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Decades’ worth of rape kits are finally being tested, but no one can agree on what to do next

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 14:24

He wanted me to see the boxes. They were piled six or seven high, and there were so many stacks on the shelves it was hard to take them in all at once. The other aisles of the Virginia Beach Police Department's evidence storage unit were filled with guns and knives, hard drives and cash piles – objects that had been used to do terrible things to people. But these boxes – rape kits – contained what was left on a person's body when something terrible had already been done.

"I wanted you to see that each one is a victim," said Lt. Patrick Harris, who had brought me here. "Each one has a name and a story behind it."

The stories, I knew, went like this: A woman said she was sexually assaulted. She was told that, to prove it, she would need to go to a room where she would be examined from the hairs on her head to the skin beneath her toenails. She was swabbed, plucked, prodded and photographed. When it was over, every bit of what had been taken off her body was slid into small bags, placed in one of these boxes and taped shut. Most likely, the woman assumed that her kit, full of potential DNA evidence, would be sent to a laboratory to be tested.

In the case of these kits, they were not. Today, the Justice Department recommends that all rape kits associated with a reported crime be submitted for DNA analysis. But up until just last year, there were no national requirements or guidelines on what to do with them. Most states had no laws dictating which kits should be tested, meaning every police department could have its own rules about what evidence to test, keep or throw away. Some even let individual detectives make those calls. What happened to a woman's rape kit could depend not only on what state she was in, but which side of a county line she was on, or even who was on duty when she asked for help.

The results of this haphazard system have been well documented. In New York City, an estimated 17,000 kits went untested. In Houston, there were 6,000. In Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis, there were more than 11,000 each. Over the past two decades, the "rape kit backlog" has been in the news so many times that now, slowly, the problem is being fixed across the country. Under pressure from activists and legislators, states and cities big and small are counting their kits and sending them to be tested. And then, they are beginning to quietly struggle with a far more complicated challenge: What happens once the kits come back?

That was what Harris, head of violent crimes investigations in Virginia Beach, had been trying to figure out. On the shelf in front of us were 344 kits that had been returned from the lab in 2017. Some were nearly two decades old. 344 names, 344 stories. For months, Harris and his colleagues had been debating a question: Should every victim whose name was on this shelf be notified that their kit had finally been tested? Or would reminding someone of their rape – out of the blue, years later, with no promise of a solution – cause them unnecessary harm?

The experiences of other cities offered no obvious answer. "I didn't see them wrestle with any issue as deeply, with as much worry and compassion, as this one," says Rebecca Campbell, a researcher who spent three years observing the handling of Detroit's untested kits. "This one brought them to their knees." In Detroit, it was ultimately decided that, at least at first, victims would be notified only if their kits resulted in a "hit," meaning the DNA found in the box matched a person in the Combined DNA Index System, a national database of offenders better known as CODIS.

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Houston tried a different model. A hotline was set up and publicized, so that any victim who wanted information about their old kit could ask for it. Then, police and prosecutors combed through the CODIS hits and decided which cases actually had a chance of moving forward in the criminal justice system. Victims were notified only if their cases seemed "actionable."

"What's at stake is the well-being and mental health of sexual assault victims," says Noël Busch-Armendariz, a researcher who was involved in Houston's process. "You never know where people are in their lives and what support systems they have or don't have ready for them."

In Louisville, however, all victims were notified that their old kits were tested – even if not a speck of another person's DNA was found in the box. Lt. David Allen of the Louisville Police sees it this way: "It's their information. It belonged to them to start with, and we owe it to them to follow up."

Even the organization of a famous television actor had tried to figure out what to do. The Joyful Heart Foundation – created by Mariska Hargitay, star of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" – had been instrumental in pressuring states to count their untested kits, and in 2016, the nonprofit released a 159-page report on victim notification. The consensus? "There was no agreement," says researcher Courtney Ahrens. It wasn't that the advocates she interviewed disagreed with police, or police disagreed with mental health professionals. There were disagreements within all of the groups she studied, even the victims themselves. Some said, "That's my body in that kit." They wanted to be notified by a knock at their front door, no matter what the results. Others were horrified at that idea. What if, they asked, the perpetrator of the assault was living in the same house?

In Virginia, this dilemma would ultimately pit police, prosecutors, advocates and lawmakers against one another, making the situation far more complicated than they ever intended. Everyone wanted to do the right thing for victims; there was just no way to know what that was.

In 2014, the Virginia legislature called for a count of untested rape kits.There were, it turned out, 2,902 kits in the state that had never gone to a lab. The oldest was from 1985.

The state's attorney general, Democrat Mark Herring, had chaired a task force focused on sexual assault on college campuses; now, he wanted to take on the state's rape kit backlog. As the legislature passed a bill ensuring all future kits would be tested within 60 days, Herring secured $3.4 million in grants to pay for the testing of the older kits at a private lab. Then his office drafted another piece of legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to notify victims that their kits had been tested. The bill's chief patron was state Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington. It passed both houses without a single dissenting vote and was signed into law by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe in March 2017.

The choice of words in the law (and the ones left out) set the course for everything that happened next: "In the case of a physical evidence recovery kit that was received by a law-enforcement agency prior to July 1, 2016, and that has subsequently been submitted for analysis" – meaning, the rape kits that were previously untested – "the victim, a parent or guardian of a minor victim, or the next of kin of a deceased victim shall be notified by the law-enforcement agency of the completion of the analysis and shall, upon request, receive information from the law-enforcement agency regarding the results of any analysis." The law, it appeared, mandated that all victims be contacted.

With more than 300 untested kits in its possession, Virginia Beach had the most of any jurisdiction in the state. It was the first to send its kits to the lab, the first to get them back, and the first to have to follow the new victim notification law.

Lt. Harris heard about the law from the department's deputy chief, Bill Dean. They played out the scenario: "Do we call up a victim and say, 'Remember that rape from 20 years ago?'" Harris asked. " 'Well, we've got the DNA test back, but we still can't do anything with it.' "

It wasn't that he didn't want to do anything with it – if more than 300 kits meant detectives could go out and catch more than 300 rapists, he would be thrilled to do just that. But Harris knew this initiative likely wouldn't lead to 300 or 100 or even 10 convictions. Unlike how things work on TV, DNA evidence is rarely the magic ingredient in putting someone behind bars. For the majority of victims, he suspected, their cases still couldn't be proved before a judge or jury.

As the testing results came back from Bode Cellmark Forensics over the course of 2017, Harris and a prosecutor combed through each case file associated with the kits, searching the previous detectives' notes to try to find something they could use. So far, of the 344 kits sent to the lab (all of which belonged to women), only 49 resulted in a "hit" – a match in the national CODIS database that would tell Harris whose DNA was found on the woman's body. There was only one case of those 49 where the victim hadn't already named that person as the perpetrator.

In most cases, he found the same challenges that have long made sex crimes one of the hardest detective jobs. Rape is almost always a crime that happens behind closed doors. There are rarely witnesses, and the people involved are rarely strangers. "The scenario is a boyfriend, or a recent acquaintance, someone they met at some type of drinking establishment. There is a very high chance that the victim knows the offender," Harris says. Again and again, the cases come down to consent: If a suspect readily admits he and the victim had sex but claims it was consensual, then the fact that his DNA was found in the kit often doesn't help. And while the rape kit examination also involves a search for physical damage, it's rare to find evidence of it.

Still, there was reason for optimism in some cases. Some of the old kits had never been sent to the lab because victims told the detectives they no longer wanted the investigations to continue. It was clear how much detectives' tactics for dealing with victims had evolved as they were trained in the ways trauma can affect a person's behavior. In an old case file, for instance, a detective might describe a victim as "uncooperative." Maybe, now that time had passed, and with the promise of being treated better, a victim might be willing to re-engage.

One of the cases with potential involved a married woman who had attended a party with her friends nearly a dozen years ago. When she had gone upstairs to lie down, she had said, a man she knew came into the room and forced himself on her.

