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Headlines for Friday, March 29, 2024

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Emily Fisher

Leavenworth Prison Remains Under Lockdown; Inmates Complain of Inhumane Conditions

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (KC Star) - The federal penitentiary in Leavenworth has been under lockdown for weeks. Inmates and their families are complaining about what they call inhumane conditions. The Kansas City Star reports that the facility was placed on lockdown earlier this month when prison officials suspected a gun had been smuggled into the facility that houses 1,800 people.

Inmates say they're not getting enough food, that their meals are child-sized and the portions often consist of bread, a scoop of peanut butter and slices of cheese and ham. Meanwhile, prisoners say the water at Leavenworth prison has been off and on, which means limited showers. One family member told the Star that the inmates are being treated like animals. Visitations have also been suspended.

The Bureau of Prisons says modified operations at the prison DO limit services, but officials maintain inmates still have access to food, water and medical care.


Kansas Senate Approves New Foster Care Option for Teens

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) - The Kansas Senate has approved a bill that would give teenagers in foster care a new option for a permanent home. Under the measure, foster teens could choose relatives or close friends as their custodial parents. The bill would allow Kansas teens in foster care to choose one or multiple adults to serve as their custodian. Older foster children can be adopted or placed with foster parents. But many children end up bouncing around homes and aging out of care without being adopted. Republican Senator Beverly Gossage says the new arrangement would offer the option of a life-long connection picked by the teen. “That could be a neighbor, a boy scout leader, a pastor. Someone they feel very close to," she said. The bill now heads to Governor Laura Kelly.


Kansas House Approves Special Education Funding Increase

WICHITA, Kan. (KNS/KPR) — This week, the Kansas House narrowly approved a bill to increase funding for special education. Opponents claim the increase is merely accounting tricks. The measure would require districts to shift about $130 million of local property tax money toward special education. Republican Rep. Dave Younger a former superintendent from Ulysses, thinks the measure would shortchange schools and does not amount to more funding. “Using local property tax to pay for special-ed funding is not a viable option. Any other calculation is voodoo math,” he said.

Younger's statement is at odds with figures from the Kansas Legislative Research Department. Under the bill passed by the House, special education funding in Kansas would increase from the current $528 million to $610 million in the next fiscal year.

The House-passed bill would also require schools to create an accountability plan for at-risk students and report progress to the State Board of Education.

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this story did not include figures from the Kansas Legislative Research Department.)


Kansas Legislature Sends Governor Bill Banning Puberty Blockers, Trans Health Care for Children

TOPEKA, Kan. (KPR / KNS) — The Kansas Legislature has approved legislation that forbids puberty blockers, gender transition surgery and other transgender health care for children. The measure is now on its way to Democratic Governor Laura Kelly, who is likely to veto the measure. However, the Kansas House and Senate appear to have enough votes to override a potential veto.

The bill would revoke a doctor’s license if they prescribe treatments like hormone replacement therapy to anyone under 18. Proponents of the bill say such treatments amount to mutilation and that people could regret care they receive as a minor. Republican state Senator Mark Steffen likened the treatments to the archaic practice of lobotomizing people with mental health disorders. “Healthcare thought that was a good idea at one point in time. Obviously, it couldn’t be less true," he said. But critics say early treatment can be life-saving for trans people, who are more likely to be suicidal. D.C. Hiegert, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, called the legislation "extremely harmful."


As Kansas Nears Gender Care Ban, Students Push University to Advocate for Trans Youth

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — With Kansas poised to ban gender-affirming care for minors, college students are trying to counter Republican efforts to roll back transgender rights by pushing the state's largest university to declare itself a haven for trans youth. The GOP-controlled Legislature approved its proposed ban on puberty blockers, hormone treatments and surgeries for minors Wednesday, apparently with the two-thirds majorities in both chambers needed to override an expected veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. Kansas would join 24 other states in banning or restricting gender-affirming care for minors, the latest being Wyoming last week.

