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'New tradition' | WestSide hosts graduation at school for first time

WENATCHEE — WestSide High School had its 35th graduation Tuesday night, and for the first time the school hosted the ceremony in its own backyard.

Sure, COVID protocols were the reason the ceremony was not happening at the normal place, the Wenatchee Convention Center, but that is just fine with WestSide Principal Kory Kalahar. Last year’s graduation was online.

For 27 years, when WestSide was located at Wenatchee Valley College, it really didn’t have a backyard, Kalahar said. The school is now at 1510 Ninth St. in Wenatchee.

“Now we have this beautiful backyard. We’ve just always gone over to the convention center,” he said. “I couldn’t picture it before, but with the white chairs and the stages and the way everything is lined out, it is gorgeous. I think we’re starting a new tradition.”

Planning for the ceremony started in January, Kalahar said. A plan started to form to have the ceremony outside. The students, parents and staff were polled to see what they wanted from graduation.

“The consistent theme was people wanted to do whatever we could collectively that was safe and would honor the class of 2021,” Kalahar said. “With all those factors, we went as traditional as we possibly could and we got pretty darn close.”

WestSide has 100 graduating seniors. Each year, student speakers are selected to speak at graduation ceremonies. Initially, it is thrown out to the entire senior class. If no one volunteers, Kalahar said teachers and counselors have individual conversations with students to encourage them to think about it.

If more than a handful of students express interest, Kalahar said they have the students turn in their speeches by May 1. This year, two student speakers were selected, Josh Welch and Evelyn Acosta.

Submitted photo 

Evelyn Acosta

Acosta said it was an honor. “I have a lot to say and to share with my graduating class and also to the staff and faculty at WestSide because they mean a lot to me,” Acosta said.

Her speech is about the pandemic and how her teachers helped her. She said this past year has been difficult, having to learn online and find ways to connect with school.

“The hardest part was managing school and work and the difficulties that life brings, because that is just that way life is,” Acosta said.

After high school, she hopes to travel abroad to make a difference and really find herself before choosing a career path.

Photo submitted  

Josh Welch

Josh Welch said being selected as student speaker is a cool opportunity.

His speech is about perseverance. and said the past year has changed him.

“It’s been really hard. When COVID first happened, I was really social and I liked talking to a lot of people. I didn’t like being by myself. I think COVID helped me with that. Now, I’m OK with who I am as a person,” Welch said.

School was harder, he said, because everything was online and teachers could not physically help you.

“That was a big challenge. Going back to school was huge. It was the best decision to come back in half days,” Welch said.

After high school, Welch plans to go to a trade school or a job where he can interact with people.

Photo: Excited to be playing in public

Young adults shun COVID-19 vaccine as White House warns of risks

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Young adults in Generation Z are refusing the COVID-19 shot at a higher rate than other age groups, a development that many public health experts and White House officials worry could prolong the virus’s spread and lead to dangerous new mutations.

“For young people who may think this doesn’t affect you, listen up, please. This virus, even a mild case, can be with you for months. It will impact on your social life,” President Joe Biden said at the White House on Wednesday.

Some public health experts warn that young adults’ decisions to shun the shot could have big consequences.

“I think our best bet to get closer to herd immunity, if not get there, is to pick up young people,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “They can make a real dent when the remaining adults are still sort of hardcore vaccine-hesitant.”

The more people who refuse the vaccine, the more chances the virus has to mutate. American Public Health Association Executive Director Georges Benjamin said he is concerned the virus will mutate rapidly within unvaccinated, young and healthy people and create a new strain that is resistant to the COVID-19 vaccines on the market.

“The best way to think about them is little brushfires, little outbreaks,” Benjamin said. “We’re running the risk of starting this thing all over again.”

The young and healthy were not prioritized in the early days of the COVID-19 vaccination effort when much of the public health messaging focused on protecting the elderly and the frail.

When Gen Z adults who are 18 to 24 became eligible to get vaccinated, many didn’t see a need to rush. COVID-19 case numbers are falling, mask restrictions are disappearing and life has, in many ways, started returning to normal.

“The argument that this is protecting grandma doesn’t work any more because grandma’s already vaccinated,” Benjamin said.

Unlike other age groups, Gen Z vaccine hesitancy increased over time, polling shows.

