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bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

SIU guard Kylie Giebelhausen (32) blocks the shot of Indiana State forward Wendi Bibbins (23) at SIU Arena on Thursday in Carbondale.

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Former Zeigler treasurer pleads guilty to fraud, embezzlement charges; he stole over $320K from the city

BENTON — Ryan Thorpe, the former Zeigler treasurer investigated by the FBI for defrauding the city to the tune of more than $300,000, pleaded guilty to all charges in federal court Thursday.

Thorpe was indicted by a federal grand jury in October on three counts of wire fraud and two counts of embezzlement from a local government. An audit done after federal agents raided city hall this past August revealed that the city was missing $315,000. The charging documents allege that Thorpe took the money between March 4, 2013, and Aug. 3, 2017.

According to Zeigler’s city attorney, Rebecca Whittington, a new grand total was presented to the court Thursday. She said the final figure was $321,399.22. Whittington said he began stealing from the city two months after he began working for it.

According to a news release from U.S. Attorney Donald S. Boyce, Thorpe admitted he wrote checks payable to himself drawn on the city of Zeigler's general account. He concealed those thefts by altering the copies of the checks that were sent to the city each month by the city's bank by "whiting out" his name in the payee section of the checks and replacing them with names of vendors and suppliers that the city did business with, photocopying the altered checks, and entering the altered photocopies in the city's records, then shredding the original checks, the release states. He also submitted false monthly treasurer's reports to the City Council.

As part of his plea agreement, Thorpe agreed to turn over to the city of Zeigler numerous items he purchased with the embezzled funds, including a side-by-side utility vehicle, a utility trailer, a women's diamond ring, numerous firearms, a gun safe and a four-propeller drone. The total value of the property is estimated at $35,872.74, according to the release. He also agreed to forfeit assets to the United States, including a second side-by-side utility vehicle, a portable building, a lot and trailer located across the street from Thorpe's Zeigler home, two retirement accounts valued at approximately $9,000 and a camper, the release states. 

After the property is forfeited and sold, the U.S. Attorney's Office will request that the funds be released and applied to the restitution Thorpe owes the city of Zeigler. The release states that Thorpe acknowledged in his plea agreement that he owes $321,399.22 in restitution to the city, less credits for the value of the items forfeited to the city and the U.S.

Zeigler Mayor Dennis Mitchell said having Thorpe admit guilt did provide some closure for him, but added that the impact from the theft was going to be felt for a long time.

“It doesn’t actually close the case with the city,” Mitchell said. He said the city is still doing last year’s audit, and was denied an appeal for an audit extension. He said because it is late, the state has told him that any funds distributed by the comptroller could be withheld from the city until the audit is filed.

It’s the “gift that keeps giving,” Whittington said.

“It’s almost a weekly basis that we still come across a major problem because of either faulty record-keeping or just total failure to perform,” she said.

She pointed to a recent incident in which the city totaled two of its police cruisers. It was Thorpe’s job to make sure all new city vehicles were put on its insurance.

“He was the risk manager responsible for keeping our liability insurance records updated,” Whittington said, adding that he never added one of the cruisers to their coverage. She said the city also was late in paying its premiums.

“The city had to fork out about $90,000 to pay for back insurance,” Whittington said, adding that after it agreed to make that payment, the insurance company agreed to retroactively add the uncovered vehicle.

Whittington said those bills weren’t paid simply because the city did not have the cash flow. However, in hindsight, Whittington said she believed it would have had that money had Thorpe not been stealing.

“We have our shovels and we are wearing hip waders but we are digging out,” Whittington said of the city’s attempts to find a way through the maze of problems and consequences Thorpe’s theft has caused.

Mitchell said he still can’t wrap his head around what compelled Thorpe to do what he did.

“It wasn’t like he had a child that was ill and had horrendous medical bills,” he said. “Even that wouldn’t excuse it but you could understand it.”

Mitchell said he didn’t talk to Thorpe at all Thursday but imagines he’ll talk with him someday.

“I imagine sometime (I) will and I’ll just ask him, ‘Why,’” Mitchell said.

