US Schools in Desperate Need of Substitute Teachers

Schools in the United States are struggling to reopen and stay open for in-person classes amid coronavirus outbreaks. Substitute teachers help fill the gaps when teachers are ill or on personal leave. The problem is that there aren’t enough substitutes – who usually work as needed for low pay. So school districts are using innovative ways to find other subs and have expanded their pool of candidates to include parents, school bus drivers and even members of the military.  “It’s been tough to hire subs,” said Jean Consolla, principal at Mount Eagle Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia.  “I had a teacher about to go on maternity leave, and I’m wondering how to cover the time she is gone.”  “Then it occurred to me: What about using my son, Julian, who will be on a college break, as a substitute teacher? He has a positive attitude, likes to work with kids, and can make some money.”  Julian Consolla, 20, is majoring in sports administration. Having completed the required 30 hours of college credits needed to become a sub in Virginia, he thought it would be a good opportunity. “It was kind of nerve-wracking at first, but after I got used to the routine, it got easier and was fun,” he told VOA. At another school in Fairfax County, McNair Upper Elementary, Sophie Carter is also a college student and substitute teacher.  Since her major is elementary education, she considers this an ideal job,     “I’m getting classroom management skills, and hopefully I’m making the environment fun and engaging in the classroom. This has strengthened my love for teaching.” Principal Melissa Goddin wishes more college students like Carter would apply since substitute teachers are so hard to come by.  “There are a lot of job opportunities in this area. We’re competing with places that allow people to work from home who want to avoid the possibility of being exposed to the virus at school.”  The situation is similar in Ohio. “I think people don’t want to expose themselves to the virus if they don’t have to,” said Dawn Gould, community relations coordinator at Kings Local Schools in Kings Mills, Ohio. “Our substitute fill-in rate was under 50% this week,” she said in an interview with VOA. “We had to close school one day recently because we were having a hard time filling the classrooms.” A bachelor’s degree is usually required to … Continue reading “US Schools in Desperate Need of Substitute Teachers”

US Warns Russia Economic Sanctions Would Be Sharper Than in 2014

The United States warned Russia Tuesday that it would face faster and far more severe economic consequences if it invades Ukraine than it did when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. “We are prepared to implement sanctions with massive consequences that were not considered in 2014,” a national security official told reporters in Washington. “That means the gradualism of the past is out. And this time, we’ll start at the top of the escalation ladder and stay there.” The official, speaking anonymously, said the U.S. is “also prepared to impose novel export controls” to hobble the Russian economy. “You can think of these export controls as trade restrictions in the service of broader U.S. national security interests,” the official said. “We use them to prohibit the export of products from Russia,” the official said. “And given the reason they work is if you … step back and look at the global dominance of U.S.-origin software technology, the export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard, and it would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.” The U.S. and its allies imposed less severe economic sanctions against Moscow after its Crimean takeover, but they ultimately proved ineffective, and the peninsula remains under Russian control. The U.S. is also working with energy producers around the world, another security official said, to supply fuel to Western European countries in the event Putin cuts off Russia’s flow of natural gas to the West. One of the U.S. security officials echoed President Joe Biden in saying that the U.S. and its Western allies are “unified in our intention to impose massive consequences that would deliver a severe and immediate blow to Russia over time, make its economy even more brittle and undercut Putin’s aspirations to exert influence on the world stage.” Tuesday’s White House warning came as Russia said it is watching “with great concern” as the U.S. on Monday put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for possible deployment to Eastern Europe.  Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov repeated to reporters Russian accusations that the United States is escalating tensions in the crisis along the Russia-Ukraine border, where Putin has deployed an estimated 127,000 troops.    Biden met virtually Monday with key European leaders … Continue reading “US Warns Russia Economic Sanctions Would Be Sharper Than in 2014”

