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Year in review: A look at the top stories in Guilford County in 2019

The nation’s eye turned on Greensboro in 2019 as the community came together to bring home a little girl abducted from a neighborhood playground.

The generosity of local donors helped pay student meal debt in Guilford County Schools. And donors from near and far helped a financially struggling Bennett College raise $9.5 million in an effort to save the private, HBCU school’s accreditation.

After years of “will they or won’t they” come here, Greensboro finally got a Trader Joe’s. And a Lidl. And a Sprouts. Earth Fare came to High Point and Publix to nearby Jamestown. But east Greensboro suffered a huge loss with the closing of the community-created Renaissance Co-op.

These were among the top stories in Guilford County this year:

Abducted girl found unharmed

Three-year-old Ahlora Lindiment was abducted from a playground at Claremont Court Apartments on Oct. 9 in a case that shocked the city and made national news.

After an Amber Alert was issued, Greensboro police released still images from surveillance video showing a woman, whom they later identified as N’denezsia Monique Lancaster, at the playground and at a nearby Dollar General earlier that day.

Police had spent more than 25 hours searching for Ahlora when she was found Oct. 10 at Words of Faith Christian Center on Dillard Street, about 6 miles from where she had been taken. Someone who knew 22-year-old Lancaster recognized her from photos circulated by authorities and dropped the child off at the church. Lancaster was later taken to the police station by “an associate,” authorities said.

It wasn’t until news of Ahlora’s abduction became public that police learned a second toddler had been grabbed at the same playground on the same day but returned.

Lancaster is charged with first-degree kidnapping of Ahlora and second-degree kidnapping of the 2-year-old girl first taken and returned that day. Lancaster was given a bail of more than $1 million and is in custody at a medical treatment facility.

Bennett fights to keep accreditation

Despite an extraordinary fundraising push from mid-December 2018 to early February that raised $9.5 million, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges pulled the accreditation of Bennett College, a private, women’s HBCU in Greensboro. However, the school remains accredited while its appeal of the commission’s decision goes through the court system.

In June, college President Phyllis Worthy Dawkins left, replaced six days later with Suzanne Walsh, who had never worked for a four-year institution. Walsh had worked on higher-education issues for years in stints at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, both of which work on increasing the number of college graduates.

Bennett created a committee to look at what the school should be doing to improve; their report recommended the college shore up its finances, raise enrollment and improve the school.

Meanwhile, Bennett is pursuing accreditation from Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools, a national organization whose 80 member schools include numerous Bible colleges and seminaries.

Sex assault allegations at group home

In early September, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office arrested a Greensboro man in connection with a sexual assault of a minor at a group home for troubled youth co-owned by a former police officer and James Hinson, a deputy police chief at the time considered by some to be a contender for the next police chief.

Two days after deputies arrested Richard Vernell Heath, the city announced Hinson was retiring.

Heath was charged with one count of statutory sex offense and two counts of indecent liberties with a child in the assault on the 15-year-old, whose name is being withheld.

The teen reported to a state investigator on May 17 that Heath inappropriately touched him in a car. Two days later, the teen claimed that Heath forced him to perform oral sex at the group home while other employees were away.

The Division of Health Service Regulation, a state agency, released a 53-page report on July 31 detailing the encounter and a failure by group home staff to report the assault to authorities. The report also criticized Hinson for dismissing the allegations before a forensic interview.

The Center of Progressive Strides, a home for troubled youth in northeast Greensboro, was founded in 2006 by Hinson and Kevin Chandler, a former Greensboro police sergeant. The group home has since closed, although Hinson and Chandler said the closure was not connected to the assault charges.

Hinson and Chandler said the state report was biased and didn’t give them a chance to respond to allegations.

Meanwhile, more charges have been filed against Heath. In late September, Guilford deputies charged him with five additional counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child stemming from accusations of an assault involving a 5-year-old boy in the 1980s. And in early December, Burlington police charged Heath with statutory sexual offense against a person who is under 15 years old, according to Alamance County court records.

Medicaid scheme

A power outage in June that displaced 35 residents of an apartment complex may have exposed an elaborate scheme by two local mental health agencies looking to profit from the Medicaid coverage of their clients.

According to city officials, the agencies — Ready 4 Change and United Youth Care Services — were recruiting homeless people to enroll in their substance-abuse programs. They in turn provided housing — ostensibly so their clients would have a place to stay while they attended treatment programs.

Former clients of the two agencies came forward with complaints about the substandard housing provided to them and the measures they had taken to remain in the program. One woman said she was encouraged to consume alcohol or drugs to fail urine tests so she could continue receiving treatment. The woman decided to leave the program after being told she and her four children would have to share a hotel room with another family.

Both Ready 4 Change and United Youth Care Services denied the allegations.

