Syracuse Man Awaits His Fate at Syracuse Criminal Courthouse as Two Attorneys Battle it Out

By: Meredith Kava SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News)—An elderly, black woman sat in the last row of the court room, alone and murmuring to herself, “Jesus take the wheel.”

She looked down and repeatedly uttered this phrase as her son, Justin Hymes, 39, sat just a few feet in front of her, waiting for Day 2 of his trial to continue in Judge Thomas Miller’s courtroom on Tuesday.

Hymes’ attorney, Eric Jeschke, declared to the jury that his client, who has been held at the Justice Center since March 2015 and is charged with predatory sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child, is on trial based on false accusations by the victim.

Defense Attorney Eric Jeschcke talks outside with the A.D.A. Maureen Berry, as they wait for Day 2 of the trial to start ©2016 Meredith Kava

Defense Attorney Eric Jeschke discussed details about the case outside the courtroom. ©2016 Meredith Kava.

“The victim’s story is inconsistent,” said Jeschke. “She has denied (her story) in the past, and (Hymes) has never been in trouble in his life.”

Assistant District Attorney Maureen Berry, on the other hand, argued that the the victim’s story is true. Berry described two sexual encounters between the victim, a then-6-year-old, and Hymes during the spring of 2009.

Hymes knew the victim before the alleged assaults took place, according to Berry.

Hymes is expected to testify sometime during the trial, according to Jeschke. The now 12-year-old victim will also testify at some point during the trial, along with a sexual abuse expert, a relative of the victim, and a Syracuse Police investigator, Clark Farry, according to Berry.

If found guilty, Hymes could face 50 years-to-life in prison, Berry said.

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The Director of On Point For College Will Shake President Obama’s Hand

By Amber Hunter SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — Sam Rowser nearly missed his opportunity to meet the President, until he came across the deleted email from the White House inviting him to a celebration for New York educators.

Rowser, the deputy executive director of On Point for College, a college access program that serves students from the Central New York area, will meet President Obama on May 3.

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On Point’s Deputy Executive Director Sam Rowser read his printed invitation to the White House Tuesday afternoon. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

“I’m excited… very excited,” Rowser said.

Wednesday marks the 17th anniversary for On Point for College and this September Rowser will take on the position as the executive director of the program, according to Rowser.

A program that started out with two employees in one small room now has two locations, Syracuse and Utica, and has served more than 7,000 people, Rowser said

“It isn’t about getting into college, but staying in college… and getting through,” Rowser said.

On Point for College budgeted $2.6 million dollars this year to continue the work of the organization. This year they will receive $400,000 in state aid for the first time, Rowser said.

The program not only helps students get into college and prepares them for their careers, but it also helps students emotionally and financially. Students are provided with transportation to and from during college breaks and also provide small grants for things like textbooks and school and dorm supplies, according to Rowser.

“Our students come from all walks of life. 30 percent of our students don’t have their parents or they are homeless,” Rowser said.

Rowser has attended student’s graduations in the past. A student who graduated from St. Bonaventure College said in a speech that she was so sad when she found out her parents were going to attend her graduation, but when she walked through the tunnel she heard Rowser and his family screaming her name, Rowser said.

 

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Syracuse Man is on Trial for Sexual Assault Against a Child

By Amber Hunter SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — A mother sat in the back of the courtroom Thursday afternoon with her head down as she nodded it side-to-side and whispered, “take the wheel Jesus.”

Her son, Justin Hymes, 39, of Syracuse, was on trial for sexual assault.

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Assistant District Attorney Maureen Berry and Defense Attorney Eric Jeshcke were talking outside of the court room right before the trial resumed. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter  

The prosecution argued Hymes sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl when she was just 6 years old in spring of 2009. The defense argued Hymes is not guilty of this crime because the victim’s story is inconsistent and the victim denied the incident in the past.

Defense Attorney Eric Jeshcke said the victim and the defendant knew each other.

“This man admitted he attempted getting on top of her and lifting up her dress,” Assistant District Attorney Maureen Berry said in her opening statement, when talking about Hymes interview with Syracuse Detective Clark Farry in March.

But Jeschke said in an interview before opening statements began, “I want you to understand the role of Farry in trying to get my client to submit. Hymes is 39 years old and has never been in criminal trouble in his life.”

Hymes was brought in front of a jury of three men and 11 women Tuesday for opening statements. He’s charged with charged with two accounts of sexual assault against a child and endangering the welfare of a child. The Jury will have to determine whether or not Hymes is guilty of sexual assault beyond reasonable doubt based off of the evidence presented in court. The trial began on Monday and will resume tomorrow, Wednesday, at 10 a.m.

The victim will testify in court by Thursday afternoon, Berry said. The assistant district attorney will also have victim’s aunt, Detective Farry and an expert on child abuse testify in court, according to Berry.

‘We can expect Hymes to testify,” Jeshcke said.

 

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In Onondaga County, Uncertainty And Optimism Mix Like Runoff and Rainwater

By Connor Federico, Eric Horowitz, Amber Hunter, and Meredith Kava SYRACUSE N.Y. (NCC News) — With a history steeped in the muddied waters of Onondaga Lake, the Onondaga Nation is searching for clarity along a sacred shoreline. In a protracted political situation as murky as the contaminated lake it concerns, the frustration and distrust that has built up for years is coming to a head.

The Onondaga Nation will not be receiving the long-promised Murphy’s Island, an artificial peninsula that juts into Onondaga Lake. That much is definitive. What is not so certain, however, is what land the Onondaga Nation will be granted or when. Despite this, the county government is offering bold assurances.

Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) assures protestors the Onondaga Nation can trust his new legislation. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) assures protestors the Onondaga Nation can trust his new legislation. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

“I firmly believe that when all is said and done the Onondagas will be in a truly improved position,” Mike Plochocki (R-6th District) said at last Tuesday’s meeting of the Onondaga County Legislature. “Not only are they going to end up with property on the shore of Onondaga Lake, but they’ll end up with property that they like much better than Murphy’s Island.”

Travis Glazier, director of the Onondaga County office of the environment, agreed with Plochocki, saying Murphy’s Island was just an empty promise made by legislature in 2011. Glazier, who spoke to NCC News last Thursday, also emphasized that Murphy’s Island may not be the most optimal piece of land for the Onondaga Nation.

“When we actually sat down and consulted the Nation, we found out that there were other places along the lake that they found more desirable,” said Glazier.

For Plochocki, the next step is forming a committee aimed at finding a parcel of land that is satisfactory for all parties. According to Plochocki, who is the head of the county legislature’s Environmental Protection Committee, the new committee will include members of the Onondaga Nation.

“My personal goal is that there is a consensus on a site by the committee by the end of this calendar year, if not sooner, and I think that’s doable,” Plochocki told NCC News last Thursday.

Onondaga Nation Chief Jake Edwards was reluctant to subscribe to the legislator’s optimism.

“Their word is just like the ancient words ‘trust me,’ but there’s no trust,” he said. “So I don’t expect anything to change.”

At the legislature, Republican John Dougherty (R-2nd District) asserted that the new resolution is just another empty promise, no better than the 2011 resolution it negates.

“It’s like saying we’re going to give you something else, but we don’t know what that something is,” he said.

Linda Ervin (D-17th District) added that the legislation is not clear enough because the legislators did not receive input from members of the Nation.

Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath said the new resolution feels too rushed, but Mike Plochocki has been friendly throughout the process. (c) 2016 Eric Horowitz

Onondaga Nation attorney Joe Heath said the new resolution feels too rushed, but Mike Plochocki has been friendly throughout the process. (c) 2016 Eric Horowitz

However, as the debate at the legislature continued, Plochocki emphasized what he believes makes this legislation different; this time leaders from the Onondaga Nation will be heavily involved in deciding what land the Nation receives.

Travis Glazier also highlighted the importance of participation from the Onondagas in the decision making process.

“It’s going to be up to the Nation largely in what has significance and what’s desirable from their part because this is the way this should’ve happened from the get go,” said Glazier.

But for people like Sue Eiholzer, a volunteer with the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, there is an underlying hesitance to buy into the county’s assurances.

“I don’t trust (the government),” said Eiholzer, as she sat on a cramped wooden bench in the legislature’s public gallery. “I just don’t trust them.”

On May 3rd, Eiholzer was one of the dozens of concerned citizens gathered at the County Legislature. Allies of the Onondagas stood with actual members of the Nation to voice opinions on a resolution which looked to some like just another impediment to clarity of the lake’s future.

According to the Nation’s attorney Joe Heath, the documents were made available to the public less than 24 hours before the start of the meeting, adding to this perception.

Eiholzer, 75, handed out 54 signs she ran off on purple cardboard paper. Among the slogans printed in bold black ink were  “Broken Promises Reflect Badly on ALL OF US,” “What’s the Rush,” “Honor the 2011 Resolution,” and “Treat the Onondaga With Respect.”

Sue Eiholzer says the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation’s petition reached a combined 1000 signatures. (c) 2016 Meredith Kava

Sue Eiholzer says the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation’s petition reached a combined 1000 signatures. (c) 2016 Meredith Kava

All told, 15 people stood up and raised their concerns to the legislators during the public comment period. Many of those who spoke were from the Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation, a group that Syracuse resident Carol Baum is on the steering committee of.   

“It would be how the Onondaga feel about it,” she said. “If they feel that is satisfactory to them then I’m okay with it, but if they feel it’s not satisfactory and it’s yet another example of broken promises then I’m not happy with it.”

Faced with nearly 45 minutes of emotional public comments, Legislator Plochocki requested a five-minute recess. This quickly turned into a half hour break which left observers wondering what was transpiring away from the main chamber.

It was when the legislators returned that Legislator Plochocki announced his plan to create a committee to decide on a new parcel of land for the Nation.

Shortly thereafter, the legislature voted to negate the 2011 resolution promising Murphy’s Island to the Onondaga Nation.

This upset Eiholzer and many others who know the long tradition of broken promises between the U.S. government and Native American peoples.  

“I grew up during World War II, so this isn’t very different to me,” she said. “History repeats itself and we just ignore it.”

At a film screening, Chief Jake Edwards, Oren Lyons, and Joe Heath assure the audience that the Onondaga Nation will not stop fighting for justice. (c) 2016 Connor Federico

At a film screening, Chief Jake Edwards, Oren Lyons, and Joe Heath assure the audience that the Onondaga Nation will not stop fighting for justice. (c) 2016 Connor Federico

The history of the Onondaga Nation is deeply rooted upon the shores of Onondaga Lake. According to Oren Lyons, a Nation faithkeeper, the lake was the site of the Peacemaker’s creation of the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace over 1000 years ago.

“Our whole faith is tied to it,” he said. “On Onondaga Lake, we set those values.”

Those values, according to Lyons, include family, continuity, nature, and equality. Phillip Arnold, a Native American studies professor at Syracuse University and the Director of Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center, echoed the sacred importance of Onondaga Lake to the Onondaga Nation.

“This Great Law of Peace influenced western democracy,” said Arnold. “ [The Native Americans] sat in council with the founding fathers about the democratic principles, so you can say what came out of the lake has influenced the entire world.”

Although Arnold highlighted the lake’s history, he also warned that it is ridden with chemicals, pollutants, and hazardous waste. Murphy’s Island specifically was found to contain mercury and many other harmful contaminants. Onondaga Chief Jake Edwards called it a “polluted mess.”

