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Waco NAACP, community advocates call for diligent vetting of police chief candidates

Racial justice advocates are asking the city of Waco to be diligent in vetting candidates for Waco police chief, especially since learning of one finalist’s connection to a controversy over the death of a Black pedestrian after a struggle with police last year.

Marcus Dudley Jr., one of five finalists and only Black candidate for the Waco police chief position, is internal affairs commander at the Aurora, Colorado, Police Department, which is under state scrutiny for the death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain. McClain, who was not accused of a crime, died less than a week after after Aurora police put him in a chokehold Aug. 24 and responding paramedics injected him with a sedative to calm him down, according to Associated Press reports.

The three officers involved in the incident, which started with a suspicions person call, were suspended while Dudley’s internal affairs unit submitted a case to the local district attorney. The DA found insufficient evidence to support charges, and the officers returned to the force.

Waco’s NAACP President Peaches Henry, who has publicly advocated for an African American police chief, voiced caution to supporters after discovering information about several candidates, including Dudley, that “gives us pause.”

“Because we are actually in the process of hiring a police chief, we have the opportunity in the midst of all this social justice critique and protests, we now have an opportunity to address that given the moment we are in,” Henry said in an interview. “Now we have an opportunity to hire a person of color and so I and the members of the NAACP and other people of like mind are advocating for such a person. However, we want a person who has a clean, ethical record.

“We are still advocating for a person of color as police chief. We are somewhat concerned about what we are learning about this set of candidates that are coming forward at the moment. We think it is well within the right of the (city) council and the city manager to continue to search if they and we are not satisfied with the candidates that they are putting forth.”

In addition to Dudley, local police chief finalists include Albert “Stan” Standridge, of Abilene; Jason Lando of Pittsburgh; Patrick Gallagher of Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Richard Bash of Columbus, Ohio.

Dudley also is one of four finalists for Aurora’s police chief position.

The Tribune-Herald’s Public Information Act request Tuesday for the candidates’ police chief applications, resumes and cover letters was not fulfilled this week.

Attempts to reach Dudley by the Tribune-Herald were unsuccessful.

He spoke during a public police chief candidate forum in Aurora earlier this week about McClain’s death, which he called “tragic,” and the investigation into it. He said he sat down with McClain’s family, along with representatives of the family and victims advocates, and reviewed the police camera footage of the incident.

“We spent time reviewing the body worn camera footage because that’s what we promised,” Dudley said. “One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do is spend time with a family that is having to grieve and having to see their son in that way. It’s had a tremendous impact on our department. The members that were involved that day are still grieving. I know people want answers. I wish I could provide more answers.

“We submitted the case to the District Attorney’s office. They rendered their decision, and I can’t change that. We can continue to work moving forward looking at how we address issues, and from that point forward address some policy changes that might be able to prevent another incident like that.”

> Watch the forum

On Thursday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis appointed the state’s Attorney General Phil Weiser to re-investigate and reconsider charges against the officers.

In Waco, Jaja Chen, a social work therapist and entrepreneur, joined friends to research the police chief finalists. Chen, a member of the NAACP and other local advocacy groups, shared her findings on social media this week in hopes of engaging community interest in the city council’s pick.

“I have no experience in law enforcement, and my background is as a private-practice therapist and social worker,” she said. “But as a citizen I want to think about what the role of a police chief should be … and we have to keep the context of our nation in mind, not only because of what is going on right now in the nation, but we also need to remember racism has been in systems since the founding of our nation. So now we have to be informed about the people who can shape our policies and our leaders serving the community.”

(Re)closing time
Local bars, restaurants weigh in on new restrictions as COVID-19 surges

News that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered bars to close again because of surging COVID-19 numbers hit The Backyard co-owner Chris Cox like a $50,000 kick in the pocketbook, what he expects to lose this weekend.

“You’re interrupting my crying session,” Cox said by phone Friday. “We’ll be canceling two sold-out concerts.”

Aaron Watson was scheduled to perform Friday evening at The Backyard Bar Stage & Grill, and Casey Donahew was on tap Saturday night.

