Excerpts from recent South Dakota editorials

November 25, 2019 GMT

Aberdeen American News, Nov. 23

Last words of those executed should not be public

Charles Russell Rhines was executed Nov. 4 in Sioux Falls for the 1992 murder of Donnivan Schaeffer.

The 63-year-old was the 20th person executed by the state of South Dakota, and the fifth since 2007. Jack McCall was the first person on record to be executed in Dakota Territory on March 1, 1877, for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

Whether you find justice in or disagree with capital punishment, one thing needs to change: executions should not include last statements made in public.

Those being executed should say their final words in private to friends and/or family, clergy or to invited guests who want to listen.

This could be done in the days or hours leading up to the execution. Let the person who is being executed eat what they want and say what they want before the execution.

Those being executed can’t take weapons to their execution, so why allow a public statement? Words certainly can be used as weapons in an attempt to inflict harm.

Before he was executed, Rhines was asked if he had anything to say. He spoke specifically to the parents of his victim Donnivan Schaeffer, Ed and Peggy.

“Yes, I do,” Rhines said, according to media witnesses. “Ed and Peggy Schaeffer, I forgive you for your anger and hatred toward me. I pray to God that he forgives you for your anger and hatred toward me. Thanks to my team. I love you all, goodbye. Let’s go. That’s all I have to say. Goodbye.”

We can’t know what Rhines intended or what was in his heart as he spoke those words. Each of you can decide for yourselves.

Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said he has stood next to Donnivan’s family for 26 years as the case proceeded.

“All that time, they have borne this tragedy and this loss with a grace that is simply inspiring,” Vargo said.

Peggy Schaeffer said she let go of her anger a long time ago.

“Anger and hate couldn’t have got us anywhere,” she said. “I gave it up to God. It takes a load off ... if I would start hating, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be who I am.”

Rhines ended up on death row after the events at a doughnut shop in Rapid City on March 8, 1992. It was a shop where both Rhines and Donnivan Schaeffer had worked.

A few weeks after getting fired from the doughnut shop, Rhines burglarized the business. Schaeffer was delivering supplies to the shop when he walked in on Rhines, who then stabbed the 22-year-old to death.

Rhines was sentenced to death in 1993.

In the past, inmates about to be executed have attempted to use humor. Whatever their intentions, we don’t believe the families of victims need to hear what an inmate has to say.

If a condemned person wants to say something to the families of their victim or victims, and those families want to hear it, let it be done in private.

Outside the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls Nov. 4, both protesters and supporters of the death penalty gathered.

Whatever side you are on, we hope that you would agree that public statements from the condemned at such events are unnecessary.


Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, Nov. 22

South Dakota’s anti-meth campaign is embarrassing. So are our drug laws.

South Dakota is not only losing the war on drugs, it’s setting a standard for ineptitude.

After years of being held up as an example of flawed enforcement policy and overzealous sentencing of non-violent narcotics offenders, we’ve entered a fresh wave of national scrutiny, this time in the form of laughter.

Gov. Kristi Noem’s anti-meth advertising campaign – featuring the tagline “Meth. We’re On It.” – managed to draw enough mockery to make South Dakota a trending topic on Twitter, with national media and neighboring states seizing on a hackneyed attempt at double meaning to do the unthinkable: make a joke out of crippling drug addiction.

Enough about the punchlines, though. Let’s talk about missed opportunities. And wasted resources.

This was the rollout of a $1.4 million ad campaign contracted by the state’s Department of Social Services to a Minneapolis marketing firm, which will use various forms of media to “educate every person across the state of South Dakota” on meth addiction, resources available and strategies to engage communities in recovery.

For that amount of money and the importance of the subject matter, there should be scrutiny upon those who signed off on the premise. Someone listened to a boardroom pitch that most Americans found harebrained and decided to invest state funds to embrace the “I’m On Meth” mantra.

Since Noem is the boss, she has some explaining to do.

We all understand the advertising axiom of “just get them talking about you,” which the governor tried to use as cover for the blunder. That approach makes perfect sense for commercial branding, but this was not about selling breakfast cereal.

