Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Mandatory compliance issues stretch university resources - 13 Dec. 2005

This 1,500 word monster was the largest project I had undertaken, and I still consider it one of the best reporting pieces of my career. We had gotten frustrated about the university’s lagging compliance of a federal statute that required that they report crime stats, so I went to check it out. I worked on it for a month – mainly because the police chief and administrators were so tight-lipped about the issue. Eventually, about the time the article was ready to be published, they began to follow the rules better.


As an office worker with the NSU Campus Police Department, Billie Mills has more responsibilities than the typical university secretary.

For instance, Mills helps to ensure that NSU’s Department of Public Safety is in compliance with several federal and state regulations. One of those regulations, the Clery Act, mandates that a university and its public safety organ must publicly provide information about campus crime.

Among this is a crime log, which contains offences that happen on campus or are reported to the campus PD; it must be current to two days. Also, a university must keep three years of crime statistics and present them to the public by Oct. 1 of each year. The annual report contains statistics of select major crimes, some of which are broken down into subcategories.

However, for several months this year, DPS did not keep the daily log of crime reports current. Within the last month, the department has worked to bring that up to speed, and as of Dec. 8, the crime log updates met the 48-hour grace requirement. However, the annual statistics report was posted on the DPS Web site 18 days late and without the required subcategories.

The delays are due to the other functions of her job, said Mills. As a secretary, she works on the log and the reports while fulfilling other secretarial obligations. But because of her knowledge of the function of DPS and how to handle emergencies on campus, she sometimes puts the paperwork aside to handle those urgent police situations.

“Emergencies have to take precedence,” said Mills. “But we try to get (the daily log) out as soon as possible.”

Legislation for Jeanne

The Clery Act is an amendment to the Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act. It is named in honor of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and murdered in her dorm room in 1986. After Jeanne’s parents found out that dozens of violent crimes occurred on Lehigh’s campus in the three years before their daughter’s death, they helped push the original bill through Congress.

NSU reports zero instances of criminal homicide since the year 2000, with a majority of crimes centering on theft-related occurrences. Although the law allows for public inspection of crime stats, the intent of the bill is to provide information to future NSU associates.

“It’s a tool that we have to abide by and that we use,” said Clint Vernon, chief of Campus Police. “I think it’s great as far as getting the word out … to the students, faculty and staff.”

He said compliance is an issue his office deals with daily, and because of a police officer’s role in protecting the public, he must sometimes gauge precedence.

“Different things take priority, but it’s some thing that we work with every single day,” said Vernon. “We dropped the ball, sure, but were not going to do it again, and were doing a better job at (complying).”

Vernon and Tim Foutch, assistant vice president for administration, acknowledge that a larger staff of workers might improve the university’s ability to meet regulations, but Foutch questioned the use of understaffing as a justification for non-compliance.

“We can’t use an excuse that we’re underfunded or understaffed as the reason why we don’t meet the requirements,” he said. “If people come and look at our compliance with the Clery Act, their first question isn’t going to be: ‘do you have enough staff to do it?’ They’re gonna want to know if we (comply) or if we don’t, and they’re going to investigate our non-compliance, if that’s an issue.”

He repeated that the department is staffed to “what we think is adequate to their obligations.”

“It might be cumbersome,” said Foutch. “It might be inefficient ... but the fact is that we gotta get it done; we don’t have a choice on that.”

The Process

To cut down on confusion and to create a uniform reporting style, only one student worker is assigned to type the crime log, said Mills. That student works just three days a week, so when a crime occurs during the weekend or late Friday, a lapse of three days is nearly assured.

But that’s not the only thing standing in the way of timely reports; the current process includes at least two stops before reports are made public. When an officer logs an occurrence with the department, that officer, or another full-time staffer must “break things down” for the designated student worker. Then, only after vital information such as personal ID numbers and other sensitive facts are filtered can the student type a short synopsis of each occurrence that day.

That, along with personnel shakeups in the last couple of years, has exposed a need for change, or said Foutch, a realization.

“We have to establish a responsible process (in compliance),” he said. “Now we know that process and we have since caught up.”

Chief Vernon said last week that his offi ce and university computer gurus are working together on a new program to facilitate easier public reporting.