Both shows were sent staggering by Abbott’s executive order to shutter bars statewide, except for to-go service, and to reduce capacity in restaurants from 75% to 50% starting Monday. Outdoor gatherings of 100 or more people also must be approved by local governments, according to the governor’s executive order.

McLennan County’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases has been even steeper than the state’s. The 72 new cases confirmed locally Friday bring the total to 624, which includes 425 residents with active infections, 193 who have recovered and six who have died. The county’s first day with new cases in the double digits was June 15, less than two weeks ago.

The local rate of total tests coming back positive has grown from 1% on June 10 to 14% as of Wednesday, on a rolling 7-day average basis, according to the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District’s latest published figures.

Statewide, officials confirmed 5,707 new cases Friday, and the past four days have seen the four highest case totals yet. A total of 137,624 Texans have tested positive, and the statewide testing positivity rate has grown from between 6% and 7% in mid-June to 11.7% as of Thursday.

While few if any other local bars will be canceling sold-out shows because of Abbott’s new order Friday, which follows a reinstated limit on elective surgeries in the state’s major metro areas Thursday, those local hangouts will be feeling the pinch. At Barnett’s Public House on Franklin Avenue, they will be shifting back to to-go service, director of operations Kris Bail said.

“I don’t really have a choice. We’re closing our doors,” Bail said. “We’re still preparing to sell cocktails, beer and wine to go, something we got some good practice at the last couple of months. It stinks to have momentum, to have things going, going, going, and then to be told no. I haven’t heard anything one way or another about how long this might last. A couple of weeks, maybe. I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasted a month. I think it was a preemptive move with July 4th coming up.”

Carrie Johnson, who owns Klassy Glass Wine Bar & Bistro on Austin Avenue, said the establishment sells enough food to legally be classified as a bistro. Customers typically order something to eat when visiting Klassy Glass.

Klassy Glass will close a couple of hours earlier after the governor’s decision because most late-night traffic is bar traffic, Johnson said.

“I had some concerns from the beginning that we were opening too fast, and we’re seeing the repercussions of that now,” she said.

Johnson also is employed as a nurse practitioner and conducts medical research.

“We’ve got to flatten this curve. We’ve got to get these hospitalization rates under control,” she said. “This is an infectious disease, and when large crowds come together, there is going to be spread.”

Jeremy Mills, general manager at Brown House Cafe on Jordan Lane in Woodway, said he is bracing for the return to occupancy limited to half of capacity and had already seen a shift in customer behavior.

“We’ve been at 75%, and sales have started to climb,” Mills said. “Our crowd size and sales volume depend upon the comfort level of the community. When you see the number of cases going up and you see the masks coming out, people believe the virus has come to their doorstep, and buying habits shift. The past week we’ve seen an uptick in to-go business.”

Overall, as customers return to preferring curbside and to-go service, Mills expects sales volume to drop 5% to 10%, he said.

Trent Neumann, owner of Captain Billy Whizzbang’s hamburger restaurant, said his main location on Lake Air Drive should weather the latest COVID-19 storm with little damage. He said drive-thru service has been brisk, even pushing total sales at the iconic burger joint above pre-COVID-19 levels.

The Whizzbang’s at Union Hall, the new conglomeration of food options at Eighth Street and Franklin Avenue, may prove another story, Neumann said.

“I really hoped this would be winding down by now, but obviously it has not,” he said. “I don’t know the cause, but whatever it is, we have to be safe as we can for everybody. Everybody has really been understanding about the masks. The first day or two, some customers didn’t have them, so we offered them. We’ve not really had any issues at all.”

The cities of Waco, Woodway and Hewitt have implemented rules requiring employees and customers to wear masks inside commercial businesses, and McLennan County commissioners have called an emergency meeting for 9 a.m. Monday to discuss several matters related to the COVID-19 situation, including the potential for a countywide mask rule.

