Special Report: U.S. school closures dramatically shrinking public education, Reuters finds

By M.B. Pell, Kristina Cooke and Benjamin Lesser

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jennifer Panditaratne’s third-grade daughter had been seeing a reading specialist once a week before her Florida school closed abruptly in March due to the novel coronavirus.

Since then, her child has had no contact with the specialist. Panditaratne is left to download her daughter’s special education material and sit with her as she does her school work—in between her own calls as a maritime lawyer in South Florida.

“Is it the same material? Sure,” she said. “But is it being administered by a professional who knows what they are doing? No.”

More than two months after schools across the United States began closing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the shutdown is taking a profound toll on the nation’s system of education, Reuters found by surveying nearly 60 school districts serving some 2.8 million students.

Almost overnight, public education in the United States has shrunk to a shell of its former self, the review found, with teacher instruction, grading, attendance, special education and meal services for hungry children slashed back or gutted altogether.

The survey encompassed school districts from large urban communities, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District, to the smallest rural settings, including San Jon Municipal Schools in eastern New Mexico and Park County School District 6 in Cody, Wyoming. The survey reflects what is happening only in those districts that responded.

Reuters found:

– A large majority of responding districts, 47 of 57, reported they are providing elementary and middle school students with half or less the usual face time with teachers. Eight of those districts said students receive little to no direct instruction. In Philadelphia, tens of thousands of elementary and middle school pupils receive little to no live instruction—and high schoolers receive none at all.

– Fewer than half of districts even take attendance and many of those that do say fewer kids are showing up for class. Riverbank Unified School District in Stanislaus County, California, no longer takes attendance. But educators there learned through Google Classroom and phone calls that only about half of their 3,000 students are participating in virtual school and completing assignments.

– Public schools play a crucial role in feeding America’s poor children—but the lockdown is gutting that role. About three-quarters of districts reported they served a cumulative 4.5 million fewer meals a week. In Washoe County, Nevada, the school district provided 251,000 meals a week before the shutdown. Since then: Just over 39,000 a week.

– About a third of districts aren’t providing federally required services to their special needs students, such as physical and occupational therapy like they did before schools were closed. “One of the many things keeping me up at night is, how are we providing education to those who most need it?” asked Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 outside Chicago.

In the School District of Philadelphia, superintendent William Hite already sees young children falling behind, including those missing critical face-to-face teacher time through the district’s early literacy program. For older students, he worries that the loss of the school structure’s safety net could lead to delinquency and crime.

“This is in no way a sufficient replacement of teacher instruction of students in classrooms,” Hite said. “I think the impact has already been felt here.”

Several education researchers who reviewed the survey results said that, if anything, the responses likely represent a rosy picture of what is actually happening in the nation’s schools.

Betheny Gross, associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, believes the results reflected more “optimism” than may be warranted. “This is reflective of what superintendents think is happening,” Gross said, while the reality may actually be worse.

Gross cited the high percentage, 84%, of districts reporting that at least some students are still receiving at least some live instruction. She said her own review of material posted online detailing what administrators across the country expected instruction to look like during the closure revealed that only a “small share” of districts were setting a standard that included live instruction.

While few children have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and serious complications for them have been rare, public officials shut down schools to prevent the disease from spreading. Nineteen children under the age of 14 died from COVID-19 from February 1 through May 23, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure hovering just above 0% of all U.S. virus deaths.

Data on how school closures affect the disease’s spread in the community is limited because the pandemic is still under way. But researchers at University College London found evidence from past epidemics, previous research and modeling of coronavirus transmission in other countries that closing schools has only a slight impact on preventing contagion.

To be sure, public schools, like businesses and governments, were forced into a sudden new world with the pandemic’s spread.

Teachers, parents, researchers and district administrators told Reuters that while distance learning can improve, for the vast majority of students it will fall far short of in-person instruction. If students are not in front of teachers next school year, the public should expect only a fraction of the live instruction, special needs services going unfulfilled and far fewer meals served.

“I just don’t know how we call off school next year,” said Gregory Cizek, who studies education at the University of North Carolina.

For students, parents and educators, the Reuters survey shows, the loss of live instruction has been significant.

LIMITED HOME RESOURCES

Eliza McCord, 16, wasn’t able to participate in her math class for the first six weeks after her Fort Wayne, Indiana, high school went virtual, because her sister had a college class at the same time. Inside their home, there weren’t enough devices to go around.