Foutch likened the new technological advancement of police reporting to the budget-clashing notion of hiring or assigning one person to deal with Clery Act issues.

“We’ve got to be clever about how to create a process, regardless of what the staff has time to do,” said Foutch. “We’ll let that technology we have today be that other person. We’re going to build a process that is not determined by human error or human availability, to the degree that we can.”

As the chief of police, Vernon takes on the large role of protecting students, faculty and staff. As an employee of a government-funded university, he must also take steps to abide by regulations and mandates set forth by entities at the federal and state levels. But he said there is a priority in his work and if more money is budgeted to the DPS, major thought must go into where that money will go.

“The most important thing to me on this campus is to provide a safe environment. That’s No. 1 to me,” said Vernon. “Sure, I’d love to have more money, sure I’d love to have a bigger budget, sure I’d like to have more staffing, but I don’t. I do the best that I can with what I got.”

In agreement, Foutch said Vernon does very good job with the resources at hand. He also said that if DPS falls too far behind in its reporting duties or needs assistance with clerical work, trained personnel can be temporarily relocated handle the problem.

“If campus police doesn’t have the staff, (my) office will provide people to do it,” said Foutch.

Compliance in good faith, and what’s next for NSU

Observance of the Clery Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education. In cases where regulations are not met, the DOE may levy fines up to $27,500 per infraction and participation in federal financial aid programs may be invalidated. Of the 13 “focused program reviews” conducted by the DOE in the last 10 years, the most extreme case of violation was that of Salem International University. The school, facing a laundry list of charges, agreed to pay $200,000 in a settlement last April.

In interviews with NSU employees during The Northeastern’s investigation, a “good faith effort” was mentioned repeatedly in regards to the then-current situation and the possibility of action by the DOE. There may have been confusion, however, to the clause in the bill stating schools are required to make a reasonable, “good-faith effort” to obtain statistics from outside police agencies to supplement their own statistics.

Foutch cleared this up, saying that non-compliance in good faith still means non-compliance. It might minimize a fine or eliminate the need for a fine altogether, he said, but he is not worried about possible repercussions of tardy crime reports.

“If somebody came in here and said ‘you guys aren’t cuttin’ it,’ we can show them all the things we are doing and convince them that we’re trying to be responsible, that were doing our best to comply,” said Foutch. “And if we recognize that were not, we’ll do everything we can to get there.”

A university spokesman also said there is no danger of NSU being fined.

So, Mills continues to conduct her daily routine: answering calls, filing paperwork and assisting her police coworkers, all the while keeping regulations in mind. Although the Clery Act is just one of several, it still holds a lofty place in the litany of rules.

“It’s not just that it’s a federal mandate, but it’s also critical that we communicate vital data like that to everyone who interfaces with our campus,” said Foutch. “We can’t even image the value that it provides.”

Monday, July 18, 2005

Fall tuition hike to top 9 percent - 18 July 2005


Beginning in the fall, tuition for undergraduate resident of Oklahoma will increase 9 percent.

The increase for non-residents will be 9.4 percent for undergraduates and 9.6 percent for graduate students.

NSU officials attribute the need for increase to mandatory fee increases that the university is responsible for paying, such as health insurance, liability insurance and utilities.

However, there are plans in place to ensure that students do not bear the full brunt of the budget appropriations.

“The University is working to maintain costs and keep them as low as possible, unfortunately the cost of many services and supplies external to NSU continue to rise,” said Vice President for Administration Kim Cherry. “We try to find ways to absorb these costs and not pass them on to the students.”

Ginger McClendon, a Tahlequah freshman, was unaware of the increase until last week.

“That’s just more money they are going to take from you. I don’t understand. Why are they not fixing all these old buildings on campus?” asked McClendon.

The increases were approved July 1 by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Neal Weaver, vice president of university relations, said the overall budget used by NSU is less than in 2002.

“That hole in our budget is what we’re dealing with,” said Weaver. “We do our best to keep tuition increases to a minimum, but we have an obligation to high quality and to serve as many students who want to come [to NSU].”

Tulsa sophomore J.P. Baker is critical of the tuition increase.

“It’s just another way for them to take our money and we’ll never see it again,” said Baker. “They are using it for other things besides maintaining the morale of the student body. I think they are using it for political reasons.”

