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Tuck and Republicans file controversial School Choice bill

SEBRING — House Bill 1 appears to be a boon for private schools to the detriment of public schools, while giving parents more options for the education of their children.

The summary of HB 1 states: School Choice; Revises provisions relating to Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, & part-time enrollment in public schools.

A portion of the 50-page bill states, “Program funds awarded to a student determined eligible may be used for tuition and fees at an eligible private school or transportation to a Florida public school in which a student is enrolled and that is different from the school to which the student was assigned or to a lab school.”

The activist group Americans for Prosperity is supporting the bill calling it, “the most transformational education legislation in Florida History.”

The Florida Education Association (FEA, state teachers union) describes the bill as, “a massive transfer of taxpayer funds to unaccountable, private and religious schools and corporations. The bill creates universal vouchers and will take funds currently used for public school students to subsidize private school tuition. The ultimate goal is the complete privatization of Florida’s public schools.”

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Kaylee Tuck, R-Lake Placid and Susan Plazencia, R-Winter Park and is cosponsored by 23 Republican representatives.

An Americans for Prosperity mailer states Tuck is pushing to create universal savings accounts which will empower parents to choose the best educational options for their child.

According to the FEA, there’s no link between vouchers and gains in student achievement. There’s no conclusive evidence that vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend private school. Nor is there any validity to claims that, by creating a “competitive marketplace” for students, vouchers force public schools to improve.

Where there is conclusive evidence is that investing more money in public education improves student achievement, according to the FEA.

Democratic Women’s Clubs of Florida Legislative Chair Jean Siebenaler stated, “We’ve been waiting for some ‘big’ controversial legislation in the new 2023 FL State Legislature to drop and we now have one. We have a new Republican-sponsored HB 1 titled School Choice.

“This bill is the ‘big kahuna’ — the expanded school voucher program that has been promised for years by the anti-public school forces in Florida. It will essentially decimate funding for public education, the great equalizer in our society.”

According to its mission statement, Americans for Prosperity engages in broad-based grassroots outreach to advocate for long-term solutions to the country’s biggest problems that prevent people from realizing their incredible potential — unsustainable government spending and debt, a broken immigration system, a rigged economy, and a host of other issues you can explore.

House Bill 1 was filed Jan. 19.

Most recently it has been referred to PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, referred to the Education & Employment Committee and now in PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

'Ministry of presence': Sheriff pastors comfort the grieving

The flowers and crosses stick out of the grass on the side of every major road in Highlands County.

Take a drive on U.S. 19, U.S. 27, U.S. 98, State Roads 70, 64, and county roads like Lake June Road, Sebring Parkway, and Panther Parkway and you’ll pass mylar balloons, photos of loved ones, and other humble memorials to loved ones lost to automobile accidents.

When a household learns of the sudden loss of a family member in a car accident, from gunfire or other events, the Highlands County Sheriff’s office sends an angel to comfort them.

The Rev. Richard Norris is the lead volunteer chaplain for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Chaplain Unit. Norris has been involved with emergency services as well as the ministry for almost 40 years, not only fighting fires and saving lives but in these later years, comforting victims of hurricanes, fires, floods, and automobile crashes.

“I was raised around emergency services,” he said. “My father served with a rescue squad so I grew up in the world of emergency, medical, fire and police services.”

Educated in the The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, he was an EMT instructor about the time he became a pastor.

He and his six fellow sheriff’s chaplains also notify families when they’ve lost someone to a car crash or other event. They also provide Sheriff’s Office members and their families with spiritual guidance, support and information when requested. They are non-denominational in their volunteer work but are ordained ministers in their respective congregations.

The Highlands News-Sun interviewed Norris and the unit’s role in comforting victims and survivors.

“We’re not psychologists, we don’t pretend to be, we are merely chaplains meeting the spiritual needs of those who request it when called to a scene,” he said.

The chaplains consider their work as comfort and spiritual support as an extension of their parish ministries, “not unlike a volunteer firefighter, because there’s a need to be fulfilled.”

Norris and the other volunteer chaplains are called in at any time of day or night to respond to a scene where a body may be in a house, a car slammed against a tree, or a child has witnessed violence between family members.

“It’s not so much what we say,” Norris said. “As we see it, it’s the ministry of presence, lending support in any way we can do that. Each situation is different. I’ve been exposed to mass fatalities, including the (Pulse) nightclub shooting in Orlando. We were involved with the SunTrust Bank shooting; I was at Inn on the Lakes on U.S. 27, consoling victim family members awaiting word.”

Sometimes Norris and his fellow volunteer chaplains simply stand by on scene, asking victims if they can notify other relatives.

“You can pray with them if they request it, and offer to contact their clergy person – though we do not take the place of anyone’s pastor,” Norris said. “Some of us perform institutional visits, ministering in hospitals and nursing homes.”