Putin ‘Playing Poker Rather Than Chess,’ Says Former UK Spy Chief

Why won’t Russia’s Vladimir Putin let Ukraine go? He might not be able to, according to a former head of Britain’s MI6 external intelligence agency, Alex Younger.   In an interview Tuesday with the BBC, Younger said he cannot see how the Russian leader can back down as fears mount that Putin is poised to order a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a former Soviet republic. Younger said the Russian president was “playing poker rather than chess” to create options for himself. But Younger added, “At the moment I cannot see a scenario where he can back down in a way that satisfies the expectations that he has created.” He added, “It feels dangerous and it’s clearly getting more dangerous. It’s hard to see a safe landing zone given the expectations that President Putin has created.” British officials Tuesday said elements of a “Russian military advance force” are already active inside Ukraine. “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations and currently located in Ukraine,” said James Heappey, Britain’s armed forces minister. His remarks coincided with Ukraine’s SBU security service saying in a statement it had broken up a group of saboteurs preparing a series of destabilizing attacks along Ukraine’s borders. The SBU said the saboteurs intended to target infrastructure “coordinated by Russian special services.” Last week, the Pentagon accused Russia of preparing false flag attacks. “It has pre-positioned a group of operatives to conduct what we call a false flag operation, an operation designed to look like an attack on them or Russian-speaking people in Ukraine as an excuse to go in,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington. Russian officials deny any plans to invade Ukraine, despite their building up military forces along their neighbor’s borders, where Ukraine’s defense ministry estimates 127,000 troops have been deployed. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has dismissed accusations that Russia plans to stage an offensive, describing the charges as “hysteria.” But as tensions soar in eastern Europe, some Western diplomats and analysts fear the geopolitical confrontation is approaching a point where it might be impossible to avoid conflict and Putin may have backed himself into a position where he has no off-ramp, if he is not to lose face. Putin has long appeared set on challenging the outcome of the Cold War and eager to re-establish a Russian sphere of … Continue reading “Putin ‘Playing Poker Rather Than Chess,’ Says Former UK Spy Chief”

Iran Sentences French Citizen to 8 Years for Spying

A French national who has been in Iranian custody since May 2020 was sentenced Tuesday by an Iranian court to eight years and eight months in prison for spying. Benjamin Briere, 36, was accused by Iranian authorities of flying a drone equipped with a camera near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. He was convicted of spying and “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” His lawyer, Philippe Valent, called the ruling “the result of a purely political process” and said the trial was a “masquerade.” “Benjamin Briere obviously did not — nor ever — benefit from any form of fair trial before impartial judges,” Valent said, noting that Briere was not able to read the indictment, which made preparation for the trial difficult. Iran’s judiciary was not immediately available for comment, according to Reuters. Valent said Briere has been on a hunger strike for a month and is increasingly weak. Agence France-Presse reported that Iran is currently holding more than a dozen Westerners on various charges. The country has been accused of holding the hostages as leverage in ongoing talks to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal. Some information in this report comes from Reuters and Agence France-Presse. …

Severe Snowstorm in Greece Grows Into Political Crisis

A severe snowstorm battering Greece is growing into a political crisis with the main opposition leader calling on Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to resign and hold snap elections. The call comes after thousands of people were left trapped along a main highway near the capital, Athens. The Greek government’s response to the storm is being called a “fiasco.”   Heart-wrenching appeals, like one by Christos, a 74-year-old motorist trapped in his car for 22 hours, have triggered public and political fury. “Please, please, please,” Christos cried to a television presenter. “Please, show us some mercy. Tell them to open the road… to help us. We are freezing…. We have been left without any gasoline, nothing to tide us over,” Christos pleaded. Rescue crews working through the night have so far managed to evacuate some 3,500 drivers on a key motorway that homeland security forces promised ahead of the storm to keep open, but didn’t, leaving thousands of motorists stranded in snow, with rescue crews blocked from accessing those in distress. Despite efforts, about 1,200 others remain stuck on the Attiki Odos motorway that circles the Greek capital, and thousands more on other roads and highways snaking through Athens, which is home to half the country’s population of 11 million. Fifteen passengers were injured when a rail transport vehicle tried to pull a train carrying more than 200 passengers in heavy snow on Monday. Much of the capital has also been left without heat and electricity, sending hundreds of families streaming to their cars to keep warm as temperatures dip below freezing.   On Tuesday, Christos Stylianides, Greece’s climate crisis and civil protection minister, apologized, but he said it was not the time to enter into a blame game. We are focused on managing this unprecedented crisis, he told a news briefing after back-to-back crisis talks with Mitsotakis.   He reiterated the government’s apology for its failed response and for “troubling” thousands of people by extending a shutdown of schools, public services and banks for an extra day in three regions in Greece, including the capital. But the public’s fury remains so intense, amid the failings of the system, that a public prosecutor has ordered an urgent investigation into why the nation’s most important motorway was left unattended for so long. Alexis Tsipras, the main opposition leader, wants the government to resign and hold elections immediately. He said in a statement … Continue reading “Severe Snowstorm in Greece Grows Into Political Crisis”

