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Youngest Astroworld victim was a Denton pupil
  • Updated

The youngest confirmed death in the aftermath of the Astroworld crowd surge earlier this month was a 9-year-old boy who attended school in Denton, multiple sources have confirmed.

Ezra Blount died Sunday at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston after being admitted for injuries he sustained at the annual music festival put on by rapper Travis Scott on Nov. 5. Ezra is the 10th festival attendee who has died.

Multiple news reports have confirmed Ezra lived and went to school in Denton.

His mother, Tamara Byrd of Denton, filed a civil personal injury suit in Harris County District Court on Nov. 8, the Monday after the Astroworld Festival. Byrd’s suit names Scott, Live Nation, Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., Contemporary Services Corp. and Scoremore Holdings LLC.

Attorneys for Byrd and Ezra’s father, Treston Blount, hadn’t returned calls by Tuesday evening.

Ezra went to the music festival with his father on Nov. 5. Treston Blount had his son on his shoulders awaiting artist Drake’s performance with Scott, according to his account on a GoFundMe page. Blount said he was then crushed by the crowd and passed out. When he awoke, his son was gone. They found him at a hospital, according to the GoFundMe page.

“Due to his severe injuries which are swelling in the back of brain damage and trauma to nearly all organs we are certain that he was trampled and is still in induced coma,” Blount wrote on the page Nov. 8.

In a statement from both parents’ attorneys, they said the young concertgoer had been in a medically induced coma and on life support to combat brain, liver and kidney trauma.

“The Blount family tonight is grieving the incomprehensible loss of their precious young son,” the statement says. “This should not have been the outcome of taking their son to a concert, what should have been a joyful celebration.”

Scott, 30, whose real name is Jacques Berman Webster II, faces more than 100 lawsuits in the wake of the deadly crowd surge at Astroworld.

Astroworld is a music festival held in Houston and founded by Scott, its main performer. The inaugural festival took place in 2018, followed by a 2019 fest, although the 2020 event was postponed due to the pandemic.

Soon after Scott took the stage around 9 p.m. Nov. 5, festivalgoers surged toward the stage and packed tightly together. Houston officials declared it a mass casualty incident around 9:38 p.m., with Scott’s performance ending around 10:10 p.m. Eight people were pronounced dead from the crowd rush and being trampled, and another two have died since.


Denton
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Local mom, brewery team up to revive canceled story time

A local mom and her church walked into a bar and decided a controversial Denton library program wasn’t going to be canceled after all.

“Denton’s not going to stand for bigotry and hate, plain and simple,” said Denton resident Amber Briggle, the mom of a transgender son and a prominent proponent of transgender equality in Texas.

Citing safety concerns for the staff at North Branch Library and patrons who planned to attend Rainbow Family StoryTime this Saturday, Denton officials announced Monday afternoon that the event — which was to fall on Transgender Day of Remembrance — was canceled. Director of Libraries Jennifer Bekker said in an interview Monday that critics from Denton and beyond mistakenly believed the program was intended to indoctrinate its young audience — ages 2 to 8 — about transgender issues.

Denton library cancels story time, citing safety concerns

When Bekker and her staff noticed social media comments referring to violence over the weekend, she and city officials determined that canceling the event was in the best interest of patron and staff safety.

Briggle, who founded the transgender-related story time in 2018, said she was running errands in Dallas on Monday when her phone started “blowing up.”

“I was getting all these messages about how it was canceled and I was like, well, let me get home and see what this is all about,” Briggle said.

Briggle said the 2018 event was meant to raise awareness of transgender people for a general audience.

“Basically, I asked something like 10 transgender people to come to the event and read their favorite children’s book,” Briggle said. “The library was wonderful and allowed us a place to do it.”

The library hosts regular story times at each of its locations, and three times a year, the library hosts a special story time that coincides with a date that honors a national observance for a specific or marginalized group. Transgender Day of Remembrance is especially somber, as the national observance memorializes transgender people who have been murdered as a result of transphobia. The local story times relating to the observance have emphasized friendship, family and self-expression, Bekker said.

