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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

MCC head baseball coach Mitch Thompson has his sights set on three championships: conference, regional and national.

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State board puts enrollment hold on MCC registered nurse program
 Carl Hoover  / 

The Texas Board of Nursing has put a temporary stop to McLennan Community College enrolling new students in its associate degree of nursing program after three years of substandard exit test scores.

The board, meeting Thursday in Austin, downgraded status of the MCC program from Full Approval with Warning to Conditional Approval and set an 80 percent first-time pass rate for this year’s graduates to return the program to full approval status.

The associate degree of nursing program takes two years and leads to licensing as a registered nurse upon passing the National Council Licensure Exam.

MCC President Johnette McKown said the drop in approval status is “concerning,” but that changes to the program have been underway for the past two years in an effort to address exit exam scores and other concerns the state board has. She expects the program to meet the 80 percent pass rate and emerge stronger as a result of the board’s efforts, McKown said.

“We’re very proud of the program and the work that (Health Professions Dean) Glynnis Gaines and (associate degree nursing director) Becky Griffin have done,” she said in an interview earlier this week.

The board’s action does not affect students already in the associate degree nursing program or other MCC health professions programs, which include two other nursing programs. It also does not affect accreditation through the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

The Texas Board of Nursing has two other nursing programs on conditional approval status.

The board action follows a drop in MCC students’ exit exam scores that started in 2016, when the pass rate dropped markedly to 64.04 percent of 114 students tested, from 86.96 percent of 115 students the previous year. The subpar scores continued , with a 77.88 percent pass rate in 2017 and a 76.47 percent pass rate last year.

The state board changed the nursing program’s status from Full Approval to Full Approval With Warning in January of last year, prompting a campus visit in September and interviews of nursing students, faculty and administrators.

The program will not enroll new students this fall after admitting 40 students this month. The enrollment hold means there will be no graduating class in spring 2021.

Staff and faculty will use the time to evaluate the level-to-level progression in the curriculum, McKown said.

“It will give us an opportunity to retool and to align our classes,” she said. “No one loses their jobs over this.”

Test scores for the 29 students who graduated in last month and 33 expected to graduate in the spring will be reported to the state board by September. If the program meets the state’s 80 percent passing standard, it can enroll new students in spring 2020. If not, the ban on new enrollment will continue for a year.

Vice President of Instruction Fred Hills said students who had planned on enrolling in the associate degree nursing program in the fall may consider other options, including the one-year vocational nursing program that leads to a certification as a licensed vocational nurse, or the Bachelor of Science in nursing program that leads to finishing work with MCC four-year partners Texas Tech University or Tarleton State University.

Although many of MCC’s associate degree nursing graduates find work as RNs in Waco hospitals and clinics, it is not clear if a reduction in MCC-trained nurses would have affect local hiring. Baylor Scott & White Health spokesperson Megan Snipes said the company does not track incoming RNs by where they were trained. Providence Health Center Hospital and the Family Health Center did not reply to questions about RN staffing.

Eight RNs work for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, but their positions are somewhat specialized and turnover is low, health district spokesperson Kelly Craine said.

Baylor Scott & White released a statement Thursday supporting the MCC program.

“We are aware of the steps MCC’s leadership has taken to improve the program and we are appreciative of their dedication to educating and equipping students to become exceptional nurses,” it said. “We applaud the school’s efforts to continue providing well-qualified candidates to hospitals that serve our Central Texas community.”

Griffin, an RN, taught nursing at MCC as an adjunct for 11 years and full-time for more than 30 before becoming program director in April 2017. She, McKown and Hills said several factors had converged in recent years to cause what MCC Board President K. Paul Holt called a “hiccup” in the program.

The Texas Board of Nursing adopted Texas Concept-Based Curriculum as the new state curriculum in 2013, around the time state legislators cut back the number of class hours required for an associte degree in nursing from 72 to 60, effectively increasing the amount of material covered while reducing the time to cover it.

