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Ernesto Garcia  

Connally Cadets high school begins their first day of practice for the 2018 season early Monday morning.

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County gets authority to license, regulate eight-liner game rooms
 Kristin Hoppa  / 

A new state law will soon give McLennan County authorities more control over eight-liner game rooms, including rules on where they can set up shop.

House Bill 892 signed into law May 21 by Gov. Greg Abbott, gives Texas’ 254 counties the authority to license and inspect game rooms, which are defined as businesses with six or more video slot machines.

With bipartisan support, the Texas Legislature erased “bracketing provisions” that had limited that regulatory and enforcement to certain counties. The expanded law goes into effect Sept. 1.

State Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, R-Waco, passed a bill this session specifically giving McLennan County authority to regulate gaming operations. Last month, Abbott vetoed Anderson’s bill, along with similar county-specific bills, in favor of the broader authorization of HB 892.

“I carried the local bill, because the city (of Waco) and county brought it to us and I think it was definitely worthwhile, because I have had several people approach us, saying they (gaming establishments) were causing problems in local neighborhoods,” Anderson said. “People would come in during all hours of the night, bring in sorely folks, drug dealing, prostitution, and noise complaints, something needed to be done.”

State law prohibits gambling, but eight-liners operate in a legal gray zone, making it difficult for law enforcement to make a case against game rooms.

The machines are allowed only if they pay out a maximum of $5 in the form of a prize or ticket, never cash.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file  

A Waco SWAT member exits the business at 901 N. 25th St. after a raid on a suspected eight-liner gambling operation in January. One employee was detained during the search. City and county leaders are determined to clamp down on such operations.

Since 2016, when Waco City Council members expressed alarm over the proliferation of some 50 game rooms, Waco police have made raids on game rooms based on illegal gambling. That included a May 2018 raid in which police seized eight machines from the Rio Grande Resale Grocery & Gifts, 901 N. 25th Street. In that case, an undercover officer reported putting $20 into a machine and winning $60 cash.

Waco police have been enforcing a local ordinance from 2006 that regulates game rooms with more than 24 machines.

The county-level law will not supersede the city ordinance but in some ways will be broader, applying to any business with 6 or more machines.

The county will have the authority to restrict the location of game rooms to certain areas of the county and prohibit them within a certain distance from a school, church or neighborhood.

The county could charge up to $1,000 for a game room license, which could be revoked for noncompliance. Operators of unlicensed game rooms would face a Class A misdemeanor charge.

Waco officials have supported legislation to expand the county’s authority over eight-liners.

“This now gives the county the authority to go out and enforce the law when this potential problem arises in other areas,” Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said. “We’ve been enforcing our own ordinances for a number of years. It is good that the county now hands support to handle these types of incidents.”

County Judge Scott Felton said since the passage of the new law, eight-liner and enforcement efforts will likely be a topic of conversation at Monday’s intergovernmental relations committee between the city and county. No agenda was posted Wednesday, but Felton said the city and county have long supported each others’ efforts to enforce the law on game rooms.

“The city has been working on their ordinance and has been having problems in the places that were running those eight-liner machines, so we understand everything needs to be countywide,” Felton said. “We will looking at that in the near future and I don’t see why we wouldn’t continue to enforce this effort.”

McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Shawn Nixon said the county will have to meet with the District Attorney’s Office and county commissioners to see the direction and prosecution capabilities for the new law.

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Episcopal church starts work on inclusive playground, invites public
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

A local Episcopal church is building one of the city’s first inclusive playgrounds, and the space is slated to be open to the public before the end of summer.

Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, 1624 Wooded Acres Drive, is renovating one of its playgrounds to be an all-inclusive playground for children between the ages of 2 and 6, designed to accommodate disabilities of any kind. The Rev. Jason Ingalls, the church’s rector, said the project is a reflection of Episcopalian beliefs and values.

“We think that we have a responsibility to God not only for the people who come here, but for the neighborhood around us,” Ingalls said.

Renderings depict an open space with a trail, a climbing mound and stationary percussion instruments for kids to play. The turf will be safe to fall onto, the ground will be flat and meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards, and all surfaces will be static-proof to protect hearing aids and other devices.