The three books that were to be read at the canceled story time — Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall, I’m a Girl by Yasmeen Ismail and What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold — don’t directly reference or mention sexual orientation or gender. But each title explores the idea of difference, and together the books promote self-acceptance and accepting differences.

Complaints surged after American Family Association President Tim Wildmon sent a fundraising letter to donors urging them to contact the Denton library, mayor and City Council and to “get involved in protecting children who visit the city’s libraries.”

“Most importantly,” Wildmon wrote before asking for a tax-deductible donation, “pray that this event will be canceled before children are exposed to the damaging and irreversible effects of sexual deviancy being pushed by transgenders and library staff.”

Texas gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines, a Republican, posted a news release on his campaign website demanding that Denton end the event and fire the staff who approved the story time.

On Tuesday, Huffines told the Denton Record-Chronicle he approved of the program’s cancellation.

“I am pleased that the pressure raised by our campaign, and more importantly concerned patriots in Denton County, led to the appropriate cancellation of this event. Children should not be used as pawns by adults with a sexual agenda,” Huffines said in a statement.

Amber Briggle

Briggle said she knew she wanted to make sure the free event would happen, but wasn’t sure where it should be. Her first thought was her church. Briggle and her family are longtime members of Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, a local congregation that has long supported LGBT seekers and members. Unitarian Universalism has affirmed full inclusion of LGBT members since 1970.

Briggle said the congregation had just held its fourth annual panel about transgender equality last Sunday to kick off Transgender Awareness Week.

Because of the pandemic, Briggle said, “we aren’t meeting in person yet at the church except for very small groups. I talked to the board president about having something outside.”

But an outdoor event would have drawbacks.

“I was expecting a lot of people to show up for this from all over the metroplex, because there are a lot of people who aren’t living in communities that are inclusive,” she said. “I knew I wanted to have an event where people could bring their trans-inclusive families and their transgender children. But I didn’t want to put kids in a position where this was going to be a protest and a counterprotest. I didn’t want to have something for children where one person with a bullhorn could come and disrupt everything.”

Although she noted that “people are well within their rights to do that,” the story time is meant to be “a love-filled event for kids and families.”

Bobby Mullins

Bobby Mullins, founder and head brewer of Armadillo Ale Works, contacted Briggle and told her to have the event at the brewery. At 11 a.m., the coffeehouse at the brewery serves coffees and teas, and Mullins said the staff is concocting some kids’ drinks.

“When I heard about what happened, I thought, ‘What a shame,’” Mullins said. “I felt like if there was a safe place to do it, that would be awesome. Then I thought, ‘Why not do it at our place? We’re an inclusive space.’”

Briggle said the brewery is perfect for an indoor gathering. There will be plenty of tables for kids to do crafts, which are being supplied by Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and stay socially distanced. Briggle noted that the event is aimed at ages 2 to 8, and children under 5 years of age can’t yet be vaccinated for COVID-19.

“It’s perfect. A non-Christian church is hosting it in a bar,” Briggle said.

She said she changed the reading program a little. Attendees will still get to hear Red: A Crayon’s Story, but they’ll hear a brand-new book, Calvin, by JR and Vanessa Ford, inspired by the story of their transgender daughter, Ellie. Briggle served with the Fords on a committee of the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group. Saturday’s readings also feature Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love.

“These books mention the word transgender,” Briggle said.

Mullins said he’s not concerned about backlash.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve done a pretty good job at letting our customers know we’re inclusive, and if someone gets mad, they don’t have to come during the event,” he said.

By Tuesday night, Briggle said supporters had not only raised money to cover the church’s cost for craft supplies, but had given more.

“I’m donating any additional money directly to the Denton Public Library Foundation,” she said. “I’ve raised $758 in two hours.” (As of Wednesday morning, Briggle reported that she had raised nearly $2,000.)

Mullins said he thinks there is room in Denton for everyone.

“I found out about all this yesterday,” he said. “I got home from the day, and I was like, growing up in Denton, I’ve always prided myself on this town, and it really hurts me when I see people in our community acting like this. Anything I can do to make this town a more a welcoming place, I will. I encourage people to come out to the event. Even if people are bothered by it, I encourage them to come out and see that it’s nothing to be worried about.”