COVID Cases Surge Among US Children as Omicron Sweeps America

In mid-January the average number of daily new COVID cases in the U.S. fluctuated between 750,000 and 800,000, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. Children under five remain one of the most vulnerable groups since they cannot be vaccinated yet. In the first week of January, over half a million young children were diagnosed with COVID-19, an 80% increase compared to late December 2021. Mariia Prus has the story, narrated by Anna Rice. Video editor – Kim Weeks. …

Delay in Creating New US Cybersecurity Board Prompts Concern

It’s a key part of President Joe Biden’s plans to fight major ransomware attacks and digital espionage campaigns: creating a board of experts that would investigate major incidents to see what went wrong and try to prevent the problems from happening again — much like a transportation safety board does with plane crashes. But eight months after Biden signed an executive order creating the Cyber Safety Review Board it still hasn’t been set up. That means critical tasks haven’t been completed, including an investigation of the massive SolarWinds espionage campaign first discovered more than a year ago. Russian hackers stole data from several federal agencies and private companies. Some supporters of the new board say the delay could hurt national security and comes amid growing concerns of a potential conflict with Russia over Ukraine that could involve nation-state cyberattacks. The FBI and other federal agencies recently released an advisory — aimed particularly at critical infrastructure like utilities — on Russian state hackers’ methods and techniques. “We will never get ahead of these threats if it takes us nearly a year to simply organize a group to investigate major breaches like SolarWinds,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Such a delay is detrimental to our national security and I urge the administration to expedite its process.” Biden’s order, signed in May, gives the board 90 days to investigate the SolarWinds hack once it’s established. But there’s no timeline for creating the board itself, a job designated to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. In response to questions from The Associated Press, DHS said in a statement it was far along in setting it up and anticipated a “near-term announcement,” but did not address why the process has taken so long. Scott Shackelford, the cybersecurity program chair at Indiana University and an advocate for creating a cyber review board, said having a rigorous study about what happened in a past hack like SolarWinds is a way of helping prevent similar attacks. “It sure is taking, my goodness, quite a while to get it going,” Shackelford said. “It’s certainly past time where we could see some positive benefits from having it stood up.” The Biden administration has made improving cybersecurity a top priority and taken steps to bolster defenses, but this is not the first time lawmakers have been unhappy with the pace of progress. … Continue reading “Delay in Creating New US Cybersecurity Board Prompts Concern”

London Police Investigating Lockdown Parties at British PM’s Offices 

London police said Tuesday they were investigating Downing Street lockdown parties in 2020 to determine if U.K. government officials violated coronavirus restrictions, putting further pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  The Metropolitan Police Service has launched an inquiry into “a number of events” at Downing Street because they met the force’s criteria for investigating the “most serious and flagrant” breaches of COVID-19 rules, Commissioner Cressida Dick told the London Assembly, the capital’s local government council.  Johnson is facing calls to resign amid revelations that he and his staff attended a series of parties during the spring and winter of 2020 when most social gatherings were banned throughout England, forcing average citizens to miss weddings, funerals and birthdays as friends and relatives died alone in hospitals. The gatherings are already being investigated by a senior civil servant Sue Gray whose report, expected this week, will be crucial in determining whether Johnson can remain in power.  The Cabinet Office said Gray’s investigation would continue. But it wasn’t immediately clear whether Gray would have to delay the announcement of her findings because of the police investigation.  Johnson has apologized for attending a party in the garden of his Downing Street offices in May 2020, but said he had considered it a work gathering that fell within the social distancing rules in place at the time.  In the latest revelation, ITV News reported late Monday that Johnson attended a birthday party in his Downing Street office and later hosted friends at his official residence upstairs in June 2020. His office denied that the gathering violated lockdown regulations, saying that the prime minister hosted a small number of family members outdoors, which was in line with rules at the time.  London Mayor Sadiq Khan welcomed the police investigation.  “The public rightly expect the police to uphold the law without fear or favor, no matter who that involves, and I have been clear that members of the public must be able to expect the highest standards from everyone, including the Prime Minister and those around him,” Khan said in a statement. “No one is above the law. There cannot be one rule for the government and another for everyone else.”  Police have previously faced criticism for suggesting that they wouldn’t investigate the “partygate” scandal because they don’t routinely investigate historical breaches of coronavirus regulations.  But Dick told the assembly that an investigation was warranted in this … Continue reading “London Police Investigating Lockdown Parties at British PM’s Offices “