Even now, her family writes a class schedule on a white board. Also in the rotation for devices and WiFi: Her mother, an elementary school special education teacher; her father, a librarian; and her younger brother, in sixth grade.

Many of Eliza’s classmates have told her they don’t have regular access to a computer to download files, or reliable access to the Internet to join Zoom calls. That said, Eliza thinks some students are not participating because their grades for the final quarter of the year don’t count.

“There are students who just have essentially given up on the rest of the school year,” she said.

Charles Cammack, chief operations officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the majority of students remained engaged after schools were closed. Still, he acknowledged that after the system announced grades would not count for the fourth marking period, some students checked out.

“It would be naïve to say we didn’t know there was a risk some kids would take that position, but given the circumstances I don’t know how we could avoid that happening,” he said.

Special education services such as occupational and physical therapy are challenging to provide remotely, and some services can only be provided face-to-face, survey respondents said.

Schools also rely heavily on parental support. “For any therapy, the parents will need to follow the instructions of the teacher to complete the exercises with the students,” said Dr. Jason Lind, superintendent at Millburn School District 24 in Illinois. “This works well if parents have time to spend helping their children. If parents are also working full-time, this does not work.”

When Fort Wayne’s public school district shut down, Eliza’s mother, special-ed teacher Dawn Cortner-McCord, called the parents of her students. She gave them her personal cell number, and talks with about a third of her students daily, dropping off books and other learning materials at their homes.

But talking on the cell phone is no match for in-class teaching, Dawn said. She cited the example of twin third-grade girls who do math at a first-grade level and had been making progress with hands-on learning. Now she worries they, and other students, are falling back.

“We are just trying to maintain the skills that they have,” she said. “A lot of my students still need that sensory input.”

In Broward County Public Schools in Florida, where Jennifer Panditaratne’s daughter has not seen a reading specialist since schools closed, the district found not all teacher engagement is equal. Panditaratne said her third-grade daughter has a daily 15 minute group Zoom call with her class teacher, going over assignments for the day. Her daughter in fifth grade is getting more live video instruction, but it varies by teacher.

In March, the teacher’s union and district agreed teachers would provide at least three hours a day of deep engagement with students. Many teachers conducted live video instruction, while others used email, phone calls or discussion boards, said Daniel Gohl, the district’s chief academic officer. That left a sense of inequity. So starting this summer, all teachers will provide at least three hours of live-video instruction daily.

“We now know students and teachers need to see and talk to each other,” Gohl said. “We acknowledge we did not get everything right and we are committed to improving.”

MISSING MEALS

By law, U.S. public school districts are required to provide free or reduced-cost meals to children in need. With schools shut, getting those vital meals to the qualifying students has been hindered, in several instances, by significant hurdles.

Despite school districts’ efforts, Reuters found children are missing school meals they should have received. Thirty-four districts, or about three-quarters of those that responded, said they were providing fewer meals a week than before the closure, the Reuters survey found.

Miami-Dade County Public schools provided 1.33 million free breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals a week to its students prior to the March 16 closure. As of May 1, the district said it was serving less than one-third of that number, about 420,000 meals a week.

One reason, according to four parents in the county, was that the district made meals available, but limited pickup to twice a week, leading to long lines. Another roadblock: Lack of transportation to reach the pickup locations. Three of the parents said they were forced to find other sources of food, such as a food bank or a state-funded lunch program.

Victoria Lynn Dennis, a 29-year-old customer service agent in Miami, said she hasn’t been able to access school meals for her 5-year-old pre-kindergartner and 6-year-old kindergartner because she doesn’t have a car. A week after the schools closed, someone from a nonprofit program that partners with the district came to her door with macaroni and cheese. There have been no visits since.

“Telling my kids they can’t eat as much, because we have to save it, it kills me,” she said.

Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for Miami-Dade schools, said her heart goes out to the students they aren’t serving. But while they are serving many students, the system can feed more young people in school cafeterias than in the district’s 50 remote distribution sites. As unemployment rises in Florida, she’s seen the lines at these sites grow longer.

“How long can it keep up and are you missing the most critical person?” she asked.

BUDGET DEFICITS, QUESTIONS LOOM

As they look ahead, nearly 70% of districts told Reuters they face a budget deficit. The total shortfall of these districts alone exceeds $450 million.

