LINCOLN — In the fall of 2017, a student at Neligh-Oakdale High School contacted an Omaha-based nonprofit about doing a school project on the dangers of online dating and sex trafficking.
The student also asked her school principal if the topic was appropriate, and whether the group, the Set Me Free Project, could do an educational program at the school.
The principal, George Loofe, signed off, even though he said it wasn’t really a problem in that part of rural, northeast Nebraska.
Horribly, Loofe’s daughter, Sydney, a 24-year-old graduate of the school, was lured to her death only a couple of weeks after that exchange. She was victimized, according to authorities, by two people, using the online dating app Tinder.
Stephanie Olson, chief executive officer and president of the Set Me Free Project, relayed the story, saying it illustrates that even a kid from a strong family can fall victim to an online predator, and even in Nebraska.
“I think it’s really important that Sydney’s death is not in vain,” Olson said. “What we’re trying to do is educate kids about how to be safe. There are real predators in the world that are absolutely after no good.”
George Loofe, she said, told her later that “it was something I’d never thought of, and then it was something I thought of daily.”
The trial of the man accused of killing Loofe is set to begin Monday, and testimony could continue for up to four weeks.
Aubrey Trail, 52, whose background includes convictions for forgery, writing bad checks and scamming a Kansas couple out of $400,000, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder. He is also charged with conspiracy to commit murder and improper disposal of human remains.
Among their activities: posing as rare coin dealers and using websites and documents to fool a Hiawatha, Kansas, couple into financing the purchase of a nonexistent gold coin. The pair also posed as high rollers at a Pennsylvania antique auction. So convincing was their act that the auctioneer took their check, which bounced.
Trail, in phone calls to reporters, has claimed that he alone was responsible for Loofe’s death and that he deserved the death penalty. But he maintained that it was an accidental death — strangulation, during a sexual fantasy — and not premeditated.
But the charges filed by prosecutors allege something even more sinister: that he had conspired for months with Boswell to solicit “young females through social networking” sites with the purpose of murdering them.
More than 40 witnesses, including other young women who spent time with Trail and Boswell, have been called to testify. About 300 Saline County residents have been called as potential jurors, a number so large that jury selection is being held in a Wilber veterans hall large enough to accommodate the crowd.
George Loofe, who retired a year ago as high school principal, and his wife, Susie, an elementary teacher in Neligh, have rarely talked about the case and declined to comment for this story. Others in the community also didn’t want to comment publicly.
“Everybody is still very aware of it, and they’re very protective of the Loofes,” said Carrie Pitzer, publisher of the Antelope County News.
But people who know them say that losing their youngest daughter in such a heinous way has been devastating.
“She was looking for that one special person with whom she could spend time,” her parents wrote in a Facebook post months ago. “She took to Tinder to look for that person and, unfortunately, found someone that had nothing but evil plans for her.”
In a story that the parents helped write for the Set Me Free Project website, Sydney was described as an “incredibly inquisitive child” who discovered, at age 3, that your tongue really can stick to a frost-covered water pump in the backyard. She also once saved her older sister, MacKenzie, from choking on a jawbreaker, using the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the candy.
She loved animals and dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. But college proved difficult for her right out of high school, so she “found a career, and a circle of friends,” while working at the Menards store on North 27th Street in Lincoln.
Co-workers there described her as caring and trustworthy, a person who allowed a down-on-their-luck acquaintance to live at her duplex while paying off debts.
The Loofes have expressed public appreciation for the outpouring of support. Hundreds of people distributed posters and tied green ribbons — representing a missing child — and posted photographs on social media after Sydney was reported missing on Nov. 16, 2017.
The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska also reached out to the family. The tribe has historical ties to the community of Neligh. During the tribe’s forced relocation from Nebraska to Oklahoma in 1877, a young girl, White Buffalo Girl, died during the long walk called the “Trail of Tears.” Townspeople arranged for a Christian burial and have faithfully maintained the girl’s grave, fulfilling a promise to the tribe.
