Former FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Russian Federation Efforts to Interfere in the 2016 U.S. Elections" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

5 important stories that have nothing to do with the Russia investigations


Former FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on "Russian Federation Efforts to Interfere in the 2016 U.S. Elections" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jim Bourg/Reuters

Lordy! All eyes were on James Comey last week.

The fired FBI director testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee as part of the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Donald Trump's campaign during the presidential election. Comey's hourslong testimony captured the nation's attention, all on the same day the United Kingdom was having its high-profile snap election.

And with the Russia probe continuing with Jeff Sessions' testimony, the rumblings of a possible Robert Mueller ouster and breaking news, it's been difficult for the White House to stay track on its agenda.

Read on for five important stories that were overlooked in the media frenzy.

1. Early data suggests the number of drug overdose deaths may rise

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

Fatal drug overdoses continue to rise and may only increase, according to a New York Times analysis last week.

More than 59,000 people died from drug overdoses nationwide in 2016, the New York Times reported after compiling death reports from state health departments, coroners and medical examiners. The Times report comes ahead of official numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, which takes longer to confirm its data. But if correct, the estimate represents a 19-percent spike in such deaths across the country since 2015, when more than 52,400 lethal overdoses were recorded. That year, nearly two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths were tied to opioids, including prescription drugs. With the increasingly widespread use of heroin and fentanyl, the latest numbers provide "a detailed accounting of a modern plague," the Times writes.

Why it's important

The findings are the latest marker of the nation's ongoing public health crisis. In 2010, slightly more than 38,300 people died from drug overdoses. Since then, that figure has soared by 53 percent in less than a decade. The nation's opioid epidemic may be skewing the U.S. death rate, especially among young Americans, according to the Washington Post.

In just five years — 2010 to 2015 — the death rate among Americans aged 25 to 44 rose 8 percent, according to the Washington Post's analysis of preliminary data from the CDC.

The question that's dogged officials, after these and other reports: What can be done about it?

Some cities and states have tried to develop their own solutions — from expanding treatment options to broadening the availability of the antidote Naloxone — with mixed success.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration asked a major drug maker to pull one of its painkillers from shelves "over concerns that the drug is too easily abused."

In March, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri launched an investigation into opioid makers and whether "drugmakers have contributed to an overuse of the pain killers." It's not clear when that investigation will conclude. But an opioid commission chaired by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, created in March by President Donald Trump to explore how the country can stop opioid misuse and overdose, convenes for its first meeting Friday, which advocates hope will give momentum to the search for a solution.

2. India's big education problem

A teacher poses for a picture with seventh-grade level students inside their classroom at Rukmini Devi Public school in New Delhi, India. Photo taken in 2015. Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

A decade and a half ago, India had a big school attendance problem: 32 million children of school age weren't enrolled in classes.

As of 2011, that number was reduced to 1.4 million. Today, 69 percent of all children are enrolled in secondary school, thanks in large part to a 2009 law that grants free education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14.

But while more students are going to school, they're not learning when they're there.

More than 50 percent of fifth-graders can't read second-grade texts, according to Pratham USA, a non-governmental education organization in India. Only 25 percent can do simple division, The Economist reported last week in a look at "why the world's biggest school system is failing its pupils."

Why it's important

There are 250 million children around the world who can't read or write; two-fifths reside in India, Pratham reports. Students' success in school is directly tied to the kind of jobs and wages they get as adults, which in turn affects the country's overall economy, experts told The Economist.

Part of students' poor performance has to do with the high rates of poverty in India. But there are other causes, too.

At the end of each school year, students are automatically moved to the next level — regardless of whether they've retained the knowledge they need to advance. Teachers across India have high absenteeism rates, The Economist notes — about a quarter of instructors are absent on any given day. Even teachers who do show up often don't have the training they need to manage a class or tailor a curriculum for a student who is struggling to complete their work, the magazine notes.

Other issues:

"Education in India is a "concurrent" responsibility, shared between federal and state governments. But officials at neither central nor state level are accountable for academic outcomes." And "data on student achievement are collected manually, if at all."

But what exactly should reform look like? It's a question the country has struggled with for several years, with no clear answer in sight.

Union Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar announced earlier this month that the government would launch a program to improve education standards. Javadekar also said he planned to bring a bill to parliament that would allow states to give exams to all students in fifth grade and eighth grade.

3. A D.C. principal is challenging children to turn off the electronics for $100

Photo by Geber86/Getty Images

A D.C. principal wants to change the rules while students enjoy their summer break of Minecraft and YouTube shenanigans.

Diana Smith, principal of Washington Latin Public Charter School, told the Post she had become concerned about the "ubiquity of the phones in their lives." The principal said the near-constant exposure to cell phones and other electronics has disrupted students' sleep and incited drama at the school.

So she came up with a plan to help students unplug.

Smith pledged to give $100 out of her own pocket to each student that agreed to shut off their electronics every Tuesday until school resumes in August. That means any student who participates will have to go tech-free for 11 days throughout the rest of summer break. Smith said about 160 7th- and 8th-graders will participate in the pledge.

Two adults over the age of 21 are required to send a letter on behalf of each student verifying they didn't use any electronics, including cell phones, computers or video games.

Why it's important

Teens in the U.S. average more than nine hours of entertainment media per day, according to a 2015 report by Common Sense Media. Further studies suggest too much technology time can contribute to child obesity and behavioral issues.

So what can be done?

The American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for screen time last year. Although the AAP gives specific restrictions for children under 5 years of age, the group doesn't offer a blanket restriction for older children, suggesting parents to establish "screen-free zones" in the home.

Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, told NPR in 2014 that it comes down to planning media consumption in a "sensible" way, which consists of a "healthy media diet" that encourages parents and children to collaboratively decide how much is enough.

"We don't want to demonize media," Hogan told NPR, "because it's going to be a part of everybody's lives increasingly, and we have to teach children how to make good choices around it, how to limit it and how to make sure it's not going to take the place of all the other good stuff out there."

The pledge at Washington Latin Public Charter School began this week and runs until August when school is back in session.

4. The trial of Jeronimo Yanez in the death of Philando Castile draws to a close

Closing arguments began Monday in the manslaugher trial of a Minnesota police officer who shot and killed Philando Castile after pulling him over for a broken taillight outside St. Paul last year.

Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino, faces charges of manslaughter and reckless discharge of a firearm in the death of 32-year-old Castile. The fatal shooting became part of a series of high-profile police shootings in the U.S. that prompted scrutiny over the deadly use of force against minorities.

Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez, charged in connection with the shooting death of a black motorist Philando Castile last July, is shown in this booking photo taken in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ramsey County Sheriff's Office via Reuters

More notably, Castile's girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds captured the aftermath on a live video posted to Facebook. Before the shooting, Castille had notified Yanez that he was carrying a firearm. In the video, a bloodied Castile, slumped in the driver's seat, could be seen in the video, saying, "I wasn't reaching for [the gun]."

The week of testimony focused on whether the officer saw a gun. Yanez said he "had no other choice" but to fire at Castile because he did not comply with orders to not reach for the weapon.

"I was scared to death," the officer said. "I thought I was going to die."

Defense attorneys argued that Castile, whose autopsy revealed that he, with THC in his system, had smoked marijuana prior to the shooting, and thus hampered with his ability to listen to Yanez's orders.

Prosecutors, however, argued that both Castile and Reynolds told the officer that he was not reaching for a gun before the shooting occurred. Castile had a license to carry the weapon.

Prosecutor Jeffrey Paulsen said Castile was responsive to orders. "The problem was Yanez wasn't listening to him," he added.

Even if Castile didn't have a permit, Paulsen said, "It's not a capital offense. And it doesn't give an officer the right to shoot and kill you."

Reynolds cried in court last week when images and footage related to the shooting was shown in court. She also explained her decision to record the fallout from the encounter, which happened with her then 4-year-old daughter in the back seat: "I know that the people are not protected against the police," Reynolds said. "I wanted to make sure if I died in front of my daughter that people would know the truth," she said.

Defense attorneys questioned Reynolds' testimony, saying that she gave inconsistent statements following the shooting and brought up her marijuana use.

Why it's important

Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, looks at a photo button of her son during a press conference on the state capitol grounds in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in July. Philando Castile was fatally shot by police. Photo by Eric Miller/Reuters

NPR conducted an analysis weeks after Castile's death to show how he "spent most of his driving life fighting tickets."

Since 2002 and until his death in 2016, police stopped Castile a total 46 times, which led to $6,000 in fines, NPR reported. The volume of stops brings up questions of racial bias against Castile.

Castile's family said the victim's race played a part in the encounter with police, an argument that was supported by Minnesota Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, who said after the shooting that: "Would this have happened if … the driver and passenger would have been white? I don't think it would."

5. An ancient Aztec temple and sports arena was unearthed in Mexico City

A new Aztec discovery of the remains of the main temple of the wind god Ehecatl, a major deity, is seen during a tour of the area, located just off the Zocalo plaza in the heart of downtown Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Henry Romero/Reuters

An ancient Aztec temple was uncovered last week in the heart of Mexico City.

The temple was unearthed just outside of the city's Zocalo square, right next to a centuries-old Roman Catholic Cathedral and on the grounds of a defunct hotel. An earthquake destroyed the hotel in 1985; Aztec artifacts were found just beneath the rubble, but it took several years of wrangling work permits and performing delicate excavations for the temple to be fully uncovered.

Archaeologists say the temple, shaped like a coiled snake, is dedicated to the Aztec wind god Ehecatl. Also uncovered alongside the serpentine site was a ball court used to play the ancient religious game of ullamaliztli. Archaeologists say the Aztec sport, which shares many similarities with modern day basketball and soccer, was the first game to ever use a rubber ball.

Why it's important

Mexico City is a hotbed of archaeology. Because it was built directly on top of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, huge finds are occasionally made in mundane places. Previously, Aztec remains and holy sites have been found while boring subway tunnels and laying electrical cables.

"We've been working this area for nearly 40 years, and there's always construction of some kind … and so we take advantage of that and get involved," archaeologist Eduardo Matos told Reuters.

"Due to finds like these, we can show actual locations, the positioning and dimensions of each one of the structures first described in the chronicles," Diego Prieto, head of Mexico's main anthropology and history institute, also told Reuters.

The ball court is also historically significant in many ways. Archaeologists say this particular ball court was the location of a match Aztec emperor Moctezuma played against the reigning king shortly before the Spanish arrived in Mexico.

The game also came with consequences: Winners were usually sacrificed, as evidenced by the pile of 32 severed human vertebrae the researchers found along the courtside.

"It was an offering associated with the ball game," archaeologist Raul Barrera told Reuters. "The vertebrae, or necks, surely came from victims who were sacrificed or decapitated."

Yahoo reported that the Mexican government is looking to open up the site to visitors, but no official date has been set. Fortunately for future tourists, it's probably safe to say deadly Aztec games will remain a thing of the past.

READ MORE: Take a break from politics with these 5 important stories

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