“He’d probably say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Thorpe will reappear in Benton’s Federal Court at 9:30 a.m. June 12 for sentencing. Mitchell said he was released again on his own recognizance after court Thursday.

Each count of wire fraud carries with it a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and each count of embezzlement comes with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Thorpe’s change of plea hearing was originally scheduled for last month, but during the hearing, a motion for continuance was granted for the defense so that Thorpe’s attorney had time to completely explain the wire fraud charges to him. Thorpe similarly claimed he did not understand all the charges against him when he appeared for his initial court date in December.

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School Safety
In wake of school shootings, Southern Illinois educators weigh additional safety measures with budget realities

CARBONDALE — With the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead, and less than a week before, a shooting in Benton, Kentucky, which killed two and injured 19, an impassioned discussion has erupted about school safety and the disturbing trend of school violence in the U.S.

Calls from one side demand a return to assault weapons bans and a boycott of the National Rifle Association — the lobbying group responsible for much of the pro-gun sentiment that has permeated the American conservative movement since the 1970s — while others are demanding better age restrictions on the purchase of firearms, and still others are calling for some teachers to brandish weapons to help keep schools safe.

Should there be more guards at schools?

More metal detectors?

Routine, but random, checks of students coming to school?

The voices are loud, the rhetoric heated. The spotlight is hot on lawmakers to do something.

“It’s definitely a concern that weighs on our mind everyday,” Matt Donkin, Frankfort Unit District 168 superintendent, said.

The news is never easy to hear — when a headline comes up that another school has fallen victim, Marion High School Principal Joey Ohnesorge said, “your gut tightens up.” The next step for his school, he said, is just to review and reflect with staff what their plan is.

Illinois House debates guns, passes ban on bump stocks

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House on Wednesday approved a ban on trigger-enhancing "bump stocks" in its first votes on gun control legislation since a Florida high school massacre and the fatal shooting of a police officer in downtown Chicago.

Spotting the signs, getting help

Like many teachers, Ohnesorge said making connections with students is key, and so is catching early warning signs.

Seeing these early signs for potentially violent behavior, and quickly finding resources to help these students is a vital part in preventing problems in schools, experts said. This has also come up nationally, as several red flags were not acted upon by law enforcement regarding the Parkland shooter.

One program that the Illinois Education Association is pushing would address this outright. The free-to-schools Know Me, Know My Name program was developed by family therapist Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter was a victim of the Newtown school shooting.

The program’s goal is to find students who may slip through the cracks and not regularly interact with school staff, and develop a plan to reach out to those students and form a connection for them at school.

Metropolis Elementary School has adopted and adapted this program in the last two years. Jacqueline Hodge, technical assistant of special education at MES, has been there since the program started, and said they are focusing in on students who have experienced trauma and might need an adult in their lives. They meet with a designated teacher before school starts.

“We don’t look at their grades … we just kind of check in with them,” Hodge said. She said it’s been a great success and has grown organically, with students referring other students. She said she has seen it personally improve the lives of students.

Changes in disciplinary policy may also be working toward this goal of getting students help. Senate Bill 100, a state law that took effect in the fall of 2016, aimed to increase the number of interventions schools were placing between troubled students and a long-term suspension or expulsion.

According to Illinois Education Association president Kathi Griffin, the bill was originally introduced to correct a disparity between the number of white students suspended and expelled and the number of black and Latino students given the same punishment.

The bill calls for more unified disciplinary measures to be in place in schools that create more logical punishments — it banned the use of “zero-tolerance policies.”

However, at first blush it could seem it also took away a schools ability to quickly deal with a child who is escalating his or her behavior, or at least that’s how some have read it.

“... out-of-school suspension of longer than 3 days, expulsions, and disciplinary removals to alternative schools may be used only if other appropriate and available behavioral and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted,” the bill reads, adding that the student must also pose a threat to students or teachers and disrupt the classroom.

Daniel Booth, Carbondale High School’s principal, said after he read the bill for the first time, he thought it was trying to hamstring administrators. He even called State Rep. Will Davis, D-Springfield, who sponsored the bill to talk about it.

