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In an era of school shootings, first responders train for worst nightmare

The simulated shooting started off Thursday afternoon with dulled, but loud, hand smacks against the glass in the hallway, imitating the popping sound that even combat veterans will fail to recognize as gunfire.

The pops lack any discernible rhythm, save for short staccato bursts, but they do set off a chaotic storm of other sounds over the next 15 minutes — a hysterical teacher’s call to 911, pained screams echoing down the school hallways, a slightly off-sync burst of chirps as dozens of first responders’ radios sound the unthinkable words they pray to never hear:

“Shots fired at Theodore Roosevelt Elementary.”

It’s a nightmare these first responders lived 12 times over the course of the three-day training that started Wednesday, involving several area agencies, like local police and fire departments, emergency medical services and USD 383. Different responders rotated through the simulations in order to provide the training for as many people as possible.

But unlike other nightmares, they know this one could become reality one day, so the trainers and volunteers make every effort to make the training as real as possible. Their job, in a sense, was to make the first responders’ jobs as difficult as possible, to put as much stress as they can on the first responders, so that they have a sense of the even greater stress they’d experience in a real shooting.

“The more we act it out, the more stressed out they are, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Brooke Black, a four-year volunteer veteran, said. “We stress them out and make sure they don’t miss anything.”

Several of the volunteers, ranging from teenagers to adults, donned moulage — make-up and other effects meant to simulate gunshot wounds and other injuries.

“Once we start, the atmosphere completely changes,” said Eaden Marstall, a Manhattan High junior who’s volunteered the past three years. “Even though it’s fake, it’s extremely serious and grave. As soon as the first responders start treating you, they take it very seriously. The tourniquets are put on tight.”

Whenever school shootings do occur, they act as sobering reminders of why the training matters, but they also serve as learning opportunities. RCPD Lt. Tim Schuck and Manhattan Fire Dept. battalion chief Mark Whitehair, two of the trainers in charge of the simulations each year, said they constantly learn and debrief from other shooting incidents throughout the year.

“We understand it’s just a simulation, but part of what we did to prepare our staff for this is we did a debrief with our staff of the Sandy Hook incident, which really brings it to light for a lot of people, why we have to train and react the way we do,” Schuck said. “Quite frankly, I’d say the vast majority of (us first responders) are parents ourselves, so it really hits home for some of us.”

More than anything, the training has taught area responders to be cohesive, Whitehair and Schuck said. From a bloodied disarray of screaming victims in hallways, the first responders bring some measure of organization, arriving in waves to first stop the violence and then tend the wounded. It’s a careful operation that requires cooperation between several people in several agencies, and only training such as Thursday’s builds the cohesiveness needed in these nightmares.

“When we first started the lack of communication compared to now, it’s been amazing,” Whitehair said. “It’s so fluid. I am proud of all the men and women who take time to participate in this training.”

“It takes a lot of different parts coming together, and we do it as accurately and efficiently as we can,” Schuck said. “At the end of the day, all three agencies have the same goal, and that’s the preservation of life.”

Labor Secretary Acosta resigning amid Epstein deal scrutiny

WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta said Friday he is resigning following renewed scrutiny of his handling of a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Esptein, who is accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.

President Donald Trump, with Acosta at his side, made the announcement as he left the White House for a trip to Wisconsin and Ohio. The president said Acosta had been a “great” labor secretary.

“I hate to see this happen,” Trump said. He said he did not ask Acosta to leave the Cabinet.

Acosta said his resignation would be effective in seven days. Acosta said he didn’t think it was right for his handling of Epstein’s case to distract from his work as secretary of labor.

“My point here today is we have an amazing economy and the focus needs to be on the economy job creation,” Acosta said.

Acosta was the U.S. attorney in Miami when he oversaw a 2008 non-prosecution agreement Jeffrey Epstein. Epstein avoided federal charges, plead guilty to state charges and served 13 months in jail. Similar charges recently filed against Epstein by federal prosecutors in New York had put Acosta’s role in the 2008 deal under renewed scrutiny.

Top Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates had demanded that Acosta resign over his handling of the agreement, which a federal judge has said violated federal law because Acosta did not notify Epstein’s victims of the arrangement. The Justice Department has been investigating.

Trump had initially defended Acosta but said he’d look “very closely” his handling of the 2008 agreement.

The deal came under scrutiny earlier this year following reporting by the Miami Herald.

