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Perilous times for historically black colleges

Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted – a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America.

>> Read more trending news

Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who’s a senior there now. So Smith wasn’t surprised when she was accepted, too. 

She is just wrapping up her sophomore year. But not at Spelman. She’s studying biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech. 

“I am kind of the black sheep in the family,” Smith said. “When I got accepted into Tech, I felt very proud of myself. My grandmother (a dean at Fort Valley State University) was very proud of me. She said if she had had the opportunity to go to Tech when she was choosing a college, she would have gone. But she never got that chance.”

To read the complete story, visit The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Delta latest company ending discounts, benefits for NRA members

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines announced Saturday it is ending a discount for National Rifle Association members.

>> Read more trending news

The move comes as some other businesses broke ties with the NRA amid debate over gun control in the wake of the Parkland school shooting in Florida earlier this month.

“We will be requesting that the NRA remove our information from its website,” Delta said in a written statement.

>> 3 car rental companies cancel discounts for NRA members 

Following is a list of some of the companies that have cut ties or distanced themselves from the NRA:

  • United Airlines -- United tweeted Saturday, "United is notifying the NRA that we will no longer offer a discounted rate to their annual meeting and we are asking that the NRA remove our information from their website." 

  • Delta Air Lines -- Delta issued the following statement Saturday: "Delta is reaching out to the National Rifle Association to let it know we will be ending its contract for discounted rates through our group travel program. We will be requesting that the NRA remove our information from its website." 

  • First National Bank of Omaha -- The bank announced that it would not renew a co-branded Visa credit-card with the NRA.

  • The Hertz Corp. -- The rental car company ended its discount program for NRA members.

  • MetLife Inc. -- The insurer terminated discounts that had been offered to NRA members on the NRA website

  • Enterprise Holdings Inc. -- The car rental company that also owns Alamo and National cut off discounts for NRA members.

  • Symantec Corp. -- The software company that makes Norton Antivirus technology ended its discount program with the NRA.

  • Chubb Ltd. -- The insurer announced it was ending participation in the NRA's gun-owner insurance program, though it provided notice three months ago.

  • Best Western -- The hotel chain told multiple social media users that it was no longer affiliated with the NRA, though it did not say when that decision was made.

  • Wyndham Hotels -- The hotel chain told social media users it is no longer affiliated with the NRA without specifying when that decision was made.

The NRA has released the following statement:

"The more than five million law-abiding members of the National Rifle Association have enjoyed discounts and cost-saving programs from many American corporations that have partnered with the NRA to expand member benefits.

"Since the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, a number of companies have decided to sever their relationship with the NRA, in an effort to punish our members who are doctors, farmers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, nurses, shop owners and school teachers that live in every American community. We are men and women who represent every American ethnic group, every one of the world’s religions and every form of political commitment.

"The law-abiding members of the NRA had nothing at all to do with the failure of that school’s security preparedness, the failure of America’s mental health system, the failure of the National Instant Check System or the cruel failures of both federal and local law enforcement.

"Despite that, some corporations have decided to punish NRA membership in a shameful display of political and civic cowardice. In time, these brands will be replaced by others who recognize that patriotism and determined commitment to Constitutional freedoms are characteristics of a marketplace they very much want to serve.

"Let it be absolutely clear. The loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission to stand and defend the individual freedoms that have always made America the greatest nation in the world."

Red Cross says 21 staffers paid for sexual service in past 3 years

A member of the International Committee of the Red Cross said that in the past three years, 21 staff members have resigned or were fired for “paying for sexual services,” CNN reported.

>> Read more trending news

Two other staff members suspected of sexual misconduct also did not have their contracts renewed, according to Yves Daccord, director general of the ICRC.

"This behavior is a betrayal of the people and the communities we are there to serve. It is against human dignity and we should have been more vigilant in preventing this," Daccord said.

Daccord said staffers are required to adhere to the ICRC’s code of conduct, which bans paying for sexual services. The organization has more than 1,700 staff members worldwide, CNN reported.

What covering the 2017 NRA convention was like

Last year’s National Rifle Association convention brought 80,000 people to downtown Atlanta, and on opening day I interviewed some of the nicest people I’d ever met.

