Wayne LaugesenJune 1, 20171min281

We live in a complex, exciting and dangerous time when social media and 24-hour entertainment networks give everyone an open microphone. The potential benefits and pitfalls loom large.

Free speech has never been put to a greater test.

The most recent example of open mic derangement syndrome comes courtesy of comedienne Kathy Griffin. It is the latest episode of an American exercising freedom without self-restraint, hoping a groveling apology will undo all harm.

“I am sorry. I went too far. I was wrong,” Griffin said.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

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Wayne LaugesenMay 31, 201710min487

Colorado’s four-year graduation rate has been creeping upward in this decade and is nearing 80 percent, but a 2017 report released earlier this month pegs it as the seventh worst in the nation.

“Graduation rates are definitely too low, and a lot of students who should graduate don’t because they lose sight,” said Natalia Taylor, this year’s valedictorian at Mesa Ridge High School in Widefield School District 3.

The eighth annual “Building A GradNation” report, made public May 3, analyzes data from all states through the class of 2015.

Colorado’s four-year graduation rate that year was 77.3 percent, compared with the national average of 83.2 percent.

Colorado’s rate climbed to 78.9 percent in 2016.

The GradNation numbers – which reflect students who complete high school within four years of entering as freshmen – don’t present the whole picture, said Judith Martinez, the Colorado Department of Education’s director of the Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Re-engagement.

“We’re learning that extended-year graduation rates are also important to look at because the conversation is about students completing high school with the skills they need for the next step,” she said.

While most students finish in four years, some – such as those with limited English-language abilities or in special education – are allowed by law to have more time to obtain credentials for a diploma.

When you look at those statistics, Colorado is holding its own, with a five-year graduation rate of 83.3 percent in 2015.

“That’s a big jump,” Martinez said. “Our story looks beyond time; it looks for efficiency and competency.”

Another factor that can skew Colorado’s statistics is that the state promotes “concurrent enrollment,” meaning high school students can take college courses as they’re earning their high school diplomas.

“They have the opportunity to stay for a fifth year but can’t be counted as graduates (in the fourth year), so it’s an unintended consequence of a great program,” said Robin Russel, graduation guidelines manager for the Colorado Department of Education.


Outperforming state average
The Pikes Peak region’s 17 public school districts outperformed the state average last May, collectively tallying a graduation rate of 80.4 percent.

Students quit school or do not amass enough credits to graduate for various reasons.

“A lot of students have goals in their freshman year. But over time, things get in the way, whether that’s family or a job or even just friends in a group deciding it’s not the right thing to do,” Taylor said, adding that some of her friends didn’t graduate with the class of 2017. “They don’t have someone to hold them in high school.”

Some students drop out because “they don’t connect to a lot of people, or they think school is not worthwhile,” said Julianna Mattson, valedictorian at CIVA Charter High School, an arts-focused school in Colorado Springs School District 11.

“A lot of students see they can get something out of those low-end jobs kind of easily, so some don’t see the point of graduating,” Mattson said. “Especially if they don’t know what kind of career they want.”

Colorado’s lower-than-national averages are affected by the subgroup populations of students, according to GradNation:

  • 46 percent of Colorado’s graduating class of 2015 came from low-income families. The state’s graduation rate for those students was 65.5 percent, the third worst in the nation, ahead of New Mexico and Nevada. In 2016, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in Colorado improved to 67.8 percent.
  • Colorado also recorded graduation rates of less than 70 percent for black and Hispanic/Latino students in 2015. But the rate for African American students increased to 71.8 percent in 2016, up from 69.8 percent in 2015.
  • Colorado is one of six states with the nation’s highest concentration of students who have limited English language skills. Those students didn’t see much improvement, moving from a graduation rate of 61.1 percent in 2015 to 61.4 percent in 2016.

“There have been gains, but more needs to be done to accelerate progress around subgroups of students,” Martinez said. “As a state, we’re committed to increasing opportunity to help students make the gains needed to graduate ready for the next step after high school.”