Report: Anti-corruption Fight Is Stalled, COVID Not Helping

Most countries have made little to no progress in bringing down corruption levels over the past decade, and authorities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic in many places has weighed on accountability, a closely watched study by an anti-graft organization found Tuesday. Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index, which measures the perception of public sector corruption according to experts and business people, found that “increasingly, rights and checks and balances are being undermined not only in countries with systemic corruption and weak institutions, but also among established democracies.” Among other issues over the past year, it cited the use of Pegasus software, which has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians across the globe. The report said the pandemic has “been used in many countries as an excuse to curtail basic freedoms and sidestep important checks and balances.” In Western Europe, the best-scoring region overall, the pandemic has given countries “an excuse for complacency in anti-corruption efforts as accountability and transparency measures are neglected or even rolled back,” Transparency said. In some Asian countries, it said, COVID-19 “also has been used as an excuse to suppress criticism.” It pointed to increased digital surveillance in some nations and authoritarian approaches in others. The report ranks countries on a scale from a “highly corrupt” 0 to a “very clean” 100. Denmark, New Zealand and Finland tied for first place with 88 points each; the first two were unchanged, while Finland gained three points. Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany completed the top 10. The U.K. was 11th with 78. The United States, which slipped over recent years to hit 67 points in 2020, held that score this time but slipped a couple of places to 27th. Transparency said it dropped out of the top 25 for the first time “as it faces continuous attacks on free and fair elections and an opaque campaign finance system.” Canada, which slid three points to 74 and two places to 13th, “is seeing increased risks of bribery and corruption in business,” the group said. It added that the publication of the Pandora Papers showed Canada as “a hub for illicit financial flows, fueling transnational corruption across the region and the world.” The index rates 180 countries and territories. South Sudan was bottom with 11 points; Somalia, with which it shared last place in 2020, tied this time with Syria for … Continue reading “Report: Anti-corruption Fight Is Stalled, COVID Not Helping”

Russia Adds Navalny to List of ‘Terrorists’ 

Russia has added jailed Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny and several of his allies to its list of “terrorists and extremists,” as the government continues its assault on the country’s civil society.  The entries for Navalny and five of his associates — Lyubov Sobol, Vyacheslav Gimadi, Georgy Alburov, Lilia Chanysheva, and Ruslan Shaveddinov — appeared in the register of Rosfinmonitoring on January 25, putting them on the same level as right-wing nationalist groups and foreign terrorist organizations such as the Taliban and Islamic State.  The move marks the latest in an ongoing crackdown on Navalny’s now-outlawed political network and civil society more broadly.  Less than two weeks ago, two other close associates of Navalny, Leonid Volkov and Ivan Zhdanov, were added to the list, which by law means their bank accounts must be frozen immediately.  Over the past year since Navalny returned from Germany, where he was recovering from a poison attack that almost killed him, thousands of protesters have been detained for demonstrating in support of the Kremlin critic, with many jailed.  More than half of his political coordinators have left Russia or been arrested for their activism, with some placed on wanted lists as “terrorists” or “extremists.”  Journalists who probed the circumstances of Navalny’s poisoning and cited his corruption investigations have been branded “foreign agents.”  Last year, the Moscow City Court declared all organizations linked to Navalny as “extremist,” preventing people associated with Navalny and his network of regional offices across Russia from seeking public office.  The ruling on his organizations also carries possible lengthy prison terms for activists who have worked with them.  Navalny himself has been in prison since February 2021 after being speedily tried and handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence for violating the terms of an earlier parole in what was widely regarded a trumped-up, politically motivated case.  Navalny has blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his poisoning with a Novichok-style chemical substance.  The Kremlin has denied any role in Navalny’s poisoning.  …