People came out to South Lakes Park to relax and exercise during Tuesday’s warm fall weather. Temperatures in Denton got up to 80 degrees by late Tuesday afternoon.


Coronavirus_outbreak
County’s COVID-19 progress could be stalling as holiday uncertainty approaches
  • Updated

After months of steady decline in coronavirus cases, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson says virus concern is creeping in once again, with improvement stalling and holiday travel on the horizon.

Locally, the delta variant surge peaked at nearly 3,500 cases the first week of September. Nearly every week since then, DCPH has reported decreases by the hundreds. But Richardson said Tuesday that trend could be slowing down, as the department’s latest case data shows only a minimal decrease for the first week of November.

Screenshot 

A Denton County Public Health chart shows COVID-19 cases by date of symptom onset, prior to Tuesday afternoon's update. As investigations continue, more cases will be added to the first week of November. 

The week of Oct. 24-30 came in at just under 600 cases, with the next seven days coming in at 530 by Monday afternoon. If it holds, that progression would be similar to what the county saw over the spring and summer, when cases gradually dropped off upon reaching 600 and eventually fell to under 200. But Richardson said investigations are continuing, which will add even more cases to November’s first week.

“That’s not the decline you saw mid-October to late October,” Richardson said. “That’s of some concern because we’re not experiencing that big decline that we were hoping to see. … Next week, the proof will be in the pudding.”

Compounding Richardson’s concerns of a progress plateau are the upcoming holidays. The past year’s winter months brought the worst case and death totals of the pandemic, although Richardson said that doesn’t necessarily mean another spike is on the way.

“We saw what happened last year, and we don’t necessarily believe we’re going to replicate last year’s experience,” Richardson said. “But it’s a concern, because we’re starting to plateau at just the wrong time. We’re going to have larger gatherings, lots of families mixing, and so we’re not sure what this holds.”

Elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 cases have already taken a turn for the worse. America as a whole reported an 11% increase in cases last week, largely stemming from states in the Midwest and Northeast. Richardson cautioned those spikes could work their way south.

“Every time another part of the country has seen a big wave, that wave has shown up — maybe in a lesser degree — in Denton County,” Richardson said.

One positive development from Richardson’s presentation is that the delta variant remains far and away the most active COVID-19 strain. He’s long maintained that any future bursts of virus activity will be limited unless a new, vaccine-resistant strain emerges.

Hanging in the balance is the county’s standing with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. While 71.4% of United States counties are classified as “high transmission” by CDC data, Denton County is labeled “substantial” along with 15.1% of the nation.

To get to “moderate,” the county would need fewer than 50 cases reported per 100,000 people in the course of one week — about 450 for the county’s total population. At that point, the CDC no longer recommends vaccinated residents wear masks, a step reserved for areas of substantial or high spread. Only 13.4% of counties nationwide have met that mark or better, including neighbors Collin, Grayson and Cooke.

Richardson said DCPH would follow suit in changing its stance on masks, though recent data doesn’t have him optimistic about reaching moderate transmission anytime soon.

“We’re going to be stuck in this substantial mode of transmission instead of down to that moderate,” Richardson said. “We’re going to need to see fewer cases.”


Denton_city_council
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Arguments over communities and population size dominate City Council redistricting talk

Little progress was made during the Denton City Council’s Tuesday session scheduled to redraw existing council districts.

The council previously decided to take a crack at shifting their own district boundaries, meaning some Denton residents might soon be represented by a council member other than the one they currently have.

The district boundaries have existed in their current state for the past 10 years, and they remain legally permissible.

The council’s plan is to have districts finalized by mid-January to give voters and potential candidates plenty of time ahead of next year’s City Council elections.

Mayor Gerard Hudspeth and at-large council members Paul Meltzer and Deb Armintor are up for reelection next year.

Bob Heath, a representative of the city’s contracted Bickerstaff Heath Delgado Acosta law firm, reiterated to council members they aren’t legally required to redistrict. Despite that, he said there is room for improvement upon the existing boundary map.

