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Who’s Been Slacking Off in Santa’s Workshop?; Be True to Your (Cathedral High) School; Bill Would Give UMass Student Trustees Voting Rights

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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Who’s Been Slacking Off in Santa’s Workshop?

 

What conveys the magic of the holiday season better than a toy box full of lead, toxic plastics and lots of little parts that toddlers can choke on?

Last week, MassPIRG released its 28th annual report on the safety of kids’ toys. Called “Trouble in Toyland,” the report found that toy safety has improved since the passage of the 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which lowered the acceptable level of lead and phthalates in certain children’s products and put into place new testing requirements, among other provisions.

Still, the report found plenty for parents to worry about, including toys that still contain dangerous levels of lead. For instance, a Captain America shield tested by researchers was found to contain 2,900 parts per million of the poisonous metal—29 times more than the level allowed by the federal government and about 70 times more than the maximum level recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Never mind the glaring question of whether children’s products should contain any lead, which is linked to serious developmental delays.)

The report also found dangerous levels of phthalates, arsenic and cadmium in products; toys with pieces small enough to cause choking; toys for small children with powerful magnets that can cause serious damage if swallowed; and noise-making toys that exceed safe decibel levels. The full list of specific items—including play jewelry, an infant activity map, dress-up clothes and toy phones—can be found at www.masspirg.org.

The report calls for tougher government standards to keep dangerous toys from ending up on the market. “Our leaders and consumer watchdogs need to do more to protect America’s kids from the hazards of unsafe toys—no child should ever be injured, get sick, or die from playing with a dangerous toy,” Kristin Jackson, a MassPIRG consumer advocate, said in an announcement of the report. “Standards for toxic chemicals like lead and cadmium remain too weak, and enforcement needs to be beefed up.”

The organization also offers advice for parents on navigating the toy aisle at www.toysafetytips.org. “We should be able to trust that the toys we buy are safe,” Jackson said. “However, until that’s the case, parents need to watch out for common hazards when shopping for toys.”•

Be True to Your (Cathedral High) School

A group of Cathedral High School students has launched an on-line petition calling on the Springfield Diocese to rebuild the school at its long-time home on Surrey Road in Springfield.

The campus was badly damaged by the freak tornado that hit that city in June of 2011. Since then, the school has been operating out of a vacant school building in Wilbraham rented by the diocese.

Last summer, after a protracted battle with its insurance company, the diocese was awarded as much as $49 million to rebuild the school. But some Cathedral families and alumni, as well as residents of the East Forest Park neighborhood where the school was located for more than 50 years, have expressed frustration about the lack of movement on a rebuilding plan.

The petition, on www.change.org, reads, “Shortly after the tornado hit Bishop McDonnell said the Diocese will ‘undertake everything necessary to bring us back home, here to Surrey Road in East Forest Park. Cathedral will be back. Cathedral will be here. Cathedral will continue.’

“It’s time for Cathedral High School to return home to Surrey Road.” The petition was organized by three Cathedral sophomores, Jack Mulcahy, Brendan Markey and Denny Tran.

Diocese spokesman Mark Dupont told the Advocate via email that the diocese “applaud[s] the efforts by Cathedral students to generate support for this beloved school” and that McDonnell shares their desire to reopen the school on Surrey Road but is also grappling with larger financial pressures on the school.

“The diocese has been doing its part, fighting for the highest settlement, working with its architects and structural engineers reviewing the Surrey road site and developing plans for CHS’ return,” Dupont said. “We have restarted our FEMA discussions, and those officials share our goal to expedite this process, but not at the expense of qualifying for some much-needed additional funds. In the end a building is not our obstacle ... rather sustaining that school is the challenge which must be now faced.”

Dupont noted the financial challenges facing the school and the need for the Cathedral community to step up in response to a fundraising goal of $9 million set by the bishop this fall. “The diocese has underwritten CHS expenses and deficits to the tune of some $10 million in just the last decade and we no longer can continue—our resources have been nearly depleted,” he said, noting that the school lacks the big endowments of other private schools.

Catholic schools like Cathedral, Dupont said, were founded to provide an education to all students, regardless of ability to pay tuition: “For CHS to succeed in the future, it must return to its original goals and find a way to financially support that mission. Building a school that is not sustainable simply makes no sense, and sadly the adage ‘if you build it they will come’ is a clever but largely inaccurate predictor.”• —MT

 

Bill Would Give UMass Student Trustees Voting Rights

Students from all the schools in the UMass system are pushing for passage of a law that would give all five UMass student trustees voting rights. On Nov. 19, students lobbied in Boston for the bill.

Until now, only two student trustees could vote; the vote has rotated between the student trustees so that each year two could vote along with UMass’ other 17 trustees, while the other three could not.

The bill, H 1088, was filed early this year by Marty Walsh, then-state rep, now mayor of Boston, at the behest of Alexis Marvel, the student trustee from UMass-Boston. Ellen Story, Democratic state rep from Amherst, is a sponsor. Marvel, who couldn’t vote at the time, told the UMass-Boston student newspaper The Mass Media that her trustee post seemed “less of a trustee position and more of an advisor position,” and that she felt herself to be “an advisor whose opinions sometimes fall on deaf ears.”

In 32 states, student trustees have full voting rights. Elsewhere, arguments sometimes used against letting them vote are that they may not understand when they are in conflict of interest (as when, for example, they’re called on to vote on tuition increases), and that they may exercise undue influence if they vote as a bloc.