Alternative high schools, which serve students who have dropped out or are at risk of giving up on school due to problems such as substance abuse, adverse family situations or criminal backgrounds, also affect graduation rates and should be held more accountable for improving academic performance, the GradNation report concludes.


A ‘menu’ of ways to graduate
High school can “zap kids’ passions” to the extent that they “don’t think high school is the way” to find what they love doing, said Carly Harold, student body president at Sand Creek High School in Falcon School District 49.

“Some don’t think the education system is built for how their minds work,” she said.

Colorado is working to fix that. The education department issued new graduation guidelines that take effect in the fall for freshmen in the class of 2021.

While each of the state’s 178 school districts sets its own graduation rules, they now must meet or exceed the new guidelines.

The requirements are changing, Russel said, because in 2007, business owners started asking legislators to establish standard measures for students to demonstrate college or career readiness.

In 2008, work groups consisting of hundreds of educators and others with vested interests began creating a “menu” of ways students can prove they are prepared to leave their high school days behind.

For example, students will be able to earn a certificate showing mastery in a profession, post a score of 4 or higher on an International Baccalaureate exam, pass an Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery exam indicating readiness for military service, score at least 430 in English and 460 in math on the SAT college entrance exam or excel in college courses while in high school, among other choices.

“There are multiple options for students, some very traditional, as well as measures that haven’t been tested before, such as work-based learning and industry-recognized credentials like a nursing or automotive certificate,” Russel said.

Students also must develop an individual career and academic plan, which Russel calls “a tool to help students and families investigate what could be the direction the student wants to take.”

“Districts are moving toward what is going to be the best way for each student to look into opportunities to experience and engage,” she said.

There’s no inkling yet of how the state’s new graduation requirements will affect graduation rates, though education officials hope they have a positive effect.

“We’re not going to see the full impact until we start graduating students in the class of 2021,” Russel said.


Teacher support is key
Students have ideas about how to realize further improvements.

Quentin Price, valedictorian at Atlas Preparatory School, a charter middle and high school in Harrison School District 2, said teachers “play a huge role” in graduation rates.

“I have friends who struggled in middle school and really changed in high school because a teacher forced them to realize they needed to do something and not become just another statistic,” Price said. “If we want to improve graduation rates, we have to change the system of those most influencing students: teachers.”

Adults reminding teens of the importance of graduation also helps, Price said.

“It’s very impactful,” he said. “It’s like a pay-it-forward chain – a great teacher role model influences a student who, once understanding the benefits of hard work and graduating, can share that with friends and create a positive loop.”

Jilian Lahey, valedictorian at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs School District 11, said she was motivated by support at home and at school.

“Some people don’t have that connection,” she said, “from moving around, switching schools, broken families, other problems.”

Having enough school counselors to take a genuine interest in each student would help, Lahey said.

“It’s cool how me and my counselor have a friendship, and she looks out for me and has pushed me to my full potential.”

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Wayne LaugesenMay 31, 20174min363

The death of a Colorado Springs Marine profiled in Sunday’s Gazette has prompted a measure before Congress that mandates an outside investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs handling of suicidal patients.

Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said his measure would require the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine review veterans’ deaths within the last five years related to drug overdoses or suicide.

“I’m still haunted by the situation with Noah Harter,” Coffman told The Gazette on Tuesday.

Harter, 25, died in 2015 after visiting VA’s Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs for depression and “suicidal ideation.” Although VA identified Harter as a high risk suicidal patient, he was sent home after the visit with a powerful anti-depressant and no scheduled follow-up appointments.

VA blamed the fatal lack of follow-up on a scheduling software glitch.

Coffman said the VA is over-reliant on drugs to treat mental illness and lax in its follow-up, which he said contributed to Harter’s death.

“I think there are a lot more tragedies like Noah Harter out there,” he said.

The congressman’s bill is off to a strong start, with bi-partisan support in the House and backing from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the upper chamber.