“It’s analogous to Christians going to Jerusalem or Jews going to Jerusalem and tracing out that sacred geography,” said Professor Phil Arnold.

Private companies like Honeywell and General Motors have contributed to the pollution of the lake for decades. According to Oren Lyons, Onondaga Lake was one of the most polluted lakes in all of North America. But Glazier insists the situation is slowly improving.

“The lake is extremely healthy right now as opposed to 2011,” said Glazier. “All things have turned out very positive. We are in a much different place now, then we were then.”

Phillip Arnold tells the story of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

Phillip Arnold tells the story of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker at the Skä•noñh Great Law of Peace Center. (c) 2016 Amber Hunter

For the Onondaga people, the commitment to the environment ties into their commitment to their spirituality.

“It’s analogous to Christians going to Jerusalem or Jews going to Jerusalem and tracing out that sacred geography,” said Arnold. “The Haudenosaunee people are interested in maintaining and preserving those sacred places around the lake.”

Nearly everyone in the legislature on May 3rd seemed committed to delivering one of those sacred places back to the Onondaga Nation. However, this consensus did not detract from the perception of many that a final answer is still a long way off.

For those with purple signs raised high above their heads, Murphy’s Island was the long-awaited and definitive answer to a protracted and complex problem.  It was not the answer for the Onondaga County Legislature. Mike Plochoki, however, insists that an answer is coming.

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Yeshua Restoration Ministries Gives Syracuse Youth Refugees Support, Friendship, and Community

By Rebekah Castor, Alexis EauClaire, Taylor Epps Syracuse, N.Y. (NCC News) — Jessica Vinciguerra is the youngest of eight children. With her older siblings already moved out of the house, Vinciguerra always wanted a younger brother or sister to spend time with. That wish came true in February 2015 when the young boy across the street, Tat Tun, moved in with the Vinciguerra family. However, Tun was no ordinary neighbor boy. Tun, a Muslim refugee from Burma, moved to the United States with his family after living in a refugee camp. 

“One day he spent the night and never went home,” Vinciguerra said.

Vinciguerra explained that Tun’s parents allowed him to live with her family as long as he still attended school and did his schoolwork instead of playing video games all day. Tun found a caring place in the Vinciguerra home.

“I love the people in this house and what they do,” said Tun. “They help people. They don’t just care about themselves.”

Having a refugee live in their house was nothing out of the ordinary for the Vinciguerra family. Jessica and her parents, Lou and Anne, run a grassroots, faith-based organization located on Syracuse’s North side. This organization, Yeshua Restoration Ministries (YRM) puts a lot of focus on helping refugees. 

“We’re not known as one of the big nonprofits in Syracuse because of how grassroots we are,” said Vinciguerra. “But we’re okay with that. I mean it’s just me and my parents as staff.”

Lou, a former business owner of a startup printing and publishing company, and Anne Vinciguerra, a home school teacher, have lived in Syracuse for the greater part of their adult lives, according to Vinciguerra. After weekly attendance at Sunday worship services at a struggling North side church, Lou and Anne made the decision to leave their business and answer a full-time call to ministry.

Following this call, Lou, Anne, and Jessica moved into an abandoned crack house on North Townsend Street in 2010 so they could become permanent neighbors to refugees living on the North side and begin their Christian ministry, according to Vinciguerra.

Jessica Vinciguerra loves spending her time with youth refugees. © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries

Jessica Vinciguerra loves spending her time with youth refugees. © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries

Their ministry focuses on serving the North side community. YRM does this through youth soccer leagues, student tutoring, community service projects, refugee advocacy programs, community dinners, and locating dignified housing for neighbors, according to the ministry’s website. With its non-profit status, the ministry is eligible to receive grants, said Vinciguerra. The grants, along with outside donations, fund the ministry.

As the Vinciguerras began to develop relationships with their diverse neighbors, they became more aware of the misunderstanding the word “Christian” can create with refugees who come from a wide range of countries around the world. This is why their ministry is named Yeshua Restoration Ministries, according to the website. Yeshua is the Hebrew name for Jesus. Working under this name allows the ministry to be kept separated from the harm done in the name of Jesus by so-called “Christians” around the world, according to its website.

Jessica Vinciguerra lives in a neighbor highly populated by refugees. © 2016 Taylor Epps

“I was always kind of timid about living where I lived when I was younger,” said Jessica Vinciguerra, referring to living next door to refugees. “I didn’t think I’d have good neighbors, but now I have almost 30 younger siblings from 13 different countries.”

The North side community  is comprised of people from four geographic regions, with 42 percent of residents predominantly migrating from Africa. People living there speak eight distinct languages: Swahili, Somali, Burmese, English, Arabic, Nepali, Kirundi, and Plaar, according to YRM. 

According to the Onondaga Citizens League, Syracuse has seen a boost in the arrivals of refugees increasing from 450 people to 800 people since 2008. 

“One of the most common stereotypes of refugees is that they are poor and illiterate,” said Syracuse University Professor Lamis Abdelaay. 

Studies have shown that there have been economic boosts for countries that have let in refugees, which goes against the well-known stereotype, said Abdelaay. Refugees are capable of bringing their assets and labor skills to whatever destination they may end up in, which would only help the economy of the country, according to Abdelaay. 

Abdelaay stressed that refugees are just like anyone else, and they had a whole life before they were forced to leave their home countries.

“It is very easy for people to lose sight of all that,” Abdelaay said.

When asked how to interact with refugees, Jessica Vinciguerra says, "Show love." © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries

When asked how to interact with refugees, Jessica Vinciguerra says, “Show love.” © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries

Working closely with refugees through Yeshua Restoration Ministries, Vinciguerra has seen first-hand how refugees are no different from anyone else.