Tuesday’s drawing session was meant to give council members a chance to see in real time possible boundary changes to districts and how those changes would affect a variety of demographics, but Heath was clear he didn’t feel it was the firm’s decision to suggest where those boundaries should actually be.

“What I certainly want to do is to make sure that whatever you want to do is consistent with the law,” he said.

He said the specifics beyond what is legally advisable fall into a policy realm that he’d leave up to council members.

Those comments were prompted by suggestions from council member Jesse Davis, who said he was frustrated by the lack of specific advice from Heath’s firm.

“I think we’re best served by some guidance and some neutral input,” Davis said.

Both Davis and council member Brian Beck submitted proposed redistricting maps that were considered Tuesday afternoon by the full council, but Davis said he saw that input as equal to input put forward by any other member of the community.

Mayor Gerard Hudspeth seemed to disagree when he asked if there might be legal pitfalls awaiting them if they base their planning off proposals made by council members who represent one of the four City Council districts.

Meltzer, Armintor and Hudspeth are elected by the entirety of voting Denton residents, so they aren’t tied to a specific district.

The majority opinion Tuesday was that, while Davis’ map would nearly eliminate population discrepancies between districts, Beck’s map was perhaps slightly superior given its preference for keeping communities of interest together.

Davis’ map had a total population variance of less than 0.6%, whereas Beck’s was closer to 6.8%. The current district boundaries have a variance of nearly 8%, which means the four districts are on average 8% above or below what would be expected if each district had exactly the same number of people residing within their borders.

Heath, over the course of several council meetings, has explained that anything below 10% is legal, but council members previously decided they would like to get that number as low as possible with various other demographic considerations.

Council members said they’d heard various concerns from residents: worries about the districting around the Denia neighborhood or the Pecan Creek neighborhood, the splitting-up of Robson Ranch or redistricting of Robson Ranch, as well as some wanting the council to simply not redistrict at all.

Davis, whose district currently includes Robson Ranch in far southwest Denton, said he’d heard fears from those voters that they would be subject to ageism in the redistricting process.

No council members had suggested splitting up Robson Ranch, which contains one of the strongest concentrations of older voters, as well as one of the most reliably Republican-voting parts of Denton.

Courtesy image 

In his map, Denton council member Jesse Davis focused on making the four council districts nearly equal in population.

Davis’ proposed map had fewer changes to existing boundaries than Beck’s. The primary shifts would be in District 2’s Precinct 4008, which currently includes residents who live north of Oak Street, south of University Drive, west of Locust Street and east of Fulton Street.

Davis’ map would carve up that precinct, with portions going to Districts 1, 2 and 3.

In his proposal, Beck opted for more drastic changes in favor of preserving communities of interest.

That meant dissolving the peninsula that currently juts from District 4 to encompass the Denia neighborhood and shifting the boundaries of Districts 1 and 2 to avoid cutting the Pecan Creek area in half.

Courtesy image 

Denton City Council member Brian Beck said he focused on keeping communities of interest together in his proposed map of council districts.

Beck’s map was favored by council members Meltzer, Armintor and Alison Maguire for those reasons, but Hudspeth took issue with how the proposal would redistrict Denton’s landfill to be within District 1.

Hudspeth has lived for decades within District 1 and previously represented it on the City Council. It includes the section of Southeast Denton historically populated by many of the Denton’s Black residents after the city government’s racist forced removal of Black residents from the Quakertown area in the early 1920s.

“[The landfill] moves from a predominately white district to a predominately Black district,” Hudspeth summarized.

Current Denton City Council districts

Council member Vicki Byrd, who represents District 1, was out of state and not in attendance during Tuesday’s work session.

Several council members said they were interested in Hudspeth’s point and would like to hear Byrd’s point of view and potentially discuss the issue further.

Hudspeth fired back that it seemed his colleagues weren’t respecting his personal experience and his thoughts about the optics of redistricting the landfill into an area that already includes a concrete plant and the majority of Habitat for Humanity housing. He said he felt compelled to speak up, and he encouraged others to do the same.

“I implore others to say something because evidently my lived experience doesn’t mean much on the dais,” he said.

Those comments capped off the council discussion with the agreement that redistricting would continue at a future meeting.


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