She reported it, underwent a rape kit examination, and named the suspect. But the kit was never sent to the lab, and the suspect was never interviewed because, according to the detective's notes, the woman backed out of the investigation. The file said she told the detective she never wanted to hear from him again.

Harris assigned the case to Sgt. Shelly Meister, the head of the department's Special Victims Unit. (Like other departments across the country, Virginia Beach had renamed its sex-crimes unit to match the name of the "Law & Order" show.) If this woman agreed, Harris told the sergeant, they would move forward with the investigation of her case. Meister spent days tracking down the victim, who had moved to another state. Then, one evening just before dinnertime, she called the woman's cellphone. When no one answered, she left a purposely vague voice mail saying she was calling because she had some information to share.

Fifteen minutes later, Meister later recalled, her phone rang. When she picked up, a man was on the line. "Why are you calling?" he asked, clearly shaken. "Why did you upset my wife? How dare you leave a voice mail?" Meister apologized, explaining that she could not share why she was calling but would like to speak with his wife, if she was interested in calling back.

Thirty minutes later, Meister's phone rang again. "Why are you calling me?" the woman asked, and Meister began to explain. The testing of her kit had resulted in a DNA hit, and the hit matched the suspect she had named all those years ago. Meister told her that the kit had never been sent, given that she had indicated she no longer wanted to hear from the detective.

"I never said that," the woman interrupted, and then the story came pouring out. When she told her friends, they didn't believe her. They said she had gotten drunk and gone upstairs because she wanted to have sex with the man. Her husband at the time didn't believe her. It eventually destroyed her marriage and, for a number of years, her life. But she had gotten better. She was remarried now. Happily married, she said. Her new husband didn't know anything about the rape. "Why are you trying to ruin that for me?" she asked.

Meister kept apologizing. She didn't know why the detective wrote that; he didn't work here anymore, she said. She explained that now things were different, that they could reinvestigate it all. Was this something she might like them to look into? "Absolutely not," the woman said.

"OK, you don't have to decide now," Meister told her. "You could call me in five years and decide to do it then." There is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia. "All the power is in your hands," Meister said. The woman said she would think about it and get back to her by the end of the week.

She never called. Meister went into Harris' office and told him what happened. If that was how someone responded when their case could actually be reopened, they wondered, what would happen when they notified all the people whose cases they knew hadn't changed?

But it appeared they had no choice. In 2016, when they'd first begun preparing for the return of the kits, the Virginia Beach Police Department had gathered its most experienced SVU officers, victim advocates from the community and representatives from the city prosecutors' office to devise a plan. They decided to follow in the footsteps of Houston, which notified only those victims whose cases police and prosecutors agreed were "actionable," meaning the investigation could be reopened. They planned to set up a hotline that any victim could call to get information about their kit.

Then the victim notification law passed, and they weren't sure if their plan would still work. So in the spring of 2017, they regathered the team and set up a meeting with representatives from the state attorney general's office, where the law had been drafted. The word most people used to describe that meeting to me was "heated." The Virginia Beach team came away discouraged. As sure as they were that it was not the right thing to do, it appeared they would be violating the law if they did not contact all 344 victims.

Virginia Beach's chief prosecutor, Colin Stolle, conducted an independent review of the law and came to the same conclusion: All victims had to be contacted. And because the law said "shall be notified," setting up a hotline didn't count.

"'Shall' means something very different than 'may,'" Stolle told me. "It is an affirmative requirement that the police department take action."

And so the question became how to take that action. In September, the team gathered again to discuss their options. They worried about notifying victims with a phone call, given what happened when Meister left that voice mail with the woman who had remarried. They considered having detectives and advocates make the notifications in person, but that, too, seemed problematic.

"I've stated this a number of times. I don't think having a police car show up in front of a victim's house is the way to go," argued Kristin Pine, the chief programs officer at the area's YWCA, which offers every person who receives a rape kit examination an advocate to go through it beside them. In all the years that she had worked with victims of sex crimes, she had seen how devastating reminders of the assault could be. Some women she'd counseled still called her every year on the anniversary of their rape.

"A letter is the most passive," Pine told the group. The other advocates in the room agreed. A letter could be sent via certified mail, so the woman whose name was on the envelope would be the only one who could sign for it. They could make it vague – avoiding words like "rape" or "SVU," in case another person saw it – but include the date the crime was reported, so the victim would know what it was about.

"So," Harris asked the group, "is everybody in agreement that a letter, in some form, is the best option?" Around the table, everyone on the team nodded. The meeting ended, and Pine headed back to the YWCA, thinking about what it might be like for the victims she has known to receive that letter. "How does the saying go?" she asked me. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, right?"

I wanted to talk to the people with those good intentions, who had decided the law should require that all victims be contacted. As a reporter, I'm taught to distance myself from questions of policy; it's not my job to take a side. As a woman, I wondered whether I would want the police to contact me had it been my kit on the shelf.

"The reality is that the response you are anticipating might be the exact opposite of what you expect," said Kristine Hall, who, as then-policy director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, helped craft the notification law and accompanied the representatives from the attorney general's office to the "heated" meeting in Virginia Beach. "The victim I might expect to slam the door in my face might say, 'I can finally close this chapter. I can move on and stop wondering.' The person who is told, 'We found your assailant,' might slam the door in my face and say, 'I put this away 30 years ago.' " As she saw it, the legislature had done the right thing by ensuring that all victims would be contacted.

When I interviewed state Sen. Favola, I assumed she would make a similar case. But when I asked during a phone interview in October about the law she had sponsored, it was as if we were talking about another piece of legislation entirely. "In my bill, only those who have a DNA hit are notified," Favola told me. The law, she said, required notification of victims only when a kit resulted in a match in CODIS, the national database. In Virginia Beach, that would mean only 49 people, instead of 344.

"Let me see what it says in the bill here," she continued. I explained that the law makes no mention of DNA hits or CODIS. "But I know that was the intent," she countered. "That is what we explained to the (Senate) committee. Even though we didn't spell it out specifically in the bill, I just felt there was no real purpose in notifying survivors if you didn't have any new information."

Perhaps she had misunderstood what the attorney general had wanted to happen, I thought. I had heard over and over from those in Virginia Beach that representatives from Herring's office insisted all victims must be contacted. The police departments in Fairfax and Chesterfield counties – two of the next jurisdictions to receive their kits back from the lab – said the same. They, too, were planning to reach out to every victim.

When I interviewed Herring, he did stress the importance of victims being allowed to know what happens to their kits. "I have talked to survivors about this issue, and I've heard directly from them about how being allowed to participate in their case, being informed about the results of their test, helps give them closure," he said.

But when it came to what the law required, his interpretation differed from both the one put forward by Favola and the one understood by the police. According to Herring, the key criterion was whether any DNA from someone other than the victim was found in the kit, even if that DNA could not be matched to a person in a national database. "If there is DNA present, whether there is a match or not, it would require notification," he said.

I explained that Virginia Beach was soon going to notify all victims – not because they felt it was the right thing to do, but because representatives from Herring's office had told them it was what the law required. "My understanding is that if there were no results, meaning there was no DNA, that they are not required to be notified," Herring repeated. "But I will go back and double check."

He did, and the next day, his press representative Lara Sisselman emailed me. Now, Herring was in line with Favola. "I know there was a little bit of confusion when you sat down with AG Herring yesterday, so I just wanted to reach out to clarify any miscommunication," Sisselman wrote. "The Victim Notification Law requires law enforcement to notify a survivor when a tested kit yields a result that is a hit in CODIS."

But this still put Herring's interpretation of the law at odds with the police departments' understanding. I felt certain that, now that the attorney general's office was aware of the discrepancy, it would reach out to Virginia Beach and other police departments to inform them that they were not required to notify all victims. Maybe someone would apologize for the confusion or the imprecise wording of the law.