Officials blame the need for higher student-paid revenue to lower state-paid appropriations.

The state has given NSU a total of about $1.6 million dollars less than the fiscal year four years ago. With the lower state funding, NSU must look to other avenues for revenue, including private funding.

The NSU Foundation currently has a $10.8 million pool to draw from.

“Private funding, grants and contracts are becoming more valuable,” said Weaver.

NSU is also increasing benefits to students in light of the necessary tuition increases. The Regents Tuition Waiver fund will be increased by 19 percent this year and the student employee wages will rise from $5.15 to $5.60 per hour.

For a student enrolled in 15 credit hours, the 9 percent tuition increase will translate to about $135 more dollars per semester.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Catron case ends in mistrial again - 11 July 2005


The second trial in a first-degree manslaughter case against Trisha Denae Catron ended in a mistrial last month.

Catron was charged with the crime in July 2003 after a collision occurred on State Highway 51, east of Tahlequah. Catron’s vehicle collided with a vehicle driven by NSU senior Andrea Beth Doyle. Doyle later died from injuries suffered during the accident.

Prosecutors allege Catron was intoxicated while driving. The first trial ended in a mistrial after Doyle’s father spoke about evidence to an attorney outside the courtroom in a place where jurors could have overheard the conversation.

The second mistrial was declared by the judge after Catron’s lawyer asked for a dismissal. The lawyer, Stephen Fabian, asked for a dismissal because the state prosecutor failed to include audiotaped interviews of people who attended a party with Catron before the accident.

Fabian said the tapes were listed as evidence in the summary provided by the district attorney’s office, but were not part of the evidence available during the trial.

“I wondered, I asked and when I found out – it disturbed me terribly,” said Fabian.

Janet Bickle, assistant district attorney and prosecutor for the trial, said the tapes were something that “everybody was unaware of.”

“It was simply an oversight,” said Bickle.

Fabian disagrees, however, and claims the existence of the tapes was known and it was the state’s responsibility to provide them.

“Oversight? They send me summaries of the statements,” said Fabian. “The officer that made them said he told the DA there were tapes. The DA knew there were tapes. I think he testified there were tapes. He knew it – so is that an oversight?

“Under the law [the state] has to give everything up – all statements, all recordings. We filed motions months and months ago, and they just didn’t happen to make it into the file.”

Bickle anticipates a third trial to begin in September. Unsuccessful attempts were made to reach Catron’s mother by e-mail for a statement regarding her daughter’s trial.

Catron has been in the Cherokee County Jail since last November for an unrelated DUI misdemeanor. She was arrested for drunken driving while out on bond for the manslaughter case. Fabian said the officer who pulled her over had no probable cause to do so.

“The officer didn’t have probable cause to believe she was driving under the influence. His testimony, in my belief, indicated that what he saw was not justification to arrest her for driving under the influence,” said Fabian.

With the highly-publicized DUI possibly affecting the bias of jurors picked from Cherokee County, Fabian realizes he may be up for a challenge. He is also confident that the facts will prove worthy for his side, and his client will be acquitted.

“I guess I will let the evidence show what it shows and show what they did and how the did it – just the same as I did before,” said Fabian. “The government has to prove their case; it is the way the system works.

“But the media has been trying this girl in the paper. Sometimes it is hard to get a fair trial but we just have to deal with that the way we can.”

Fabian also said he has never been asked to comment for a news story in any newspaper regarding the Catron case.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Fite works to balance river preservation with recreation - 27 June 2005


Ed Fite supervises 100 miles of river in three counties, as well as ten river rangers who provide assistance to the thousands of summer visitors to the Illinois River, east of Tahlequah.

Due to budget cuts, the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission has seen diminished funds from which to keep the river clean and safe.

With the enormous number of guests, Fite likens the weekend crowd to a "medium-size community," the banks and waters of this riparian waterway easily become clogged with garbage.

"We have gotten used to folks being critical of us just because they don't always see a ranger or there is a little trash. We can pick up an area and think its going to be clean when we come back in an hour and the next bunch comes through and they just throw their cans and their trash all over the ground," said Fite. "They have no consideration for others, and then were back picking it up again."

