31 December 2012

The sun sets on 2012 and the sun rises on 2013

As 2012 fades into the sunset and 2013 rises at dawn, I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! In Spanish, Feliz Año Nuevo! In Slovenian, Srečno novo leto! And in German, Glückliches neues Jahr!

Like 2011, if any year was more newsworthy, 2012 was it.  The most newsworthy - if not two of the most newsworthy - took place back in March of 2012 when Trayvon Martin was gunned down at the hands of a neighborhood watch vigilante in Sanford (a community north of Orlando), George Zimmermann.  After so much publicity in the media in the weeks that followed the shooting, George Zimmermann was arrested and charged with second degree murder and is presently awaiting trial.

God knows what kind of trial George Zimmermann will get:  Another Casey Anthony style trial?  Wasn't she found not guilty of first degree murder in an Orlando courtroom in 2011?

And another more newsworthy story, which took place just a couple of weeks ago before Christmas:  The mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  26 lives, including students, faculty and administrators including the principal, were sadly lost.

In the wake of the Columbine High tragedy in Littleton, Colorado in 1999, the quick fix to make our schools safer was to enact strict zero tolerance policies that turn law abiding students into criminals for very minor transgressions of the student code of conduct as well as turn our public schools into mini-state prisons and treat students like if they were prison inmates.  In Florida, our legislators responded by making your presence within 500 feet of a school during the school day - even if you are on non-school public property - a trespassing offense.

Turning our schools into state prisons is not the answer to safety in our public schools.  The real answer here is from the source:  Better gun control, including re-enacting the federal ban on assault weapons which unfortunately expired in 2004.  After all, better gun control as well as closing the gun show loophole when it comes to selling guns and ammunition.

You know what the gun loophole is?  When you go to purchase a gun here in Florida, you pay for it but you don't get it right away as there is a three day waiting period.  During that time, basic information is collected from you for a records check with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement which includes a state FCIC (Florida Crime Information Center) and federal FBI NCIC check.  However, when it comes to a gun show, these background checks are never done, hence the gun loophole.

We had the Republican National Convention here in Tampa the week before Labor Day, in which Mitt Romney accepted the Republican nomination for President of the United States.  Unfortunately, the Republican National Convention turned out to be a fizzle according to what I heard.

A few months later, we had the general election in November for President of the United States.  Here in Florida, the ballot was two pages long with not only the President and Vice President but Congressmen, Senators, Florida Legislators and a handful of local officials, not to mention so many amendments to the Florida Constitution on the ballot.  Who will remember the long lines at the polls on election day?

Fortunately, Barack Obama was relected for a second term as President of the United States - a big relief so that our country can move forward economically.

So, if any year was newsworthy (other than the St. Petersburg Times - er, the mis-named Tampa Bay Times writing scare stories about the economy, house values and the real estate crisis, thank you Mark Puente (who now writes stories concerning St. Petersburg city government) and Jeff Harrington), 2012 was it. Did I mention the St. Petersburg Times?

Since 1 January 2012, the St. Petersburg Times was mis-named the Tampa Bay Times, further eroding St. Petersburg's identity as a city as well as a destination.  Since the newspaper got renamed, the articles have taken on a more pro-Tampa and anti-St. Petersburg flavor.

I have said this before as New Year's Day 2012 approached, and I will say it again as New Year's Day 2013 approaches.  Let me set the record straight:

1. Tampa Bay is not only a body of water, it is the name of the region that encompasses two cities, St. Petersburg and Tampa, and within two counties, Pinellas and Hillsborough.

2. Tampa Bay is not a city, period.

3. We St. Petersburg residents have been accustomed to and know our daily newspaper as the St. Petersburg Times. This assures our identity as a city for well over 100 years.

4. We St. Petersburg residents are not part of Tampa nor Hillsborough County. In fact, it is the St. Petersburg Times that championed the cause for the creation of Pinellas County from the western part of Hillsborough County in 1912.  We St. Petersburg residents are proud to be part of a county - Pinellas County - free of any influence from Tampa.

