Thursday, July 16, 2020

Candidates for District 36 At Odds Over Social Media Posts

Mark Sharp
Laura Loyacono

by Mary K. King

As local political campaigns begin to heat up with the August 4 primary approaching, one Kansas City democratic race is making headlines, both in print and on social media. Representative Mark Sharp, who is seeking reelection, was recently the subject of a Kansas City Star article in which he is accused of inappropriate, derogatory comments on his personal Facebook page, dating back to 2011.
The article states that posts Sharp made on Facebook were then tweeted by the anonymous “Time’s Up – Missouri” Twitter account, which included posts exclusively about him. When those tweets went public, the account then disappeared.

Sharp, who represents the state’s 36th district in Kansas City after winning a special election last year to replace former Representative DaRon McGee, claims that his democratic opponent, Laura Loyacono, and her campaign are behind the Twitter account.

“Quite frankly, I’m surprised that she would go this far,” Sharp said. “She’s caused a lot of division and this is the exact thing that we are trying to get away from, I thought, but it doesn’t seem that way. During a time like this, as a person of color, it really, really makes me pretty sad. It’s very disheartening.”

Sharp said that normally, opponents will attack politicians based on their voting record. However, in this case, he feels he is being attacked for posts he made nearly a decade ago.
“She really took some words and stretched them,” Sharp said.

Back in 2011, the Jerry Sandusky case was in the news, and Sharp posted: “…sports used to be the sure way to get away from that homo shyt now I don’t even no…u wanna be that way go right ahead that’s ur business…but you touchin ya players that’s like touchin ur own children…wrong on every level imaginable.” The Star article referred to this post as deriding gay men. In other posts, the Star claims, Sharp was deriding toward women, and states that he referred to women as “meat.” Sharp’s posts read: “Dogs need meat…MEN need a lady in the streets and u kno the rest,” and “Queston: women, are u a piece of meat that any stray dog has a chance at, or are you a lady that only an established man has a shot at?”

“To say I called women meat simply isn’t true,” said Sharp.
Sharp’s opponent, Loyacono, says that neither she nor anyone from her campaign posted anything on Twitter regarding Sharp’s Facebook posts.

“We didn’t and simply wouldn’t do it,” said Loyacono. “You simply cannot ‘spin’ things that are hateful, vile, and that span misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, these were not indiscretions of youth. Mr. Sharp was already an adult and the graduate of a respected university.  Meanwhile, it was not until recently that he expressed any regret for the posts, and has yet to offer an actual apology in any publication I have read.”

She also stated that she feels it is disingenuous to accuse her campaign for employing dirty tricks when discussing items that appear on Sharp’s public Facebook page (the two posts in question have since been deleted).

“Finding them did not require any guile or savvy, and we were not the first to do so,” Loyacono said. “We did not leak anything private, we did not post anything on Twitter, and we have made no comment on the matter outside of sharing the KC Star article. To be clear, any claim to know otherwise is a deceit. I have been warned incessantly not to run for this seat because of the risk that my opponent’s campaign would look to spread falsehoods that I wouldn’t have time to refute right before the election.”

Sharp’s older sister was found dead in her apartment in 2000, after suffering abuse at the hands of a man she considered a boyfriend. Sharp, who was in the eighth grade at the time, has made it a priority to help violence victims and their families, including women. He feels that the Twitter page and the information that was spewed against him has been a “social media lynching.”

“So, it’s nice that my opponent has drudged all this up. I really just want to make sure, best as we can, that folks know my story because I do think it’s a unique one,” said Sharp. “Seeing some of the things that I’ve gone through and having to bury as many people as I’ve had to bury at an early age, and having the chance to represent the same district I grew up in…how easily I could have been the one to catch a bullet.

“The lies against me were so heinous, the (Twitter) page couldn’t last for very long,” he said. “It had to be taken down out of fear of probably a lawsuit if nothing else. I’m having to deal with a lot, with social media and The Star, who didn’t do us any favors. They really just bought a bunch of crap off of a made-up Twitter solely for me, and they took the bait.”

The Star article also made reference to Sharp’s resignation from a school district he worked for in Texas as a teacher and coach, indicating that he was reprimanded for showing what was deemed an inappropriate video to his students. However, Sharp said the reprimand didn’t come until well after his resignation, for what he feels was concern that the district might face a discrimination lawsuit from Sharp.