Candace Schmidt, secretary of the Ponca Tribal Council, said she was moved to do something after Sydney’s death. Last year, a memorial bench was installed in Loofe’s honor in a Neligh park, at a favorite fishing spot along the Elkhorn River. Coincidentally, the date chosen for the dedication was May 23, the same day that White Buffalo Girl had died more than a century earlier.
“This was an overwhelming and unplanned discovery that gave the whole event a full-circle effect, resulting in goosebumps,” Schmidt said.
Loofe’s co-workers at Menards raised $2,500 to dedicate a bench for Sydney at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, one of her favorite spots. Memorials given to the family funded two other benches.
And the Set Me Free Project, which was drawn into Loofe’s story by chance, established a college scholarship in her name. Donations came in higher than expected, and the first scholarship, worth $3,000, was awarded last month to a Sutton, Nebraska, student who hopes to study criminal justice and look at the root causes of human trafficking.
A month after Sydney Loofe’s body was found in December 2017, Olson, the Set Me Free Project’s CEO and president, spoke with students and community members at the Neligh-Oakdale school.
Human trafficking and online predators are real, Olson told the crowd in Neligh. It’s a message that she has delivered at dozens of other schools. “And it’s not what you think it looks like.”
Sydney Loofe was not your typical target, she said, because she came from a close-knit, well-connected family. But the world is different today, Olson said. Young people are accustomed to connecting with people online.
“We tell kids that (social media) is not where you meet people,” she said. “You should only connect with the people you know and you trust.”
Yet online dating is designed to meet up with people you do not know. Olson’s organization has several suggestions, including never meeting an online date alone.
She said the goal of the Set Me Free Project is education and to prevent someone else from becoming a victim of a trafficker or of an online predator.
“We want to make (Sydney’s) legacy something positive, about safety and protection for youth,” Olson said.
WASHINGTON — The specialist that Amy Berman visited after she was diagnosed with the most perilous form of breast cancer advised a course of treatment that might have extended her life but would have meant certain suffering and enfeeblement.
The doctor never asked Berman, a registered nurse who works at a New York health care foundation, what she wanted out of whatever time she had left. If he had, she would have told him that she wanted to enjoy life: continue working, relish time with friends and family, walk her dog Lola.
His recommended treatment plan — chemotherapy, radiation, a mastectomy, more chemo and likely hospitalizations — would have jeopardized all those wishes. "I would have been living a medicalized existence," Berman said.
Instead, she chose palliative care — no surgeries or chemo, just medicines to manage her pain and slow the spread of the disease, while allowing her to pursue a fulfilling career and active personal life.
Nearly a decade later, to her surprise and everybody else's, Berman is still alive — 59 years old and still living "a really great life." She's working, savoring time with family and friends, and walking Lola. She estimates that she's saved more than $1 million in medical expenses and has never been hospitalized.
Berman, whose diagnosis is unchanged, still receives palliative care. Fortunately, unlike many Americans, her insurance covers it outside of hospice. According to a recent Commonwealth Fund report, an estimated 40 million adults in the United States are living with or have had a serious illness in the past three years.
Many of them, health policy experts say, would benefit from palliative care to help them cope with their conditions.
Now more states are taking steps to extend such coverage to millions more people. They are extending palliative care benefits to adult Medicaid beneficiaries who are not necessarily close to death, mandating that providers tell patients that palliative care is available when it might be of some benefit, and requiring palliative care training for doctors.
Maryland in 2017 became the first state to require all hospitals with more than 50 beds to provide palliative care services.
"Where we are in palliative care is that it is an emerging hot topic," said Stacie Sinclair, senior policy manager at the Center to Advance Palliative Care at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City. She is also a member of the Nebraska Palliative Care and Quality of Life Advisory Council.
"Confusion is still alive," Sinclair said. "Policymakers are getting more sophisticated, but public awareness is one of the first issues states will have to tackle."
Much of the "confusion" Sinclair referred to is that many people don't understand the difference between palliative care and hospice.