When I drove to Virginia Beach in November to watch the letters be sent, however, I arrived to find more than 300 of them on Harris's desk, not 49. They hadn't heard anything from Herring's office. As I looked at the envelopes, a part of me wanted to blurt out, "You don't have to send all of those!" But at the time, I didn't know if that was true. The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance had told me notifying all victims was the intention of the law. The Virginia Beach prosecutor's review of the law had reached the same conclusion. If I were to obstruct what was already in motion, I'd be stopping more than 200 victims from receiving their letters. I'd be taking a side in the difficult debate over whether they should be notified. I knew that wasn't my job.

Compiling all the letters had taken Harris' detectives weeks. So many of the victims had moved away, or had been in Virginia Beach only as tourists. Some had died, and so they had to search for a close family member to notify instead. Some had gone on to see their assailant arrested and found guilty, without the kit ever being tested. But because their kits were included in the 344, even they would be getting a letter now.

"On July 1 2017, the state of Virginia passed new legislation requiring municipalities to reach out to people who reported a crime in the past when an analysis of the evidence related to that report has been completed," the letter said. "The Virginia Beach Police Department is contacting you because your previously reported crime with Offense Number (number here) falls into this category and we would like to provide you with your options to obtain more specific information regarding these developments."

Harris had been trying to imagine how the women would react when they read these words. He didn't know how many of them would call. But he did know that, because his department had to protect their privacy, I would never get the chance to talk with them, or ask them how they felt about being contacted.

So that morning, before he mailed the envelopes, he suggested that we go see the rape kits. We walked down the aisle slowly, reflecting at the sight of the boxes. The only women who wouldn't receive one of the letters on Harris' desk were the ones he and his detectives had called, asking for permission to reopen their cases. Every woman they tried had said no. They had already moved on.

In all of this, there was a missing link. In interpreting what the law required, Virginia Beach and other police departments had received guidance from representatives of the attorney general's office. Much of that guidance, according to local police, had come from a woman named Lisa Furr, who had been coordinating the kit-testing project since its inception.

I had been asking to talk with her since September. In November, two weeks after Virginia Beach sent out the letters, the interview was finally arranged. I planned to drive down to Richmond but was told I could ask my questions only by phone, with a press representative on the line.

Furr had a reputation among the state's victim advocacy community for being a straight shooter, with a good heart and the right intentions. She was cordial on the phone, explaining her job and the importance of making sure all past and future kits were tested. And she maintained that all along, she had told police they were required to send notifications only to those whose kits resulted in a CODIS hit. "We have said that repeatedly to you and others," she said.

Why, then, would multiple police departments be notifying all victims, when they were deeply concerned about the harm that could cause? "I don't know," she said repeatedly.

The attorney general's office insists that Furr's recollection is correct and that, at the Virginia Beach meeting, there was a misinterpretation about the attorney general's official position on notification. "I don't believe that anyone from our office would have told any law enforcement agency they were required to notify all survivors whose kits are tested. We were consistent on that point throughout the legislative process and after," spokesman Michael Kelly would later email me.

The police officers, prosecutors and local victim advocates who were in the "heated" meeting with Furr disagree; they are confident she insisted all victims be notified. The police departments in Chesterfield and Fairfax were still planning to do just that. And in Virginia Beach, throughout November, the consequences of that strategy were finally being revealed.

The first call came on Nov. 9, three days after the letters had been sent. It rang in the office of Jennifer Messick, the police department's victim advocate, who had been sitting at her computer, sipping iced tea. She picked up her phone without pausing to brace herself, the way she would come to do in the weeks ahead. "Virginia Beach Police Department, this is Jennifer. May I help you?" she answered. The woman on the phone, Messick later recalled, was crying. She had received a letter. She wanted to know what was going on. Her case was more than a dozen years old.

Messick explained slowly and calmly: the kit, the requirement that they notify her, the fact that this didn't mean the status of her case had changed. "Why would you do this?" the woman asked, still crying. Messick wanted to explain that she hadn't been the one to do this, but it hardly mattered. She asked if the woman would like to speak to a detective. She offered to connect her to counseling services. The woman declined and hung up the phone.

One call came from a woman who received a letter about an in-law of hers. Messick looked up the case number and realized this was one of the cases in which the victim had died. The detectives had found an address for someone they thought was the victim's next of kin. It was not. Now this woman was asking what she was supposed to do with the information that, more than a decade before, a relative she hadn't been very close to had reported a rape.

Another call went directly to Lt. Harris. When he picked up, the woman on the line was hyperventilating. "What does this mean?" she asked. "Is he getting out of jail?" Harris, confused, quickly pulled up her case file. The man who assaulted her had been arrested and was serving time. Harris tried to calm her, explaining that her kit was tested only because of a change in policy. This didn't mean anyone was getting out of jail, he said. The man had years left on his sentence.

That evening, the woman called back, begging for confirmation that when the man was released, they would call and warn her. "Promise me," she said.

By the end of December, the Virginia Beach police had received 28 calls. Harris and Messick kept hearing the same phrases: I thought this was done. I put this behind me. They kept answering the same questions: What does this change? Is there anything I have to do? Why now?

In other cities, notifications had led to breakthroughs, where a victim, reminded of her assault after all these years, came forward with information that changed a case. In Louisville, there had been a case the lieutenant was certain would never be accepted by a prosecutor. Any detective, he said, would have agreed. Then they notified the victim, and because of new statements she made, a serial offender has been charged with her assault.

In Virginia Beach, however, there was no such moment. Meanwhile, an important debate about what a law should do was now overshadowed by confusion about what the law did do. Something had clearly gone wrong inside the creaky machinery of government. In December, I called and emailed Lisa Furr again. She never responded. But two days later, police departments across the state received an email from her, announcing she was leaving the attorney general's office for a job in the nonprofit sector. She also wanted to clarify, she wrote, the requirements regarding the notification law. "Notification of victims should occur in all cases where there have been 'hits' in CODIS," the email said.

After receiving that message, the police in Fairfax and Chesterfield changed their plans. A dismayed Lt. Harris replied to her, asking how it was possible that her instructions had suddenly changed. She thanked him for his feedback but did not answer his questions. He emailed the person managing the kit-testing project in her absence and says he received no response.

Maybe he would call the attorney general, Harris said. Or maybe what was done was done. He had so little time to dwell on it all. There were 55 new sex-crimes cases in November, and 42 in December. A woman said she was abused by her youth pastor. A woman reported going to a bar, going home and waking up with a man on top of her she didn't remember inviting in. There were more victims who, to prove what happened, would need to go to a room where they would be swabbed, plucked and prodded. More names, more stories. More evidence to be tested.

Here’s how Anchorage will ensure the March vote-by-mail election is secure

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 14:07

Elections are the cornerstone of our democracy and allow the opportunity for you to express your opinions on federal, state and local issues. Anchorage municipal elections are an excellent opportunity for you to express and put into action your opinions on issues that impact your daily life, including the roads you drive on, the schools your children attend, the parks you visit and funding for the public safety and first responders on which you rely, not to mention the effect of larger social and economic issues at the local level. You expect and deserve a voting system that ensures your opinions, as expressed on your ballot, are properly handled and counted.

I want to describe the security measures that are in place for the new vote-by-mail system so you know what the municipality of Anchorage is doing to make sure the election is secure.

Starting on March 13, ballots will be mailed to qualified, registered voters at mailing addresses voters designate through the state of Alaska's voter registration database. The database is constantly maintained and updated by the state of Alaska. The municipality draws from that database several times up through the date of mailing the ballots so it is using the most current information it can get. Qualified voters who do not receive a mailed ballot can contact the municipality's voter hotline at 243-VOTE (8683) to request a ballot or visit an accessible vote center to cast a ballot. Information about hours, locations and other features of voting by mail are available at muni.org/electionsFAQ.

