We can prevent “suicide by bridge”

Published in RINewsToday on July 26, 2021

As the General Assembly goes into recess until the fall, Rep. Joseph J. Solomon Jr. (D-Dist. 22, Warwick) sees H-5053, to require safety barriers or netting on the three bridges that connect Aquidneck and Conanicut Islands to the mainland of Rhode Island, as in hiatus. The bill in House Corporations never came out of committee but that isn’t stopping the House sponsor from working to see the legislative intent fulfilled. 

According to Solomon, the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority currently has a number of suicide prevention measures in place, including a smart surveillance system allowing authorities to act quickly, but virtually no way to physically deter a determined jumper. The Rhode Island Samaritans also has signs posted at the bridge entrances with information to access RI’s 911 system for emergencies or The Samaritans one to one hotline, where individuals can speak to someone. 

But determined people do jump, Solomon notes, explaining the need for passage of H-5053.

“Too many people have committed suicide on those bridges in the last decade,” said Representative Solomon in a statement released when the bill was introduced last January. “Due to technological advances, there are various types of barriers and netting available to increase safety without hindering access for routine inspection and maintenance of the bridges,” he said.

“It’s not only a serious problem, but an alarmingly frequent one,” said Solomon explaining why he introduced his bill. “Last year alone, the Portsmouth Police responded to the Mount Hope Bridge 36 times. And the cost of suicide goes far beyond the individual. It affects friends, families, first responders and health care professionals. Those who survive the fall all say the same thing: they feel instant regret the moment their feet leave the railing.”

Sen. Louis P. DiPalma’s (D-Dist. 12, Middletown, Newport, Tiverton, Little Compton), companion measure, S-117 met the same fate by not being voted out of the Senate Housing and Municipal Government Committee.  

If the General Assembly had passed these bills during this legislative session, Rhode Island would have taken a leadership position and joined other states such as New York, California and Florida and countries around the world that have moved to put physical safety barriers on the bridges to deter suicides. 

  • Barrier under construction in Florida
  • No barriers in Rhode Island

Raising the Visibility of the Need for Physical Barriers

Melissa Cotta of Tiverton and Bryan Ganley of Bristol founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing. Their Facebook page says its mission is to “raise suicide awareness & prevention, increase cycling & pedestrian safety on our bridges & offer support to all the survivors of those lost including families and loved ones, witnesses, first responders and our entire community. Our top goals include preventing bridge suicides by advocating for restricting easy access to means of suicide in general & installation of bridge safety barriers.”

According to Cotta, who witnessed a suicide from the Mount Hope Bridge, and Ganley, a 40-year Samaritan volunteer and survivor of suicide by loved ones and friends, last year COVID-19 derailed the passage of legislation introduced by Solomon and DiPalma to bring suicide prevention barriers to Rhode Island’s bridges. This year, with legislation reintroduced, they turned to social media and Facebook to urge Rhode Islanders to call for lawmakers to install physical barriers on the state’s unprotected bridges.

“The time is now! Take the means for suicide away!” – they say. We don’t want to lose any more people to these bridges,” referring to suicides on the Jamestown-Verrazzano, Claiborne Pell, Mt. Hope and Sakonnet River Bridges.

Army Corp of Engineers say barriers work on Cape Cod’s Bridges

According to a 1983 memorandum “Information Awards” for the “Installation of Suicide Deterrent Fencing” on the Bourne & Sagamore Highway Bridges at the Cape Cod Canal barriers were installed at the request of The Samaritans of Cape Cod, led by Monica Dickens, great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens and a driving force in the creation of The Samaritans in Boston, on Cape Cod and in Rhode Island.

According to additional information provided by the Army Corp of Engineers, managers of the Cape Cod Canal and the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges “during a 28-year period after the fencing was installed, between 1984 and 2012, a total of 7 persons committed suicide from the bridges. A far lower rate of incidence than what was recorded for the years before the fencing was installed as part of the major rehabilitation project started in 1979.”

From 2013-April 2021, the Army Corps is aware of “two attempts that were prevented thanks to the quick actions of state and local law enforcement officers. The presence of fencing may not only deter attempts from occurring, but it can also delay an attempt long enough to give law enforcement a chance to successfully respond to an incident when one does occur. “(Note: This is not conclusive information as reports may have gone to state or local police.)