Philadelphia already faces a $38 million deficit, even after receiving federal assistance. With local revenue plummeting, that number could expand in the weeks to come.

Many school districts are now confronting a question most on the minds of parents: Will they reopen schools in the fall, or continue the distance learning?

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA The School Superintendents Association, a group representing school district chiefs, meets every week with a task force on reopening consisting of 30 superintendents from across the country.

Three options are being considered for the fall, he said: fully reopening schools as they were prior to the pandemic; a hybrid model in which some students attend school in-person and some continue with remote learning; and continuing with complete remote learning.

The hybrid option, Domenech said, appears to have the most support. But staying entirely remote, he added, is “beginning to get some traction because the cost of opening schools and following the guidance the CDC has offered is going to be cost prohibitive.” The added costs include more buses to maintain social distancing, protective equipment for students and staff and the daily cleaning of each school.

As districts weigh that question, some parents and teachers worry what comes next.

Portia Hudson, a math teacher at Edwin Fitler Academics Plus School in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, recalls teaching virtually this spring and watching one student, already battling anxiety problems, fall five weeks behind. During another session, a second student played on a swing during class time.

“If we have virtual learning in September, that’s when I’m really going to be concerned, because virtual learning will look like it does now,” Hudson said. “Kids not logging on. Kids on swings.”

(Reporting by M.B. Pell and Benjamin Lesser in New York, and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Despite coronavirus, Americans fight for their right to a birthday party

By Barbara Goldberg

SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (Reuters) – Reuben Goodman’s parents had to think fast and get creative when the COVID-19 pandemic scuppered their plans to throw a New Jersey bowling party to celebrate their son’s fifth birthday.

Emily and Dan Goodman instead decided to combine a variety of coronavirus-safe activities for their son, an avid Star Wars fan. The day includes a social-distancing treasure hunt of sorts; dancing in the streets in his Storm Trooper costume, with friends kept at a contagion-proof distance; and a virtual Zoom party featuring treats delivered to the homes of Reuben’s playmates and left outside their front doors.

Reuben Goodman dressed as Star War Trooper dances outside of his house on his 5th birthday party during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in South Orange, New Jersey U.S., April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Their aim was to make their pre-schooler feel like the center of the universe on his special day, even though he was unable to have a traditional party this year.

“Parents are trying very hard to create positive birthday memories,” said Emily Goodman, a communications executive who has been working at home in self-quarantine since mid-March under orders of her office in New Jersey. “He knows we can’t be close to our friends because of the invisible germs.”

The Goodmans are not the only Americans who have had to adapt to restrictions on social life in the wake of the pandemic, which has forced the cancellation of traditional birthday bashes for both young and old.

U.S. deaths from the novel coronavirus have topped 25,400, doubling in one week, according to a Reuters tally, as officials debate how to reopen the economy without reigniting the outbreak.

Despite the outbreak, Americans are still finding ways to have fun. In many small towns across the country, local police and fire departments are staging parades in front of children’s’ homes on their birthdays, complete with flashing lights and sirens.

Friends and families are using Zoom video conferencing to throw virtual parties, featuring renditions of “Happy Birthday,” a song that has become a coronavirus anthem. (Health experts say a thorough hand-washing takes 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.)

In San Diego, California, when a former U.S. Marine couldn’t go anywhere for her 104th birthday, her friends brought the party to her front lawn.

“Well, I can’t believe it. It’s amazing,” Ruth Gallivan gasped, as honking cars festooned with birthday decorations drove by at a safe distance.

Anxiety around birthdays is spiking for children struggling with the concept of social distancing, Anthony Field, founder of the Wiggles, a popular Australian musical act, told Reuters in an email.

“Parents have told us their child is worried that if no one can come to their party, ‘Does it mean (I) still turn 4?'” said Field, better known as the Blue Wiggle.

In a new “Social Distancing” song, with more than 540,000 views since it went online March 29, the Wiggles assure fans that a video party counts as a genuine celebration, Field said.

In New Jersey, Reuben’s mother invited more than 20 neighbors to post drawings of Star Wars heroes and villains in their front windows, where her son could see them during a social-distancing walk on Tuesday, his fifth birthday.