The confluence of holiday celebration and rowdy river-goers this Fourth of July holiday will undoubtedly lead to trash cans overflowing with the byproducts of a good time.

The OSRC is a step ahead though, allowing anyone to float the river without charge Friday, July 8 to help clean river.

The OSRC has three River Cleanups this year, one that was after Memorial Day, the cleanup next week and an event after Labor Day in September.

"We are trying to place the River Cleanups after the major holidays to clean up after all the tourists who come through," said Meredith Lee, education outreach coordinator for the commission.

Check-in for July's cleanup is that morning at nine, but volunteers are encouraged to sign up in advance.

"Give me a call and pre-register for it," said Lee.

Trash is not the only problem Fite and the OSRC has had to worry about lately.

Reports of above-the-limit phosphorous levels and squabbles with the entities that produce them, mainly poultry farms, have caused an intervention from Oklahoma's attorney general.

The state is also looking into a study released by the Cherokee Nation last year, which found on average, their testing suggested that the bacteria levels of the lower 111inois River exceeded the standards set forth by applicable law.

"In December of 2003, we entered into an agreement with Arkansas for all of the communities that discharge treated wastewater into the [l11inois River] basin to build better wastewater plants that will achieve a certain standard," said Fite.

Some Tahlequah resident have also taken a disliking to the way river management is handled.

Murv Jacob, a downtown artist, has heard many complaints from local- residents and has a few as well.

"People need a place to go swimming, like they always have," said Jacob. "We used to be able to go to the river any time. Now they're making it hard:'

His frustrations come from the sudden removal of camping and access privileges of the more popular places along the river.

The owners of "Boy Scout hole," the Welling Bridge area and the Sequoyah Club have limited the public usage or sites that have been open for years.

But last year the Army Corps, of Engineers, the landowners, realized there was no profit in keeping the favorite sites open due to vandalism and litter problems. In fact, said Fite, the three locations would be absolutely off limits if his organization had not stuck a deal with the Corps.

"A number of people have been upset at me particularly and the agency that I work for because those areas are being closed. I'm sorry that folks haven't realized that if it weren't for myself and the OSRC, those areas would be closed."

File said although he is used to criticism from Tahlequah natives, he was ruffled by comments made from a former NSU instructor and current publisher of "The Current."

"I saw an article by Tom Barlow, who thinks we have possibly too much of a presence along the river. I'm sorry Mr. Barlow hasn't been a resident of the river for as long as I have and seen the management issues we have been challenged with," said Fite.

"If he had to walk a mile in the moccasins of my staff, I think he would have a different appreciation for what we are trying to do."

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Fans converge to watch Underwood - 1 March 2005

At just more than 800 words, this was the longest story I had written. This was the breakout performance of Carrie Underwood, and the scene that night was exciting. I got to talk with an Access Hollywood crew that had made the trip to Tahlequah, and I think I captured the emotions felt by many of those in attendance. The most memorable moment that night was looking at the capacity crowd and spotting Kelli Doolen, Carrie’s music teacher, crying during the performance.


More than 200 of Carrie Underwood’s family, friends and fans gathered in the NET Building Auditorium last Tuesday night to watch her first live performance on American Idol. Many spectators cheered, cried and laughed, while all concentrated on her performance.

Underwood’s mother, Carol Underwood, was present and appreciative of the support from NSU.

We’re very proud of her and we appreciate everything that everyone is doing for her,” she said.

NSU President Larry Williams spoke to the audience before the show began and expressed his high regards for the younger Underwood’s success.

“We know absolutely for certain that she is going to win, because there is just no way they could pick anybody else,” said Williams. “You can see this is one of the most incredible young ladies that have been around in a long time.”

Fortunately, for Tahlequah and NSU, Underwood has been around for a while. She was a performer in NSU’s summer country music show beginning in 2000, when she was still a student at Checotah High School.

“I had the great honor of inviting Carrie, when she was in high school, to come over and be a guest artist in the Downtown Country show,” said C.H. Parker, former coordinator of Downtown Country.

Parker also commented on the support of Underwood’s parents throughout her career as a musician.

“It starts with a mother and a father who cares and doesn’t sit down at the breakfast table and say, ‘You better be a lawyer or you better be a doctor, because if you want the arts, you’ll starve.’”