Some faculty had difficulty adjusting to new teaching approaches in the curriculum while students complained of inconsistencies from one level to another in the program, the board reported based on its campus visit in September. The board also found that 27 students who had failed the program in fall 2016 were reinstated by the MCC administration. McKown said some students had been allowed to repeat their final semester in hope of passing.

Since 2017, six nursing faculty had left or retired and been replaced by new staff. There are now 20 full-time faculty, 20 part-time faculty and a simulation lab manager.

The program has already added higher entry requirements, a new entrance exam and held a training faculty session with a consultant.

The changes have reduced the annual number of associate degree nursing graduates from slightly more than 100 to about 60 this year.

“There’s decreased enrollment so we can better focus on the students,” Griffin said.

McKown said she has met with local hospital executives to explain the situation.

“They were all very supportive of what we’re doing and understanding these things happen in nursing programs and hospitals,” she said. “They’re fully prepared to hire our graduates. That’s important to us.”

Jerry Larson  

Teague High School FAA member Clayton Hood examines the air filter chamber of tractor engine looking for “bugs”. Texas State Technical College’s Diesel Equipment Technology program hosted the Texas FFA Tractor Technician Career Development Event.

Jerry Larson  

Midway High School FAA members Zoe Tripp, below, Austin Young, center, and Nash Wadsworth, above check for “bugs” on a tractor. Texas State Technical College’s Diesel Equipment Technology program hosted the Texas FFA Tractor Technician Career Development Event.

Senate rejects rival Dem, GOP plans for reopening government

WASHINGTON — A splintered Senate swatted down competing Democratic and Republican plans for ending the 34-day partial government shutdown on Thursday, but the twin setbacks prompted a burst of bipartisan talks aimed at temporarily halting the longest-ever closure of federal agencies and the damage it’s inflicting around the country.

In the first serious exchange in weeks, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., quickly called Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., to his office to explore potential next steps for solving the vitriolic stalemate. Senators from both sides floated a plan to reopen agencies for three weeks and pay hundreds of thousands of beleaguered federal workers while bargainers hunt for a deal.

At the White House, President Donald Trump told reporters he’d support “a reasonable agreement.” He suggested he’d also want a “prorated down payment” for his long-sought border wall with Mexico but didn’t describe the term. He said he has “other alternatives” for getting wall funding, an apparent reference to his disputed claim that he could declare a national emergency and fund the wall’s construction using other programs in the federal budget.

“At least we’re talking about it. That’s better than it was before,” McConnell told reporters in one of the most encouraging statements heard since the shutdown began Dec. 22.

Even so, it was unclear whether the flurry would produce results.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., whose relationship with Trump seems to sour daily, told reporters a “big” down payment would not be “a reasonable agreement.” Asked if she knew how much money Trump meant, Pelosi said, “I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.”

Schumer spokesman Justin Goodman said Democrats have made clear “that they will not support funding for the wall, prorated or otherwise.”

Contributing to the pressure on lawmakers to find a solution was the harsh reality confronting 800,000 federal workers, who on Friday face a second two-week payday with no paychecks.

Underscoring the strains, Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., angrily said on the Senate floor that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had forced a 2013 shutdown during which “people were killed” in Colorado from flooding and shuttered federal agencies couldn’t help local emergency workers. Moments earlier, Cruz accused Democrats of blocking a separate, doomed bill to pay Coast Guard personnel during this shutdown to score political points, adding later, “Just because you hate somebody doesn’t mean you should shut the government down.”

Thursday’s votes came after Vice President Mike Pence lunched privately with GOP senators, who told him they were itching for the standoff to end, participants said. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said their message to Pence was, “Find a way forward.”

In an embarrassment to Trump, the Democratic proposal got two more votes Thursday than the GOP plan, even though Republicans control the chamber 53-47. Six Republicans backed the Democratic plan, including freshman Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who’s clashed periodically with the president.