But the week before — when a ban already appeared likely — the Student Senate on the University of Kansas' main campus overwhelmingly approved a proposal to add transgender rights policies to the school's code of student rights. The proposal asks administrators to affirm the students' right “to determine their own identities,” direct staff to use their preferred names and pronouns and commit to updating student records to reflect their gender identities. Administrators have not formally responded.

The university's hometown of Lawrence, between Kansas City and the state capital of Topeka, already has a reputation for being more liberal than the rest of the Republican-leaning state. But students involved with the transgender rights proposal said it's urgent now to show that the university will advocate for LGBTQ youth despite a Legislature they see as hostile. “The people in charge have made the decision to support some things that are really cruel and unnecessary and unjustifiable,” Jenna Bellemere, a 21-year-old transgender senior, said of lawmakers. “It’s students and the younger generation who have to kind of step up and say, no, we don’t think that that’s OK and fight back against it.”

Republicans in Kansas have been part of a multi-year and nationwide push by GOP lawmakers to roll back transgender rights. Last year, they overrode Kelly vetoes of measures ending the state’s legal recognition of transgender residents’ gender identities and banning transgender women and girls from female K-12 and college sports.

Six months ago, lawsuits by conservative GOP Attorney General Kris Kobach forced Kelly's administration to stop changing the listing for “sex” on transgender people's birth certificates and driver's licenses.

Chris Raithel, a non-binary University of Kansas junior, was among those who worked on drafting the Student Senate proposal since last fall. Their goal wasn't to create a confrontation between the university and the Legislature that could fuel a budget-cutting backlash, they said, "but we do think it would be a great service to the trans students at the university if these protections were in university policy and students would see that they are understood and that they’re protected.”

Republicans have pushed for a ban even though trans youth, families and medical providers in Kansas opposed it. The move also goes against the recommendation of several major American medical groups. However, the National Health Service of England recently said it no longer would routinely cover puberty blockers and hormone treatment for minors.

Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, described his chamber’s approval as a firm stand against “radical transgender ideology.” Several doctors are among the legislators backing the Kansas measure, arguing that they’re protecting children from potentially irreversible medical treatments with long-term health effects. “The bias, as some people call it, is predicated on fear — fear of the unknown — and there is still a lot that we don't know about what we're embarking on, particularly with minors,” said state Republican state Rep. John Eplee, a doctor from the state's northeastern corner. “This is not meant to be hateful or hurtful.”

Republican Sen. Mark Steffen, a central Kansas anesthesiologist and pain-management doctor, suggested the proposed ban would protect “troubled children” from "wayward parents and a wayward health care system.”

GOP legislators approved a proposed ban last year but couldn't override Kelly's veto. This year, supporters saw a net gain of 12 votes in the House to reach the necessary two-thirds majority there.

In the state Senate, supporters were one vote shy last year but picked it up Wednesday from Republican Sen. Brenda Dietrich, of Topeka, a former local school superintendent. She switched because this year backers added a provision that would give doctors until the end of the year to move patients off puberty blockers or hormone treatments. Dietrich's voice shook as she explained her decision to colleagues Wednesday evening, saying it was a difficult vote. She said she'd worried about the potential harm of cutting off treatments suddenly but has always agreed with people in her GOP-leaning district, who “overwhelmingly” oppose gender-affirming surgeries for minors. “Their anger regarding physicians and parents allowing surgeries on children is palpable," she said.

Even supporters of the ban have acknowledged that Kansas doctors do few gender-affirming surgeries for minors. Young transgender adults have said in interviews that they've gone through months — sometimes several years — of therapy, puberty blockers and hormone treatments first.

