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UT Tyler convocation celebrates success, offers glimpse of future projects

The University of Texas at Tyler got its faculty and staff ready for the new year by celebrating success and taking a look at upcoming projects during its Fall 2019 Convocation.

President Michael Tidwell announced the university is taking the first steps toward adding new campus housing. While there is not yet a timetable for the projects, the college has started taking early steps and brought on a consultant.

Tidwell said the university is looking into options for what likely will be a public-private mixed development at the corner of Old Omen Road and University Boulevard. The development would feature retail space, a coffee shop and possibly the campus bookstore on its first floor, and dormitory-style housing on the upper levels.

Another project in the very early stages is a proposed face-lift for the college’s University Center. The new facade, which would feature a large video screen facing the new Patriot Plaza and upstairs outdoor seating, would be part of what Tidwell hopes will become a dynamic new area that will encourage students to stay on campus on the weekends. The UC upgrades are in the early planning stages, and the college is still seeking input.

The three areas, which include the Patriot Plaza outdoor amphitheater, a revamped University Center and the new housing project, would offer weekend and evening activities for students who have long said there is little to do when class isn’t in session.

The proposed video screen also would enhance commencement ceremonies and concerts in the plaza. The first outdoor commencement ceremony will take place in the spring, and the Cowan Center soon will launch its “Cowan After Dark” series in the plaza, which will have capacity for up to about 8,000 people.

Tidwell also announced the launch of UT Tyler’s drum line. The program will kick off this academic year and become a staple at all of the university’s games and many community events such as parades. Tidwell said the hope is to grow the program to about 30 members.

The college also celebrated the academic success it has seen over the past two years at Wednesday’s Convocation. Tidwell said early projections show UT Tyler once again breaking records with the size of its incoming freshman class, which is expected to peak at just shy of 1,100 first-time college students. The sophomore class also will grow to about 1,140. Census numbers are not due until mid-September, so the numbers still could fluctuate.

Student retention is also up over 2018, with students returning for their second year moving from 70% to 76.7%. Tidwell said the goal is to reach 90% by the end of the university’s current Strategic Plan, which launched last year, and the college is well on its way.

“As of today we’re tracking very, very well,” he said. “We’re doing a great job but we need to be doing an excellent job.”

The college also expects to see the size of its nursing program double over the next year as it adds a summer semester to the existing fall and spring semesters in 2020.

Tidwell said that while none of the UT System colleges received legislative funding for facilities this biennium, he is hopeful to hear back about a funding request to get the university started on its proposed new College of Nursing and Health Sciences facility by the end of the year. He said that funding it not guaranteed, but he is optimistic.

The college also is working toward moving up another classification in its research standings. This year it was upgraded to a Carnegie R3 research institute, and the college’s provost already has launched plans to move to a level R2. The Carnegie ratings are determined by the quality and volume of research being conducted.

To help meet these goals, the college welcomed nearly four dozen new faculty members this semester.

The college also will expand its automatic admissions to bring in more students. The top 25% of students in their high school class will now be eligible for automatic admission beginning in Fall 2020. The college currently auto-admits the top 10%.

Tidwell hopes that a proposed expansion of Toll 49 also can benefit students, by making their commute across Smith County easier.

“Our preference as a campus community is to get or develop a route as close to campus as possible,” he said.

At less than two years into its new 20-year Campus Master Plan and 10-year strategic plan, the University of Texas at Tyler is plowing ahead to transform the campus and its role in East Texas.


Bullard ISD marks first day back at school

Wednesday marked the first day back to school for thousands of Bullard ISD students, teachers and parents.

At Bullard Primary School, first- and second-graders, school supplies in hand, made their way to their assigned classrooms and met their new teachers for the 2019-20 school year.

After settling into her classroom, first-grader Ella Dobrinksi was surprised by a visit from the Bullard High School varsity softball team in honor of her late mother, Coach Megan Dobrinksi. Player Marissa Ledkins said the team wanted to surprise Ella and walk with her on her first day.

Principal Kim Murphy said she’s excited to have the kids back on campus and to implement a curriculum that helps develop students’ academic and emotional intelligence throughout the school year.

“We went through Capturing Kids’ Hearts training … focusing on building up the whole child and teaching the kids to be kind,” Murphy said.

TWITTER: @Tylerpaper

Trump administration moves to terminate court agreement, hold migrant children and parents longer

The Trump administration is moving to formally terminate a federal court settlement restricting how long U.S. officials can detain migrant children with their parents and replace it with a new rule that could expand family detention and dramatically increase the time children spend in custody.