Living in the one house on the street that has a yard, Vinciguerra’s home is where many youth refugees come to hang out. 

“Kids who didn’t speak the same language fought, but the second a soccer ball came out they were friends,” said Jess. “People don’t realize that they’re people. They just look at them as numbers.”

District Common Councilor Joseph Carni represents the North side and has known about Yeshua Restoration Ministries for awhile.

“I think it’s great when groups like this in the community reach out to refugees,” said Carni.

With school testing right around the corner, Yeshua Restoration Ministries is preparing students for their final tests. YRM offers personalized tutoring programs on Monday and Wednesday nights for refugee students of all ages, focusing on developing basic math, phonics, reading and grammar skills, according to Vinciguerra. 

“A lot of programs already exist for the refugee students to pass the exams,” said Vinciguerra, referring to prep courses for the Regents exams New York State students have to take.

Vinciguerra explained that YRM focuses on the basic elementary principles of math, reading and grammar and perfecting their understanding of English because the refugee students aren’t passing the tests because they don’t understand what is being asked of them.

“Syracuse city schools have their hands full,” said Vinciguerra. “A lot of the schools are understaffed and overpopulated and it’s hard to give each kid the attention they deserve. They do the best they can.”

The Syracuse City School District works closely with community-based organizations similar to Yeshua to help refugee students with their transition into American life, according to ESL Specialist Jackie LeRoy. 

About 40-50 percent of students in the English as a New Language program in the Syracuse City School District are refugees, according to LeRoy.

“They’re very high achieving, motivated students,” said LeRoy. “They come with this desire to achieve.”

The district receives between nine to fifteen new refugee students every week and 25 schools have programs aimed specifically at helping these students, said LeRoy. 

With help from these school-provided programs, along with outside programs, such as those provided by YRM, refugee students often surpass American students academically, noted LeRoy.

“In a prior school year, seven of eight valedictorians and salutatorians in the district were refugee students,” said LeRoy.

At her public high school, Vinciguerra found her heart for helping refugees.

“There was one [refugee] boy who was in my biology class and that is when I realized that these kids don’t have a shot with the system how it is,” said Vinciguerra.

Vinciguerra said that this student had not turned in a single lab because he did not understand the material and the school year was almost over. Through helping him, she realized her love for helping refugee youth.  

“To me it’s remarkable what they’re able to do,” said LeRoy referring to what refugee youth are able to achieve with the help from both the school and ministry programs.

YRM does not just support refugee students in their academics. The organization also supports the youth after many young refugees experience bullying in school.

“It takes a lot of time to get them to open up, but I’ve heard many stories of the daily things they face at school,” said Vinciguerra.“A lot of times we just don’t see what these kids go through. They have to grow up so quickly.”

Through the community outreach programs that YRM offers, such as a youth soccer league, the youth refugees are able to build character and learn leadership skills, according to Vinciguerra. This soccer league stands out from other community leagues because a community service element is implemented into the program to teach the kids the importance of serving the community, according to Vinciguerra. On a regular basis, more than 20 volunteers pick up litter in the neighborhood. The children also take regular care of the neighborhood park, do spring cleaning, fall leaf removal, and snow removal during the winter for the elderly and disable living in the community.

“Whenever there’s positive activity, the illegal activity flees,” said Vinciguerra.

“They do great work,” said Sarah Walton, the associate executive director of the Syracuse Northeast Community Center.

Vinciguerra is looking forward to summer where there is more time to run activities for the youth refugees.

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Parents of Heroin User Aim to Make a Difference

By Emily Adelman and Hannah Fleager SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — When you are the parent of a three-sport athlete and honor student, you imagine where he wants to go to college, not where he wants to go to get his next fix.

Angela and Mark Stevens never thought these would be the thoughts running through their minds when they learned of their son’s heroin addiction.

“We didn’t know and once we did find out, we immediately asked our pastor and went in front of our church and asked for prayers for our family because it does effect everyone,” Angela Stevens said.

As a parent, it is normal to be concerned about your children as they grow up, from the sports they play, the friends they have, and even to the food they eat. But, signs that your child has an addiction are not always as obvious as an allergic reaction.

“Just because they are motivated and getting good grades, doesn’t mean that they’re not doing drugs. You have to focus on your child. You can’t always take for granted when things are good. They might be good on the outside but not on the inside,” said Angela Stevens.

The heroin epidemic in Onondaga County is not new, but it has gained a significant amount of public attention over the last couple of years.

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© 2016 Hannah Fleager

The use of heroin has increased across multiple demographic groups. It is abused most frequently among white males, ages 20 to 29, according to the Onondaga County Health Department. Additionally, heroin use has increased 31 percent in Onondaga County as of last year.

With the number of addicts rising every year, so much emphasis is placed on the addict’s treatment and recovery process. What goes largely unnoticed is the effect that a user’s addiction has on his or her family and the people around them.

After watching their son go through the recovery process, Angela and Mark learned that the support of one’s family is just as important, if not more important than physical treatments.

“I just learned a lot about different parents that try to hide it. They don’t want to admit that their child has a problem. Or don’t want the neighbors to know. They don’t want to do anything about it,” Mark said.

After discovering their son’s addiction, Mark and Angela decided that their son would not fight this battle alone.

“A lot of the accountability also has to be with the parents. The parents are a big part in the recovery of their loved one,” said Angela.

The Stevens’ son is on the road to recovery and continues to make progress about five years after his parents discovered his addiction. Now, Angela and Mark Stevens are looking to help and educate other families, specifically parents, who are going through the same situation.

