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Former mayor could lose reappointment to DCTA board

There’s a fair chance Chris Watts, Denton’s former mayor, will not return to the Denton County Transportation Authority board when his term expires in a few weeks.

The Denton City Council, which appointed Watts to the board in May 2019, discussed his possible early removal during Tuesday’s meeting, but the idea ultimately went nowhere.

Despite that, the council still has a final say in whom it will appoint next. At least two council members, Deb Armintor and Alison Maguire, were vocal in their displeasure at Watts’ tenure on the board.

Watts began his one-year term as the board chair on Nov. 1, 2020. His chairmanship was set to expire just under three weeks from Tuesday’s meeting.

Reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, Watts wasn’t particularly bothered about the prospect of soon being off the board.

“I’ve been on that board for two years and I’ve accomplished what I set out to accomplish,” he said.

Chris Watts

Namely, he listed as achievements the new energy he brought to the board alongside innovation.

“Time will show through the data how that’s working, so I feel good about my accomplishments,” he said.

The City Council’s displeasure with Watts is rooted in recent actions related to DCTA’s GoZone program and the phasing out of some fixed-route bus services. Council members wanted Watts to push for a six-month window during which services would remain the same, but he instead argued for a 90-day window.

That window was what DCTA’s board ended up passing. Watts, in his defense, said the original vote was for only a 60-day window, for which he was the final swing vote against.

“[City Council members] wanted six months — I couldn’t get six months, I didn’t advocate six months, and I got 90 days,” Watts said.

Much of Tuesday’s council discussion about whether or not to remove Watts, or if such an action would even be possible, happened behind closed doors.

Mayor Gerard Hudspeth abruptly called for a break from the public meeting to discuss the issue with City Attorney Mack Reinwand.

The Texas Open Meetings Act allows for two fairly broad reasons a public body can consult with an attorney in a closed meeting. The first is to discuss litigation and the second is for issues relating to attorney-client privilege.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Reinwand said the latter was the reason for Tuesday’s first closed session.

Citing attorney-client privilege, he declined to comment Wednesday when asked whether the council had the authority to remove Watts from his DCTA board appointment.

Armintor, speaking Wednesday, said she was shocked the council went into the closed session so abruptly, and she didn’t like that Hudspeth decided to move the board into a closed session without feedback from other council members.

Armintor said she wished things had been handled differently, but she said the closed session was legal under the Open Meetings Act from what she could tell.

“I was just disappointed in the outcome,” she said.

Responding to criticism from fellow council members Tuesday that her suggestion to remove Watts seemed personally motivated, Armintor said it’s hard to argue with people when they question one’s motives instead of the proposal.

And as for the suggestion that her pitch was politically motivated: “Everything we do is political on the dais — it’s politics,” she said.

Denton County seeing hurricane's impact in rainfall, flood watches
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Denton County residents can expect high rain chances that may lead to flooding and flash flooding through Thursday afternoon as a result of Hurricane Pamela, said Allison Prater, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

The heavy rainfall will bring flooding with isolated totals between 5 and 6 inches in the areas under a flood watch, and the county could expect 2-3 inches of rainfall.

“We’re still a bit uncertain about the placement and the extent of any strong, severe storms,” Prater said. “Otherwise, flooding is the main concern, and then after that, another concern would be stronger wind gusts.”

Prater also said rivers, creeks and streams would see an increase in water levels through Thursday, with the possibility of hail or tornadoes.

“[Residents should] generally just make sure they have a plan in place [and] they have multiple ways to receive any warnings we send out,” Prater said.

Storms are expected to head from west to east starting Thursday afternoon and finishing Friday, Prater said.

Denton is affected by Hurricane Pamela’s remnants due to an area of low pressure pushed from west to east, and with that low pressure comes more southerly flow to the region from the Gulf of Mexico.

At this point, Denton County’s reservoirs are able to withstand the rainfall, said Eric Gildersleeve, Denton County Emergency Management coordinator. He also said Pamela is projected to be in northern Mexico by Thursday, but there is not yet a projection about what that will mean for North Texas.

“We just recommend keeping situational awareness,” Gildersleeve said. “[Also] look for messages from the National Weather Service, media partners and then, if needed, they can also sign up for our emergency alerting.”

Residents can sign up for Denton County Alert, the county’s emergency notification system, at www.dentoncounty.gov. The city of Denton also offers Alert Denton notifications for city residents.

