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Fall Mountain JROTC team to compete in national championship
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LANGDON — Serena Rathke was an 8th-grader at Vilas Middle School in Alstead when several cadets from the Fall Mountain Regional High School JROTC came and presented to her class.

“I liked that the program was basically [about] teamwork,” said Rathke, now a junior at Fall Mountain in Langdon. “It works on your teamwork and leadership. It’s basically one big family.”

And now Rathke, who joined JROTC her freshman year and has risen to the rank of cadet major, will lead a team of fellow cadets to the national championship competition in the U.S. Army JROTC Leadership Bowl next month in Washington, D.C. This marks the first time the Fall Mountain team has gone this far since its inception in 1996, according to Maj. William Maynard, the program’s senior instructor.

The group of four cadets, chosen from Fall Mountain’s JROTC program of roughly 80 students, advanced through two rounds of competition earlier this year to reach the top 2 percent of teams in the country in a quiz-bowl-style contest that tests students on their knowledge of current events and leadership values and skills.

“It’s crazy. We went from 1,700 schools to the top 40,” said Rathke, an Alstead resident who serves as battalion commander for Fall Mountain’s JROTC. “And we’re a little school in New Hampshire who made it. There’s less than 500 kids in our school, and we made it all the way up there.”

The other members of the Fall Mountain team are Cadet Capt. Alexandra Booth of Alstead, Cadet 1st Lt. Harrison Salisbury of Keene and Cadet Command Sgt. Maj. Jesse Fisk of Langdon. Fisk and Booth are unable to attend the national championship, set for July 19 through 23 on the campus of the Catholic University of America, so Cadet 2nd Lt. Connor Rheaume of Charlestown and Cadet 2nd Lt. Grace St. Pierre of Acworth will take their place.

U.S. Army JROTC, or Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps — a national leadership development program for high school students — will cover the cost of the trip, Maynard said. Along with a day-and-a-half of competition, students will get time to explore the monuments, memorials and museums of the nation’s capital, and visit Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony. Cadets from some of the teams competing in the championship will be chosen to participate in the ceremony, Maynard said.

“That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in a wreath-laying ceremony,” he said. “It’s very cool. I served in the Army a long time. I knew what it means, so it’s a great opportunity for cadets to take part in something that’s such a big part of our country’s history.”

Maynard, a 54-year-old Manchester resident, retired from the U.S. Army in 2013 after a 28-year career. He is in his fifth year leading the JROTC program at Fall Mountain, which he said is tied to career and technical education courses. Additionally, the program offers various co-curricular opportunities like the leadership bowl and marksmanship and drill teams.

Salisbury, a junior at Keene High School who participates in Fall Mountain’s JROTC through the Cheshire Career Center, said his overall experience in the program has helped him become a better student, and a more confident person.

“Before, I was very meek,” he said. “I didn’t really want to go into public spaces and talk to cashiers about purchasing something. And in class, I couldn’t really join groups. I was very meek and couldn’t talk, couldn’t express myself. But JROTC has made me really confident, walking into public spaces, talking to people, and getting my point across, especially when it’s important.”

And reaching the national championship in the leadership bowl is further evidence of this personal growth, Salisbury added.

“Going to nationals all by itself is really life-changing to me because I’ve spent the majority of my life in Keene,” he said. “And being able to go to nationals means I’ve really buckled down and focused on my goal, which is not just going to [JROTC Leadership and Academic Bowl], but being an overall really dedicated student.”

The competition will be Rheaume’s first trip to Washington, and he said he is especially excited for the wreath-laying at Arlington. And the championship event itself, he said, will provide a chance to enhance his leadership skills.

“I believe that this is a pretty good opportunity to travel where I’ve never been and to learn and expand my knowledge outside of normal school subjects,” Rheaume, a sophomore at Fall Mountain, said. “... This is the farthest I’ve been with any team, considering we’ve made it out of our local area.”

