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The Whole Star

Parade in favor of Denton fracking ban
Garrett Graham
A parade in favor of Denton's fracking ban

 

The exhilaration my neighbors and I felt on election night after Denton’s referendum to ban fracking passed by an overwhelming majority lasted about 12 hours or so. But by the next morning Denton was under assault—not only from the oil and gas industry, but from Austin bureaucrats and politicians.

The city was slammed with lawsuits from the Texas Oil and Gas Association and the Texas General Land Office, now headed by George Prescott Bush. In true “Bush Doctrine” fashion, the lawsuits seek the preemption of Denton’s democratic process, attempting to halt the ban’s enforcement before it began.

This backlash from the oil and gas industry and their bought-and-paid-for legislators in Austin was more than anticipated by those of us who have struggled against fracking in Denton for more than five years. On election night, moments after the results were announced, the only words that the president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, Cathy McMullen, could muster were: “Bring it.”

We’re certainly not naïve about what it means to rebuff fracking in the shale where the technique was pioneered. But it’s the response from the Texas Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick that seems to have struck a raw nerve here in Denton.

Craddick told The Dallas Morning News in early November that she would continue issuing drilling permits to the industry for fracking operations in our city. “I believe it’s my job to give permits, not Denton’s,” she told the Morning News. Her comment was not only a reactionary and obstinate slap in the face, but revealed the lengths to which the Railroad Commission will go to protect the interests of the very industry it regulates.

Craddick’s comments make little sense to Denton residents who’ve watched city council members use their home-rule authority to approve various drilling permits over the years. Indeed, it was the issuance of special use permits, like the one granted to Range Resources in 2009 to drill across the street from a public park and a hospital, that set off the movement against fracking in Denton.

Adding further insult to injury, the Denton Record-Chronicle published an op-ed from Craddick in November that attempted to explain how we had been manipulated into our beliefs by unnamed groups:

Since hydraulic fracturing became a widely used practice in Texas, it has been plagued by a cloud of misinformation, mainly due to groups more interested in scaring people than actually understanding the complex science of minerals extraction.

In the op-ed, she implores Denton residents to “work together” with the Railroad Commission to “find solutions” even after publicly stating she would continue to issue permits for fracking operations in Denton.

Craddick’s op-ed is not just patronizing, it is myopic, revealing how little she understands about the regulatory situation that brought Denton to this point. Since Range Resources’ McKenna Park gas well was drilled in 2009, residents and city staff have tried every single institutional avenue available to regulate fracking in Denton.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in 2009, and despite an industry-stacked gas drilling task force, which vetted the proposed changes to Denton’s drilling ordinance, the community was able to pressure the City Council to approve a stronger set of new rules, including a 1,200-foot setback requirement.

But after the new rules were passed, the gas companies found a loophole, arguing that their permits to frack pre-existing gas wells were grandfathered under the old rules. This is the history that Craddick doesn’t understand; it’s what led voters in Denton to pass the frack ban in a landslide.

There’s something else that Craddick’s comments fail to address: her potential conflicts of interest. Before she was elected to the Railroad Commission, Craddick lobbied for oil and gas interests and represented oil and gas clients as an attorney. According to LittleSis, a research arm of the Public Accountability Initiative, Craddick reported $50,000 in personal royalties from the oil and gas industry in her 2012 financial disclosure form, including one royalty payment of $25,000 from Kinder Morgan, which is active in Denton County.

Craddick’s potential conflicts of interest are part of a deep-rooted problem with the Railroad Commission. Industry ties and monied influence are “business as usual” for the agency. So much so that in 2010 the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that reviews state agencies for efficiency, recommended that the Railroad Commission be abolished and replaced with a new entity, the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Under the sunset plan, the Oil and Gas Commission would be run by a part-time five member board appointed by the governor.

The sunset commission also found that the Railroad Commission is the only Texas regulatory agency overseen by elected officials who overwhelmingly rely on campaign contributions from the industries it oversees. No wonder, then, that the Railroad Commission pursued action on enforcement in only a tiny percentage of the thousands of violations identified each year.

