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Exec. Council approves contract for school mentor program in Keene, 3 other areas

HOOKSETT — The N.H. Executive Council authorized a $936,000 contract on Tuesday for a vendor to provide a program in Keene, Manchester, Groveton and Berlin to help students who are disengaged, chronically absent or academically at risk.

School superintendents in these areas said they could use this help, which will come via a contract with Salt Lake City-based Graduation Alliance Inc., N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut told the council at a meeting in the Hooksett Public Library.

He said students get into trouble when they become isolated from their peer groups.

“This is a program that helps to identify students who are struggling in that instructional environment, and they won’t get isolated, they will be mentored,” he said.

After the meeting, Edelblut elaborated.

Through the Engage Attendance Recovery Program, high school and middle school students identified via a risk assessment will be assigned a mentor, who will check in with them by phone call or text on a regular basis.

“They would call them and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Did you do your homework? Are you making sure you’re showing up for school? Are you all prepared?’ ” Edelblut said.

“It’s just a little bit of just mentoring around that student to make sure they can have success, the goal being to get them to graduation — keep them engaged, keep them from getting isolated.”

Studies show a good support network can increase a student’s success in a learning environment, and mentorship could be one facet of that network, and can also reduce absenteeism, he said.

“We’re just trying to make sure all students feel supported,” Edelblut said.

Following the funding approval Tuesday, N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay said Wednesday morning that it’s too early to say exactly how the Keene School District will roll out this program, but added that he views it as a positive addition to local schools.

“It’s got a lot of value, I would say, to provide those supports, someone that a young person can engage with, can confide in,” Malay said. “Sometimes students have a hard time connecting with an adult, so if this can fill that void with students, I believe it would help them stay on track and move toward that goal of high school graduation in a safe, positive, productive way.”

Malay added that SAU 29 will share more details on the program once the Keene district has a chance to develop a plan for implementing it.

School officials, educators and parents across New Hampshire have expressed concern about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on student absenteeism, truancy and academic performance.

New Hampshire’s School Safety Data Collection report, which is compiled by the state with information provided by school districts, showed 28,774 students habitually truant statewide in the 2020-21 school year, or 17 percent, compared to 11 percent the previous year. Habitually truant is defined as having an unexcused absence of at least half a day on 10 or more occasions.

Numbers from the 2021-22 school year are not yet available.

At Keene High, the report showed 639 students were habitually truant in 2020-21, or 47 percent. Sixteen students fell into this category in the 2019-20 school year, or 1 percent. (This past March, Brian Campbell, assistant superintendent at SAU 29, questioned whether some of the unexcused absences arose from students logging in late during remote instruction.)

Several other high schools in New Hampshire also reported high numbers of habitually truant students last year, including 667 out of 1,363 students at Manchester Memorial High School.

A number of behavioral issues were reported at Keene High this past year, including fighting, vandalism and disrespectfulness. The problems led to protests and a community meeting.

“Robb [Malay, superintendent of SAU 29] has tried to work on a lot of different programming and as you know he’s been working through some issues in his community with some students and families and stuff, so it made sense for me to reach out to him to get his perspective on this program,” Edelblut said.

He and officials in the three other districts covered by the contract all expressed an interest in the program. Money for the contract, which extends through the 2024 fiscal year, will come from federal COVID-19 relief funds under the American Rescue Plan.

Edelblut said the size of the Keene School District also makes it a good candidate for the program.

Keene High is the largest high school in southwestern New Hampshire with an enrollment of about 1,400 students from Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson, Stoddard, Sullivan, Surry, Westmoreland and Winchester.

Assessment tests showed 33 percent of students at the high school were proficient in math in 2021, compared to 41 percent in 2019. District-wide, 26 percent were proficient, compared to 42 percent two years ago. Statewide, 38 percent were proficient, down from 48 percent two years earlier.

Gary Westfall

Keene resident Gary Westfall spotted this coyote on Jordan Road in May.

Gary Westfall

Keene resident Gary Westfall spotted this coyote on Jordan Road in May.

Concord woman living in car able to save her purse and DVD in fire

CONCORD — When Mary Rose Deak sat in her car at night, she would stare up at the sky and let her imagination go.

“You can look out at the stars and sometimes you can pretend you’re in ISS,” she said. “You’re in this little space, kinda how it must be like to be in spaceships.”

Out of her car, she also learned trigonometry and calculus. With binders of work exploring vectors and derivatives, some of her favorite equations, Deak took online courses and devoured worksheets and college-level material.

For the past decade, Deak’s car has served as her home. Her life was packed into the trunk and backseat, her front seat functioning as a classroom, kitchen and bedroom.

