Diver inspects 3 Franklin County bridges

A diver from Stantec, an engineering services company, descends into the Scioto River to inspect Fishinger bridge.

It’s not typical to spot a diver, in flippers and full helmet, plunging into the Scioto River.

But on Thursday, some amused kayakers and joggers on a nearby bike trail caught sight of a commercially licensed diver swimming below the surface to inspect the Fishinger Road bridge on the Northwest Side.

Federal law requires bridges to be inspected every two years, but Ohio requires inspections annually. Underwater inspection is required every five years. Franklin County paid $21,000 to Stantec, an engineering company based in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring in a diving crew.

Of the 357 bridges the county owns, only three require a diver for underwater inspection, said Ed Herrick, the county’s bridge design engineer. Most others can be done by wading into shallow water.

Steve Reuschle, a Stantec diving service manager and engineer, and his team was searching for any cause for alarm: a crack, logjams and general soundness of the concrete pillars supporting bridges on Hayden Run, Fishinger and Smothers roads.

“You can’t see this stuff above the water,” he said. “That’s why we have to send someone down there to physically touch and move things and pound on the concrete to see how sound it is.”

Although the diver is not an engineer, he has a camera attached to his helmet, providing Reuschle with real-time communication and a video feed from the boat.

Generally, Reuschle said, routine inspections do not find a lot of problems in areas such as Columbus where the water current isn’t strong. Because the team is inspecting only the three bridges, it plans to finish Friday after two days, spending one to four hours at each bridge.

Bridges are rated on a scale of zero to nine, Herrick said: Nine is pristine condition and built within a year, and zero meaning failed condition. Franklin County bridges average a seven. The lowest bridge rating in the county is a four, with upgrades planned in the next year.

Franklin County has 10 major bridge-repair projects — which will include replacement or rehabilitation — planned for 2018-2019.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 12, 2018.


School districts should adopt uniform crowdfunding policies, auditor says

Many Ohio teachers reach into their own pockets to buy an average of $600 in school supplies a year. To help alleviate those expenses, some have turned to collecting donations online through crowdfunding websites.

While that fundraising option has many benefits, such as engaging the community and allowing contributors to pay for school supplies at no cost to the district, there also are many risks. According to a report released Wednesday by state Auditor Dave Yost, more than half of Ohio school districts do not have specific policies on crowdfunding.

Dozens of online crowdfunding sites exist, some specific to teachers and classroom needs. One site — DonorsChoose — has raised $621 million for 600,000 classroom projects. There are currently more than 900 initiatives for Ohio classrooms on that site alone.

“The citizens can take it upon themselves to crowdfund for a specific cause the institution may not have the money for and get the resources,” Yost said. “But like a lot of things, the benefit of the thing is also the danger of the thing.”

In the report, Yost recommended that school boards create policy regulating crowdfunding by teachers and others in the district to avoid potential legal issues.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) bar disclosure of personal information about students younger than 18 without parental consent. If those regulations are not followed, districts risk the loss of federal funding. Some districts allow the use of student photos in crowdfunding efforts, and more than half said their policies don’t address the issue.

Yost also warns about financial liability. Some donation sites will send specific products to the school with the money raised or give the funds directly to the district. Others give the lump sum to teachers, which raises many legal questions and potential violations of the Ohio Revised Code, because the district treasurer is required to be in charge of all school funds. If money being requested by a public entity isn’t accounted for, the treasurer would be held legally accountable.

The auditor recommends that school administrators review and approve all crowdfunding policies, designate which sites can be used, require the money be used for its stated purpose and mandate that donations will not be accepted without school board approval.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 11, 2018.

Demonstrators protest immigration policies in downtown Columbus

A woman dangled more than 30 feet above fellow protesters along Front Street in downtown Columbus, attached by a harness to a crudely constructed tripod. At the base sat a man, whose arms were duct-taped around the wooden poles that supported the woman.

