Keystone Crossroads

Keystone CrossroadsWhat connects Philadelphia with Pittsburgh? Altoona with Allegheny National Forest? Harrisburg with Happy Valley? Amish Country with Coal Country?

Quite a lot, actually.

While most media in the state focus locally, Keystone Crossroads explores the stories that matter across the commonwealth, reported with all Pennsylvanians in mind. Four public media newsrooms are collaborating on this project to create in-depth and insightful journalism on key topics that reverberate from the Statehouse to the streets and back again: government accountability, public education, changing communities, and criminal justice.

The set up on Stone Mountain consists of a radio tower, solar panels and an equipment room and is key to how the Rural Broadband Cooperative is delivering broadband internet to its users.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Henry McCreary and his friends were fed up.

In their part of rural Huntingdon County, access to high-speed internet was mostly limited, expensive and unreliable.

As a retired telecommunications manager, he couldn’t believe that at the same time many parts of the country were building state-of-the-art 5G infrastructure, people in his community were still stuck in the dark ages.

Brothers Andrew Barrow and Ronald Stanley 'Stosh' Webb (right) have been on a mission to fight racism in Schuylkill County. Is it working?
Bas Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

Andrew Barrow sat down to dinner with his wife, his teenage daughter, and a gnawing question. What does it mean to be a ‘snowflake’?

Someone had dropped the word in a comment on his post on Nosey Neighbors of Schuylkill County, a hyper-active local Facebook group. Usually, it’s a snapshot of rural Pennsylvania life: burglaries, missing pets, fundraisers for sick neighbors, and fires. Every few days, it seemed, another fire.

But, lately, things had gotten personal.

John Quinn, 67, attended St. Francis Vocational School for a couple of months in the 1960s, along with other Catholic orphanages. Quinn says it was during that time that he was molested by priests and counselors.
Natalie Piserchio for WHYY

Last year’s grand jury report detailing sexual assault allegations against 301 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania raised the question: how would the church respond?

In the months that followed, seven of the eight dioceses in Pennsylvania launched compensation funds, following the model set by dioceses in New York.

These programs, which started winding down at the end of September, offer a lump sum to victims in return for signing away the right to sue the church over their allegations. 

Grain farmer Jesse Poliskiewicz breaks open a pod of soybeans while on his farm Sept. 20, 2019, in Upper Mount Bethel Township, Pennsylvania.
Matt Smith / Keystone Crossroads

Don Cairns is driving through rural Chester County between one of his many plots of farmland. He grows corn, wheat, and soybeans on about 1,700 acres. It’s a hot, dry day — perfect for harvesting. He’s busy shuttling fresh-cut corn from the field back to his silos for storage.

In a sun-faded camouflage cap, a dusty brown t-shirt and blue jeans, Cairns lugs a large semi-truck hauling a grain trailer onto the cornfield. There, a combine outfitted with the latest technology analyzes the yields as it ploughs the field and shells the kernels from the cobs.

Cyber Charters In Pa. Are Wildly Ineffective, And 3 Other Takeaways From New Stanford Study

Jun 6, 2019
A new bill in the Pa. State Senate could mean the end for cyber charter schools in the state.
Pat Wellenbach, file / AP Photo

Pennsylvania’s charter school debate attracts a lot of heated rhetoric.

But this week, the conversation got some cold, hard numbers.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes, a group based at Stanford University, released a deep dive into Pennsylvania’s charter schools, which now serve roughly 140,000 students.

Debates about the quality of the growing sector can be especially fraught because comparing schools is rarely an apples-to-apples exercise.

Cash Grab: As Asset Forfeiture Quietly Expands Across Pa., Abuses Follow

Apr 24, 2019
Berks County, with the city of Reading, Pa. at its heart, has become a statewide leader in civil asset forfeiture.
Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads

 

Berks County narcotics detectives were ready to pounce.

From a distance, they spied Jose Veloz and Ambioris Cruz sitting in a 2005 Nissan Murano on a leafy residential block on Spring Street in Reading, Pa. The SUV was stashed with bags of heroin and about $5,000 in cash.

Veloz and Cruz thought they were about to pull off a lucrative drug deal, but police were one step ahead: Cops had flipped one of the pair’s associates against them. It was a setup.

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (left) and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (right) took turns discussing the rising cost of college education at Penn State's University Park campus on Thursday, April 11, 2019.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Third highest in the nation.

That’s how Pennsylvania ranks in the price of attending a public university according to the most recent report from College Board, with an the average cost of $14,770 for in-state tuition and fees in the 2018-19 academic year.

Bethany Coursen and her husband own the Valleywide Farm in Centre County. Coursen said last year's rain has a lasting impact on her farm.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Pennsylvania had one of the wettest summers on record last year. July 2018 was the rainiest July in the past 124 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The intense rainfall and flooding caused farmers across the state to lose significant crops, and 61 counties declared disaster.

