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Public invited to soil collection ceremony Saturday in Pilot Point

Denton County residents are invited to participate in a solemn ceremony that will honor local victims of lynching on Saturday morning in Pilot Point.

The Denton County Community Remembrance Project has organized a soil collection ceremony that will culminate with participants helping prepare the sacred ground for permanent display, volunteers said. The public is invited to the formal ceremony, which begins at 11 a.m. Saturday at Pilot Point First United Methodist Church, 217 S. Church St.

Volunteers plan to fill three jars commemorating local victims of lynching. One jar is heading to Montgomery, Alabama, where two of Denton County’s lynching victims are honored at the new National Memorial of Peace and Justice. The Denton County soil is destined for display at the memorial’s companion Legacy Museum. The other jars will remain here.

The names of the two victims being honored at the memorial are not known. But newspaper accounts described two men being taken from the Pilot Point jail on Dec. 14, 1922, and presumed lynched. The newspaper also noted that two others disappeared from the jail months prior and were never seen or heard from again.

Shaun Treat

“We cannot bring justice to the community without the truth,” said Shaun Treat, one of the event organizers. “We are trying to bring some truth.

Treat told fellow organizers this week that the Equal Justice Initiative, creator of the museum and memorial, is sending a delegate to the ceremony to speak and to escort the soil back to Alabama.

Organizers are planning about an hour of prayers, music and brief talks on the themes of justice, peace and healing. Invited speakers include the presidents of the local chapters of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens along with Pilot Point City Council member Pearlie Mae Simpson and past and present Denton City Council members Linnie McAdams and Gerard Hudspeth.

The event is free and includes light refreshments, but organizers plan to pass the hat to help pay the musicians.

For more information, visit the group’s Facebook page.

Milestones in recovery: Denton County Drug Court graduation highlights efforts to reduce addiction

The end of a chapter and turning of a page were marked for graduating members of the Denton County Drug Court during a ceremony Thursday evening at the Denton County Courthouse. The county’s drug court aims to assist high-risk felony offenders rehabilitate and reintegrate into their families and communities.

Graduating members included: David Bibb, 42; J. Tyler Gonsior, 25; Michael Richie, 36; and Lauren Story, 30.

The drug court, which operates out of Judge Brody Shanklin’s 211th Judicial District Court, has held a total of four graduations since 2016, according to Kevin Edwards, a probation officer for the drug court. Shanklin presides over the drug court and is assisted by Judge Steve Burgess, who oversees the 158th Judicial District Court.

Shanklin, who has served over the drug court since October 2016, began Thursday’s ceremony with a slideshow that displayed graduating members’ mugshots and photos of their progression. He says that graduating members of the drug court have broken the cycle of addiction because of their efforts and commitment to their sobriety.

“The most important aspect is that we take in somebody that is in an active addiction,” he said. “By the time someone graduates drug court, they are no longer in an active addiction because they have broken that cycle.”

Edwards, a licensed chemical dependency counselor, said the 18-month long treatment program offers participants of the court a shot at life and opportunities that would not be available had their drug use continued.

“They’ve really gone through a tremendous amount of work to get where they’re at for graduation,” Edwards said. “Tons of personal accomplishments have been achieved along the way and milestones of sobriety that they were never able to string together before, so, it’s a tremendous for them to achieve this and move on.”

In order to become eligible to graduate, drug court participants are required to complete four phases of the program, which includes finding employment and stable housing, while continuing to maintain their sobriety. In addition, participants are required to complete educational courses and submit to routine drug screenings, he said.

But, for some of those that graduated, Thursday’s ceremony was a milestone than had never been guaranteed.

Nearly two years ago, Story, a resident of Denton, had been sitting inside of a North Texas motel room after she and two other women were kicked out of a drug rehabilitation center in June 2018. Story, a recovering methamphetamine and K2 (synthetic marijuana) addict, said back then she had nowhere to go and that nobody would trust her after being released from jail on possession charges four months prior. But, as she sat in the motel room, and a woman began relapsing on heroin, she said, is when her mindset about her life and her own sobriety had begun to change.

“I said, ‘I have too much riding on me, I can’t keep doing this,’” she said. “I can’t be in these sketchy situations and that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, my god, I have all this support and I have people I can call ... I have to do this.’”

Story, who worked as a certified pharmacy technician back at the time of her initial arrest in 2014, had bounced between treatment centers in Texas and Minnesota, including stints in jail prior to Thursday’s graduation. Her relationship with her mother, her self-described biggest fan, had suffered because of her drug use, Story said, which led to her mother taking custody of her 7-year-old son. Back then, things were often difficult, she said.

