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Fairbury district will test students for nicotine
Random testing, for teens who take part in activities after school, is legal


Virtually odorless and smokeless, easily concealed in a pocket or sleeve, and frequently designed to look like USB drives or other everyday items, e-cigarettes are not difficult to hide. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of teenagers who vape has skyrocketed in recent years, bedeviling school principals and prompting fears that a new generation will grow up hooked on nicotine.

So one small Nebraska school district is trying an aggressive new approach: Forcing students in grades seven through 12 to submit to random nicotine testing if they want to take part in extracurricular activities such as speech competitions and the National Honor Society.

"Vaping and smoking in our view is reaching epidemic proportions," Fairbury Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Grizzle told the Lincoln Journal Star last week, after the school board voted to approve the measure. "It's just a way we can deter kids from potentially being addicted to nicotine."

Though teenagers and privacy rights advocates might find it extreme, the new policy is legal, thanks to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld an Oklahoma school district's policy of randomly drug testing students who participate in "competitive" extracurricular activities such as cheerleading and choir. In 1997, the Supreme Court had determined that testing high school athletes for illegal drugs was constitutional.

Fairbury Junior-Senior High School, where about 60% of the 387 students participate in after-school activities, has had a random drug testing system for two years. Students and their parents are required to sign a consent form agreeing to the urinalysis tests, which are randomly assigned to 10% of the students in extracurricular activities each month.

"We want it to be a deterrent," Grizzle said. "Kids are under a whole lot of pressure to experiment with drugs or nicotine."

Only a handful of students have failed the test each year, though school officials expect those numbers to go up once nicotine is added. First-time offenders are required to complete educational seminars and are suspended from school activities for 10 days. The consequences escalate from there: After their third offense, students are kept from extracurricular activities for a year.

Teens who involuntarily inhale secondhand smoke — a likely scenario if their parents are smokers — don't need to worry, officials say. Sport Safe Testing Service, the Ohio-based company that performs the tests, told the Journal Star that it sets the levels high enough on nicotine tests to ensure that it's catching only teens who are actively vaping or smoking.

According to the U.S. surgeon general, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students increased by 900% between 2011 and 2015, and more than 3.6 million middle schoolers and high schoolers vaped in 2018. Only about a dozen of the 100 school districts nationwide that contract with Sport Safe Testing Service tested for nicotine before vaping became so widespread, said Chris Franz, one of the company's owners. But more have recently begun expressing interest.

Administrators in Fairbury aren't the only ones hoping that the threat of random testing will make students think twice about taking up vaping. In February, the Brock Independent School District in Brock, Texas, voted to add nicotine to the list of substances for which students in grades seven through 12 can be randomly tested. According to the school's handbook, the policy applies to any students who request a parking permit, as well as any students who participate in extracurricular activities.

"We are trying to give our kids an out of not doing it," Brock Athletic Director Chad Massey explained at a January school board meeting, according to the Weatherford Democrat. "That's what our main goal is, to prevent any kid from doing any kind of drug or nicotine."

The Nebraska district is also looking into installing Wi-Fi-enabled vape detectors, a new form of technology adopted by schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arizona and Illinois in recent months. The sensors, which are typically placed in restrooms and resemble smoke detectors, are designed to detect vapor from e-cigarettes by measuring changes in humidity and air content.

Because the devices can cost nearly $1,000 apiece, some school districts reportedly are installing dummies and counting on students not to figure out which are real and which are fake. By comparison, randomly testing students for nicotine will cost the Fairbury Public Schools only an additional $900 a year, KOLN reported.

An unscientific poll conducted by the Fairbury Journal-News this month found that the majority of residents supported the new nicotine-testing policy. Many expressed concerns about how popular e-cigarettes have become and noted that students seemed to be flouting a campus wide ban on smoking.

"Juuling has become a big issue in the bathrooms at school," one woman commented, referencing the popular and contentious USB-shaped e-cigarettes manufactured by Juul Labs. "Kids can't even use the bathroom anymore."

