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Vermont Newsguy

by Jon Margolis

Vermont: 1964 - Today

January 10, 2014
  Vermont Newsguy Jon Margolis is the author of the book "The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964" " the subject of the next installment of "The American Experience" on PBS January 14th.  In his new installment of The Vermont Newsguy for VPT, Margolis examines what Vermont looked like in 1964 and how it has changed in the last 50 years.   

  That New Years Day, a traveler could drive into Vermont from the south on Interstate 91, crossing the border from Massachusetts right about at the Guilford-Vernon line, and then zooming as far north as"well, about as far north as Bellows Falls.

    From there northward, it was Route 5, inching through all the towns and villages along the way.

    There was a little more of Interstate 89. Motorists could drive between Montpelier and Bolton, and also between Richmond and Winooski. But not straight through.

    A few days after the year began, the Legislature convened in Montpelier. The 30 senators gathered in their chamber. The 246 House members met in theirs.

    Yes, 246 House members. The year that had just begun was 1964, and Vermonters still elected one House member from each town, regardless of size. The 35,000 residents of Burlington elected one House member. So did the 113 of Stannard. House members representing 12 percent of the people comprised a majority.

    Not for long. The year that began half a century ago was the one in which Vermont entered the modern world.

    Or perhaps was pulled into it, not quite kicking and screaming, with as much reluctance as enthusiasm. As it was in the rest of the country, 1964 was a year of profound change in Vermont, a kind of dividing line between eras. Vermont's old era " when it was dominated by small towns, dairy farmers, the Republican Party, and antagonism toward the federal government " was fading. Something else was beginning.

    The new beginning, needless to say, had earlier beginnings. There is something a touch arbitrary about assigning unique significance to any one year. The Interstate highway system that would transform the state began in the late 1950s. For a few years after 1964, the state would still have a poll tax, and University of Vermont students and visitors would still enjoy (and defend) the blatantly racist "kake walk. "The Legislature would not abandon its "one town-one vote" system until 1965. And Democrat Phil Hoff had eked out a victory in 1962, becoming Vermont's first Democratic governor in more than a century.

Still, it was in 1964 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres." meaning in all states lawmakers would have to represent voters, not towns. It was in 1964 that the NAACP first formally criticized UVM for the Kake walk. And it was in 1964 that Vermont first voted Democratic down the line. Not only was Hoff re-elected, but so were all the other Democratic statewide candidates, and Lyndon Johnson trounced Republican Barry Goldwater, becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since before the Civil War.

    "That second term for Hoff signaled that (his victory in) 1962 wasn't a fluke." said Mark Hudson, the Executive Director of the Vermont historical Society.

    And throughout the year, the bulldozers kept churning and the concrete kept being poured. By the end of the year, more than 13 more miles of I-89 had been open to traffic.

    "The Interstates were it." when assessing the single biggest factor that "pushed Vermont into the modern age." said Chris Graff, the veteran Vermont journalist who is now vice president for communications at National Life Group.

    Graff said the expansion of the IBM plant in Essex, new and bigger ski resorts, and second home development. "Just would not have happened if it wasn't easy to get to Vermont."

    And that growth, he said, with its occasional excesses, brought about the reaction that led to the Land Use and Development Act (Act 250) and other environmental laws which are now central to government and society in the state, and such an important part of its nationwide image.

    In 1964, Vermont's population had been growing for more than a decade. But in many ways the state remained "a very isolated rural backwater, with an old economy based on dairy farming, lumbering, quarrying and small manufacturing." said Paul Searls, an assistant professor of history at Lyndon State College.

    But it was not only the state's economy that was archaic, Searls said. So was its governmental structure, in which power was centered in 'tiny fiefdoms of local control."

    If the Interstates brought the state into the 20th Century economically, that U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1964 (Reynolds v. Sims) and the federal court orders that followed did the job governmentally. The following year, amidst great controversy and no little anguish, the legislature recreated itself, reducing the House of Representatives to 150 members, apportioned by population, not town lines.