Maynard added that many of the questions in the competition revolve around scenarios in which cadets would need to make a management decision, such as when a conflict arises between other cadets.

“It’s exciting, and it’s a different kind of competition that isn’t available [in other programs],” Maynard said.

The team is already busy preparing for the national championship, studying individually and as a group. They will know the outcome of the contest by the time they return from D.C. Regardless of what happens there, though, St. Pierre, a Fall Mountain sophomore, said the entire JROTC experience presents a valuable opportunity for personal growth.

“Leadership is an excellent skill that not enough people have, and it’s applicable to every situation,” she said. “So, no matter what we decide to do after high school and beyond, these skills will be very helpful to us.”

‘Divisive concepts’ legislation
Some worry ‘divisive concepts’ bill could affect college Title IX funding

The anti-discrimination training was nearly over, but one participant was not satisfied. As the group debriefed, he made it known.

“‘I hate coming to these things because you always make me feel guilty for being male and being white’,” the middle-aged academic told Dottie Morris, one of the co-facilitators of the training.

Morris, the associate vice president for institutional diversity and equity at Keene State College, hadn’t mentioned a specific race during the training at all; the session was focused on life experiences. But she decided to dive deeper.

“In that moment I engaged with him and said, ‘OK, help me understand what we did’,” she recalled in an interview, “because I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I want to do, and I want to change.”

The man — who was not a faculty member at Keene State — continued: The training seemed designed to make him feel bad. Morris explored further. Finally, they reached a breakthrough.

“We got to a point where he said, and this was his own words: ‘I guess I was so primed to feel guilty that anything you did would have made me feel guilty’,” she said.

It was a misunderstanding that could have been an argument. But Morris helped turn it into a lesson. “If that conversation wouldn’t have taken place, if he didn’t feel safe enough to speak up, he would have left there feeling angry and guilty,” she said. “But that didn’t happen.”

The experience is why Morris believes in open, empathetic conversations when she carries out her training programs. Now, Morris worries a proposed piece of legislation could threaten that open dialogue — and potentially interfere with federal funding.

For months, debate over the effects of the “divisive concepts” bill has centered on elementary and secondary schools.

The bill, an amended version of which was added to the Senate budget bill that passed Thursday, would prevent public agencies, schools and universities from teaching that some protected classes like race or gender are privileged or biased against another — with exceptions.

But some public college officials and government officials worry the legislation could affect federally mandated trainings toward sexual assault protections and put colleges into a squeeze between federal requirements and state requirements.

“That’s why I think I’m so nervous about this particular bill,” Morris said, “because then it reduces the potential for that type of free exchange of ideas, even if they are differences of opinion or divisive or whatever. That’s part of what they’re supposed to do. They help young people navigate that.”

Changing those training programs to meet the state law could create complications with schools’ ability to receive federal Title IX funding, some critics say.

“It does raise some interesting questions,” said Sean Locke, assistant attorney general at the N.H. Department of Justice, speaking at a state diversity council on which he and Morris are members, “because certainly those trainings, they may be required by federal regulation or informal record or informal rules or policies of the U.S. Department of Education, and that could raise Supremacy Clause issues.”

Since 1972, Title IX of the federal civil rights law has mandated that colleges and universities that receive federal funding must take steps to eliminate sex-based discrimination on campus. Over 50 years, the law has been modified and expanded, growing the responsibility for college administrators.

In 2013, Congress amended the law to address sexual assault on campus, imposing new requirements for colleges to report sexual assaults and adopt disciplinary procedures for those accused of assault.

The law, the Campus SaVE Act, included a mandate that colleges implement annual training programs for students to combat assault.

Years later, many colleges have built up those programs. Keene State College, for one, partners with “No Zebras, No Excuses,” a program supported by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators that creates an immersive theater experience for freshmen explaining the limits of consent.

To Morris, who has helped guide the new programs, the lessons and the discussions that ensue have moved the needle on campus toward awareness and understanding.