>> Read more trending news

Given the heated protests that preceded the April 2017 event at the Georgia World Congress Center and the “fake news media” narrative some have embraced, I thought covering it might be awkward. Nope. Everyone I approached wasn’t just friendly. It’s like they were personally glad I was there.

A former Navy SEAL from Ohio was there with his 11-year-old twin grandsons. Not long after they arrived, the two young fellas were firing pellets from air rifles, their form and marksmanship impressive.

A lady from New Mexico was happy to run into friends she had met at past events and eager to check out the acres of merchandise. Living out west, she noted, means living with rattlesnakes.

“I shot my first rattlesnake five years ago, and I’ve been shooting them ever since,” she said, still giddy at dispatching that first venomous foe. 

I ran into former U.S. Army Ranger Kris “Tonto” Paronto, a survivor of the 2012 Benghazi attack, and he remembered me from our interview during the press tour for “13 Hours,” the movie that depicted the event. Swarmed with fans the ebullient Tonto  took a minute to talk with me again.

The family reunion vibe changed on Day 3, when NRA leaders and President Donald Trump arrived.

NRA chief Wayne LaPierre declared “academic and media elites” to be the biggest threats to the country. The crowd roared. The cavernous auditorium was darkened but the press pen situated in the center of the huge meeting hall was illuminated by our laptop screens. Reporters were easy to spot, in other words. 

“Give the media the big, fat black eye it deserves!” LaPierre urged. More cheering. “When did the media stop being journalists and start becoming PR flacks for the destruction of our country?”

What? I live here. Why would I destroy my home?

My dad and grandfathers all served in the military. My father-in-law did too. My great-uncle was a highly decorated veteran of three wars. My husband shoots sporting clays. There are more than a dozen firearms (all long guns that must be loaded prior to each shot, and a number of antique pieces that haven’t been fired in decades) in my house.

No one in the angry crowd knew that. All they knew was that, according to their leader, I was the enemy.

There was more shouting outside, as protesters set up shop near Centennial Olympic Park before marching through downtown.

“We are protesting this murder fantasy convention with mockery and anger and will continue our direct actions until the country is free from the grip of the violence-for-profit industry,” the group Betsy Riot said in a media release.

I caught up with the roving movement and recognized a neighbor in the crowd. We talked about our hydrangeas for a minute; then she resumed the march and I headed back inside the convention hall. The keynote speeches over, conventioneers seemed happy and friendly again. I wouldn’t call them a murder-fantasy crowd any more than I’d agree that reporters want to destroy the country.

This year’s NRA convention is scheduled to be held in Dallas, although the city’s mayor pro tem wants them to go elsewhere.

I hope that if the convention does go on as planned, people from opposing camps will find a way to talk to each other, instead of shouting.

“I believe there should be background checks,” a welder from Atlanta told me. “Not everyone should have a gun; clearly not people with mental illness.”

“I don’t think anyone that’s a member of the NRA wants to see guns end up in the hands of someone who is a danger or threat to society,” said a single mom from Orlando. After she lost two friends in the Pulse nightclub shooting spree in 2016, she wanted her son to learn gun safety. 

Added a Coast Guard member from Florida, “Let’s have an educated conversation about it, not a violent one.”

Deputy who failed to engage Parkland shooter had solid work history

For years, Scot Peterson loved working as a school resource deputy with the Broward Sheriff’s Office in South Florida.

>> Read more trending news

He was dependable. He intervened in conflicts as a mediator. He was awarded school resource deputy of the year about four years ago and was recognized at a Parkland City Commission meeting.

He volunteered to help with a lockdown drill at a Catholic school four years ago.

According to documents released to The Palm Beach Post on Friday, his superiors said he was good at his job, even exceeding what he was asked to do.

Until, apparently, he didn’t.

The suburban Boynton Beach resident is said to have stood outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine’s Day for minutes while Nikolas Cruz sprayed bullets at the students Peterson was supposed to protect.

President Donald Trump on Friday called the 54-year-old a “coward.” Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said his deputy should have gone in. Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said he wished Peterson had the same courage that the school’s teachers displayed.

>> Parkland school shooting timeline: Seven minutes, three floors and 17 dead

But Douglas English teacher Felicia Burgin, who worked in the freshman building where the shootings took place, has what she concedes isn’t “the most popular opinion.”