“It was a tough, tough job,” said Sharp. “They just wanted me to coach, teach, keep my head down and not be outspoken.”

The district he worked for, he says, did not observe things like Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage Month. When he started asking questions and wanted to teach those lessons, he said, as the only black male teacher at the school, he felt like a target.

“They started getting really interested all of the sudden in what I was teaching,” said Sharp.  “The writing on the wall was starting to become pretty clear. I think I just caused too many ripples in the water for them, and they were looking for any reason to get me out of there.”

After his resignation, he received a letter in the mail from the Texas Education Association that he was being investigated for, essentially, he says, being on Facebook in the classroom. Sharp said the district he worked for did not have a policy against this, and he was able to login to social media from district computers (the sites were not blocked, as they are in other school districts).

“I thought it was no big deal, but apparently it was when they were trying to find something to discredit me,” said Sharp. “I was already gone and working at a different job. I had moved on. Ultimately, they (the Texas Education Association) went with the school’s recommendation for a reprimand. I never lost my license. I was never fired. I resigned voluntarily because it was so uncomfortable there.”

Sharp is hopeful that his work while in Jefferson City will speak to his character, rather than information that may be disbursed from his opposition. He said that he works well with his colleagues from both sides of the aisle and has unfinished business he’d like to see through if reelected.

Loyacono said that she is working to connect with voters by any means possible: over the phone, at their homes and through face-to-face events (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).

“To claim I have, in any way, run a dirty campaign is false and only seeks to distract voters from the facts. I will not tolerate the smear campaign being conducted against my integrity and I look forward to continuing my aggressive outreach program focused on the issues faced by the voters of the 36th House District, especially during this crisis.”

The “he said, she said” back and forth in this race will ultimately be up to the voters to determine which candidate they want to send to Jefferson City to represent Missouri’s 36th District. The primary election takes place on Tuesday, August 4. Loyacono and Sharp are running for the seat in the Democratic primary, while Nola Wood is running as the Republican candidate. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Graduating Amid a Pandemic













Grandview High School Class of 2020 Recognized


By Mary K. King

On March 12, 2020, the senior class of Grandview High School went home for spring break. This would be the last time they saw each other until graduation, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of school buildings and districts across the country implemented distance learning. Despite various challenges, the Grandview School District hosted a graduation ceremony, drive-through style, for the class of 2020 on Monday, June 29.

Following the ceremony, the district put together a video featuring the traditional speeches typically heard at graduation. Principal Dr. Jennifer Price, retiring this school year, stated that if the graduates surround themselves with people who make them happy, who push them and challenge them, they will be a force to change the world. This theme of change and of overcoming adversity was a common thread in all of the graduation speeches.

“I know this is not the graduation ceremony that you envisioned when you started your senior year 10 months ago, or even when you started your last semester in January,” said Superintendent Dr. Kenny Rodrequez. “I know that you’ve been dreaming about this moment and, at no time, dreamt that this would be how it would play out. I believe that you have an amazing opportunity - a calling, if you will - to go forth from this moment and create a future with more purpose, vision, energy and hope than those who came before you.”

Rodrequez went on to say that this is the point where he typically tells the graduating class some words of wisdom, and shares what they can expect to see in the future. However, he said, this time he doesn’t know those answers.

“We tend to speak to you as if we somehow have it figured out,” he said. “We don’t really know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know how things will improve or how the world will be different when we get to the other side of this pandemic. We don’t know how the country will change based upon the protests related to the social injustice that we’ve witnessed these past weeks. We don’t know if systemic inequities are going to continue to exist in our society or if they will finally be addressed.

“What I do know is that everything happens for a reason,” Rodrequez added. “You are a chosen class. It might not feel that way to you now, but you have been chosen for a reason. You can think of all this as a negative, or you can change your mindset and realize that you have an opportunity - an opportunity to seize your future and the future of this country. You have more power now than you can possibly imagine.”

Rodrequez challenged the class of 2020 to put more love than hate out into the world, and to rise above the tasks of the last several months.

“You are bulldogs and you can build the future that you want to see,” he said. “The fight to build that future will not be easy, but it will be worth it.”

Class Salutatorian Kiyah Neely said that she feels her class was robbed of their senior year due to the pandemic. Despite that, however, she said that her class had amazing school spirit, and the ability of her peers to come together for the good of the whole has been a quality she has admired.

“It cannot take away the fact that we made it,” said Neely. “Most of us have been surrounded by the same people for years, and it is truly amazing watching people grow and become who they’re meant to be.