Neighbors young and old agreed to dress up in futuristic costumes and join Reuben, wearing a new Storm Trooper outfit, as he danced on his front lawn. Adults would make sure everyone stayed at least the recommended six feet apart from one another.

Later, his friends were set to join him in a Zoom party that would feature a children’s musician strumming “Happy Birthday” and enjoy party goodie bags with toys that Reuben ordered from a local store and custom Star Wars cookies ordered from a local bakery. Reuben’s mother, wearing a face bandana and disposable gloves, planned to drop them off at his friends’ front doors, wiping down each one with disinfectant.

Reuben said he had another present for all the party-goers, who are presumably as tired of being separated from friends as he was. His special treat? “To look at me,” he said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. says 463 illegal immigrant parents may have been deported without kids

Security officers keep watch over a tent encampment housing immigrant children just north of the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, June 20, 2018. REUTERS/Mike

By Tom Hals and Reade Levinson

(Reuters) – More than 450 immigrant parents who were separated from their children when they entered the United States illegally are no longer in the country though their children remain behind, according to a joint court filing on Monday by the federal government and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The absence of the 463 parents, which U.S. government lawyers said was “under review,” could impede government efforts to reunite separated families by Thursday, the deadline ordered by a federal judge. The filing did not say why the 463 parents had left the country, but government officials previously acknowledged that some parents had been deported without their children.

As of Monday, 879 parents had been reunited with their children, according to the filing.

About 2,500 children were separated from their parents after the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy in April aimed at discouraging illegal immigration. The policy was ended in June amid an international outcry about the government’s treatment of immigrant children.

U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered last month that the government had to reunite the children with their parents in a case brought by the ACLU.

On Monday, the government also said 917 parents were either not eligible to be reunited or not yet known to be eligible to be reunited with their child. That number includes parents no longer in the country as well as those deemed unsuitable because of criminal convictions or for other reasons.

Immigration advocates have expressed alarm about parents deported without their children, saying it can create problems with the children’s immigration cases.

“How can we go forward on a case if we don’t know the parent’s wishes?” Megan McKenna, spokeswoman for Kids in Need of Defense, told Reuters earlier this month.

While Monday’s report indicated progress with reunifications, the ACLU made clear its frustrations with the process. The rights group said it did not have a list of parents who signed a form electing to be deported without their child.

“These parents urgently need consultations with lawyers, so that they do not mistakenly strand their children in the United States,” the ACLU wrote in the court filing.

The ACLU asked Sabraw to order the government to turn the information over by the end of Tuesday.

The government said it had cleared an additional 538 parents for reunification pending transport.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Reade Levinson in New York; Editing by Sue Horton and Leslie Adler)

Oklahoma parents fret over childcare, testing as teachers strike

FILE PHOTO: Teachers rally outside the state Capitol for the second day of a teacher walkout to demand higher pay and more funding for education in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Nick Oxford/File Photo

By Heide Brandes and Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton

OKLAHOMA CITY/TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – Oklahoma parent Matt Reynolds backs a teachers’ strike that has shut schools statewide, but each day it drags on is another he has to pay for daycare for three of his children.

“I’m mad at the teachers for walking out, but I’m more mad at the government for forcing them to do this,” said Reynolds, a 51-year-old chef in Yukon.

Lawmakers and striking teachers remained at odds over the state’s financing of its public education on Thursday, the 11th day of a walkout that has affected about a half million students.

The standoff is testing the patience of parents, many of whom support the labor action after seeing firsthand the fallout from slashed education budgets. But they are weary of making special accommodations for their children, and worry about how the missed class time will affect upcoming state testing and national advanced placements exams.

Some parents said the strike that started on April 2 has made them consider private schools, home schooling or moving to a district with more secure funding. Many said the prospects of a prolonged strike would eventually lead them to lobby their local districts to return to class.

“I’m at the point where if education doesn’t get adequate funding, I’ll say screw it and home school my kids since we can’t afford to move,” said Lisa Snell, who has been forced to take her two children to work during the strike.

Snell’s empathy runs deep for the state’s teachers, who are among the worst paid educators in the United States.

She has been asked to provide pencils, crayons, paper and tissue for the struggling elementary school her children attend near Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma. Her kids bring home school books in tatters and have to go shoeless in gym class to preserve the decaying floor, Snell said.

“I know what those teachers are going through,” Snell said. “It’s not just about raises.”