“My take is this is misdirected anger,” Burgin told The Palm Beach Post on Friday. “I think that nobody knows unless you’re actually in this situation. … And it just seems to me his choices were to run in there, blindly, and be killed by this AR-15 with his hand gun as a defense, or be called a coward. … From my perspective, there is nothing he could have done to prevent what happened. … My anger is with Nikolas Cruz.”

The decision to stand down marked the end of Peterson’s otherwise nearly stellar three decades with the Sheriff’s Office. Israel publicly disclosed Peterson’s lack of action Thursday and said the deputy was suspended without pay. Peterson then chose to retire instead.

Israel said his department is investigating Peterson’s inaction in the massacre, in which 14 students and three adults died and many were hurt. Authorities said Cruz, 19, has confessed to being the shooter.

Israel said two other deputies, Edward Eason and Guntis Treijs, also are under investigation and have been put on “restrictive duty.” Records indicated Eason lives in Lake Worth and Treijs in Coral Springs. 

>> Shooting survivors perform emotional song at CNN town hall

The Broward County Sheriff’s Office had 23 interactions with Cruz or his family from November 2008 to November 2017, records showed. And some of them happened while Peterson was the Douglas High resource officer.

On Feb. 5, 2016, a deputy relayed information to the resource officer that a neighbor’s son claimed Cruz said on Instagram he planned to shoot up the school. A sheriff’s deputy said Thursday they have no record of what happened to that information which was given to the resource officer.

And on Sept. 28, 2016, a peer counselor reported to the school resource officer that Cruz possibly ingested gasoline in an attempt to commit suicide and was cutting himself. The mental health counselor said Cruz didn’t meet the criteria for a Baker Act, according to records. The Baker Act allows the state to have someone in custody for up to three days.

Calls made to Peterson and other relatives weren’t returned. A call to the home of his first wife and four children was answered by a man who hung up.

No one answered the door Thursday or Friday at his house. Around the time that Israel made the announcement Thursday, reporters flooded Peterson’s neighborhood and his family called the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for assistance, spokeswoman Teri Barbera said.

A deputy outside Peterson’s home Friday said Peterson left town but didn’t elaborate.

>> Armed resource officer never ‘went in’ during Parkland shooting

Neighbors said Peterson moved in about a year ago and has been updating his home.

Nelson Sandy pointed to his front door.

“He’s right over there,” he said. Then he pointed to his newspaper. “And he’s right here.”

The neighbors differed on what Peterson should have done Feb. 14.

Sandy said he should have kept his job because he isn’t responsible for the shooting.

Another neighbor, who wouldn’t give his name but said he was an 83-year-old Army veteran who has volunteered for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office called Peterson’s inaction “terrible.

“He’s supposed to be a first responder,” the neighbor said.

The neighbor said he saw Peterson fixing screens at his home about a week and a half ago and asked if he had a day off. He said Peterson told him he had many sick days left.

Joe Sansone said Peterson is “involved in a terrible situation. He’s got parents (of students) that are angry at the world and he’s part of the world so they’re angry at him. But people are hurting and they got to strike back at somebody. I feel badly for him. I feel badly of course for the parents as well.”

Peterson received high marks in his work evaluations for years, achieving “meets expectations” and more often “exceeds expectations.”

“Deputy Peterson is trusted as the School Resource Officer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. He values his position and takes pride in protecting the students, faculty and staff at his school,” one of his bosses wrote in his 2016-2017 evaluation.

He started at Stoneman Douglas around 2010 and before that held the same position at the McFatter Technical Institute in Davie. He attended Miami-Dade Community College and Florida International University.

Peterson did get into trouble once, however.

In 2015 he identified himself as a Broward County Sheriff’s Office employee in an email questioning the management of Chief Anthony Williams of the Broward District School Police. He was a Resident on Campus Security Program officer at Atlantic Technical College at the time and Williams recommended the ROCS be dissolved, according to records.

Peterson said Williams failed to supervise the program, but “we still everyday protect our kids and school campuses.”

The final recommendation at the conclusion of the internal affairs investigation was counsel.