Jason Keleher, class valedictorian, assured his classmates that the lack of a traditional graduation ceremony does not reflect that the class of 2020 put in any less effort than other classes.

“I choose to perceive this strange opportunity as a unique send-off point for a uniquely talented generation,” said Keleher. “Walking through our high school halls as a freshman, I could tell there was something special about the class of 2020, aside from all the puns about us having 2020 vision. We tried harder and aimed further than the classes that came before us, never settling for mediocrity.

“In this ever-changing world of division and isolation we graduates are about to enter into, those aspirations are desperately needed,” Keleher added. “We need the loud, clear voices of this generation to be vocal about injustice, truth and hope. We must challenge apathy wherever it appears and instead promote compassion. And we must be agents of positive change, even if it means abandoning the safety and comfort of the past.”

Though the future may be uncertain for the graduates, class president Jadyn Brooks said that she believes her class will be the one to shake up the world.

“We are the class of 2020,” said Brooks, “and we have a perfect vision moving forward.”

Thursday, July 2, 2020

South KC Sees Surge of Violence in 2020


KCPD Deputy Chief Karl Oakman discusses violent crime statistics in Kansas City during a town hall conversation, led by Center Planning's Stacey Johnson-Cosby. 

Tracking to be Deadliest Year on Record

by Mary K. King

Violent crime is on the rise in South Kansas City with the community seeing 13 murders in 2020. Compared to none at this time in 2019, some area activists are asking what local law enforcement is doing and what the community can do to keep their neighborhoods safe.

On Saturday, June 27, the Center Planning and Development Council, Hickman Mills United Neighborhoods and the Southern Communities Coalition teamed up to host an in-person and virtual town hall meeting to discuss crime and safety in South Kansas City. The discussion, led by Center Planning’s Vice President Stacey Johnson-Cosby, included representatives from the Kansas City Police Department, the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, and COMBAT, with Mayor of Kansas City Quinton Lucas, and Jackson County Sheriff Daryl Forte.

“I was absolutely floored and shocked and had no idea,” said Johnson-Cosby. “I knew if I was shocked, some of my neighbors and peers were also shocked. So, I thought, let’s find out what’s going on, not only in our community in South Kansas City, but also statewide. I think the trends are the same.”

Johnson-Cosby set out to find information on where the violence is stemming from, who the victims are in these cases, and what steps are being taken as a city to solve the problem. Most importantly, she said, is finding out what the neighborhoods can do to create a positive impact in their communities going forward to help reduce violent crime.

“South Kansas City is not unique in terms of having an increase in violent crime activity including shootings and homicides,” said Mayor Lucas. “It is not a trend that is unique to Kansas City, either, as compared to other American cities. But that doesn’t mean in any way that this is acceptable for us.”

The City of Kansas City received grants from the Department of Justice earlier this year related to community policing. Lucas said the hope is to use those funds to increase policing both with additional officers in the department and to expand the community policing program throughout the city. He indicated that the city is facing budget challenges due to COVID-19.

“In a year where two to three months ago we talked about a $10 million increase in the Kansas City Police Department, now a few months later there’s conversation of a $10 million decrease. So, we’d be very flat,” said Lucas. “The challenge with that, of course, is how do you deliver services to the people of Kansas City? How do we make sure that things like the response times and some of the other community efforts that are very important can continue to be those that we support?”

The mayor also indicated that the inability to have in-person programming due to COVID-19, specifically for teens, has been a challenge. Keeping young people of Kansas City involved and active over the summer to help prevent the congregations in parks and public places has proven to be effective in years past. Swope Park has seen a high number of shootings already this year, and a lot of the other criminal activity has occurred in parks, parking lots and open spaces, according to Lucas.

“We know where the challenge is, but in some ways it’s kind of the idle hands of the youth that has created a challenge for us,” said Lucas.

He added that his office is making sure that efforts are increased with South Patrol to provide for continued collaboration with community organizations, the school districts, and neighborhoods to ensure that safety remains a top priority. He stated that leveraging those programs that already exist in the city, such as the No Violence Alliance (NoVA), and working with those programs is essential.

“Everyone at city hall and on the Board of Police Commissioners is mindful of the real challenges we have,” Lucas said. “Every crime, and every issue, is creating grave concerns for all of us.”

