the rows of gravestones at Evergreen, searching out old friends and lovers, teachers, people Willie Mae used to talk about around the kitchen table growing up.

“I might be in a particular section on a certain day. And it’s a pretty day. And I just start walking and looking at stones,” Kirk said. “It’s almost like discovering hiding places for people.”

Kirk commissioned the placement of 13 monument stones at the resting sites of her family’s unmarked graves. It brought her to the cemetery many mornings and many afternoons.

“Evergreen,” she said, and sighed. “There’s just a sweetness to it.”

In the 1950s, her family had a house between East Eleventh and Twelfth Streets, on a hill with a view of the university and Capitol building. Kirk was quiet, a loner, and she often wandered through Oakwood Cemetery, which was closer to her house.

“I would go in by that back side gate and just kind of be enchanted with it,” she said.

The city’s first cemetery, Oakwood was plotted in 1839, when Austin was established as the capital of the independent Republic of Texas.

Today, many of its gravestones sink into the foundation. Some are chipped and cracked by mowers, crumbled pieces left scattered in the grass. Years of drought have sucked the water from the roots of its historic trees, so that almost half have died.

Dale Flatt founded the non-profit Save Austin's Cemeteries in 2004 to bring attention to the problems at local burial grounds.

Dale Flatt founded the non-profit Save Austin’s Cemeteries in 2004 to bring attention to the problems at local burial grounds.

At the north end, Dale Flatt points to a box tomb that’s broken in pieces, either from vandalism or heavy weather.

Flatt is the founder of the nonprofit Save Austin’s Cemeteries, which was established more than a decade ago to help the city repair its cemeteries. He also leads groups, where he shares the histories of the people buried in these sacred spaces.

“We view the cemetery as an outdoor museum,” Flatt said, noting the graves of Governors Hogg and Pease and many of Austin’s original founders.

All were buried in Oakwood before 1910. The cemetery stopped selling plots long ago.

“The cemetery is really the only piece of property you sell once, but you’re expected to maintain it forever,” Flatt said.

This creates a struggle when funding improvement projects. The only two active city cemeteries are Evergreen and Austin Memorial Park, where the sale of burial spaces contributes revenue to the parks and recreation department.

In order to finance the master plan, the department will have to secure funds from the city at the next bond election. Additional money will come from donations and partnerships with foundations in the area.

However, the cost is significant.

“We have education needs, affordable housing needs. We have people living in poverty. Why would you invest in a cemetery?” McKnight asked, aware of the strains on the city. “But I would argue that how we care for these spaces are kind of indicative about who we are as a people.”

McKnight said it is a process of setting priorities and confronting one problem at a time, beginning with the renovation of Oakwood’s Gothic Revival chapel, a $1.2 million project that is expected to break ground next year.

The rest of the recommendations could take as long as 25 years to complete.

But that doesn’t deter McKnight, who said she is proud of the work she completed with her team, the compilation of information that spans decades and acres, the connections she has made with people along the way.

“There has not been a single meeting that I have facilitated that I don’t have somebody who is letting me know that their parents are buried here, their children are buried here, their siblings are buried here,” McKnight said. “You’re got people with tears in their eyes telling you, ‘You are making plans in a sacred place to me.’”

One was Billye Schulle, who came to every planning meeting, rolling her oxygen tank behind her. Several months into the project, McKnight got a note that Schulle had died. Several of the staff attended her funeral. Her husband Ross came to the meetings in her absence.

Schulle is buried in Austin Memorial Park, tucked away amid the live oak trees that wrap between its graves.

And just five miles to the south, Kirk, now 71, reserved her space at Evergreen, in the L-shaped cluster of plots beside her mother Willie Mae.

A WALKING TOUR OF AUSTIN’S CEMETERIES

 

FUNDING THE AFTERLIFE

FUN FACTS

TALKING DEAD

Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Including It’s Carbon Footprint

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Khalil Elharam uses a shovel to turn his compost. Turning the compost introduces oxygen and speeds up production. “I produce enough compost for my entire yard,” he says. Photo by Erin MacInerney


Do you recycle? If not, you might want to pay attention to Austin’s new regulations regarding food diversion and waste recovery.

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

Austin, Texas: politically known as the little blue dot in a sea of red. Environmentally speaking, it could also be called the little green dot in a sea of brown.

Or black. Or gray. Or whatever color pollution can be deemed.

Or it could be known as the capital of a state ranking dead last for overall environmental quality.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the carbon boot prints Texas is leaving makes it the least green state overall. Yet Austin, ranks among the top ten sustainable cities in America

This month, the city entered the third phase in a five-year recycling and organics diversion program. The Universal Recycling Ordinance is part of the city’s goal of having Zero Waste by 2040, or keeping at least 90 percent of discarded materials out of landfills.What We Waste

By 2017, all properties will be required to provide access to recycling for tenants and employees and by 2018, all food enterprises must have a food diversion program in place.