“I think people feel a lot safer, including people who could potentially be ‘accused’ because now they understand” where the line is, she said.

But the proposed divisive concepts law could complicate how those trainings are carried out, she worries.

Locke, who heads the N.H. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Unit, agreed that the new state law could force some colleges and universities to rethink their training programs.

“Schools may be put in a position where they kind of have to thread a very fine needle of complying with Title IX requirements but being very limited in how they might be able to do that by this type of a statutory scheme,” Locke said of the state law.

“Or they might be concerned and feel unable to hire a particular trainer or go through a particular training, because they may be afraid of running afoul of these provisions. It could create concerns of that nature.”

Defenders of the law have noted in the past that the bill crafts exceptions for diversity and inclusion training programs in schools and workplaces, and allows educators to talk about implicit bias as a concept — if not an absolute reality.

But exactly how the new law would work with respect to Title IX trainings, and sexual assault prevention, has not been directly addressed. Sen. Jeb Bradley, the Senate minority leader who helped author the latest amendment to the bill, was not available for an interview Monday, a Senate spokeswoman said.

From Morris’ experience, having the conversations are key to getting to a common-ground understanding of what constitutes abuse, discrimination, or assault — and how to stop it.

“It’s just so wonderful when everyone has some clarity around what needs to be done, what they can do and what they can’t do,” she said. “If you don’t have anything in place where people can have open conversations, that’s where you have a lot of secrets and a lot of harmful behavior.”

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Georgia firm buys Koffee Kup Bakery, has 'no immediate plans to reopen'
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BRATTLEBORO — In an unexpected move, the Georgia-based company Flowers Foods has purchased Koffee Kup Bakery and its assets, which include Vermont Bread Co. in Brattleboro.

Flowers Foods — the parent company of Nature’s Own, Wonder and Dave’s Killer Bread, among other bakery brands — announced in a news release Monday that it had acquired Koffee Kup, which closed abruptly in April. The announcement came less than two weeks after the owners of a Canadian commercial bakery said they planned to buy and restart Koffee Kup under the name of a new company.

Nearly 250 people were laid off in Vermont due to the Vermont-based bakery’s closure, including 91 at the Vermont Bread Co. plant on Cotton Mill Hill in Brattleboro. Workers at the Koffee Kup plant in North Grosvenordale, Conn., also lost their jobs.

In the news release Monday, Flowers Foods President and CEO Ryals McMullian said his company has “no immediate plans to reopen the bakeries” but that it “will be assessing how they may fit our strategic network optimization efforts in the future.”

“This acquisition brings brands and production capacity in the Northeast, a key growth market for our company,” he said.

Flowers Foods reported $4.4 billion in sales revenue last year, according to the release. The company did not report terms of the Koffee Kup purchase, and a Flowers Foods spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for that information.

Karen Crane, a spokeswoman for KeyBank, which holds debt with Koffee Kup, said those terms were arranged by Flowers Foods and Ronald Teplitsky, a New York business adviser who was tapped in May to manage Koffee Kup’s financial assets. Crane declined to share details of the sale, saying she is unable to discuss clients’ financial information.

Justin Heller, an attorney for Teplitsky, did not immediately respond to a request for more information Monday evening.

At a remote hearing that day in the Vermont Superior Court’s Chittenden County branch, however, Heller said proceeds from the sale will be used to pay former Koffee Kup workers for their unused time off, according to reporting by The Brattleboro Reformer.

That compensation — nearly $800,000 — was cut from workers’ final paychecks due to a dispute between Teplitsky and the investment firm American Industrial Acquisition Corp. (AIAC), which closed Koffee Kup shortly after acquiring the bakery, over who was responsible for paying it.

The dispute had become the recent focus of a lawsuit KeyBank filed April 30 in which it claims Koffee Kup had not repaid more than $7 million in loans from the bank. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan got involved in the case in late May, arguing in a legal brief that Teplitsky and KeyBank must pay Koffee Kup workers’ unused time off.

