Philadelphia Daily News/Inquirer. December 14, 2023
Editorial: Despite Magill’s departure, Penn must stay the course on free speech issues
It is essential that the university does not allow the recent chaotic series of events to further compromise its commitment to open expression and academic inquiry.
University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill’s tenure came to a premature end last Saturday, and her tumultuous exit after just 18 months on the job will endure as a symbol of the broader chaotic national conversation about freedom of expression and antisemitism on college campuses.
Magill’s difficulties began in September when a festival devoted to Palestinian literature was held on Penn’s campus over the objections of the Anti-Defamation League, prominent university donors, and others who condemned the inclusion of speakers who had expressed antisemitic views.
While Magill allowed the festival to proceed, she also denounced some of the speakers and issued a statement pledging to review the process by which groups can reserve space and host events on campus. Things might have ended there.
But on Oct. 7, Hamas terrorists launched a vicious raid into Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking an estimated 240 hostages back to Gaza. The already intense debate over the festival erupted on Penn’s campus.
Some students, staff, and faculty were captured on video taking down awareness posters for people taken hostage. Pro-Israel groups began hiring trucks to drive around the neighborhood bearing digital billboards calling for Magill’s resignation.
When Penn Chavurah, a progressive Jewish student group, announced that it planned to show the film Israelism — a documentary critical of the Israeli government’s policies — the administration threatened sanctions. The head of the university’s Middle East Center resigned his position in protest.
Arab, Muslim, and Palestinian students called on Penn to stand up for them, describing the campus and community as a hostile environment. Some Jewish students cited chants like “ From the river to the sea ” as calls for genocide, and demanded more action from the school.
The tipping point for Magill, however, was her testimony before the House Committee on Education last week, where she gave a muddled answer to a question on student discipline. The moment led the White House, Gov. Josh Shapiro, and other civic leaders to openly criticize her response.
Four days after Magill’s congressional testimony, her tenure ended, along with that of Scott L. Bok, chair of the university’s board of trustees.
It is essential that Penn does not allow the turbulence of this unfortunate series of events to further compromise its commitment to freedom of speech and academic expression. While Magill may not have been up to the challenge of navigating through the current crisis, the difficulty was inflated by others, many of whom were clearly not operating in good faith.
From Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “war on woke” to the proposals in nearly two dozen state legislatures to eliminate diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, higher education has in recent years become a focal point for conservative activists who are threatened by what they see as rampant liberalism on the nation’s college campuses.
Instead of listening to donors and outside voices, Penn should pay heed to some of the students and institutional leaders who have already offered sound advice.
As the editorial board of Penn’s student-run newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, wrote earlier this week, the ongoing debate has made campus “feel less like a community and more like a political battleground.” Given the evidence-free statements, entrenched positions, and general ignorance that American politics have become known for, that can hardly be conducive to learning.
Instead, as the students wrote, “The path forward for Penn must be paved with more, not less, speech.”
At times, that will include speech that makes some uncomfortable, across a number of intractable political divides. The inevitable questions surrounding any speech code are limitless, something Magill learned the hard way. Bok, writing in an op-ed this week, also emphasized the importance of academic freedom and avoiding being pushed around by angry donors.
By making a clear commitment to free speech, Penn’s administration can avoid weighing in on every campus controversy, and can instead focus on keeping students, staff, and faculty safe from genuine incidents of harassment and vandalism, which are already punishable offenses.
The alternative is to capitulate to those who would eviscerate higher education for their own benefit.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 19, 2023
Editorial: A humane reform for pregnant inmates
Pennsylvania’s existing legal framework provides scant guidance on the proper treatment of pregnant inmates, relying largely on correctional facilities to self-regulate. Urgent legislative action is needed to address these shortcomings, and the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act (DIWA), signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro last Thursday after unanimous support in both legislative chambers, represents a crucial step forward.
Until DIWA, Pennsylvania law offered minimal protections for pregnant inmates, with sporadically enforced reporting requirements that only prohibited restraining women during labor, pregnancy-related medical complications and the immediate postpartum period. DIWA establishes comprehensive and compassionate standards, including restrictions on intrusive body cavity searches and solitary confinement for pregnant and postpartum inmates, ensuring free access to hygiene products, and providing essential education for staff who work with pregnant inmates who are minors.
The treatment of pregnant inmates had been left largely to the discretion of individual correctional facilities, with information only available through annual reports. Even these sanitized reports showcase negligence and cruelty: In Berks County, officers deployed a taser on a woman in her second trimester. A postpartum woman in Lehigh County was pepper sprayed, handcuffed and shackled at the ankles. In Dauphin County, a woman in her third trimester was pepper sprayed and placed in a restraint chair.
And these were the reports the institutions gave up willingly.
