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Randy Krehbiel: Why 'mask' has become a four-letter word

What is it about a little piece of cloth hanging off our faces that turns “mask” into a four-letter word?

“Thank you Governor Stitt for continuing to not trespass on our constitutional/human right to medical freedom!! We support you!” said one of more than 1,000 commenters on the Facebook video of Thursday’s press conference at which Gov. Kevin Stitt said he has no plans to impose a statewide face mask mandate.

“You people who refuse masks because of rights should be forced to have covid (sic),” another commenter retorted.

In a time of uncertainty and change, Americans are squared off over a simple piece of medical equipment. Somehow, it has become an icon of righteous outrage for both those who wear them and those who don’t.

“It becomes a marker for either being uncaring about your fellow humans or of being compliant and part of some other side,” said University of Tulsa psychology professor Bradley Brummel.

“As soon as it takes on that nature, it picks up all that baggage we see most clearly in political identification,” he said.

In some ways, this is rooted in American history and perhaps in plain human nature. One of the issues that politically divided the early republic was the treatment and prevention of smallpox.

With virtual unanimity, experts say masks of almost any kind are better than no mask at all, and a good mask properly worn can substantially reduce the spread of COVID-19. They say a mask protects others more than it protects the wearer.

But a substantial number of Americans don’t believe the experts, or at any rate don’t believe COVID-19 is a serious threat to themselves and those around them.

“We’re not very good as humans at understanding or estimating risks, especially when they’re low base rates,” said Thad Leffingwell, head of the psychology department at Oklahoma State University. “Right now the rate of contracting coronavirus is still low and dying from it is even lower.”

But even those low rates result in significant illness and death. That math is one of the reasons several Oklahoma communities, including Tulsa, have instituted mask ordinances or are considering them.

One objection to such ordinances is the difficulty of enforcement, but Leffingwell said that misses the point.

“The main utility of these types of ordinances is to set the community norm, to say this is what we expect people to do in public,” he said. “People mostly want to conform with community norms.”

Leffingwell and Brummel both said they believe active resistance to masks and mask ordinances is magnified by social media.

“I think people are not having angry outbursts about masks nearly as much as it seems,” said Brummel. “Any time anyone does something truly outside the norm it gets shared on social media and gets amplified and shared. The attacking people and yelling at people in stores is really pretty rare.”

Michael Brose, CEO of Mental Health Association Oklahoma, thinks resistance to wearing masks is more complicated than is often portrayed.

“It’s a very layered, multi-pronged issue,” Brose said. “Whether people choose to wear them or not wear them, or when they wear them or when they don’t wear them, is very complex.

“There’s been a lot written and said about the politics of it, but I really think it’s a lot more nuanced than that for a lot of people,” he said.

“For a lot of people, it’s a courtesy thing,” Brose said. “ ‘I don’t want to infect you and would really prefer you didn’t infect me.’”

Brose said he believes some people truly have difficulty breathing through masks, particularly in the heat, and some people are thrown off by no longer being able to read others’ faces.

And, the three psychologists agreed, face masks are a very visible reminder that “things are not normal” — something a lot of people want desperately not to be so.

Interestingly, this is not the first time wearing masks during a pandemic has divided American public opinion.

According to a recent study, face masks were resisted more than any other measure taken to combat the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. One San Franciscan was so upset by that city’s mask ordinance he mailed a bomb to the city’s chief public health officer.

The bomb, fortunately, was discovered and defused before it could explode.

Things haven’t reached that point in Oklahoma, but the argument has gotten intense. On the one hand are those who believe wearing a face mask — or, more to the point, being required to wear one — is an invasion of personal liberty. Some maintain it is unconstitutional.

On the other are those incensed that their lives are being put at risk over a nebulous concept of individual freedom and what some see as sheer stubbornness.

“The well-meaning people who are trying to encourage mask use are really doing their cause a disservice when they mock, threaten, insult anyone not wearing a mask,” said Brummel. “If your goal is to help people see the wisdom in it, you’re going to get that immediate shutdown reaction.

“Otherwise,” he said, “we just jump into our camps and go find people who agree with us, call the other side idiots, and go on about our day.

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

Epic founders claim for-profit managers 'earned' millions being questioned by State Auditor

Attorneys are still battling in court in the state’s legal effort to compel Epic Charter Schools’ for-profit operator to comply with an investigative audit, newly filed public records reveal.