But some argued that it should be up to parents, not the school district, to police teenagers' behavior. "If we keep giving our rights away, soon we will have none left," wrote one dissenter. "I for one, would like to make my own decisions. I don't need the government to make them for me."


San Francisco officials gave preliminary approval last week to making it the first city in the nation to ban all sales of electronic cigarettes, in an effort to crack down on youth vaping. The proposal would ban sale of e-cigs until their effects on public health get a federal review.— AP

Don Bacon, Ann Ashford spar over who gets credit for military pay raise

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is set to receive a 3.1% pay hike next year, but just who deserves credit for that increase has become something of a political debate.

The House Armed Services Committee voted recently to approve the annual defense authorization bill.

Democrats touted the pay increase as an important feature of the legislation and slammed Republican members who voted no, saying they had voted against giving the troops a raise.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., was one of only two GOP members of the committee to support the bill, after he persuaded his colleagues to adopt an amendment authorizing money for recovery efforts at the flooded Offutt Air Force Base and other disaster-damaged military installations.

After the vote, Bacon touted his support for various provisions in the bill and specifically cited the pay boost, which drew an objection from Democrat Ann Ashford, who is seeking her party’s nomination to oppose Bacon next year.

A Washington Post fact check on the issue noted that the bill did not have specific language setting the raise at that level. Rather, the raise is set by a formula and scheduled to automatically go into effect under existing law.

“This would have happened anyway,” Ashford said.

But what about her fellow Democrats saying the bill raises salaries?

She said everyone seems to be playing politics and she disagrees with them as well.

Democrats, and Bacon, have stood by their characterization that the bill raises military pay.

After all, lawmakers could have opted to block or change the level of the raises but chose not to do so. And they said the bill clearly authorizes the funding that will pay for those raises.

“That’s our role, to authorize,” Bacon said.

Bacon suggested that Ashford’s comments represent reflexive criticism of an opponent.

The two did find some common ground.

Ashford said she appreciated Bacon working to get the Offutt recovery money authorized in the bill.

And Bacon also took issue with Democrats suggesting that Republican no votes were in opposition to the pay raises.

He said most of his fellow GOP members on the panel voted against the bill because of provisions dealing with the U.S.-Mexico border situation, nuclear weapons and the overall funding level.

Archaeologists visit flooded Nebraska farms hoping they find nothing

A team of archaeologists is combing Nebraska’s flooded farm fields, hoping they find nothing at all.

Technically, they’re searching sandy and debris-laden fields for Native American pottery, remnants of pioneer settlements or anything else that might have been uncovered by this spring’s floodwaters. Ideally, however, they will come up empty-handed.

“We want to find something, but we don’t,” said Kaity Ulewicz, one of the archaeologists. “If we find something, it’s a lot harder for the farmers to get their money.”

History Nebraska built a six-member team to handle the huge influx of site surveys required to get farmers aid money in the aftermath of the flooding. Many farms require clearance that the site is not of historical significance before they can receive funding from the Farm Service Agency to rebuild or restore their farms.

The team, led by site supervisor Ulewicz, began visiting farms June 12.

“Because we didn’t have anybody on staff, the onus was going to be on the farmers to hire their own archaeologists,” said Jill Dolberg, deputy state historic preservation officer. “We just thought maybe this was some way we could fill in and help a bit.”

Dolberg has set aside about $180,000 to fund the team, using money that was left over from another project that fell through. She plans to use the team until at least Sept. 1, possibly longer, depending on need.

Photos: Major flooding hits Nebraska and Iowa towns

Until recently, one person — state archaeologist Rob Bozell — was performing site surveys, which was OK given the normal workload. But this year’s flooding has inundated History Nebraska with site surveys to consider, and farmers were waiting weeks for clearance to move forward with their grant applications.

Not every site requires a survey. Dolberg said her team researches each property to determine whether it is likely to have been a Native American hunting site or an early Nebraska farmstead. Only about 10% of the more than 300 applications they have reviewed have required a site visit, and none has met the requirements for a historical site.