    Not all Vermonters were happy about the changes.  Romaine Tenney did not like the new Vermont the Interstates would bring, and would not leave the land his family had farmed since 1892, though it was in the pathway of I-91. When the sheriff's deputies came to evict him, he set fire to his farmhouse and died with it.

    Percy Mendell did not like the federal government ordering Vermont to change the way it chose its House of Representatives.

    "It's how we elect our Legislature. And it's worked just fine." he said. "What right do the folks in Washington have to come in and tell us to fix what ain't broke" It just flies in the face of logic " and it destroys local control."

    Percy Mendell is fiction, a character in "Into the Wilderness." a novel by Deborah Lee Luskin of Newfane. Luskin never got to Vermont until 1965, and she was then only nine years old. But she set her novel in the fictional town of Orton, Vermont, 1964, and said she did extensive research into what life was like in rural Vermont then, reading old newspapers and talking to people who remembered those days.

    And there's little doubt that the outlook she has Mendell express was widely held in rural Vermont at the time. Nor was it just a matter of governmental philosophy.  It was also a matter of power and money. Under the old system, lawmakers used their power to funnel state money into the small towns. It was 'small-town pork-barrel legislation." in the words of Anthony Marro and Stephen C. Terry in their book, "Philip Hoff: How Red turned Blue in the Green Mountain State.

    Fictional though he was, Mendell was at least partly right. If switching to one person-one vote did not "destroy" local control, it greatly diminished it. The state now handles many of the functions then under the control of the towns. In 1964 each town had an "overseer of the poor." It was they who dealt with income support for the disabled and indigent. There was no state welfare system. Nor were there state environmental laws, though Hoff tried to get the Legislature to pass a bill regulating land use. Hoff called that his "most tragic loss" of the year.

    Change is never easy, its benefits are not without some cost, and the benefits are not evenly distributed. In general Vermont is far more prosperous than it was in 1964, but to some extent the prosperity has followed the paths of the Interstates. The economic troubles of Rutland and Bennington, Chris Graff notes, can be at least partly explained by how far they are from the highways.

    A more centralized government inevitably brings with it more bureaucracy, more control from farther away, and even if "farther away" in this case is only as far as Montpelier, dealing with a state office is more impersonal than dealing with the town clerk, who is also a neighbor. The consolidated "union" high school, not in the center of the village but out on the highway, may have more up-do-date facilities than its smaller predecessor, but perhaps gives some parents the 'sense they are losing control over their own children." Paul Searls notes.

    As it is elsewhere, life in Vermont is more standardized, more homogenized than it was 50 years ago. Television, chain stores and restaurants, suburban subdivisions that seem all to have been designed by the same (not very good") architect almost seem to have conspired to blot out distinctions.

    Vermont still seems to want to retain its distinctions, and despite all the changes, the 2014 debates about how to do so sound not so different from the discussions of 1964: how much should state government do and how much left to "local control"" Should schools or school districts consolidate"  Should economic growth be guided or limited, or just left to the dynamics of the market"

    Such discussions are not unique to Vermont, but seem to have more salience here simply because most Vermonters do want to retain the small towns, the pastoral landscape and the more personal ambiance of the state's past. The irony, as historian Searls sees it, is that "in order for Vermonters to take control of their own destiny they have to shape it rather than have outside forces shape it."

    In other words, a certain amount of very modern government planning " the kind Phil Hoff envisioned but could not accomplish in 1964 " may be needed to preserve what people want preserve of the past. Left untouched, the dynamics of the market will suburbanize and standardize everything in their path. Among the legacies of 1964, it seems, is what to argue about and how to argue it.

Is Vermont High School Football an Endangered Species?

October 18, 2013
It's mid-Autumn. Most of the leaves have fallen, a chill is in the air, and many a Vermonter " even some who don't have children, neighbors, or friends out on the field " enjoy going to a high school football game. They go to cheer on their home-town kids " the Champlain Valley Union Redhawks in Hinesburg, the Tigers down at Middlebury High, Colchester High School's Lakers or the aptly named Solons in Montpelier.