The state has said it intends to revoke the license of both agencies.

Vaping illness hits Guilford

In September, Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro reported the first possible vaping-related death in North Carolina. However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not include North Carolina in its list of 27 states that have seen a vaping-related death and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services does not list any deaths in the state from the illness.

The victim at Moses Cone was later confirmed to be a Virginia resident, although it’s not clear if the death was counted in Virginia or was later determined unrelated to the vaping illness.

In North Carolina, 75 cases of the illness had been reported as of Dec. 19, according to the state health department.

At the time of the death at Moses Cone, the hospital reported seeing at least eight cases of the illness.

Across the United States, 54 people have died as of Dec. 17, the CDC reports. And there have been 2,506 hospitalized as of that date, the agency said. All 50 states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have been affected.

The CDC says vitamin E acetate, an additive in some THC-containing e-cigarettes, is closely associated with the illness. Research has suggested that when vitamin E acetate is inhaled, it may interfere with normal lung functioning, the CDC said.

Symptoms of the illness are similar to pneumonia caused by bacterial or viral infections. They include shortness of breath, fever, cough and nausea or vomiting. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care promptly and report any use of vaping devices within the past three months, health officials advised.

Former ‘Hoarders’ house wins B&B fight

The family that restored the historic Julian Price mansion, featured on the TV show “Hoarders” won its fight to use part of the building as a bed-and-breakfast.

Owners Michael and Eric Fuko-Rizzo, who run E&V Properties, sought a special-use permit to operate a bed-and-breakfast in the house they rejuvenated at 301 Fisher Park Circle.

At the Zoning Commission’s May 20 meeting, some neighbors voiced concerns about parking and noise. The commission denied the permit, and the Fuko-Rizzos appealed.

After a Nov. 14 court ruling in the Fuko-Rizzo’s favor, the Zoning Commission issued a special-use permit “be issued forthwith.”

The permit included conditions agreed to by the Fuko-Rizzos and a subcommittee of the Fisher Park Neighborhood Association. These include prohibiting bands, DJs, amplified speakers or instruments from being used outside at any time. Inside, the cutoff time is 10 p.m.

The property can host events, provided that owners aren’t charging rent, city zoning officials said.

The Fuko-Rizzos bought the property in September 2016 and have since cleaned up and rejuvenated the mansion and its 1.6 acres. They moved into part of the 31-room, 90-year-old house with their 4-year-old twin daughters in June.

They want to rent out five remaining bedrooms to guests.

Known as Hillside, the brick and half-timbered mansion was built in 1929 for Julian Price, the president of Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Co. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and Guilford County’s list of historically significant properties.

For years, its beauty was hidden under overgrown foliage and clutter, accumulated by then-owner Sandra Cowart. Cowart lost the house to foreclosure, and the Fuko-Rizzos purchased it.

In January 2017, the A&E TV reality show “Hoarders” aired an episode filmed there. More than 1.2 million households watched the drama unfold as crews emptied the house of Cowart’s possessions. The episode has aired several times since, and an update aired in April.

The Fuko-Rizzos have since restored its former glory.

Donors cover school meal debt

In three waves of generosity earlier this year, donors covered the entirety of student meal debt in Guilford County Schools.

It started with an anonymous, $10,500 donation in August to pay for the outstanding school meal debt of students in High Point.

A week later, another anonymous donor stepped forward with a check for $3,800 to cover the meal debt for students in Jamestown schools.

A week after that, a third anonymous donation from a local couple paid the remaining balance of $32,228.25.

Together, their donations covered more than $46,500 in meal debt.

If the donors had not stepped in, the district would have had to cover the meal debt. Anything not collected by Sept. 30 would have come out of the district’s general fund.

Earlier this month, the Guilford County Board of Education honored the donors, revealing the identities of three people involved.

Nancy and Frank Brenner made the final donation, picking up the remaining amount. And the initial anonymous donor who kicked off the wave of generosity? That was Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

A bounty of grocery options

Call 2019 the Year of the Grocery Store.

In July, High Point welcomed an Earth Fare at 4105 Brian Jordan Place.

Sprouts Farmers Market opened in August at 3357 Battleground Ave. in Greensboro in the old Harris Teeter at Westridge Square shopping center.

After years of speculation about Trader Joe’s coming to Greensboro, the grocery chain welcomed hundreds of shoppers in October to its newest store at 3721 Battleground Ave. in the Brassfield Shopping Center.

Lidl and Publix decided to open new stores in Guilford County on the same day in November. Lidl’s opening at 5696 W. Gate City Blvd. featured a three-piece band covering Motown hits like “For Once in My Life” while staff handed out croissant bites and served free hot coffee to fight the chill. About a mile away, the Ragsdale High marching drum line performed for customers waiting to get into the new Publix at Grandover Village in Jamestown.