Yet last Tuesday when Deak went to make coffee and a cup of soup — using a small stove with Sterno fuel — like she’s done numerous times before, a small ring of fire began.

She put out the first ring with a bottle of water. But the fire spread underneath her seat, flames unleashed to her life in the back of her car. A woman walking by urged Deak to get out of the car.

Within a matter of minutes, flames engulfed the Kia Soul — her home gone and belongings were gone.

The only items Deak salvaged were her purse and a DVD player with a trigonometry course.

Kelly Thompson, Deak’s daughter, remembers when her mom first started living out of her car. She was entering her senior year of high school when Deak suggested they move from Concord to California. Thompson went to live with a friend to finish out school, but Deak never made it out west.

For periods of time, Deak carried stable jobs. She worked as a lab scientist for the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Environmental Services. Here and there she would have housing as well.

In 2016, she applied for a housing choice voucher, commonly known as Section 8. She was told the wait could be up to six years, but now she hears it could be as long as nine. Until then, she’s found comfort and routine in living in her car.

“In the car, at least you lock the door and put your seat down and have some privacy,” she said.

In her car, Deak kept binders of math problems. She had computers she used to watch online math courses and a Jackery portable power station and solar panel she used as a charger.

She pondered the intricacies of the natural world from the driver’s seat, like Einstein’s unified field theory. Thoughts about the mass of protons and electrons consumed her attention for hours.

“Why is the electron so much smaller yet carries an equal charge and does that mean it’s somehow wrapped up in some kind of different space?” she said. “So those are the things I think about in the car.”

Some days, Deak would draw to pass the time. She would set up her solar telescope to watch and draw the sun, noticing different sun spots and light flashes.

Living on the road, she also traveled. She drove out West to Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon. She watched the solar eclipse from Nebraska and also visited the Arches National Park.

“I do like the homeless life, I have to admit,” she said.

She was not worried about how to get stable housing, in fact, her daughter said she is accustomed to living in her car now.

Deak spends most of her time in the Concord area. She knew where to take a shower — whether it is at the Homeless Resource Center, Planet Fitness or a truck stop off the highway — and she’s also held a few cashier jobs to make extra money.

When her car caught on fire, she was parked on Capitol Street, just next to the Statehouse. She slept outside that night under the Franklin Pierce statue, before Thompson found her and took her home Wednesday. She’s temporarily staying with her daughter, who lives in Concord with her husband and children, while they wait to hear back on insurance claims.

With her car gone, Deak is focused on finding a place to be able to store her remaining belongings. The other day Thompson and Deak went to Walmart to replace essential items. But she knows her math books and telescope are gone.

Thompson and her husband created a GoFundMe for Deak. In five days, they’ve raised $3,530. Deak never imagined the generosity of strangers online. She was thinking of ways to supplement her fixed social security income when Thompson set up the page.

“I’m just amazed at how kind and friendly people are,” she said. “I don’t always get on the streets.”

With the money, she hopes to be able to put a payment down on a new car soon.

From the front seat of her next car, she plans to return to her love of learning — from stars to vector problems to guide her time and thoughts.

“It’s silly, but I just try to get inspired with whatever resources I have,” she said. “There’s just so much out there online now that can help us personally feel connected to knowledge.”

Lori Shibinette to resign as state health commissioner

CONCORD — Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette will be stepping down in December, with one year remaining of her four-year term. Her tenure as commissioner was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, workforce shortages, a mental health crisis, and vaccine politics.

In a written statement provided by the department, Shibinette, who is on vacation this week, said she will take a short break from work to focus on herself and her family.

“It has been an honor to serve the citizens of New Hampshire through our work at the Department of Health and Human Services. COVID-19 has been a challenging time for our state, our country, and for health care,” she said. “During this time, it has been a privilege serving as your commissioner. The last three years have been incredibly challenging yet equally rewarding.”

Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement wishing Shibinette well and calling her a great friend. “I cannot thank her enough for her service to New Hampshire,” he said.

While Shibinette is most recognized for her department’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, her efforts to expand access to mental health care have also drawn attention. She came to the job with experience as a nurse, former chief executive officer of New Hampshire Hospital, and a person caring for someone with mental illness.

“I am my person’s person,” she said during opening remarks at NAMI NH’s annual conference in April. “As a family member and primary caregiver for someone with mental illness, I hope that I am enough. Through the years, I’ve heard that hope from families and caregivers countless times. We want to be enough until the system catches up or until the gaps in our system close. It’s a lot of pressure, hoping to be enough.”

Shibinette had been with Health and Human Services since 2016 when Sununu appointed her commissioner in January 2020. COVID-19 hit three months later, sending the state into lockdown and putting Shibinette in charge of an unprecedented health crisis that posed medical and political challenges.