They were among 12 people arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest Monday at a “solidarity rally” held to call for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency has come under heavy public criticism over the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children at the border, and delays in meeting a court order to reunite them.

The two protesters with the tripod were determined not to leave until local officials took action to defy ICE. Police closed Front Street between West Broad and Gay streets during the demonstration of about 100 protesters and onlookers.

The woman, who hung from the structure that displayed a sign that said “ICE ruins lives here,” was suspended for about an hour before the Columbus Fire Division arrived. Several firefighters were raised on a ladder truck to meet the woman on her level. They removed her from her harness and brought her down to the street to be arrested at around 10:30 a.m.

Officers then detached the man from the base of the structure and carried him by his arms and feet into a police vehicle. Shortly after, officers disassembled the tripod and worked to safely bring down the three-story-tall structure.

While they used a chainsaw to break down the wood, protesters continued to chant, bang drums and wave their signs from the sidewalks. Police cleared the road and traffic was flowing on Front Street by 11:15 a.m.

Protesters moved the rally to the Broad Street entrance of the LeVeque tower. Police said several protesters entered ICE offices in the tower prior to the floor being shut down. Five people in the office were arrested for trespassing: one from Millfield in Athens County; two from California and two from Florida. Names of others arrested have not yet been released.

Organizers demanded local authorities end all aid to ICE and stop deportations in Ohio. Several other rallies have been held this month in Columbus to protest ICE and the separation of families at the Mexican border.

“No one is helping us or listening,” organizer Ruben Herrera said of local and state officials. “We must take these radical actions to be heard.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 9, 2018.

Columbus Police Academy graduates more diverse class

New Columbus Police Officer Craig Gibson shakes Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s hand at the graduation ceremony.

A slightly more diverse class of police officers received badges Friday and soon will be hitting the streets of Columbus and other central Ohio communities.

Of the 52 recruits who began training at the Columbus Police Academy in December, 45 of them stood Friday before family and friends to take their oath, marking an end to 29 weeks of intensive training.

One of the top priorities of the Columbus Division of Police is diversity among the police force, said Chief Kim Jacobs. The 129th recruit class — with the highest academic average of any class in Police Division history — is made up of more than 30 percent minority officers, meaning nonwhite or female officers.

That percentage is higher than the current makeup of the Columbus Police Division, which Jacobs said is between 20 and 25 percent minority.

“We are always looking to have a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “The more we look like our community, the better we can understand and protect those people.”

Not only is the group more diverse in race and gender, but also in experience and skill sets. Among the recruits are a former pastor, an Ohio State University football player, military personnel and officers from other states.

Anthony Hamilton, a 27-year-old from Dublin, was thrilled to be among the graduating recruits. As his family left the auditorium of the police academy on the West Side, they swept him up in a tight embrace.

“It’s a great day,” said Hamilton, who will serve as an officer at Ohio State University. “I’ve always had a natural instinct to help others and be a pillar in the community, and I’m in a great position to bridge the gap between officers and people.”

Other graduates included former Ohio State football player C.J. Barnett. And there’s Jason Sekinger, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall.

The graduates will undergo 15 weeks of field training, working with experienced officers, starting Sunday. Thirty-two of the new officers will join the Columbus Division of Police; the other 13 will become members of police forces in Gahanna, New Albany, Grove City, Westerville, Hilliard and at Ohio State.

“While others are running away from chaos, danger and crime, our officers are running toward it,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “They’re trained by the best to be the best.”

“We came here to learn,” said new Columbus police Officer Sarvone Johnson, 44, in an address to the crowd. “Now we are leaving to serve.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 6, 2018.

National veterans program expands with Newark location

NEWARK — Matthew Dowling used to cover his face with dark sunglasses and a beard, the epitome of what he called a “big, bad veteran.”

He didn’t want people to look at him. He was in his 30s, with a wife and two kids. But despite the 17 medications he was on, he was nearing a decision that too many veterans consider: suicide.