Epstein, 66, reached the deal to secretly end a federal sex abuse investigation involving at least 40 teenage girls that could have landed him behind bars for life. He instead pleaded guilty to state charges, spent 13 months in jail, paid settlements to victims and is a registered sex offender.

Acosta had attempted to clear his name, and held a news conference — encouraged by Trump — to defend his actions. In a 50-plus-minute lawyerly rebuttal, Acosta argued his office had secured the best deal it could at the time and was working in the victims’ best interests.

“We did what we did because we wanted to see Epstein go to jail,” he said, refusing to apologize for his actions. “We believe that we proceeded appropriately.”

Pressed on whether he had any regrets, Acosta repeatedly suggested that circumstances had changed since then.

“We now have 12 years of knowledge and hindsight and we live in a very different world,” he said. “Today’s world treats victims very, very differently,” he said.

After federal attorneys in New York announced the new charges against Epstein this week, Acosta tweeted that he was “pleased” by their decision.

“The crimes committed by Epstein are horrific,” Acosta tweeted. “With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator.”

“Now that new evidence and additional testimony is available, the NY prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice,” he said.

Acosta, the nation’s 27th labor secretary, took on the role officially in early 2017, leading a sprawling agency that enforces more than 180 federal laws covering about 10 million employers and 125 million workers. He was confirmed in the Senate 60-38.

But Acosta had frustrated some conservatives who had been pushing for his ouster long before the Epstein uproar. Among their frustrations were Acosta’s decisions to proceed with several employment discrimination lawsuits and to allow certain Obama holdovers to remain on the job.

Acosta is a former federal prosecutor and civil rights chief. Before joining the administration he was dean of the Florida International University law school.

Staff photo by Matt Lunsford  

Debris rests on the ground as demolition continues Friday at the Royal Inn on Tuttle Creek Boulevard.

CITY NOTEBOOK | City flag design vote ends Sunday

Almost 2,500 people have voted in the city flag contest, and the two finalists featuring apples in their designs have been neck and neck.

The Sunflower design (688 votes, 28% of the vote) is edging out the Little Apple on the Prairie design (664 votes, 27%) as of Friday morning, according to city officials. Vivienne Uccello, city public information officer, said she expects a lot more people to vote before the contest ends Sunday.

Uccello said the city had some backlash online questioning the need for a new city flag after the city announced the seven flag finalists, Uccello said she thinks that in comparing the amount of people who have voted in the contest versus the amount of people who spoken out against a new flag online, more people prefer a new flag.

She pointed out that a survey in July 2018 showed that 85% of city residents were in favor of a new flag.

Not many people even recognize the old flag, Uccello said.

“That was kind of part of the issue,” she said. “It wasn’t a meaningful symbol for the community, so we were hoping to ask the community to create something that could stand up and represent us together.”

In any case, Uccello said she will be sure to present the city commissioners with a comparison of the online feedback and participants in the contest before they vote on whether they’ll adopt a new flag at their Aug. 20 meeting.

Voting is open online at through 5 p.m. Sunday, where you can see all seven finalists.

Summer street



Despite some spats of rainy weather, summer construction is charging full-steam ahead.

Traffic at 11th Street and Poyntz Avenue should soon normalize after weeks of construction, although 11th Street south of that intersection will still be closed for up to two months. Crews are installing traffic signals, and the intersection (with the exception of the south end) could be back to normal on July 24.

Construction at the intersection of Poyntz and Sunset avenues is now in its second phase, with crews now removing and replacing some of the roadway with a new, 7-inch base. With Manhattan High School at that intersection, the project should be done before school starts Aug. 14.

On the north end of town, traffic has been constricted with work on Kimball Avenue. The avenue is down to one-lane traffic each way between Seth Childs Boulevard and Kenmar, and that work continues through September. Between N. Manhattan Avenue and Tuttle Creek Boulevard, workers have completed the section between N. Manhattan and Ivy, and traffic will start to normalize the week of July 22.

North Manhattan Avenue from Baker’s Way to Research Drive just east of K-State is still closed while workers reduce the hill’s slope, widen the roadway, install a 10 feet-wide sidewalk and add streetscaping. The goal is to have the project done by the start of K-State classes on Aug. 26.

Over at Juliette Avenue, construction is now in its third phase on the section of the street between Osage and Poyntz. Utility work on sewer and water mains are nearly complete, and work should be complete by the start of district classes.

Roadway traffic at College and Dickens Avenue is slightly affected by work to install a new pedestrian signal. The intersection remains open during the project, but it won’t be complete until mid-August.