What does a person say to someone who learns they’ve lost a loved one in a car accident? Detectives and deputies traditionally notify families of homicides and car fatalities, but sheriff’s pastor volunteers are on hand to comfort the grieving.

“The family member might ask, ‘Why me, why now, how did this happen?’ There are no pat answers to that,” he said. “I don’t have the answers, we never do find the answers. We console them and encourage them in any way we can.”

The pastors do not sugarcoat what’s happened.

“When they lose a loved one tragically to an accident, a shooting, an unexpected heart attack, stroke, everybody grieves differently. We’re trained not to be vague about it, but to be straightforward so they don’t misunderstand what you’re saying,” Norris said. “They have to confront that news and one is bound to see some sorrow, some sadness.”

Norris and his fellow volunteers will be called to a scene in the next few days, in the next week, or tonight. Somewhere in Highlands County, someone will face life-changing news of a sudden nature. A pastor from the sheriff’s Chaplain Unit will be there.

“I’ve never said to anyone that everything is going to be alright,” Norris said. “We can help them look for the future a little bit, point them in the right direction, that’s our role.”

Here are the other volunteers in the Sheriff’s Chaplain Unit:

Native Miamian Bob Poulsen has a bachelor’s degree in biblical education and a master’s degree in theology. He has been a volunteer Chaplain for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office for more than four years.

Chaplain Allen Altvater – well-known by his sheriff’s K9 “comfort dog” Trey – serves as a volunteer at First Baptist Church in Wauchula. Since May 2018, Altvater has sought continued training with Trey to build relationships, reduce anxiety and put smiles on faces of traumatized people.

  • Rev. J.P. Fuller is leader of New Life Fellowship Pentecostal Church in Sebring. He began his journey with God as a teenager in West Texas. He is a Marine Corps veteran.
  • Orlando native Chaplain William Trucano attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary earning the master of religious education degree in 1972. He has served churches in Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan and Florida as a Minister of Education and/or Pastor.

Pastor Roldan V. Mendoza is senior pastor of two Seventh-day Adventist churches: Filipino American International SDA Church in Avon Park and Maranatha SDA Church in Lakeland. As a member of the International Conference of Police Chaplains, he has five years’ of experience in law enforcement chaplaincy.

The Rev. Jesus M. Perez, a member of the chaplain unit since June 2019, is also the founder and pastor of Casa de Adoración Y Alabanza, Inc. He graduated from Florida Christian University in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in theology.

Wagner owner says war in Ukraine could drag on for years
  • Updated

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The owner of the Russian Wagner Group private military contractor actively involved in the fighting in Ukraine has predicted that the war could drag on for years.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video interview released late Friday that it could take 18 months to two years for Russia to fully secure control of Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. He added that the war could go on for three years if Moscow decides to capture broader territories east of the Dnieper River.

The statement from Prigozhin, a millionaire who has close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin and was dubbed “Putin’s chef” for his lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, marked a recognition of the difficulties that the Kremlin has faced in the campaign, which it initially expected to wrap up within weeks when Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Russia suffered a series of humiliating setbacks in the fall when the Ukrainian military launched successful counteroffensives to reclaim broad swaths of territory in the east and the south. The Kremlin has avoided making forecasts on how long the fighting could continue, saying that what it called the “special military operation” will continue until its goals are fulfilled.

The Russian forces have focused on Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk provinces that make up the Donbas region where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces since 2014.

Ukrainian and Western officials have warned that Russia could launch a new broad offensive to try to turn the tide of the conflict as the war approaches the one-year mark. But Ukraine’s military intelligence spokesman, Andriy Chernyak, told Kyiv Post that “Russian command does not have enough resources for large-scale offensive actions.”

“The main goal of Russian troops remains to achieve at least some tactical success in eastern Ukraine,” he said.

Prigozhin said that the Wagner Group mercenaries were continuing fierce battles for control of the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. He acknowledged that the Ukrainian troops were mounting fierce resistance.

As Russian troops have pushed their attacks in the Donbas, Moscow has also sought to demoralize Ukrainians by leaving them without heat and water in the bitter winter.

On Friday, Russia launched the 14th round of massive strikes on Ukrainian energy facilities and other vital infrastructure. High-voltage infrastructure facilities were hit in the eastern, western and southern regions, resulting in power outages in some areas.

Ukraine’s energy company, Ukrenergo, said Saturday that the situation was “difficult but controllable,” adding that involved backups to keep up power supplies but noting that power rationing will continue in some areas.

Ukraine’s military chief, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said that Russian forces launched 71 cruise missiles, 35 S-300 missiles and seven Shahed drones between late Thursday and midday Friday, adding that Ukrainian air defenses downed 61 cruise missiles and five drones.

The Ukrainian authorities reported more attacks by killer drones later on Friday. The Ukrainian air force said the military downed 20 Shahed drones in the evening.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that Friday’s strikes hit all the designated targets, halting the operation of Ukraine’s defense factories and blocking the delivery of supplies of Western weapons and ammunition. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.