Texas universities push for bill funding construction to train more medical students amid shortage

Texas public university leaders are hoping that the Legislature will pass a bill during the third special session this year that would free up millions of dollars of funding for new and existing buildings.

Many of the projects mentioned in the bill include funding for the construction and upgrading of health care education and research facilities at various public universities — including the University of North Texas, Texas Woman’s University and Texas Tech University — as the state tackles a longtime shortage of health care workers accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Texas has a shortage of medical professionals, in particular nurses and occupational therapists and physical therapists,” said Matthew Flores, a TWU spokesperson.

Senate Bill 52, which would authorize the state to issue nearly $2 billion in bonds to fund the infrastructure projects, is scheduled for hearing at the state Senate on Thursday morning. Texas has not passed a tuition revenue bond package to fund higher education since 2015.

If signed into law, the bill would send $49 million for a new TWU health sciences center at Denton, $84 million for the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth campus, $90 million for renovating an existing facility at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and $80 million for construction of health science education and research centers at Texas A&M International University in Laredo.

Most health care programs at TWU are already at maximum capacity, including nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy, Flores said.

The funds — which would help cover about half the cost to construct the facility — would allow the school to expand those programs which would benefit the university and North Texas by producing more medical professionals to “alleviate the stress on the health care system.”

Nearly $300 million would also be allocated for the construction and renovation of science buildings at UNT-Dallas and the University of Texas at Arlington.

“We’ve had 11 straight semesters of enrollment growth,” UNT-Dallas President Bob Mong said. “Pretty soon we’re going to run out of space, so we need this building.”

Mong added he has been requesting the funds for this project, which he said would increase the number of diverse graduates in the medical field, for the past three sessions — including this year’s.

“We are pleased that there is a chance these requests may be moving forward,” Texas Tech spokesperson Matthew Dewey said in a statement. The university would use the total $206 million to renovate several buildings across its campuses, some of which are about 65 years old.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday urging him to add tuition revenue bonds to the special session call.

“There have been requests and demands from schools across the state,” Patrick wrote. Members in the House and the Senate want to address this need, he continued, but the House parliamentarian indicated that it needs to be included in the call before a bill can be passed.

Guyer students plan walkout Friday in wake of alleged sexual assault, accuse Denton ISD of negligence

More than 1,000 students are expected to stage a walkout at Guyer High School on Friday morning to protest what some parents are calling a culture of sexual harassment, coercion and aggression against female students in Denton ISD middle and high schools.

The protest has been sparked by allegations of a sexual assault that happened on the Guyer campus last week.

On Oct. 7, the Denton Police Department received a report of a sexual assault involving two Guyer High students.

Allison Beckwith, a spokesperson for the police, said the department believes the alleged assault happened on the Guyer campus on Oct. 6. The accuser, a 15-year-old girl, was taken to a hospital, and the boy she’s accusing of sexually assaulting her is 17.

The Denton Record-Chronicle is naming neither the accuser nor the football player named in an online petition as the assailant, as there have been no arrests made. The accused student played in Guyer’s football game last Friday, after the police report was filed.

In a statement, Denton ISD officials said they were recently made aware of the allegations and that they’re working with the families involved. Julie Zwahr, a spokesperson for the district, said Wednesday the district learned about the alleged assault sometime last week, but she said she didn’t know the exact date the information was received.

The statement says the district’s top priority is the safety and well-being of its students and staff.

Two parents who spoke with the Record-Chronicle said they hadn’t received any communication from the school district by Tuesday morning regarding the alleged assault.

Asked about this, Zwahr said the district was operating on the Police Department’s timeline. She said the district is limited in what it can share and that it is trying not to compromise the investigation.

“We are waiting on the results of the Denton Police Department’s investigation before moving forward [with our own],” Zwahr said.

She said the names people are seeing online may not be true and that the district can’t share any information on the parties involved since they’re both under 18.

“We see all of it on social media,” Zwahr said. “We can’t verify if any names are true.”

Contacted Wednesday night by telephone, Guyer head football coach Rodney Webb declined to comment on the allegations and referred all questions to Zwahr.

Two parents said the alleged assault has resulted in plans for a student-led walkout on Friday, a protest against what some students say is the campus and district’s inaction on sexual harassment and assault, and the perception that male student-athletes are especially protected from consequences.