DIWA aims to bring greater transparency to the use of restraints, solitary confinement and body cavity searches on pregnant inmates through documentation, and, more importantly, the justification that goes along with it. Identifying information for personnel involved will also be disclosed, ensuring that staff remain accountable.
As for incentivizing reporting compliance: DIWA stipulates that correctional institutions that file no reports will have to publicly certify that zero incidents occurred, ensuring that institutions failing to properly document (or maybe aiming to hide) their conduct will have to sign off on their deception. It’s a small tweak that will move the blame for negligent oversight exactly where it belongs: on the facilities themselves.
The benefits to the law are numerous. It will allow mothers to spend three days with their infants after birth — vital time for newborns and parents to bond that they aren’t currently afforded. Previously, the law’s “postpartum” period ended when a woman returned from the hospital where she delivered. DIWA, instead, reflects reality: This healing period lasts 8 weeks or longer. Pregnant inmates, especially minors, will be afforded more privacy, better hygiene products, and more fair treatment.
The Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act is a fine example of well-informed legislation that will help protect a highly vulnerable group within our correctional facilities.
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. December 17, 2023
Editorial: The best use of opioid settlement funds
Pennsylvania’s share of settlements with opioid manufacturers and from retailers like CVS and Walgreens is huge.
The state will receive more than $2 billion. It’s the kind of significant outlay that hasn’t been seen since the tobacco settlement of 1998. The money will roll in over 18 years and be distributed to let the state, counties and municipalities battle the epidemic of opioid addiction.
It’s a terrible disease that can get bogged down in anger and disappointment with the victims, who can be seen as bringing it on themselves, despite the large number of people who became addicted to legally obtained pharmaceuticals prescribed for legitimate injuries. The number of opioid overdose deaths since 1999 has passed 1 million nationwide.
But blaming the addicts isn’t productive. It also ignores the most vulnerable victims of the epidemic — children.
TribLive’s research points to more than just the children living in homes where addiction is a reality. It shows the ones who are dying there.
Babies are not seeking out drugs on street corners. Toddlers are not going to the emergency room to try to score a new prescription. These youngest victims of opioids are encountering drugs through contact in their homes — a pill on the carpet or fentanyl on the coffee table.
That is where the state needs to come in and where some of the opioid settlement money might be best used.
“There is no question that we are not on top of this thing,” said state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport.
While the best way to save the lives of children living with addiction is to treat the addicted, there must be additional attention paid to the critical needs of children living with addicted family members and the unique dangers that exist there.
That is not to say that parents struggling with addiction should lose their children. People like Jillian Hauser show that family can be an important part of recovery. Indeed, additional programs to protect children while supporting parents in treatment would be helpful.
The opioid money could be seen like so many grants or windfalls that government agencies might receive. They are often duct tape to help fix another problem, like the American Rescue Plan Act funds that were meant for big picture investments and have found their way into bridging budget gaps.
Pennsylvania should take this opportunity to not just change the lives of those living with addiction, but find a way to save the lives of the children caught up in it.
Scranton Times-Tribune. December 17, 2023
Editorial: Harrisburg plays the Grinch in taking away Level Up school funding
Pennsylvania’s neediest schools received the political equivalent of coal in their stockings last week when $100 million of Level Up funding was removed from the state’s final budget.
That means fewer supplies for science labs in the Scranton School District, likely delays in roof and boiler repairs at one of Wyoming Valley West’s elementary schools and possibly fewer teachers and larger class sizes at Pottsville Area.
Since 2021-22, the Level Up program has earmarked extra state education funding to 100 school districts with inadequate local tax bases. Those districts, which on average spend $4,800 less per student than wealthier districts, teach nearly one-third of the state’s students, including 65% of its Black students, 64% of those learning English and 58% of those living in poverty.
Sixteen of those districts lie in Lackawanna, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties and they would have received more than $10 million this year under Level Up.
But the $100 million designated for the program was traded away in a year-end deal to resolve remaining disputes between Republicans and Democrats over the 2023-24 state budget passed earlier this year. That money will be redirected to the Commonwealth Financing Authority for school infrastructure improvement grants, but there is no indication those grants will be targeted for underfunded districts.
To add insult to injury, the budget deal does include a $130 million increase in tax credits for businesses that donate to private school scholarship funds, raising the total tax forgiveness to $470 million. The Republicans who favor that measure say it is necessary to help children escape struggling public school districts, the very districts being denied Level Up funding.
Last week’s budget deal perpetuates the longstanding inequities in Pennsylvania’s education funding system, which rewards wealthier districts with a disproportionate share of state funding. That system was declared unconstitutional in a landmark ruling in Commonwealth Court earlier this year.
A commission report on steps necessary to reform the system in line with the ruling is expected next month, the first step in what promises to be a long, contentious legislative process.