In the mailing, you will receive a ballot, instructions, a security envelope and a return envelope. Once you mark your choices on the ballot, you place the ballot into the provided security envelope. You then put the security envelope into the provided ballot return envelope and sign the declaration on the outside of the return envelope. Signing the declaration is an important component to the security and integrity of our elections because your signature will be verified at the election center. Your ballot cannot be counted unless your signature can be verified. Do not combine your ballot with anyone else's and be sure to only use the return envelope with your name on it.

[Here's how Anchorage's 2018 vote-by-mail election will work]

You have your choice on a secure method to return your ballot. You can use first-class postage and send the ballot return envelope through the U.S. Postal Service. You can also return your ballot by placing the ballot return envelope in a secure drop box. Twelve secure drop boxes will be placed across the municipality of Anchorage, including one in Eagle River and one in Girdwood. 98% of residents live within five miles of one of these secure drop boxes, so we hope you will find them to be a convenient way to return your ballot. The drop boxes will be checked at least daily by election officials working in teams of two, which also ensures the security of the election. You can also bring your ballot return envelope to an accessible vote center.

Each ballot return envelope is assigned a unique identifier. When processed at the municipality's election center, the election system will match that identifier and sort out any envelope that is empty, has too much in it, does not have a match, is not from a qualified voter or indicates you have already voted in the election. Specially trained election officials will then verify your signature on the envelope against the state's signatures on file through a two-stage process.

If at any stage in this process there is a problem, election officials will notify you by mail (or phone or email if you provide these on the envelope and if there is sufficient time) and give you an opportunity to resolve the problem. If the problem is resolved, the envelope will proceed to opening. If the problem is not resolved, the ballot envelope will be provisionally rejected and sent to the Election Commission for final adjudication at the public session of canvas, which is a long-standing election procedure.

Once your signature is verified, the ballot return envelope is opened and the ballot is removed from the return envelope and security envelope for counting. This process is done in a way that hides your identity from the election officials who open and separate the ballots – just as it has always been done for forty years with absentee by-mail voting.

Both the system that handles the ballot return envelopes and the system that counts the ballots are in use in other states and counties. They have been tested, re-tested and certified, including certification of the ballot counting system by the Federal Election Assistance Commission. They are both "air gapped" systems, meaning they do not have hardwire or wireless connections to the internet and are not exposed to hacking through the internet. Access to the systems is controlled by user logins and, in the case of the ballot counting system, the required use of special encryption keys.

The election center is open to the public during the election. Anchorage voters are strongly encouraged to visit the space to view the process. The Election Center is protected by alarms, security cameras, cipher locks and other controls to protect the ballots. The public can view the processes from a large-screen television in the reception area of the MOA election center. Once checked in at the front counter, you can take a stroll through the MOA election center and have a 360-degree view of the processes from the "Yellow Brick Road," a designated pathway inside the election center.

As additional security, visitors are not allowed to use cameras or other digital devices that could capture confidential information when they are near or in the processing areas. Election officials are not allowed to have purses, coats, bags, pens or markers, other high-risk personal effects, or cameras or other digital devices in the processing areas of the election center. Election officials sign confidentiality agreements and have designated areas of responsibility and must follow the written procedures of the election center. Media members may have cameras for filming the process (because we want the public to know how the election system works), but only by permission and must agree to maintain the confidentiality of voter information and not shoot or publish video or pictures of such detail as to expose confidential information.

Ballots can be scanned starting seven days before the election, but results are not tabulated until after 8:00 p.m. on Election Day and will not be published to the public until after that time.

If there is any major unforeseen event during the election, the municipality has the ability — in consultation with and through a court order from a judge from the Alaska Court System — to take appropriate action to preserve and protect the election process, including extending the election and involving law enforcement. In addition, should there be any significant problem with the election systems (software, hardware), the paper ballots are preserved for at least 30 days from the date of certification to be available for any recount or legal challenge.

Please take advantage of this new way of voting and let your opinion be known on or before April 3.

In a first, Louisville loses 2013 NCAA title over sex scandal

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 13:47

The NCAA on Tuesday upheld penalties against Louisville's men's basketball program related to a sex scandal involving players, recruits and prostitutes, and ordered the university to forfeit dozens of victories, including its 2013 national championship.

It is the first time the NCAA has stripped a program of the championship won in the Division I men's basketball tournament, the organization's signature event.

The decision is merely the latest blow for the scandal-battered Louisville basketball program and its former coach, Rick Pitino, who was forced out in September in an unrelated recruiting scandal.

Among other punishments confirmed Tuesday: Louisville must vacate 123 wins — every game it won from the 2011-12 through the 2014-15 seasons — and all of its NCAA tournament appearances during that period, including its 2012 and 2013 trips to the Final Four and the 2013 national championship. It also must forfeit about $600,000 in tournament payouts from those seasons.

"Because the student-athletes received improper benefits," a four-person appellate panel said in a legalistic decision, "it follows they competed while ineligible, which in turn supports the vacation of records and financial penalties imposed by the Committee on Infractions."

In a statement addressed to the "UofL Family" and posted on Louisville's website, the university's interim president, Greg Postel, strongly disagreed with the appeals panel's decision.

"I cannot say this strongly enough: We believe the NCAA is simply wrong," Postel wrote.

The scandal under examination by the panel first came to light in 2015 when a woman said that Andre McGee, a former Louisville player then serving on the basketball staff, had solicited her escort service. For several years, she charged, McGee had arranged for prospects and recruits to be entertained by the women in an on-campus dormitory.

Pitino denied all knowledge of these activities, and last year the NCAA's Committee on Infractions did not disagree. But it still found that Pitino had failed to monitor his staff for compliance with NCAA rules, and it imposed several penalties on the program, including a five-game suspension for Pitino, on top of sanctions that Louisville had pre-emptively imposed on itself.

Louisville had implemented those punishments in 2016, after the scandal came to light but before the NCAA could rule on it. They included sitting out that season's Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA tournaments despite a highly regarded squad.

This year, under an interim head coach, the Cardinals are 18-9 overall and 14-4 in the ACC. They are considered a better-than-average contender to qualify for the NCAA tournament even as they face new accusations of improper recruiting.

Several months ago, Louisville was one of six programs — and perhaps the most prominently figured — implicated in a broad bribery and corruption scheme outlined by federal investigators. In two complaints, investigators described a partnership involving Louisville basketball coaches and several other parties, including a former executive at Adidas, the apparel company that sponsors Louisville's teams, in which they planned to funnel $100,000 to the family of a recruit in exchange for his commitment to the Cardinals.

That scandal led to the ouster of Pitino and Louisville's athletic director, Tom Jurich, by the university's board. Pitino has sued Louisville for breach of contract, and Louisville has countersued. Those cases are pending.

An attorney representing Pitino did not immediately reply to a request for comment Tuesday.

It is unknown what the broader implications of the latest recruiting scandal will be on Louisville or any other program, or on college basketball itself. The NCAA has convened a commission to examine reforms to the sport in light of the scandal, which also implicated several other top programs.

Tuesday's ruling will sting at Louisville, which must surrender its 2013 national title less than six months after a conference rival, North Carolina, was able to avoid sanctions when the NCAA ruled that it had broken no rules in a major academic scandal involving dubious classes disproportionally taken by major-sport athletes. An adverse finding there could have stripped the Tar Heels of at least one national championship, and possibly more.

The title Louisville was ordered to surrender, won with an 82-76 victory over Michigan, will remain vacant, even though Postel, in his statement, urged Louisville fans to retain their claim to it.

"The NCAA's ruling," he wrote, "cannot change the accomplishments or the excitement generated by our Cardinals basketball team."

Trump orders regulations drawn up to ban bump stocks

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 13:38

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump announced Tuesday afternoon that he has signed a memorandum directing Attorney General Jeff Sessions to propose regulations to ban "bump stocks" and other devices that turn semiautomatic firearms into "machine guns."

The device was used by the shooter who opened fire on a country music festival in Las Vegas in October, killing dozens and immediately prompting calls for lawmakers or the administration to ban such devices through legislation or regulations. At the time, the White House and the National Rifle Association made clear that they were open to the idea, but no action was taken. It was not until a mass shooting at a high school in Florida last week again brought attention to gun-control issues that Trump was pushed to act.