Teachers and staff returned to Stoneman Douglas on Friday and some conversations focused on Peterson and how they thought if he went inside, the end result might have been different.

>> Shooting survivor to Trump: ‘I don’t want your condolences’

Douglas math teacher Jim Gard said he was “disgusted.”

“Instead of having 17 dead maybe there would be four dead and that sounds terrible to the people, especially the parents and family, but this never, ever, ever should have happened,” Gard said. “There is absolutely no excuse for an officer who is trained to not go in.”

Israel said Peterson, believed to be the only resource officer at the large Parkland school, arrived at the building 60 to 90 seconds into the shooting, which lasted just six minutes.

“What I saw was a deputy arrive at the west side of Building 12, take up a position, and he never went in,” Israel said, adding Peterson is believed to have remained outside for upwards of four minutes. He said the surveillance video of Peterson is part of the investigation and might never be released.

“My expectation is the officers can handle any kind of situation they come upon,” Palm Beach County Schools Police Chief Lawrence Leon said Friday. “We train in ‘active shooter’ probably more than anybody, I would say. After Columbine, we started training that way; an ‘active shooter’ (situation) was to engage.”

He said while police always must make split-second decisions, “you do training so that becomes muscle memory.”

But he also said many of his officers told him they were “distraught” over the deputy’s inaction in Parkland.

“They felt, ‘How could (he) not respond when it’s kids.’”

Sara Ojalvo, Douglas High special needs assistant, said she found Peterson to be “charismatic” and was surprised to learn he had not taken action.

“You never know how you are going to react to a situation,” Ojalvo said. “Nobody knows what was on his mind. Why he didn’t go inside. We don’t know. That’s something so new. It’s almost too new to process. Because this is a person that was so charismatic.”

Others who spoke at Douglas High on Friday felt Peterson must share a larger burden of blame.

“How could he do it?” Broward teachers representative Anna Fusco said of Peterson. “Just as a person and a human being, I hope that (authorities) are taking the measures to figure out and find out why and how so they can help everyone else that’s put in that position that’s there to protect. To make sure it doesn’t happen again. The only one that can explain why he didn’t walk in is him.”

Senior at Parkland high school recalls moments when gunman opened fire

A high school senior spoke about her terrifying experience in the building at a high school in South Florida where a gunman opened fire last week, killing 17 people, WFOR reported. 

>> Read more trending news

Samantha Fuentes said she bruised her eye and cut her forehead during the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. She also suffered gunshot wounds to both legs, WFOR reported.

“I heard two shots fired in the hallway. The first two shots everyone froze; everyone was under the impression it was drill and that’s what we said to each other, and then the third shot was fired and that’s when we knew it wasn’t a drill,” Fuentes told WFOR.

Fuentes said she was sitting directly in front of the classroom door when gunfire erupted. She said she panicked and ran forward.

“That’s when I realized I made a very fatal mistake because it was not the right place to hide during a shooting,” Fuentes told WFOR. “You’re supposed to hide behind the door so when the shooter looks in the room you become pretty much invisible, so it looks like nobody is in the room but I ran forward. That’s when he shoved the barrel of his gun through the window of the door and started spraying pretty indiscriminately across the room.”

>> Florida governor calls for reform of state’s gun laws 

Fuentes said she and five of her classmates hid behind a podium.

It was “just a small space and that is where Helena (Ramsay) and Nick (Dworet) were sitting and were shot and killed right next to me,” Fuentes said. “Everything that hit them ricocheted and hit my legs, into my face and into my arm.”

When SWAT teams arrived, Fuentes ran from the building as she bled from her legs, WFOR reported.

Fuentes said she was “not really surprised” that school resource officer Scot Peterson, a Broward County Sheriff’s deputy did not enter the building to confront the shooter, who police have identified as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz.

>> Photos: Remembering Parkland Florida shooting victims 

“He did not have much of a presence in the school to begin with,” Fuentes told WFOR.

Fuentes said that Peterson “failed us.”

“You took an oath and you broke your promise and that is disappointing and I am disappointed in you,” she said.

3 rental car companies cancel discounts for NRA members

Three car rental companies have discontinued discounts and deals for National Rifle Association members, The Dallas Morning News reported.