“In RI, from 2009-2018, we know of at least 33 deaths from our bridges and from November 2020 to July 2, 2021, we are aware of at least 8 persons lost from the bridges,” say Cotta and Ganley.  

“Many suicides can’t be predicted or prevented, but suicides from bridges is something we can prevent with the installation of Suicide Prevention Barriers on our state’s three major bridges,” noted Ganley in written testimony to support H 5053. 

Ganley added: “As a Hotline/Listening volunteer, we are trained to first remove the means of suicide.  A bridge with 135’ drop and only a 3’ rail, is like handing a suicidal person a loaded gun.  These bridges are all loaded guns.  We need to take away the gun.”

The Final Push…

With the Rhode Island General Assembly in recess, just days ago ABC 6 reported that Solomon and DiPalma are still seeking ways to fund the installation of barriers on Rhode Island bridges to prevent suicide.  Solomon tells ABC6 in a statement: 

“Although the General Assembly is currently in recess, we are still working behind the scenes with the RI Bridge and Turnpike Authority and the RI Department of Transportation on moving things forward. With one-time federal funding becoming available in the federal infrastructure bill, it is our hope that some of the funding can be allocated to both the design and implementation of suicide prevention barriers or netting. 

Although we are moving in the right direction this is not a time to become complacent. Melissa Cotta and Bryan Ganley have done an outstanding job working on this from day one. They are continuing to raise awareness on this issue and show that it is a priority in Rhode Island. Rhode Island would not be the first state to implement these barriers. Those states that do have barriers show how effective they are. I will continue to push for this legislation with the intent of getting it passed when we reconvene this fall.”

Sign the Petition…

“The petition for safety/suicide prevention barriers is intended to increase awareness of this issue and show residents of Rhode Island, as well as the surrounding areas that use our bridges all the time are in support of these barriers,” says Cotta.

The public’s call for installing safety/suicide prevent barriers has gained a powerful advocate.  House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-District 23, Warwick), states “I admire Representative Solomon’s passion and commitment to this issue. We will continue to work with him.”

At press time, 2,630 have signed Cotta and Ganley’s petition to add barriers to Rhode Island’s unprotected bridges.  They hope to add thousands more to send a message to the Congressional Delegation, the Governor and the General Assembly to act to add physical barriers to Mount Hope, Pell, Jamestown and Sakonnet Bridges. To view and sign this petition, go to tinyurl.com/ribridgingthegap

Suicide emergency? Call 911. Need to Talk? Call The Samaritans of Rhode Island at 401.272.4044 or 1.800.365.4044. Learn more at http://www.samaritansri.org

“There’s a New Sheriff in Town” at SSA

Published in RINewsToday on June 20, 2020

On June President Joe Biden has asked two political holdovers from the President Trump’s administration, Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and his deputy, David Black, who had previously served as the agency’s top lawyer, to resign. Saul ultimately was fired after refusing to resign Friday, July 9, while Black resigned upon the president’s request that day. 

Biden named as acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, whom he earlier had appointed to a lower-level Social Security Administration (SSA) position, deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy. 

The White House affirmed its authority to “remove the SSA Commissioner at will” by citing a Supreme Court ruling and a legal opinion from the Justice Department. Previously, under statute, the president could only remove the SSA commissioner for “neglect of duty” or “malfeasance in office.”

Saul’s term as Social Security Administrator ended in 2025 and according to The Washington Post, he states he plans to dispute the White House firing and continue to work remotely at his New York City home.

“I consider myself the term-protected commissioner of Social Security,” Saul told The Washington Post, calling the attempt to unseat him a “Friday Night Massacre.”

Minority Members of Senate Aging Committee Oppose Firing

Ranking Member Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), Senators Susan Collins (R-Maine), Richard Burr (R-North Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Fla..), Mike Braun (R-Ind..), Rick Scott (R-Fla..), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) sent a letter July 14 to President Biden urging him to reinstate and honor the Senate confirmed, six-year term of Saul as SSA Commissioner. 

Members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging find the politically motivated action especially worrisome as it will have drastic effects on SSA services that help millions of older Americans with basic expenses like housing, food and medicine. 

The letter explains “Commissioner Saul was confirmed by the Senate in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote in 2019… led the agency through one of the most trying periods in its history during the COVID-19 pandemic… was confirmed by the Senate to serve a full six-year term that expires in 2025 and he should have remained in his position unless removed for cause, as written in federal law.