In the field, Ulewicz said the team has found plenty of animal bones — including a deer rib and a gopher jaw near the Elkhorn River bridge on U.S. Highway 275 — but nothing of significance. Instead, they have found a whole lot of silly debris.

One of the field techs, Michelle Hayes, earned the nickname “Shotgun Shelly” after finding dozens of bullets in a field in Saunders County. Most farms so far have been littered with golf balls. And one farmer in Beemer said he found a bowling ball on his land.

“Chances are, most of it is trash or debris from the river,” Ulewicz said.

Dolberg said it’s rare for History Nebraska to help out a federal agency like the FSA, but she was happy to do it. Other organizations have helped History Nebraska support the FSA, too.

Claire Inbody, highway GIS (Geographic Information System) applications manager at the Nebraska Department of Transportation, created a GPS smartphone app that allows the archaeologists to map their site as they survey, saving time on paperwork, note-taking and retracing footsteps. And the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is housing and feeding a few out-of-state archaeologists.

So far, the teams haven’t uncovered anything significant, but they’re just getting started. For the sake of the farmers, Dolberg is keeping her fingers crossed that it’s a boring summer full of gopher jaws and golf balls: “We want to be able to get them back to work as fast as possible.”

Grace: Bicycling to work (and back) in Omaha comes with ups and downs

I rode my bike to work.

Write about it, an editor suggested. But was this really news? And by the way, my colleague Jeff Robb just did this very thing and more heroically, chronicling a 17-mile, two-hour bike journey from Millard (!) to downtown (!!) in the rain (!!!). My 2-ish mile commute from Gifford Park pales in comparison.

Yet this bike-commuting thing is all still very vanguard for Omaha, which has a much smaller cycling commuter community than other cities where cycling is embraced and respected by motorists. A recent survey of downtown and midtown Omaha workers showed that people want to try something other than their c-a-r, but almost 8 out of 10 of them are still driving solo to work.

Guilty. I justify it because dropping three kids at school and running from interviews to office to interviews makes the bus-bike-carpool-gig seem too inefficient and cumbersome. Global warmer I am.

However, it’s summer. No school drop-offs. Plus I have a sweet new bike. When the editor suggested I tell you about my ride, well, this column is proof that I’m capable of following orders. And bragging. (Disclaimer: This author is more Lucille Ball than Jeff “Lance Armstrong” Robb. And my journey was no Tour de Millard.)

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Fact: I had not ridden my bike to work since the first George Bush was president. This was back in college in Milwaukee, a time and place when few students had four wheels. A bike got you to class, to work, to the lake, and I’ll neither confirm nor deny, to bars. Back then, my bike was a Trek hybrid — not as heavy as a mountain bike but more durable than a road bike. She was teal. She was pretty. I named her Ramona.

Ramona went all over Milwaukee, then all over Washington, D.C., and, then all over the south Louisiana town where I landed after graduation to teach high school. Three years later, on the road to Omaha, she bounced on the back of my old Corolla. Then Ramona began her sad roll into oblivion as I rolled into new stages of life: A World-Herald job with night hours. A husband who doesn’t ride and a city that doesn’t seem to have a strong bike culture. Kids. Ramona sat in garage after garage and finally got lost.

A friend dumped his old bike on me. But that hand-me-down, clunky mountain bike was more furniture than fun. It sat unused, the way a lot of people’s bikes do, sparking the kind of exchanges that have sparked a cottage industry for Marie Kondo.

Husband: Can we finally get rid of it?

Me: No! I need a bike!

Husband: But you never ride it.

Me: Your point is?

Then one brilliant day this past March, my birthday in fact, I opened an envelope marked “Mom.” In it was a gift certificate to Greenstreet Cycles, a place I’d written about back in August. My husband might not ride, but he reads. And remembers.

