Below are a few samples of my work at The Herald. See my resume for additional links.
Lancaster family turns teen’s death into a battle against dating violence
March 1, 2014
LANCASTER — The living room of Robert and Jessica Landry’s Lancaster home looks like most other living rooms, with family pictures adorning tables and walls.
But on one wall, there’s a shrine of sorts, covered with pictures of a teenager smiling, making silly faces or posing with friends.
In the center of it all sits a green urn filled with ashes of Sierra Landry, who was just 18 years old when she was shot last year in a yard, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend.
Father Robert and stepmother Jessica talk about the night of Dec. 30 and the year leading up to it like it’s a dream, something a person reads about in People magazine or watches on an episode of “Nancy Grace.”
Now, they’re taking steps to prevent another family from suffering what they have. They are pushing what they call “Sierra’s Law,” which targets teen dating violence.
Sierra was a bright and popular “all-American” teenager, they said, until she was 17 and started dating Tanner Crolley, 18, who is charged in Sierra’s shooting death. Her grades fell, and she dropped out of high school.
“She started secluding herself,” Jessica Landry said. “She would always come up with excuses (not to spend time with us).”
Hours, then days, then weeks would go by when Sierra would disappear with Crolley, Robert Landry said.
The Landrys did all they could to separate the pair, but Crolley was controlling and abusive, and Sierra couldn’t find a way to stay away, Jessica Landry said.
She was so full of love for everyone, Robert Landry said, that she thought she could fix Crolley, could make him better.
“This one, she couldn’t fix,” Robert Landry said.
When they did manage to see Sierra, Jessica Landry said, she began to notice bruises, small at first, then gradually bigger and bigger. Sierra would tell them she fell or ran into things.
“I told her it’s not right,” Jessica Landry said. “As strong-willed as you are, why would you let somebody do that to you?”
Over the year that Sierra and Crolley’s relationship lasted, Sierra left him multiple times, the Landrys said. She’d get fed up and come home, but Crolley would harass her and the family over the phone and through social media. He’d drive by their house and show up wherever Sierra went, they said. Eventually, she’d go back to him, sure that this time, they’d be able to work it out.
A few weeks before her death, though, Sierra had finally, truly had enough, they said. She had come home to her parents and her little brothers and was spending time with her friends. She getting her life back on track. She avoided Crolley, and she called her parents every few hours to check in and let them know she was safe.
‘Everything just goes … so dark’
On Monday, Dec. 30, a few days after the family celebrated Christmas together, Sierra said she was going to hang out with a friend.
A few hours later, the friend’s mother called Jessica Landry to ask whether she’d seen Sierra. Sierra had gone somewhere with Crolley and didn’t meet up with her friend when she was supposed to.
“Another friend called us and said Tanner had called him and said he’d shot Sierra and left her in the yard,” Jessica Landry said the woman told her.
The Landrys thought it must just be a rumor, that it was too awful to be true.
After a series of 911 calls, the police contacted the Landrys and told them to “sit tight.” That was not possible, Jessica Landry said. She, her husband and other family members started driving, canvassing the community, looking for Sierra, looking for Crolley, looking for anything that might help them discover if anything had happened.
Robert Landry found a police car and followed it to what turned out to be the crime scene.
“Everything just goes so numb, so dark,” Robert Landry said.
Sierra was shot once, in the head, outside a home on John Everall Road.
Police arrested Crolley at a store near the home where Sierra was shot. He had called his mother to pick him up, the Landrys said, but police were waiting. He was charged with murder and use of a deadly weapon. He’s being held in jail; a judge denied him bond again last week.
Now, a cross with pink and white flowers sits across the street, cemented into the ground by Robert Landry, who said his family struggles every day with the question of why.
Lack of awareness
Most people aren’t aware that teen dating violence is a problem, said Joan Harris, a sexual assault educator and preventionist with Safe Passage in Rock Hill, a nonprofit shelter and counseling service for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
In South Carolina, she said, one in 10 high school students have been purposefully hit or slapped by a dating partner. Nationally, one in three adolescents will suffer some kind of abuse, be it physical, sexual or emotional.
“They may not see it as something serious,” Harris said, referring to teenage victims of dating violence. “They don’t think it can result in something like a murder.”
South Carolina is ranked No. 1 nationally in the rate of men who kill women through domestic violence, Harris said. She blames a lack of prevention, a lack of laws to protect people, and not taking the issue seriously.
That’s precisely what the Landrys want to change. In the weeks after Sierra’s death, they started a petition through Change.org calling for Gov. Nikki Haley to push for Sierra’s Law. As of Friday, the petition had more than 265,500 signatures from all over the country.