And critics of a ban said the provision allowing a gradual withdrawal of treatments that reduce the risk of suicide, while potentially better medically than an abrupt end, doesn't prevent harm to the physical and mental health of transgender youth. “Minors and their families are already facing significant emotional turmoil from facing these hateful bills year after year,” Amanda Mogoi, an advanced practice registered nurse from Wichita who’s provided such treatments for eight years, said in an email. “They will not want to stop their life-saving medications.”

While the measure would ban treatments only for people under 18 years old, the college students behind the University of Kansas proposal still see it as a threat to them, in part because they don't expect GOP lawmakers to stop there. During the House debate Wednesday, health committee Chair Brenda Landwehr suggested that Kansas should consider extending the ban to people in their early 20s.
“If I could ban this until a child's brain fully developed, I would do that in a heartbeat,” said Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. Bellemere said that even without a broader ban, doctors might stop treating young transgender adults, fearing lawsuits or other legal problems.

Another transgender University of Kansas student, Raine Flores-Peña, a junior and LGBTQ+ rights activist working at the school's Center for Sexuality & Gender Diversity, said some friends transferred to other universities after Kansas legislators ended the state's legal recognition of their gender identities. But he began his transition after moving to Lawrence in 2018, and describes himself as very stubborn.
“I don’t want to get kicked out of my own home," he said.


Medical Marijuana Pilot Program Dies in the Kansas Legislature

TOPEKA, Kan. (Kansas Reflector) - The idea of creating a pilot program for medical marijuana in Kansas appears to be dead for this legislative session. The Kansas Reflector reports that a committee in the Kansas Senate has tabled the idea until next year. The Director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Tony Mattivi, opposed the legislation, saying the pilot program was a wolf in sheep's clothing. He said the pilot program would eventually lead to the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Kansas.


Kansas House Unanimously Approves Tax Reform Package

TOPEKA, Kan. (KNS) — After a lengthy discussion Tuesday night, Kansas House members advanced major tax reform Wednesday with unanimous bipartisan support. The Kansas News Service reports that representatives from both parties clapped, shook hands and patted each other on the back after reaching a breakthrough on tax relief. The bill would combine the state’s three tax brackets into just two – rather than the single rate vetoed by Democratic Governor Laura Kelly in January. The first $7,000 of a person’s income would be exempt from state taxes. Democratic Representative Tom Sawyer said, “We have a good, strong position in the House that benefits all Kansans. I think we can be very proud of the work we did today.” The bill also includes state property tax relief and an increase to the standard deduction. Kelly previously said a dual rate system was not her “preference”. It remains unclear if she would sign the bill if it also passes the Senate.


Kris Kobach Leads Group of Attorneys General in Lawsuit over Student Loan Repayment Plan

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A group of Republican state attorneys general is suing the Biden administration to block a new student loan repayment plan that provides a faster path to cancellation and lower monthly payments for millions of borrowers. In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, 11 states, led by Kansas, argue that Biden overstepped his authority in creating the SAVE Plan, which was made available to borrowers last year and has already canceled loans for more than 150,000.

The lawsuit argues that the new plan is no different from Biden's first attempt at student loan cancellation, which the Supreme Court rejected last year. “Last time Defendants tried this the Supreme Court said that this action was illegal. Nothing since then has changed,” according to the lawsuit. The Education Department declined to comment on the lawsuit but noted that Congress in 1993 gave the department the authority to define the terms of income-driven repayment plans. “The Biden-Harris Administration won’t stop fighting to provide support and relief to borrowers across the country — no matter how many times Republican elected officials try to stop us,” the department said in a statement.

Biden announced the SAVE repayment plan in 2022, alongside a separate plan to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for more than 40 million Americans. The Supreme Court blocked the cancellation plan after Republican states sued, but the court didn’t examine SAVE, which was still being hashed out.

The new lawsuit was filed a day after the White House hosted a “day of action” to promote the SAVE Plan. The Biden administration says more than 7.7 million borrowers have enrolled in the plan, including more than 5 million who have had their monthly payments reduced to $100 or less because they have lower yearly incomes.

