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Construction on Jaffrey roundabouts slated for 2023 start
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JAFFREY — Long-running plans to build two roundabouts in downtown Jaffrey are moving forward, after state officials recently acquired an apartment building slated to be demolished for the work.

The project, which is meant to eliminate downtown congestion, would replace a five-way intersection — where Main Street, Blake Street, Stratton Road, Turnpike Road (Route 124) and Route 202 converge — with a new roundabout. One spoke of that hub would connect with another roundabout via a new bridge over the Contoocook River.

N.H. Department of Transportation officials expect to start construction on the state-funded project, which is slated to cost $8.6 million, in early to mid-2023, according to project manager Tobey Reynolds.

To make way for the new traffic pattern, state officials plan to demolish two nearby buildings: Lab ‘n Lager Food & Spirits at 4 Stratton Road and a six-unit apartment building at 15 River St. (The tavern closed last summer after its owner, Doni Ash, said he had struggled to hire and retain employees due to their concerns about the future of the business.)

The transportation department now owns both sites, after acquiring Lab ‘n Lager in January and the River Street property from owner Rob Cummings in May, according to property records. Cummings, a Jaffrey resident, said he was given $475,000 for his property.

The state’s formal acquisition of 15 River St. — which he knew would be taken for the project — “actually kind of just came out of the blue,” he said.

At least six tenants are still living at the property, which previously housed as many as 11 people, he said Wednesday. Cummings said he doesn’t know when the remaining tenants will need to leave, noting that the state will help them find new housing and compensate them if there’s a rent increase.

Crews will likely demolish the two buildings next summer, according to Reynolds.

A design for the roundabout project is also set to be completed soon, he said, after officials got permission last month from the Executive Council to request a final proposal from the Bedford civil engineering firm VHB.

Jaffrey’s director of planning and economic development, Jo Anne Carr, has said that by eliminating congestion downtown, the project would bring more pedestrians to the area and help local businesses.

But abutters have complained about what they describe as a lack of communication from state and local officials, saying they haven’t been given a voice in the roundabout plans.

Kelly Omu, who lives in a single-family home on River Street that would be flanked by the new bridge, told The Sentinel she worries it would reduce her property’s value. Omu said she doesn’t plan to move from the house, which she’s owned since 2015, but that it would be difficult to find a new place if necessary.

“I don’t really have anywhere I can afford to go right now during the pandemic,” she said. “There’s nothing that’s affordable.”

Carr has said the roundabout project, which resulted from a 2004 traffic study by the town, has received plenty of local input.

Jaffrey’s selectboard asked her to oversee the proposal when she was hired in August 2008, before it had been accepted by the state, she told The Sentinel last summer. Even under state management, Carr said a committee of local business owners, residents and town officials has advised the transportation department.

“We wanted to be sure that our community was well-represented in any design decisions that the engineers came up with,” she said at the time. “DOT was quite welcoming to the town to be sitting at the table while we were sculpting the project and ensuring the local advocacy committee was embedded in the scope.”

Before starting work on the roundabouts, transportation officials also plan to host two or three more public meetings to share with Jaffrey residents a schedule for the project and its potential effect on area traffic and businesses, according to Reynolds.

Officials also want to work with town staff to display information about the project, such as the proposed layout and schedule, in front of the former Lab ‘n Lager, he said.

“That’s something that’s coming,” he said.

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Fitzwilliam woman dies in multi-vehicle crash in Rindge
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RINDGE — A Fitzwilliam woman died in a fiery three-vehicle crash Wednesday morning near Pearly Pond, according to Rindge police.

Kristine Gallant, 68, was pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, which occurred around 9:30 a.m. on Route 119 near Quimby Drive in Rindge, police said in a news release.

Paulette Wright, 57, of Winchester, who had been driving behind Gallant, was brought to Monadnock Community Hospital in Peterborough by private vehicle to be evaluated for neck and chest pain, the release says. The third driver involved, Jonah Ketola, 46, and his juvenile passenger did not report any injuries, according to police.