Palliative care is given to patients with serious illnesses or injuries to relieve their symptoms and stress. Its goal is to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. It can be provided from the onset of an illness, and is often delivered by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and sometimes chaplains.
Patients in hospice are expected to live about six months or less. Hospice patients do receive palliative care, but you don't have to be in hospice to be a palliative care patient.
Even if death is not imminent, palliative care maybe the best strategy for patients whose top priority is maximizing quality of life, not extending it by any means necessary.
Patients with diseases such as cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes may benefit from palliative care. But those who aren't terminally ill may find it hard to find such services, according to a recent report on state palliative care policies and programs by the National Academy for State Health Policy. The report notes that most states define palliative care within their hospice regulations, so they're limited to patients with terminal illnesses.
But some states take a more expansive view: Colorado, Maryland and New York recognize that palliative care can take place outside of hospice by including it in the licensing of other health care facilities, while Texas regulates palliative care provided in homes and in the community.
These states don't require that all medical facilities offer palliative care. But facilities that do offer it have to follow certain standards on procedures, treatment, staffing or training.
The state health policy group's report also praises California, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas for defining palliative care as treatment that addresses a patient's physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual needs throughout the course of the illness, not just when death is near.
"That is notable language," said Kitty Purington, one of the authors of the report, "because it hones in on that ability to provide palliative care at any point in the continuum" of an illness. Berman's employer, the John A. Hartford Foundation, funded the report.
Colorado's definition is even more expansive, saying palliative care "is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided together with curative treatment." That is significant because under Medicare, patients who receive hospice benefits must forgo any treatment intended to cure them of their disease.
The Colorado language makes it clear that patients should be able to receive palliative care even while their doctors continue to try to save their lives.
The availability of palliative care in hospitals has increased dramatically. According to Mount Sinai's Center to Advance Palliative Care, less than a quarter of U.S. hospitals had a palliative care program in 2000. By 2016, three-quarters of hospitals did.
Still, access to palliative care varies according to geography, hospital size and income. The center says many programs remain too understaffed or underfinanced to reach all patients who would benefit from treatment.
"There's a growing understanding that we're not dying the way we used to," said Jennifer Moore Ballentine, executive director of the California State University Institute for Palliative Care, which has created a palliative care curriculum for doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains. "The end of life isn't weeks or months but years, and we need to put systems in place to maintain quality of life as long as possible."
WHAT IS PALLIATIVE CARE?
It's specialized medical care for people living with a serious illness that focuses on relief from symptoms, reducing stress and improving quality of life. It's not only for people with a terminal illness.
Nebraska public schools are about to receive the biggest boost in state aid since stimulus money rained down from Washington 10 years ago.
The 6.5% increase in funding for the state’s school finance formula, which adds up to a $65.5 million hike for 2019-20, could be a game-changer for some local school officials as they spend the summer preparing budgets.
With that bump, Nebraska reaches a milestone in school funding: General fund spending into the aid formula will exceed $1 billion for the first time.
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In the second year, 2020-21, the increase will be less. Lawmakers authorized a 0.6% increase that will add $6.6 million — though lawmakers revisit school funding every year and can tweak future amounts.
The boost comes after several years in which many school boards were wringing their hands over budget constraints and two metro area school boards appealed successfully to voters for authority to raise their property tax levies above state limits.
Officials at growing districts say the extra aid will help them handle growth. Others say it will keep them from dipping into reserves or cutting programs.
Will the infusion provide tax relief to property owners? Don’t count on it, unless boards are willing to roll back their levies substantially.
State Sen. Mike Groene, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said the boost is a “one-time” course correction that brings funding closer to normal after lawmakers slowed aid growth the past couple of years.
It has “nothing to do with fixing the property tax,” Groene said.
“This is just more spending, it’s not property tax relief,” he said.
He said the money helps only those districts that are equalized — those receiving state aid to make up for a lack of local resources.