In its most recent statistics, VA says 20 veterans die by suicide every day, including six who had received VA services.

A Marine veteran, Coffman is all too familiar with the invisible wounds of war. After serving in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the congressman said he came home to feelings he’d never experienced before.

“It was the emptiest feeling I have ever felt in my entire life,” he said.

Coffman has led an effort this year to reform VA, backing bills that increased veteran access to private care, encouraged stronger discipline in the agency’s ranks and covered mental health care for all combat veterans regardless of their discharge status.

He’s spent more than a year studying Noah Harter’s death.

Harter, a graduate of Rampart High School, left the Marines in 2011. He was attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and looking forward to a career in business.

But the nearly 300 combat missions he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan left him battling post-traumatic stress, depression and insomnia.

Coffman said Harter’s courage in admitting his struggle and seeking VA care is notable.

“He had to be in a bad situation to go in there and ask for help,” he said.

The VA completed, but will not release an internal review of Harter’s death. Coffman, through the House VA, ordered a congressional investigation, but the agency hasn’t been cooperative, he said.

VA is pushing against Coffman’s measure to get an outside probe of suicides and overdose deaths.

“The VA is saying it is unnecessary,” Coffman said.

Representatives of the agency told Coffman they have conducted exhaustive suicide studies already and the external probe would just pile more paperwork on the problem. Coffman remains suspicious.

“If they are aware of it why haven’t they changed their practices?” he asked.

Wayne LaugesenMay 31, 20171min246

Noah Harter was so exceptional that he survived 300 combat missions as a Marine. Department of Veterans Affairs employees, by contrast, are notoriously substandard. Exhibiting typical VA underachievement, they declined to give Harter the minimal, fundamental care extended to suicidal patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The heart-wrenching details of Harter’s death are spelled out in an expose Sunday by Gazette reporters Stephanie Earls and Tom Roeder, who interviewed relatives and colleagues of the Colorado Springs resident.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, responding to the story, plans to introduce a measure requiring the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine review veterans’ deaths, related to drug overdoses or suicides, within the past five years. Coffman, R-Aurora, says Harter’s death haunts him.

The Harter tragedy is the latest in a yearslong series of VA horror stories involving institutional corruption, incompetence, fiscal irresponsibility and apathy toward patients.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Wayne LaugesenMay 30, 20171min213

President Donald Trump has corrected his error about NATO, making it clear in recent days that he does not regard it as “obsolete,” which was how he described it during the election campaign.

Instead he affirmed his commitment to that crucial alliance in Europe. He is also, as a corollary, right to call on European partners to pay their NATO contributions in full and on time.

The hyper-reactive criticism of President Trump’s reflexive opponents has been to exaggerate the importance of the fact that the president did not explicitly refer in his NATO speech to Article 5 of the alliance, the one in which members agree to treat an attack on one of them as an attack on all of them.

But what else could he mean by his words that America would “never forsake the friends that stood by our side”? This made it plain that America’s commitment to NATO isn’t conditional.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Wayne LaugesenMay 28, 20171min222

Moments after Dr. Ben Carson called poverty “a state of mind,” much of the mainstream media and other foes of the Trump administration went hysterical. The director of Housing and Urban Development is callous toward the poor, we were told.

NBC News instantly determined Carson was “under fire.” Lawyer and New York Times writer Zerlina Maxwell tweeted: “Next month, I tell my landlord that I’m going to pay rent with positive thinking?”

“Still in poverty? It’s your own fault for not trying hard enough to get out of it,” said a smarmy article in The Guardian.

That is not what Carson said and not what he meant.

A more objective media culture would try to discern the wisdom of a man who overcame poverty and devoted his life to saving children and helping the poor.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Wayne LaugesenMay 27, 20172min143

Congress and President Donald Trump hope to pass sweeping tax reform, and House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday that he hopes to have a bill ready for Trump to sign before the Dec. 23 congressional recess.

Give us tax reform, and give it to us soon. Just be careful to protect the country’s private-sector safety net while doing so.