"I expect that these critical regulations will be finalized … very soon," the president said during a medal ceremony at the White House on Tuesday afternoon. "The key in all of these efforts … is that we cannot merely take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make a difference. We must move past cliches and tired debates and focus on evidence-based solutions and security measures that actually work."

[2 Alaskans killed, 1 wounded in mass shooting at Las Vegas music fest]

In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, massacre, the level of furious activism on the ground has represented a startling shift from previous community responses to mass shootings. Students who survived the Parkland shooting have organized groups calling for increased gun control, and some have pledged not to return to class until changes are made. Bipartisan action has been elusive in the wake of previous mass shootings, including some of the deadliest rampages in modern U.S. history.

On Tuesday, Trump referred to the shooting last week as an "evil massacre" and said his administration is "working very hard to make sense of these events."

"We must do more to protect our children," he said. "We have to do more to protect our children."

For anyone wondering: The Parkland gunman did not use a bump stock last week during the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation confirms today https://t.co/uyT8onbL7D

— Mark Berman (@markberman) February 20, 2018

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in the afternoon that the president is open to discussing the idea of increasing the age at which someone can legally purchase a semiautomatic firearm.

Trump plans to meet Wednesday with students, teachers and parents from Parkland, local school districts and those affected by past school shootings in Columbine, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut. He also will meet with law enforcement officials and local leaders. Trump said the point of these meetings is to "develop concrete steps that we can take to secure our schools, safeguard our students and protect our communities."

Winter conditions lead to morning crash

Juneau Hot Topics - Tue, 2018-02-20 13:07
The driver of a Subaru Outback sat in the turn lane on Egan inbound, waiting to turn left onto Highland Drive a little before 9 a.m., as Juneau Police Department Officer Ken Colon told the Empire. The driver of a Toyota SUV headed outbound then lost control of their car on the ice and the car slid into the ...

Young halibut fisherman, grandfather, to accept award today

Juneau Hot Topics - Tue, 2018-02-20 12:45
Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has invited a young Tlingit fisherman and his grandfather to accept an award from the Juneau Economic Development Council and the Alaska State Committee for Research (SCoR), which announced the induction of the traditional wood halibut hook into the Alaska ...

Democrats send Walker 3 names for open Alaska House seat - KFQD

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 11:43


Democrats send Walker 3 names for open Alaska House seat
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, left, and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott wait for a joint session of the Alaska Legislature to convene Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018, in Juneau, Alaska. In Walker's annual State of the State address, he told lawmakers Alaska's prosperity ...

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Bills would impose work requirements for Medicaid in Alaska - Fort Worth Star Telegram

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 10:58

Fort Worth Star Telegram

Bills would impose work requirements for Medicaid in Alaska
Fort Worth Star Telegram
Some Alaska lawmakers want to require Medicaid recipients to work in order to receive their benefits. Two bills introduced in the Legislature would impose work requirements, something one of the sponsors, Senate President Pete Kelly, said should be ...

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Bills Would Impose Work Requirements for Medicaid in Alaska - U.S. News & World Report

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 10:56

Bills Would Impose Work Requirements for Medicaid in Alaska
U.S. News & World Report
Bills introduced in the Alaska Legislature seek to impose work requirements for Medicaid benefits amid concerns with growth in program numbers and costs. Feb. 20, 2018, at 2:52 p.m.. Bills Would Impose Work Requirements for Medicaid in Alaska. Share ...

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U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear challenge to waiting period for gun purchases

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 10:30

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear a Second Amendment challenge to a California law that imposes a 10-day waiting period on firearms purchases.

As is their custom, the justices gave no reasons for deciding not to hear the case. The court has turned away many Second Amendment cases in recent years, to the frustration of gun-rights groups and some conservative justices.

Justice Clarence Thomas filed an impassioned 14-page dissent in the case, Silvester v. Bercerra, No. 17-342. "As evidenced by our continued inaction in this area," he wrote, "the Second Amendment is a disfavored right in this court."

In 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep guns at home for self-defense.

Since then, the court has said little about what other laws may violate the Second Amendment. In the lower courts, few challenges to gun control laws since the Heller decision have succeeded.

The California law at issue in the new case was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in San Francisco, which accepted the state's arguments that the waiting period was justified by the need to conduct background checks and the desirability of a "cooling off" period for gun buyers inclined to commit immediate violence.

Thomas wrote that many background checks can be completed quickly and that the cooling off period made no sense for people who already owned a gun. "Common sense suggests that subsequent purchasers contemplating violence or self-harm would use the gun they already own, instead of taking all the steps to legally buy a new one in California," he wrote.

He said the appeals court's decision was one of many in which Second Amendment rights have not been taken seriously in the lower courts.

"The Ninth Circuit's deviation from ordinary principles of law is unfortunate, though not surprising," Thomas wrote. "Its dismissive treatment of petitioners' challenge is emblematic of a larger trend."

"Our continued refusal to hear Second Amendment cases only enables this kind of defiance," he wrote. "We have not heard argument in a Second Amendment case for nearly eight years."

Thomas wrote that the Supreme Court has been much more attentive to other constitutional rights and would surely have mustered the four votes needed to put a case on the court's docket had a different right been at issue.

"I suspect that four members of this court would vote to review a 10-day waiting period for abortions, notwithstanding a state's purported interest in creating a 'cooling off' period," he wrote. "I also suspect that four members of this court would vote to review a 10-day waiting period on the publication of racist speech, notwithstanding a state's purported interest in giving the speaker time to calm down."

"The right to keep and bear arms is apparently this court's constitutional orphan," Thomas wrote. "And the lower courts seem to have gotten the message."

How an American skier managed to compete at the Olympics despite not being very good

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 10:03

Elizabeth Swaney is not bad at skiing, not at all. But she is not very good, either, and certainly not Olympic-caliber in the halfpipe. So how, at age 33 no less, did she manage to make her way into the field at that event in the Winter Games?

The answer, or at least how to frame it, lies in the eye of the beholder. Either Swaney is an embarrassment to the Olympics who gamed the system on her way to Pyeongchang, or she is an admirable study in persistence who provided the kind of offbeat story at the Games that has charmed us in the past.

Swaney's run at these Olympics is over following a last-place finish during Monday's qualifying rounds for the women's freestyle skiing halfpipe final. She told Reuters that she was "really disappointed" at not having qualified for Tuesday's final, but showed some pride in simply getting as far as she did, saying, "I worked really for several years to achieve this."

Some who watched her compete Monday may have wondered what in the world Swaney was trying to achieve, given that while the elite skiers around her were risking major injury with highflying tricks, she was content to mostly ride up the side of the pipe and do a little hop while turning around. She added a teeny bit of flair to her first run by skiing backward out of the pipe.

How freeskier Elizabeth Swaney made it to the #WinterOlympics with this very simple halfpipe run: https://t.co/enfDyoQjGC pic.twitter.com/kHTAV7XND4

— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 20, 2018

Despite not falling in her two runs, and thus avoiding major penalties, Swaney posted a high score of just 31.40. For context, the next-lowest score that counted for a competitor was 45.00, the third-lowest was 56.60 and the lowest qualifying score was 72.80.

"It is an honor to compete at the Olympics and I am really excited to compete among other amazing women from across the world," Swaney said.

Born and raised in the United States, where she attended Cal-Berkeley and Harvard, Swaney competed at Pyeongchang for Hungary, where she said she has heritage through her maternal grandparents. When Swaney began competing in halfpipe events in 2013, she was representing Venezuela, then switched to Hungary in 2016.

Her spot in the Olympics is a result of the relative lack of depth in women's halfpipe and the fact that some countries that dominate in the sport, such as the U.S., can only send four competitors. Swaney did her part, at least according to the rules for eligibility set forth by the International Ski Federation (FIS), by doggedly appearing at World Cup events – and not falling.