Late Friday, Russian military bloggers and some Ukrainian news outlets posted a video showing an attack by a sea drone on a strategic railway bridge in the Odesa region. The grainy video showed a fast-moving object on the surface of the water approaching the bridge in Zatoka, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Odesa, and exploding in a powerful blast.

The authenticity of the video couldn’t be verified. The Ukrainian military hasn’t commented on the attack, and Serhii Bratchuk, a spokesman for the regional administration, wouldn’t confirm the drone attack when he spoke in televised remarks on Saturday.

If confirmed, the attack would mark the first combat use of a sea drone by Russia in the conflict. Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of the Russian armed forces who frequently comments on the conflict on Russian state TV, noted Saturday that such drones should be equipped with a more powerful load of explosives to inflict more significant damage.

The bridge, which was targeted by Russian missile strikes early in the war, serves the railway link to Romania, which is a key conduit for Western arms supplies.

In other developments, the governor of Russia’s Kursk region along the border with Ukraine said that a group of construction workers was hit by Ukrainian shelling that killed one of them and wounded another.

The governor of another Russian border region, Belgorod, reported the shelling of the town of Shebekino, saying it damaged two buildings but no one was hurt.

Xaver lawyer used insanity defense in previous case

SEBRING – Will Zephen Xaver’s lawyer attempt an insanity defense to keep her client off death row? The question remains unanswered more than four years after Xaver killed five local women in SunTrust Bank.

Assistant Public Defender Jane Allie McNeill has so far refused to state whether she will use an insanity defense, though the law states she must do so within 15 days of arraignment. Neither McNeill nor previous public defenders representing Xaver have done so. McNeill was assigned to the case in June 2019 – six months after the crime.

Timely notification is important, because filing an insanity defense at the last moment robs prosecutors the time necessary to study the defendant’s mental health records, depose defense psychiatrists, and present opposing evidence.

A look at Florida vs. John Jonchuck, named for the man who threw his 5-year-old daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge in 2015, may offer some clues. McNeill served on the three-member defense team that successfully convinced a jury that Jonchuck – who faced possible execution – was mentally ill and should spend the rest of his life in jail.

Both men committed their acts in a public way. Bank security cameras captured Xaver executing the Sebring women; a St. Petersburg police officer watched Jonchuck drop his daughter over a bridge railing into Tampa Bay. Both men also claimed voices in their heads directed them to commit their killings.

There are differences between the way McNeill has handled each case, however.

McNeill has so far refused to say whether she will use an insanity defense in Xaver’s trial. Though a circuit court judge gave McNeill until Feb. 1 to announce her intentions, the lawyer declined to do so before Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden.

Tenth Judicial Circuit Assistant State Attorney Paul A. Wallace, who is prosecuting Xaver for the murders, believes McNeill has no choice but to use an insanity defense. In addition to a bank security video that captured Xaver in the act, Xaver also confessed to the murders as detectives questioned him on Jan. 23, 2019 — the day of the crime.

“What other defense is there? ‘I didn’t do it?’” Wallace said. “If they come forward with an insanity defense in the future, what we’re going to do is hold a hearing and require the defense to establish why (they waited so long). If the judge is satisfied at that hearing that there is no good cause, the judge can say, ‘I’m not going to let you use the insanity defense.’”

McNeill and her defense team waited two years and five months after Jonchuck’s March 2015 arraignment to file their intent to rely on an insanity defense. In their motion, they blamed “bipolar disorder with psychotic features” for affecting Jonchuck’s ability to know what he was doing or its consequences when he killed his daughter.

Then there is the question of mental health records.

Prosecutor Wallace complains that McNeill has not handed prosecutors mental health reports from psychiatrists and other doctors who have evaluated Xaver. Wallace has filed motions seeking those records, but the court — perhaps shy about injecting itself into trial strategy – has so far refrained from ordering McNeill to hand them over.

Unlike Florida vs. Xaver, lawyers representing Jonchuck ordered a competency hearing to determine Jonchuck’s ability to understand court proceedings and aid in his own defense. In Xaver, there have been no such motions, though McNeill – more than a year ago – ordered a PET (positron emission tomography) brain scan for Xaver. Defense lawyers use the images to detect brain abnormalities that could indicate diminished capacity in their clients.

Wallace last year filed a motion to compel McNeill to order a competency evaluation for Xaver. Barring that, McNeill must “announce to the court that she has no reasonable grounds to believe the defendant is incompetent to proceed to trial.” The motion was denied.

It remains to be seen whether McNeill will adopt the insanity defense in the SunTrust case, but Wallace, a veteran prosecutor who has helped send nine killers to death row, believes she will.

“We know 10 different mental health professionals have seen Xaver in jail,” Wallace said. “What could come up now that they didn’t know about? I would be surprised if the defense does not eventually try to use insanity in this case. Because there is no other defense, there just isn’t.”