The challenge was filed electronically in federal court in Kansas by Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach, who requested that any trial be in Wichita, the state's largest city. The lawsuit asks a judge to halt the plan immediately. Along with Kansas, the suit is backed by Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. “In a completely brazen fashion, the president pressed ahead anyway,” Kobach said during a news conference at the Kansas Statehouse. “The law simply does not allow President Biden to do what he wants to do.”

Biden’s new repayment plan is a modified version of other income-based repayment plans that the Education Department has offered since the ’90s. The earliest versions were created by Congress to help struggling borrowers, capping payments at a portion of their income and canceling any remaining debt after 20 or 25 years.

The new plan offers more generous terms than ever, offering to reduce monthly payments for more borrowers and canceling loans in as little as 10 years. Unlike other plans, it prevents interest from snowballing as long as borrowers make their monthly payments.

The plan’s provisions are being phased in this year, and the quicker path to cancellation was originally scheduled to take effect later this summer. But the Biden administration accelerated that benefit and started canceling loans for some borrowers in February.

Biden said it was meant “to give more borrowers breathing room so they can get out from under the burden of student loan debt.”

Instead of creating a new plan from scratch, the Education Department amended existing plans through federal regulation. Supporters saw it as a legal maneuver that put the plan on firmer grounding, anticipating a challenge from Republicans. But in the new lawsuit, Kobach argues that Biden needed to go through Congress to make such significant changes. The states argue that Biden's plan will harm them in many ways.

With such a generous repayment plan, fewer borrowers will have an incentive to go into public service and pursue the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, the states argue. They predict more state employees will leave their jobs, and it will worsen public schools' struggles to recruit and retain teachers.

They argue the plan will inject hundreds of billions of dollars in loan relief into the U.S. economy, which would require states to increase fraud protection efforts. The plan “will create enormous opportunities for fraudsters to exploit student debt borrowers that would not otherwise exist,” according to the suit.

If successful, it would effectively kill the last remnant of Biden’s first attempt at widespread student loan relief. After the Supreme Court blocked his wider plan last year, Biden ordered the Education Department to craft a new plan using a different legal justification. The agency is now pursuing a more limited plan for mass cancellation.


Kansas Senate Approves Bill to Nullify Lawrence's Ban on Plastic Bags

TOPEKA, Kan. (Kansas Reflector) — Republican lawmakers in Topeka are trying to cancel a ban on plastic, single-use bags in the city of Lawrence. State lawmakers have been working to prohibit cities like Lawrence from banning or regulating the use of bags, straws, cups, bottles and other single-use containers. The Kansas Reflector reports that a bill to do that passed the House last year and this week, the Kansas Senate voted to send the legislation to the governor’s desk.

Lawrence implemented a plastic bag ban March 1 due to environmental concerns. The city allows exemptions for other plastic products, such as produce bags and garment bags. Lawrence’s ban added urgency to Republican-driven efforts to prevent similar bans from taking effect. Democratic Governor Laura Kelly is likely to veto the GOP-supported legislation, just like she did last year. Republican lawmakers likely won’t have enough votes to override the expected veto.


Body Discovered Floating in the Kansas River in North Topeka

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) — A body has been discovered in the Kansas River. Topeka police were notified Friday morning that a body was seen floating in the river in North Topeka (in the area of the 300 block of N. Kansas Avenue). Topeka police and fire units responded. WIBW TV reports that the body was located in the water a few feet off the north bank of the river, near a homeless encampment. An investigation continues.


Texas Attorney General Investigating Spirit AeroSystems, Asking About Diversity

DALLAS (AP) — The Texas attorney general has opened an investigation into a key Boeing supplier that is already facing scrutiny from federal regulators over quality of parts that it provides to the aircraft maker.

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said it began looking into Spirit AeroSystems because of “apparent manufacturing defects” in parts that “have led to numerous concerning or dangerous incidents.”