“Why are you trying to keep us from suspending kids?” Booth said he asked Davis. He was told that was not the intention of the bill; the intention was to ensure students who need help actually get it.

Griffin agreed, and said this doesn’t prevent teachers from acting quickly in a serious situation. A student must have acted out in a serious way, such as bringing a weapon or making a credible threat, to be immediately suspended.

“The student can be immediately suspended, although, law enforcement would likely intervene, and he wouldn’t be coming to school anyway. The District could legitimately state there are no other “appropriate interventions” that need to be exhausted under these or similar facts,” Griffin wrote in an emailed statement. However, the process does get longer when the offense is a bit less severe.

“It does hinder what we do on a daily basis if there is a degree of immediacy (needed), however what it also does is it ensures that we have done our due diligence as a school district,” said Larry Lovel, superintendent for Tri-Co school district.

The real hangup with SB100, though, is the availability of resources and “interventions.” Griffin said while the bill is good, uneven funding can put schools trying to comply in a tough place.

The money problem

All of the teachers and school administrators interviewed for this story had ideas about how safety could be improved, and how preventative measures with students experiencing hardships could be increased. But, each of them said money could be a stumbling block.

Senate Bill 100 is an example.

“When you pass a law that fundamentally changes the way schools operate — no matter how well intentioned the legislation — and you pass it with no funding attached to train teachers, support staff and administrators there are going to be consequences,” Griffin wrote in an email.

Lovel said this is the exact boat he is in. As a rural school, his budget is not near that of what a Carbondale or a Marion school district might have, and as a result, the services he is able to offer students are fewer. The recently passed school funding reform bill was designed to help close this gap, but as of yet schools have not felt the effects of the funding change.

With the state of school budgets, making other changes specific to security are no easy task, either.

“If you try and hire a school resource officer, that costs money,” Pope County High School principal Ryan Fritch said. “A lot of the school infrastructure upgrades you’d like to make for security purposes are hard to do because the funding structure isn’t there.”

He said they would consider adding things like metal detectors at the doors, adding and upgrading security cameras, but because the state is still not funding his district adequately, they are having to make due with what they have.

Even the issue of arming teachers, of which President Donald Trump recently spoke in favor, has a price tag. Would schools who are forced to decide between hiring an art teacher or giving raises to teachers be able or willing to pay for teachers to be trained and to reimburse for purchased firearms?

This is one question that schools won’t have to answer quickly, though. According to Griffin, significant changes to law — like arming teachers, which the IEA would oppose, she pointed out — would have to be made for schools to consider putting a gun on any teacher’s hip.

“If the law were to be changed, it would also require collective bargaining to discuss the way the new law would change working conditions,” Griffin said of the idea.

Doing the best with what there is

Even though all schools may not have a lot of money to play with in terms of rehabilitative services for students, it doesn't stop them from trying and making do.

“The only issue is we don’t have something else on site,” Lovel said of his options in dealing with students who have behavior issues. He said they do not have a “school within a school” to send these kids. He said they do have a counselor and even a social worker, but at least the latter is only available three days a week — this is in contrast to Carbondale’s five counselors and one social worker that are in-house five days a week.

Lovel said this leaves them with making the effort themselves as teachers and administrators to reach out to their students.

“We are visible and we connect with students as soon as they walk in the door,” Lovel said. “We have to include our faculty and staff because we do not have a full-time social worker.”

Lovel and Fritch said they do have one advantage — they are small, tight-knit schools.

“We know our kids personally here,” Fritch said.

“There’s still something special to those smaller districts to truly knowing those children,” Lovel said, adding that knowing not just the student, but also their families, allows them to spot any problems that may arise.

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School resource officers are one part of the security puzzle for some schools

School resource officers have become a topic of discussion in the wake of recent school shootings.

While the armed officer at Parkland allegedly was ineffectual in his post — remaining outside during the events — some schools are looking at ways to partner with cities to have a familiar police presence on campus.

In a letter sent by Vienna School Superintendent Joshua Stafford on Thursday, he said he has been in talks with city and county officials to provide a police officer at the high school every day school is in session. 