“[My mother] would be obsessing as she looked at the Minneapolis or the St. Paul news, and all the way down to Texas, waiting for them to find me on the side of the highway dead,” she said. “So, she has held a lot of anger and fear and resentment towards me for a long time, but she also went to Al-Anon, too, and had dealt with that.”

Al-Anon is a mutual fellowship group for relatives or friends of alcoholics who share their experience, strength and hope in order to help solve their common problems. Story says that she and her adopted mother, whose sobriety from alcohol had recently entered its 20th year, have begun to mend their relationship in recent months.

Story, who admitted that issues from her childhood and her mother’s drinking still existed in their relationship, said that being afforded an opportunity to reestablish a true sense of trust and connection has been invaluable.

For Gonsior, a Hickory Creek resident and an original member of the drug court whose Denton County track record dates back to 2012, Thursday’s graduation had provided reflection of his past three years in the program.

Mark Finley / Jeff Woo/DRC  

Judge Brody Shanklin, left, hands a diploma to graduate J. Tyler Gonsior during the Denton County Drug Court graduation ceremony Thursday at the Denton County Courts Building.

“The growth is almost overwhelming,” Gonsior said. “I never would have thought that I would have been here [or] that I would have made it to this point whether it be alive or not in the correctional system.”

Gonsior says his drug use began in high school and that it became more progressive after his brother’s death in 2012, when he then began using drugs to numb himself of the pain he felt. Back then, at age 18 when his brother died, his main go-to drugs were marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin.

“After my brother passed away, I was just trying to take the pain away,” he said.

While a member of the drug court, he would always try to find loopholes in order to see what he could get away with, he said, which led him to more problems than solutions. He had been kicked out of two treatment centers in two years, had relapsed and was facing a stint in jail before arriving at his final rehabilitation center in Lubbock.

But as he faced nearly a year of rehabilitation ahead of him is when his perspective had changed.

“I was looking at doing seven to 10 months in this treatment center in Lubbock, and was away from my family and my life,” he said. “I really needed to put this into perspective [and] where I wanted to go at this point in my life, because I can certainly keep doing [this] or I can say, ‘This needs to be this last thing. Let’s take a stand.’”

He says that being away from his family and the desire to start his life had heavily weighed on his mind while he was in treatment and the reality of his situation had set in. But after having sat in jail and having been sent to various treatment centers is when the moment of truth dawned and his commitment to sobriety occurred.

“This isn’t the way to live, this isn’t worth it and drugs aren’t worth it,” Gonsior said as he reflected on his time in the program and his personal growth since 2012. “This last treatment center is what brought me to my life.”

While both Gonsior and Story graduated and received their plaques during Thursday’s ceremony, both will still have their respective probation terms to complete, while continuing to maintain their sobriety. According to Edwards, the drug court is designed as such to ensure a sense of resource and accountability beyond the program.

In addition, he says that the vast majority of drug court graduates will still have several years of probation.

Story, whose probation ends in January, admitted that she is terrified about life after the drug court, but that she is confident in herself because of the friends and resources gained from the program. But as she’s worked to rebuild her relationships and trust with her family, she said her biggest lesson was learning how to ask for help.

“That’s my big thing — asking for help,” Story said. “It was a pride thing for me. I am a very prideful person, and it’s really irritating because it gets in the way a lot of times, but I have finally been able to through the drug court and through [treatment] to just sit down and humble myself.”

For Gonsior, whose probation ends in 2021, his plan after Thursday’s ceremony is to continue working on his sobriety and staying connected to his friends and resources, while being there for others. After nearly three years, he noted that the drug court’s willingness to work with him had been an instrumental factor to his recovery.

“[The drug court] went miles for me,” Gonsior said. “Apparently, they saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they were willing to work with me and not just throw me to the curb. I put myself in that situation, but in the grand scheme of things, I needed this program to help me get to where I am today.”

Could climate change lead to more extreme hailstorms in North Texas?

From tornadoes to blizzards, when extreme weather happens it’s easy to wonder if climate change is to blame.

Scientists often say it’s difficult to say whether one specific storm was the result of climate change, but as researchers gather more data, it’s also becoming easier to observe trends.

The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society on Monday published an annual report that looks at weather observations from the previous year and model simulations to see if climate change could have played a role in extreme weather events.

“The evidence that human-caused climate change is impacting weather events has only been increasing,” said Stephanie Herring, editor of the report and a climate scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This year we are seeing more and more evidence of climate change ‘fingerprints’ on different types of events, especially wildfires and heavy rain.”

The report, “Explaining Extreme Events in 2018 From a Climate Perspective,” was peer-reviewed by 121 scientists from 13 countries. It breaks down 21 extreme weather events, including a storm system that pummeled North Texas with large hail on June 6, 2018.