Denton and other home-rule cities provide a clear example of why municipalities are perfectly capable of handling many regulatory tasks on their own. Cities following Denton’s lead in confronting fracking are putting in place restrictions that the Railroad Commission either is unwilling or unable to enact.

The Railroad Commission has created many enemies, both on the right and the left, with its failure to protect citizens directly impacted by the oil and gas industry. It’s now clear that the Railroad Commission is willing to abandon and overrule the democratic decision of a community it is meant to protect. But in doing so, it’s helping to build a movement of people who can put pressure on legislators to abolish the Railroad Commission, as the sunset commission recommended. Many Dentonites are planning to make this case to our legislators in January.

Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster
Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster

In October, Mark Lamster, architecture critic at The Dallas Morning News, issued an unusual call: Dallas, he said, should begin converting its many abandoned jails into hotels, schools and other facilities for reshaping the city.

In his stirring column, Lamster wrote of “healing the broken relationship between the built city and its promise of justice”—a process that he says will “take years, if not decades, to accomplish.”

“A just city provides its citizens with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity, mobility and play—not just incarceration.”

Also a professor at UT-Arlington, Lamster frequently writes about urban planning and preservation with a humane touch. He wrote in his first Morning News column, in April 2013, that although “genius architecture is [not] bad—a city needs its defining monuments … you can’t live in a museum or a concert hall. You need places to live, work, shop, learn, eat and play.”

In reimagining Dallas, Lamster takes aim at Dallas’ highly visible penal institutions. The massive Lew Sterrett Justice Center, Dallas County’s main jail facility located in downtown, serves as “the unholy gateway to our city,” he’s written.

“What does it say about our values that we have allowed these buildings to achieve, along with the bail bondsmen, package stores and payday lenders that are their sad detritus, such symbolic prominence as the gateway to our city?”

The Observer recently talked to Lamster about his call to action.

 

Texas Observer: How feasible will it be, converting jails in a state that historically has favored imprisonment?

Mark Lamster: I think it’s feasible. First of all, one of those prisons, the Dawson State Jail, is empty. Bureaucratic inertia regarding what to do with that site is the only thing slowing us.

Also, we are a law-and-order state, but we are also definitely a state that does not like to spend money: fiscally conservative. Prisons are an unbelievably expensive and inefficient way of dealing with criminal justice. It makes no sense to spend the amount of money that we do on prisons, when there are more efficient ways to tackle criminal-justice problems than prisons.

Dawson State Jail
Patrick Michels
Tall and imposing, the now-shuttered Dawson State Jail offers an ominous greeting into downtown Dallas.

[Dallas Police Chief David Brown] will tell you that you can’t incarcerate your way into crime prevention. It doesn’t work in terms of space; you can’t build enough space for the prisoners. It’s counter-productive and overly expensive.

So, yes, we can solve this problem. Dallas is littered with abandoned jails. They’re all over the city. It’s kind of ironic: We have a habit of building jails and then leaving them.

 

TO: Assuming you had full economic freedom to do so, what next steps would you take to provide Dallas with adequate facilities for education and economic opportunity? Are there buildings that you would re-purpose next?

ML: There is a lot of vacant criminal justice infrastructure in Dallas, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it. But things are definitely happening already. The old Dallas Municipal Building—one of the city’s most notorious jails [and] where Jack Ruby shot Oswald—is being transformed into a law school for the University of Texas at Dallas.

Preservationists are working to restore the former Dallas County Criminal Courts Building, which is also downtown, like the Dallas Municipal Building.

The most important case right now is the site of the Cabana Hotel. It was a 1960s motor hotel. The Beatles stayed there; Doris Day owned it for a time. It’s an incredibly important, historic hotel. The Cabana was converted to a detention center, but is now vacant. The city has just taken bids for restoration. There were numerous bids to turn it into a hotel. But it appears—not clear yet—that the winning bid was to demolish it.

The Cabana is another bit of “prison” legacy—it didn’t start as criminal justice architecture, but it became that and has been decommissioned. Many of us in Dallas are trying to figure out what to do with all of that.

 

TO: What are the obstacles to achieving your vision?