The Senate first rejected a Republican plan reopening the government through September and giving Trump the $5.7 billion he’s demanded for building segments of that wall, a project that he’d long promised Mexico would finance. The 50-47 vote for the measure fell 10 shy of the 60 votes needed to succeed.

Minutes later, senators voted 52-44 for a Democratic alternative that sought to open padlocked agencies through Feb. 8 with no wall money. That was eight votes short. It was aimed at giving bargainers time to seek an accord while getting paychecks to government workers who are either working wihout pay or being forced to stay home.

Flustered lawmakers said Thursday’s roll calls could be a reality check that would prod the start of talks. Throughout, the two sides have issued mutually exclusive demands that have blocked negotiations from even starting: Trump has refused to reopen government until Congress gives him the wall money, and congressional Democrats have rejected bargaining until he reopens government.

Thursday’s votes could “teach us that the leaders are going to have to get together and figure out how to resolve this,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Senate GOP leader. He added, “One way or another we’ve got to get out of this. This is no win for anybody.”

Initially, partisan potshots flowed freely.

Pelosi accused Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross of a “’Let them eat cake’ kind of attitude” after he said on television that he didn’t understand why unpaid civil servants were resorting to homeless shelters for food. Even as Pelosi offered to meet the president “anytime,” Trump stood firm, tweeting, “Without a Wall it all doesn’t work.... We will not Cave!”

As the Senate debated the two dueling proposals, McConnell said the Democratic plan would let that party’s lawmakers “make political points and nothing else” because Trump wouldn’t sign it. He called Pelosi’s opposition “unreasonable” and said, “Senate Democrats are not obligated to go down with her ship.”

Schumer criticized the GOP plan for endorsing Trump’s proposal to keep the government closed until he gets what he wants.

“A vote for the president’s plan is an endorsement of government by extortion,” Schumer said. “If we let him do it today, he’ll do it tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”

McConnell’s engagement was viewed as a constructive sign because he has a history of helping resolve partisan standoffs. For weeks, he’d let Trump and Democrats try reaching an accord and, until Thursday, had barred any votes on legislation Trump would not sign.

In consultation with their Senate counterparts, House Democrats were preparing a new border security package that might be rolled out Friday. Despite their pledge to not negotiate until agencies reopened, their forthcoming proposal was essentially a counteroffer to Trump. Pelosi expressed “some optimism that things could break loose pretty soon” in a closed-door meeting with other Democrats on Wednesday evening, said Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky.

The Democratic package was expected to include $5.7 billion, the same amount Trump wants for his wall, but it would be used instead for fencing, technology, personnel and other measures.

Deadlocked jury forces mistrial in child sexual assault case
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

A Waco auto mechanic charged with sexually abusing two young family members will get another day in court after his trial ended Thursday in a mistrial.

Jurors deliberated about six hours but were unable to reach a unanimous verdict, forcing 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother to declare a mistrial.

Bryan Lacy Swisher, 56, was on trial on one count of continuous sexual abuse of young children and one count of indecency with a child by contact. He faced a minimum of 25 years in prison without parole and up to life if convicted on the first count.

The two girls, who are now 11 and 12, told the jury Swisher sexually abused them. The older girl testified that the abuse started when she was 6 and ended after she told her mother of the abuse one day after church when she was 9.

The younger girl testified Swisher abused her on one or two occasions during her visits to his Wenz Avenue residence. She reported the abuse a week after the older girl reported it.

If the trial had reached the punishment phase, prosecutors Sydney Tuggle and Will Hix were prepared to introduce evidence of Swisher’s misdemeanor convictions in 2004 for possession of marijuana and assault on his wife.

The jury had deliberated about 2½ hours before sending out its first note indicating it was having trouble reaching a verdict. Strother instructed jurors to keep deliberating.

The jury deliberated through lunch, which was provided by the court, and sent another note at about 2 p.m. telling the judge jurors were deadlocked. Strother sent what is known as a “dynamite” or “Allen” charge to the jury, telling them to keep working and informing jurors that the next jury will have to make a decision based on the same evidence they heard.