"This coverage will add to our current safety efforts in all schools by allowing for other officers to be available to the grade schools," Stafford wrote. He said the city is advertising for part-time officer positions in order to provide the manpower needed to have an officer at the school five days a week.

As for when the officer will be available at Vienna High School, Stafford said "it is anticipated that the city council will make initial hires at its next meeting."

Carbondale Community High School has had a resource officer for six years. Principal Booth said Molly Harris, the school’s SRO, is not just a visible security presence, but also a “link between the community and the school.” He said the goal is for her to act in a security capacity, and also to build trust between the police department and the students.

Resource officers have been criticized in recent years after incidents have been reported of officers using what some have seen as excessive force on students — Booth blames this on schools.

He said what gets SROs in hot water is when schools ask them to act in a disciplinary role — this is not the case at Carbondale, he said. While Harris would work to defuse a heated situation or even work to break up a fight, this is not her primary role, which Booth said is just to be the face of security for students — she is there to be a resource for students who might have questions or concerns regarding their safety at school.

Booth said in terms of security, and even in potentially preventing or diffusing an active shooter situation, the biggest savior is a quick response time. By having an SRO, the school’s ability to have a call answered swiftly increases, he said.

Trump orders big tariffs on steel, aluminum

WASHINGTON — Ordering combative action on foreign trade, President Donald Trump declared Thursday the U.S. will impose steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, escalating tensions with China and other trading partners and raising the prospect of higher prices for American consumers and companies.

With "trade war" talk in the air, stocks closed sharply lower on Wall Street.

Trump said firm action was crucial to protect U.S. industry from unfair competition and to bolster national security. However, his announcement came only after an intense internal White House debate. It brought harsh criticism from some Republicans and roiled financial markets with concerns about economic ramifications.

Overseas, Trump's words brought a stinging rebuke from the president of the European Commission. Though the president generally focuses on China in his trade complaining, it was the EU's Jean-Claude Juncker who denounced his plan as "a blatant intervention to protect U.S. domestic industry."

Juncker said the EU would take retaliatory action if Trump followed through.

Canada, the largest source of steel and aluminum imports in the U.S., said it would "take responsive measures" to defend its trade interests and workers if restrictions were imposed on Canadian steel and aluminum products.

On Wall Street, the Standard & Poor's 500 index tumbled 36.16 points, or 1.3 percent, to 2,677.67. It's the third straight day where the index has lost at least 1 percent. It had only four such days last year. 

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 420.22 points, or 1.7 percent, to 24,608.98, and the Nasdaq composite fell 92.45, or 1.3 percent, to 7,180.56.

Also, China expressed "grave concern" today about a U.S. trade policy report that pledges to pressure Beijing but had no immediate response to Trump's plan to increase tariffs on steel and aluminum. The report Thursday accused China of moving away from market principles and pledged to prevent Beijing from disrupting global trade. "The Chinese side expresses grave concern," said a Commerce Ministry statement. Chinese officials have threatened to take "necessary measures" to defend their country's interests.

Trump, who has long railed against what he deems unfair trade practices by China and others, summoned steel and aluminum executives to the White House and said next week he would levy penalties of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum imports. The tariffs, he said, would remain for "a long period of time," but it was not immediately clear if certain trading partners would be exempt.

"What's been allowed to go on for decades is disgraceful. It's disgraceful," Trump told the executives in the Cabinet Room. "When it comes to a time when our country can't make aluminum and steel ... you almost don't have much of a country."

The president added: "You will have protection for the first time in a long while, and you're going to regrow your industries. That's all I'm asking. You have to regrow your industries."

Increased foreign production, especially by China, has driven down prices and hurt U.S. producers, creating a situation the Commerce Department has called a national security threat.

However, critics raised the specter of a trade war, suggesting other countries will retaliate or use national security as a reason to impose trade penalties of their own.

Trump's move will likely raise steel and aluminum prices here. That's good for U.S. manufacturers. But it's bad for companies that use the metals, and it prompted red flags from industries ranging from tool and dye makers to beer distributors to manufacturers of air conditioners. The American International Automobile Dealers Association warned it would drive prices up "substantially."