Slovenian Trade Group Reports Chinese Backlash after PM Praises Taiwan

A Slovenian business group has said its members are facing a Chinese backlash days after Prime Minister Janez Jansa publicly discussed his hopes for closer ties with Taiwan during an interview. It marks the latest case of China refusing to tolerate dissent on the issue of Taiwan’s autonomy.   On January 17, Jansa told Indian media that he hoped Taiwan and Slovenia could open mutual representative offices. He also praised Taiwan’s COVID-19 response and said Taiwan should determine its relationship with China independently. Opening offices in Taiwan would bring Slovenia in line with the rest of the European Union, as it is one of only a handful of countries — including Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Malta, and Romania — without a Taiwanese mission.     Swift criticism against Jansa came from the Chinese government describing his remarks as “dangerous.” China considers Taiwan a province and treats any discussion of its disputed political status as taboo.  Moreover, within days of the interview, the Slovenian-Chinese Business Council said Chinese partners were already “terminating contracts and exiting the agreed investments,” according to the Slovenian Press Agency. The business group and its parent organization, the CCIS- Ljubljana Chamber of Commerce and Industry, did not immediately respond to VOA’s email inquiries.  The statement has also drawn fire both from Slovenia’s opposition and businesses with links to China. In an email response to VOA, Sasa Istenic, the director of the Taiwan Study Center at the University of Ljubljana, said his remarks “were his personal position not in tune with the National Assembly and could severely harm Slovenia’s economic cooperation with China.”    Business groups in Slovenia fear they could suffer the same fate as Lithuania, which is now under a Chinese trade embargo in retaliation for pursuing closer ties with Taiwan, Istenic said. “The Chinese market remains important for Slovenian companies and [the] Slovenian government has certainly been paying attention to China’s retaliation measures directed toward Lithuania,” Istenic said. “We have yet to see how far China is willing to go in preventing the EU member states from upgrading their relationships with Taiwan.”     The EU maintains the “One China Policy” which recognizes Taiwan as part of the Chinese nation, and has traditionally had a less tumultuous relationship with Beijing than has the United States. But dissent is growing within the EU and some countries in Central and Eastern Europe have also found that promises of Chinese investment have not panned out as … Continue reading “Slovenian Trade Group Reports Chinese Backlash after PM Praises Taiwan”

White House Girds for Possible Russia Action in Ukraine

Washington has put 8,500 military personnel on heightened alert for possible deployment to Europe and will evacuate some embassy personnel from Ukraine, as tensions rise between Russia and NATO countries over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s continued mobilization of troops near the Ukrainian border. VOA White House correspondent Anita Powell reports from Washington. …

Biden Administration Considers Technology Sanctions if Russia Invades Ukraine

In the months since Russia began massing troops on the border of Ukraine, the Biden administration has, on multiple occasions, warned that any further aggression by Moscow toward its neighbor would be met with unprecedented levels of sanctions. Now, the White House appears to be dropping some specific hints about what those sanctions might look like.    According to multiple confirmed media reports, the administration has begun laying the groundwork for a ban on the sale of high-technology products containing U.S.-made components or software to Russia.   The plan echoes steps the Trump administration took against the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in 2020, barring vendors from selling the company semiconductors it needed to produce mobile telephone handsets. The ban had devastating consequences for Huawei’s business. Once the world leader in smartphone sales, it has fallen to 10th overall since the ban was put in place.    The extent to which the administration intends to cut off Russian supplies of high-tech gear is unclear, and that’s probably intentional, experts said.    “As with any sort of major event, or crisis, or potential invasion, government leaders want options … from strongest to weakest and everything in the middle, in terms of actions that can be taken,” Kevin Wolf, a former assistant secretary of Commerce for export administration in the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security, told VOA.    Wolf, now a partner with the law firm Akin Gump in Washington, said that the administration is unlikely to signal exactly what action it will take unless Russia forces its hand by trying to take over more of Ukraine’s territory.   In 2014, in an earlier invasion, Russia took control of Crimea, a region of Ukraine, and continues to support local militias that control parts of the country’s Donbass region.    Extraterritorial reach  The U.S. appears to be considering the application of a new doctrine, the foreign direct product rule, to Russia. First put forward under the Trump administration, the rule would make it illegal under U.S. law for any entity in the world to sell high-technology equipment to Russia if that equipment was made or tested using U.S. technology.    Theoretically, that could apply to virtually any product in the world that contains semiconductors, given the prevalence of U.S. technology and software involved in the devices’ manufacturing process.    The rule relies on the implicit threat that companies that rely on U.S. technology … Continue reading “Biden Administration Considers Technology Sanctions if Russia Invades Ukraine”