During one particularly tense exchange with lawmakers in September, Shibinette saw the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee table $27 million in federal pandemic aid for vaccination outreach over misinformation about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Rep. Ken Weyler, a Kingston Republican then serving as committee chairman, led the effort. Contrary to scientific evidence, Weyler said the majority of COVID-19 hospital patients were vaccinated.

“That is incorrect, and that’s misinformation,” Shibinette told Weyler. “And that is the problem that we are having increasing our vaccination rate: spreading misinformation about the COVID vaccine.” (A month later, Weyler provided committee members an outlandish report claiming the vaccine contained octopus-like creatures; under pressure, he then resigned from the committee.)

In the pandemic’s early days, Shibinette and the department worked to quickly stand up testing sites and later vaccination clinics throughout the state. They held weekly online calls with hospitals, health care providers, school leaders, and child care providers, answering questions and deciphering the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The department launched a COVID-19 dashboard and posted daily updates on hospitalizations, deaths, and new cases — and faced unfounded accusations of inflating hospitalization numbers by COVID-19 deniers.

While prior commissioners worked largely outside the public spotlight, Shibinette appeared alongside Sununu for live weekly televised COVID-19 updates, tracking grim spikes in long-term care deaths and outbreaks.

Opponents of vaccine mandates — and in some cases the vaccine itself — fought Shibinette’s requests to use federal pandemic money to increase vaccination rates. After the Fiscal Committee tabled vaccination spending, protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting scheduled to consider Shibinette’s request. When the council reconvened in October, state police removed a number of protesters from the meeting and charged them with disorderly conduct. As in the Fiscal Committee, the council voted to table the contracts along party lines.

While both bodies later approved the spending, Shibinette said the delay slowed the department’s vaccination efforts and put the public’s health at risk. In her statement Tuesday, Shibinette noted she did not lead the COVID-19 response alone.

“It was humbling to be part of a team during COVID-19 that epitomizes public service,” she said. “I share all of my successes with my colleagues throughout (Health and Human Services), who often prioritize their work over everything else. I also want to acknowledge the team of people who came together at the Emergency Operations Center to manage the state’s COVID-19 response for the better part of two years. I have learned so much from all of you.”

Health care organizations responded to news of Shibinette’s plans to leave in December.

“Bi-State Primary Care Association and New Hampshire’s community health centers are grateful for Commissioner Shibinette’s steadfast leadership during what is most likely the biggest public health emergency of our lifetimes,” said Kristine E. Stoddard, senior director of New Hampshire public policy. “Commissioner Shibinette’s clinical experience and commitment to public health proved invaluable during her tenure.”

Steve Ahnen, president of the N.H. Hospital Association, noted Shibinette’s willingness to work with the state’s hospitals managing the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. Brendan Williams, president and chief executive officer of the N.H. Health Care Association, which represents skilled-nursing, assisted-living, and retirement communities, acknowledged the particular challenges of Shibinette’s tenure.

“Our long-term care system would not have made it this far into the pandemic without her support, and we have some months left under her leadership to shore up a system in crisis,” he said.

The other health crisis

In May 2021, Shibinette was in the spotlight again when the state Supreme Court ruled against the department and found it was violating due process rights by holding people seeking help for mental health treatment in emergency rooms without a timely hearing to challenge the detention. Sununu looked to Shibinette to resolve the problem.

There was no easy fix, with demand for crisis mental health treatment grossly outpacing services and inpatient beds. This led to dozens of children and adults languishing for days, even weeks in emergency rooms while awaiting a bed.

Under her watch, the department used millions in federal pandemic assistance to purchase Hampstead Hospital so the state could expand care for children and offer hospitals financial incentives to accept more adult patients in need of care. She also directed pandemic aid to community mental health centers, asking them to expand transitional housing for people ready to leave the hospital but not yet able to live alone.

In January, hoping to divert people from emergency rooms to more appropriate care, the department launched the state’s first statewide mobile crisis response teams and a 24/7 call-in center. As of April, the most recent data available, the center had received nearly 8,600 phone calls, text messages, or chat messages and deployed a mobile response team 2,067 times. Nearly 40 percent of those calls were for children.

Susan Stearns, executive director of NAMI NH, considers Shibinette an ally; twice, she has asked her to give opening remarks at the organization’s annual conference.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable some of the changes that have been brought despite her being the COVID commissioner,” she said Tuesday. “I would say we’ve seen a real commitment to moving the 10-year mental health plan forward even as she was having to lead us as a state through this unprecedented crisis of the pandemic.”

In her remarks at this year’s annual conference, Shibinette spoke of the power of hope, saying hers was to see every person who needs mental health care to find it in their community and never “spend a single night in an emergency room.”