The aid boost can be attributed to the growth in districts’ needs but also to changes lawmakers made in the state aid formula, opening the spigot for more money to flow to districts.
In 2017, lawmakers adjusted the base limitation rate, which allows for budget growth, and the local effort rate, which accounts for district resources, to slow the growth of state aid to schools for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years.
Lawmakers this year reset those rates, allowing aid to rise to $1.065 billion next year.
The increase is the greatest — in both dollars and percentage — since 2009-10, when the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allowed the state to boost total aid by $94.5 million.
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the Revenue Committee, said an improved financial picture made the statewide aid boost possible.
“It’s the first year we weren’t broke since I’ve been there,” said Linehan, who took office in 2017.
Connie Knoche, education policy director for the Open Sky Policy Institute, said the boost moves the state closer to fully funding the aid formula.
“Basically they’re getting back to where it should have been,” she said.
She said that if the state would chip in more money for schools, districts would lower their property tax levies.
Officials in the Millard Public Schools have signaled their intent to lower that district’s property tax levy.
They say the district’s $5.7 million aid boost, along with an expected 4.6% increase in property valuations, will allow Millard to drop its total levy by 2 cents next year.
That’s not enough to cut the tax bill for the typical Millard property owner whose valuation got marked up the average amount. But officials say they are keeping a promise to residents that they would not take advantage of the increased levying authority voters gave them in 2017.
“Promises made, promises kept,” said board member Mike Kennedy.
Chad Meisgeier, the district’s chief financial officer, said that for the first time in several years, the Millard administration is not proposing any significant budget cuts.
Millard officials are proposing a $240.8 million budget, up $7.1 million, or 3%.
The proposal calls for dropping the levy from $1.251 to $1.231 per $100 valuation.
Omaha Public Schools officials are still working on the numbers. The district will get a $15.9 million bump in aid, up to $291.6 million.
That increase comes on the heels of a $12.5 million reduction the district had for the current year, making it a net increase of $3.3 million over two years.
OPS officials said they are still waiting for final valuations and won’t present a final budget proposal to the school board until September.
Rich Beran, who will take over as Gretna superintendent July 1, said the aid boost will help his district keep up with growth.
Gretna will see a $1.8 million state aid increase, or 10.4%.
The bump will offset the fact that the district has to hire 30 teachers, Beran said.
Residents should not expect a levy drop, he said.
“I would say, if anything, we may go up a little bit, because of the bond part,” he said.
Gretna voters last fall passed an $85 million bond referendum.
The Gretna district is in the process of building the first phase of projects, including a new elementary school in the north end of the district, upgrading its stadium and remodeling Gretna Elementary.
Doug Lewis, assistant superintendent for business for the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, said he doesn’t anticipate a levy decrease.
A year ago, voters passed a $109.9 million bond issue that will pay for expansions at both high schools, buy land for a third high school, build a new elementary school and renovate and update five elementary schools: Carriage Hill, G. Stanley Hall, Rumsey Station, Anderson Grove and La Vista West.
“We’ve been in a situation the last several years, like Millard, like surrounding growing districts, of having to really look hard at making some cuts in programs and staffing,” Lewis said. “This will help us move forward with our growth this next year.”
A new transportation survey reveals the commuting habits of people who work, live or go to school in downtown or midtown Omaha, and it suggests that there’s an untapped appetite for using different methods — like walking, carpooling or riding the bus — to get around the city.
Verdis Group, an Omaha-based sustainability consulting firm, surveyed more than 8,500 people, most of them downtown or midtown dwellers or workers. Respondents included employees at First National Bank, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and Mutual of Omaha and tenants at the GreenSlate or NuStyle Developments, among others.
“It gives us a real insight into what people who live and work in downtown think about transit,” said Steve Jensen, a planning consultant for the City of Omaha.
Responses show, no surprise, that the car remains king among Omaha commuters. Most surveyed — 78% — drive to work alone in their car.
But 22% of respondents said they use one or more so-called active commuting methods — walking, biking, carpooling or taking the bus to get to work or school. (Yes, scooters count, too.)