Check that last one. Montpelier High fields soccer teams " boys and girls, varsity and junior varsity. But the Solons don't play football any more.

"It was just a lack of numbers and a lack of interest," said Montpelier High School principal Adam Bunting. If the school had fielded a team this year, he said, it would be so small that boys might feel "pressure to play injured" to avoid having the team forfeit a game, as it had to do last year.

Montpelier is not unique. According to figures supplied by the Vermont Principals Association, 33 Vermont high schools fielded football teams in 2006, with 1,945 boys participating. In 2012, 26 schools had teams with a total of 1,159 players.

For two reasons, those figures could overstate the falloff in football participation. First, they may not be complete; schools are not required to report their programs, and one or two small schools may not have informed the Principals Association. Second, football is hardly the only school activity in which fewer students take part. In fact, there are simply fewer students in Vermont than there were several years ago.

But the student population of Vermont high schools fell about 13 percent from 2006, while the number of football players went down by almost a third.

"You are beginning to see fewer and fewer students involved," said Bob Johnson, the associate executive director of the Vermont Principals Association.

High school football in Vermont is not about to disappear. Several programs are thriving. Lots of teenage boys love playing football. Realistically or not, some see the game as their ticket to a college education (perhaps a free one) and maybe even a career in the National Football League.

Besides, as in the rest of the country, the passion, the pace, sometimes seemingly the purpose of life in many a high school centers around football in the autumn. It isn't just the players. It's the cheerleaders, the band, the pep rallies, the booster clubs. For several weeks the game dominates school life, and most students seem to like it that way.

But high school football in Vermont is diminished from what it was, and is likely to be more diminished in the near future. School athletic officials say they would not be at all surprised if more schools drop the sport.

Some smaller and medium-size schools that are near each other might join forces, with just one school fielding a team, but with boys from nearby schools eligible to play on it. Montpelier tried to work out such an arrangement with Williamstown and Northfield High Schools, neither of which has a football team, but it did not work out.

One reason schools might drop football, Johnson said, is that there are now so many more sports alternative for high school students. Some schools have volleyball and bowling teams. Others are considering rugby and ultimate Frisbee.

Besides, considering the need for protective equipment and uniforms, and for several coaches (offense, defense, line, backfield, and maybe special teams), football is expensive.

And about to get more expensive for Vermont high schools thanks to what is almost certainly (though not provably) the other reason fewer boys are playing the sport: the danger of serious brain injury.

"No parent has come to me specifically and said, "my son is not going to play football because I'm worried about concussion,'" said Trevor Squirrell.

But the very fact that Squirrell is involved in this conversation at all proves that the brain injury threat is having an impact on high school football participation. It also shows that Vermont's athletic, educational, and political establishment is not trying to deny that playing football can lead to serious and disabling head injuries.

Squirrell is not a coach (though he has coached), a teacher, or an education official. He is the executive director of the Brain Injury Association of Vermont, and his association is involved in high school football because both the educators and the Legislature have established a procedure designed to protect student-athletes.

And also, perhaps, to preserve high school football.

And even though there is no conclusive evidence that boys " or their parents " are deciding not to play football out of fear of brain injury, Squirrell does not doubt that such decisions are being made.

"Certainly there seems to be evidence out there that this is happening," he said.

It could hardly be otherwise. The suicides of former NFL players Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, and " most recently " Paul Oliver received extensive news coverage. Autopsies revealed that Seau and Duerson had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that can be caused by repeated blows to the head. Duerson's story is part of a new movie called "The United States of Football," which also cites experts questioning the safety of football at all levels, starting with Pop Warner League "pee-wee" football.

There are no reports of serious brain disease that might have been caused by high school football in Vermont. In fact, there are no reports of any Vermont football player receiving a serious head injury in recent years.

But there have been such incident in other states, and Vermont followed the lead of some of those states by passing Act 68 earlier this year. The law requires schools to adopt an "action plan" for dealing with head injuries in "collision sports" such as football, and establishes a "concussion management plan" which includes a flow chart for what coaches are to do when a player shows any sign of concussion.