“Each family member has to have some accountability as well. That’s part of the recovery aspect of it,” Angela said. Stevens also warned that hounding your child could have negative affects on their recovery process, and in turn, the family recovery process. “Just because they had a bad day doesn’t mean they are using,” she said.

Mark and Angela Stevens understand what it is like to have a loved one facing an addiction and how fragile and trying of a situation it can be. As they educate other parents and peers, they emphasize how important it is to persevere and continue to be there for the one in need.

“That’s what parents need to understand. You can’t give up on your child. That’s your child. That’s the same person you’ve known for years. They just got hung up in a bad situation with drugs,” Mark said.

Mark and Angela started the Baldwinsville Addiction Awareness Group a year and a half ago, whose mission is to “support and educate those with loved ones going through addiction.” It meets twice a month in the Community Wesleyan Church in Baldwinsville, inviting speakers and other advocates from around the county to come and speak on behalf of their organizations.

“Our group is more for the parents, like educating them on how they can help,” Mark added when describing the awareness group. The Stevens’ group is unique in the sense that it seeks to educate family members of addicts who are in the process of recovering, rather than console those who have lost someone to addiction.

“We advocate 24/7 and work hand in hand with local community groups, like HEAL and even Governor Cuomo’s office has been a big help,” Angela said.

Governor Cuomo’s office has taken a big step in the right direction in battling the heroin outbreak. His office recently announced that $500,000 would be used to expand access to addiction treatment services and family support in the Central New York area. This comes a year after Cuomo designated $8 million to fight the heroin and prescription drug epidemic apparent in New York, according to Cuomo’s office.

That money is desperately needed. The number of heroin overdoses in Onondaga County has jumped 500 percent in the last 4 years, from 14 to 84, according to the Upstate New York Poison Center.

Even though the number of overdoses continues to rise in Central New York, there is still a lack of treatment options for those addicted to strong drugs such as heroin. Crouse Hospital in Syracuse is the only hospital in central New York to provide an opioid treatment program and family services to those battling addiction, according to its website.

“You can’t give up on your child. That’s your child. That’s the same person you’ve known for years.” 

However, for many addicts, one program in a rehabilitation center is not enough. “A majority of the addicts we work with, that we try to help, have done at least six, seven, eight, plus times in a rehab, in an inpatient rehab. It takes a long time,” Mark said. He also added that the amount of treatments an addict goes through also depends on how seriously he or she wants to get better.

While money for new medical treatments and facilities helps to combat the epidemic, efforts like those of the Stevens’ to not only support but also to educate everyone affected by heroin, are having a positive impact on the community as well.

Whether it be a child or a loved one, heroin touches the lives of everyone around the addict. For an epidemic that has been ignored for so long, the amount of awareness to combat heroin can only grow.

“We learned that it does affect everyone. The silence has to be broken,” Angela said.

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Syracuse: Where Walking to School is a Necessity

By Kimberly Brown and Noah Eagle SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — When people think about going to school in the morning, they generally think yellow school bus or waiting outside in the morning.  They may think of being frustrated when the driver is a few minutes late or find ways of trying to maintain art projects when hitting a pothole.

In the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) young kids and teenagers don’t have that luxury.

The SCSD has had economic issues in the past.  Heavily relying on state aid, busing has always been a topic of conversation.  Up until this past school year, only students living outside a two-mile radius from their respective schools were granted busing, a policy Syracuse taxi driver Bobby Hunter is very familiar with.

“You’re adding another half hour or 45 minutes to your school day on each end,” said Hunter, who has lived in the city for 46 years and knows all about having to walk to and from school.

Hunter attended Corcoran high school on Glenwood Avenue.  Unfortunately, his family’s residence did not make the cutoff for the busing, being 1.9 miles from the school.  The poor proximity meant a long walk for Hunter and his siblings every morning and afternoon in a very consistent, bitterly cold climate.

“The winters were a steadier type of weather pattern,” said Hunter.  “It’s not like we’ve been experiencing lately, where one year you have almost no snow and then the next year, you’re inundated with snow. It was every year, you could expect snow right around thanksgiving, and it wasn’t gone until the end of March.”

Syracuse is known for its aggressive weather patterns making walks to school even worse (c) “Average Weather Statistics for Syracuse” by Kai Brinker is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Syracuse is known for its aggressive weather patterns making walks to school even worse (c) “Average Weather Statistics for Syracuse” by Kai Brinker is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

Poor weather was not even Hunter’s main concern when walking to or from school.  The former student cited numerous occasions that he was tormented during his walk back after class.  He talked about kids “zeroing in” on anybody who wasn’t part of a group, making the walk even more difficult than it already was.

“My first year at Corcoran, I spent a lot of time running home,” said Hunter about his freshman year of high school.

Hunter and many others in the Syracuse community feel that although the SCSD has been able to reduce the distance each child has to walk, it is not quite enough.  However, there is another side to the story that most of the people of Syracuse don’t get to see.

“There is what we call danger and what normal people, not transportation people, call danger,” said Mary Ellen Killenbec, the director of transportation for the SCSD.

The district feels they know how to keep their pupils out of harm’s way.  Although they would want to be able to transport every kid, K-12, the hit on the district’s budget would be absolutely detrimental. According to Mary Habib, an accountant and manager of the budget at the SCSD, just reducing the radius from it’s current mile and a half to a clean mile for solely the K-8 students, would cost them $3.6 million dollars.

High school students outside of the accepted radius take the Centro bus system as their means of transportation (c) Noah Eagle 2016

High school students outside of the accepted radius take the Centro bus system as their means of transportation (c) Noah Eagle 2016

Mary Habib is a parent in the SCSD, and understands why parents are concerned about their children walking to school. Like Hunter, one of her biggest anxieties when she would walk her kids to school was the weather.