5. St. Petersburg slowly loses its identity as a city. We have been known by plenty of other monikers over the years such as God's Waiting Room among other things. Add to that the recent article in Men's Health about St. Petersburg being the most saddest city in America.

Don't the editors at Men's Health Magazine have something else to write about instead of labeling St. Petersburg in a negative spotlight? After all, depression knows no boundaries.

The St. Petersburg Times may be the Tampa Bay Times as of 1 January 2012 and it is to this day. However, it will continue to be the St. Petersburg Times in my book.

Happy new year!

21 December 2012

Merry Christmas!

In a couple of days Christmas will be here!

Unfortunately, as we approach Christmas 2012 we approach it on a much somber note, especially the recent tragedy involving Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut where 26 lives were unfortunately lost.  It is a very tragic event, especially for the parents of the children whose lives were lost in the tragic events that took place.  For those parents, it is very sad and sorrowful that instead of celebrating the joys of Christmas with their children, the parents are having to plan and attend the funeral of their children.

With the coverage of recent school related events such as the suicide of a 15-year-old teenager from Hudson, Florida due to negative comments posted on a social networking website and now the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School here on The Edward Ringwald Blog, I was pondering whether to put up the annual Christmas page here at EdwardRingwald.com as Christmas was just a few days away.  I was asking myself, should I put up the annual Christmas page like I always do or not?

Believe me, putting up the annual Christmas page here at EdwardRingwald.com is like putting up the Christmas tree where I live.  But reslilence in the face of recent events - both local and national - kept me going.

As such, I present to you my annual Christmas page over at EdwardRingwald.com, of which you can go to just by clicking your mouse on this link.  There you will see pictures of Christmas lights from downtown St. Petersburg as well as a couple of pictures from Pinellas Park, Tampa as well as a section on downtown Plant City's Christmas lights.  And no Christmas page is complete without a visit to the grandaddy of all Christmas displays in St. Petersburg located at 2719 Oakdale St S, situated southeast of 4 St S and 22 Av S.

While you're there at my Christmas 2012 page, you can also view my Christmas greeting cards.  This year, I offer my greeting card not only in English but in Spanish, German and Slovenian as well thanks to the magic of Google Translate.  After all, EdwardRingwald.com - as well as Interstate275Florida.com and DrawBridgeAhead.com - reaches out not only to an American audience, but to a worldwide audience as well.

I usually have the Christmas page up at EdwardRingwald.com about a week or so before Christmas.  However, with the recent tragic events that have taken place I felt it was necessary to devote the time and energy to cover those events for you right here on The Edward Ringwald Blog.

But resilience has to prevail.  With that in mind, enjoy my Christmas page at EdwardRingwald.com.

And to the students, faculty and administration of Sandy Hook Elementary School who lost their lives in the recent tragedy, may they rest in peace.

16 December 2012

Another School Mass Shooting Tragedy

This blog entry is dedicated to the victims of the recent mass shooting tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I was checking the news on my afternoon break at the office, only to find very serious breaking news on Bay News 9:  Mass shooting at elementary school.  I checked every other local St. Petersburg area news websites, and they had the same thing.

This is very horrific.  In fact, it is very sad.  According to Bay News 9, 26 people lost their lives which include adults and children.

Coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy on selected media outlets (there are more articles being posted as more information comes in; check individual media outlets for further coverage):

CNN coverage (has complete coverage)
RTV Slovenia coverage (in Slovenian)

Every time I hear of a tragedy involving a school shooting on the news - whether it may be Sandy Hook in Connecticut or Columbine in Colorado (which happened in 1999) - it always reminds me of what happened in February 1988 at Pinellas Park High School in Largo, Florida.  Two students that were suspended the day before - Jason Harless and Jason McCoy - got onto the school campus and began shooting when a faculty member identified the two students that were not supposed to be on campus.  Two assistant principals and one faculty member were affected with one assistant principal, Richard Allen, losing his life while another assistant principal, Nancy Blackwelder, survived and the faculty member was hit by one of the shots and survived.