>> Read more trending news

The moves by Alamo Rent A Car, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental, all owned by Enterprise Holdings, were done in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at a Florida high school that left 17 people dead.

The car rental companies will end their discounts on March 26, the Morning News reported.

>> NRA opposes raising minimum age to buy rifles

The NRA has faced intense criticism following the Feb. 14 school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

An NRA spokeswoman referred questions Thursday to the group's licensing department. A phone message left with that office was not immediately returned.

McDonald's manager in Cleveland accused of firing shots at customers

A McDonald’s manager in Cleveland allegedly fired shots at three women in a car at the restaurant’s drive-thru, police said.

>> Read more trending news

Cleveland police said they have issued an arrest warrant for the man after the alleged incident Wednesday morning, WJW reported.

According to a police report, the women were buying a smoothie at the drive-thru window. When one of the women opened her water bottle and some of the liquid splashed outside of the car, the McDonald’s employee cursed and then fired two shots, WJW reported.

The driver said one shot went into the car near a back tail light.

According to police, McDonald’s employees denied knowledge of shots being fired.

Could blood and urine test be used to diagnose autism?

A newly developed blood and urine test could potentially detect autism in young children.

>> Read more trending news

That’s according to new research from scientists in the United Kingdom and Italy who conducted tests searching for damage to proteins previously known to be higher in children with autism spectrum disorders.

The study, published this week in the academic journal Molecular Autism, tested 38 children between 5-12 years old with autism and 31 without, looking for differences in samples of urine and blood between the two groups.

The results revealed that children with autism had greater protein damage when examining plasma in their blood, which causes higher levels of an oxidation marker called dityrosine as well as sugar-modified compounds known as advanced glycation end-products.

"We have found that the power of measuring damaged proteins to the brain may be a cause for a development of autism," Dr. Paul Thornalley, professor of systems biology at the University of Warwick and one of the study’s lead researchers, explained to CNN.

According to Thornalley, previous research has also shown a connection between autism and proteins that were not damaged, the reverse of this study.

"Our discovery could lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention. We hope the tests will also reveal new causative factors," Dr. Naila Rabbani, another lead researcher from the University of Warwick, told The Guardian.

"With further testing we may reveal specific plasma and urinary profiles – or 'fingerprints' – of compounds with damaging modifications. This may help us improve the diagnosis of ASD and point the way to new causes of ASD,” she said.

While the new results appear promising, some researchers have expressed caution about the study’s small sample size and the study’s lack of a concrete diagnosis plan.

"This study may give us clues about why autistic people are different but it does not provide a new method for diagnosis. It is far too early for that," Dr. James Cusack, director of science at the UK autism research charity Autistica, told the BBC.

"We don't know whether this technique can tell the difference between autism, ADHD, anxiety or other similar conditions. The study also only looked at a small group of people," he pointed out. "The best way to diagnose autism is still through clinical interview and observation."

But despite the criticism, the scientists behind the research are calling it a "first step" toward developing a simple test. They aim to move forward with further research, performing the tests on a larger group including younger children.

"We have the method, we have everything. All we need to do is repeat it," Rabbani said. "I would really like to go forward with younger children, maybe two years, or even one year old. Then the next step will be to validate in a larger cohort. Then the tests will be ready for screening."

More than 3.5 million people in the U.S. currently live with autism spectrum disorders, according to statistics from the Autism Society. The development disorder, which mainly affects social interaction and leads to behavioral problems, is estimated to have genetic causes in 30 percent of cases. The other 70 percent of autism cases are believed to be caused by mutations of genetics and environmental factors combined.

Although many individuals with autism go on to live normal productive lives, 35 percent of young adults with the disorder are unable to work jobs or pursue higher education after high school.

Doctors currently rely on a series of behavioral tests to diagnose the disorder. These can take a great deal of time and are not always accurate. If a blood or urine test could provide a faster and more definitive diagnosis, it would go a long way to ensure young children received the treatment and resources they need earlier on.

However, although experts see the new research as promising, they are still cautioning that such a test is still a long way from being viable.

"This is a promising area; however, this is a very long way indeed from a 'test for autism,' " Dr. Max Davie, spokesman for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said. "It is important that it is not adopted with too much enthusiasm."

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