While several grocers finally arrived in Greensboro or expanded in the area, east Greensboro suffered a huge loss with the closing of Renaissance Community Cooperative. The community-owned grocery store, heralded as salvation for one of the city’s food deserts, closed in late January. The city had spent a decade trying to lure a grocer to that area, which had been without one since 1998, before the community came up with the co-op idea.

The Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities worked with Self-Help, a community development lender based in Durham, and Concerned Citizens for Northeast Greensboro to create and build the store, which opened in fall 2016.

While sales climbed steadily the first two months the store was open, they later stalled. The store also lost stock and sales after an April 2018 tornado tore through the neighborhood. Renaissance added promotional events and some new features and used a $25,000 grant to help with marketing, but shoppers still didn’t show up in enough numbers to support the store, officials said at the time.

Fight to save Gateway Education Center

In April, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras looked to close Gateway Education Center for the 2019-20 school year, citing concern for the health of vulnerable students after the school struggled with repeated issues of water getting into the building when it rains.

Parents, who objected to the idea of sending their students to Gateway’s counterpart school in Jamestown or any other special-needs schools in the county, rallied to oppose Gateway’s closure.

Contreras backed off the closure plan, saying any parents who wanted to keep their children at Gateway could. Board of Education members voted to spend just under $2 million for a new roof and repairs to windows and gutters at the school.

Work was underway on the windows as students returned to school in August, and school board members approved awarding the roof replacement contract at their meeting in November.

Play ball!

High Point’s new pro baseball team debuted to a standing room-only crowd in the brand new, $36 million BB&T Point stadium downtown on May 2. The High Point Rockers beat the Sugar Land Skeeters 3-0. The Rockers play in the eight-team, Atlantic League.

The team finished its first season 74-66.

Opening day for 2020 is April 30.

A revitalization effort coalesced around the new baseball stadium and has helped to attract more than $150 million in new development to that part of town.


Z-no-digital
An interesting article in today's newspaper

Flying high: N.C. State grad Christina Koch sets record for single longest spaceflight for a woman, with two months to go on her mission. Page A5


Education
Is speech becoming more free on college campuses? One group says it is

If you glanced at some headlines in 2019, you might be forgiven if you thought higher education had collectively lost its mind over speech and expression issues. Consider:

• This spring, former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey decided against speaking at a college commencement in his native Nebraska. The reason? The state’s Republican Party pressured Creighton University to rescind its invitation because Kerrey supports abortion. Kerrey, a Democrat, served as Nebraska’s governor and represented the state in the U.S. Senate for 12 years. Kerrey did speak at the private Catholic school in October.

• In October, students at Georgia Southern University burned a book written by Cuban-American author Jennine Capó Crucet after she spoke on campus in October. Students were reportedly irked by the author’s comments on white privilege.

• In November, the student newspaper at Northwestern University near Chicago apologized for its coverage of student protests during a campus speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Some students said they were traumatized to see their pictures on the student newspaper’s social media accounts. The newspaper’s response triggered a national debate among journalists over coverage of public protests, college campuses and minority communities.

But a new report from a free speech watchdog group suggests that the campus climate for speech and expression — at least on paper — seems to be getting better. The number of free speech incidents are relatively small. And North Carolina’s universities stand out as a collective success story.

Here’s a glance at campus speech and expression — and disruptions to both — in North Carolina and nationwide.

Nationwide

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education had some good news for campus speech advocates in its latest annual report published in December:

• A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities earn FIRE’s highest rating (a green light) because they have no written policies that restrict speech. FIRE gave 11 percent of schools a green-light rating in 2019. That’s up from just 2 percent a decade earlier.

• The number of schools with yellow-right ratings, FIRE’s second-highest grade, have grown from 21 percent in 2009 to 64 percent this year. FIRE gives a yellow light to institutions that it says have overly broad or vague policies that might restrict or suppress speech.

• FIRE gave a red light, its worst rating, to only a quarter of the 471 public and private colleges it surveyed. A decade ago, FIRE listed three-quarters of institutions as red-light schools because they had one or more policies that clearly restricted First Amendment rights or didn’t make their speech policies available to the general public.

• Governing boards or faculty councils at 70 institutions have adopted free-speech statements modeled on the so-called Chicago principles, a free-speech policy statement, written by the University of Chicago in 2015. The statement endorses “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn,” and FIRE considers it the gold standard of commitment to free expression on campus. Two years ago, just 15 schools had formally adopted the Chicago principles.

“In a lot of ways, (schools) are improving, especially when it comes to those revisiting red-light policies,” said Laura Beltz, a senior program officer at FIRE and author of the group’s latest campus speech report.