According to Mike Mansur with the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office, Kansas City has seen over 90 homicides since January 1. This puts the city on pace to see around 175 this year. 2017 was considered to be the all-time high with 151 homicides. The prosecutor has recently initiated the Crime Strategy Unit, which is becoming popular throughout the country, and uses police intelligence to help identify crime spots and trends.

“We also will supplement and make better the most important cases with that unit,” said Mansur. “They might be involved in special efforts with evidence in particular cases.”

South Patrol Commander Major Daniel Gates said his team of officers covers roughly 74 square miles in Kansas City with approximately 69,000 residents, and averages around 39,000 calls for service annually in the division. Currently, there are 65 officers assigned to South Patrol of all ranks.

“Just like everyone else, we’ve seen a spike across our division, across our city, and across the country of violent crimes,” said Gates. “Of the 13 homicides in South Patrol, nine have seen arrests or charges.”

Gates said five cases are of unknown reasons, five were either disagreements or arguments involving drug activity, and two were domestic-violence related homicides. One case involved two deaths. In order to help alleviate some of the violent crime issues, Gates meets weekly with South Patrol staff to gather information to ensure they have an understanding about what is occurring and agree on how to approach the situation to prevent further homicides. That information is shared with Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith and the other patrol divisions in the city.

South Patrol has two community interaction officers dedicated to the area, as well as a social worker assigned to the division. Gates said the division also has an impact squad, which assists with calls for service and works to follow-up with homicide investigations or other cases to help apprehend offenders of violent crimes.

“We do the best that we can,” said Gates. “We protect and serve. We can’t do that without your help.”

Confidentially, the public can provide information about violent or non-violent crime to the TIPS Hotline by calling 816-474-TIPS, or by texting or emailing through their website. The TIPS Hotline is separate from the police departments, and since its inception back in the 1970s, has had a 100-percent success rate with keeping tips anonymous. If tips provided lead to an arrest for a homicide, the tipster can be rewarded up to $25,000.

Sheriff Forte said that his office signed a mental health contract last week to bring the county up to national standards for those who come through the detention facility by providing services to help with crime reduction across Jackson County. Everyone will receive an evaluation upon arrival, and those who are deemed to be in need of special services will be transported out of the jail and taken to proper facilities to receive the care they need.

“This will impact crime all over the city,” said Forte. “We are looking at our entire process as a reform effort, from recruitment to retention to annual psychological profiles. Hold us accountable, from the leaders all the way down through the organization. We need to talk more, and after the talking, we need to have accountability measures to make sure that we change.”

He added that he feels the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office has been dealing with antiquated procedures and equipment. Timing, Forte said, is everything, and with the current climate with police, he said that now is the time for him to find the funding to outfit his patrolmen with body-worn cameras.

“Without trust, though, the cameras don’t mean a whole lot,” Forte said. “We have to build that trust, one relationship at a time.”

Kansas City Police Department Deputy Chief Karl Oakman said that a strong partnership is needed to address the violence issue in Kansas City.

“Over the years, I think we’ve checked ‘partnership’ off like it’s a box and we really don’t engage like we should,” said Oakman. “Everyone has responsibility and I think, moving forward, we need to hold everyone responsible for their part in this partnership.”

He said there are two key factors to addressing the homicide problem in Kansas City: enforcement and prevention. While he feels that the police department continues to succeed in the enforcement category, more efforts need to focus on violence prevention.

“We’ve put a lot of programs in place,” said Oakman. “Do we want to have 175 homicides this year and toot our horn because we solved 169 of them? I don’t think that’s progress. I don’t think we should be excited about that. What we should be looking at is doing both (enforcement and prevention).”

Oakman said he would like to see KCPD increase the solvability rate of violent crimes while also reducing the number of homicides.  There are a number of initiatives already in progress; however, due to COVID-19, a lot of those face-to-face programs have been halted this year. He would also like to have school resource officers in each high school.

“We always talk about serve and protect, but sometimes we leave out the engaging with the community part,” said Oakman.

The key thing to remember, according to Oakman, is that those who want to commit violence or destroy neighborhoods are fine doing it if they see only the police engaged or just the community engaged.

“What scares people, those who want to commit violence, is when they see the police and the community working together,” said Oakman. “Not just working together but getting along and having a common goal. That is the biggest prevention to violence in your neighborhoods: when the police work with you and the community works with the police.”

Johnson-Cosby expressed to all the speakers that, as community groups, they are engaged and willing to work with the police to help prevent future violent crimes in the southland.