Twenty-six percent of Gen Z adults say they are not vaccinated and have no plans to get the shot, according to a March 2021 poll from NBCLX and Morning Consult. That’s up from March 2020 when the same polling organization found just 5% of Gen Z adults said they would not get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Similarly, a recent STAT-Harris poll found that over half of Gen Z adults said they were not in any hurry to get the vaccine.

This age group has a variety of reasons for not getting the shot. Some fell prey to misinformation on social media about negative side effects, such as unfounded rumors about the shot causing fertility issues.

Caplan said he likes to remind vaccine-hesitant people that vaccine side effects usually show up within a year and a half, and scientists have already looked for all these outcomes since trials began in March 2020. But contracting the virus can lead to serious issues down the line.

Some who have already had a mild case of the virus aren’t worried about contracting it again or believe they already have immunity. And others feel they can wait for a shot since many young and healthy people don’t contract severe disease if they get the virus.

The Biden administration is trying to nudge this group to get vaccinated with promotions, gimmicks and vaccine challenges.

The White House and the Department of Education announced a COVID-19 College Vaccine Challenge to bring shots to universities. The administration is also encouraging students to participate in the COVID-19 Community Corps.

Biden and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci collaborated with YouTube stars, including Manny MUA and Jackie Aina, to get out their vaccine messaging. In the somewhat campy videos, the president rotates between questions about COVID-19 vaccine development and his top desert island skin care product.

The administration is also reaching out to young people via dating apps, such as Hinge and Tinder. Vaccinated individuals can earn badges on their profiles and “super likes,” which can help them link up with vaccinated potential partners.

But this may not be enough. Jordan Tralins, a Cornell University rising junior, says much of the pro-vaccine messaging isn’t aimed at her generation. Most of her friends get their news from TikTok and Instagram, and much of the vaccine information on her feed was questionable at best. So she and a classmate founded the Covid Campus Coalition, a student-led organization that shares infographics and TikToks promoting information about COVID-19 vaccines. So far, the coalition has chapters in over 25 college campuses across the country, and Tralins plans to keep growing.

“I recognized at the start of the vaccination process that it’s just kind of a lack of presence in platforms where you know Gen Z and younger individuals spend their time looking,” Tralins said.

Though students at her university have been receptive to vaccination, that’s not the case for all colleges participating in the Covid Campus Coalition, she noted. Some larger universities in the South are having a more difficult time convincing students to get vaccinated.

Young adults “felt pretty invincible. They felt like if they got COVID, it wouldn’t be a big deal, so what’s the point of getting the vaccine?” Tralins said.

Lisa Costello, a West Virginia University assistant professor of general pediatrics, said she’s noticed that young adults and teens she works with are more likely to trust one another than the government. That’s why social media campaigns and peer-to-peer messaging can be effective.

“It’s also important in this group that we help this age group see the benefits of vaccination over the harm that COVID may pose to them,” Costello said.

Young adults ages 18 to 29 currently make up 22.5% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., more than any other age group and disproportionately higher than their share of the population, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Despite being such a high percentage of cases, they only make up 0.5% of virus deaths. The CDC doesn’t measure cases or deaths for adults ages 18 to 24.

Although people in Gen Z are much less likely to die of the virus, they could still spread it to others who are more vulnerable or suffer long-term health effects if they get COVID-19.

Despite the concerns, Amesh Adalja, a John Hopkins Center for Health Security senior scholar, is not overly worried about the low vaccination uptake among young adults in Gen Z. He hopes this age group will reach population-level immunity via a combination of vaccinations and natural infection, and virus spread in this relatively low-risk age group will become endemic and seasonal.

“It would be much more worrisome if there was a group of 65-year-olds that were reluctant if instead of Gen Z, if it was the Greatest Generation or something,” Adalja said.

“We’re going to have to sort of recalibrate how we think about COVID-19 because it’s something that is not going away,” he added.

Murderer in 1997 Quincy killings may get out halfway into 50-year term

KENNEWICK — A man who’s served 24 years of his 50-year sentence for fatally shooting an elderly couple in bed may get out of prison soon.

Adam Betancourt was 16 when he and three other teens killed the husband and wife inside their Quincy farmhouse in May 1997.

Betancourt was identified as one of two shooters. The second one was another 16-year-old, who was the apparent leader of the group.

Now 40, Betancourt qualifies for consideration of early release after changes in state law relating to offenders who were younger than 18 when they committed their crime and have served at least 20 years.