The initial investigation indicates Gallant, who was traveling east on Route 119 and became trapped inside her vehicle after the crash, may have been suffering from a medical condition when her Chevy Equinox swerved head-on into Ketola’s westbound International dump truck, according to police. The momentum of the Equinox pushed the truck across both lanes, and the Equinox also spun around, colliding with Wright’s Ford F150, the release states. All vehicles came to a stop on the eastbound shoulder of Route 119.

Rindge Police Sgt. Rachel Malynowski said Thursday morning that authorities are working with the N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to determine Gallant’s cause of death.

Witnesses reported seeing the Equinox swerve several times prior to the collision, according to the release, which says the Equinox caught fire. Bystanders extinguished the fire prior to the arrival of first responders.

The road was closed for more than five hours while the wreckage was cleared. The dump truck had leaked diesel on the road in the surrounding area, requiring extensive cleanup, according to police.

Malynowski said crews from the Norwell, Mass.-based company Clean Harbors, will return to the scene Wednesday to continue cleanup efforts. The road will remain open throughout the day, Malynowski said, but “there may be some mild obstruction on occasion.”

Malynowski added that “it’s very unlikely” that any fuel leaked into nearby Pearly Pond, since the crash occurred across the road from the water. The state environmental services department could not be reached for more information Thursday morning.

Both the F150 and Equinox sustained significant damage, to the right rear and front end, whereas the dump truck sustained moderate damage to its front and undercarriage, the release says.

Rindge police and fire departments were assisted by police from Fitzwilliam, Troy and Jaffrey, N.H. State Police, Jaffrey Ambulance, and fire crews from Jaffrey, Fitzwilliam and the Massachusetts towns of Winchendon and Ashby. Also responding were the Rindge Highway Department, the N.H. Department of Transportation and the N.H. Department of Environmental Services.

The crash remains under investigation.

Witnesses with any additional information are asked to contact Rindge police Sgt. Rachel Malynowski at 899-5009, extension 15, or 355-2000.

State releases ‘divisive concepts’ guidance for educators, public employers

Public school educators will not be violating the state’s new “divisive concepts” law if their lessons on slavery, the civil rights movement, and the treatment of marginalized people leave some students feeling “uncomfortable,” according to guidance issued Wednesday evening by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“It is important to note that education related to racism, sexism, and other practices or beliefs that have harmed or continue to harm certain identified groups may make students, faculty, or parents uncomfortable,” the guidance said. “These lessons may encourage or prompt students to reflect upon whether and how racism, sexism, or other practices have or have not affected their lives. Even discussion of historical practices and their lingering impact upon different identified groups can cause this discomfort.”

The state issued separate guidance Wednesday for public employers.

The new law, passed as part of the state budget, prohibits schools from teaching that one group of people is inherently racist, superior, or inferior to people of another group. Teachers across the state have voiced uncertainty and fear about what topics and discussions are off limits.

The three-page Q-and-A guide written for educators clarifies how complaints will be handled and whom the new law covers. But it is unlikely to settle the debate over what can and cannot be taught because it speaks broadly and not specifically.

The law, according to the guidance, does not prohibit the teaching of historical subjects nor the discussion of current events like “the Black Lives Matter movement, efforts to promote equality and inclusion, or other contemporary events that impact certain identified groups.”

And educators can still teach “the historical existence of ideas and subjects identified in the new law,” including discrimination based on race, sex, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or religion.

But the Attorney General’s Office did not say how or whether implicit bias — which is at the center of many cases of discrimination — can be included in discussions.

The law pertains to classroom teaching, extracurricular activities, and the training of staff and volunteers for both K-12 and public colleges and universities. Parents who object to specific coursework or discussions can exempt their students from participating.