Both Jason Harless and Jason McCoy were put on trial and found guilty and both served prison terms.  It is believed that Harless and McCoy stole the weapons used in the attack, similar to the assailant in the Sandy Hook shooting, 20-year-old Adam Lanza in which the weapons used were stolen.

Now how could school shooting incidents like what happened at Sandy Hook as well as Columbine and Pinellas Park have been avoided?

Zero tolerance school rules don't work.  These so-called school rules punish even well-behaved students.

Arresting and jailing anyone that comes close to, but not upon, a public or private school campus in Florida doesn't work.  These so-called security zones, similar to the sperrzones on the former East German border with West Germany during the height of the Cold War, turn law abiding Floridians into criminals for the rest of their lives.

What is really needed is better gun control.  Specifically, we need measures in place to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of anyone not allowed to have them in their possession.  It is believed that the assailants in the Columbine shooting had weapons which were purchased for them by someone else, called a straw purchase.

Unfortunately, we have a major barrier to gun control in America:  The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.  Every time any piece of legislation - whether it may be on a Federal or Florida (or any other state) level - organizations that vehemently oppose gun control such as the National Rifle Association can, and have influenced lawmakers to significantly revise or withdraw legislation related to gun control.

Want a great example of effective gun control legislation?  Head south on Interstate 5 in San Diego towards San Ysidro and the Mexican border.  As you head south on Interstate 5 (or Interstates 805 or (soon to be) 905), you see the warning signs posted as you approach the Mexican border:  WARNING:  GUNS/AMMO ILLEGAL IN MEXICO.  In other words, weapons and ammunition are illegal south of the border, and American citizens who tested this theory ended up spending time in Mexican prison.

Or, head north on Interstate 75 past Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and cross the two-lane international bridge over the Canadian border into Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada.  Yes, go got that right, Canada.  Weapons and ammunition are severely restricted due to Canada's very strict gun control laws, and to enter Canada with a firearm you must declare it and fill out paperwork on entry.  Try to bring a firearm into Canada without delcaring it and you can face substantial fines, not to mention having the firearm taken permanently away from you.

We are surrounded by countries on our northern and southern borders that have effective gun control legislation.  But America's gun control legislation is way far from effective, which is sad but true.

A doctor treats a medical condition by addressing it from the source where the condition arises from.  Likewise, Congress and the Florida Legislature needs to treat the condition of ineffective gun control by passing much better legislation getting to the source to begin with.

In closing, my condolences to the families of the students, faculty and staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School who lost their lives in the recent school shooting tragedy.

15 December 2012

Social Networking Tragedy

This blog entry is dedicated to Jessica Laney, the 15-year-old teenager from Hudson (a community in Pasco County, Florida on US 19) who recently committed suicide due to cyber-bullying on a social networking website.  My thoughts and condolences go to Jessica's family in this time of grief and sorrow, especially with the Christmas holiday season underway.

In a June 2012 post I discussed why I do not (and I will not) have a presence on a social networking site such as Facebook.  With the recent tragedy involving a 15-year-old teenager from Hudson, Florida (a community in Pasco County on US 19), Jessica Laney, which was attributed to cyber-bullying on a social networking website, ask.fm based out of Latvia, this is one of many reasons why I don't (and won't) have a presence on a social networking website such as Facebook. 

First, let's start off with a link to an article in the St. Petersburg Times by staff writer Erin Sullivan and a comment I made in which I made a few points regarding making a comment about a person on a social networking website:

This is tragic.  This is very sad.

Unfortunately, this is America and whatever you post about a person, especially on a social networking website, is protected by the First Amendment.  However, it comes with a responsibility that free speech is protected by the First Amendment provided that you do not violate the law such as making threats against someone.  But how is this being enforced?  That is the question.

To contrast, if you get caught saying things to another person, especially on a social networking website, that are hurtful (to that person) in another country - let's say Singapore or even Canada - you can get prison time.