Epic’s founders now claim the tens of millions in question by the Oklahoma State Auditor and Inspector are “earned” by the school management company they own to provide goods and services.

This month marks a full year since Gov. Kevin Stitt requested the investigative audit of Epic and all of its related entities by State Auditor Cindy Byrd.

Byrd has yet to issue any report of findings in the matter, which landed in district court in March over Epic’s lack of compliance with her public records requests and administrative subpoenas.

The Oklahoma County judge handling the legal fight has scheduled the next hearing in the matter for Aug. 5.

At issue is Epic’s shielding of scrutiny of how it has used tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for something it calls the Learning Fund, used to cover the cost of students’ curriculum, home technology needs, books and materials, as well extracurricular activities offered by thousands of outside vendors.

Epic claims that all Learning Fund money becomes private once transferred to the school’s for-profit management company, Epic Youth Services — which reportedly has made millionaires of Epic co-founders Ben Harris and David Chaney.

But the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office is disputing those claims in Oklahoma County District Court in an effort to get the state auditor access to Epic’s Learning Fund spending records.

In a new brief filed in court last week, the Attorney General’s Office wrote that the company’s own operational agreement says the funds are transferred to Epic Youth Services to “purchase and manage school assets and services on behalf of the school” — not as another means of potential income for Epic Youth Services, which already receives a 10% cut of every dollar of school revenue.

“If the Learning Funds are private when in EYS control, then for every dollar of an individual student’s Learning Fund account that EYS does not spend in furtherance of that student’s education, EYS profits. This places EYS’s profit interests in direct conflict with those of the students to whom it is entrusted to provide the most quality public school education possible,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote.

In Epic Youth Services’ own brief filed last week, the company stated: “We all agree that the source of the funds paid to EYS is public … But the funds do not remain state funds once paid to EYS to perform services. The parties have a contractual agreement by which EYS is compensated for providing educational and extra-curricular resources for Epic Charter School students.

“Like any other private vendor, EYS is paid to provide goods and services and money paid to EYS for the Learning Fund is intended to be earned at time of payment.”

Attorneys for the state countered, saying the company’s own contract terms with the school “do not allow it” to earn Learning Fund dollars. And they claim that public employees of Epic Charter Schools perform Learning Fund tasks and that although EYS apparently considers the Learning Fund as earned income, “upon information and belief, EYS does not pay income taxes on the Learning Fund.”

The management company’s attorneys stated that the Learning Fund’s financial arrangement was noted but drew no criticism in many years of annual audits conducted by an outside firm and filed with the State Auditor’s Office.

“The State Auditor had at least eight opportunities to see this is how Epic was structured and how it was accounting for these funds, but it never made any perceived deficiency known,” EYS attorneys wrote. “EYS assumed, maybe wrongfully so, that the (State Auditor’s Office) was fulfilling its statutory obligation to review Epic’s financial statements for compliance with Oklahoma public school law — and EYS structured its business accordingly.

“Without any objection or notice of deficiency from the state, Epic and EYS have always interpreted their contract to mean that Learning Fund payments are earned and become private upon payment.”

But the Attorney General’s Office wrote in its brief that Epic is misrepresenting the state auditor’s responsibilities concerning routine, annual school audits, which it says is only to serve as a repository for the records, not to “‘audit’ the audits performed by other entities.”

A Tulsa World review of Epic’s routine, annual school audits, by a Cushing-based firm called CBEW Professional Group, found they all note “none of the activities of EYS (Epic Youth Services) is included in these financial statements.”

The state also questioned the privacy claims by EYS, given that in late March, Epic Charter Schools’ independent governing board voted to authorize an internal compliance audit of the Learning Fund.

“If the Learning Fund were earned, private income of EYS at the time it is transferred to EYS, it makes no sense for the governing board to call for an audit of the Learning Fund,” the Attorney General’s Office wrote. “The most logical explanation is that the learning funds remain public funds subject to the control and oversight of Community Strategies Inc., as governing board of Epic Charter Schools.“

The Tulsa World’s year-long investigation which turned up records showing the shifting of millions in taxpayer dollars to the for-profit Epic Youth Services company has been included as evidence in the state’s motion to compel Epic to account for its Learning Fund expenditures.