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services will issue a new rule Friday to withdraw from the Flores Settlement Agreement, the federal consent decree that has set basic standards for the detention of migrant children and teens since 1997.

The new rule would eliminate a 20-day cap for detaining migrant children and create a new licensing regime that would make it easier for federal officials to expand family detention nationwide.

Although the rule is set to take effect 60 days after it is published, officials expect the implementation to last longer. Advocates have vowed to challenge the rule in court, which will put the change in front of U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee, who denied the administration’s request last year to extend family detentions.

But officials said they hoped the threat of longer detention would deter the crush of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border and complement existing enforcement measures. Border apprehensions have slumped more than 40% since May, a major drop officials have attributed to increased enforcement in Mexico, but officials worry about a resurgence in the fall.

Exercising greater control over family detention would mark a major coup for the White House, which has said the Flores agreement is among the most significant “loopholes” spurring mass migration at the border. Smugglers have sold families discounted trips to the border and instructed them to seek asylum because the Flores agreement meant they were likely to be released. Such families are rarely deported, officials said.

“Today, the government has issued a critical rule that will permit the Department of Homeland Security to appropriately hold families together and improve the integrity of the immigration system,” acting DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan said in a statement, before traveling to Panama on Wednesday. “This rule allows the federal government to enforce immigration laws as passed by Congress and ensures that all children in U.S. government custody are treated with dignity, respect, and special concern for their particular vulnerability.”

DHS officials said in a briefing Tuesday that they have no immediate plans to increase the number of family detention beds. Once the rule takes effect, officials said, they hope to complete migrants’ initial immigration proceedings within two months, which is triple the time children are held now.

Advocates for immigrants say the Flores agreement and other laws provide essential protections for children fleeing hunger, violence and poverty in other countries. They say the Trump administration has harmed migrant children by holding them in squalid conditions on the border and forcibly separating hundreds from their parents and should not be given wider latitude to detain them.

Peter Schey, one of the lead attorneys in the class-action lawsuit that led to the Flores settlement, said when the Trump administration proposed the new rule nearly a year ago that it was “doomed to failure.”

The Flores Settlement Agreement generally compels the U.S. government to move children from austere border jails into licensed, child-appropriate facilities as expeditiously as possible. The agreement does not specify a time period, but Gee ruled in 2015 that officials could not hold children in unlicensed facilities longer than 20 days — the time the government said it needed to process their initial asylum screenings — after the Obama administration expanded family detention.

Trump administration officials said the new rule seeks to address Gee’s concerns by allowing the federal government to create its own licensing regime, complete with third-party inspections and audits that will be made public.

DHS officials said expanding family detention helped reduce family crossings under the Obama administration. Family apprehensions fell from 68,000 in 2014 to nearly 40,000 in 2015. But family crossings rose again in 2016 and have hit record highs over the past year.

More than 432,000 members of family units have been taken into custody from October through July, a 456% increase over the same period the year before, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Most have been released in the United States, officials said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has three “family residential centers,” two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania, with a combined capacity of about 3,000 beds. One facility is limited to adults.

DHS officials said Tuesday that detaining and deporting even a small fraction of the families, perhaps 5% to 10% of apprehensions, could send a powerful message to smugglers and would-be migrants in Central America.

While Trump administration officials say they do not plan to immediately expand family detention, they have explored the possibility. As illegal crossings rose last year, the Trump administration directed the Pentagon to identify sites with space for up to 12,000 beds for families.

President Donald Trump and his officials targeted the Flores agreement after their widely condemned “zero tolerance” policy last year failed to deter border crossings. The policy separated more than 2,700 children from their parents to prosecute parents for crossing the border illegally.

Parents went to criminal court and then immigration detention, while their children were sent to federal shelters.

In a June 20, 2018, order, Trump ended the separations and directed the attorney general to ask Gee to let the government detain families together “throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.”

Gee declined, calling the move “a cynical attempt, on an ex parte basis, to shift responsibility to the judiciary for over 20 years of congressional inaction and ill-considered executive action that have led to the current stalemate.”

Officials rolled out the proposed replacement of the Flores rule in September and have noted that ICE family residential centers are more comprehensive than the austere Border Patrol holding facilities that have been seen in news reports and criticized by Democratic lawmakers. ICE family facilities have beds, classrooms for children, access to lawyers, health care, sports, and cafeterias.

Advocates, however, say detaining children increases their risk of trauma or illness. Several children have died after being taken into federal custody over the past year, and one of them died after being released from an ICE facility.