That storm system damaged an estimated 20,000 structures and 25,000 vehicles, racking up an estimated $425 billion in damage, according to the Insurance Council of Texas. Hailstones produced by the storm ranged from 1.5-inches wide in Denton County to 3-inch hail in Coppell and Carrollton, according to the National Weather Service.

Could North Texas see more severe hailstorms as a result of climate change? Based on research, there is “some indication of more intense hailstorms in a warming climate,” according to the report.

But the answer is tricky.

That’s partly because severe thunderstorms that produce hail are “relatively small and short-lived,” according to the report. The speed of severe thunderstorms limits the ability to gather data compared to a larger system such as a hurricane that brews in an ocean for days before making landfall.

Forecasting the possibility of hail a couple of days out is already difficult enough, as evidenced by a forecast last spring.

A Dallas-Fort Worth forecast in April called for the potential for baseball-size hail. That prompted the cancellation of hundreds of flights, sent North Texans home early from work and even forced some schools to close. Ultimately, baseball-size hail did not fall in North Texas that evening.

Predicting hail trends years from now is even harder, said Kelly Mahoney, author of the chapter on hail and a NOAA meteorologist.

Since the 1960s, the annual number of reported hail observations has risen, both in frequency and the size of the hailstones, according to the report. That rising trend, however, does not necessarily mean climate change is resulting in more hailstorms with larger hail and could simply indicate that as populations grow, there are more people, living in more areas, able to send in hail reports.

“Despite the considerable uncertainties surrounding the future of hail risk, key industries and stakeholders must still act,” Mahoney said in the report.

That’s because as populations continue to grow and spread, the report’s authors say, so do the dangers to lives and property.

Appraisal district employees weigh in before board authorizes search for new chief

About 30 Denton Central Appraisal District employees filled a small meeting room Thursday afternoon — about one-third of the entire staff — to tell board members they were concerned about the agency’s future and the day’s agenda.

None of the employees left the room after Chairman Charles Stafford said the board would not name a deputy appraiser for administration — the behind-closed-doors agenda item that appeared to trigger the most anxiety among the rank and file.

Charles Stafford

The Denton Central Appraisal District, like other appraisal districts statewide, is charged with independently determining the values for all residential, commercial and personal property. Those values, in turn, become the basis of the property tax rolls for area school districts, cities, special taxing districts and the county. The appraisal district board is elected by the elected officials of the schools, cities and the county.

The district board recently negotiated an exit package for its former chief appraiser, Rudy Durham, but has not named an interim chief appraiser.

Three longtime district employees spoke directly to the board during public comment as the others lined up for moral support.

Paul Deleon, a quality control specialist, asked whether he could attend the closed session. He told the board that employee concerns don’t always make it up the chain of command.

“I don’t know how to get your ear,” Deleon said.

Stafford told Deleon he would not be allowed in the room during the closed session, but fellow board member George Pryor encouraged Deleon and other employees to feel free to address the board directly.

Loretta Gregg, a trainer for the district, told the board that it was important that a new chief appraiser be able to write job descriptions and reorganize the district as they saw fit, including deciding who would serve as their deputy appraiser.

“It’s in the best interest of the district to let the chief appraiser make that decision,” Gregg said.

Karen Singleton, a supervisor in the commercial appraisal division, urged the board to remember that the decision they make would affect the people standing before them, both for the short term and possibly for the rest of their working life.

“Every employee should have an equal opportunity to achieve their goals,” Singleton said, adding that the employees hoped for a new chief appraiser who was both willing to work with them and lead them.

The district has faced scrutiny for more than a year, including an internal investigation into management practices by an outside law firm and the revelation that several properties inappropriately received long-running religious exemptions.

A routine open records request triggered a lawsuit this summer between the district and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, ultimately blocking the release of the documents. The district’s lawyers cited, in part, a U.S. Department of Justice interest in the case to block release of the documents.

After a brief closed-door meeting to discuss the search for a new chief appraiser, the board authorized Stafford to hire an outside executive search firm and begin the search.

Although the board’s election is not final, Stafford is expected to return to the five-member board, as is Pryor and incumbents Roy Atwood and Dave Terre. Michael Hassett did not run again and is expected to be replaced by Flower Mound resident Bryan Webb, although Lewisville ISD must recast its ballots.

In their motion to authorize the search, board members said they would consider both internal and external candidates who not only fit the state requirements for a chief appraiser but also had management experience.

Hassett thanked employees for airing their concerns.

“We appreciate this feedback,” he said. “You’re the reason we’re taking the steps we’re taking.”

Terre agreed.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Terre said. “We will take the utmost care to get the right person.”