Underwood performed “Could’ve Been,” a song made popular by pop artist Tiffany in 1988. After she finished, Underwood received a thunderous response from those watching in the auditorium, and compliments from the show’s judges ranged from “absolutely brilliant” to “beautiful” and “wonderful.”

Since she first auditioned in St. Louis, Underwood has been highly regarded as strictly a country singer, and even received praise from Simon Cowell, and “American Idol” judge. Kelli Doolen, director of Country Music and Downtown Country, said after her performance that Underwood had proven she was no one-trick pony.

“The thing I like the most [about the song] was that all the people online who have been saying,
she’s just a country singer,’ you got to see tonight, that that’s not the case at all, said Doolen. “She nailed that song.”

Students and Tahlequah residents were not alone in the auditorium Tuesday as Rowdy, the NSU mascot, showed up early in the night. Also present was a reporter from Fox 23 News in Tulsa and a film crew from “Access Hollywood.” For that show, the on-location shoot at the watch party was unique for NSU’s star.

“I think the decision was really made by ‘American Idol’ itself, because Carrie just pops onscreen with her performances,” said producer Bobby Singer. “You hear Simon, Paula [Abdul] and Randy [Jackson] raving about her; they never have anything negative to say. She’s far and away ahead of the field. She just stands out.”

The celebrity-oriented show has covered “Idol” since its inception and, said Singer, gravitates toward the obvious fan favorites.

“We’ve done quite a bit with ‘American Idol’ every year,” he said. “There is always one or two who you think have a really good shot, and Carrie is right there.”

Williams believes that Underwood is on the right track and all of her praise is justified.

“She is so richly deserving, she is a tremendous, tremendous young lady,” said Williams. “Someone asked me if I could think of a better person to represent NSU, and I said ‘absolutely not.’ Carrie Underwood is the personification of the institution.”

He also commended the school spirit, personified in the turnout at the watch party.

“I thought it was a good turnout,” said Williams. “Those who were here were very supportive of Carrie and excited, and want to help her.”

That help came in the form of telephone voting, either by cell phone or landline. Those with cell phones could send text messages to vote, thereby avoiding the busy signal that most others faced when calling the toll-free number.

From now on in the competition, fans will vote to keep their favorite on the show, with the performers who receive the least number of votes being sent home.

Mike Patton, Tulsa freshman, was present at the watch party and was amazed by Underwood’s voice.

“I was in complete awe and complete excitement. I was like, that was so good. I can’t put into words how good it was,” said Patton.

He is one of many viewers of the show who consider themselves more of an Underwood fan than an “American Idol” buff.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the first season, but [now] I can probably watch it all season long, until that last episode when Carrie wins.”

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Underwood gaining momentum on 'Idol' - 22 Feb. 2005

I began to think if I'd ever get on the front page without Carrie Underwood...


A local hero made one more move towards stardom last Wednesday night, bringing her a big step closer to being the next American Idol.

Carrie Underwood is one of 24 men and women who beat out 193 contestants during the three-day long auditions in Hollywood. The show will resume tonight with the 12 females who have been selected to perform live. During tonight's broadcast, viewers wi11 be able to call into the show and vote for their favorite performer.

Ever since Underwood first auditioned in St. Louis, her popularity has been growing across the nation and on NSU's campus. This, however, is not Underwood's first time being in the spotlight. She has performed several times with Downtown Country, a summer musical program put on by NSU's music department.

"Carrie is without a doubt, one of the most trouble-free full east members I have ever worked with. She always knew her material, was always where she was supposed to be when she was supposed to be there, and never complained," said Kelli Doolen, director of Country Music and Downtown Country. "Her attitude regarding song selection was, 'Just pick whatever you want me to sing and I'll !earn it.' She was an exemplary Downtown Country cast member."

Underwood is indeed a special talent, and Doolen is quick to point out her strongest attribute.

"Without a doubt, Carrie's strongest talent is her God-given voice. In addition to being one of the most powerful singers I have ever heard live, her pitch is always dead on," said Doolen.

During the past month, Underwood has garnered immense support from the Tahlequah and NSU community. In fact, for some who watch the show every week, this season of American Idol is their first.