ML: Dawson State Prison, which is now vacant and a mar on the cityscape, is in bureaucratic limbo between the city and state. The city needs to figure out what it wants to do with that space, then decide on some kind of deal with the state to make it happen. As I mentioned, the Cabana Hotel should be preserved as a hotel, given its history, but right now it looks like it might be slated for demolition.

Meanwhile, the historic Dallas Criminal Courts Building is moldering on a prime block in the city’s historic center. Preservationists and developers should be able to find some way to restore this building, down the line.

As for the dun-colored Sterrett Justice Center, I fear getting rid of that is a very long-term project. But it surely could use some rethinking to create a more restorative, rather than punitive, environment for the city.

 

TO: Are you impressed by the directions some cities have taken, back-burnering prison installations and instead focusing on education and recreation?

ML: Big cities are figuring out that they need to move from a kind of retributive justice to a more rehabilitative justice. They are integrating mental health care, job training, vocational training into a single structural system.

Otherwise you take people in and spit them out into the same position they were in. Then they cycle in and out, and so on. That’s not only terrible for them; it’s horribly expensive for communities.

Around the country, we’re starting to see prison populations decline—so there’s less need for prisons.

We had a punitive system of justice in the 1980s with three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws. But people who go to jail come back to our communities, then we have to pay for the jails. It’s one thing to talk about law and order, but we have to think a bit more holistically.

 

TO: How should we think more holistically about how Texas cities present prisons and jails and how they present economic opportunity and education?

ML: When you talk about making changes, you have to have a pretty big table: community leaders, criminal justice officers, advocates for prisoners, people who’ve been to prison and can talk about it and have been successful in re-integrating to society on how they’ve done it, victims’ groups, public health professionals, people who work in prisons, architects.

We need to look at the conditions for workers too. If Texas has some prisons without air-conditioning, it’s hard for prisoners, but it’s also hard for the workers. Bad conditions lead to bad behavior and more confrontation between prisoners and guards. You want to build spaces that are humane.

The War at School

Save Texas Schools rally at the Texas Capitol, Saturday, February 25.
Patrick Michels
A dissatisfied public school student at the Save Texas Schools rally.

 

This year, as we do every Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Ryan and I traded war stories over a table laden with food and drink. Our front lines are in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, but deep in the heart of Houston. Our stories are drawn from the stuff of our lives as teachers, soldiers in the education wars unfolding in the classrooms of our nation.

Ryan and I fight our battles in different theaters. I teach history at a university in Houston while Ryan teaches English at a nearby high school. Both of our respective institutions, of relatively recent birth and still busily inventing their school traditions, pride themselves on spanking-new football stadiums and high-tech classrooms. But this year, as in year’s past, our experiences were dramatically asymmetrical. When I confide my anxiety that I have fewer than 10 students in one of the two classes I teach twice a week, Ryan shares his relief that he has fewer than 30 in one of the six classes he teaches every day. After I express my impatience with students who do not read deeply, Ryan tells me about students who cannot read at all. When I have the ill grace to bemoan earning $30,000 a year less than the national average for full professors, Ryan smiles wanly, too gracious to reply that this gap represents more than two-thirds of his own yearly salary. While I worry about the mad spawning of administrators at my school, Ryan confesses his hope to become an administrator—if only to escape the grim impasse in which he finds himself.

Simply put, Ryan is in the trenches and I am not. Like many volunteers who rally to their nations’ colors in times of need, my brother-in-law was an idealist when he signed up. An indifferent student in high school, Ryan fell in love with literature at university; as a teacher, he hoped to reach students who resembled his younger, bored self. More than a decade on the front lines, however, has pulverized that idealism. Just as all war gives the lie to words like “honor,” “duty” and “sacrifice,” so too has teaching undermined Ryan’s belief that few professions are more honorable than teaching and his willingness to make financial sacrifices on behalf of duty to a literate citizenry. His experiences have trumped all of that. I do not know if it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes, but I have good reason to believe there are few if any idealists still working in Ryan’s school.

How could there be? Take the example of 1914: Once that war of movement ossified into one of stasis, generals and politicians increasingly turned to technological breakthroughs to snap the stalemate. From poison gas to dirigibles, tanks to flamethrowers, one silver bullet after another was fired during World War I. Most were duds, and some were worse. Poison gas drifts over one’s own lines, tanks become firetraps and flamethrowers turn their users into Roman candles.