US, European Leaders in ‘Unity’ Against Russian Invasion Threat

U.S. President Joe Biden met virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe.  “I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Biden told reporters after hosting a secure video call with allied leaders from Europe, European Union and NATO.  Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia.  U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.  “It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.”  Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow.  Kirby said the U.S. military is “keenly focused” on the Russian military’s 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is “taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine,” including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated.  U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies.  Biden was in the highly secure Situation Room for the call, which included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine.  A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, … Continue reading “US, European Leaders in ‘Unity’ Against Russian Invasion Threat”

Lone Gunman Opens Fire at Germany’s Heidelberg University

A gunman at a German university on Monday killed one and wounded three during a lecture in the school’s auditorium before fatally shooting himself.   The incident took place at the University of Heidelberg in southwestern Germany, and police say the man appears to have acted alone.   “We assume that there was only one perpetrator. At this stage we see no further danger to the public,” police said. The suspect, who was reportedly a student, reportedly used a rifle and also had other firearms. No motive has been determined. “My sympathy in this terrible situation. So terrible. I am shocked,” tweeted lawmaker Franziska Brantner, who is from the area. Heidelberg has about 160,000 inhabitants and is located to the south of Frankfurt. The university is Germany’s oldest and best known. Some information in this report comes from The Associated Press. …

Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount

The Russian stock market took a dive Monday as war fears triggered a massive sell-off, with tens of billions of dollars wiped from the value of some of the country’s leading businesses. As concerns mount that President Vladimir Putin is poised to order an invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the ruble also hit a 14-month low, prompting the Central Bank to intervene by halting its regular purchases of foreign currency to help prop up the ruble. “The Bank of Russia has decided not to purchase foreign currency on the domestic market,” the bank said in a statement. “This decision was made in order to reduce the volatility of financial markets.” The bank regularly converts the proceeds of the country’s oil and gas exports to avoid the ruble being impacted by swings in the value of global commodities. The bank offered no details on when it would resume buying foreign currencies. The ruble was down 2.3% in early Monday trading but steadied after the bank’s announcement. Meanwhile, the Russian stock market plunged more than 10% on Monday but was 7% down when trading concluded. Since the start of the Russian military buildup on the borders of Ukraine in October, the market has lost more than a quarter of its value. Anders Aslund is chairman of the International Advisory Council at the Center for Social and Economic Research, a policy group in Warsaw, Poland. Aslund predicts the market could fall much further if the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Western powers over Ukraine worsens. “So far, the Russian RTS stock index in USD has only fallen 27% from its high point on October 27 before Putin started threatening Ukraine,” Aslund tweeted. “It has far more to fall. In 2008, it fell by 80% from May to October (Georgia war + global financial crisis).” Meanwhile, the European stock markets have held fairly steady in recent weeks — a blitheness that’s not necessarily reassuring, analysts say, as the European stock markets didn’t miss a beat in the immediate wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, a slaying that triggered World War I.  The London and Paris bourses were “slow to grasp why Sarajevo was different and unique,” noted Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, international business editor of The Telegraph. European investors and traders appeared Monday to take greater note of the geopolitical maneuverings, and markets nudged down lower on the news that Britain … Continue reading “Russian Markets Plunge as War Fears Mount”

US Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Race-Based College Admissions 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday said it will hear two cases that could determine if race can be used as a factor for college admission.  The cases, brought by the conservative group Students for Fair Admissions, targets Harvard, the country’s oldest private school, and the University of North Carolina, one of the nation’s oldest public schools.  The group maintains Harvard discriminates by using a quota-like system that disproportionately rejects qualified Asian applicants thus violating their civil rights.  “Harvard’s mistreatment of Asian-American applicants is appalling,” the plaintiffs wrote in their brief in the Harvard case. “That Harvard engages in racial balancing and ignores race-neutral alternatives also proves that Harvard does not use race as a last resort.”  Harvard says race is only one consideration for admission.  “Harvard does not automatically award race-based tips but rather considers race only in a flexible and non-mechanical way; consideration of race benefits only highly qualified candidates; and Harvard does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants,” the school wrote the court in its brief.  At UNC, Students for Fair Admissions is demanding a colorblind admissions process.  “Public schools have no legitimate interest in maintaining a precise racial balance,” Students for Fair Admissions wrote in its brief to the court. Both cases are seen as landmark challenges to affirmative action policies in university admissions. Affirmative action seeks to address disadvantages and discrimination certain groups have historically faced in America and ensure equal access of opportunity in education, employment and other areas.    UNC Charlotte’s website says it enrolls “a diverse, competitive class of scholars” each year and that the university prides itself “on being one of the most diverse public universities” in the state. The site adds: “Having a diverse student body gives our students the opportunity to learn from other students from different backgrounds and cultures … to create a holistic and informed academic and social experience.”    Institutions of higher learning that prioritize achieving racially-diverse student bodies have at times been accused of watering down admissions criteria for certain minority applicants and, in effect, penalizing more qualified applicants from other groups.    Chief Justice John Roberts has been an outspoken critic of affirmative action, famously declaring in a 2006 opinion, “It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”    The cases will likely be heard during the Supreme Court’s 2022 term, which starts in October.  Some information in this report comes from … Continue reading “US Supreme Court to Hear Challenges to Race-Based College Admissions “

Trial Begins for Cops Accused of Violating George Floyd’s Rights 

The federal trial for three former Minneapolis police officers charged with violating George Floyd’s civil rights as Derek Chauvin pinned the Black man’s neck to the street began Monday with opening statements, after a jury of 18 people was swiftly picked last week. J. Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao are broadly charged with depriving Floyd of his civil rights while acting under government authority. All three are charged for failing to provide Floyd with medical care and Thao and Kueng face an additional count for failing to stop Chauvin, who was convicted of murder and manslaughter in state court last year.  Legal experts say prosecutors have to prove Kueng, Lane and Thao willfully violated Floyd’s constitutional rights, while defense attorneys are likely to blame Chauvin for Floyd’s murder, which was videotaped and triggered worldwide protests, violence and a reexamination of racism and policing. Floyd, 46, died on May 25, 2020, after Chauvin pressed him to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for 9 1/2 minutes while Floyd was facedown, handcuffed and gasping for air. Kueng knelt on Floyd’s back and Lane held down his legs. Thao kept bystanders from intervening.  Attorneys for the Floyd family have said bystander video shows that the three officers “directly contributed to [Floyd’s] death and failed to intervene to stop the senseless murder.”  On Thursday, 18 people were chosen for the jury; 12 will deliberate and six will be alternates. Two of the jurors — one expected to deliberate and one alternate — appear to be of Asian descent. The rest appear to be white. The jurors include people from the Twin Cities area, the suburbs and southern Minnesota. The court declined to provide demographic information.  Federal prosecutions of officers involved in on-duty killings are rare. Prosecutors face a high legal standard to show that an officer willfully deprived someone of their constitutional rights. Essentially, prosecutors must prove that the officers knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway.  The indictment charges Thao, who is Hmong American; Lane, who is white; and Kueng, who is Black, with willfully depriving Floyd of the right to be free from an officer’s deliberate indifference to his medical needs. The indictment says the three men saw Floyd clearly needed medical care and failed to aid him. Thao and Kueng are also charged with a second count alleging they willfully violated Floyd’s right to be … Continue reading “Trial Begins for Cops Accused of Violating George Floyd’s Rights “