Among the findings were that vendors wishing to obtain Learning Fund dollars sign a contract with the school, not EYS.

And some Epic parents question how Epic justifies charging every student’s annual $1,000 Learning Fund allocation the same amount in Learning Funds every year for the Chromebook laptop purchased for them their first year at the school. Also questioned by parents is the purpose of a blanket $85 “processing fee” charged each year from students’ Learning Funds.

In response to those questions earlier this year, Epic spokeswoman Shelly Hickman told the Tulsa World: “Not one penny of the $85 (processing fee) debit is kept by EYS.”

A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office and an attorney for Epic Youth Services declined to comment beyond the contents of the newly filed public court records.

State law enforcement maintains an ongoing investigation into allegations of embezzlement, racketeering and forgery by top executives at Epic and willful neglect by members of its independent governing board.

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

Epic Charter Schools: A Tulsa World investigation

McGirt decision to have little impact on nontribal residents, TU law professor says

While huge for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a Supreme Court decision Thursday that reaffirmed the tribe’s historic jurisdictional boundaries as current today will have little impact on the day-to-day lives of nontribal members in the region, according to a University of Tulsa law professor.

Aila Hoss, an expert in American Indian law, said in an interview Friday that while she believes the criminal case won by Jimcy McGirt will be cited in future criminal litigation for “the next decades,” the ruling will have a very limited application in the short term.

“The only thing this case does is reaffirm that states don’t have criminal jurisdiction on tribal reservation lands when we are dealing with an Indian defendant who has been accused of a major crime,” Hoss said.

That sentiment was made clear in the opinion written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

The “State worries that our decision will have significant consequences for civil and regulatory law,” Gorsuch wrote. “The only question before us, however, concerns the statutory definition of ‘Indian country’ as it applies in federal criminal law” under the Major Crimes Act.

McGirt, 71, had challenged his state court child sex crime convictions on the grounds that the state of Oklahoma didn’t have jurisdiction to try him because the crime occurred in Wagoner County, which was within the tribe’s jurisdictional boundaries under an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government.

Gorsuch and four other members of the nine-member Supreme Court sided with McGirt’s claims that Congress, the only entity that can do so, never disestablished the tribe’s reservation after it approved the treaty, despite the state taking over prosecutions of major crimes after statehood.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s 1866 boundaries expanded across an 11-county region in eastern Oklahoma, including much of the city of Tulsa.

Indeed, Gorsuch said it was implausible to suggest that Oklahoma statehood, coupled with tribal members being afforded U.S. citizenship and the right to vote, somehow implied an intent to terminate tribal reservations as the state of Oklahoma posited in legal filings.

Rather, the McGirt decision only applies to criminal offenses committed in Indian Country that are categorized under the federal Major Crimes Act, said Hoss. Those crimes include murder, rape, kidnapping and maiming.

That’s not to say the decision won’t have other implications.

Hoss said she believes there is a good argument to reaffirm the criminal jurisdiction boundaries for the four other major tribes in Oklahoma, based on the McGirt decision.

“Even though the opinion is narrow ... I think it would be a very hard argument to say that this is not going to impact the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole Nations,” Hoss said.

She called claims that the decision could take away privately owned land from non-Creek Nation members or end up setting criminals free as hyperbole.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, wrote that persons convicted of major crimes “are now subject to jurisdictional challenges, leading to the potential release of numerous individuals found guilty under state law of the most grievous offense.”

For other defendants considering an appeal on jurisdictional grounds, Hoss said they will have to consider a range of factors, including the potential for harsher penalties should they be convicted in federal court.

As for expanding the criminal jurisdiction decision beyond American Indians, Hoss said tribes already had very limited, almost non-existent, criminal jurisdiction over non-American Indians.

Rather, Hoss called the decision Thursday a “victory in terms of reaffirming principles that are continuously challenged by state and local governments in terms of tribal sovereignty and authority.”

Those sentiments were made clear in a statement from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation following the ruling:

“The Supreme Court today kept the United States’ sacred promise to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of a protected reservation. Today’s decision will allow the Nation to honor our ancestors by maintaining our established sovereignty and territorial boundaries. We will continue to work with federal and state law enforcement agencies to ensure that public safety will be maintained throughout the territorial boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”

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COVID-19 basics everyone needs to know as the pandemic continues

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