The main union in the strike is urging parents to make their voices heard by voting in this year’s midterm election for candidates who back increased spending, or have educators run for office.

Republicans, who dominate state politics, are appealing to conservative voters by saying they have done enough by raising education spending by more than 20 percent, and more spending would be wasteful.

PRESSURE EXPECTED TO MOUNT

The legislature passed its first major tax hikes in a quarter century to raise funds for schools and increase teacher pay by an average of $6,100. Educators are asking for a $10,000 raise for teachers over three years.

“We’ve accomplished a whole lot, and I just don’t know how much more we can get done this session,” state Representative John Pfeiffer, a top Republican lawmaker, told reporters this week on the education funding issue.

Pressure is likely to build on legislators and teachers to reach a deal that gets kids back to class.

For the most part, teachers have been given permission by their districts to participate in walkouts and have been paid, with the idea that they would make up for lost time as they do for closures due to inclement weather. But that could soon change as the cushion in school calendars runs out.

Two large districts, Bartlesville and Sand Springs, ordered schools to resume on Thursday. Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second-largest district, has run out of inclement weather days and plans to lengthen school days when students return.

Legislators also are in a tough spot, said Gregg Garn, dean of the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma.

“They have kids in public schools and they live in the communities,” he said. “They are getting the signal that the investments need to be there.”

Candice Stubblefield, 43, of Midwest City wants a quick resolution.

“They have missed so many days now,” said Stubblefield, whose daughter attends public school. “Both the legislature and teachers seem like they are being stubborn and unyielding.”

(Reporting by Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton in Tulsa, Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)

Parents charged after 13 siblings found starved, chained in California

A van sits parked on the driveway of the home of David Allen Turpin and Louise Ann Turpin in Perris, California, U.S. January 15, 2018.

By Phoenix Tso and Mike Blake

PERRIS, Calif. (Reuters) – The 13 California siblings who police say were starved and chained to beds by their parents rarely left their disheveled house and, when they did, they appeared small and pale and acted strangely, neighbors said.

David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested on Sunday and each charged with nine counts of torture and 10 counts of child endangerment after a 17-year-old, emaciated girl escaped their house in Perris, about 70 miles (115 km) east of Los Angeles and called police, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office said on Monday.

Police said in a statement that they found several of the couple’s 13 children, ranging in age from 2 to 29, “shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings”.

“The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty,” it said.

Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street from the family, told Reuters that she only saw the infant in the mother’s arms and three other children since she moved in across the street two years ago, describing them as small and pale.

“Why don’t we ever see the kids?” Milligan said. “In hindsight, we would have never thought this, but there were red flags. You never don’t hear or see nine kids.”

Two years ago, while walking around the neighborhood admiring Christmas lights and decorations, Milligan said she encountered three of the Turpin children and complimented them on the manger with a baby Jesus that they had outside their home. She said the children froze if by doing so they could become invisible.

“20-year-olds never act like that,” she said. “They didn’t want to have a social conversation.”

Nicole Gooding, 35, who has lived in the neighborhood for three years, said that the first time she saw the family was two months ago when the mother and children cleaning up yard that was full of weeds and overflowing trash cans.

“I had never seen them at all until that day,” she said.

The parents, who are scheduled to appear in court on Thursday, are being held on $9 million bail, police said.

The police statement did not detail the parents’ motive for holding the children and a police spokesman said he had no further details.

Six of the couple’s children are minors, while the other seven are over 18, parents said.

A Facebook page that appeared to have been created by the parents showed the couple dressed in wedding clothes, surrounded by 10 female children in matching purple plaid dresses and three male children in suits.

David Turpin’s parents, James and Betty Turpin of West Virginia, told ABC News they are “surprised and shocked” by the allegations against their son and daughter-in-law, saying they can’t understand “any of this”.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Charlie Gard’s parents say hospital denied their ‘final wish’ for dying son

Charlie Gard's parents Connie Yates and Chris Gard read a statement at the High Court after a hearing on their baby's future, in London. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) – The parents of Charlie Gard, a terminally ill baby who a judge ordered should be sent to a hospice to die, said Britain’s top pediatric hospital had denied them their final wish to decide the arrangements for their son’s death.

After a harrowing legal battle that prompted a global debate over who has the moral right to decide the fate of a sick child, a judge on Thursday ordered that Charlie be moved to a hospice where the ventilator that keeps him alive will be turned off.