In a statement Friday, a Spirit spokesman said, “While we do not comment on investigations, Spirit is wholly focused on providing the highest quality products to all our customers, to include the Boeing Company.”

Paxton asked the Wichita-based supplier to turn over documents produced since the start of 2022 about communication with investors and Boeing about flaws in parts and corrective steps the company took.

The request goes into detail in seeking internal discussions around Spirit’s efforts to create a diverse workforce “and whether those commitments are unlawful or are compromising the company’s manufacturing processes.” Paxton asked for a breakdown of Spirit's workforce by race, sexual orientation and other factors, and whether the makeup has changed over time.

Since a Spirit-made door-plug panel blew off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 Max in January, some conservatives have tried to link aviation safety to diversity at manufacturers.

Paxton is a conservative Republican who this week agreed to pay $271,000 in restitution to victims and take 15 hours of training in legal ethics to settle felony charges of securities fraud. Paxton did not admit wrongdoing in the 9-year-old case.

The Federal Aviation Administration launched an investigation into Boeing and Spirit after the Alaska Airlines incident. An FAA audit of manufacturing procedures in Spirit’s factory gave the company failing grades in seven of 13 areas.

Boeing is in talks to buy back Spirit, which it spun off nearly 20 years ago, as part of a plan to tighten oversight of manufacturing in its supply chain.


Freezing Temperatures in Western Kansas Present Challenges for Wheat Farmers

LIBERAL, Kan. (KNS) – The freezing temperatures in western Kansas earlier this week (03-29-2024) could have a negative effect on the 2024 wheat crop. The Kansas News Service reports that freeze injury to a wheat crop can sterilize parts of the plants before they fully mature, leading to lower crop yields. Kansas State University researchers say that southwest Kansas crops are the most likely to have been damaged by temperatures dropping below 25 degrees for a day. Rains could help the crop recover, but yields will be lower. Farmers also have other options, including replanting damaged areas with different crops, such as sorghum.


Legendary KU Basketball Star Walt Wesley Dead at 79

LAWRENCE, Kan. (LJW) - Legendary Kansas basketball star Walt Wesley has died. Wesley was a member of the 1965-66 conference championship team. He's also one of the KU players whose jersey hangs in the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse. The Lawrence Journal-World reports that the two-time All American played for a decade in the NBA. Wesley died Thursday in Tampa, Florida. He was 79.


Barton County Community College Men's Basketball Team Plays for National Title

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (KPR) - At least one Kansas team is still playing basketball thsi week. Barton County Community College, in Great Bend, has advanced to the championship game of the National Junior College Men’s Basketball Tournament in Hutchinson. Barton County is now 35-1 this season after a 93-78 win over Indian Hills Community College of Iowa Thursday. The title game pits the top-seeded Barton Cougars against Triton College, a No. 7 seed from the Chicagoland area. In the semifinal, Lajae Jones, a sophomore guard from Seattle, Washington, was Barton’s leading scorer with 25 points. The Cougars are making the most of their first appearance in the national junior college tournament since 2018. It’s only the fifth time overall they’ve played in the tournament.

Tipoff time for the national championship game is set for 2 pm Saturday in Hutch.


Royals Lose Home Opener as Twins Begin Defense of AL Central Title with 4-1 Win

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Pablo Lopez allowed one run over seven innings, Royce Lewis homered before leaving with an injury, and the Minnesota Twins beat the Kansas City Royals 4-1 on Thursday to begin defense of their AL Central crown. Carlos Correa added three hits and two RBIs to back a near-peerless performance by Lopez, who picked up where he left off last postseason. The right-hander allowed four hits and struck out seven without a walk in his first opening-day start. The lone run Lopez (1-0) allowed was a homer to Maikel Garcia, the first batter he faced. Brock Stewart worked the eighth for Minnesota. Griffin Jax earned the save by handling the ninth.