The committee requested the Biden administration explain what authority an acting commissioner—not confirmed by the Senate—would possess to carry out the statutorily obligated duties of the SSA commissioner. 

 On the Other Side of the Aisle…

“From the beginning of their tenure at the Social Security Administration Andrew Saul and David Black were anti-beneficiary and anti-employee. The Biden Administration made the right move to fire both Saul and Black after they refused to resign, says chairperson John B. Larson (D-CT), of the House Ways and Means Social Security Committee, who had called for Saul and Black’s removal in March 2021. “As [Supreme Court] Justice Alito recently stated, the president needs someone running the agency who will follow their policy agenda,” he says.

According to Larson, since June 17, 2019, Saul’s control over SSA policies have “disproportionately harmed vulnerable Americans like low-income seniors and persons with disabilities, immigrants and people of color.

During Saul’s tenure, Larson noted that the SSA implemented a new rule that denied disability benefits for older, severely disabled workers who are unable to communicate in English, resulting in approximately 100,000 people being denied more than $5 billion in benefits from 2020 to 2029. However, there has been considerable discussion of the misinterpretation of the intent of this change.

SSA also finalized a new regulation that dramatically reduced due process protections for Social Security appeals hearings, by allowing the SSA to use agency attorneys instead of independent judges for the hearings, says Larson.

Larson also expressed concern about SSA proposing to change the disability review process to cut off benefits for some eligible people and proposing to make it significantly harder for older, severely disabled workers to be found eligible for disability benefits. 

According to Larson, Saul also advanced the Trump Administration’s anti-immigrant policies by resuming “no-match letters” to employers with even minor discrepancies between their wage reports and their employees’ Social Security records. These letters effectively serve to harass immigrants and their employers, often leading to U.S. citizens and work-authorized immigrants being fired, he said.

Finally, Larson charged that Saul embraced the Trump Administration’s anti-federal employee policies, including forcing harsh union contracts that strip employees of rights and ending telework for thousands of employees just months before the COVID-19 pandemic started – a particularly ill-fated decision given the critical role telework has played in SSA’s ability to continue serving the public during the pandemic. 

Thumbs Up from Aging Advocacy Groups 

“The Social Security Commissioner should reflect the values and priorities of President Biden, which include improving benefits, extending solvency, improving customer services, reopening field offices, and treating SSA employees and their unions fairly. That was not the case with former Commissioner Saul, and we look forward to President Biden nominating someone who meets that standard,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works: “Today is a great day for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. Andrew Saul and David Black were appointed by former President Donald Trump to undermine Social Security. They’ve done their very best to carry out that despicable mission. That includes waging a war on people with disabilities, demoralizing the agency’s workforce, and delaying President Biden’s stimulus checks.”  

Introducing New SSA Commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi…

Kilolo Kijakazi has a Ph.D. in public policy from George Washington University, an MSW from Howard University, and a BA from SUNY Binghamton University. Kijakazi’s Urban Institute bio notes that she served as an Institute Fellow at the Urban Institute, where she “worked with staff across the organization to develop collaborative partnerships with those most affected by economic and social issues, to expand and strengthen Urban’s agenda of rigorous research, to effectively communicate findings to diverse audiences and to recruit and retain a diverse research staff at all levels” while conducting research on economic security, structural racism, and the racial wealth gap. 

Kijakazi was previously employed as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a program analyst at the Food Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture, and an analyst at the National Urban League.

According to Wikipedia, before entering the Biden administration, Kijakazi was a board member of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the National Academy of Social Insurance and its Study Panel on Economic Security, the Policy Academies and Liberation in a Generation, as well as a member of the DC Equitable Recovery Advisory Group, adviser to Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap, co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Eliminating the Black-White Wealth Gap at the Center for American Progress, and member of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings at the Bipartisan Policy Center. 

“Kilolo has an amazing ability to find and build connections among individuals and institutions that should be working together on critical public policy issues and policy discussions are much better for that inclusionary approach,” says Margaret Simms, an Institute Fellow in the Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population at the Urban Institute.

RI Law ensures teaching of Holocaust, Genocides in public schools

Published in RINewsToday on July 12, 2021

The Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Coalition (RIHGEC) has successfully pushed state lawmakers to pass legislation that formalizes a commission to implement a 2016 law to require public schools to teach students about genocide and the Holocaust.  The 2016 law was introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence) and House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian.