Soak-the-rich types are pressuring lawmakers to reduce the charitable donations deduction, which cynics characterize as a loophole for wealthy donors.

President Barack Obama tried and failed to reduce the top charitable deduction of $39.60, for each $100 donation, to $28. He was opposed by the rich, poor, Republicans and Democrats. When people can afford to give, everyone benefits.

This year is the 100th anniversary of Congress enacting the charitable deduction, and it is no time for the federal government to reduce the incentive to give.

Locally, a reduced cap on charitable deductions could result in lost jobs. Colorado Springs serves as a major hub for nonprofit headquarters, as host to everything from the National Dog Mill Rescue, to Compassion International, to Orphans Tree, to Angels of America’s Fallen and more. Nonprofits rank favorably among the military, and tourism is a principle component of our local economy.

Beyond Colorado Springs, a disincentive to give could wreak havoc on the sick and poor.

Read more at the Colorado Springs Gazette

Wayne LaugesenMay 26, 20171min182

A Washington headline Wednesday asks “Is ‘Big Wind’ making people sick?”

“Everyone would be well served if Colorado led the way on the study of health impacts of commercial scale wind projects,” the article states, explaining Colorado’s aggressive embrace of wind turbines.

We know only this: The war on energy will not end. No new form of power goes unpunished. When new energy succeeds, it becomes a big new target.

That’s why they say “big wind,” as activists tilt at windmills.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

Wayne LaugesenMay 25, 20171min202

A Washington headline Wednesday asks “Is ‘Big Wind’ making people sick?”

“Everyone would be well served if Colorado led the way on the study of health impacts of commercial scale wind projects,” the article states, explaining Colorado’s aggressive embrace of wind turbines.

We know only this: The war on energy will not end. No new form of power goes unpunished. When new energy succeeds, it becomes a big new target.

That’s why they say “big wind,” as activists tilt at windmills.

Read more at The Colorado Springs Gazette.

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Wayne LaugesenMay 24, 20173min252

The Pentagon on Tuesday released details on the Trump administration’s proposed $54 billion hike in defense spending, including proposals that boost programs in Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region.

The 2018 budget would increase spending for satellite programs, missile defense and the destruction of chemical weapons. The Air Force also would get an extra $2 billion to hire 4,000 more airmen.

The Trump budget would give a big increase to Air Force space programs, raising the budget to buy satellites, rockets and ground systems by more than $600 million, from $2.8 billion to $3.4 billion.

“Space continues to be an increasingly contested and congested environment as more commercial and government entities take advantage of space,” the Pentagon said in documents supporting its budget. “The Air Force remains committed to improving space situational awareness and its command and control advantage, while modernizing and recapitalizing key space capabilities central to the joint fight.”

Much of the extra space cash will go to buy missile warning and global positioning system satellites. Part of the money will pay to plan the future of Air Force space systems, including smaller satellites.

The budget also would boost spending on chemical weapons destruction programs, including work underway at the Pueblo Chemical Depot to destroy nearly 800,000 mustard gas shells. That spending would go from $708 million to $972 million under the Trump plan.

The Army worldwide would get a $9 billion increase in its operations and maintenance budget, making up for years of shrinking repair funds.

At Fort Carson, the money could be used to fix aging tanks, trucks and helicopters.

The Air Force would see a $4.5 billion increase in maintenance money.

The budget also has cash to make U.S. Cyber Command in Maryland a full combat command that will oversee America’s computer warfare efforts.

It also has cash that troops can take home – a 2.1 percent pay increase for everyone in uniform.

But the Pentagon wasn’t so generous with some programs.

The budget deals a blow to Defense Department efforts to clean up military pollution, including the perfluorinated compounds found in the Widefield Aquifer south of town. Defense clean-up budgets would tumble from $909 million to $800 million.

The budget, like past Pentagon plans in recent years, also calls for a new round of base closures in 2021. The Pentagon has asked for that for the past several years, but lawmakers have blocked the move.