The latter argument, however, seems inapplicable in a situation where student trustees are outnumbered 17 to five by the other trustees. And the former is countered by UMass student Stuart Farber, who in a recent guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette pointed out that students don’t always vote in a short-sighted, self-serving way. “Last year,” Farber wrote, “the UMass Amherst Student Government Association voted unanimously to increase the Student Activities Trust Fund fee per semester per person, to the resoundingly successful benefit of student organizations and services on campus.”

A similar discussion has been taking place this fall in Ohio, where the state legislature considered allowing each public university to decide whether its student trustees would be allowed to vote with its other trustees. In an article in The Athens News, writer Terry Smith, advocating for stronger support for student trustees’ rights to vote, noted that some opponents of those rights had said that voting power would “negatively impact” the student trustees’ college experience.

“This is paternalistic pap,” Smith fulminated. “A student trustee’s experience at OU is more likely to be negatively impacted by being set up as a powerless figurehead who can’t be trusted to study and analyze information and vote accordingly.”•

 

A Step Forward for Voting Law Reform

A partial victory for advocates of liberalized voting laws came November 20, when the Massachusetts House passed new measures enabling early voting and online registration. The new provisions will go into effect in time for the 2016 presidential and congressional elections. They allow voting on business days for two weeks prior to the election, and online registration using voters’ signatures registered with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

The House vote in favor of the new measures was an overwhelming 142 to 10. The Senate is expected to follow suit quickly because Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover), the Senate chair of the Joint Legislative Committee on Election Laws, has been supportive of the House bill.

Massachusetts has not been quick to introduce early voting; 32 other states already have it.

Supporters of the new measures point out that they will make registering and voting easier for people who don’t have cars, for elderly voters with mobility problems, and for working people who can’t be away from their jobs long enough to stand in line for hours on election days. But Common Cause and Progressive Massachusetts have said they will lobby the Senate to introduce further voting reforms, such as Election Day registration, preregistration for teenagers, and post-election audits of voting machines (“Blue State, Red Voting Laws,” November 5, 2013, www.valleyadvocate.com).• —SK

 

Northampton Receives State Grant to Help Protect Water Supply

 

Residents of Northampton can rest a little easier, as one of their community’s fundamental resources will soon be better protected.

As part of a series of grants provided to Western Massachusetts communities by state programs, the city will receive $64,450 to purchase 26 acres of undeveloped woodlands with significant road frontage near the Ryan Reservoir in West Whately, which has supplied drinking water to Northampton since 1970. The city will be in a better position to prevent the reservoir from being contaminated in the future. Northampton already owns more than 3,000 acres of land around its three reservoirs, the Ryan, the West Whately and the Mountain Street reservoirs.

The news about the grant comes after Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard K. Sullivan announced that the region will receive, collectively, $4.3 million. “In addition to preserving open space, improving recreational opportunities and protecting the Commonwealth’s natural resources, these investments will create economic growth across the region,” said Sullivan.

The grants, which are earmarked for specific projects, will improve the quality of life in the area in a variety of ways, from allowing the city of Belchertown to double the size of the Jabish Brook Conservation Area to protecting the quality and availability of drinking water in Westfield and West Springfield. Easthampton will use a $400,000 grant for a long-favored project, a boardwalk around Nashwunnuck Pond with a boat dock.•

 

Valley Group Joins Battle Over Rights of Pregnant Women

MotherWoman, the Hadley-based advocacy group for women and families, is among a coalition of groups that signed on to an amicus brief in a closely watched court case that touches on the rights of pregnant women.

The case stems from a custody battle between skier Bode Miller, an Olympic gold medalist, and Sara McKenna, a former Marine whom he dated for a short time in 2012 when both were living in California. According to a recent story in the New York Times, McKenna became pregnant and, late last year, moved to New York to attend school.

Miller, who has since married another woman, sued for custody of the baby boy in San Diego and accused his ex of moving to New York in the hope that the courts there would be more sympathetic to mothers in a custody battle. If that was McKenna’s intent, though, that’s not the way things panned out. Earlier this year, a New York family court judge chastised her for “forum shopping” by moving while pregnant—“her appropriation of the child while in utero was irresponsible, reprehensible,” the court said—opening the way for the California court to award Miller custody.

Then, last month, things shifted in McKenna’s favor, at least temporarily, when a New York appeals court ruled that that state was the proper jurisdiction for the case and found that the earlier decision had violated McKenna’s rights. “Putative fathers have neither the right nor the ability to restrict a pregnant woman from her constitutionally protected liberty,” the court said. McKenna now has custody of the baby boy—whom she and Miller call by different names—at least until the case’s next court date.

The McKenna/Miller case has caught to attention of women’s rights groups, who see it as an example—alongside anti-abortion efforts to grant fetuses “personhood” rights—of the mounting threats to a pregnant woman’s basic rights, including, in this case, her right to decide where to live.

Liz Friedman, program director at MotherWoman, called the appeals court’s decision in McKenna’s favor “an important victory in the protection of the rights of pregnant people. …

“It’s outrageous to think that a woman can be denied her selfhood and autonomy while pregnant, and that the courts would uphold such a decision,” Friedman continued. “The overturning of this case is a victory for us all, protecting women’s basic constitutional rights at the intersection of our motherhood, womanhood and personhood. A pregnant woman must have authority over her own movements and not be subject to control by the biological father or the state while pregnant.”

That’s why, she added, signing on to the amicus brief in McKenna’s appeal was a “no-brainer” for MotherWoman. “Fight for mothers’ rights? That’s exactly what we do every day,” Friedman said.• —MT

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