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KISD votes no to four-day week

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KennardISD GraphicBy Ashley Bankhead-Keenan
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KENNARD –  Many schools in East Texas are considering or have already moved their calendars to a four-day school week. Latexo Independent School district has been on this schedule since August 2020. The shorter week allows for Fridays to be reserved for extra relaxation for students, teachers, and staff, for doctor appointments and deep-cleaning the campus. 

During its regular board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 13, the Kennard ISD Board of Trustees went into closed session to consider adopting a four-day schedule for the 2022-23 school year.

Once the board reconvened in open session, the decision had been made for the district to continue operating as it had been with its five-day, Monday through Friday schedule. The vote was tended to with a 5-1 majority of nays, with only Keith Cole voting in favor of the four-day instructional week proposal.

Last week, a petition on change.org surfaced requesting that the KISD board re-vote. 

The creator of the petition said, “A survey was sent out to the community of Kennard, Texas, asking if they would want a four day week for the next school year. 

The parents and staff voted, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. The majority of the town wanted to make the switch to four days. It has been working well for many school districts around us. We were excited! However, despite the majority of the town answering ‘Yes’ on the survey, the KISD Board of Trustees voted ‘No’ to the change.”

The petition’s creator went on to state: “Many Kennard students, staff and community members were distraught by the news. We are asking that the vote be re-cast and that the needs and wants of the majority be considered.”

At this time, there are 154 signatures on the petition, and it has not been determined whether the board will revisit this topic.

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Family Crisis Center hosts trafficking awareness event

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familycrisisceenterBy Ashley Bankhead-Keenan
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CROCKETT – When you think of human trafficking, what comes to mind? Do you think of a Liam Neeson film or a pimp in a purple suit driving a Cadillac? Human trafficking is quite broad and not usually as simple as these visions depict. 

The actual definition of human trafficking is the unlawful act of transporting or coercing people to benefit from their work or service, typically in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation. After drug dealing, the trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second-largest criminal industry in the world.

On Thursday, Jan. 20, the Family Crisis Center of East Texas held an event to bring awareness to human trafficking. The event was hosted in honor of January being Human Trafficking Awareness month. The theme was “End Human Trafficking.” Six speakers, experts in their respective fields, presented information about trafficking.

The first speaker was Maria Villarreal, Sexual Assault/Human Trafficking Specialist. She said that human trafficking is a hidden crime. 

A person who is coerced, manipulated, and even conditioned into not trusting law enforcement will not come right out and let you know that they are a victim. Trafficking is heavily under-reported. Most victims do not want to file a report because they’re scared and threatened. As an advocate and specialist in human trafficking, Maria has not had a new case in nearly a year. This is how often these heinous crimes go unreported.

Crockett’s Chief of Police, Clayton Smith, touched on risk factors and said, “Believe it or not, everybody thinks that Crockett, a small town in Houston County, isn’t going to see that… well you better wake up, because we are.” He went on the tell of an incident where a Crockett citizen was approached at a local store and offered her money for her child. The trafficker even went so far as to follow the mother into the parking lot. “Luckily, we were able to identify and obtain arrest warrants,” Chief Smith stated. “It happens here. Human trafficking does not discriminate.” 

Recently, Smith read an article that said one of the structural causes of human trafficking was weak law enforcement. After reevaluating how Crockett can take action against human trafficking, Smith began working with Homeland Security and received a grant to obtain a license plate reader. “License plates readers are set up on the highway. If a vehicle has been flagged in the system as being involved in human trafficking, child sex trafficking, illegal narcotics, substance abuse, stuff like that, the license plate reader is going to grab that license plate, and it’s going to send us a notification. With the help of our city government, the council, and the mayor, we’re in the process of outfitting our vehicles with in-car computer systems that will allow officers to get real-time notifications of these flagged vehicles and will allow officers to act quickly.”

Kim Riddle, Medical Advocate/SANE Program Director, warned that trafficking, in most cases, happens in the home. Parents traffic their children by producing child pornography and selling it online. It can be a teacher, another student, a sibling, or a grandparent. Many victims grew up in broken homes, craving love and attention. This is where a trafficker steps in and fills that void, giving their victims a false sense of security.

Houston County Sheriff Randy Hargrove spoke about the red flags of trafficking and stated that a study by the University of Texas claims that at any given time, in the state of Texas, 313,000 are being trafficked, including 79,000 children. Red flags that anyone can look for to help prevent sex, labor, and human trafficking include but are certainly not limited to: visible injuries, inconsistent stories, failure to make eye contact, malnutrition, paranoia, submissive behavior, conversations that appear to be scripted and rehearsed, extreme fatigue and tattoos that indicate branding. 

In the world we’re living in today, trafficking of any kind is not just at our doorstep; it’s already in our home. The internet is a gateway for children and even naïve adults to be abused, trafficked, exploited, and murdered. Through the television programs we watch, we’re conditioned to accept and turn a blind eye to things that don’t “seem so bad.” We’re groomed to think that predators look a certain way, and more times than not, they look like a friend or a neighbor. Maybe we tell ourselves to mind our own business or think we’d be bothering police with a lingering gut feeling, but please, involve yourself. You may save someone’s life. It’s better to trust a gut feeling and be wrong than to have the opportunity to speak up and stand silent.