Sarah Turner is one of those first timers. She watches the show weekly with her parents and is excited about the local star gone national.

"I'm watching it for her," said the Tahlequah sophomore. “I’m all about Tahlequah pride. You gotta show some hometown pride."

Hometown pride is one way to describe the atmosphere in Checotah, Underwood's own hometown. Fans gather every week with homemade signs to watch for her and celebrate her advancement in the competition. Similar "watch-parties" have sprung up across the area, strengthening Underwood's fan base.

"Some of the Downtown Country cast members, Downtown Country parents and I get together every Tuesday and Wednesday night for an American Idol watch-party," said Doolen. "In reality, though, it's a Carrie Underwood watch-party."

The NSU Carrie Watch Committee, a temporary committee created to publicize Underwood's appearance on the show, had its first meeting last week. The committee, made up of representatives from NSU public relations, the Office of Student Affairs and other relevant organizations are responsible for motivating the campus and community to support Underwood. Nancy Garber is the director of Public Relations and is also on that committee.

"The university has decided to host a watch-party for Carrie so we can celebrate her success," said Garber. "We want to encourage everyone to vote for [her] so she will be eligible to continue in the competition."

This Tuesday and Wednesday nights and throughout the remainder of the competition, NSU will be hosting the largest watch-party in the area with a live cable feed of the show and a phone-bank set up for those without cell phones to call in and vote for Underwood. Tuesday will be the first time that viewers will be able to vote for their favorite performer.

On Wednesday, the results will be announced and four contestants will be cut.

Doolen has been pulling for Underwood from the start.

"Even though we knew that Carrie just had to make it based on her talent level, it was still a little nerve-wracking waiting for the judges' decision," said Doolen. "I can't even imagine how she must have been feeling."

Turner said her family watches the show every night, and she is proud of Underwood's achievement.

"It's cool that she goes to this school and she's on TV, and people are going to know who she is," said Turner.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Underwood a hit on 'Idol' - 15 Feb. 2005

Covering a fellow NSU student's trip through "American Idol" was the first big project my editors assigned me. I remember in my box every Wednesday, the assignment day, a slip of paper that read, "underwood recap. you know what to do." This was also my first Page One story.


Carrie Underwood’s success on American Idol has caused a buzz around Oklahoma, Tahlequah and the NSU campus.

"We're very excited around here," said Dr. Mike Chanslor, assistant professor of mass communication. "We've got a star."

Chanslor is Underwood's academic advisor, and is well aware of her singing talent.

"I'm really not surprised by the success. She has got talent and good work ethic,” said Chanslor.

The Checotah native and NSU senior has no doubt received many compliments over the past few weeks, but the most important probably came from an English record producer best known as a judge on the hit show.

"That was very good. Very good Carrie, great," was the post-audition response from Simon Cowell, who is infamous for his brutal honesty towards performers.

That was during the first round of auditions to determine who would go on to Hollywood for the second round. A week later, Underwood received a unanimous "yes" from the show's three judges to continue in the competition.

Ashlee Smith is a sophomore from Nowata and is a friend of Underwood's.

“I think she's going to go an the way," said Smith. "She's gonna be famous."

If the Internet is a good indicator of fame, Underwood could have it in the making. A search on Yahoo! returns several Web sites mentioning her as an American Idol contestant, and there are already two Carrie Underwood fan sites. "Carrie Fans" is a message board Web site with nearly 400 members, and "Carrie Underwood Online" is an unofficial site which includes photos, news and a biography.

According to site, Underwood has performed in many states and has even opened for the country/western powerhouse Diamond Rio. Singing is not Underwood's only talent. She has worked for The Northeastern and was a producer of NSU's student television program, "The Quah." She is majoring in mass communication and has been a student of Chanslor's in the past.

"She has always been a real good student, and responsible," said Chanslor. “Whatever level of success she achieves, she will be able to handle it well."

It did not take long for Smith to recognize Underwood's talent.

"I knew the day I met her," said Smith. "She sang in her room all the time."

Smith and Underwood belong to the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority, and Smith often watches the show with her sorority sisters.

"We have a big group of girls [who watch the show]. We are all proud of her," said Smith.