Remembered how I fawned over Phil Rivera in my column last year. Phil pedals 15 miles from his home in the midtown neighborhood, where I grew up riding my Brady Bunch bike, to his job at Greenstreet in Papillion. Remembered how I’d fawned over those bikes. Remembered how I pitched getting us both one, though we both knew I meant me.

Husband went to Greenstreet, talked to Phil and purchased one gift certificate for moi. On Mother’s Day, I took said piece of paper to the Papillion store and, with Phil’s help, picked out my new ride. I named her Violet because of her purple color. Like Ramona, she’s a hybrid, light and durable. Like Ramona, she’s pretty and fabulous, a Specialized model on its way out, priced at $400.

Pro tip: If the last bike you bought had a banana seat, today’s bikes come with no extras, not even kickstands, which are pooh-poohed because they flop and get loose. So I splurged on this necessity: a water bottle holder. I chose “rainbow shimmer” (I know, I know) that was a good $20 more (I know! I know!) than the standard black.

When I told Phil I didn’t need the Mercedes of bikes, all he had to say was, “just one to get you to the farmers market?” I was then in for a rack and a basket because, baguettes.

A car rack was out of the question because it would mean a hitch. And a thousand dollars. And I didn’t have either.

But Violet fits easily inside our minivan. Which was important because I had no plans to Phil it home from Papillion. I drove.

The rest of May, Violet sadly sat in our garage, benched by the aforementioned school-soccer-weather calendar that required four wheels and fossil fuels.

Then came June. No school, no soccer, more sunshine. Time for Violet’s liberation.

Time for mine.

Inspired by colleagues, including Jeff, I suited up. Running pants. Sneakers. Helmet. Very Nike ad.

Bye! I waved at the kitchen window as I pushed Violet into sunlight and toward our driveway gate. I added a gym bag with work clothes and a purse, patting myself on the back for the basket.

Then, our dog Delaney burst upon the scene.

Bike went down. Purse spilled. Golden retriever off like a greyhound. The only freedom in the air was Delaney’s. I clomped after her in my helmet. Not very Nike ad.

Once the naughty puppy was back home, I did not wave. Instead, I pulled Violet off the ground, second-guessing that whole no-kickstand thing. I shoved my purse back into the basket. I pointed us both east, coasting almost the whole way — a fact I did not realize would foreshadow a different ride home.

Taking Dodge or Cuming was out of the question for this maiden trip. Because, traffic. And because, hills. Omaha Twitterverse suggested taking Burt Street east. Then 16th Street south. At 18th, Burt gets a dedicated bike lane — a thing I had not fully appreciated until now. Stretches of 16th and 14th Streets have them. Solid advice.

Two blocks in, I wasn’t pedaling. I was flying. The wind in my face felt great. So did the moral superiority at not being, for this moment at least, a climate changer. My trip clocked in under 20 minutes, scarcely longer than if I’d driven, parked and walked.

Takeaway: Biking to work is a breeze!

Going home was another story. Because, hills. Because, sun. Because, rookie mistake: No water bottle in that shimmery, overpriced bottle holder. I huffed. I puffed. My quads burned. I took a breather in some shade, weighing the shame factor in walking Violet up our street.

Then I shoved my dignity in the basket, hopped off the saddle and pushed my new bike home.

Takeaway: Biking home is harder!

Give it three days, my colleague and fellow bike commuter Christopher Burbach said. He was right.

Second trip was to the farmers market downtown, where two baguettes and a lovely head of lettuce made the ride home. Because my 13-year-old daughter accompanied me on her bike — and scorched me on our hill — I made it up this time, pedaling hard.

Third trip was to work again. This time, I wasn’t dog-delayed, but I did have to contend with morning rush hour.

Takeaway: I hate you, cars! Takeaway: Why doesn’t every street have a dedicated bike lane? Takeaway: A helmet seems suddenly inadequate when you’re pedaling next to a semi.

Takeaway: The bike route was lonely on a perfect weather bike day.

Maybe it is news to pedal to work.

Though perhaps it shouldn’t be.

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