“I was thinking it’s a four block walk, have the sidewalks been shoveled? is it cold out?” said Habib.

Habib explained that the busing radius is determined by the transportation aid, and the SCSD is 80 percent dependent on state aid. She claimed the whole busing situation is decided based by the state and its allotted budget, which is completely out of the district’s control. Habib also went into how this is a situation that doesn’t amend itself overnight.

“It’s not something that we decide tomorrow that we are going to start busing more people next month, it takes planning and a lot of preparation,” said Habib.

Habib does agree the the mile and a half radius is still a long way for students to walk and can definitely see why parents are not satisfied. A large concern among parents is that their children have to walk through neighborhoods that are, “less desirable than others.”

Habib also says that this affects attendance and academic achievement at school. Put simply, if the kids aren’t present they aren’t learning. According to Habib, since the change in radius to one and a half miles both categories have been steadily improving.

“People want what’s best for their kids, as do we, unfortunately we’re held to the constraints of what the district can accommodate,” said Habib.

Killenbec agrees with both Hunter and Habib that the weather is a major factor hindering children from walking to school.

“The children are smaller than some of the snow mounds,” says Killenbec. “We want everyone to be safe. We would love to transport everybody.”

She says about 5000 high school students are transported and 10,000 K-8 students are also transported.

The district’s budget is consistently in the works, the busses taken into account (C) Kimberly Brown 2016

The district’s budget is consistently in the works, the buses taken into account (C) Kimberly Brown 2016

Safety is a concern for Killenbec but explained that in transportation policy, mobile danger such as a shooting is not something that the transportation system can accommodate for. On the other hand, something that does not move, such as railroad tracks or highways are more concrete are different stories.

“If we have a drug dealing or shooting on a corner you can’t call that a danger because that could happen on the next corner the next day, and so you would be calling everything danger, where the railroad track probably isn’t going to change,” said Killenbec.

Aside from being a former student, Bobby Hunter is also a concerned parent about the safety of children walking to and from school and facing crime. Just two weeks ago Hunter witnessed a gang fight just two blocks away from a school that he was picking up some familiar students from. He said he saw about 30 or 40 kids just beating each other up.

Looking ahead, Hunter said he is very concerned with what his two-year-old daughter would have to face going to school.

“I already have thoughts of worry and frustration,” he said.

Hunter’s concern over predators and safety in the school district has him considering other options for his daughter.

“Even if it costs me 10,000 dollars a year I would probably sacrifice vacation and everything else to send my daughter to a private school so she could have a better atmosphere,” said Hunter.

Hunter believes the problems on the streets and in the classroom start at home, and busing can only do so much to help the bigger communal issues.

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Dome Sweet Dome: But For How Long?

By Jackson Ajello, John Dowling, Adam Friedman SYRACUSE, NY (NCC News) – Only eight years remain until the roof of the Carrier Dome has to be replaced. As the deadline approaches, three options are on the table for Chancellor Kent Syverud and the Board of Trustees at Syracuse University to consider.

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The Carrier Dome with Syracuse Quad in the distance as seen from the top of Lawrinson Hall, Copyright John Dowling 2015.

The Carrier Dome first opened its doors on September 20, 1980. The 30-year-old facility hosts the Syracuse University football, basketball and lacrosse teams. The Carrier Dome is the only domed stadium in the Northeast and the largest on-campus basketball arena in the country.

But the 49,000 seat facility is not just home to SU sporting events. It has also hosted NCAA tournament rounds for basketball, lacrosse, and track and field, NBA preseason games and regional and state finals in high school football. Artists such as Billy Joel, U2 and the Rolling Stones have all performed at the Carrier Dome over the years.

The air-supported roof of the Dome has now become outdated among stadiums across the country, according to Syracuse University Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Kevin Quinn.

The roof of the Dome must be replaced within the next three to five years,. The looming replacement has brought three proposals to the table for Chancellor Kent Syverud and the Board of Trustees, according to Quinn.

One option is to simply replace the existing air supported roof structure with another air supported roof.

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The Physics Building on the Syracuse Quad with the Carrier Dome in the background, Copyright Jackson Ajello 2016.

Another option is to replace the existing air supported roof with a permanent structure.  Part of that option also includes three promenades connected on Waverly Avenue, University Avenue and on the Quad in place of the Physics Building.

The last option is an offsite standalone stadium supported by external funding.

As the process moves forward, the Chancellor has his priorities set.

“The Chancellor wants to make the decision that is right by the students and the greater Syracuse community,” said Quinn.

For students, a significant advantage to the Dome is its location in the heart of campus. Some fear that the possibility of moving the Dome would erase a significant part of student life at SU.

“I think having the Dome be on campus just makes it really special… I think it’s a huge part of student life, and for the community and for alumni who come back and want to see their alma mater and go to a game.” -Nicole Howell

“I think Syracuse students are really lucky to have the Dome right on campus … I don’t think it would be nearly as fun if we didn’t get to walk through the Quad and see this big tailgate on our way to a football game,” she said.

Howell is also the President of “Otto’s Army,” a Syracuse University student organization that controls the student section for SU athletics. Throughout her time in the stands, she has been in many visiting student sections on road trips. Most recently, she attended a basketball game in the Verizon Center, home to Syracuse’s hated rival Georgetown. She noted how they share the arena with other professional sports teams, something that makes them and other venues different from the Carrier Dome.

“It’s ours… I think the cool thing about the Carrier Dome is that it’s Syracuse University’s Carrier Dome,” she said.

Despite their love for the Dome, students still acknowledge the need for renovations. Even though she loves the Carrier Dome as it is, Howell mentioned that a JumboTron would be a welcome addition.

“They [other arenas] obviously have a huge JumboTron that dangles from the ceiling, which we can’t do because our ceiling is essentially a balloon,” Howell said.