A fellow St. Petersburg Times commenter whose name is firehawkv8 offered a slightly different point of view, and I respect that.  For those other commenters on this St. Petersburg Times article who have way different points of view, I offer an explanation.

First of all, our country was founded on the principles of liberty and democracy.  Right after our American Constitution was drafted and approved in 1789, there were certain civil liberties that we cherish today that were not written into our constitution.  So, the first ten amendments were proposed and passed which we know today as the Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment, which we know very well by heart, permits freedom of speech among other things without undue government interference.  However, freedom of speech thanks to the First Amendment is not absolute - instead, court decisions over the years define what is lawful free speech.  In other words, you can speak what you want but only in a lawful manner.

Fast forward 200+ years.  Fast forward to the present day and age of the Internet and social networking such as Facebook and MySpace.  How does Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites enforce their rules and regulations (called the Terms of Service) when it comes to making comments about a person on unfavorable terms?

The social networking sites do have a way for you to report an inappropriate comment.  Unfortunately, nine times out of ten these reports are looked at and then get set aside on the back burner.  The end result:  The unfavorable comments continue, even if it escalates to unlawful behavior.

After all, this is America, where we cherish our God-given right of free speech and expression.  Unfortunately, our American civil liberties that we cherish so much stop right at the United States border when you cross into Mexico or Canada.

Once you walk thru that metal turnstile or drive your car across the dividing line south of San Ysidro, the American Bill of Rights stop right there at the international dividing line that separates the United States from Mexico.  After all, the American Bill of Rights does not follow you once you are in Tijuana - instead, you are subject to the jurisdiction of Mexican law once you cross the border from the United States into Mexico.

In a lot of countries around the world, you can end up going to prison for making even unfavorable statements about a person which would otherwise be legal in the United States.  For instance, take the case of a restaurant owner in Ottawa - Canada's national capital - who was convicted of defamatory libel after the restaurant owner launched a nasty online campaign against a customer who spoke up about her dissatisfaction of the restaurant in an online review, according to an article on consumerist.com.

Had this taken place in the United States, more than likely no legal action would be taken as libel is largely a civil matter and you have to prove a very good case to win a libel claim.  Once you cross the international border, things do change; what would be a civil tort for libel in the United States can become a criminal offense in another country such as Canada.

What could have been done to prevent needless tragedies such as what happened to Jessica Laney thanks to the comments made on a social networking website?

A lot needs to be done here.

An important line of defense against social network cyberbullying is in our schools.  More and more schools and school districts are tackling the issue of cyberbullying by offering counseling and support to students that are victims of cyberbullying.  Unfortunately, as this article from ABC Action News (WFTS-TV, the ABC affiliate here in Tampa) states, faculty and staff at Fivay High School, where Jessica Laney attended, were very reluctant to speak to students about bullying and suicide in the wake of what happened.

This is why most high school students who are victims of cyberbullying are afraid of even making a report or talking to a trusted individual such as a teacher, a counselor or even administrative personnel.  It is done out of fear of a student being given disciplinary action on the part of school administration such as an out of school suspension.

After all, a public school system's student code of conduct - such as the student code of conducts of the various school districts of the Tampa/St. Petersburg area including the Pinellas County School District - makes it clear:  As a student, you are guilty of any offense in the student code of conduct unless it is proved otherwise.  The student code of conduct is akin to Mexican law, based on Roman law and the Napoleonic Code, which means that you are guilty of a criminal offense and the burden of proof that you are innocent falls upon you, not the state.

Have you seen the movie Bully which was shown in theaters in the early part of 2012?  It's a touching documentary of families who were touched by incidents of bullying in our public schools.  You got to see it for yourself; it is supposed to come out on DVD sometime in 2013.

Unfortunately, despite anti-bullying policies put in place by the school districts there are schools that do condone bullying in any form and punish the victim with out of school suspensions among other things, citing useless zero tolerance school rules.  It is these actions taken by school administrators that lead students to do the unthinkable.