County Judge Scott Felton said he believes commissioners support these efforts and other steps recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but there is sentiment among some that governmental entities should not be dictating policy to business. Some find it irritating that businesses can be fined for allowing visitors to enter without wearing masks, but the individuals violating the rules face no consequences, Felton said.

An older statewide executive order Abbott issued prohibits local governments from making mask rules that include fines against individuals.

Kyle Citrano, president of the Waco Restaurant Association and managing partner of George’s Restaurant Bar & Catering on Hewitt Drive, said he never pushed occupancy beyond 50% of capacity, though he legally could, because complying with social distancing recommendations would not have allowed it.

At 50%, he can seat 185 inside George’s and about 30 on the patio.

“Really, the shift from 75% to 50% hurts smaller places the most,” Citrano said. “This is another setback, and the restaurant and bar industry can’t take many more setbacks. I felt like we were making progress, seeing better numbers and returning to some sense of normalcy. Delivery and curbside were contributing to the revenue. But we were told and always knew that there could be another problem. The June numbers spiked, and we’re already seeing traffic counts go down and to-go popping back up.”

Cox, at The Backyard, said the venue “falls under that 51% rule.”

Abbott’s order requires all bars and similar establishments that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from the sale of alcoholic beverages to close.

“Even if I found some loophole, public opinion can be horrible,” Cox said. “Either I would be a hero or run out of town for throwing caution to the wind. I want to do what’s right. As things stand, we’re not even allowed to open for dine-in. We’ll have to go to carry-out or delivery.

“We see this as a slippery slope. The governor’s action … we think we’re being targeted unfairly, but we understand there is a problem, and it’s not a fight we want to fight. There is a temptation to point fingers at all the protests, the beaches and the amusement parks, where people are shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Some bar supporters have already started to organize demonstrations in opposition to Abbott’s action Friday.

Permanent memorial honors toddler Frankie Gonzalez at site where he was found dead

With her hands folded, Mary Luna stood over the newly uncovered memorial marker, remembering the life of 2-year-old Frankie Gonzalez, near the site where his body was found earlier this month.

“I just still don’t understand,” Luna said. “This is Waco’s baby and to have such a little baby, I just can’t fathom why a mother would do something like this.”

Luna, like several passersby in recent weeks, stopped late Friday morning at the corner of Alice Avenue and 27th Street, near Park Lake Drive Baptist Church, to pay respects to the young boy.

Now, a memorial marker composed out of granite, concrete, and river rock sits at the site of where Frankie was found. It reads “In memory of Frankie Gonzalez and all victims of violence.”

Waco police found the child dead in a dumpster June 2 and have since arrested his mother, Laura Jane Villalon, 35, of Waco, on a first-degree felony charge of injury to a child. The boy’s death remains under investigation, and few details have been released publicly about how investigators believe he died No cause of death has been released. Police also have arrested Frankie’s father, Lorenzo Gonzalez, on a second-degree felony child endangerment charge based on an allegation that he violated a Child Protective Services order by leaving Frankie with Villalon unsupervised.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Park Lake Drive Baptist Church unveiled a permanent memorial to Frankie Gonzalez on Thursday in a private ceremony with family members. The 2-year-old was found dead near the site earlier this month. Artists also are working on murals to add to the building nearby.

“Unfortunately Frankie is not the first kid and he won’t be the last,” said Amos Humphries, senior pastor at Park Lake Drive Baptist Church. “The design is relatively modest, peaceful … to allow people to come and pray and reflect that also respects the tragedy that occurred.”

Frankie came to the city’s attention June 1 when police launched a search effort for him centered around Pecan Bottoms in Cameron Park, employing boats, helicopters, police dogs and scores of officials. Family members and community members also searched through the park, some through the night, and a statewide Amber alert went out.

But police announced the next day that Villalon’s report of Frankie going missing during an outing to the park was a ruse and that she had since led them to his body.