His parents had sought first to take him home but Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) said that was not possible due the ventilation Charlie needs, they then asked for several days in a hospice to bid farewell to their son.

But they were unable to find doctors to oversee such an extended period of time and so a judge ruled that Charlie be moved to a hospice to die.

“GOSH have denied us our final wish,” his mother, Connie Yates, was quoted as saying by the BBC.

“Despite us and our legal team working tirelessly to arrange this near impossible task, the judge has ordered against what we arranged and has agreed to what GOSH asked,” she said. “This subsequently gives us very little time with our son.”

Great Ormond Street Hospital, a pioneering pediatric center, said that it deeply regretted the breakdown in relations with Charlie’s parents, in a case that has involved months of legal wrangling and has even drawn comment from U.S. President Donald Trump and Pope Francis.

“Most people won’t ever have to go through what we have been through, we’ve had no control over our son’s life and no control over our son’s death,” Charlie’s mother said.

“We just want some peace with our son, no hospital, no lawyers, no courts, no media, just quality time with Charlie away from everything, to say goodbye to him in the most loving way.”

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Louise Ireland)

Parents of kidnapped U.S. journalist Tice renew plea for release

Debra Tice, the mother of American journalist Austin Tice, holds his picture with her husband Marc Tice during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The parents of a U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly five years ago issued a new plea for his release on Thursday.

Austin Tice, a freelance reporter and former U.S. Marine from Houston, Texas, was kidnapped in August 2012 aged 31 while reporting in Damascus on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The identity of his captors is not known, and there has been no claim of responsibility for his abduction. The family believe he is alive and still being held captive.

“We are willing to engage with any government, any group, any individual who can help us in this effort to secure Austin’s safe release,” his father Marc Tice said at a news conference in Beirut.

“When any journalist is silenced, we’re all blindfolded.”

His mother Debra Tice added: “Five years is a very long time for any parent to be missing their child … we desperately want him to come home.”

Nothing has been heard publicly about Tice since a video posted online weeks after he disappeared showed him in the custody of armed men.

U.S. officials and Tice’s parents do not think he is held by Islamic State, which typically announces its Western captives in propaganda videos and executed two U.S. journalists in 2014.

The Assad government says it does not know his whereabouts.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Fire engulfs London tower block, at least 12 dead, dozens injured

Flames and smoke billow as firefighters deal with a serious fire in a tower block at Latimer Road in West London, Britain June 14, 2017. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Kylie MacLellan and Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – A blaze engulfed a 24-story housing block in central London on Wednesday, trapping residents as they slept and killing at least 12 people in an inferno that the fire brigade said was unprecedented in its scale and speed.

More than 200 firefighters, backed up by 40 fire engines, fought for hours to try to control the blaze, London’s deadliest for a generation. The Grenfell Tower apartment block was home to about 600 people.

A local residents’ group said it had predicted such a catastrophe on their low-rent housing estate that overlooks affluent parts of the Kensington area of the capital, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan said there were questions to answer.

Prime Minister Theresa May promised there would be a proper investigation into the disaster, which delayed her talks on trying to secure a parliamentary deal to stay in power and launch talks on Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Some residents screamed for help from behind upper-floor windows and others tried to throw children to safety as flames raced through the Grenfell block of about 120 apartments just before 1 a.m.

Firefighters said they had rescued 65 people – some in pyjamas – from the 43-year-old block.

“We could see a lot of children and parents screaming for ‘Help! Help! Help!’ and putting their hands on the window and asking to help them,” Amina Sharif told Reuters.

“We could do nothing and we could see the stuff on the side was falling off, collapsing. We were just standing screaming and they were screaming.”

TYING SHEETS TOGETHER

Another witness, Saimar Lleshi, saw people tying together sheets to try to escape.

“I saw three people putting sheets together to climb down, but no one climbed down. I don’t know what happened to them. Even when the lights went off, people were waving with white shirts to be seen,” Lleshi said.

The fire sent up plumes of smoke that could be seen from miles away. The ambulance service said 68 people were being treated in hospital, with 18 in critical condition.

More than 16 hours after the fire started, crews were still trying to douse flames as they sought to reach the top floors.

But London police commander Stuart Cundy told reporters he did not believe further survivors would be found in the building.

At a nearby community center used to house some of those rescued, tensions were rising as occupants waited for news.