The minimum requirements for making it to the Winter Games included consistently finishing in the top 30 in World Cup events and accumulating enough FIS points. The former was not a major problem, as many World Cup events did not attract 30 women, and her play-it-safe approach – to perhaps put it far too kindly – ensured that she remained upright and came away with at least a few points.

According to the Denver Post, Swaney has traveled the world to compete in World Cup halfpipe events, including in China, Italy, France, South Korea, Canada and New Zealand, as well as stateside in California, Colorado and Utah. Her best result was 13th out of a field of 15 competitors in China, when most of the world's top skiers were at a more prestigious event in the U.S.

Hungarian Ski Federation on Elizabeth Swaney:"The situation was mainly caused by the qualification system and few participants. It is a fact that we have not seen Elizabeth in action the last year, we realised her level at the Olympics. She self-funded her preparation&qualifying"

— Gergely Marosi (@emgergo) February 19, 2018

"The field is not that deep in the women's pipe and she went to every World Cup, where there were only 24, 25, or 28 women," a veteran FIS judge said of Swaney to the Denver Post. "She would compete in them consistently over the last couple years and sometimes girls would crash so she would not end up dead last.

"There are going to be changes to World Cup quotas and qualifying to be eligible for the Olympics. Those things are in the works so technically you need to qualify up through the system."

The Denver Post also reported that Swaney's fellow competitors at the Games had "mixed feelings" about her presence and preferred not to speak on the record, indicating that those feelings tended toward the negative. Others online were less reticent to express criticism, and it probably didn't help Swaney's cause when a decidedly underwhelming training video began making the rounds.

Others, though, saw Swaney's inclusion in the Olympic field as either harmlessly amusing or ironically inspirational. Many recalled how Great Britain's John "Eddie the Eagle" Edwards became a sensation at the 1988 Calgary Olympics for his hapless adventures in the ski jump, and a much more recent example was cited regarding the cross-country competitors from unlikely countries, including Tonga's Pita Taufatofua and 43-year-old German Madrazo from Mexico, who finished far behind the pack in the men's 15 km freestyle on Friday.

Even if some are less than thrilled with her appearance in the Olympics, Swaney hopes that she helped "inspire others in Hungary and the world to become involved" in her sport.

"Maybe perhaps I'm the bridge to those who want to get started in the life of freestyle skiing, and I want to show people that, yeah, it's possible to get involved in freestyle skiing through a variety of backgrounds," she told the Denver Post.

School shooting protesters confront Young and Murkowski over NRA contributions

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 09:59

Protesters disrupt a Commonwealth North meeting in Anchorage on Monday, criticizing Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young over campaign money they've accepted from the National Rifle Association. (Alex DeMarban / Anchorage Daily News)

An event celebrating the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling was interrupted Monday night by protesters who criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young over the Florida school shooting and money they've accepted from the National Rifle Association.

"Stop killing our children with guns!" Anchorage resident Dana Dardis shouted at the lawmakers as event attendees walked her and others out of the Petroleum Club in Midtown Anchorage. "You've got blood on your hands!"

"No more NRA money for politicians!" another shouted as she left the room.

About half a dozen protesters had briefly entered the Commonwealth North dinner and annual meeting, holding signs including one that showed the lawmakers had accepted donations from the NRA.

Since 1998, Young has received $62,600 from the NRA, according to the Washington Post. Murkowski has received $18,900 the newspaper reported.

Some of the protesters said they were with the Alaska Grassroots Alliance. Others said they were on their own.

After officials threatened to call police to remove the protesters from what they said was a private meeting, Dardis sat on the floor outside the glass doors in a hallway. Officers had to escort her away.

On Valentine's Day in Parkland, Florida, Nikolas Cruz, 19, used a semiautomatic weapon to kill 17 people at his former school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, officials say. The shooting has revived a long-running debate over gun control and how to stop mass shootings.

['I would take a bullet for the kids': Teachers face a daunting new role]

"Here's our representatives — they come into town and they don't even hold a town meeting for the constituents," said Dardis. "Shame on them."

Inside, Young and Murkowski stuck to the script before dozens of diners, discussing how they turned Murkowski's ANWR-opening measure into law after 40 years of failed attempts by Republicans to allow drilling in the refuge's coastal plain.

Teamwork on the Alaska congressional delegation was critical, as was getting the measure onto the tax bill in a budget reconciliation process, requiring a simple majority to pass, they said.

[How ANWR drilling was passed by Congress after decades of effort.]

With the protesters' singing and shouting audible from outside, Young suggested they were full of "hot air" and responsible for climate change, generating applause from some audience members.

At the meeting's end, former lieutenant governor and event moderator Mead Treadwell began to raise the subject of mass shootings and the gun-control debate when Young cut him off.

Decades ago, Treadwell attended Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 children and six teachers were killed in a 2012 mass shooting,

"You just be careful what you ask for," said Young, a board member of the National Rifle Association. "You want to screw something up, let Congress get involved in it. Let the state handle these things. They'll figure it out one way or another."

"I can remember in my time everyone carried guns in school and no one was shooting one another," said Young, 84 and a former schoolteacher in Fort Yukon after moving to Alaska from California in 1959.

"The solution is saying what has happened to our families, where is the breakdown in our society, and why are we allowing the god-awful worst-looking things I've ever seen on these video games?" he said, adding that he doesn't blame violent video games for shootings.

"We've got to solve the causes, not say, 'Oh it's a simple weapon. It could be a five-gallon can of gas next time.' "

Murkowski, speaking to reporters, said she's torn as a mother, lawmaker and gun-rights advocate.

She said she'll support legislation expected in the coming days from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Called the Student, Teachers, and Officers Preventing School Violence Act, it would provide grants to support training to help teachers, students and others in schools identify and report threats of violence before it occurs.

It might also include an anonymous reporting system using an app that allows officials to compile tips, Murkowski said.

She did not call for restrictions on gun use.

"But I recognize this shooter was able to take the lives of so many beautiful young people and staff at the school because he had a weapon that allowed him to facilitate a mass murder — we need to have a bigger discussion," she said.

"And I hate to say we have to have a conversation. We have been having conversations for years, and what is happening, the trend is going up and more innocent people are being slaughtered in schools. Something is wrong here, America."

One of the bloodiest attacks of Syria’s war kills over 100 in a rebel-held Damascus suburb

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 08:03

BEIRUT – Pro-government forces bombarded Syria's eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 49 people, after the heaviest one-day death toll there in three years on Monday, a war monitoring group said.

Some 127 people were killed in air raids, rocket strikes and shelling of the area near Damascus on Monday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

About 190 have died since the bombing intensified late on Sunday and 850 have been injured, it said.

The United Nations called for an immediate ceasefire in the area on Monday, saying the situation was "spiraling out of control" after an "extreme escalation in hostilities".

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a coalition of international agencies that funds hospitals in Syria, said bombs had hit five hospitals in eastern Ghouta on Monday.

In Geneva, the U.N. children's fund issued a blank "statement" to express its outrage at the casualties among Syrian children, saying it had run out of words.

The violence in eastern Ghouta is part of a wider escalation in fighting on several fronts in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

Mortars fired by rebels in eastern Ghouta landed in Damascus on Tuesday, causing two deaths and several injuries, Syrian state media reported. At least one person died from rebel mortar fire in the capital on Monday.

Lebanon's al-Manar television, which is aligned with Assad's ally Hezbollah, reported on Monday that the Syrian army was sending reinforcements towards eastern Ghouta after rebel assaults.

Assad's most powerful supporter, Russia, has been following a diplomatic track at the same time as the increase in fighting, resulting in the establishment of several "de-escalation zones".

Eastern Ghouta is in one of these areas, where violence is meant to be contained, but the de-escalation agreement does not include a former al Qaeda affiliate which has a small presence there.

Other insurgent groups in eastern Ghouta, including Islamist factions, say the Syrian government and Russia are using the jihadist presence as a pretext to continue their bombardment.