Cole Ragans (0-1) set a Royals record for opening day with nine strikeouts in just six innings. But the 26-year-old left-hander, who arrived in a midseason trade with Texas last year, also allowed two runs on five hits and two walks.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid began the festivities on a sun-splashed afternoon by hauling the club's latest Lombardi Trophy to the mound, where team owner Clark Hunt and president Mark Donovan held two other Super Bowl trophies. Then Reid, who worked as a vendor at Dodger Stadium as a teen, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett.

After taking Friday off, the Twins send RHP Joe Ryan to the mound against Royals RHP Seth Lugo on Saturday. The Royals signed Lugo to a three-year, $45 million contract during their offseason overhaul of the starting rotation.


Welsh Rugby Star Louis Rees-Zammit Agrees to a Contract with the Chiefs, AP Source Says

UNDATED (AP) – Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit has agreed to a contract with the two-time defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, a person with knowledge of the contract told The Associated Press. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because the team hasn’t announced the deal.

The 23-year-old Rees-Zammit, one of the best wingers in rugby, announced in January that he was leaving the Welsh national team to pursue a dream of playing in the NFL. He’s projected as a returner/running back/wide receiver. Rees-Zammit is one of 15 athletes from eight countries participating in the NFL International Player Pathway program. The prospects have spent 10 weeks training at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, getting a crash course in practicing the fundamentals of football and learning the intricacies of a game most have never played.

Rees-Zammit ran an official time of 4.43 in the 40-yard dash last week when the international players participated in the University of South Florida’s pro day. He drew a lot of attention from a crowd that included 51 scouts from 31 teams. “A bit disappointed in my 40,” Rees-Zammit told the AP afterward. “Last week, I was getting some really good times. I was getting low 4.3s, high 4.2s. So it is what it is. It’s just what happens on the day. But I know I can run that fast. I’m not trying to make excuses or anything, but I know what I can do and I’m happy with the day and how the day went."

Rees-Zammit, whose favorite NFL player growing up was three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeSean Jackson, hopes to play like 49ers stars Deebo Samuel and Christian McCaffrey. “I watched a lot of footage of Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, players like that who’ve got that versatility because I want to be a player that can play multiple positions and I fully believe I can, so being able to play out of the backfield, being able to line up as a receiver, in the slot, wideout," Rees-Zammit said last week. “I’ve learned a lot in the past eight weeks and I’m pretty excited to see what will happen.”

He'll get an opportunity to catch passes from three-time Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes and learn from coach Andy Reid. The NFL's new kickoff rule that makes returners more relevant gives Rees-Zammit a chance to make the team as a specialist.

For the first time this season, each team will have a 17th roster spot on the practice squad specifically available for an international player. Teams also are permitted to promote an international practice squad player to the active roster a maximum of three times throughout the season — increasing opportunities for players to develop and get a chance to play. Teams will also receive one training camp roster exemption for a qualifying international player.


Willow Domestic Violence Center Featured in the KPR Community Spotlight for March

LAWRENCE, Kan. (KPR) — This month's KPR Community Spotlight is on the Willow Domestic Violence Center. Willow serves survivors of domestic violence in Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties and all of its services are provided free of charge. Christy Imel, director of external affairs for Willow, says survivors of domestic violence often find ways to hide their abuse from friends, family and colleagues. "I've had a number of people come up to me and say: 'Is domestic violence really an issue in our community?' And the answer is: Yes, absolutely it's an issue," she said. Willow operates more than one shelter for survivors and provides a 24-hour hotline for people who need help: (785) 843-3333. Learn more about Willow and the many services it provides.

Willow is holding its Bijoux fundraiser on Thursday, April 4 at the Cider Gallery in Lawrence.


This summary of area news is curated by KPR news staffers. Our headlines are generally published by 10 am weekdays and are updated through 7 pm. This ad-free news summary is made possible by KPR members. Become one today. And follow KPR News on Twitter.