Verdis Group officials think that percentage could nearly double if employers and city leaders promote and invest in alternate modes of transportation, even relatively simple measures like providing free bus passes or emergency rides home for employees who need to pick up a sick kid at school.
“We see employees wanting to get to work in different ways, but they’re limited, quite honestly, by employers’ assumption that everybody drives,” said Daniel Lawse, a principal and chief “century thinker” for the Verdis Group.
Putting policies and incentives in place to encourage workers to try different commuting modes could free up parking stalls, decrease money spent on parking, relieve road congestion and encourage more physical activity, said Lawse and Craig Moody, a managing principal with Verdis Group. The survey report includes recommendations for employers and city leaders.
The analysis suggests that if 39% of respondents tried active commuting, that could erase the need for more than 1,300 parking stalls per day and save nearly $2 million in annual parking costs.
Businesses, customers and city planners have wrestled with what some have called an over-abundance of parking garages taking up prime real estate downtown.
And the survey results arrive as employers, civic leaders and groups like the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce are taking a closer look at the city’s transportation offerings, especially as they relate to attracting and retaining workers who want a variety of transportation options, or come from cities that offer light rail, a subway or better bus systems.
“I’m wildly optimistic that this conversation really has fire behind it,” Moody said.
More than 1,000 First National Bank employees participated in the survey, and the bank provided some funding, too, said spokesman Kevin Langin. The company will study the responses and use it to gauge employee interest in different transportation options, he said.
“From the bank’s perspective, their responses better help us understand how do our employees get downtown today, what kind of obstacles do they run into, what kind of future transportation options are you interested in?” Langin said.
Working with Verdis Group, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Nebraska Medicine and Clarkson College — the landlocked midtown campus where parking is at a premium — started a TravelSmart active commuting program in 2015. Today, about 2,800 employees and students participate.
Sustainability coordinator Tina Spencer meets with new employees. She can hook them up with a free bus pass, help find a carpool partner or locate shower facilities to freshen up after a sweaty bike ride. Regular monthly parking fees range from $16 to $85 per month, but if employees or students decide to carpool, their parking permit is free.
“We may not be New York City, but we don’t all have to have a car,” Spencer said. The TravelSmart efforts help the limited parking situation but also align with broader goals to support environmental sustainability and employee health, she said.
It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, either. Depending on schedules, weather and other factors, people might decide to walk one day, drive the next and take an electric bike to an afternoon meeting at another location, Lawse said.
“There’s a big fear of the unknown when it comes to my commute, and so much rides on getting to work on time,” he said. “Take a step and try it once.”
The survey found that millennials are more likely to ditch solo car trips, live and work in the same area and use different commuting methods. And among all respondents, the survey found positive reactions to two mass transit options: the ORBT or Omaha Rapid Bus Transit line, a $35 million Metro Transit project set to debut in April 2020 that promises sleek buses and speedy routes, and an “urban circulator” — another name for the modern streetcar concept that’s been floated and debated in Omaha.
Seventy-three percent of respondents said they were somewhat or very interested in using an urban circulator, and 50% responded similarly to ORBT. Moody said the interest in the streetcar was notable considering most of the survey respondents — 71% — work but don’t live downtown or in midtown.
“It’s not an east Omaha versus west Omaha thing,” he said.
Getting workers moving smoothly across the city — not just downtown and midtown — isn’t going to hinge on any one mode of transportation, Jensen, Moody and Lawse agreed.
“ORBT doesn’t solve all the problems, or just bike lanes,” Jensen said. “No one thing is going to overnight change everything. It is all of these things working together.”
And commuters in different parts of the city may have different priorities — and public spending preferences. One commuter may want more dedicated bike lanes, while another wants to drive on streets that aren’t scarred by potholes.
“You have to fix the streets, you’ve got to widen streets in newer areas of the city and you have to do things with transit and maximize the infrastructure we have,” Jensen said.