Landscape Structures image — Holy Spirit Episcopal Church 

A rendering shows plans for Holy Spirit Episcopal Church’s inclusive playground. Colors used in the rendering will not reflect the finished product.

Inclusive playgrounds, while not yet common, are not entirely new to the Waco area.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has been exploring building an inclusive park for a few years and has requested $1 million in its proposal for the city’s 2019-20 budget. Hewitt Elementary School built an inclusive playground last year.

Ingalls said the church’s $100,000 project started about three years ago, when church members began discussing how to convert their existing playground into something more inclusive. Ingalls said parents drove the conversation.

“It kind of got put aside as we dealt with other bits of our master plan, but it’s been there the whole time,” he said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, 1624 Wooded Acres Drive, is installing a new playground as part of its efforts to be disability inclusive.

The church’s leadership revisited the idea last summer, as they were discussing the possibility of opening an inclusive school at the church for children with disabilities, which remains a goal.

“It became very natural then, as we were talking about moving forward on the toddler playground, to go ahead and make it a completely inclusive playground,” Ingalls said. “It started three years ago, and it’s been slowly becoming clearer and clearer as we’ve moved closer to who God’s called us to be in Waco.”

Associate Rector Preston Yancey said his firsthand experiences as a parent trying to navigate playgrounds and similar stories from other parents shaped the playground’s design.

“Your child is not an object lesson. Your child is a whole human,” Yancey said. “They are not here to teach the world something.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Holy Spirit Episcopal Church is installing a new playground designed not to exclude children because of disability. It will be open to the public during church hours.

Yancey said his 4-year-old son, Jack, is an energetic kid, but conventional playgrounds present problems in more ways than one. He said due to anophthalmia, Jack is missing his right eye and external ear, limiting his vision.

“A lot of times, you’ll wind up in situations where someone has absolutely thought of ambulatory devices, but they’ve not thought about visual difference,” Yancey said. “His perspective of the world is particular to one kind of sightedness.”

Yancey said children tend to openly stare at his son in social situations, and their parents frequently drop the ball.

“I get to have lots of really fun conversations with kids whose parents I wish would be better parents and step in,” Yancey said. “I get to say things like ‘would you like to meet Jack?’ And the parent freezes up and doesn’t know what to say.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Holy Spirit Episcopal Church Rector Jason Ingalls (right) and Associate Rector Preston Yancey hold a rendering of the church's playground, which is expected to be ready in August.

He said the deck is often stacked against kids with disabilities and their parents in social situations, but the playground will hopefully serve as a gathering place for children as well as parents who have had similar experiences.

“Kids who have disabilities ask about other kids who have disabilities too,” Yancey said. “We’re not cured of that curiosity, but a space in which you can ask those questions well … is huge.”

The playground will be open during church hours, though church leadership is considering expanding hours in the future if possible. The soft opening is slated for Aug. 1, with an official blessing and opening scheduled for Aug. 25.

“The big bones of this come directly from the congregation,” Ingalls said.

Fiery Democratic debate: Race, age, health care and Trump

MIAMI — Democratic divisions over race, age and ideology surged into public view Thursday night as the party’s leading presidential contenders faced off in a fiery debate over who is best positioned to take on President Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party’s early front-runner, 76-year-old former Vice President Joe Biden, was forced to defend his record on race in the face of tough questions from California Sen. Kamala Harris, the only African American on stage. That was only after he defended his age after jabs from one of two millennial candidates in the prime-time clash.

Harris described Biden’s record of working with Republican segregationist senators on non-race issues as “hurtful.”

Clearly on defense, Biden called Harris attack “a complete mischaracterization of my record.” He declared, “I ran because of civil rights.”

For moments Thursday night, a fierce intraparty debate that had been simmering just below the surface about the party’s future was exposed on national television. The showdown featured four of the five strongest candidates — according to early polls, at least. Those are Biden, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg of Indiana and Harris. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who debated Wednesday night, is the fifth.

Together, the two nights gave millions of Americans their first peek inside the Democrats’ unruly 2020 season.

There are so many candidates lining up to take on Trump that they do not all fit on one debate stage — or even two. Twenty Democrats debated on national television this week in two waves of 10, while a handful more were left out altogether.

The level of diversity on display was unprecedented for a major political party in the United States. The field features six women, two African Americans, one Asian American and two men under 40, one of them openly gay.