Shortly thereafter, Blair and Rosalyn Hyslop — who own Mrs. Dunster’s Bakery in New Brunswick, Canada — announced plans to acquire Koffee Kup and Vermont Bread Co. The couple intended to hire about 180 people over two years between the two brands, Blair Hyslop told The Sentinel on May 27.

Blair Hyslop said Tuesday morning that the news of the sale to Flowers Foods came as a “saddening” surprise to him.

“For us, this came completely out of left field,” he said. “We’re shocked and dismayed. We were expecting to sign agreements yesterday and start production today.”

In the court hearing Monday, however, Heller said Flowers Foods’ offer for Koffee Kup exceeded those from the Hyslops and also from East Baking Co. in Holyoke, Mass., according to reporting by The Brattleboro Reformer. “By comparison, the other offers of Mrs. Dunster’s and East Baking were not sufficient to pay even KeyBank in full,” he said.

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Will NH reach herd immunity for COVID-19? It's hard to say

Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials and doctors alike have held up “herd immunity” as a goal for overcoming the crisis.

This happens when a large portion of a community is immune to a disease — typically through vaccination — making further spread unlikely. So with nearly half of New Hampshire residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and cases consistently dropping, when will we hit that sweet spot?

According to health experts, it’s hard to say.

“There’s no objective definition of herd immunity, and it’s more of a continuous function, as we say, rather than a threshold. It’s not like a light switch; it’s more like a dimmer,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

The percentage of the population that needs to be immune to achieve herd immunity varies by disease and how contagious it is.

For example, measles spreads so easily that an estimated 95 percent of the population must be vaccinated to attain herd immunity, according to the World Health Organization. The remaining 5 percent are then also protected because the virus will no longer be able to spread.

Most estimates for COVID-19 set that number at between 70 and 80 percent immunized. But with vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of new variants and delayed vaccine eligibility for children, many health experts say it’s unclear whether herd immunity will ever be achieved for COVID-19.

“The question is, ‘What’s the goal?’ Well, if we want to get down to really low levels of virus transmission and really low levels of cases so that we can say, ‘Yes, we’ve got this under control,’ then we do need to get up to around 80 percent of people vaccinated,” Schaffner said.

Dr. Michael Lindberg, who served as chief medical officer at Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough before retiring in April, said it’s also crucial to know how many people in New Hampshire and beyond have already contracted the virus.

“The number we don’t know is what part of the population had the virus and was infected and didn’t know,” he said. If, for example, “20 percent of the population got infected but didn’t know it, that could bump us to that 70 percent,” he continued. “But I don’t think we are there yet.”

Herd immunity is not only beneficial for keeping transmission low, Lindberg added, but also to prevent more COVID-19 mutations from developing.

“Over time, if it spreads, we run the risk of developing more variants … Every time the virus jumps to another person, that chance for a mutation occurs, and we don’t want to see that,” he said.

Some variants of COVID-19 are thought to be more contagious, which could increase the risk of infections, hospitalizations and deaths. Additionally, new variants could be resistant to vaccination.

Dr. Daniel Perli, the Peterborough hospital’s current chief medical officer, said the recent relaxation of safety protocols — like allowing vaccinated people to take off their face masks inside — is reasonable, especially with the current case numbers.

But, he said, whether or not we’ll achieve herd immunity for COVID-19 is “complex.”

“It’s unclear, but to be honest it seems less likely that we would,” he said. “We still don’t know enough about herd immunity with COVID and if it’s achievable or not, and ... we may never achieve enough immunity levels in the community to [get] rid of the virus completely.”

Regardless, he and Lindberg stressed the importance of people getting vaccinated, which will still lower the virus’ transmission.

“We don’t want the public to feel like they shouldn’t continue getting vaccinated because we aren’t going to hit this magic herd-immunity number, because the idea is to prevent transmissibility, protect the vulnerable and to reduce hospitalizations and mortality,” he said. “That’s the idea we should focus on.”