“By the next morning, after the first day, (the site) had already become a makeshift memorial with candles, balloons and toys, so it had really taken on a life of its own,” Humphries said. “At that point, we had prioritized that we needed to consider the family, our neighbors and our congregation, along with the community at large, so we thought it would be appropriate to create a space that the family and community could mourn at.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Park Lake Drive Baptist Church unveiled a permanent memorial to Frankie Gonzalez on Thursday in a private ceremony with family members. The 2-year-old was found dead near the site earlier this month.

Church deacons Chad Williams and Tom Moore designed a permanent memorial, and donations from S & D Concrete, Phipps Memorial, and Home Depot in Bellmead contributed to the final product, Humphries said.

The church consulted with the boy’s family throughout the design, he said. The church had a private unveiling with family members Thursday, respect their wishes for privacy.

“This was just heartbreak after everyone found out he was gone. I just called him Waco’s baby,” Luna said before leaving the memorial Friday. “Being a mother of a 3-year-old girl, I don’t question God, but I still don’t understand.”

Staff photo — Kristin Hoppa 

Mary Luna stops Friday at a memorial marker near Park Lake Drive Baptist Church to pray and remember Frankie Gonzalez, 2, who was found dead at the site earlier this month. Church official unveiled the memorial in a private ceremony with family members Thursday.

Three local artists are in the process of painting memorials on the church’s garage to reflect faith, hope and love, Humphries said. He said he hopes the spot will serve the community as a whole.

“And now, people have been driving by all day, stopping to pay their respects,” Humphries said. “We don’t want people to forget his name and we want to give all people impacted by violent crime a place to come.”

Waco ISD board laments lack of guidance from state on reopening school in fall

Waco Independent School District trustees expressed concern and frustration during Thursday night’s board meeting at the lack of concrete plans the district has prepared for the fall after the state failed to provide public health guidance on COVID-19 this week.

The Texas Education Agency planned to release public health guidelines Tuesday, along with standards for attendance, enrollment and remote instruction for the upcoming school year, but the agency did not provide public health guidelines as planned, leaving school districts unable to solidify plans for the 2020-21 school year.

TEA mistakenly posted draft guidelines detailing public health guidelines on its website Tuesday, but later removed them. They offered many recommendations but few mandates on mitigating the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Waco ISD trustee Stephanie Korteweg described the draft health guidelines as “concerning” during Thursday’s board meeting conducted via Zoom. She said she worries about students and their families, as well as district staff, as more McLennan County residents test positive for COVID-19.

McLennan County reported 72 more people had tested positive for the disease Friday, pushing the total number to 624. At least 425 are currently sick with COVID-19, and six people have died.

Board Secretary Norman Manning said he is worried about students falling behind in their learning, and trustee Robin Houston agreed, knowing some students do not have access to technology for remote learning.

“We’re in the end of June, and we don’t have a plan from TEA,” Houston said.

School districts must offer in-person instruction in the fall, but families may request their students receive remote instruction, which can be either synchronous, or involve real-time interaction with teachers, or asynchronous, which might involve reading assignments or watching a prepared video from the teacher, according to instruction guidelines released by TEA.

TEA also provided guidance on how remote instruction for districts will be counted toward attendance, which determines how much funding districts receive from the state. The state will continue to require students to attend 90% of a course to receive credit for it and for promotion to the next grade level, but there are some different requirements for remote instruction.

To receive funding from the state for remote synchronous instruction, districts must meet a minimum number of daily instructional minutes. Students in third through fifth grades must receive at least three hours of instruction per day, and students in sixth through 12th grades must receive at least four hours, although the time can be broken up throughout the day.

The school board approved a budget amendment of $600,000 Thursday night to buy 4,450 Dell Chromebooks, enough to provide one to each middle school and high school student, creating a one-to-one device initiative for secondary campuses. Superintendent Susan Kincannon said the purchase will help with remote instruction this coming school year.

Trustee Cary DuPuy said the school district is going to have to get “really good at online learning.” He also expressed doubt that children would adhere to social distancing, at least outside the classroom.

“Y’all think kids are going to social distance in the hallways?” he said. “I’ve got news. They’re not.”