Another line of defense against social network cyberbullying is parents.  As a parent, you should be open and up front about your child's activities, both in school and online at home.

According to StopBullying.gov, here are the warning signs that your child is being bullied.  Note that not all children being bullied exhibit these warning signs:

Unexplainable injuries
Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry
Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking an illness
Changes in eating habits
Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
Feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem
Self destructive behaviors such as running away from home or the unthinkable:  Committing suicide.

Moreover, as a parent you play an important role in your child's education, which is ultimately your child's future.  As such, if you think that your child is exhibiting the above warning signs of being bullied then it is your right - and an obligation - as a parent to speak with your child's school administration about your concerns.  Make sure that you stress to the school administration that your child is being bullied and don't let the school administration brush it off as an isolated incident.

The thing to remember is that bullying in your child's school, whether it may be fellow students, teachers or staff including your child's principal or assistant principal, should not be a part of your child's daily routine in school.

Another item to remember is that if your child uses a computer during the school day, its use is usually restricted to school related tasks throughout the school day.  Nearly all school districts block access to social networking websites such as Facebook, and that's the way it should be:  School is a place where your child is getting an education in order to prepare for your child's future.  Unfortunately, in school districts where the use of cell phones is permitted on a limited basis, the potential for cyberbullying on social networking websites exists.  (In fact, you can get a Facebook app for your BlackBerry right on BlackBerry's App World!)

My teenager is in crisis due to cyberbullying.  The high school that my teenager goes to won't help me.  What do I do?

I would like to close out this blog entry with what you can do as a parent if your teenager is in crisis because of cyberbullying.  If we can understand and realize the important warning signs as I mentioned earlier cyberbullying tragedies, especially attributable to social networking websites, can be avoided and lives saved.

With that in mind, here's what you should do as a parent if your teenager is in crisis due to any form of bullying, including cyberbullying.

Someone posted a threatening message on my teenager's Facebook page:  Call 911 immediately.  Do not close any screens on the computer until law enforcement arrives.  Law enforcement will take a report and gather any screen shots of the page as evidence to help track down the perpetrator.  Insist that a police report be taken so that you have a police report number to reference it by later down the road; don't let the police brush it off as a minor non-reportable incident.

My teenager has expressed hopelessness, helplessness or is thinking of suicide:  Suicide is a very serious matter!!!  In an immediate emergency, call 911.  Or, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (that's 1 (800) 273-8255) to be connected to the crisis center near you.

My teenager is in constant anxiety and fear, and it is showing in declining grades in schoolwork:  You may want to find a mental health counselor in your area.  If your employer offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which is open not only to you but your entire family, your employer's EAP can be of valuable assistance.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, you can also call 211 to get help.

Whatever you do, if your teenager is in crisis, please get help somewhere.

A personal note:

Personally, I think the Pasco County School District as well as Fivay High School and its principal, Angie Stone, failed Jessica Laney.  After reading the articles on several Tampa Bay area news media outlets including the St. Petersburg Times, ABC Action News, 10 News (WTSP-TV), and Bay News 9, I think Jessica Laney was afraid to report what was going on to someone at school for fear of retribution.

The Pasco County School District needs to do more to address the issue of bullying, especially cyberbullying, in all of its schools.  This should be a priority for Pasco County's newly elected Superintendent of Schools, Kurt Browning, who used to be Florida's Secretary of State.

Had this taken place in another country where defamatory libel is a crime, such as Canada, the perpetrators who posted those remarks on ask.fm that led to Jessica Laney's suicide would more than likely be charged with a criminal offense, probably an indictable offense (that's what felonies are called in Canada) as a loss of life was involved.  What compounds the issue is that ask.fm is based in Latvia and you got international law involved.

Remember, the life you save as a parent is your teenager's life.  For that reason, early intervention when your teenager is bullied is very critical.

Like what the signs say on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge next to the crisis intervention/motorist aid call boxes, there is hope - make the call.

What happened to Jessica Laney is very sad and tragic.  May she rest in peace.

Parents, it's your children.