 

In this file photo, a device called a "bump stock" is attached to a semi-automatic rifle at the Gun Vault store and shooting range in South Jordan, Utah.
Rick Rowmer / AP Photo

As a nationwide ban took effect this week, gun owners must immediately destroy or turn over their bump stocks after President Trump pushed the Justice Department to classify the controversial gun add-on as a type of illegal machine gun.

The gun accessory attaches to the butt of a semi-automatic rifle, allowing the weapon to reload and fire more rapidly.

The device became a focal point in the country's debate about gun violence in the months after law enforcement officials said a shooter used one to kill 58 people in Las Vegas in October 2017.

Attendants watch the showcase of a live video conference during an open house event at the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College in Warren, Pa.
Min Xian / Keystone Crossroads

Kathy Wells started her career early. She didn’t get a chance to go to college after graduating high school in rural, Northwestern Pennsylvania.

In her words, she grew up in a “large family, small area.

“Basically, you work,” Wells laughed. “You don’t go to school.”

Now 48, Wells is an administrative assistant for the Forest Area School District in Forest County — one of the most remote and scarcely populated areas in the state.

In this file photo, Tony Pouliot demonstrates the goCrop app on his mobile photo in the cab of his combine on his farm in Westford, Vt.
Toby Talbot / AP

A group representing rural Pennsylvanians says expanding high speed broadband internet access in the state needs to be a priority this year, but acknowledges funding for infrastructure upgrades continues to be a challenge.

 

 

The most recent federal spending bill passed in March 2018 included a $600 million boost to efforts to improve high-speed internet access.

 

 

A screenshot of the Penn State study's live result map shows that only a fraction of the state meets the F.C.C.'s standard for high-speed broadband internet.
broadbandtest.us

Statewide research from Pennsylvania State University finds that there’s a severe lack of connectivity to high-speed broadband internet for much of Pennsylvania. The preliminary results of the study suggest that the problem is far worse than experts initially estimated.

Using data self-reported from internet providers, the Federal Communications Commission estimates about 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to broadband, which is about six percent of the state’s population.

Officers at the Cumberland County Prison walk the halls, Thursday, April 3, 2003, in Carlisle, Pa.
Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections has agreed to treat the state’s nearly 5,000 inmates with hepatitis C over the next three years as part of a federal court settlement expected to be finalized soon.

Advocates for prisoners have filed suits in about a dozen states as prisons have denied drugs to inmates in need because costs of the hepatitis C medication would strain limited prison budgets.

At the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia Thursday, the national anti-death penalty organization Witness to Innocence calls for Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty.
Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Witness to Innocence, a national anti-death penalty organization based in Philadelphia, staged an event in the city Thursday calling for Pennsylvania to abolish the death penalty.

Led by exonerated death row inmates, WTI uses the first-hand experiences of the wrongly convicted to push for an end to executions in the U.S. — calling the death penalty the biggest problem in a “fatally flawed” criminal justice system.

Midterm voter turnout increased up statewide in Pennsylvania from 43 percent in 2014 to 58 percent this year.
Emily Previti / Keystone Crossroads

Voter turnout was up in every county in Pennsylvania this year compared to the last midterm election in 2014.

Statewide, it jumped from 43 percent in 2014 to 58 percent, according to our analysis of Department of State data.

Preliminary ballot counts suggested as much, but the state only just released data this week making it official.

Tamaqua parent Rebecca Kowalski criticizes the school board's new policy that would authorize the training and arming of some teachers and staff.
Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads

Nearly three hours into a special meeting about a policy that would ask some staff at the Tamaqua Area School District to carry guns, parent Liz Pinkey read aloud a letter from educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

They had written to the Pennsylvania State Senate last year, when lawmakers were debating a bill to allow personnel with concealed carry permits to be armed on school property.

State Rep. Tina Davis, a Democrat, knocks on doors in Bucks County in her attempt to win Pennsylvania's 6th Senatorial District.
Jim Saksa/Keystone Crossroads

“Do you walk that slow?”

Tina Davis is impatient. It’s cold and blustery on this Sunday morning in Levittown, but it’s not the weather that has her so eager to get going. Davis is a Democratic state representative challenging long-time incumbent Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson for the Pennsylvania 6th Senate District seat, and she’s the underdog. If she wants a shot at winning, Davis knows she needs to out-hustle her opponent.

U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (left) and Congressman Lou Barletta both hail from Northeastern Pennsylvania's coal region. Their philosophies, though, are worlds apart.
Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP and loubarletta.com

More Than Half Of Pa. Public Schools Do Not Have A Teacher Of Color

Oct 31, 2018
Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Shoemaker Elementary in Philadelphia, founded a group that seeks to boost the number of black male educators. Here pictured in front of his school with two students.
Emma Lee/WHYY

More than 60 years after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, an analysis of state data shows persistently stark disparities between the racial composition of teachers and students in Pennsylvania’s schools — among the widest gaps in the country.