While no such horrors have been visited on Ryan and his colleagues, they are casualties nonetheless of the same kind of magical thinking. Like the mustachioed generals of yesteryear, Ryan’s school administrators insist that technology can win hearts and minds. To this end, Brian and his students were armed this year with Dell tablets. The administration’s ambition to go paperless, which carried a $17 million price tag, has turned into a fiasco worthy of the Battle of the Somme. Every day, Ryan teaches six classes, each of which runs 49 minutes. This race against time, thanks to the Dells, has become an obstacle course. Inevitably, students forgot to charge their tablets, or forgot to save their material or simply forgot to bring their tablets. Other students were plagued by software problems, while some of the more privileged, scornful of the Dells, refused to use them. After three months of mayhem and muddle, Ryan’s students have tabled the tablets and are again, like students in far more advanced Finland and Japan, using paper and pen.

The costs of technological magical thinking extend far beyond landscapes littered with torched tanks and darkened Dells. There is also our passionate attachment to standardized tests. In Texas, administrators cling to the STAAR—the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—with the same desperate conviction that Douglas Haig, Britain’s commander at the Somme, applied to Heavy Artillery Reserves (HAR). Just as the makers of munitions always emerge from war victorious, it is the corporate education complex and its legion of consultants who benefit most from these tests. Given that Pearson Education, the maker of STAAR, charges Texas taxpayers $90 million a year, is it surprising that Ryan must lead his students over the top and into the test? His students’ futures and his own rest on this test, and the twining is doubly tragic: Ryan risks his job if his students don’t test well, and his students risk missing the true rewards of reading and writing if they’re only taught to test well.

This massive investment has birthed a new literary genre in Texas—the 26-line STAAR essay, for which students are drilled relentlessly—at the expense of genres like the novel and drama. “Teaching the test,” Ryan told me, “comes at the cost of teaching literature.” Even the path to the test is mined with difficulties. All of Ryan’s classes include special-education students. The state rightly compels schools to mainstream these students, but in a cost-saving strategy about which many parents are unaware, nearly half of the students in some of Ryan’s classes have special needs. To attend to the dizzying array of needs in these classes requires daily miracles as great as that of the Battle of the Marne.

When Ryan is not careening through one class to the next, he is mired in paperwork, and here lies the true pity of his situation. Though he works 60 to 65 hours a week, he has barely any time to meet with his students, the ostensible beneficiaries of his labor.

But do we parents really care? Like family on the home front who find comfort in the official version of events—WWI gave us the modern spin on the word “propaganda”—we gaze at the facades of our schools and are reassured by the medals, like “Exemplary” and “Recognized,” they have earned. We turn our gaze elsewhere, convinced we are on the road to victory. But when I listen to Ryan, I cannot help but think that such victories may be no less Pyrrhic than those of 1918, or 1950, or 2003.

The Great Hanging
The Great Hanging
Two years after the incident, news of the Great Hanging made its way east. This depiction, from the Feb. 20, 1864, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, is apocryphal—the victims were actually hanged one or two at a time.
Alex DeChiara
Courtesy of the DeChiaras
Alex DeChiara

 

Rick DeChiara can’t undo his daughter’s suicide.

He can’t erase the memory of coming home to find 17-year-old Alex hanging from a tree in their backyard—and having to cut her down. He can’t wipe away the recollection of picking up Alex’s high school diploma a day after receiving her death certificate.

“I can’t undo what’s been done, but maybe I can prevent somebody else from taking the same path,” DeChiara told the Observer this week. “That’s what I want to do. If I can stop some other kid from doing what Alex did, then I’ll be a success.”

Six months after his daughter’s suicide, DeChiara took a major step in that direction Sunday.

Along with his wife and Alex’s younger sister, he traveled from their home in Euless, near Fort Worth, to a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance at the Cathedral of Hope, a predominantly LGBT church in Dallas.

Alex was transgender, and even though she took her own life, the annual ceremony commemorating victims of anti-trans violence was dedicated to her.