Among the provisions of Sierra’s Law are creation of a public registry for people convicted of domestic violence, making teenagers guilty of domestic violence ineligible for pretrial intervention and mandating that dating violence awareness become a part of sexual education programs in schools.
But the biggest provision in the proposed legislation is a change in the rules for orders of protection, which are similar to restraining orders but specific to domestic violence. Anyone who violates an order of protection can be arrested on the spot, Harris said.
Under South Carolina law, an order of protection provides a victim protection from abuse by a current or former spouse, someone with whom a person has a child, or a live-in partner.
In South Carolina, a teenager younger than 18 cannot get an order of protection, Harris said.
Break the Cycle, a national organization that works to educate and stop dating violence among youth, gave South Carolina an “F” on its state law report cards because of these limitations.
Sierra’s Law would lower the age requirement to obtain an order of protection and would extend orders of protection to include dating partners.
Orders of protection aren’t the only problem with dating violence laws, Harris said. No one younger than 18 can be charged with criminal domestic violence; minors can only be charged with assault and battery, a different offense with a different sentence and type of counseling.
Jessica Landry said she’s reached out to several legislators with Sierra’s Law, including U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, an Indian Land Republican. She also sent information about the law to Gov. Nikki Haley’s office.
In a statement Saturday, Mulvaney said he wished the Landrys the best in getting Sierra’s Law passed.
“I hope that the South Carolina General Assembly takes this up in a timely fashion and gives it the full attention it deserves,” he said. “We will never be able to stop all violence by just passing laws, but to the extent common-sense changes to our existing laws can better protect us and our children, we should absolutely explore those opportunities.”
On Feb. 17, the S.C. Senate passed a resolution declaring February Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month to “urge the general public to work towards ending teen dating violence.” In the resolution, they called teen dating violence a “quiet epidemic.”
But resolutions do nothing to combat the actual problem of teen dating violence, Harris said.
“Is that going to keep teens from dying? Is that going to keep teens from being abused? No,” she said.
And, unfortunately, despite the need for legislation such as Sierra’s Law, Harris said she doubts the S.C. Legislature will pass anything like it anytime soon.
“They don’t always take things like this seriously,” she said. “They’d rather believe that it’s not a problem.”
Parents’ new life’s work
But for the Landry family, teen dating violence was, and is, a problem. Robert and Jessica said they’ve committed themselves to a lifetime of raising awareness, especially in South Carolina.
“Nothing we say or do is ever going to bring her back, so this tragedy is something that we’re going to have to cope with and turn it around so that it doesn’t happen (to another family),” Jessica Landry said.
But first, they have to get through Crolley’s trial, which will move forward in the coming months.
The Landrys and their many supporters have resolved to attend every one of Crolley’s court dates, regardless of whether they’re allowed in the courtroom, armed with signs. They want Crolley, who they say shows no remorse, to be locked up for good.
Every day, the family lives with what Robert Landry called the “constant ‘why?’ ”
“What do you stand to accomplish?” he said he wants to know. “Because you’re not going to love me, you’re not going to love anybody? Really?”
Local educators disappointed with Common Core changes
May 11, 204
Once again, South Carolina teachers and administrators are waiting.
Because of recent legislation, teachers don’t know what standardized tests their students will take next year. They also don’t know what curriculum standards will be in place two years from now.
The state senate recently voted 42-0 to pull South Carolina out of the SmarterBalanced testing consortium and to find a new standardized test by next year. The Senate also voted to replace the national Common Core State Standards with a set of state standards for English and language arts and math by the 2015-2016 school year.
School administrators across York County said this level of change at the state level isn’t anything new. They said teachers will do what they need to do to educate students, no matter the test or standard.
“I don’t think this is an educational discussion,” said Harriet Jaworowski, associate superintendent of instruction in the Rock Hill School District. “I think this is a political discussion.”
South Carolina is one of more than a dozen states that are taking steps to drop Common Core, a set of standards developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices.
Opponents of Common Core argue the standards constitute a federal takeover of education and that the standards themselves are un-American, developmentally inappropriate and allow the government to collect large amounts of data on individual students. Many educators dispute these claims.
“With the public outcry, there’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, with having the state look at (the standards) again,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R- Rock Hill.
When South Carolina develops its own standards, essentially reverting back to how the education system operated in the decade or so before Common Core, Hayes said some of the Common Core standards may make it into the new standards, if they’re good. Others will go away, he said.
