REGIONAL NEWS IN REVIEW - June 2019

Builders visit White House

The Farmington High School robotics team went to the White House in May, as recognition for building a customized wheelchair for a Burnsville boy. First Lady Melania Trump honored the team as part of her Be Best initiative.

“This is truly what it means to be best,” she said. “Thank you for what you have done to change the little boy’s life.” The boy and his family also attended the event.

Starstruck and still reeling from the last-minute invite, the four students and their coach, Spencer Elvebak, wearing their red and black Rogue Robotics shirts and dark jeans, presented the modified chair to Rocco Zachow-Rodriguez, 5, on the White House lawn.

“The kids and I were sitting about eight seats away from the president,” Elvebak said. The wheelchair got a once-over by a bomb-sniffing dog and White House aides supplied a red marker to cover up scratches that happened en route.

“It was so cool, definitely a once-in-alifetime experience,” said Cami Schachtele, 17. Rocco, who was born with a rare form of dwarfism, charmed the crowd of Washington notables and Wall Street execs by driving the car around and waving at the cameras.

“It was one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life,” said Nicole Cash, one of the students chosen out of the team of 26 to go to the White House. “It was super exciting. I’m so proud of our whole team.”

The team’s first project was for Cillian Jackson, a Farmington boy with a genetic condition similar to cerebral palsy. The Jacksons were unable to attend the event, so Rocco’s family, who just met the robotics team a month ago, traveled in their place. (Source: Pioneer Press)

Will drive-throughs be curbed?

Minneapolis city officials are continuing their efforts to ban new drive-through services. The city’s Planning Commission was expected to vote on a proposed ban in early June and then send it to the City Council for final action.

The commission in May expressed support for a zoning code amendment that would prohibit new drive-throughs citywide. Existing drive-throughs would not be affected by the amendment, which was brought forth by City Council President Lisa Bender.

“We know that we need to reduce our emissions significantly,” Planning Commission President Sam Rockwell said. “Reducing that infrastructure that encourages driving is important.”

In the proposed amendment, city staff cited “noise, extended idling, proliferation of curb cuts, conflicts with pedestrians and traffic generation” as some of the problems stemming from the long lines sometimes seen in drive-throughs at fast-food restaurants, pharmacies and other businesses. The change builds on language the city adopted in 2016 to restrict where new drive-through lanes can be located.

But while that would provide safety for pedestrians, it would also raise red flags for people with disabilities, who are sometimes unable to walk to destinations. They rely on drive-through lanes to pick up needed goods and obtain services.

The city now allows drive-throughs in six of its zoning districts, Minneapolis in recently has recently and approved a fairly small number of requests for new drive-through lanes.

Existing drive-through lanes would be grandfathered in and could remain. The Minneapolis 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which was passed by the City Council last year but has yet to be formally adopted, stated the city would ban new drive-throughs and gas stations. The plan placed a strong emphasis on improving walking, cycling and public transportation options. (Source: Star Tribune)

Police officer offers help

St. Paul Police Officer Mat Jones hopes his story will help others who are struggling with mental health issues. Jones responded to a 911 call in August 2018. Someone shot a man attending a funeral in the chest. As Jones approached to help the shooting victim, he said a group began yelling at him. Some shouted racial slurs.

On his knees, beside the victim, Jones used a T-shirt to apply pressure until paramedics arrived. He later learned his efforts stopped the victim from going into cardiac arrest. Then, about a week after responding to that call, Jones said he broke.

“I had really bad nightmares about approaching the young man and the crowd being hostile,” he said. In his dream, the crowd pulled him away from helping the victim, and disarmed him. Eventually, he asked for help and was diagnosed with PTSD. Now Jones is on a mission to change the stigma surrounding mental health. “We have this idea in policing that nobody understands what we are going through other than other cops, but we also tend to give each other a hard time about being soft about these things and that is a culture that needs to change,” he said. “Why is that when you are struggling mentally with something we don’t ask for help? That is part of the stigma. That is a big thing. I am a big tough cop I can handle this. I am not gonna show you I have a weakness and that is what we need to get over. (Source: KARE-11 News)

Accessible pool to open

The new Pine Island pool will go down like a cannonball off the diving board. “I think they’re excited,” Mayor Rod Steele citing strong public response. “I think they’re intrigued. The lines for swimming registration were out the door (of City Hall) and down to Subway.”

Part of that excitement, Steele said, probably comes from the fact the city did not have a swimming pool in 2018. Another part is the anticipation of seeing the new pool after the city limped along for so many years on a pool that leaked water underground and failed to meet federal standards for accessibility.