“I made a lot of new friends down there. They’re a wonderful group of people,”  said DeChiara, a New Jersey native who works for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and described himself as the “macho” type.

“I’m going to stay in touch with a lot of people,” he said. “It was good for all three of us.”

DeChiara, speaking publicly about his daughter’s death for the first time with the Observer, acknowledged he wasn’t always so comfortable with the idea that Alex was trans. When she began to come to terms with her gender identity in middle school, she discussed it with her mom but grew distant from him.

“What Alex didn’t realize was that, just because I don’t understand, doesn’t mean I can’t accept,” he said. “I didn’t understand. … It took me a while to come around.”

DeChiara said his relationship with his daughter had improved somewhat prior to her death, but other problems—depression, bullying and isolation—proved insurmountable.

Alex sported long blonde hair and sometimes wore a few items of women’s clothing to Euless’ Trinity High School. Although there was no physical violence, DeChiara said classmates talked behind Alex’s back, and sometimes to her face, calling her a “freak.”

“She was spending a lot of time down at the counselor’s office,” DeChiara said.

“Apparently the counselor was aware and tried to do something about it [the bullying], but I don’t know how much further it got from there. I’ve heard it was teachers that were saying stuff as well.”

Eventually, the DeChiaras agreed to transfer Alex her to an alternative school, KEYS High School. But that move cut her off from friends and something she loved—working with special needs children at Euless Trinity, where she was no longer allowed on campus.

Alex DeChiara
Courtesy of the DeChiaras
Alex DeChiara

“When she was banned from school, things spiraled out of control,” DeChiara said. “Part of the reason she loved those kids at the special ed building is because, like them, she was in a body she didn’t want to be in, and she could identify with them. That was her passion. She was going to go to school to teach autistic kids.”

Alex, who’d taken several AP courses at Euless Trinity, graduated a month early from KEYS, but being home alone only made things worse. DeChiara said he had no idea how deep his daughter’s depression had become.

On May 8, when DeChiara found Alex hanging from a tree, she’d left a note on her desk saying only that she didn’t want a funeral—a request her parents honored.

“There is no amount of sins I have ever done in this lifetime, that anybody should have to go through what I did that day,” DeChiara said. “Mom? I would have had to bury two people if she got home before me.”

After Alex’s death, one of her friends connected the DeChiaras with a Dallas LGBT group, which invited them to the Trans Day of Remembrance. DeChiara only wishes Alex had found those resources when she was alive.

Studies show roughly half of trans youth have contemplated suicide, and one in four have made an attempt.

The numbers may be even higher in Texas, which has no explicit anti-bullying protections based on gender identity and few resources for LGBT youth outside major cities.

“There definitely needs to be more,” DeChiara said. “They definitely need to have a place where they know they can go.”

DeChiara said there are suicide hotlines, bullying prevention programs and perhaps even a modicum of support for gay teens and their parents.

But he added: “As far as transgender awareness kind of stuff, that’s a different story. I don’t think that’s quite as popular, as out there in the open.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance is today, Thursday, Nov. 20. For a list of events in Texas, go here.

The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
The Observer hosts a post-election wrap-up panel at the North Door in Austin.
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
From L to R: Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

 

In case you missed our post-election, pre-Lege session discussion in Austin last night, we’re posting the audio from the event. You’ll hear the voices of moderator Forrest Wilder, state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Harvey Kronberg of the Quorum Report, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Observer writer Chris Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).

In part one, our panelists pick apart the factors that helped make 2014 such a big win for Republicans:

The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with political reporter Christopher Hooks, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), and state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin).

In part two, the panelists look ahead to next session: How will Dan Patrick wield the gavel in the Senate? And how can Democrats influence policy when they’re so greatly outnumbered?

State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
Jen Reel
State Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas) and Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder
State Rep. Donna Howard
Jen Reel
State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) at the Texas Observer’s post-election panel discussion, 2014.
The Observer's Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report's Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).
Jen Reel
The Observer’s Forrest Wilder moderates a conversation with state Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin), Quorum Report’s Harvey Kronberg, Texas Monthly senior editor Erica Grieder, political reporter Christopher Hooks and state Rep. Jason Villalba (R-Dallas).