On the other end of town, pedestrian signals at Carlson Street and McCall Road are down after a lightning strike. The public works department does not yet have an estimate on when repairs might occur.

Back at K-State, work on a Campus Creek Road extension is nearly complete, and crews should have the work done by next week.

June sales tax

muddles along

Sales tax in June is up marginally from June 2018 at 1.02%.

The June report, which reflects April sales, shows the city collected $883,451 in sales tax revenue, which is an increase of $8,924 from $874,527 in June 2018.

Since the beginning of the year, the city has collected $5.5 million in sales tax, up $47,000 or 0.9% from $5.4 million through the same period in 2018.

June’s sales tax receipts were $23,000 underneath projections for the month. However, better-than-expected receipts in January this year have cushioned a few months of underperforming revenues, so the city is ahead of its year-to-date projections by $30,000.

The city and county governments are awaiting sales tax reports over the next few months, which will reflect the loss of sales tax revenue due to Country Stampede’s move to Topeka.

Board appointments

The Manhattan City Commission on July 2 made the following appointments:

  • Theo Stavropoulus, 1739 Kinds Road, was reappointed to a two-year at-large term on the city-university special projects funds committee. His appointment began immediately and runs through June 30, 2021.
  • Ansley Chua, 1000 Stratford Circle, was appointed to a three-year term on the special alcohol funds advisory committee. Her term began immediately and runs through June 30, 2022.
  • Jurdene Coleman, 4573 Sunflower Slope Drive, was reappointed to a three-year term on the same committee. Her term began immediately and ends June 30, 2022.

County, city officials near end of budget process

City and county governments are nearing the end of the 2020 budget process.

The county is looking at a total 2020 budget of $68.39 million, a $6.5 million or 10.5% increase from the 2019 budget. It includes $28.3 million in property tax revenues, with an increase of 2.148 mills to 43.062 mills in the property tax rate.

A mill is $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed, taxable property.

Based on a 0.4% increase in the average value of a house in Riley County, the 2.148-mill increase means that a homeowner paying $470.55 in 2019 county taxes for a $100,000 house in 2019 would pay $497.23 for a $100,400 home in 2020. This is an increase of $26.68 or 5.67%.

Some of the budget’s largest proposed expenses include its general fund ($34.7 million), the county’s share of the RCPD budget ($5.1 million) and capital improvements fund ($9 million).

County budget officer Tami Robison said the capital improvements fund does not affect the ad valorem tax, and it is unlikely all the funds would be used in the next fiscal year.

For example, officials projected $9.38 million, but the county currently projects to spend $4.6 million from the fund.

Robison said about $863,000 of that fund in 2020 is earmarked for debt payments and almost $2 million has not been earmarked for anything in particular. The money is meant to fund proposed projects or purchases that were not budgeted from county entities throughout the year.

Robison said some of the challenging items the county has had to work around is the county absorbing the nearly $1 million costs of installing emergency radio network infrastructure and $638,000 to account for an additional county payroll period.

Commissioners said they may look at potential cuts before a public hearing on the budget July 29.

The city is looking at a total budget of $164.04 million, an $8.1 million increase or 5.2% from 2019.

City officials are also looking at reducing its proposed tax rate increase.

City finance director Bernie Hayen proposed at a commission work session to cut 1.19 mills out of the proposed 1.657-mill increase.

A mill is $1 in taxes for every $1,000 in assessed, taxable property.

This reduction brings the proposed property tax rate for 2020 down to 49.82 mills, a 0.47-mill increase over the 2019 rate of 49.35 mills.

Based on a 0.4% increase in the average value of a home within Manhattan, the proposed 0.47-mill increase means a homeowner paying $567.58 in city taxes for a home worth $100,000 in 2019 would pay $575.22 for a home worth $100,400 in 2020. That’s an increase of $7.64 or 1.34%.

Hayen said the city could lessen the property tax increase by using sales tax revenue from the economic development fund to pay a portion of the Manhattan Conference Center and Manhattan Regional Airport debt payments.

The increases in the general fund, the city’s largest operating fund, are mainly attributed to rising costs of expenses such as employee salaries and benefits, as well as nine proposed positions.

Hayen said these positions all have some sort of revenue component involved and would be instrumental in helping generate more revenue for the city.

The commission will have one last budget work session on July 25 before it will publish the 2020 budget. After that, officials cannot change the proposed expenditure amounts except to decrease them.

The Manhattan-Ogden school board is in the early stages of its 2020 budget development.