Until then, the withdrawal of Level Up Funding means the state’s underfunded districts will continue to play the role of poverty-stricken Tiny Tims waiting for the Scrooges in Harrisburg to realize the errors of their ways.
Uniontown Herald-Standard. December 15, 2023
Editorial: Veterans deserve proper burial
Later this month, the cremated remains of four veterans whose bodies were unclaimed when they died will be buried at the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies near the border of Washington and Allegheny counties. This is happening due to the efforts of volunteers who are working to make sure veterans receive final rites that highlight their service and accomplishments.
This is a story of local and regional interest, of course, but it’s also part of a larger national story. Thousands of bodies go unclaimed every year in the United States – some estimates place it as high as 3% of all deaths, and that would put it at about 100,000 deaths every year.
And many of those bodies are the remains of U.S. veterans.
There are many reasons bodies go unclaimed, but primary among them are poverty, estrangement from family and simple isolation. These problems can sometimes be compounded for veterans, who can carry physical and emotional scars from being in combat.
Linda Smith, who is with the Missing in America project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to locate and inter the bodies of unclaimed veterans, told The Washington Post in 2021, “They’re estranged from their family. They die alone. They commit suicide. They don’t have anyone to mourn them. That’s what we do. The number is huge. It’s really sad.”
In fact, a quick internet search found that last year the cremated remains of five military veterans were buried at a military cemetery in Southwestern Michigan, and 15 veterans whose cremated remains were in a Westmoreland County forensics lab, some dating back to the 1990s, were finally laid to rest. The number is likely to increase in the years ahead with veterans of the Vietnam War now in their 70s and 80s.
There is no simple, silver-bullet solution to this problem. The inspector general of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs did find in a 2021 report that the department’s oversight of benefits for veterans, no matter their economic circumstances, had frequently been weak. Veterans need to be reminded that they are entitled to some burial benefits if they or their families have not already made arrangements.
It’s profoundly sad when anyone dies alone, and it’s particularly sad when a veteran dies alone. Making sure they receive a proper burial is one of the best ways to repay them for their service.
Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. December 13, 2023
Editorial: NEPA rail passenger proposal sounds promising
It wasn’t so long ago that rail travel in general and support of Amtrak in particular seemed to be waning in this country. Attacking Amtrak has long been a Republican favorite. In the 2012 presidential election Republican Candidate Mitt Romney called for Amtrak “to stand on its own two feet, or its own wheels, or whatever you say.”
More recently U.S. House Republicans this summer proposed a 64% cut in Amtrak’s budget for fiscal 2024. Rail Passengers Association President Jim Mathews had a blunt response, as reported on trains.com: “This proposed budget does not take the task of governing seriously, ignoring the needs of hundreds of Amtrak-served communities in favor of scoring cheap political points.”
This space has periodically included support for train service. The value of a modern and safe rail passenger leg in the nation’s transportation tripod cannot be understated. Personal cars on highways and easy access to air travel is great (federal spending on highways is substantially higher than on rail and mass transit), but rail has shown its value for years as well, helping reduce road congestion and pollution. Perhaps it has been too long for some to recall what happened after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when virtually all air traffic was stopped nationwide. It’s just common sense to keep the rails running.
So yes, we consider it very good news that efforts to restore rail passenger service to our region took another step forward when the Federal Railroad Administration included Northeastern Pennsylvania in its Corridor Identification and Development (“Corridor ID”) program. The ID program was set up through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law November of 2021. It is meant to assist the development of intercity passenger rail service.
This is a big deal, though U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Moosic, may have oversold this particular accomplishment when he said “we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something transformational for our economy and quality of life.” The plan may have moved forward, but with the constant battles over funding, we prefer not to count our passenger rail cars until they roll into Scranton as proposed.
If Cartwright’s best-case prediction holds, we could have Scranton to New York service within four years, and we’ll know then just how transformational it is. But he and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, make good arguments for how much this can help the area. As Bill O’Boyle reported, this could make it easier for area colleges to lure out of area students. It could dramatically reduce stress, risk and time for those who already live here but work there and drive or take slower bus rides into the Big Apple.
And trains really do fit the preferences of younger people who drive less, often look for more environmentally friendly ways to travel and live, and have shown a lower interest in even owning cars.
The role of passenger rail (no pun intended) itself may change moving forward. Working remotely may diminish the need for daily trips, though there are signs that both workers and employers are finding it less than satisfactory in many professions. Electric cars that increasingly assist in making driving safer with less human interaction could upend much of the transportation system. And despite surges in gas and oil production, we must remember they are still fossil fuels that will run low at some point.
But rail passenger service done well should have a part to play in any future. We welcome its (potential) return to the area, and hope someday for an expansion bringing the trains into Luzerne County.