The need for a new pool became apparent in 2011 when the pool was found to be noncompliant with Americans With Disabilities Act standards. There was no way for anyone in a wheelchair to access the pool, for example. The pool house bathrooms were also not handicapped accessible.

The city began looking at a new pool option and finally went to voters in 2016 for a $2.4 million pool project, timing to not conflict with a school district bond referendum.

Steele said the $2.4 million price tag covered the basics and some nice extras but not everything. The city will continue to raise funds for chairs, tables and umbrellas. The infrastructure for a water slide is in place, but the money for a slide is not available yet. (Source: Rochester Post-Bulletin)

Earplugs cause hearing damage

Hundreds of veterans across the country, including dozens from Minnesota, are accusing Maplewood-based 3M of selling the military “dangerously defective” ear plugs that failed to protect Marines and soldiers from long-term hearing related disabilities, according to court and government records.

A flurry of lawsuits are being filed in the wake of the company’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice last year in which it paid $9 million to resolve allegations that it knowingly sold the dual-ended Combat Arms Ear Plugs, Version 2, “without disclosing defects that hampered the effectiveness of the hearing protection device,” according to a government news release.

3M did not admit any wrongdoing as part of that settlement.

“We deny this product was defectively designed,” a company spokesperson said, adding they will “defend against the allegations in these lawsuits.”

More than 630 lawsuits have been filed and will be heard in a federal court in Florida. An attorney involved with the multi-district litigation says roughly 30 have been filed by veterans who live in Minnesota.

Sarah Kay Carlson, an Army veteran from St. Paul, filed her lawsuit in April, claiming 3M exposed her and thousands of other Marines and soldiers to “extremely dangerous and disabling noise.”

Carlson, who was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in the late 2000s, provided security to convoys targeted by mortar shells that sounded like, “fireworks … but closer.” (Source: KSTP-TV)

Accessible taxi company closes

One of the largest accessible taxicab companies in the Twin Cities metropolitan area has apparently shut down with no notice to state regulators. Green & White/Suburban Taxi is no longer in operation, according to cabdrivers familiar with the St. Paul company. The company was unique because it offered medical transports and specialized services to people with disabilities.

The company had been in business for three decades. Shane Delaney, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, said the company did not notify state officials it would be letting workers go, which is required of employers of a certain size. “Our attempts to contact the company have been unsuccessful,” Delaney said.

Former driver Michael Powell — who drove a wheelchair van for the company for two years — said he was one of the last to go this spring. Powell said services like Uber and Lyft had eroded the industry.

“We’re really not a taxi service anymore, we’re really a medical transportation company,” Powell said. And so he did, watching as the company’s workforce shrank over those two years from 200 to about 50. Then one of the company’s major medical accounts — Powell declined to say which one — decided to cut ties earlier this month. That appeared to be the final straw.

Powell paid $500 a month to lease his van, and said the company treated him fairly, giving him back his full deposit. (Source: Pioneer Press)


Hill City facility scrutinized

A resident of a Hill City assisted living facility resident has died after being brutally beaten by a staff member, according to a state investigation. Authorities said they are close to bringing criminal charges against staff at a northern Minnesota senior home where residents were allegedly beaten, sexually assaulted and denied vital medical care.

The assisted-living facility, Chappy’s Golden Shores in Hill City, had its state license revoked in February following a far-reaching investigation by the Minnesota Department of Health. Since last fall, the agency has released a dozen separate reports alleging serious harm, including physical and sexual abuse, of residents at the now-closed facility.

Taken together, the state investigative reports span hundreds of pages and paint a disturbing portrait of conditions at a remote facility that once housed nearly 40 vulnerable residents, including people with mental and physical disabilities. In one case, a man was beaten so severely that blood poured from his head and he later died of brain injuries, the state alleged. The cases are so alarming that senior advocates have repeatedly cited them as part of a broader push for tighter regulation of assisted-living facilities, which are now unlicensed in Minnesota.

The allegations have also attracted the attention of local law enforcement officials and prosecutors. On Wednesday, Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida said he knows of at least five criminal investigations – “all significant in scope” – that could lead to felony and gross misdemeanor charges. He said several search warrants have already been executed.

In another report, state investigators found that management of Chappy’s violated state law by allowing residents to move back into the facility while its home care license was suspended. The facility then failed to provide appropriate care and supervision of the residents, all of whom had medical needs. One of the residents who moved back to Chappy’s had congestive heart failure, kidney disease and diabetes; the resident’s condition quickly worsened, and he had to be hospitalized. Investigators who visited the building found it in disarray, with medical supplies spread about and mold growing in urinals.

