These days, it’s hard to stop news from Washington, D.C., from flooding your news feed. We take a moment every week to bring you important stories beyond the White House and the Capitol. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. Wildfires have burned through thousands of acres in Arizona
In the last several weeks, two major fires have burned through thousands of acres in central and eastern Arizona, and officials say they aren’t sure when they’ll be able to contain the blazes. In eastern Arizona, the Rattlesnake Fire has been burning since April 11, charring more than 25,000 acres in three weeks. The fire is about 63 percent contained, but is spreading to the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, San Carlos Indian Reservation and the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests. The resulting thick smoke has even made its way over to Colorado, CBS4 reported.
Meanwhile, the Tinder Fire in central Arizona began Friday in Coconino county, where officials declared a state of emergency. By Monday morning, the fire swelled to 8,600 acres — growing 600 acres overnight. Several small communities were forced to evacuate on Sunday and part of State Route 87 was closed as more than 500 firefighters battled the blaze. Gusting winds and low humidity have ripened conditions for the fire to spread, but authorities say the causes for both fires are unknown. [AZCentral and KTAR]
Why it matters: Last year was a historic year for natural disasters. Several wildfires were among the 16 billion-dollar disasters of 2017. Rising temperatures also created a historically destructive wildfire season for California, as outlined by the Washington Post here. And while there’s no one definitive cause, a 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linked human-caused climate change with escalating forest fire activity in the western continental United States. This month, arid conditions have exacerbated the problem for the Four Corners — where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet — which is experiencing widespread drought, according to the latest United States Drought Monitor. The longer the fires in Arizona burn, the more damage they will cause and the more money it will take to fight them, which could get the country’s 2018 disaster response off to an expensive and resource-intensive start.
2. Racial disparities in school discipline are growing, federal data show
Two recent government reports suggest that students of color and those with disabilities are suspended, arrested or otherwise disciplined at school at rates far higher than their white classmates.
New numbers from The Civil Rights Data Collection, which collects and analyzes data from 96,000 public schools, indicates that non-white students make up a smaller percentage of the student body, but are more often disciplined or arrested for incidents on school grounds. Some examples, as highlighted by the Washington Post:
- 15 percent of all students in the 2015-2016 school year were black, but they accounted for 31 percent of arrests
- 12 percent of all students reported disabilities, but made up for 28 percent of those arrested or referred to law enforcement
A separate report from the Government Accountability Office had similar findings. “Black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined,” the authors wrote. The disparity started as early as preschool, and “were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school.” [The Washington Post]
Why it matters: Suspensions from school have dropped dramatically in the last several years, but experts still aren’t sure whether that’s a good thing. Obama administration guidance in 2014 urged schools to rethink how they were disciplining students — specifically to make sure their practices weren’t discriminatory and weren’t too harsh for low-level offenses. But critics say the guidance has pressured schools to keep their suspension numbers within racially-appropriate quotas, at the expense of school safety and by possibly ignoring criminal behavior by students. Those concerns landed on the desk of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and months after she was confirmed, the department said it would scale back investigations into civil rights violations — including complaints about disciplinary actions taken against minority students — as part of a broader Trump administration goal to scale back regulations. The civil rights office couldn’t handle the influx of cases it received in the wake of the Obama guidance, officials said.
The conversation around school discipline was ignited again by the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, carried out by a former student who had a history of disciplinary issues and had spent years moving between Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where the shooting took place, and other alternative high schools in the area.
Some critics, including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have argued that the Obama guidance discouraged schools like Marjory Stoneman from more frequently referring students to law enforcement. (USA Today points out that Broward County, which oversees Marjory Stoneman, changed its own discipline policy in 2013, ahead of Obama’s new guidance, so that educators only summoned police as “a last recourse.”)
In the wake of the shooting, DeVos launched a new Federal Commission on School Safety, which will review, among other things, whether to repeal the Obama-era discipline policies. That worries civil rights activists.
“The facts are in black and white for all to see: Racism is alive and well in our American school system,” Judith Browne Dianis, who directs the national office of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, told the Post. “We need to see the Department of Education commit to the vigorous defense of students’ right to be free from discriminatory school discipline.”
3. A rare ruling places the blame for some 2011 tsunami-related deaths on city and school officials
On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami killed about 18,000 people in Japan. Of the thousands killed, 75 were schoolchildren. All but one of those deaths occurred at the Okawa Elementary School, which is situated about 2.5 miles from the Tohoku coastline.