Under the legislation, RIHGEC will gather and disseminate Holocaust and genocide information, work with the Department of Education to update and promote statewide Holocaust and genocide education programs, and promote public awareness of issues relating to Holocaust and genocide education.  It would also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month to continue to raise public awareness of horrific atrocities. 

In the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, RIHGC’s broad-based coalition, comprised of Jewish organizations, and Commission on Prejudice and Bias along with members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous communities, would see their lobbying efforts gain traction leading to passage of legislation to create a permanent state commission to  promote and continually improve genocide and Holocaust education in schools.  

H 5650 A, entitled the “Rhode Island Holocaust and Genocide Education Commission,” quickly passed through the House because several lawmakers pushed hard for it. The efforts of Rep. Rebecca Kislak (D-Dist. 7, Providence), the legislation’s primary sponsor, and cosponsors House Majority Whip Katherine S. Kazarian (D-Dist. 63, East Providence, and Rep. Nathan W. Biah Sr. (D-Dist. 3, Providence) led to passage of the legislative proposal on May 18 by a vote of 77 to 0, with two lawmakers not voting.

On April 23, S 0840 A (the House bills companion measure) was introduced in the upper chamber and referred to the Senate Education Committee for consideration.  However, Sen. Gayle L. Goldin (D-Dist. 3, Providence), the  primary sponsor, and cosponsors Sens. Joshua Miller (D-District 28, Providence/Cranston), Hanna Gallo (D-District 27, Cranston), Thomas Paolino (R-District 17, Lincoln, North Providence, and North Smithfield) and Meghan Kallman (D-District 15, Pawtucket),  watched this legislative proposal sit in the Senate Committee for weeks, having been referred for further study. Oftentimes, this was a polite way of leadership to kill a legislative proposal. 

But, in the waning days of the legislative session, an intensive lobbying effort from RIHGE Coalition members including sending emails, making phone calls and sending informational packets to the Senate Education Committee finally led to the Senate Education Committee  passing S 0840 A and sending it to the Senate floor for consideration.  On July 1st, the legislative proposal passed by a vote of 36 to 1 with one lawmaker not voting and the other abstaining.

The legislative proposal was transmitted to Gov. Dan McKee on July 7 for his signature. The bill was transmitted to the Governor on July 7. He has until the 14th to sign or veto the bill, at which point if he has not acted it will become law without his signature.

According to Robert Trestan, New England Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, Rhode Island now joins 19 states that mandate Holocaust and genocide education, and 7 of those states include a commission or council to help implement the mandate.  Eleven states that do not have mandates have formed commissions or councils that develop educational programs about the Holocaust, he says.

“While we do not have data regarding the efficacy of these groups, it is key that experts, educators, and community members have a role in forming curricula and school programs on this important subject, says Trestan.

Rhode Island Law Puts Rhode Island in Forefront of Fighting Hate

“Rhode Island was in the forefront of passing legislation requiring the study of Holocaust and genocide education in its public schools,” says Marty Cooper, RIHGC’s Chair. “This was due to Rhode Islanders commitment to educate its students on this issue as it related to hate, bullying and overall racism nationally as well as globally,” he adds.

Cooper says that many states that passed similar legislation have a commission to oversee implementation and ongoing study of the Holocaust and genocides. What makes Rhode Island’s commission standout is it will also oversee a Holocaust and Genocide Awareness month. 

RIHGC will reach out to the state and the Commission, at the appropriate time, providing input of what has been done and what the coalition listed as goals, and action to be taken to help assure the newly established Commission moves forward with little, or no delay. “The coalition will also provide any material needed by the Commission and will be available to consult with the Commission when requested,” he says. 

“Genocide and Holocaust Education is more important than ever. With hatred toward minority communities on the rise we must continue to ensure our state teaches what happens when hatred is allowed to go unchecked,” says Adam Greenman, president and CEO of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.   “Never again must mean never again and I’m glad this commission will work to make that a reality,” he adds. 

Adds Gretchen Skidmore  Director, Education Initiatives, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: We cannot anticipate how an educational mandate will be implemented in local schools, but the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum supports quality Holocaust education by providing free resources and trainings for educators in every state. We believe when done with rigor, Holocaust education should inspire students to think critically about how and why the Holocaust happened and what lessons it holds for us today.”