Just 5.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are persons of color, compared to 33.1 percent of its students.

The data also show 55 percent of the state’s public schools and 38 percent of all school districts employed only white teachers. 

Educators fire off rounds during a concealed carry class for teachers Sunday, June 10, 2018, at Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, Illinois.
David Proeber, The Pantagraph via AP

A school district near Allentown recently, and rather quietly, became Pennsylvania’s first to pass a policy permitting teachers to carry guns in schools.

But a backlash has since developed, setting up a showdown over the place of guns in Pennsylvania schools that could set statewide precedent.

The new Pennsylvania congressional map.
image: PA Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to consider another appeal by Republican state lawmakers over this year's changes to Pennsylvania's congressional district map.

With the way the old districts were drawn in 2011, Republicans had such a substantial advantage that they captured nearly three-quarters of the state's congressional delegation with a far smaller share of statewide votes - in some years, fewer than half.

These lopsided results ultimately prompted lawsuits in 2017.

This combination of October 2017 file photos shows Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf, (left), and Republican Scott Wagner.
(Matt Rourke/AP Photo, file)

With under a month until the general election, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and his Republican challenger Scott Wagner appear to be locked in an uneven contest.

Their latest financial disclosures show Wolf with $8.9 million on hand to Wagner’s $1.8 million. The incumbent is also leading by almost 17 points in an average of recent independent polls.

And the candidates’ divergent campaign styles are reflecting that divide.

When Craig Murphy walks into the headquarters of the Red Lion School District just southeast of the city of York, the receptionist greets him with a friendly and familiar hello.

Within minutes, Murphy is talking about taxes. His basic take: there’s too many of them and they’re too high.

“I see it that I’m going broke,” he said. “Where do you say enough’s enough?”

Steve Austin, a facilitator of Philadelphia's participatory defense program, talks about tapping the resources of the community that knows defendants.
Bastiaan Slabbers / Keystone Crossroads

It was an early autumn afternoon in 1975 — a moment that Steve Austin wishes he could take back.

Recalling that day recently, Austin took a deep breath, as if he were about to plunge into a deep, dark place.

“I killed a person. I took a person’s life,” he said. “It’s hard for me to talk about.”

Austin, 16 at the time, was selling ice cream at a street stand in his North Philadelphia neighborhood. That afternoon, he and a customer got into a heated exchange over a transaction.

The Blair County Courthouse sits on Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg, PA.
Min Xian / WPSU

Michael Fiore, 56, remembered, growing up, he never had to worry about drugs in his neighborhood or the violence that they sometimes inflict. He said, back then, his community in Blair County, home to Altoona and Hollidaysburg, was safe.

But as he got older, with the rise of the opioid crisis, he saw things change. 

Shawnray Byrd has been represented by the Allegheny County Public Defenders Office four times since 2001.
An-Li Herring / Keystone Crossroads

On a humid summer day, Shawnray Byrd works a new job renovating a home just outside Pittsburgh. During a break, he says he’s grateful to be employed and free.

“It’s like everything is just going uphill now,” he said.

The 37-year-old spent six months in jail after being charged with attempted homicide in 2017.  He said his public defender was crucial to his acquittal in March.

Pennsylvania Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, one of the most prominent voices for reforming Pennsylvania's public defense system, in his office in Montgomery County.
Emma Lee / WHYY

If you hunt hard enough around Harrisburg, it is possible to find lawmakers who are on board with allocating state money for the public defense of the poor.

Possible, but not easy.

One of the most prominent voices on the issue is State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf. The 78-year-old lawmaker, whose Harrisburg tenure dates back nearly four decades, has an issue with Pennsylvania’s system of public defense that is rooted in the U.S. Constitution.

Crystal Weimer was arrested in 2004 for third degree murder, a crime she didn’t commit. She spent nearly 12 years in prison and was exonerated on June 27, 2016, and all charges were dropped with prejudice.
Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Crystal Weimer’s nightmare began in 2004, when she was arrested for a crime she didn’t commit.

“When you go to jail, your whole family goes to jail,” Weimer said. “It’s just like a ripple effect — it’s just not you.”

She was charged with the murder of Curtis Haith, a 21-year-old who dreamed of becoming a chef.  Haith was shot in the face and beaten to death in front of his home in Fayette County, about 50 miles south of Pittsburgh.

Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Penn., sponsored or co-sponsored four provisions to the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

The U. S. Senate passed sweeping legislation intended to combat the nation’s opioid crisis in a 99-1 vote on Monday evening.

The wide-ranging package known as the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 rolls up 70 bills that will advance research, treatment, awareness and recovery efforts related to opioid abuse that will be backed by about $5 billion in funding.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a student town hall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called out the nation’s universities Monday in a talk about campus free speech and the First Amendment.

DeVos said “precious few” campuses could be described as “free and open,” and said a rising tide of censorship could be traced back to a “relativistic culture” in which truth is subjective.

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