The Washington state Indeterminate Sentence Review Board unanimously agreed in May that there is no evidence showing Betancourt “is more likely than not to commit any new criminal law violations if released on conditions.”

“Consequently, the board finds Mr. Betancourt releasable,” according to a seven-page report.

Betancourt, who is engaged, has said he wants to be released to the Spokane area — initially into a transition-type house, instead of his fiancee’s home.

He would be on electronic home monitoring at least for the first 90 days of supervision, and would have other conditions like participation in sober support groups, the report said.

The state Department of Corrections currently has Betancourt’s earliest release date at Feb. 19, 2040, but that is because the release is still under review until his plan is firmed up.

Once finalized, the victims’ family and law enforcement will be notified of Betancourt’s future address, and an official release date will be set, according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman.

Prosecutor, family oppose

That decision does not sit well with Grant County Prosecutor Garth Dano, who previously told the board that Betancourt needs to serve all 50 years for the slaying of Vada Smithson, 88, and Homer Smithson, 89.

Dano said the Smithson family also “vehemently opposed” the shooter’s release, and now is left devastated by the board’s actions.

As it is, the victims’ loved ones have cruelly been forced to relive their tragedy every several years, each time one of the killer’s sentences has come up for review before the state board, he said.

In a May 26 letter to the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Dano wrote that he is “sickened and disgusted by this result and doubt I will ever be able to get the taste out of my mouth.”

He added that the case “eerily reminds” him of Truman Capote’s movie, In Cold Blood.

According to Tri-City Herald records and Dano, Vada Smithson, 88, and Homer Smithson, 89, were sleeping in bed when the group entered the couple’s home.

The Smithsons had just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary before they were killed.

Pleaded for life

The break-in was part of a scheme to steal guns from the Smithson’s rural home, then shoot up a different house where an unidentified police officer lived.

Betancourt and Donald Lambert opened fire on the couple, then went outside to reload their guns after running out of bullets.

“Mrs. Smithson, who was shot multiple times, somehow managed to get out of bed to make it to the kitchen to call her son for help,” wrote Dano. “Betancourt and Lambert re-entered the house and gunned down Mrs. Smithson as she was on the phone with her son, pleading for her life.”

Police arrested the four teens — Betancourt, Lambert, Melanie Hinkle and Marcus “David” Wawers — at Wawers’ home a few hours after the shootings.

The teens claimed they were motivated in part by a grudge Wawers held against Homer Smithson over a past job.

Wawers’ home was less than a half mile from the farmhouse. The Smithsons often fed him at their table and took food to his family during hard times, a grandson said at sentencing in December 1997.

While Betancourt and Wawers said they were sorry for the killings, the victims’ extended family refused to accept the apologies.

”When I see you ask this family for mercy, I ask how much mercy did my grandparents get,” said Dick Smithson, a grandson of the couple. “Lord, forgive me, but I will never forgive you. You all had a chance to stop it, and you didn’t. You tore apart an entire family. Anything less than the maximum penalty would not be justice at all.”

Betancourt was a Sureños gang member at the time of the killings.

He admitted that he had burglarized multiple properties around Quincy the night before, and was at the Smithson home to steal from their garage, according to Dano.

Betancourt pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, with prosecutors removing the aggravated circumstances and deadly weapon enhancements.

As part of his plea agreement, Betancourt had to testify against Lambert. He was sentenced to 25 years for each victim, and was ordered to serve the time back-to-back.

‘Afraid of getting caught’

Betancourt originally served his time in a state juvenile facility, then was moved to prison once he became an adult. Between 1997 and 2012, he had 56 serious violations while behind bars, Dano said.

At a 2018 juvenile board hearing, his request for early release was denied. The board said he could re-submit his petition for review in 2023, but it was moved up to April 2021 after receiving guidance from several “significant court rulings,” the board’s decision states.

The report on the board’s decision states that Betancourt “has demonstrated positive prison behavior for approximately the past 12 years, receiving one serious infraction ... for having sandpaper in his hobby box. He received 27 positive behavioral observations.”

The board noted that Betancourt has been employed while in prison and participates in available offender change programming and educational courses.

When asked about the slaying, Betancourt told the board he was scared when the couple awoke and admitted being the first to fire his gun.

“He had no explanation for why he didn’t just run away once they realized someone was home, nor why they didn’t just leave after they had run out of bullets the first time,” the report states. “He said that basically once they had started shooting he was afraid of getting caught and determined they would have to kill the victims.”