Shibinette also recalled the hope of a patient who sent her a message shortly after she was appointed chief executive officer of the state hospital. The woman had been a patient for 15 years.

“I know you just got here and you’re busy,” Shibinette said, summarizing the message. “It is my greatest wish to someday live somewhere other than here. It doesn’t have to be anything special, but just not here.” It took almost three years, Shibinettte said, but she was able to help the woman realize that wish.

“It is still today one of my proudest accomplishments of the things that I have done at New Hampshire Hospital and probably my career as a nurse,” she told the NAMI NH audience. “What’s remarkable is that she took action on her hope.”

A two-alarm fire Tuesday evening at Pinnacleview Equipment in Walpole severely damaged a warehouse at the shop, partially collapsing the roof of the building. No one was injured in the blaze.

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Keene gun range to host 'build your own AR-15' classes, drawing some concern
  • Updated

Amid renewed national discourse on guns in the wake of recent mass shootings, a Keene range is offering a pair of clinics this summer allowing a handful of people to build their own AR-15-style firearms.

“Build it, shoot it, then take it home!” is the tagline for the classes that the Cheshire County Shooting Sports Education Foundation’s Ferry Brook Range will host in partnership with Critical Dynamics, a Henniker-based company that will provide training and instruction to attendees.

Organizers of the classes say they will be educational and promote firearm safety. But others, including one former member of the range who resigned over the clinics, say their timing is tone deaf after another rash of mass shootings in the U.S. They were all carried out by people brandishing guns similar to the ones the classes will help attendees build.

The courses in Keene, which are limited to eight participants, are scheduled for July 30 and Aug. 13. Keith Hanson, director of law-enforcement training at Critical Dynamics, said attendees will choose from three different packages of AR-15-style firearms, ranging in price from $850 to $1,325.

Critical Dynamics offers tactical and firearm training programs to law enforcement, private security and citizens, according to its website.

Those interested in attending a course don’t need to be a member of the Ferry Brook Road range, but will need to complete a firearms transaction record and pass a background check, conducted on the morning of the course by a federally licensed firearms dealer, Hanson added.

According to Critical Dynamics’ website, all firearms at the clinics will be constructed using legally transferred and serialized parts.

Peter Crowell, the Keene range’s general manager, said students will be able to assemble their firearms according to their preference.

The assortment of components to assemble includes the scope, trigger, stock, magazine lock and release, as well as the barrel. Hanson said customization is ideal for guns so that people are more comfortable with their firearm. For example, he said “older shooters” or others with lower dexterity might prefer a gun with lighter parts.

Once instructors check and ensure the firearm is properly assembled and safe, Hanson said people will be able to test fire their newly built rifle and leave with it.

An AR-15 is a semiautomatic firearm, meaning the shooter must pull the trigger to fire each shot from a magazine that typically carries 30 rounds.

Hanson said the rifle has a variety of applications, including self-defense and sport, and some livestock farmers also use it on their property to ward off predators.

But the man who canceled his range membership over the clinics said no one should have access to this type of firearm. He asked that The Sentinel not use his name for fear someone could retaliate against him for his complaints.

“They have the audacity to promote building the weapon that [expletive] killed those people,” he said, speaking on the recent mass shootings in Highland Park, Ill., and Uvalde, Texas. “No one needs a gun that eviscerates a body when it hits it. That weapon should be off the street, no one should have that.”

According to NPR, the Uvalde gunman used an AR-15-style weapon in May when he shot and killed 21 people, and the Chicago Sun-Times reported the Highland Park shooter also used a similar weapon earlier this month when he killed seven.

In an email, the former range member added that he fears something similar could happen anywhere, even in Keene.

Hanson countered that the concern shouldn’t be on the gun, but on whoever might be wielding it.

“To blame the weapon and not the mentally defective criminal behind the weapon is emotionally dishonest and immature,” he said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of unstable people get access to weapons, mostly legitimately but some illegitimately,” Crowell said. “This class is the same as going to the store and purchasing a firearm except now you’re building it but it’s customized how you want it.”

According to news reports, the guns used in the mass shootings in Uvalde and Highland Park — as well as in Buffalo, N.Y., when 10 people were killed in May — were all purchased legally.

N.H. Rep. Joe Schapiro, D-Keene, said weapons similar to an AR-15 should not be available for sale.

“I don’t by any means believe that everyone with an AR-15 would use it with malicious intent,” Schapiro said Tuesday. “But that they’re in such great supply makes them available to people who are really unstable or hateful that would want to do serious damage. I’m saddened this is happening in Keene.”

Critical Dynamics will host a similar clinic in Candia on July 16, according to Hanson. He said classes for people to build their own firearm are in high demand.