Korteweg asked how much leeway the district has in implementing the state’s guidelines when dealing with a new virus that is not well understood. Kincannon said Waco ISD could require more stringent measures, such as requiring face masks and daily temperature checks.

“Our fear is we’ll be having to shut down classrooms as students become sick with COVID,” Kincannon said.

On a call with superintendents Thursday, Kincannon said, the TEA said it would not provide guidelines on how many students could be in one classroom at a time, which is “a significant change” from the requirements for summer school that limited each classroom to 11 students at a time.

“We’re getting conflicting messages.” she said. “The draft document seems to suspend from the reality of COVID-19 and what’s happening in the state. In late May, when the spread of the virus seemed to be relatively out of control, the state was saying we could have no more than 11 people in a classroom at the same time. Now that we have our highest numbers of hospitalizations in state, the draft public health guidance that was posted did not limit how people can be in a classroom at any single time.”

The district plans to survey about 400 families to better inform its planning for the fall, Kincannon said. Additionally, Waco ISD will seek input from teachers and other staff members on returning to school and possibly hold a virtual town hall meeting for more feedback.

Waco ISD created a COVID-19 Task Force of about 50 teachers and administrators. The group first met June 8, when members were tasked with interviewing three parents or students each to gather feedback on how the end of the spring semester went for them. They asked questions about the teaching methods that worked well for them and the ones that did not, as well as what they hope the upcoming school year would look like.

Many families said the switch to remote instruction was a difficult adjustment. Some said paper packets the district distributed were easier to use, while others preferred online learning. Families with multiple students in different grades seemed to struggle the most with the change, juggling multiple digital learning platforms and schedules. Some families said they struggled with technology, as well as a language barrier.

On returning to school in the fall, the responses split pretty evenly between wanting a return to “normal” and staying with online-only learning. Some families said they feared returning to school, while others wanted a return to school and social interactions with safety measures in place.

Baylor shrinks fall calendar for COVID-19 concerns

Baylor University students and faculty returning to campus this fall will find fewer of them in a fall calendar that stops in-person classes and exams after Thanksgiving.

The adjusted calendar also removes Labor Day and fall break as holidays and cancels a Dec. 19 commencement for those earning degrees in the fall. Affected graduates may participate in the spring 2021 commencement ceremonies.

Baylor President Linda Livingstone announced the changes in a message to Baylor students, faculty and staff Thursday, the latest update on the university’s plans for resuming classes this fall after ending on-campus instruction in mid-March.

The shortened schedule is meant, in part, to reduce the possible risk of COVID-19 exposure related to student travel during fall break and around Thanksgiving, Baylor spokesperson Jason Cook said.

The fall calendar has classes starting Aug. 24 with final exams held online or otherwise remotely Dec. 3-8. Staff members who have had Labor Day and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving off will be given two floating holidays to use by May.

Cook said Baylor does not have a required number of days of instruction but follows a credit hour policy set by accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

The truncated calendar also will result in reductions in housing, dining and parking expenses for students as those costs will be prorated accordingly. The school did the same for students who did not return to campus after this past spring break, offering credits to returning students and refunds for graduates.

Baylor Law School operates on the quarter system, and its academic calendar will not be affected by the university’s action.

Fall enrollment numbers are still indefinite at this time, but university officials are planning for an enrollment near last fall’s, Cook said. They have noted strong participation in online orientation, registration for a virtual Line Camp and requests for on-campus housing, he said.

Baylor’s Student Life Team is working with the university’s Project 8.24 Team, the committee assembled to guide strategies for the return to campus, on adapting the school’s traditional Welcome Week for incoming freshmen given new COVID-19 protocols.

“This is obviously a very fluid process given the uncertainty caused by COVID-19, but as of today time is on our side,” Cook said.

In messages in May and June, the Baylor president has characterized the school’s approach to limiting the risk of COVID-19 spread as a multi-layed “Swiss cheese model,” with practices such as masking, hand-washing, social distancing and regular sanitizing and disinfection each playing a part in a comprehensive strategy.

Presently, all individuals on the Baylor campus must wear face coverings in all buildings.