Despite Austin’s ranking, there is still progress to be made in waste reduction to meet these goals, according to the Austin Resource Recovery Center’s Waste Characterization Study.

Some initiatives, like the plastic bag ban meant to decrease the amount of grocery store bags in landfills, have not had the intended outcomes.  Reusable bags designed to be used up to 100 times or more are being thrown out after a few uses.

So how can Austin businesses and individuals meet the new requirements?

Barr Mansion, the nation’s only certified organic event facility, is a prime example of a business with a working diversion plan already in place.

As a platinum member of Austin’s Green Business Leaders, Barr Mansion reaches 98% sustainability by growing their own produce, collecting rainwater, using solar panels and composting all organic materials.

“Brides and grooms book us because of our practices,” says Caroline Hunt, Sales Manager for Barr Mansion. “We do the grunt work and they get the good feeling that their wedding was sustainable and didn’t hurt the environment.”

Hunt believes that being considered an ethical company adds more depth to their brand which ultimately increases business.

One way the venue manages waste is by not providing trash cans on the grounds. Guests are encouraged to leave their trash on tables so that a staff member can properly deposit it into the correct bin. This saves visitors from the guesswork of figuring out what bin their waste should go in and saves the staff from having to sort through the trash after events.

“We are very serious about how we throw things away,” Hunt says. “It is a process, so it is something you have to sit down and discuss but setting up and researching how compost’s work is not that hard.”

Hunt says some businesses may be weary of the costs associated with implementing a new recycling plan but their company has actually saved money with their practices.

“We have the same amount of staff as most venues,” Hunt says. “We don’t have to pay the staff more, just instilling in them that it is important, so more training for the staff.”

Businesses will financially benefit from composting with a reduction in trash and associated fees according to Compost Coalition of Austin. The grass-roots network of volunteers is helping individuals and businesses connect to the resources they need to divert organic materials from landfills.

“In Austin, we have at least three different commercial compost contractors and are likely to see more which should help to keep pricing competitive,” says Heather-Nicole Hoffman, leader of Compost Coalition. “We also hope to see more and more decentralized composting efforts which will include on-site composting for some businesses and volunteer collective composting efforts such as the
Compost Coalition program Ground to Ground or the Austin Materials Marketplace.”

For smaller restaurants or those short on space, Hoffman assures there are still ways to meet the requirements.

“There are small systems such as bokashi or wormbins that work well indoors and can take up as little as a square foot of floor or counter space,” says Hoffman. “Or, store those kitchen scraps in your freezer until you are ready to transfer to a compost spot.”

A food diversion plan for an Austin restaurant could also mean using organizations like Keep Austin Fed to meet their requirements. The local group picks up surplus food and distributes it to area charities.

“The City of Austin, may not be the first [to implement this ordinance],” says Hoffman. “But they are working hard to be a role model for all the other cities which will soon realize the importance of recovering organics as a resource instead of forever managing them as liability.”

 

 

Zero Waste Plan-4

Navigating Policy & Perspectives: Campus Carry at UT Austin

Cassandra Jaramillo | Jade Magalhaes | Sandy Marin | Jan Ross Piedad

At the Oct. 5 open carry forum, members of Gun Free UT display a banner that states: "300 UT Faculty Refuse Guns In Our Classrooms."

At the Oct. 5 open carry forum, members of Gun Free UT display a banner that states: “300 UT Faculty Refuse Guns In Our Classrooms.”

To carry or not to carry?

This is the question many Texans are asking after the deadly shooting at a community college in Oregon, a state which allows concealed handguns on campuses.

After Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 11 into law this summer, Texas became one of eight states in the U.S. to allow those with concealed handgun licenses to bring guns into buildings on college campuses. The law does allow, however, some areas to be designated gun-free zones.

SB 11 states that university presidents may “establish reasonable rules, regulations or other provisions” regarding guns in common areas such as dorms, classrooms, and dining halls. Those regulations must then be passed by the school’s governing board.

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Claire Christensen, a government junior and supporter of campus carry at UT Austin, said the legislation will make her feel more comfortable in school.

“As a woman, and as a student, I feel safer if I know that other people can defend me too if they have guns,” she said. “If something was to happen out of the blue, then I could also protect myself if I have a gun on me.”

While administration at the University of Texas flagship makes its decisions, the number of faculty members already refusing to allow guns in their classrooms is steadily increasing.

When Gun-Free UT held a protest against campus carry on Oct. 1, about 163 faculty members already signed a petition refusing to allow guns into classrooms. In less than a week, support has more than doubled to 330 names on the list.

“The number is going up quickly as more faculty learn that there are options to speak out,” Joan Neuberger, a history professor and a leader in the Gun-Free UT community, said in an email.

A person must be at least 21 years old to obtain a concealed handgun license, meaning the majority of university students will not be eligible to carry.

At public events like protests and forums, as well as in published articles, professors have expressed a similar message: a small number of students granted more freedom by the law is not worth the larger impact campus carry may have on the university.