Tom Langan, a freshman at Syracuse University, touched on the irony of the building’s namesake when discussing his desired renovations.

“It gets way too hot in there, I would like there to be A/C. It is called the Carrier Dome for some reason.” -Tom Langan

When it comes to local business, the Carrier Dome is integral to the economics of Syracuse’s Marshall Street.

“If the Carrier Dome moved I would lose business,” said Dave Jacobs, owner of M-Street Pizza and Shirt World, which are both located in the center of Marshall Street, “If the stadium moved our business would definitely be hurt.”

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A view looking down the shops on Marshall Street with the Varsity in the distance and ShirtWorld to the right, Copyright Jackson Ajello 2016.

Marshall Street is home to over 40 restaurants, bars and other privately owned businesses, including long-time Syracuse establishments like Faegan’s Cafe & Pub, Manny’s Tee’s and Varsity Pizza.

“The way parking is set up and where Marshall Street is, it’s good for business,” Jacobs said.

Marshall Street is pinned between two parking garages. The garages are then filled during games, which subsequently leads to business before and after games for the restaurant.

“If the Dome moved you’d be hurting businesses here a lot,” Jacobs said.

When asked about improvements he would like to see to the Dome, Jacobs said he has never actually attended a game. Jacobs, a former kicker for the SU football team from 1975-1978, played in Archbold Stadium but graduated before the Carrier Dome was built. Today, he manages his businesses during the games.

The Syracuse Board of Trustees will make the final decisions on the future of the Dome. Their last meeting to discuss the Dome took place last November. The decision on the future of the Carrier Dome is likely to be announced sometime after the commencement ceremonies of the Class of 2016, when Campus Framework renovations are set to begin.

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Syracuse City School District Gets a Report Card

By Drew Carter and Sophia Morris SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — At a school board meeting in March, Tisha Edwards stood at a podium and answered questions from the Syracuse City School District (SCSD) Board of Education for more than an hour. The commissioners were curious about what Edwards had done during her time working with the district.

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SCSD Board of Education Commissioners at March meeting.  Copyright 2016 Drew Carter

 

Edwards serves as the district’s Independent Monitor, a position created by New York Attorney General Eric Schneidman less than two years ago.

In July 2014, roughly eight months after beginning an investigation into student discipline in the SCSD, the New York State Office of the Attorney General (OAG) issued an “Assurance of Discontinuance” (AOD) to the district. The agreement requires the SCSD to examine discipline patterns — specifically, the rate at which black, hispanic, and disabled students are punished — across the schools.

In the 2014-2015 school year, black students accounted for 75 percent of disciplinary student hearings despite comprising less than half of the student population, according to Edwards’ report in October 2015.

A new Code of Conduct, Character and Support has been implemented across the District. This code was put in place to clarify the expectations of student behavior and the consequences of violating the code. According to the AOD, the new code better equips staff to deal with the consequences of code infractions and further disciplinary actions.

One of the 101 stipulations laid out in the AOD required the district to hire the Independent Monitor, who would “create a plan to conduct periodic reviews of the data, files, and records to assess compliance with the District’s policies and with this Assurance.”

The district hired Edwards to fill the role in November 2014. Edwards was a strong candidate for the job having served as the Interim Chief Executive Officer of the Baltimore City Public Schools, as well as a Chief of Staff and Special Assistant to the CEO in Baltimore.

SCSD Superintendent Sharon Contreras, who was responsible for selecting the Independent Monitor, said Edwards’ experience “in a district that deals with the same issues that we have seemed to make her the best fit for the position.”

Contreras was also impressed by Edwards’ legal background. Edwards graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2001, and has worked as an attorney.

“I knew she would understand the legal implications of the AOD, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and I knew she would quickly learn New York state law,” Contreras said in a phone interview.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in publicly-funded activities, while the Individuals with Disabilities Act, passed in 2004, governs the way in which public agencies provide intervention to disabled children.

At the time of that meeting in March, Edwards had not been to any schools in the district. Now, she has visited Danforth, Corcoran, Dr. King, and Frazer schools, and will visit Lincoln, Delaware, Westside Academy at Blodgett, Clary, LeMoyne, and PSLA at Fowler.

Edwards did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

“She reviews the data, and to make the most of her time and expertise, she then chose, with the district, the ten schools that have the most compliance issues,” Contreras said. “She’s visiting those schools now.”

“Her role is not to evaluate the district,” Contreras said. “It is to ensure that the leadership, which is Board of Education and the Superintendent, comply with all provisions within the AOD.”

Tisha Edwards

Tisha Edwards addresses School Board.  Copyright 2016 Drew Carter

“I’d prefer we didn’t have one,” Contreras said regarding the AOD. “But, since we do have one, I’m going to comply with it. That is my legal responsibility. But there’s no superintendent that wants to be under such an order.”

The AOD hasn’t cost the district any additional money because the investments account for Edwards’ position, according to Kate Skahen, comptroller for the SCSD. The required investments for this year totaled $3 million and the independent monitor’s position is budgeted into that.

During the 2014-2015 school year and with the timing of the assurance, the district was “able to realign the budget investment mid-year to meet the requirements of the AOD and have been able to carry that into the budget of 2015-2016 and hopefully the 2016-2017 year,” Skahen said.

Skahen believes that the district has been doing a good job of balancing the budget and as a result, the AOD hasn’t had an adverse affect.

Each year the district goes through a “process of prioritizing,” said Skahen. Not always, but sometimes, the district needs to decide whether or not to cut certain programs. According to Skahen, since the AOD has been put into place, they have not had to cut any programs.

“We go through the programs and make sure that they are operating effectively and make sure they are meeting the goals of the district. Sometimes some things are scaled back in that process,” said Skahen.