Thoughts from the Legislative Arena

“Teaching young people about the devastating  impact that the Holocaust and other genocides have had throughout the course of history is crucial to building a safe and just future for all,” said Gov. Dan McKee. “We must educate the next generations about the atrocities of the past to ensure it never happens again. I look forward to signing this legislation to provide all students in Rhode Island public schools with that education. This is an important step forward in putting an end to acts of hatred, anti-Semitism, and prejudice wherever they exist,” adds McKee.

President of the Senate Dominick J. Ruggerio said, “We need to ensure that students are educated about the atrocities of the past not just so that they have a full understanding of world history, but also so that they can recognize the conditions that lead to intolerance and oppression.”

“My hope is that, with the creation of a Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, we raise awareness and understanding so that students realize how insidious the impact of hate can be,” said Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Dist. 23, Warwick). “We just saw a horrific example of antisemitism not far away in Boston, where a rabbi was brutally attacked while standing in front of a menorah on the steps of a Jewish school. Incidents like this show that we need to continue to educate our children, so they understand that hateful ideology can cultivate real, physical and/or emotional repercussions. It’s incumbent upon all of us to combat hate in all forms.”

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Sandra Cano said, “As a refugee who fled from violence in my native Colombia, I know firsthand the horrors of not knowing if you are safe in your own home. Senator Goldin’s legislation helps ensure that all Rhode Island students are educated about the Holocaust and genocides of the past, which is a critical first step to ensuring such terrible events are not repeated. The importance of this legislation is only magnified when we consider the hate and demonization of certain groups taking place right here in the United States today.”

“Given the hate and bigotry that is common in public discourse today, it is especially important to educate students about the incredible damage that prejudice and intolerance have caused throughout history,” says Goldin, whose grandparents fled eastern Europe to Canada during pogroms. Those of her family members who were unable to escape died in either the pogroms or the Holocaust.

The best way to ensure our future generations never repeat these actions is to teach them about the impact the Holocaust and other genocides have had in our world,” adds Goldin.

“Learning about our past provides perspective on current world events. It is also an opportunity for people to learn from one another about experiences of oppression,”  Goldin adds.

Paolino, a cosponsor of the Senate legislation, also lost family in the Armenian genocide.  “My relatives have a keen understanding of how hate and bigotry can escalate to reverberate through generations,” he said, stressing the importance of educating society on the warning signs of genocide. “Learning the history about these atrocities and how to prevent them will best protect our future,” adds Paolino.

Kislak noted that so many Rhode Islanders’ families are from countries that have been impacted by genocides. “Listening to each other’s stories and learning about those diverse histories will help us see the humanity in one another and build stronger communities, she says.    

First-Person Survivor Witnesses Dwindling  

Bill Benson, who interviews survivors of the Holocaust before live audiences at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., sees first hand the importance of educating the world about the horrors of the Holocaust.  “Because of the coronavirus pandemic we are now providing the museum’s First-Person program virtually, he says.

Benson recently interviewed 90-year-old Irene Fogel Weiss, who survived incarceration at Auschwitz, a forced death march, and then at the end of the war absorbing the reality of the murder of most of her extended family in the Holocaust, the result of Nazi Germany’s fanatical genocidal drive to wipe out the Jewish population of Europe.

“She knows all too well that she is one of the remaining but quickly dwindling survivors of the Holocaust still able to share the pain and horror she witnessed and experienced first-hand,” says Benson.

“Sadly, there are people in the United States and elsewhere in the world who not only minimize the horror and scope of the Holocaust, but others who deny its reality entirely. If they are willing to do that just imagine their unwillingness to acknowledge much less condemn genocide in what seem like obscure places on the globe, like Myanmar, Syria, Rwanda, the Balkans, and elsewhere,” says Benson.

“Rhode Island’s legislature can help to transcend widespread ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust and genocide by establishing this Commission. Weiss will not be able to provide her first-person testimony indefinitely,” acknowledges Benson. “New well-informed voices must step forward. A Genocide and Holocaust Commission can help to educate and inform about the realities of genocide and help ensure new generations learn what they do not know so they can lend their voices to efforts to confront hate and end genocide,” he says.

Rhode Island’s newly established Commission will ensure that the Holocaust and Genocides that occurred throughout the world will never be forgotten by Rhode Islanders.  Our state built firmly on the principles of religious freedom now sends this message out to the world: “Never Again.”

The RIHGEC includes representatives from the Sandra Bornstein Holocaust Center, The Genocide Education Project, , as well as the general community, including members of the Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, and indigenous community.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com

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