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Commissioners honors long-time employee

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Houston County Seal 1280x640By Jan White
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CROCKETT – At the most recent regular meeting of the Houston County Commissioners Court, C.R. “Chili” Hodges was awarded a plaque in honor of his 50 years of service as Houston County Surveyor. Judge Jim Lovell thanked Hodges, and said “It’s not very often we have someone who serves the county for 50 years.”

Hodges was also presented with a certificate at the employee appreciation dinner.   

The agenda items approved were:

• The hiring of Casey Bradshaw from part-time to full-time Bailiff. 

• The 2022 Agreement with Armstrong Forensic Laboratory for the blood and controlled substance analysis services to the Houston County Attorney’s Office. 

• Continuing Education for the County Clerk

• Increase in IRS standard reimbursement of business travel mileage rate of 2.5 cents, increasing the rate to 58.5 cents per mile

• The approval to use the Crockett Civic Center for Jury Selection and Jury Trial for County Court at Law Feb. 15-16

Sheriff Randy Hargrove asked the Commissioners to consider paying overtime to the current jail staff. Hargrove explained that the jail is currently short-staffed due to unfilled staff positions, jailers unable to work because of Covid, and resignations from two employees desiring to attend the police academy. This has resulted in an undue burden placed on the remaining jail staff, who sometimes work up to 18 hours a day. 

The sheriff also expressed concern that without the required staff, contracts with surrounding counties might be in jeopardy, resulting in a loss of income for the county. His request was that the court consider paying accumulated comp time over forty hours as an incentive to encourage and compensate the remaining employees. Judge Lovell explained that such a move would require that all county employees be monetarily compensated for their comp time. The commissioners voted to postpone their decision until a dollar amount could be attached to the compensation and agreed to call a special meeting to discuss and vote on the request.

Other agenda items included the contracts and bids for the CTIF Grant projects. Because of missing data regarding the pickup location provided in the original proposals, the Commissioners voted to rescind the contract with Frost and award it to Connors instead, citing that they are required to accept the lowest bid. Regarding CTIF Contract Hauling bids, the two lowest bids came in at exactly the same cost. When such a situation occurs, the remedy is to draw lots with the winner awarded the contract. Womack Trucking won the draw and was awarded the contract.

Lovell also introduced the new facilities administrator, Carl Johnson, to the Commission and meeting attendees.

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Event to raise awareness of human trafficking

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familycrisisceenterCROCKETT – Working to end human trafficking is a year-round effort, but January is a unique opportunity to raise awareness and take action. Every year, the president proclaims January as National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a time dedicated to shedding light on this devastating crime. 

The Family Crisis Center of East Texas is educating the Houston County community by hosting an awareness event Thursday, Jan. 20 at 10 a.m. at the Pioneer Bank Community Room, located at 415 Goliad Ave., in Crockett. Mayor Ianthia Fisher will read a proclamation letter. Representatives from the Houston County Sheriff’s Department also are on the agenda to speak. The event is free and open to the public, and lunch will be provided. 

“Human Trafficking Awareness Month calls attention to the fact that human trafficking is an epidemic hidden in plain sight in this community and all communities across the country,” said Maria Villarreal, Sexual Assault/Human Trafficking Specialist at the Family Crisis Center of East Texas. “After drug dealing, trafficking of humans is tied with arms dealing as the second largest criminal industry in the world, and is the fastest growing. Raising public awareness is an important element in the fight against human trafficking.”

The theme, “End Human Trafficking,” focuses on the recognition and prevention of human trafficking, which is often described as a hidden crime. The goals of the awareness campaign are to raise public awareness about the nature of human trafficking, how and where it occurs locally, and how to prevent and stop it; help identify victims and survivors and promote access to services, and decrease demand through awareness.

Human trafficking is defined as a crime that involves exploiting a person for labor, services or commercial sex, according to The United States Department of Justice. Victims are exploited through a third party for money or gain by force, fraud or coercion.

Labor trafficking is defined by Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. One of the most common areas of labor trafficking is in agriculture, and it encompasses both legal and undocumented workers.

Sex trafficking is the most widely publicized form of human trafficking. The TVPA defines sex trafficking for adults as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion. Any person under 18 years of age induced to perform sex acts is a victim of sex trafficking. Hotels/motels, truck stops, massage parlors and online sites are common places for sex trafficking.

“Traffickers lure and ensnare people into forced labor and sex by manipulating and exploiting their vulnerabilities. They prey on people who are hoping for a better life, lack employment opportunities, have an unstable home life, or have a history of sexual or physical abuse,” said Villareal. “They often seek out children online who appear vulnerable, depressed, seem emotionally isolated from family and friends, have low-esteem or appear to have a lot of unsupervised time.” 

Victims of human trafficking leave many clues or signs of distress. “Changed behavior, reduced or eliminated communication, secretive of whereabouts, sudden change of intimate relationship, isolation from family, unexplained amounts of money, sober then suddenly becomes addicted to drugs, constantly moving living spaces or towns, bruises or burns, not making eye contact, unable to speak for themselves, no control over personal documents, and/or chronically running away are all signs of human trafficking,” said Villarreal.

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