Crystal Cunningham said she and other parents want answers and action from school officials. Cunningham has a daughter who is a sophomore at Guyer and has experienced harassment at the hands of male classmates, she said.

When word began to spread that an assault had happened at Guyer, Cunningham said parents thought they might get a notice or statement from school officials about the alleged crime and their plans to address it.

“There has been zero notice from the school that a sexual assault happened on school grounds,” Cunningham said. “My daughter is angry, frustrated. This, of course, brings up things for her as well. Not just her but all the other girls. Unfortunately, it is common practice in the school, not only physically but verbally.”

Cunningham’s daughter relayed a story to her about a female student who refused when a male student asked her to show her genitals in the hallway.

“She got upset, and when she wouldn’t do it, supposedly another boy said to some other boys, ‘Well, we should just rape her,’” Cunningham said.

Lantana resident Jennifer Jenkinson told the Record-Chronicle her daughter, now a senior at Guyer, was assaulted in 2018 by the same student accused in the Oct. 6 assault.

Her daughter was attending Harpool Middle School with the accused as an eighth grader. The alleged attack happened in a park, where her daughter believed she would be going on her first date.

“It turned out to be something way worse,” Jenkinson said. “I have screenshots of her, after the fact, telling him that she was trying to get him to stop. She said no, he kept going. After the fact, she told him, ‘I didn’t consent to any of that. I tried to tell you no.’ And he was like, ‘OK, cool. I guess I have to move on.’”

Jenkinson and her husband reported the incident to Denton police. She said that because there were no witnesses or evidence, the department declined to investigate but told the family officers would talk to the boy and his family and “scare him.” Even with screenshots of the students’ conversations, Jenkins said, police didn’t feel they had a strong case.

“They chalked it up to ‘boys will be boys,’” she said. “‘He probably didn’t understand what he was doing, your daughter went to the park.’ It was a very bad experience with Denton police.”

More frustrating is the campus’ and district’s response to ongoing sexual harassment against female students, Jenkinson said. After her daughter’s alleged assault, she said the school wouldn’t take disciplinary action against the accused or even move her daughter away from him in the classes they were in together.

Then the accused and Jenkinson’s daughter would go on to Guyer, where she and he have had a class together every year.

“There’s a problem in Denton ISD, because they hide behind Title IX; they say, ‘Oh, this happened off campus,’ or ‘This happened at a different campus,’” Jenkinson said. “And that’s one of the biggest issues. They don’t treat Title IX as transferring from campus to campus. So a kid can assault a girl in eighth grade, and then they all end up at the same high school.”

Jenkinson said her daughter suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after the assault. Her grades dropped, she lost weight and started to have severe anxiety and depression. The family could have removed her from school, but Jenkinson said her daughter was flourishing in the Guyer theater arts program, which is among the best in the state. Her daughter plans to study theater in college, she said.

Jenkinson said the licensed counselors on staff at Guyer eventually helped her family get an accommodation for their daughter to have some physical distance from the boy accused of hurting her. The family sought private counseling for her, too.

“I’m tired of getting the text on the first day of school every year: ‘Mom, he’s in my class,’” Jenkinson said.

Jenkinson and Cunningham said parents have gotten involved out of frustration over the district and school administration response, and because they want to see broad, systemic change in school responses to accusations of harassment and assault.

“We get an email if a kid has COVID, but we don’t hear anything about our girls being on campus with someone who has assaulted girls,” Jenkinson said. “If I got an email about something like this, I could have a conversation with my daughter and a different conversation with my son, which would be about consent and how he should treat women the way he would want someone to treat his sister. But if you don’t get that communication, those conversations won’t happen.”

Parents want the district to create a policy and procedures to address sexual harassment and assault, Jenkinson said, and a way to file an official report to the campus and the district.

“Accountability is one of the big things,” Cunningham said. “I find it sad, in our society and culture, that our daughters and our sons can’t have that open conversation and feel like they’re going to be heard. Has there been any counseling? Has there been anything else done for these girls since then? I don’t know, but I don’t think so.”

Cunningham said parents will also attend the walkout wearing T-shirts or ribbons made for the protest, and holding signs they’ve been making.

“Parents are involved now because they want the girls to be heard,” Jenkinson said. “We wouldn’t be sitting here if they felt like the school has heard them.”