Two years later, the 37-year-old Newark resident sits and laughs among the people who saved his life. And as he watches his son fishing on the lake, he says he can’t believe he ever thought he was beyond help.

According to a study released in June by the Department of Veterans Affairs, 20 veterans choose suicide every day.

Save a Warrior, a nonprofit organization aimed at saving the lives of veterans and first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, wants to change that. The group runs “war-detox” programs that have saved hundreds of lives, it says. Now it’s planting roots at a new facility in Licking County.

The retreat center, which previously served as a horse farm and vacation home, is the first and only facility that the organization owns. The program also operates in Malibu, California, but Save a Warrior rents that space.

The new center in Newark, called “Warrior Village,” provides many new opportunities in Ohio, which has the sixth-largest veteran population in the United States, said Adam Carr, executive director.

“It’s a very patriotic and philanthropic state,” Carr, who went through the program himself before joining the staff, said of Ohio. “People here really support veterans, which is important.”

In the past six years, 607 people have gone through the five-day program in California, led by people who have gone through the program themselves. Save a Warrior has a heavy focus on mindfulness, meditation and learning to cope with trauma and depression, with support from other veterans.

Dowling said daily meditation was his big takeaway from the program and said it has helped him cope with stress in everyday life.

“Every day of my life gets better. I don’t want that to sound generic, but it truly does,” Dowling said. “I thought I was alone. It changed my whole world, and I couldn’t be more thankful for it.”

Anyone who feels they are in need of help can sign up on Save a Warrior’s website and a staff member will reach out within 48 hours to discuss aligning schedules with the program. There are about 300 people on the waiting list, but for many, Save a Warrior CEO Keith Ritz said, waiting isn’t an option.

Between Malibu and the new program in Newark, the organization will be able to accommodate nearly the same number of people in 18 months as it had in the past six years combined. The first Save a Warrior program in Newark will begin at the end of August and there will be five programs in the fall. For 2019, 14 are planned, including an all-women’s program.

The program, which costs about $3,500 per person, is funded by donors and free to those who go through the application process. Transportation is not included.

Central Ohio is the perfect location for the new facility, Carr said, because a majority of the country can reach Newark in a day’s drive.

The organization allotted a $1.5 million budget for the space and renovations in Newark. It purchased the 47-acre plot of land in December 2017, which includes a pond and several furnished buildings, for $787,000. The group plans to build a stone labyrinth, to be used for self-reflection, and a ropes course that allows for team building. The organization also will be working with PBJ Connections, an equine-therapy center in Pataskala, on the war-detox programs.

According to surveys collected prior to and following the program, symptoms of depression and PTSD decreased for participants. One of the people helped by Save a Warrior was Patrick Atkinson, who now works with development and finance for the organization.

His wife, Nichelle Atkinson, was pregnant with twins when Patrick left to complete the program in Malibu. She said he returned much happier with a renewed sense of life.

“He came back a whole new person,” said Nichelle Atkinson, who now serves as the director of development. “It was perfect timing. Bringing two new kids into the world, I needed a whole person.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 5, 2018.

Fireworks faithful stand their ground Downtown despite heat, T-storms threat

Braving the heat and ominous skies that unleashed heavy downpours on various other parts of the city and suburbs, hundreds of thousands of people came to Downtown Columbus Tuesday night to celebrate Red, White and Boom’s festivities and watch fireworks explode over the city skyline.

In the hours before the launch of the fireworks display at 10 p.m. from Genoa Park, Mother Nature put on a display of her own. Pop-up thunderstorms that began south of Columbus passed just to the south, east and north of Downtown with booming thunder, strobe-like lightning and dark, ominous clouds.

“I’m sticking it out,” Dave Williams, 38 of Reynoldsburg said of the threatening skies over Downtown. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. A little rain isn’t going to stop us. It’s good to see the city come together and enjoy a big event like this.”