This is about raising awareness and fostering grassroots education about a highly addictive drug that accounted for more than 3,600 statewide arrests in 2018 and has reached crisis mode on Native American reservations. The trend is seeping into our schools, with South Dakota reporting a 150 percent higher rate of young meth users than the rest of the country.

There is a difference between “getting people’s attention” for a two-day news cycle and those same people being suitably inspired to take meaningful steps to understand and address the issue.

Research into the “Just Say No” PSAs and other anti-drug campaigns in the 1980s and 90s show little positive effect on their core audience — namely young people who have not yet become habitual users. Though they drew attention with images such as an egg in a frying pan and the message, “This is your brain on drugs,” the movement missed the mark.

“Despite billions of dollars spent,” former presidential drug policy adviser Keith Humphreys told NPR in 2017, “the general conclusion is that these ads either had no effect or in some cases maybe even a perverse effect.”

Perhaps the money could be better spent on a wide network of support systems to help parents and educators understand warning signs and behavioral triggers before things start to spiral. Hardcore drug use is often a symptom of emotional vulnerabilities and social circumstances that trained counselors can not only spot but also work with others to counteract.

If South Dakota’s ad campaign is merely a way to draw people to a website to find such resources, it could have been done with a much smaller price tag and considerably less embarrassment.

It’s also a mixed message for a state that ranks first nationally in per capita narcotics arrests, the byproduct of a system in which stiff drug laws swell jails and prisons with low-level offenders. South Dakota is the only state that treats ingestion of a controlled substance as a felony rather than a misdemeanor, which helps fuel the incarceration rate rather than focusing on addiction counseling and continuing treatment.

A legislative committee that studied the issue over the summer recommended more funding for probation, parole and treatment services, but no change to South Dakota’s ingestion law.

So a state facing an epidemic of meth and opioid abuse, coupled with laws that lock up common users and encourage recidivism, has decided that minor tweaks to the status quo and a too-clever ad campaign is the way to find daylight amid the darkness.

Do we need to keep hammering this issue until leadership emerges and common sense prevails?

We’re on it.


Madison Daily Leader, Nov. 20

Charter school idea requires goal-setting

The South Dakota Education Equity Coalition has presented an idea to the State-Tribal Relations Committee, calling for legislation allowing Native Americans to create charter schools based in a Native American language.

Sarah Pierce, one of the coalition’s leaders, said that the schools would be a space where students can be “unapologetically Indian.” “They don’t have to check their indigenousness at the door,” Pierce said. “We don’t want our culture, spirituality, our language to be viewed as an elective.”

It’s an interesting proposal that requires a lot more thought by a lot more people. In general, we think innovation in education has merit, and we certainly believe that all schools shouldn’t be run by a “one size fits all” model.

For those who will make a decision about this legislation, this requires an agreement as to what the goal of this particular K-12 school is, and what the best outcome will be for students. What will high school graduates be prepared for in the next stages of their lives?

Understanding of culture, history and immersion in the Oceti Sakowin language can be good, but it may not prepare a student well for future employment. The curriculum still must teach students fundamentals in other fields, like math, science, technology and English, as well as nonacademic skills like teamwork, persistence, communication and achievement of goals.

Charter schools have the capacity to teach all these, just like public and private schools. The success of any school requires input and support from many people, including parents, teachers, community members and education experts.

It’s fair to say that many tribal schools aren’t working at this time. According to the 2018-19 school report cards, Native American students are faring less well on test scores in several areas, including language arts and science. Graduation rates in tribal schools are about 66 percent compared to 95 percent in nontribal schools in South Dakota.

Pierce, the former director of Indian education in the Rapid City schools, believes the new charter school can improve success rates. “Our design will hopefully have a great balance that won’t lack in rigor or culture,” Pierce said.

We’re eager to see all stakeholders — legislators, state education officials, tribal officials, parents and others — study this idea. We’d love to see newfound success for Native American students. That needs to be the goal of any modified system.