Neither the Syrian military nor Russia commented on the renewed bombardment in eastern Ghouta, but they have often said they do not target civilians.

The Observatory said the intensified bombing was in preparation for a pro-government ground offensive against the enclave and that a rebel group there had foiled an attempt by Syria's army to advance overnight.

Ice dancing is sensual. The Shibutanis try to portray passion of a different kind.

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 07:41

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - The night before they won their first Olympic medal, Alex and Maia Shibutani were frustrated. They skated what they believed to be their best short dance of all time, but weren't scored like it. They finished two-hundredths of a point out of medal position, but five points out of gold medal position. None of it felt right.

But as they wrestled with pride in their skate, the pressure of the moment, and frustration with their scores, 23-year-old Maia pulled out her computer and found some old home videos.

"We started watching these old family videos we have of us when we were little kids, off the ice, just dancing together," her older brother said, before trailing off into tears.

The ShibSibs are the second set of siblings to win an Olympic ice dance medal, first in more than 25 years. Over the years they've heard the comments from those who don't understand, or even the concerns of those inside the sport who do. Can siblings really succeed in this sport? Should they? Aren't they limited from the steamier showings of those who tend to climb the podium? And in those moments of close physical proximity and high emotional intensity, is something just . . . off?

"With ice dance, it's just generally grouped into 'oh, it's romantic. Oh, it's sensual.' That's not fair to ice dance. You're probably hurting ice dance's feelings," Alex Shibutani said. "Ice dance wants to be whatever it can be. . . We're all put here to hopefully find something that we're passionate about, and hopefully connect in some way to the people around us. We found ice dance. We're siblings. We're doing it the way we know how to do it."

Alex and Maia grew sterner as questions along that line continued. No, they've never had to ditch a program because it was too romantic, and therefore too awkward. No, these programs do not have to be about romantic passion. They can be about different kinds of passion, too.

"Think of all the different stories there are or types of dance . . . or different types of anything," Maia Shibutani said. "Just because we didn't see a team that we could directly look up to when we first started skating doesn't mean it's not possible. We worked really hard. We found our way. We did it. Hopefully, for other teams coming up after us, if they're brother and sister, if they're Asian, they'll believe it's actually possible."

The Shibutanis are the first Asian-Americans to medal in Olympic ice dance, too. They are not the norm in this sport, which used to be dominated by classic European couples and - since Vancouver - by all-white couples from North America, too. Over and over these last few weeks questions about race and the nature of their partnership leave the siblings to answer for things they cannot change - and they do answer. They might not always be happy to do so. But they realize that succeeding despite lacking similar role models often means becoming some yourselves.

"If you're sitting through an event full of ice dance teams and seeing the same story told over and over again, that's not good for the growth of the sport. That's not entertaining for the viewers at home," Alex Shibutani said. "Having a different point of view, which we naturally bring because we are coming from a different place, is something that we've embraced."

But that different point of view, that different journey, costs them - or so the Shibutanis believe. They tried not to say it outright, dancing around the point for nearly 10 minutes Tuesday as they addressed their race and relationship. Then Alex broke.

"The adversity we mention is - you can't control the marks you get in this sport. You try to learn the rules. You do your very best," Shibutani said. ". . . But we have had a lot of results where we haven't been satisfied, or we've been told we should be receiving more."

Monday's short dance was, at least in their minds, one of those moments. It didn't matter in the end. When frustration mounted, when doubts rose, and when the moment got big, they withstood the pressure when so many others couldn't.

"The family bond we have is the strength that no other team in this field has. It sets us apart," Alez Shibutani said. "For all the people who think it's a deficit, we've made it our strength."

'Women' or 'Ladies'? At the Winter Olympics, that depends on the sport

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 07:13

GANGNEUNG, South Korea - It has been 50 years since Peggy Fleming won gold at the 1968 Grenoble Olympics, dazzling judges with graceful choreography and a flawlessly executed single Axel. On Wednesday, another Californian figure skating phenom, Mirai Nagasu, will launch her quest for Olympic gold with a triple Axel.

While figure skating's technical rigor has evolved dramatically over time, its terminology, in one significant regard, has not.

Nagasu is competing in "ladies" figure skating at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, while many other female athletes here vie for medals in women's ice hockey, women's curling and women's luge.

The nomenclature of "ladies" figure skating is more than a century old, included in the Constitution and Regulations of the sport's international governing body, the Switzerland-based International Skating Union, founded in 1892. And it has stood since, regarded as a designation worth honoring, in the view of many.

To others, "Ladies" sounds increasingly archaic - especially given that male skaters compete in the "Men's" event rather than the equivalent "Gentlemen's."And there are rumblings, albeit polite rumblings, that it's time for figure skating to update its lexicon.

Count 1998 Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski among those ready for change.

"The term 'Ladies' has been long-standing in figure skating, and while I generally respect tradition in the sport, I do think the terminology has become antiquated and uneven, considering we refer to male skaters as 'men,'" wrote Lipinski, who's enjoying a second career as an NBC analyst, in an email exchange Monday. "I would support a change from 'ladies' to 'women.'"

Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist who is in South Korea as a commentator for NBC Sports Network's "Olympic Ice" program, indicated his support for a change as well in a social media exchange with a viewer who took issue with his co-analyst, Tanith Belbin White, making on-air references to "ladies" figure skating.

Tweeted Hamilton in reply: "I totally understand your point, but skating is a very old and traditional sport in many respects. When referring to the women's competition, everywhere that it's mentioned refers to it as Ladies. I know. I know. But @TanithWhite is correct. #letschangeit"

Nagasu, for one, has no preference.

"I definitely don't have a view on that," Nagasu said in an interview earlier this week. "I don't mind either way. I'm a strong, proud woman and also a lady, I guess. I'm for feminism."

Figure skating isn't alone in using the "ladies" distinction. Of the 14 winter sports contested by women at the PyeongChang Olympics, eight are called "ladies'" sports (including Alpine skiing, ski jumping, speedskating and snowboarding) and six are "women's" sports (including bobsledding, curling and ice hockey).

The discrepancy exists because the international governing body of each sport chooses the names for its events. The International Olympic Committee, in turn, adopts the titles used by the federations. That's why, at present, there's no uniformity nor apparent logic.

Canadian figure skating officials ushered in their own nomenclature change roughly a decade ago, opting to use the neutral designations of "men's and women's" - rather than "men's and ladies'" - in their national championships.

Canada's public broadcast system, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, has followed suit after discussing the question for multiple Olympic Games, according to Greg Stremlaw, who heads CBC Sports and its coverage of the Olympics. The CBC now encourages its on-air commentators to use the term "women's" rather than "ladies." Explained Stremlaw, via a CBC spokesman: "We have increased efforts around this topic over the last few years as it is important to the network as a global leader in sports broadcasting to also be leaders in terms of equity in how women's and men's sports are presented and reported on."

The Post's convention is to use "women's" instead of "ladies."

NBC, however, is squarely in the "ladies" camp when it comes to figure skating, following the lead of U.S. Figure Skating, which adheres to ISU style on the question.

The U.S. Olympic Committee hasn't taken a formal position but would support a change in terminology, according to an official, in the interest of equity. The IOC might seize the initiative first, as an upshot of its ongoing Gender Equality Review Project.

If the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin had his way more than a century ago, women wouldn't participate at all. The founder of the modern Olympics in 1896, de Coubertin once stated that the Olympics were created for "the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism," with "female applause as reward." He further opined that women were biologically ill-suited to sports - "not cut out to sustain certain shocks."

With this as a starting point for modern-day female Olympians, why does it matter what they're called on the field of play?

Doctoral dissertations have been written about the politics of the term "lady." In the context of sports, the debate isn't whether "lady" is an insult or an honorific. It's a question of equivalence.

"Men and women" are neutral terms. "Ladies (and gentlemen)" are more specific, implying a standard of manners and comportment.