The impact of Edwards as independent monitor has turned out to work in favor for the district and has not impacted the budget as a result. Skahen saw the necessity for Edwards position within the district.

“We kind of look at it as things that are good for us to be doing anyway and they should be prioritized within the budget,” Skahen said.

Contreras echoed that sentiment. “Some of it is for teacher professional development,” the Superintendent said. “Some is for interventions that we should have been implementing all along, so it’s not just random activities or actions that the district should take.”

One position that may not be included in the budget would be Edwards’ suggestion of a “Ombuds Officer” at the school board meeting. This position would help Edwards oversee the other schools that are in need of transitioning into this new code of conduct.

The AOD does not list any specifics as to whether or not the Ombuds Officer will be factored into the budget, which could eventually become a concern for the SCSD.

Edwards will continue to provide periodic reports to the SCSD during her time as Independent Monitor. Her next report, which will summarize the 2015-16 school year and provide a 2016-17 monitoring plan, is scheduled for August 2016.

 

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Say Yes to Education provides opportunities to urban youth

Asantewaah says "Yes to Education" (C) AJ Gersh 2016

Syracuse University student Asantewaah Ofosuhene says “Yes to Education” (c) AJ Gersh 2016

By Rashika Jaipuriar and A.J. Gersh SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC NEWS) – Syracuse families say that Say Yes to Education is a “God-send,” according to Ahmeed Turner.

As Scholarship Director for the Say Yes program in Syracuse, Turner works with urban youth to get them free tuition at partnering colleges — what he calls the “crowned jewel” of the program.   

The nonprofit foundation incentives high school graduation and college matriculation in impoverished communities by guaranteeing free college tuition.

Say Yes to Education pushes Syracuse city high school students to envision an academic future at nearby colleges.

When the program arrived in Syracuse in 2008 and partnered with the city school district, the Syracuse city high school graduation rate was 46.5 percent. That number, through the help of Say Yes, has trended upwards each year and, as of 2015 was 55.5 percent.

“It has been incremental increases over the years that suggest systematically were seeing something that is not a fluke,” Turner said. “In some communities you see a five or ten point jump. But in Syracuse, you are seeing it steadily going up.”

Since its inception, Say Yes has provided scholarships to over 2000 students in the local area, according to Turner. As of fall 2015, 133 of those students received scholarships to attend Syracuse University.

But though the program has been in Syracuse since 2008 and provided scholarships to many Syracuse City School District students, the majority of Say Yes scholars at Onondaga Community College end up dropping out.

SCSD Chief Financial Officer Suzanne Slack said the district has seen a drastic increase in high school graduation rates, but once those students get to OCC, the graduation rate is typically 17-18 percent.

However, according to Turner, Say Yes Scholars at OCC are graduating at a rate of around 30 percent, which is nearly double the two-year college’s actual rate. Though Syracuse students are persisting at a higher rate compared to the national average, Turner acknowledged that there is more that needs to be done.

“We certainly know that we want that (number) to be better and we’re working with OCC and our other two-year partner colleges to be innovative about programs for students, and the students could be doing better,” Turner said.

To improve those college graduation rates, Turner said Syracuse Say Yes has partnered with OCC and five other local colleges and universities to create the Summer Bridge program, which is designed to target students who aren’t “college ready” according to placement tests.

“That’s an opportunity for them to take nine credit-bearing courses (over the summer) to get some extra help,” Turner said.

Summer Bridge also gives a stipend to students, who are usually financially dependent on summer jobs.

Additionally, Say Yes has a partnership program with OCC called On Point for College. According to Turner, On Point for College is a plan of action that helps students who didn’t perform well academically in their first semester at OCC to get connected with the proper support services and tutoring necessary for their future success.

“OCC, like many other two year schools, has a plethora of support services — and not all of the students know about it,” Turner said. “So, us at Say Yes just try to market that and especially help those students who have been identified as needing extra help.”

Say Yes helps young students get opportunities to further their education that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Along with the financial aspect, Say Yes also provides resources like legal counsel, social support and extended-day learning.

With all the support offered by Say Yes, the program faces many financial obstacles. The national Say Yes organization will no longer fund Syracuse scholarships. Now, Syracuse must raise $30 million by June 2017 — only a third of which has been raised so far.

Though the Syracuse branch of Say Yes faces ongoing financial stress, Turner said that the program still has a real impact on kids who wish to continue their education past high school and become a part of the working world.

“All of them want to make a good living financially, but for the most part, they envision a career,” Turner said. “Unfortunately a lot of times this turns out to be a career that’s not in Syracuse, but in many cases students envision themselves getting a career and getting a family.”

One of those Say Yes scholars is Cora Cool-Mihalyi, a graduate of the SCSD and graduating senior and dual major in Syracuse University’s School of Education.

Where you come from shouldn’t affect your placement or your opportunity; no student matters more than another, and that’s an ideal that I’ve stood by throughout all my time here,” said Cool-Mihalyi in a February interview with SU Today.

Cool-Mihalyi plans on entering the workforce next year in New York City, as she has already accepted a job to student teach in Brooklyn, according to Say Yes of Syracuse.

Turner said he’s passionate about his job because of the power of education and its life-changing impact.

“My mom is an educator, I grew up through education,” Turner said. “I know a lot about it through osmosis, and I personally have a very strong belief that education can change the world. I believe and it is actual and factual that education is the most qualitative indicator in quality of life.”

Although many problems plague the city of Syracuse — it has the highest concentration of poverty among Blacks and Hispanics, according to a 2015 study by The Century Foundation — education could be a remedy, according to Turner.

“Those who are college educated report that they enjoy their quality of life as opposed to others, and it is the most effective bridge out of poverty.”

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