Professors who teach controversial subject matter said they are worried students will be afraid to speak out in class, while others expressed concern with discussing grades if students are permitted to bring guns into offices.

Jason Baldridge, an associate professor of computational linguistics at UT, said that campus carry could affect potential recruitment of future faculty and students, as the legislation goes into effect next fall.

“This is an amazing university with tons of top faculty from all over the world that do great stuff. But having campus carry is going to make it harder to recruit faculty members. It’ll be harder to recruit top graduate students,” Baldridge said. “That is not for the better of the university. And it’s also not for the better of the state of Texas.”

Baldridge started teaching at UT in 2005 but took off two-and-half years to cofound the startup People Pattern, an audience insight software company. A few months after he agreed to return to the university as a part-time professor, the campus carry legislation passed in the state. Baldridge said his wife expressed concerns with him teaching in front of students who may be carrying guns.

In fact, Baldridge said he was personally looking at “other options” as UT administrators decide on specific regulations regarding campus carry legislation.

He said he isn’t alone.

“There are going to be people looking at their options elsewhere,” Baldridge said.

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Sweet New Law for Texas Honey Producers

September is National Honey Month and Texas bees are celebrating a new state law that will lighten the regulations placed on small scale beekeepers.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public.

Round Rock Honey drives from hive to hive in style with their decorated van and personalized license plate. The family-owned and operated business not only produces the purest of wildflower honey but also educates future beekeepers and the general public. Photo by: Erin MacInerney

By: Morgan Bridges, Erin Griffin, Erin MacInerney, Jamie Pross

To bee or not to bee, won’t be a question anymore for bee hobbyists producing under 200 gallons of honey annually. The new Texas statute means they will be exempt from costly state health licensing requirements other larger manufacturers face.

The queen bee of honey, Hayden Wolf, thinks this will increase honey production around the state. As the 2015 American Honey Princess, Wolf represents Texas all around the nation advocating the importance of bees in keeping our ecosystem humming perfectly.

“This new law helps my family and I because we have always wanted to sell our honey,” Wolf says. “It’s a great opportunity for beekeepers.”

The 19-year-old manages 12 hives with her parents in East Texas but does not produce enough honey or have the time to make a business out of it.

The new law would allow beekeepers like Wolf and her family to sell their honey directly to consumers at farmers markets or small venues as long as proper labeling distinguishes their product from those bottled in inspection facilities.

Bee enthusiasts say the warm Texas climate is a haven for raising honey bees.  Many keepers from Northern states bring their hives to Texas during the winter months.

“It’s a lot easier than getting a pet,” Wolf says. “You don’t even have to take them on a leash and walk them everyday!”

If you are concerned with getting the proper vitamin bee from your honey, don’t let that adorable bear-shaped bottle at the supermarket fool you.

Pollen studies conducted by Professor Vaughn M. Bryant of Texas A&M University found that over 75 percent of honey sold at large chain stores and restaurants had the pollen removed making it impossible to trace the legitimate source or ingredients.

Take a look at a jar of honey and you might find ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners. What you won’t see on the label are antibiotics, heavy metals and other harsh chemicals that could have contaminated the honey throughout the process.

These honey bunches of lies make it easier for manufacturers to cut costs and extend shelf life consequently removing the health benefits completely

The honey sold at co-ops, farmers markets and “natural stores” yielded the full, expected amounts of pollen.

The new law encourages sales of local honey which means a higher chance of consuming 100 percent, organic honey without the cheap additives.

“There are many benefits of honey and if you are not getting the pure product, you might not be getting those benefits,” Wolf says. “The best way to know you are actually getting the best honey is to know your beekeeper personally and ask them questions.”

Texas ranks sixth in the nation for honey production, but our bees still face major threats of disease, negative effects of pesticide use and global warming.

“It’s a fairly simply hobby but it has become harder to keep our bees alive in the past years. Now we have to check the hives every two to three weeks,” Wolf says. “It used to be easier in the old days.”

Mystery syndromes not fully understood such as Colony Collapse Disorder have created quite a buzz in the last decade. Annual bee colony losses averaged around 42 percent this past year according to a study conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America.

“It is important we try to keep them alive, to keep ourselves alive,” says Melanie Brown, Founder of BEEVO, The University of Texas’ Beekeeping Society. “Bees pollinate a lot of our crops and without them, we would have a serious shortage of food.”

About 80 percent of the food on grocery store shelves are there thanks to bees according to the International Bee Research Association.

Brown says the BEEVO club has a substantial following since initiating this last spring.
The goal of the society is to engage students, faculty, and staff in urban beekeeping as part of an effort towards sustainable pollinator populations.

“I’m more passionate about the environmental impacts of beekeeping but there are a lot of people on campus who are just super into beekeeping,” Brown says. “I am happy they now have an outlet to share their knowledge.”

 

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