Strother declared a mistrial an hour later after a third note from the jury.

“We are pleased that each juror listened attentively to the victims and voted their conscience based on the testimony presented,” said Swisher’s attorney, Alan Bennett, who tried the case with attorney Jessi Freud.

Bennett and Freud called a counselor at the older girl’s elementary school who testified that the girl once made a report about a teacher at the school that turned out to be unfounded. The allegation was not sexual in nature and the girl was moved to another classroom, she said.

Bennett asked the counselor about the girl’s reputation for truthfulness. She said that based on multiple interactions with the girl for three years, she thinks her reputation is not good.

Swisher remains free on bail.

Former Baylor football player Oakman seeks change of venue for sexual assault case
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Former Baylor University football player Shawn Oakman is asking a judge to move his sexual assault trial from McLennan County, alleging the Baylor sexual assault scandal and the case against a former fraternity president have created a “toxic environment” that could prevent a fair trial.

Oakman’s attorney, Alan Bennett, filed the change of venue motion Thursday afternoon, and 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother set a hearing for Feb. 1 to consider the request.

Accompanying the motion are affidavits from Oakman and Waco attorneys Guy Cox, Mark Morris and Will Conrad, all contending “the publicity surrounding the Baylor scandal and exacerbated by the (Jacob) Anderson case has created so great a prejudice against Shawn Oakman that he cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial in McLennan County.”

Oakman’s trial, which has been reset a number of times, is set now for Feb. 25.

Assistant District Attorney Robert Moody said the district attorney’s office will oppose the change of venue motion.

Oakman, a former Baylor defensive end, was indicted on charges he sexually assaulted a Baylor student at his apartment in April 2016, after his record-setting football career at Baylor was over. He has said he dated the woman previously and that the sexual encounter was consensual.

Oakman has since rejected a plea bargain from prosecutors that called for him to be placed on deferred probation in exchange for his guilty plea. Bennett said Oakman turned down the offer because he is not guilty and wants to clear his name in court.

“The publicity from the Baylor sexual assault scandal and ongoing litigation is well documented,” Bennett said Thursday. “Shawn’s arrest occurred in the midst of that. The recent explosion of news media attention and negative commentary on social media regarding the Jacob Anderson case has only exacerbated the local awareness of sexual assault allegations involving current or former Baylor students.

“After conferring with local experts and with the Oakman family, we decided it is in Shawn’s best interest to seek a change of venue for the reasons we stated in the motion,” he said.

Bennett noted in the motion that Strother, after conferring with prosecutors and a defense attorney, postponed a sexual assault trial in the week following the turmoil generated after Strother accepted a plea agreement and placed former Baylor fraternity president Jacob Anderson on deferred probation for three years on a lesser charge of unlawful restraint.

Strother, his staff and prosecutors “were swamped for weeks with innumerable, hostile and threatening telephone calls and emails,” the change of venue motion states. “And the toxic environment created by the Anderson case caused the court to postpone a child sexual abuse trial scheduled a week later because of concerns of selecting an unbiased and impartial jury.”

Amid the social media furor over the Anderson plea agreement, UT-Dallas officials kicked Anderson off campus and did not allow him to participate in his graduation ceremony. They also said he could not attend graduate school there.

Bennett previously filed a motion to postpone a previous September trial date for Oakman because an important character witness for Oakman, former Baylor coach Brian Norwood, was not available then. Bennett also filed a motion to change venue before the September trial date.

Norwood, who coached at Baylor from 2008 to 2014, recruited Oakman, who transferred to Baylor from Penn State University.

Oakman has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest. He since has played for the Bismarck (North Dakota) Bucks of the Champions Indoor Football League for $200 a game. He is now working in Dallas as a personal trainer, Bennett said.

Staff photo — Tommy Witherspoon