Betancourt further told the board members he “understands it was a heinous crime” and that he now tries to make morally sound decisions.

He said once released, he wants to “stand on his own two feet first and become financially secure” before moving in with his fiancee.

State Supreme Court hears arguments in legal challenge of Inslee's veto powers

OLYMPIA — Petty disputes at the statehouse often confine themselves to negotiating rooms or floor speeches, or perhaps a little low-key payback down the road.

But on Tuesday, the squabble between the state Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee over his use of partial vetoes played out in far grander fashion: before the Washington Supreme Court.

In oral arguments, the justices heard the case known as Washington State Legislature vs. Jay Inslee. It’s a legal struggle that could tweak the balance of power between two of Washington’s separate branches of government.

The legal struggle has come to a head just weeks after the governor frustrated lawmakers with another controversial veto that could draw a legal challenge, when he signed into law the new clean-fuels legislation.

Washington’s constitution limits a governor’s veto authority to full bills, and sections of bills or appropriation items — spending — in those bills.

The case involved in Tuesday’s hearing stretches back to 2019, when Inslee signed a new, two-year statewide transportation budget — and vetoed lines inside sections of the bill.

The language he vetoed would have prohibited state transportation officials from considering different fuel types as a factor in choosing grantees for some grant programs being administered.

The governor’s lawyers have argued that the vetoes targeted appropriation items, and thus were allowable. They have also called the vetoes necessary to comply with other state laws to fight climate change with methods like switching transportation fuels over to biofuels or electricity.

In a letter to lawmakers at the time, Inslee explained his reasoning: “While my veto authority is generally limited to subsections or appropriation items in an appropriation bill, in this very rare and unusual circumstance I have no choice but to veto a single sentence in several subsections to prevent a constitutional violation and to prevent a forced violation of state law.”

The Washington Legislature sued to challenge those vetoes, and last year, a Thurston County Superior Judge ruled that the governor overstepped his authority.

The court generally defers to the Legislature’s designation of what is considered a section inside a bill, wrote Judge Carol Murphy, “unless it is obviously designed to circumvent the governor’s veto power ...”

But the 2019-21 transportation budget’s relevant sections do “not show obvious manipulation” to circumvent the governor’s powers, Murphy wrote in the ruling.

“It is the governor’s burden to show such manipulation, and, here, that burden has not been met,” added Murphy.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court justices lobbed question after question to both sides — sometimes skeptically — as they considered a case that could potentially tip the balance of power between the executive branch and the legislative branch.

They didn’t always sound thrilled.

“You know, we have to decide what’s an appropriation item,” said Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud at one point. “And an item, of course, can be an electron, or an item can be the universe.”

During the hearing, an attorney for Inslee argued that, among other things, the single-line vetoes were striking down appropriation items and were therefore valid.

”The framers authorized the line-item veto to prevent the harmful effects of legislative logrolling in appropriations bills, and this case demonstrates exactly why,” Alicia Young, the attorney representing Inslee, told the justices Tuesday.

”The new fuel-type condition would never have passed as a standalone measure, as it clearly undermines longstanding statutory objectives to combat climate change and reduce air pollution,” added Young, who is a deputy solicitor general with the Attorney General’s Office.

Lawyers for the Legislature — who are also represented by the Attorney General’s Office — have argued against that interpretation.

”Washington’s Constitution strikes a careful balance between the Legislature’s prerogatives to craft and organize bills and the Governor’s authority to veto all or part of legislation,” according to a brief filed before the court by the Legislature’s attorneys. “The Governor’s excision of only a single sentence within seven larger appropriation items ... exceeded the constitutionally-limited scope of the veto power.”

The case hasn’t stopped Inslee’s controversial use of the partial veto. In mid-May, the governor issued a pair of vetoes to strike down language that made the implementation of two signature pieces of climate-change legislation contingent on the passage of a new statewide transportation spending measure.

The part of the clean-fuels bill that was vetoed was contained inside a section, again prompting outcry.

Even Democratic leaders like House Speaker Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma chimed in, saying it “reaches beyond his constitutional powers and we will ask the Washington courts to again rule on the balance of legislative and executive branch powers.”

Asked about that veto in an interview after that day’s bill signing, Inslee remained unphased.

“We believe we’re on very sound ground in this regard,” said the governor. “Because it is clear that the way this was structured, was in a sense to try to hide from a veto, and deny the governor the ability to exercise the constitutional right of veto.”