Wimbledon recognizes a "gentlemen's" and "ladies' " champion of its grass-court tennis tournament. No one has an issue; they are equivalent titles. The U.S. Open, by contrast, honors a "men's" and "women's" champion - also equivalent. But a sport with a "ladies" and "men's" champion is an inequitable mash-up.

Sports with multiple governing bodies present even more confusion. Every summer, the best women's golfers in the world play the U.S. Women's Open and the Women's British Open, conducted by the U.S. Golf Association and the R&A;, respectively, and then return to the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour. The week before the Women's British Open, about 200 miles north, the Ladies Scottish Open will be held.

U.S. figure skating coach Tom Zakrajsek, who counts Nagasu among his pupils, finds the issue interesting.

"Having been around the sport for many years, I think if you go back to the history and origin of the sport in Europe, it was probably a proper term: 'ladies' skating,'" Zakrajsek said. "I think everybody just keeps saying it - maybe not for a good reason, but we've all accepted it. I think that it's embedded in our jargon."

Mueller charges lawyer with false statements in Russia probe

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 07:02

WASHINGTON – The U.S. special counsel who is investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has charged an attorney with lying about his communications with Rick Gates, a former aide to Donald Trump's campaign.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed criminal charges on Tuesday against lawyer Alex Van der Zwaan for allegedly lying to the FBI last November about work his law firm performed in 2012 related to Ukraine.

Gates and Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort are also facing criminal charges including conspiracy to launder money and failure to register as foreign agents in connection with their political work for a pro-Russia Ukrainian party. They have pleaded not guilty.

The charging documents say Van der Zwaan made false statements about the last time he communicated with Gates and another unnamed person, only identified as "Person A."

He allegedly told investigators he did not know why an email between him and Person A was not produced to the Special Counsel's office, but had actually deleted or failed to produce emails that were being sought.

Van der Zwaan will appear in court later Tuesday for a plea hearing.

Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. Trump says there was no collusion and Russia denies meddling with the election.

‘I would take a bullet for the kids’: Teachers face a daunting new role

Alaska News - Tue, 2018-02-20 06:53

TAMARAC, Fla. — The shooting was all over, but the emotional reckoning had just begun, and so on Saturday the teachers of Broward County in Florida packed their union hall to discuss what it meant to have become the nation's human shields.

"Last night I told my wife I would take a bullet for the kids," said Robert Parish, a teacher at an elementary school just miles from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, where a former student killed 17 people, including at least three faculty members who found themselves in the line of fire.

Since the attack on Wednesday, said Parish, "I think about it all the time."

Across the country, teachers are grappling with how their roles have expanded, from educator and counselor to bodyguard and protector. They wonder if their classrooms are properly equipped, if they would recognize the signs of a dangerous student and, most of all, if they are prepared to jump in front of a bullet.

In the past few days, teachers wrote to Congress, urging bans on assault weapons, and to state lawmakers, seeking permission to carry firearms to school. They attended local protests and reviewed safety plans with students. And in the evenings, they spoke with friends and family about an excruciating reality — that teachers, who once seemed mostly removed from the life-or-death risks faced by the ranks of police officers and firefighters, might now be vulnerable.

"I visualized what it would look like, and it made me sick," said Catherine Collett, 28, a sixth-grade teacher in Northern Virginia who has spent recent days running through a thousand violent scenarios. "Could I empty out the cabinet and throw out the shelves and put kids in the cabinets? Is my better chance just barricading the doors? Can I move furniture that fast? Do I ask my kids to help me?"

Many teachers said even contemplating such worries felt far from what they had once imagined their challenges would be. As if the mounting pressures of test scores and email messages to parents and bus duty and hall duty and new certifications and all those meetings were not enough. But the death toll has piled up — staff killed in shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and now at Stoneman Douglas in Florida — and is forcing a shift in how teachers view their responsibilities

"When I started teaching I thought I was just coming in to teach," said José Luis Vilson, 36, a middle school math teacher in New York City. Now he has come to view himself as a first responder, too, and added that instruction on topics such as conflict resolution and first aid would be useful.

Bo Greene, 56, a calculus and statistics teacher in Bar Harbor, Maine, said the planning for dangerous situations had increased and grown more specific in the past year, even in her quiet school district. All of it feels jarring after decades in education, she added.

"I never had any of this," Greene said. "We had the basic fire drills."

Nowhere was the conversation among teachers more intense than in Broward County, where Stoneman Douglas is one of more than 300 schools, and Nikolas Cruz, charged in the shooting, had been among the district's 270,000 students.

Laurel Holland, who was Cruz's 11th-grade English teacher at Stoneman Douglas, said teachers in big public schools cannot possibly be expected to look into every student's background to know if they have long been troubled. The year that she taught Cruz, she had more than 150 students, she said.

"There's not enough time," she said.

In the case of Cruz, she said, it was clear something was wrong. "He didn't work and play well with others," she said. "I was frightened."

Holland eventually reported him to the administration, and he was removed from her class after one semester.

Inside the crowded union building on Saturday, educators held hands and shouted "Union strong!" before getting down to business.

How, they asked, were they going to stop the next one?

For hours they spoke of the golf clubs and baseball bats they would like to keep in their classrooms, of the bulletproof vests they wish they had, of the challenges of removing mass killers from their midst.

"I'm curious to know, out of the people here, how many Nikolases they have at their school?" said Elizabeth Sundin, 48, a teacher's assistant. "Because I have one at our school."

Outside, in the balmy Florida night, Parish, 51, of Broadview Elementary, was wrestling with the question of the class door. When an armed attacker begins to prowl, and a student is left in the hall, "Do I let the kid in, and maybe the gunman behind her?" he said. "Or do I not let them in and save the whole class? That's a decision I can't make."

Inside, under the glare of fluorescent lights, Bruce Klasner, 61, of Everglades High was wondering why the district had not created a text message system that could send instructions in the event of an attack.

"I teach the Holocaust," he shouted at the rows of exhausted teachers. "I taught them," he said of his students, "about a man by the name of Janusz Korczak who walked into the gas chambers with his children because he refused to leave them. And after this happened my kids are sitting outside saying, 'Mr. K, would you give your life for me?'"

Klasner said he would — of course. "I said, 'Did you even have to ask?'"

In a corner, Andrea Suarez, 35, of Westpine Middle School was worried about her own students, who have special needs and often make loud noises, meaning it is almost impossible to hide them.

These days, she said her plan for responding to a shooting involves corralling the children into a closet, occupying them with snacks, and positioning herself in front of the closet door with a pair of sharp scissors.

"I've been having a lot of difficulty sleeping," said Suarez, whose four children have been urging her to leave the profession. "I keep hearing kids screaming and gunshots in my head."

Jess Bidgood contributed reporting from Boston, Patricia Mazzei from New York, Neil Reisner from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Kitty Bennett from St. Petersburg, Fla.

League of Women Voters of Alaska supports redistricting - Juneau Empire

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 06:07

League of Women Voters of Alaska supports redistricting
Juneau Empire
Alaska's redistricting process has always been contentious. Originally redistricting in our state constitution was a function of the Governor; the constitutional convention, seeing the problems other states had to reapportion in a timely and fair ...

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Don't let political dysfunction threaten our children's education - Juneau Empire

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 06:04

Juneau Empire

Don't let political dysfunction threaten our children's education
Juneau Empire
On Feb. 7 the Alaska House of Representatives passed a historic piece of legislation to protect Alaska's public education system from the seemingly endless political dysfunction that has plagued the Alaska Legislature. House Bill 287 would fund K-12 ...

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Don't let political dysfunction threaten our children's education - Juneau Empire

Legislative News - Tue, 2018-02-20 06:04

Juneau Empire

Don't let political dysfunction threaten our children's education
Juneau Empire
On Feb. 7 the Alaska House of Representatives passed a historic piece of legislation to protect Alaska's public education system from the seemingly endless political dysfunction that has plagued the Alaska Legislature. House Bill 287 would fund K-12 ...