“The fire, which was unprecedented in its scale and speed, will be subject to a full fire investigation,” said Steve Apter from the London Fire Brigade. “Any lessons learnt from this will be borne out not just across London, across the UK – and lessons learnt globally.”

The emergency services said it was too early to say what had caused the inferno, which left the block a charred, smoking shell. Some residents said no alarm had sounded. Others said they had warned repeatedly about fire safety in the block.

The building had recently undergone an 8.7 million pound ($11.08 million) exterior refurbishment, which included new external cladding and windows.

“We will cooperate with the relevant authorities and emergency services and fully support their enquiries into the causes of this fire at the appropriate time,” Rydon, the firm behind the refurbishment work, said in a statement.

CHILDREN THROWN TO SAFETY

Residents who escaped told how they woke up to the smell of burning and rushed to leave through smoke-filled corridors and stairwells.

There were reports that some leapt out of windows. Other witnesses spoke of children including a baby being thrown to safety from high windows.

Tamara, one witness, told the BBC: “There’s people, like, throwing their kids out, ‘Just save my children, just save my children!'”.

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said sprinkler systems should be installed in such blocks and he called on the government to make a statement in parliament.

Fire Minister Nick Hurd said local authorities and fire services across the country would assess tower blocks undergoing similar renovation work to provide reassurance.

“In due course when the scene is secure, when it is possible to identify the cause of this fire, there will be proper investigation and if there are any lessons to be learned, they will be and action will be taken,” May said.

Khan, the London mayor, said there needed to be answers after some residents said they had been advised they should stay in their flats in the event of a fire.

“What we can’t have is a situation where people’s safety is put at risk because of bad advice being given or, if it is the case, as has been alleged, of tower blocks not being properly serviced or maintained,” Khan said.

Resident Michael Paramasivan told BBC radio he had spoken to a woman who lived on the 21st floor: “She has got six kids. She left with all six of them. When she got downstairs, there was only four of them with her. She is now breaking her heart.”

(Additional reporting by Lina Saigol, David Milliken, Costas Pitas, Kate Holton, Neil Hall, Elisabeth O’Leary, Alistair Smout, Megan Revell and Oli Rahman; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Supreme Court invalidates gender inequality in citizenship law

FILE PHOTO - The Supreme Court is seen in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down a gender distinction in U.S. immigration law that treats mothers and fathers differently when determining a child’s citizenship, calling such inequality “stunningly anachronistic.”

The high court, in a 8-0 ruling authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, found that a provision in federal law that defines how people born overseas can be eligible for U.S. citizenship violated the U.S. Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.

The ruling, however, may not help the man who brought the case, New York resident Luis Morales-Santana, who was seeking to avoid deportation to the Dominican Republic after being convicted of several offenses.

The law requires that unwed fathers who are American citizens spend at least five years living in the United States – a 2012 amendment reduced it from 10 years – before they can confer citizenship to a child born abroad, out of wedlock and to a partner who is not a U.S. citizen.

For unwed U.S. mothers in the same situation, the requirement was only one year.

In the ruling, the Supreme Court said that until Congress revises the law, both women and men will be covered by the five-year requirement.

Ginsburg, known for her work on gender equality before she became a jurist, wrote for the court that in light of the Supreme Court’s various rulings regarding the equal protection guarantee since 1971, having separate “duration-of-residence requirements for unwed mothers and fathers who have accepted parental responsibility is stunningly anachronistic.”

The arguments made in defense of the law by former President Barack Obama’s administration before he left office in January “cannot withstand inspection under a Constitution that requires the government to respect the equal dignity and stature of its male and female citizens,” Ginsburg wrote.

Morales-Santana’s deceased father was an American citizen, while his mother was not. His father failed to meet the law’s five-year requirements by 20 days.

His lawyer, Stephen Broome, said he is reviewing how the ruling affects his client.

Morales-Santana, 54, was born in the Dominican Republican and has lived legally in the United States since 1975. He was convicted of several criminal offenses in 1995, including two counts of robbery and four counts of attempted murder. The U.S. government has sought to deport him since 2000.

The high court split 4-4 on the same issue in 2011.

In July 2015, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York sided with Morales-Santana and struck down the law at issue, saying it applied “impermissible stereotyping” in imposing a tougher burden on fathers. The U.S. Justice Department sought to defend the law and asked the high court to take the case.