Yet in the early days of the campaign, two white septuagenarians are leading the polls: Biden and Vermont Sen. Sanders.

Sanders early on slapped back at his party’s centrist candidates, demanding “real change.” Biden downplayed his establishment leanings, raising his hand to say his health care plan would provide coverage for immigrants in the country illegally.

Sanders’ appeal relies on emotion, often anger. He stood alongside Biden, who preaches pragmatism and relative moderation.

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Marlin ISD rehires fired teacher following order from state education commissioner
 Brooke Crum  / 

Following an order from the state education commissioner, the Marlin Independent School District Board of Managers unanimously voted Wednesday evening to rehire teacher Claude Kelley for the 2019-20 school year and pay him back pay since the board fired him in May last year.

Board President Billy Johnson said he does not know how much money the district owes Kelley. He declined to comment further.

State Education Commissioner Mike Morath ruled May 13 that the Marlin ISD board must reinstate Kelley’s employment and provide him with any back pay and benefits until the district provides Kelley with a new contract, according to a copy of Morath’s order.

Marlin ISD’s state-appointed board of managers terminated Kelley’s probationary contract in May 2018, following a recommendation from then-superintendent Michael Seabolt. Kelley filed a grievance with the board after his termination, then appealed the grievance to the education commissioner after the board declined to rehire him.

The board of managers suspended Seabolt on June 5, after being directed to do so by Texas Education Agency conservator Jean Bahney.

Johnson declined to comment on how Seabolt’s recommendation to fire Kelley reflects on the suspended superintendent’s leadership abilities or whether it had anything to do with placing Seabolt on paid administrative leave.

After the board fired Kelley, who taught computer classes at Marlin High School, Seabolt told the Tribune-Herald Kelley had told students they were not smart enough to pass an end of course exam Kelley was helping administer at the time. Kelley’s attorney disputed Seabolt’s account.

Kelley taught under a probationary contract for the 2016-17 and the 2017-18 school years.

Kelley and his Austin-based attorney, Kevin Lungwitz, claim in their appeal to the state education commissioner that the board never voted to end his probationary contract and did not notify him of the termination of his contract in a timely manner.

A board of trustees must give notice of termination of a teacher’s employment no later than the 10th day before the last day of instruction required under the teacher’s contract, according to the Texas Education Code.

On April 17, 2018, the Marlin ISD board of managers’ agenda included an item to “approve the termination of high school teacher probationary contract.” The district employed at least two high school teachers under probationary contracts that school year. The motion passed unanimously.

Kelley then filed a grievance with the board arguing the vote failed to identify the teacher whose contract was terminated and, therefore, did not terminate his probationary contract.

The commissioner found that the board’s motion on April 17, 2018, did not terminate Kelley’s contract because it did not identify Kelley and could have referred to at least one other teacher, according to a copy of the commissioner’s decision.

The board again tried to terminate Kelley’s contract on May 15, 2018. The agenda item included in the consent agenda stated “consideration and possible action on superintendent’s recommendations…to terminate the probationary contract of Claude Kelley in the best interest of the district due to conduct alleged to have occurred during end of course test administration.”

Boards generally adopt consent agenda items in a single vote, unless they pull individual items for discussion. Otherwise, all items under the consent agenda pass with a single vote by the board.

The board unanimously adopted the consent agenda May 15, 2018, but the item concerning Kelley’s contract was “rather different than the other items which all begin with the word ‘approve.’ The item in question begins with the words ‘consideration and possible action.’ If the desire was to terminate (Kelley’s) contract, in keeping with the other consent items, one would suspect that the item would read: approve termination of probationary contract of Claude Kelley,” Morath wrote in his order.

“Instead of approving the termination of (Kelley’s) contract, respondent’s board voted to consider and take possible action to terminate (Kelley’s) contract and notify” him, Morath’s order states. “Granted, this action makes little sense.”

“The question is not: What do we now suppose the board members subjectively believed?” the order states. “The question is: What is the meaning of the motion the board passed? The May 15, 2018, motion was not a vote to end (Kelley’s) contract.”