"This is going to have fallout on our downstream suppliers, particularly in the automotive, machinery and aircraft sectors," said Wendy Cutler, a former U.S. trade official who is now vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Steel-consuming companies said steel tariffs imposed in 2002 by President George W. Bush ended up wiping out 200,000 U.S. jobs.

The decision had been strenuously debated within the White House, with top officials such as economic adviser Gary Cohn and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis raising concerns.

The penalties were pushed by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, an economist who has favored taking aggressive action.

Mattis, in a memo to Commerce, said the department was "concerned about the negative impact on our key allies" of any tariffs.

Some Republicans in Congress were plainly upset.

"The president is proposing a massive tax increase on American families. Protectionism is weak, not strong," said Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. "You'd expect a policy this bad from a leftist administration, not a supposedly Republican one."

GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said, "Every time you do this, you get a retaliation and agriculture is the No. 1 target." House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said through a spokesman he hoped Trump would "consider the unintended consequences of this idea and look at other approaches before moving forward."

Trump met with more than a dozen executives, including representatives from U.S. Steel Corp., Arcelor Mittal, Nucor, JW Aluminum and Century Aluminum. The industry leaders urged Trump to act, saying they had been unfairly hurt by a glut of imports.

"We are not protectionist. We want a level playing field," said Dave Burritt, president and chief executive officer at U.S. Steel.

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Minimum age for tackle football will get Illinois House vote

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois children could not play tackle football until age 12 under a plan a House committee endorsed Thursday after hearing personal tales of head trauma and its link to the brain disease known as CTE.

The Mental Health Committee advanced the bill named for Dave Duerson, the former Chicago Bears defensive back who committed suicide in 2011 at age 50 but left his brain intact to be studied for signs of what turned out to be chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

"My father, after his football career, went from a Harvard-educated, successful businessman, to a shadow of his former self," Duerson's son, Tregg, who like his father played football at Notre Dame, told the committee. "He became an individual who struggled with bankruptcy, urges toward physical assault and depression."

CTE is a dementia-like degenerative disease characterized by memory loss, violent urges or moods, depression and other cognitive dysfunction. Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and professional wrestler who now heads the Boston-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, noted it was first identified in boxers and, beyond the gridiron, affects athletes in other contact sports and is routinely seen in combat veterans.

Often blamed on concussions, CTE appears more closely associated with repeated blows to the head that are "part of the routine play of tackle football," Nowinski said. The brain feels no pain and buffering nerve-lining isn't fully developed until age 21, he and his colleague, Robert Stern of Boston University, told the committee.

The aim of Rep. Carol Sente's bill is to delay the trauma. The Vernon Hills Democrat explained her measure would "protect childrens' brains and protect the future of football."

Opponents question whether the plan is an overreach and whether limiting tackle football would prevent or reduce instances of CTE.

Duerson, who started playing tackle football at about age 10 and spent 11 years in the NFL, shot himself in the chest to spare his brain for examination. CTE can only be diagnosed after death, said Stern, a professor of neurology. He also predicted that scientists within five years will be able to identify the illness before death.

The problem is, Stern said, children at risk now can't wait for a definitive diagnostic test. He noted that laws keep alcohol and tobacco from children and lead paint was banned without precise knowledge of how much lead is toxic to children.

"Yet we drop our kids off at a large field where they put on plastic helmets and facemasks and hit their heads against one another and the ground hundreds of times a season," Stern said.

The legislation narrowly won passage to a House floor debate. "No" votes came from several lawmakers who complained that confusion over committee scheduling kept away several opponents who had indicated they wanted to testify.

Dr. Cynthia LaBella, sports medicine director at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago, submitted written testimony arguing there is no evidence that eliminating tackle football would prevent CTE. Lurie Hospital is taking no position on the legislation's merits but urges lawmakers to consider alternatives to prohibiting traditional youth football.

"Injuries are more likely to occur when improper and illegal technique, such as spear tackling, is used," LaBella wrote. "As such, efforts should be made to improve the teaching of proper tackling technique and enforce existing rules."

The bill is HB4341.