The state also documented incidents of financial exploitation. (Source: Star Tribune)

Convicted felon involved in ADA cases

A convicted murderer, who served 24 years behind bars, is the latest face of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) lawsuits in Minnesota. Jerald Boitnott was recently scrutinized by KMSP-TV’s investigative team, who documented him carrying his walker up ice-covered stairs to his home.

Boitnott in 2017 was the plaintiff in lawsuits against Taco Bell, Famous Dave’s, Slumberland, Wendy’s and Aldi. The lawsuits were settled for undisclosed terms and then dismissed. He is now involved in lawsuits against Chili’s, Arby’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Bed Bath & Beyond, Home Depot and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

The lawsuits are the latest wave of litigation, which some disability rights advocates have opposed. They contend that the claims are less about access and more about making a profit.

St. Michael-based attorneys Patrick Michenfelder and Chad Throndset are working with a law firm from Pennsylvania on the lawsuits.

Boitnott is also suing the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul as he objects to heights of the parking meter pay stations. Boitnott contends the pay stations aren’t the proper height for people with disabilities. The case, which began in May in federal court, could take a year.

ADA-based lawsuits have become big business nationally. In 2018 nationally there were more than 10,000 ADA lawsuits filed in federal district court. That is a 33 percent increase over 2017.(Source: KMSP-TV)

Guard focus is suicide prevention

The Minnesota National Guard is changing what it does to prevent suicides. It comes after a surge in deaths that made top commanders take a hard look at why they were happening.

After 12 young soldiers, all men and from all corners of Minnesota, died by suicide in less than a year-and-a-half, the Minnesota National Guard asked for help.

PFC Joel Costa was one of the soldiers. He served with the Guard in Duluth for two years. Costa died on Feb. 12, 2017. His death shocked his family because he seemed happy. “Basically, we got a call Saturday morning that he didn’t show up for drill,” said Costa’s mother, Kelly Costa-Daly. “There was nothing necessarily out of normal, as far as we could see on the outside.”

Costa-Daly is involved with Operation 23 to Zero, which puts boots out to raise awareness about military suicides. Her son’s boots were there. She said the 12 suicides, between June 2016 and October 2017.

The motto of the Minnesota National Guard is Always Ready. But, after a dozen deaths, it was ready to ask for help from the Minnesota Department of Health to prevent suicides. Epidemiologist Melissa Heinen conducted fatality reviews of all 12 deaths. She turned back the clock and looked at service records and police reports. She read obituaries and news stories.

The common perception with military suicides is the person might have done tours overseas, saw combat, suffered from PTSD or had problems transitioning at home. But, that’s not what the fatality review found. Heinen found that the soldiers who died had several life stressors that piled up.

Heinen’s fatality review concluded the Minnesota National Guard has plenty of support services, but soldiers are reluctant ask for help.

In late October, the Minnesota National Guard made changes. Now, more counselors attend weekend drills. Soldiers meet in small groups to talk about mental health and wellness. Officers receive suicide intervention training. And, National Guard leaders look at soldiers differently. There have been no deaths by suicide since then. (Source: KSTP-TV)

Grant focuses on autism

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have received a $3.7 million grant for a study that could lead to earlier, more accurate diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

The university announced in May that the grant, which is from the National Institutes of Health, will go toward research focused on developing population-based risk profiles that could predict whether a child will develop autism spectrum disorder or related conditions.

Currently, the average age of autism diagnosis in Minnesota is five years old, as diagnostic techniques depend on behavioral signs, the university says. If the new research proves effective, it could lead to much earlier diagnosis and, as a result, early intervention at a time when the brain is more malleable.

In addition to the $3.7 million grant, university officials have indicated that the U of M will also be a part of a newly-announced infant brain imagining study, which could also contribute earlier detection of autism spectrum disorder. (Source: WCCO-TV)

Veteran makes his walking goal

Less than six hours after Wahpeton, N.D., resident Jerry Meadows began walking from Bemidji to St. Cloud for a second time, the 61-year-old disabled veteran reached — and even surpassed — his initial goal of raising $5,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project. Access Press readers might recall his story from the May issue

“I left Bemidji at about 8:30 in the morning, and I raised over $1,000 by 2 o’clock in the afternoon … just south of Cass Lake,” Meadows said.

Meadows made it to St. Cloud on foot on April 5 after leaving March 14 from Bemidji to raise money and awareness for the nonprofit. But the Air Force veteran did not reach his goal of $5,000 in donations, so he swore to keep walking until he raised enough money.

His initial walk raised about $4,000.

“I said after $5,000, I get to go home and take my wife with me … but about 2:30 that afternoon, we packed up — boy, I’m so glad to go home, you have no idea,” Meadows said. He raised over $6,000 as of Thursday afternoon. (Source: Bemidji Pioneer)