"Concussions are going to happen," said Squirrell, in football and in other sports. But if they are properly dealt with, if players are not allowed to return to play " or even to "return to learn" in the classroom " before they are ready, concussions are less likely to lead to brain injury.

The new law also orders coaches to undergo "training in recognizing the symptoms of concussion and how to reduce the risks of concussion," and requires a trained "licensed health care professional" at every interscholastic football game.

Almost all schools already have such a professional on hand, but some of them are emergency medical technicians. By 2015, that level of license will no longer suffice. Some schools will have to find " and pay for " health professionals with more training. Along with other costs of fielding a football team, this could price some schools out of the game.

"Football can be a very safe sport," said Bob Johnson, predicting that it is "still going to be here at some level" for years to come.

But he acknowledged that it might be a slightly different game (getting rid of kickoffs has been discussed at all levels of the sport), and possibly played by fewer players at fewer schools. Though kids can get hurt in all sports (and that includes cheer-leading), the evidence suggests that the risk of serious injury is greater in football.

If more schools drop the sport, it would be more than just a change in athletic schedules. It would be a change in the culture of high school, one that some principals and teachers would welcome, though many in school and in town would regret. Somehow it's hard to imagine a pep rally for the ultimate Frisbee team.


See also: Watch VPT's special, Damage Control. A panel of experts and young athletes discuss the issue of concussions in sports, and the response of Vermont schools and officials. Live call-in. Panelists include Alan Maynard, President of the Vermont Association of Athletic Trainers and Dr. Kalev Freeman, Director, Emergency Medicine Research, Fletcher Allen.

Is Vermont's Sex Offender Registry Effective?

July 12, 2013
At last count, there were 1,155 Vermonters on the public section of the state's Sex Offender Registry and Notification (SORN) list.

That's the list open to the public. It allows anyone to go on line and learn whether anyone living nearby has been convicted of a sex crime, including (but not limited to) sexual crimes against children and young teenagers.

The web site provides the name, age, and description (including a picture) of each registered sex offender, whether he (it's usually a he; only 27 women are on the Registry) is considered "high risk" to re-offend, the date he was convicted, and the statute he violated. It does not give street addresses, only the town of residence. Those who want to know if the offender lives next door would have to consult their local phone book or other resource.

The Registry is required by law, both state and federal. Its goal is to minimize sexual assault against children by alerting both police and parents to the presence of potentially dangerous offenders.

Does it work"

At first glance, the evidence seems to suggest that it does. The number of reported sexual offense against minors is on the decline. In 2004, according to the Vermont Criminal Information Center (based on data from the National Archive of Criminal Justice) there were 204 forcible and 89 non-forcible sex offenses reported against victims under the age of 18. By 2010, the last year for which information is available, there were only 165 forcible and 39 non-forcible offenses reported.

But not necessarily because of the Sex Offender Registry.

Thanks to publicity surrounding such horrible crimes as the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett in Randolph June 2008 (and perhaps to the promotional zeal of some cable television personalities) public awareness and public outrage about sex crimes against children has been growing.

But the actual commission of these crimes has been shrinking.

"The rate of sexual assault, according to all federal crime data, has been declining for many years," said Andrew Harris, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who has done extensive research into sex offender policy. "Whether it can be attributed to any particular policy " the registries, better investigation, longer sentences " we can't say."

But there does seem to be something approaching a consensus in the academic research over the question of whether the registries are effective. That consensus is that they are not.

One study reaching that conclusion was done in 2005 by the Legislative Council for the Vermont State Legislature. It found that "there is insufficient evidence to determine whether posting information about registered sex offenders on the internet is a valuable and effective public safety tool."

But, the report acknowledged, "The general assembly determined'that the majority of the public feels that the internet registry provides important information that can be used to protect families and expects such information to be a matter of public record."

That's not quite saying (because researchers working for the Legislature would not say) that politicians were pursuing a useless policy because of public pressure. But it's close.

Even Harris, who described himself as middle-of-the-road on the dispute, could only say that just because the research has "not been able to demonstrate a significant impact (of the registries) doesn't lead to conclusion that there is no impact."

But Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn and Francis (Paco) Aumand, the Director of the Division of Criminal Justice Services both argue that the Registry could protect some children in ways that no research could uncover.

By warning their children about the presence of "predatorial sex offenders," Flynn said, parents who have checked the registry could be protecting them from potential attacks.

Flynn and Aumond agree with Registry critic Allen Gilbert, the Executive Director the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont that the vast majority of sex offenses against children are committed by their relatives and acquaintances, not by what Gilbert called "a stranger in a trench coat leaping out from behind the bushes."

But Flynn noted that even the "small minority of sexual offenders (have the) potential to do great harm," and Aumand pointed out that some sexual predators become friendly with families " and thereby make themselves "acquaintances" " precisely to gain access to their vulnerable children. Forewarned about this new companion's past, he said, the parents can cut off contact with him before he can pounce.

Still, most experts in the field, including Flynn and Aumand, acknowledge that if the registries may do some good, they can also do some harm. Many of those experts conclude that the harm outweighs the good.

That's the conclusion of "Raised on the Registry: The Irreparable Harm of Placing Children on Sex Offender Registries in the US," a 111-page report issued by Human Rights Watch in May.

"Of course anyone responsible for a sexual assault should be held accountable," wrote Nicole Pitman, the author of the report. "But punishment should fit both the offense and the offender, and placing children who commit sex offenses on a public registry " often for life " can cause more harm than good."

Pitman was referring in part to a problem " or at least what many consider a problem " that does not apply in Vermont: placing on the Registry a teenage boy who has consensual sex with an under-age (16 in Vermont) young woman.

However objectionable it might be, such conduct is the sign of a normal sex drive, not the abnormal passion for sex with minors that serves as one justification for sex offender registries. Vermont does not put those offenders on the Registry as long as the offender was under 18 and the victim older than 12.

But a common offense of the Vermont registrants is "lewd and lascivious conduct with (a) child." That could describe truly dangerous and abhorrent conduct. But in one case (not in Vermont) a college student, probably after drinking a few beers, urinated on the grass at the edge of his campus. Unfortunately, it was also near a house where two teen-aged girls lived. The parents pressed charges and the young man is on his state's registry.

There is no evidence that there is a similar case in Vermont. But no guarantee that there is not.

In a few cases, being listed on the Registry has proved fatal. In 2006, a self-appointed vigilante from Canada murdered two men who were on Maine's Registry (he had also checked out the Vermont list) before shooting and killing himself.

One of the murdered men had been convicted of having sex with his girl friend just a few days before she reached the age of consent.

The Vermont Registry posts a disclaimer on its web site: "Any person who uses information in this registry to injure, harass, or commit a criminal offense against any person included in the registry or any other person is subject to criminal prosecution."

"I'm not sure what good that does," said Allen Gilbert. "The law already says you're not allowed to hurt anybody."

Vermont's law differs from those of many states in other ways. It does not empower localities to limit where offenders can live. And most offenders are on the Registry for a period of time. If they do not re-offend " and most do not " they are removed from the list when the time expires.

Critics and advocates of Vermont's Registry disagree over whether its benefits outweigh its costs. Gilbert said he would prefer to replace the Registry with "a more reasonable approach" which would rely on "treatment programs that work," and a greater effort to "successfully reintegrate (offenders) back into society."

The Registry hinders that process, Gilbert said. It stigmatizes those on it, making it harder for them to find and keep a job, to be accepted by civic organizations or to be welcome by their neighbors.

But he also acknowledged that the question is complicated. And while law enforcement officials such as Flynn and Aumand think the Registry is worth its costs, they don't dispute that it has its cost, and that it can interfere with efforts to treat offenders to the point at which they no longer endanger anyone. Unlike their counterparts in some other states, Vermont's top law enforcement officials do not say they believe that people who sexually abuse children have an affliction that can never be cured.

"This is a legitimate argument that needs discussion," Flynn said, acknowledging that the Registry "limits civil liberties," and should be applied selectively, "with appropriate balance."

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