A student or parent who believes an educator has violated the new law can file a complaint with the New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights, the Attorney General’s Office, or file a lawsuit in superior court. An educator who violates the law may face disciplinary action by the State Board of Education.

The guidance does not say how claims will be investigated.

“We are happy to be able to release this much-anticipated guidance,” Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said Wednesday. “Our goal is to provide clarity around the law and (we) will continue to work with districts to help support them in the implementation.”

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Though fatal ODs aren’t spiking, drug use still widespread in Granite State
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The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint a familiar, grim picture — fatal overdoses are skyrocketing again.

However, while the federal data show drug deaths spiking nearly 30 percent nationally in 2020, New Hampshire’s remained steady, with state statistics so far confirming only one more of these deaths than in 2019.

Good news, right? Well, not exactly, local treatment providers say.

“What’s happening is we are saving people’s lives over and over again with nalaxone, but they are still overdosing,” said Sam Lake, executive director of the Keene Serenity Center, using the generic name for Narcan. “We are just catching them before they become [dead on arrival].”

Nationally, 2020 marked the highest single-year increase in drug deaths, according to CDC data, with more than 93,000 people believed to have died of overdoses and almost every state seeing a rise. Vermont was among them, with a 39 percent increase reported between 2019 and 2020, from 142 deaths to 198, according to data provided by the state’s health department.

The national spike has been attributed to a few factors, such as the isolation and reduced treatment options available during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing prominence of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and often cut into other drugs.

The federal figures show New Hampshire as one of only two states that saw a decrease in drug deaths last year, but more updated numbers from the office of New Hampshire’s chief medical examiner chart a slight uptick.

In the Granite State — among the hardest hit amid the national opioid epidemic — the number of fatal overdoses peaked in 2017, and then dropped two years in a row in 2018 and 2019, with 471 and 415 confirmed drug deaths, respectively.

A total of 416 fatal overdoses had been confirmed for 2020 as of the latest state data, with the cause of another two deaths pending toxicology testing.

A key reason for drug deaths staying nearly level in 2020, local treatment providers say, is the expanded availability of naloxone throughout New Hampshire in recent years.

The life-saving medication temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. The effort to increase access to naloxone in New Hampshire started in 2019, with a $45.8 million, two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The medication is available for free at Doorway facilities — nine referral hubs statewide, including at Railroad Square in Keene, for substance-use treatment and other supports — some local recovery centers or through a doctor’s prescription, The Doorways’ website says.

“We have community partners coming to us every single week that are just getting this life-saving medicine out to the people that need it,” said Nelson Hayden, executive director of The Doorway in Keene.

And though New Hampshire lacks in certain treatment facilities — such as detox and sober-living centers — other programs, like the Doorways and needle-exchange programs, are also likely part of why the state’s drug deaths aren’t higher, according to providers.

Still, fewer fatal overdoses doesn’t mean there’s less drug use in the state, providers say.

Lake said he’s seeing an increase in methamphetamine use, both alone and laced with fentanyl. Hayden echoed this, saying it’s been especially prevalent the past few months.

Sixteen of New Hampshire’s confirmed drug deaths so far in 2021 have involved meth, according to the state data. Last year, 59 deaths involved the stimulant drug — the highest yearly number in state data dating back to 2012.

And overall, drug abuse remains steady.

Just among the Keene Serenity Center’s clients — Cheshire County residents, the majority of them from Keene — Lake said naloxone has been used to counteract an average of 40 overdoses per month this year. “Forty per month, that’s 480 per year, and that’s only our participants at Keene Serenity Center,” he said.

But, how to make drug deaths and substance abuse decline across the state is the million-dollar question. Until it’s answered, providers say there’s still work to be done.

“New Hampshire looks good when compared to the rest of the country, but it’s still scary,” Lake said. “We better not rest on our laurels.”

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Cheshire County residents can visit The Doorway at 24 Railroad St. in Keene Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Support is also available through the state’s 24/7 hotline at 211.Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.