The case is one of several with immigration-related themes that are before the justices at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration is pursing efforts to strengthen immigration enforcement.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

For families of radicalizing U.S. youth, a help line

Program coordinator David Phillippi (L) and Executive Director Myrian Nadri with "Parents For Peace", a support group founded by parents whose children were involved in extremist violence and which is starting a telephone helpline for people who fear their loved ones are being recruited into extremist organizations, speak to Reuters in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S., March 23, 2017. Picture taken March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

By Scott Malone

BOSTON (Reuters) – Melvin Bledsoe felt helpless as he watched his son transform – becoming distant, converting to Islam and changing his name from Carlos Bledsoe to Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad.

The Baptist father of two wishes there was someone who could have offered him guidance before the 22-year-old attacked a U.S. Army recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing a soldier and wounding another in 2009.

“I didn’t have any help. I didn’t have no one to turn to, no one to lean on but my other family members,” Bledsoe, 61, who runs a tour company in his native Memphis, Tennessee, recalled in a recent phone interview.

Bledsoe, hoping to give parents in similar situations and fearful of calling the police more options than he had, founded the nonprofit Parents for Peace and launched what it bills as the first citizen-run U.S. telephone help line to counter the ideologies that lead to violent extremism.

The help line, which quietly began tests of operations in December but only now is making itself known widely, is aimed at filling a void in the United States and perhaps avert violence by offering parents and others a way to better communicate with loved ones flirting with extremism, according to people who study it.

“It could be a powerful thing. People don’t have anywhere to go if they have a concern about their kids and they don’t want to go to law enforcement,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

Another group, called Life After Hate and based in Chicago, offers assistance to people personally involved in white supremacist organizations who are looking to break away. And some Muslim leaders across the country offer counseling to those tempted to turn to violence.

The Parents for Peace help line – +1-844-49-PEACE (+1-844-487-3223) – models itself on suicide help lines and other groups addressing such issues, and is open not only to those dealing with militant Islamist ideologies but also white supremacist and other radicalizations.

The United States has seen dozens of extremist attacks since the Little Rock incident, from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre carried out by militant Islamists, to the 2015 mass shooting at a historically black Charleston, South Carolina, church by a white man who wanted to start a race war.

DIFFERENT BELIEFS, SIMILAR PATHS

Although very different ideologies motivated the attackers, many followed similar paths to violence, immersing themselves in angry online communities.

“Former neo-Nazis and former jihadists report similar things,” said Myriam Nadri, a therapist of French-Moroccan heritage with an office in Boston who is the group’s executive director. “They talk about experiences with humiliation, they talk about extreme rage and anger.”

Calls to the help line are answered by two staffers, who work out of a tiny office in Boston. They begin calls by taking time to hear out callers’ concerns.

The counselors then advise callers on techniques to persuade their loved ones to open up about their activities, in order to counter the secrecy that militant and criminal groups usually urge on their members.

So far, the line has received just a couple of calls, but Nadri said she expects the volume to pick up as the group does more to publicize its existence.

In some cases, callers may be put in contact with Bledsoe or other members of his group who have lost loved ones to extremism. Bledsoe’s son survived his attack and is serving a life sentence, while other members of Parents for Peace have seen relatives killed.

Their number includes Carole Mansfield of Burton, Michigan, whose granddaughter, Nicole, traveled to Syria to join its civil war and died in the fighting in 2013.

“I’m battling cancer and I just hope and pray that I can live long enough to help at least one family save their loved one,” Mansfield said in a recent phone interview. “That’s the mission that I have in my life.”

The help line makes clear that callers who fear an attack is imminent should call authorities. The group otherwise has avoided working directly with law enforcement, and has not sought any funding from the U.S. government’s “countering violent extremism” program.

That Justice Department program, established during Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration, aimed to address the factors that drive some to violence by providing grants and other resources to community groups to develop prevention efforts.

Obama’s successor, Republican President Donald Trump, now wants the program to focus solely on Islamist militancy, rather than also addressing white supremacist groups. That move has drawn criticism from Democrats in Congress.

The proposed policy shift makes Parents for Peace’s neutrality all the more important, Bledsoe said.

“It should be about any extremist,” he said. “Parents for Peace is willing to talk to anyone who feels there is a threat.”

(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)