Some people settled in early along the Scioto River and merely hunkered down as the afternoon temperatures climbed into the 90s and later as thunderstorms threatened. Michelle Beck, 35, and her family ventured down from Cleveland and set up a tent around noon: a 10-hour wait for the biggest fireworks display in the state. She’s been attending the event since she was a child and said she knew the procedure from experience. One year, she said, they came as early as 6 a.m. to get the best seat possible.

“I love the fireworks,” said Eddie, Beck’s 8-year-old son. “The patterns and colors are cool, and it’s fun to sit here and watch them.”

Others milled through the vendors lining Civic Center Drive, taking in the smells of sunscreen and fried food, before staking their claim to a spot on Front Street to watch the hour-long parade, which stepped off from the Main Street bridge at 5:30 p.m.

“The fireworks are great, but I always love the parade the best,” said Anna Jimenez, a 24-year-old West Side resident, while her children scattered to collect candy tossed from parade participants.

Marching bands, political candidates and even snakes handled by Columbus Zoo staff made their way through the parade route, but the veterans and active-duty police and fire departments elicited the loudest cheers from the crowd.

“Today is all about the veterans,” said Nick Kelley, 40, of Gahanna.

Gurpreet Kaur marched alongside her group, the American Sikhs, for the second year.

“We are American citizens and part of this community,” said Kaur, a 55-year-old Lancaster resident. “We may look different, but we love to celebrate the birth of our nation just like everybody else. That’s what’s great about this country.”

The sun baked the asphalt late Tuesday afternoon as the temperature crept into the low 90s, but the humidity sent the heat index spiraling. Much of central Ohio was under an excessive heat warning with a heat index between 100 and 107 degrees.

The Columbus Division of Police tweeted that crowds appeared to be smaller this year because of the heat. An infant was treated for heat exhaustion Downtown Tuesday afternoon, police said.

The threat from thunderstorms also appeared to spook some people away. Heavy rain and lightning delayed the Crew SC home soccer game as skies Downtown went from bright to nearly nighttime due to dark clouds. Players returned to the field about 9:20 p.m.

The fireworks faithful nevertheless remained in place Downtown.

“This is such a great holiday,” said Doreather Baskin, 53, of the Northeast Side. “It’s such a fun tradition to hang out with family, enjoy the fireworks and celebrate our country.”

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on July 3, 2018.

Dublin camp teaches service, conservation

Just because school’s out for the summer doesn’t mean kids can’t still learn new things.

More than 320 children gathered Monday in Coffman Park for Dublin’s first-ever Youth Service Day.

The kids, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, rotated among eight stations over five hours. Activities were geared toward conservation and service, such as making suet blocks with seeds for native birds, testing water quality in the pond and watching a wood-chipper demonstration.

The learn-and-serve day grew out of Global Youth Service Day in April. Shannon Maurer, the city’s volunteer coordinator, said organizers wanted to engage as many children as they could, so she began planning a day in the summer when a lot of kids would be participating in the recreation center summer camps. Kids from those summer camps participated in the service day.

“This helps them feel like they’re a part of something,” said Hallie Eichenberger, a camp counselor. “They’re understanding that they can and do make an impact in the world.”

With a budget of about $1,000, Maurer said, the project wouldn’t have been possible without the many volunteers running the event. Groups including the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, which ran a session on the importance of recycling, participated as part of their community outreach programs.

“I learned a lot about recycling and compost,” said Payton, an 8-year-old camper. “If you’re not being nice and recycling, it’s bad because you’re hurting Mother Nature and killing animals’ homes.”

Tim Fleischer, a city horticulturist, ran a session in which kids interacted with a variety of plant species, such as smelling lavender and touching ginkgo leaves. He said activities like that allow kids to experience and appreciate nature in a new way.

“Some of the plants smell good,” 9-year-old Sohan said. “It’s fun playing with them and seeing nature.”

Maurer said she plans to hold the event in the coming years based on Monday’s success.

“It’s important for kids — and everyone, really — to learn how to coexist and safely interact with wildlife and nature,” she said.



Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on June 25, 2018.