Beltz said new laws in some states, including North Carolina, are a big reason for the rise in green-light schools.

But there’s also a glass-half-empty way to look at these numbers. Beltz said more than 6 million U.S. students attend colleges where their First Amendment rights aren’t guaranteed. And some schools seem to have modified their speech policies just enough to escape the glare of FIRE’s red-light rating.

“These policies ... still represent pretty severe restrictions” on expression, Beltz said. “These are the ones that when something controversial comes up they apply that policy in a restrictive way.”

In North Carolina

In FIRE’s eyes, North Carolina stands out as a success story for campus speech. The group gave a green-light rating to 50 schools, 11 of which are N.C. schools — including UNCG, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. North Carolina has more green-light schools than any other state.

Three N.C. schools have adopted the Chicago principles, according to FIRE: Appalachian State, UNC-CH and Winston-Salem State.

Most N.C. public universities got green-light ratings after a new 2017 state law banned free-speech zones — areas on campus where demonstrations and protests are permitted — and ordered the UNC System to crack down on students and employees who interrupt scheduled campus speakers. Critics have called that overbroad because it doesn’t clearly define what it means to “substantially (interfere) with the protected free expression rights of others.”

Only one N.C. school has a red-light rating, Davidson College, which punishes biased speech. Davidson considers such behavior to be “severe, persistent or pervasive to the point that it threatens an individual or limits the ability of the individual to work, study, or participate in College life.” FIRE considers this policy to be too broad and a threat to students’ First Amendment rights.

In a statement issued to the News & Record this month, Davidson said it remains committed “to unfettered inquiry and free expression” and holds “as an imperative of faith the dignity and worth of every person.

“Our sexual harassment and bias policies protect both ideals while also fulfilling our legal obligation to address allegations of discrimination and harassment. Davidson remains focused on preventing acts of sexual misconduct, prejudice or bigotry. While we still have work to do, not a single sexual harassment complaint was received through our formal process over the past three years.

“We are always open to improving our policies based on research and evidence, not on arbitrary ratings.”

On campus

State law requires the UNC System to produce an annual report on free speech and free expression at the state’s 16 public universities. That report includes any disruptions to free expression on campus.

In 2017-18, only three universities reported disruptions. In the 2018-19 report, published in September, four universities reported five disruptive events. These brief descriptions are based on the report, additional information from the UNC System and media accounts where they exist:

• A UNC-CH student was charged with misdemeanor assault in April after an anti-abortion demonstrator was allegedly attacked in The Pit, a major gathering spot on campus. Several days later, a second UNC-CH student was arrested after allegedly walking away with an anti-abortion sign. (That latter incident wasn’t mentioned in the UNC System’s report.) Both incidents were related to a visit to UNC-CH by a group called Created Equal, which displays graphic pictures of aborted fetuses during its tours of college campuses.

• Also at UNC-CH, five protests related to the Silent Sam Confederate statue led to 28 criminal citations and trespass orders. The UNC System report didn’t list the dates of these events, but most took place in August and September 2018 right after protesters pulled down Silent Sam on Aug. 20, 2018.

• At UNC-Asheville in November 2018, three people approached members of the College Republicans, who had set up a table in the student union. The report said the three “expressed disagreement” with the College Republicans, and one of them pushed the group’s materials onto the floor and walked off. University officials weren’t able to identify those individuals.

•At Appalachian State University, one faculty member filed a complaint in September 2018 against another faculty member, allegedly for an undisclosed violation of the university system’s free expression policy. The two professors met with a facilitator, and the first faculty member withdrew the complaint.

• At Western Carolina University, a student “became upset with a religious speaker and grabbed a camera that was being used during the presentation” during the fall 2018 semester, according to the UNC System. The student was disciplined for an unspecified violation of the student conduct code. Western Carolina provided no additional information to the News & Record, which found no media coverage of the episode.

The Trump administration

In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order designed “to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses.” The president, in remarks when he signed the order, suggested that colleges that stifle free speech would lose federal funding. But the order says only that federal agencies should “take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law” and makes no mention of enforcement.

This month, Trump signed another executive order intended to crack down on growing numbers of incidents of anti-Semitic harassment and vandalism at schools and on college campuses. But opponents of this order say it’s actually designed to squash anti-Israel sentiment, especially among campus groups that support Palestinians.

FIRE in a statement called the order ambiguous at best and predicted that institutions will “investigate and censor protected speech on their campuses. Having spent 20 years defending speakers from across the political spectrum, FIRE knows all too well that colleges and universities will rush to punish student and faculty speakers in an attempt to avoid federal investigation and enforcement.”


Z-no-digital
Parade returns next week

Parade returns next week

Parade is off this week and will return on Jan. 5. Here’s a sneak peek.