School districts across the state, including those in Clover, Fort Mill and Rock Hill, have spent the last three years implementing Common Core standards, which may be a waste of resources and time, said Marty McGinn, assistant superintendent of curriculum and human resources in the Fort Mill School District.
“It’s disappointing because it’s going to take a lot of time and energy we could have devoted to improving the implementation (of Common Core),” McGinn said.
“Any inconvenience this may cause the district is unfortunate,” Hayes said. “They have acted in good faith and done exactly what they were asked to do.”
Multiple state agencies will work to develop the new state standards in the upcoming year, including state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais’ successor. But McGinn and Jaworowski said they hoped classroom teachers, the people on the “front lines” of education every day, will be consulted.
Rock Hill school board chairman Jim Vining said local input doesn’t seem to have been a priority to the state as the debate over Common Core took place in Columbia.
“Our local legislators have been making decisions on Common Core and have not once, to my knowledge, consulted anyone in education in York County,” Vining said.
In the Clover school district, associate superintendent Sheila Quinn said until they’re told otherwise, they will continue to teach the Common Core standards because they believe the standards are capable of making students ready for college or careers. If moderate changes to the standards are needed to stop fighting over the title “Common Core” and to focus on the real issues at hand, Quinn said her district will welcome the new state standards.
“If this is going to help us move forward in a positive way, bring it on,” she said.
The Senate bill is now back in the House, which may make changes. But Hayes said he’s confident a final version will be ready for Gov. Nikki Haley to sign soon. In January, Haley called on the state to drop Common Core.
“When all is said and done, we want to come up with the best possible standards for the state of South Carolina,” Hayes said.
Only time will tell what those “best possible standards” may look like. Until then, educators say schools will open their doors every day and students will learn. And districts will wait for their new set of instructions.
“I want to say, ‘Look, we’re going to have school every day and teach for a high level,’” Jaworowski said. “When you guys figure it out, you let us know.”
Rock Hill schools, police to back backpacks, food, beverages at athletic events
September 12, 2014
Citing police fears that students have been sneaking alcoholic beverages into high school football games, Rock Hill school officials on Friday announced a ban on backpacks and all outside food and drinks.
The ban – which applies both to District Three Stadium and District Three South Stadium – will go into effect Sept. 19, when Northwestern plays South Pointe at District Three Stadium.
By banning outside food and beverages, the rules at Rock Hill’s stadiums now match those in place at stadiums in Clover, York and Fort Mill high schools. Rock Hill is the only York County school district that will have a backpack ban.
The decision came after the Rock Hill Police Department earlier this week asked the athletic directors of all three Rock Hill high schools to implement the ban.
“Recent trends have shown that there are students bringing alcoholic beverages into athletic events at the two stadiums,” police Lt. James Grayson wrote in a letter to the athletic directors.
Students disguise the alcohol as normal beverages and conceal them in their backpacks or other bags, said Grayson, who works in the department’s Community Services Unit.
There hasn’t been a rash of incidents or a spike in arrests for issues like this, police spokesman Mark Bollinger said, but officers who patrol the stadiums during games are trying to be proactive.
“This is something they’ve observed in the past,” Bollinger said. “We heard this was going on and wanted to keep it from happening in the future.”
Starting next week, anyone who arrives at the stadiums with an outside food or beverage will be asked to consume it before entering the gate, according to the guidelines, which were approved by the high schools’ athletic directors and principals and associate superintendent Luanne Kokolis at a meeting on Thursday.
Concessions will still be available inside the stadiums.
If someone arrives at the gate with a backpack, they will be asked to put it in a car before entering the stadium. If that isn’t possible, the person can open the bag to show the contents to the gate attendant and be advised of the rule. That person will not be allowed to bring in a bag at another event.
The rule notes that “ladies’ purses, adults with seat cushions/blanket holders, diaper bags, medications, or food needed for those with medical conditions” are exempt from this policy.
Kokolis brought up the issue at Monday’s school board meeting.
Board members generally expressed support for the enhanced security measures, but acknowledged exceptions would need to be made in certain circumstances. They deferred to the athletic directors, principals and Kokolis to decide what the rule should look like.
“We need to move as fast as we can,” board member Walter Brown said Monday.
Board members also acknowledged the new rules would need to be clearly communicated and that undoubtedly some will complain about them.
Over the next week, school officials plan to aggressively get the word out to students, parents and other fans. Announcements were scheduled for Friday night’s home football games and the district will make use of social media, phone calls to parents and students, and signs at the stadiums to make people aware of the new rules.