At least one independent committee’s report found that education and city officials were unprepared for the magnitude 9.0 earthquake. The report, which created a minute-by-minute account of what happened through survivors’ interviews and on-site observations, found that the school’s evacuations were delayed by nearly 50 minutes after initial warnings, and that teachers even had led students toward the tsunami and not from it, The Guardian reported. By the time the tsunami swept up the coast and waters started to recede, the disaster has claimed the lives of 74 of the school’s 108 students and 10 of its teachers and officials.
But that 2014 report, as parents of the children feared, stopped short of assigning culpability in the fallout of the tragedy to the people in charge of the children during a natural disaster. A lawsuit soon followed in 2014, filed by the families of 23 of the Okawa schoolchildren, alleging negligence by the school and local officials. The Sendai District Court agreed, ruling in favor of the families in 2016.
Last week, the Sendai high court also ruled in favor of the families, ordering the city of Ishinomaki and Miyagi Prefecture to pay about 1.4 billion yen, or $13 million, in damages, Japan Today reported. The Sendai High Court’s decision added about 10 million more yen to the lower court ruling.
Judge Hiroshi Ogawa said the officials “failed to fulfill their obligation to revamp a risk management manual in line with the realities of Okawa Elementary School,” adding that the deaths could have been prevented if a specific spot of higher ground had been identified. [Japan Today]
Why it matters: This lawsuit stands out, as Japan Times notes, because prior tsunami-related lawsuits did not end with blame being placed so squarely on companies or schools.
What did the school’s original manual actually say? According to The Guardian’s coverage, The Education Plan — a national set of guidelines and protocol that’s tweaked depending on a school’s circumstances — was more vague in what the school ought to have done in the emergency: “Primary evacuation place: school grounds. Secondary evacuation place, in case of tsunami: vacant land near school, or park, etc.”
The school’s manual didn’t expand on where exactly the school’s teachers and children ought to flee. And the subsequent investigations into the tragedy revealed levels of confusion that led to the evacuation delay.
But while school and city officials had argued that it wasn’t possible to predict a risk of tsunami in the area, the judge disagreed, saying the school was located near a riverbank.
4. The average American birth costs more than the birth of the royal baby
Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton gave birth to her third child last week at the private Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital, a luxury maternity ward in London. The cost of the private birth, which rang in at around $8,900, doesn’t seem unusual for the royal family. But as The Economist points out, the price of delivering baby Louis is actually less than the average delivery in the U.S. The $8,900 price tag was for a non-caesarean delivery and a 24-hour stay in a deluxe room, according to Imperial Private Healthcare. In the United States, a non-caesarean birth costs up to $10,808, according to the International Federation of Health Plans. Costs of delivery through c-section can cost more than $16,000 in the U.S. [The Economist]
Why it matters:England relies on the taxpayer-funded National Health Service, a national healthcare plan that covers the cost of all health services, including most childbirth expenses, for UK residents. The health service does not cover things like deluxe suits used in the royal birth. But the costs have raised a new series of questions about why costs under the American healthcare system are so high.
In the U.S., health spending per person was an average of $10,348 in 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation – the most of any other country relative to the size of its wealth. That figure is 31 percent more than in Switzerland, the next highest-per-capita spender. The UK, meanwhile, spends $4,192, less than half of what the U.S. spends, KFF reported. Part of the difference: “While the U.S. has similar public spending, its private sector spending is triple that of comparable countries.”
There are other concerns about American childbirth, too. the United States currently has the worst rate of maternal deaths in the developed world, with high levels of childbirth complications, particularly in women of color, according to a recent investigation by ProPublica.
5. Mass graves discovered in Rwanda nearly 25 years after genocide
Authorities in Rwanda have discovered mass graves they believe are from the country’s 1994 genocide.
At least 200 bodies have been exhumed from one of the graves, and more than 150 have been exhumed from another.
Rashid Rwigamba, an official with the genocide survivors’ organization Ibuka, told the Associated Press that the graves, which were discovered north of the nation’s capital, could contain as many as 2,000 to 3,000 bodies.
Rwigamba said the information that lead to the discovery of the graves came from a local landlord, who was later arrested on suspicion that he took part in the killings. [The Associated Press]
Why it matters: Between 500,000 and a million Tutsi, an ethnic group in the African Great Lakes region, were killed during the 1990s genocide, wiping out about 70 percent of the population. Some Rwandans are demanding answers as to why the community that knew about the graves kept quiet for so many years.
“Those who participated in the killing of our relatives don’t want to tell us where they buried them. How can you reconcile with such people?” France Mukantagazw, who said she lost relatives in the genocide, told the Associated Press.
The New Times newspaper said in an editorial last week that “it is very disturbing that every now and then mass graves are discovered of which the now-free perpetrators never bothered to reveal to bereaved families so that they can get closure.”
Ibuka official Theogen Kabagambire said authorities will investigate and prosecute people found to have participated in the killings.