A grim border drowning underlines peril facing many migrants

MEXICO CITY — The man and his 23-month-old daughter lay face down in shallow water along the bank of the Rio Grande, his black shirt hiked up to his chest with the girl tucked inside. Her arm was draped around his neck suggesting she clung to him in her final moments.

The searing photograph of the sad discovery of their bodies on Monday, captured by journalist Julia Le Duc and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, highlights the perils faced by mostly Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty and hoping for asylum in the United States.

According to Le Duc’s reporting for La Jornada, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, frustrated because the family from El Salvador was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum, swam across the river on Sunday with his daughter, Valeria.

He set her on the U.S. bank of the river and started back for his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, but seeing him move away the girl threw herself into the waters. Martínez returned and was able to grab Valeria, but the current swept them both away.

The account was based on remarks by Ávalos to police at the scene — “amid tears” and “screams” — Le Duc told The Associated Press.

Details of the incident were confirmed Tuesday by a Tamaulipas state government official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, and by Martínez’s mother back in El Salvador, Rosa Ramírez, who spoke with her daughter-in-law by phone afterward.

“When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further ... and he couldn’t get out,” Ramírez told the AP. “He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, ‘I’ve come this far’ and decided to go with her.”

From the scorching Sonoran Desert to the fast-moving Rio Grande, the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has long been an at times deadly crossing between ports of entry. A total of 283 migrant deaths were recorded last year; the toll so far this year has not been released.

In recent weeks alone, two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead in the sweltering heat. Three children and an adult from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande, and a 6-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The search for Martínez and his daughter was suspended Sunday due to darkness, and their bodies were discovered the next morning near Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, several hundred yards from where they had tried to cross and just a half-mile from an international bridge.

Tamaulipas immigration and civil defense officials have toured shelters beginning weeks ago to warn against attempting to cross the river, said to be swollen with water released from dams for irrigation. On the surface, the Rio Grande appears placid, but strong currents run beneath.

Ramírez said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.

“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Ramírez said. “They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”

El Salvador’s foreign ministry said it was working to assist the family, including Ávalos, who was at a border migrant shelter following the drownings. The bodies were expected to be flown to El Salvador on Thursday.

The photo recalls the 2015 image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean near Turkey, though it remains to be seen whether it may have the same impact in focusing international attention on migration to the U.S.

“Very regrettable that this would happen,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday in response to a question about the photograph. “We have always denounced that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing” the river.

There was no immediate comment from the White House.

U.S. “metering” policy has dramatically reduced the number of migrants who are allowed to request asylum, down from dozens per day previously to sometimes just a handful at some ports of entry.

The Tamaulipas government official said the family arrived in Matamoros early Sunday and went to the U.S. Consulate to try to get a date to request asylum. The mother is 21 years old and the father was 25, he added.

But waits are long there as elsewhere along the border. Last week, a shelter director said only about 40 to 45 asylum interviews were being conducted in Matamoros each week, while somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1,700 names were on a waiting list.

It’s not clear what happened to the family at the U.S. Consulate, but later in the day they made the decision to cross. The Tamaulipas official said the father and daughter set off from a small park that abuts the river. Civil defense officials arrived at the scene at 7 p.m. Sunday and later took the wife to the shelter.

“I was drawn to the girl’s arm on her father,” Le Duc said as she described arriving at the scene. “It was something that moved me in the extreme because it reflects that until her last breath, she was joined to him not only by the shirt but also in that embrace in which they passed together into death.”

“It’s a horrifying image,” Maureen Meyer, a specialist on immigration at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region, said of the photograph. “And I think it speaks so clearly to the real risks of these U.S. programs that are either returning people back to Mexico seeking asylum or in this case limiting how many people can enter the U.S. every day.”

The U.S. has also been expanding its program under which asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in U.S. courts, a wait that could last many months or even years.

This week Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, the same state where Matamoros is located, said it will become the latest city to receive returnees as soon as Friday.

Many migrant shelters are overflowing on the Mexican side, and cartels hold sway over much of Tamaulipas and have been known to kidnap and kill migrants.

Meanwhile, Mexico is stepping up its own crackdown on immigration in response to U.S. pressure, with much of the focus on slowing the flow in the country’s south.

“With greater crackdowns and restrictions,” said Cris Ramón, senior immigration policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in Washington, “we could see more desperate measures by people trying to enter Mexico or the U.S.”