Costello Stabbing Death Shines Light On Mental Health Issues

Image of Mark Costello

The recent stabbing death of Oklahoma Labor Commissioner and Republican Mark Costello seems at first as inconceivable as it is horrific.

But what’s very much conceivable and, in its own way, very much horrific, is the anti-health care agenda promoted by Costello’s own political party, the GOP, here in Oklahoma and across much of the country.

These two points intersect because Costello’s son, Christian Costello, 26, has been arrested in his stabbing death, which occurred a few days ago at a Braum’s restaurant and store in northwest Oklahoma City. Christian Costello, according to media reports, suffered from severe mental illness, which included schizophrenia. Oklahoma has historically underfunded its mental health system, but that has been compounded lately by the Republican Party’s demonization of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which requires most health insurance plans to cover mental health treatment and Oklahoma’s obstinate refusal under a state government dominated by the GOP to expand Medicaid under the ACA.

In fact, here in Oklahoma, Attorney General Scott Pruitt has made his political career about suing the federal government over the legality of the ACA. He gets cheered on by many of his fellow Republicans and The Oklahoman editorial board, and the suffering continues.

We might assume that Costello, 59, was able to financially afford any possible treatment received by his son, but the problem is local access to quality care. The fewer dollars available overall for mental health treatment in any given jurisdiction or state will mean fewer quality options for patients. So, in the end, it really won’t matter how much money potential patients have unless they can seek treatment in a more enlightened state that realizes mental illness is a significant part of our culture that needs to be addressed quickly and efficiently whenever it surfaces. It’s good for the patient; it’s good for the entire society. When we treat mental illness, we lower criminal incarceration rates, for example.

I’m not suggesting, either, that there aren’t some great mental health providers here. The late Costello just four months ago gave a speech in which he apparently lauded local mental health advocates and, according to a media report, said this about mental illness, “And we must be understanding and understand that society cannot ignore this problem, and if it does so, it does so at its peril.”

Those are the truest of true words, but most of Costello’s fellow Republican leaders here seem to dismiss the notion of “society” in favor of “individual responsibility” even when it comes to people so incapacitated by mental illness they can’t afford medical care for their condition or they can’t get it because they don’t qualify for government assistance or they can't find it because it doesn’t exist.

People might accuse me of politicizing Costello’s brutal killing too early, but it’s NEVER too early to talk about the failure of Oklahoma to address its mental health and drug addiction issues. My heart goes out to the Costello family, and I wouldn’t be surprised if eventually family members speak out more publicly and productively about the problem of mental illness in general. But nothing substantial is going to happen here in Oklahoma with the current prevailing GOP mindset about health care in general.

Public Education Crisis Grows In Oklahoma

Teachers on Flickr The Commons

The Oklahoma teacher shortage crisis continues to worsen, and its impact on current students can’t be underestimated or presented in overly hyperbolic language.

State leaders, mostly Republican legislators and Gov. Mary Fallin, have failed to respond appropriately to the emergency by raising teachers’ salaries and enhancing their working conditions. In fact, Fallin and most of her fellow Republican leaders’ intention seems to be to do as much damage to our public schools as possible in order to privatize our basic educational system and turn taxpayer money over to private schools and companies.

Let’s be clear: All current public school students, even in the richest school districts, are affected by this leadership failure. It means fewer teachers and overcrowded classes. It means fewer programs. Overall, it tells the nation Oklahoma leaders care pretty much less if not the least of all about education than most states in the country.

The Oklahoma State Schools Board Association recently released the grim results of a survey of school districts it conducted during the first two weeks of August. The districts represent 80 percent of the state’s public school population. A news release from the organization about the survey first notes that there are about 1,000 teaching vacancies in the state and that 600 teaching positions have been eliminated since last year.

Here are the “highlights” of the survey:

About 75% of school leaders say hiring teachers was more difficult this year compared to last year.

The shortages are widespread, regardless of the district’s size and location and the subject area.

About 60 percent of districts anticipate needing to seek emergency teaching certifications to fill vacancies.

Almost half of districts expect to increase class sizes.

About one-third of school leaders said their schools likely would offer fewer courses this school year.
Special education, elementary, high school science, high school math and middle school math are the most difficult teaching positions to fill.

School leaders are deeply worried that the overall quality of teaching applicants is having a detrimental impact on student achievement.

Many newly hired teachers need extensive support and training, which increases pressure on school leaders who have limited time and resources with which to provide support.

Oklahomans need to know these basic facts as well: (1) The state has cut public education more than any other state since the economic downturn in 2008. (2) It has the lowest per pupil spending average than all of its neighboring states and in the region. (3) It has ranked in the bottom five—sometimes as low as 49th—for average teacher salaries for years.

It’s a no-brainer that Oklahoma’s anti-education mentality, combined with the current Republican dominance of state government, lead to increased social problems, high incarceration rates and low college graduation rates here. These are issues that affect us all in one way or another.

Only a seismic shift in the political milieu here will change things, and, frankly, that seems difficult to imagine. Meanwhile, mediocrity only creates more mediocrity. It’s a cycle that spins out of control for now. Sure, the state has some high-achieving students and schools, but it needs more, along with a renewed commitment to students at risk.

Our state leaders seem intent on starving our schools of needed funding and obsessively pressing a high-stakes testing agenda so they can claim public education is failing here. This way they can try to break teacher unions and turn tax dollars over to private schools or companies. This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This is a GOP political agenda.

Lankford: Breaker One Nine

Image of James Lankford

In their continuing campaign to positively mold the public image of the conservative extremist U.S. Sen. James Lankford, The Oklahoman editorial board over the weekend noted it was “praiseworthy” he had made public on his government website the proposed nuclear agreement with Iran.

The praise isn’t too much over the top, true, but, it should be mentioned anyone can find the same document in a lot of places, including on the White House site here. Lankford, of course, is against the proposed deal, which I will get to in a minute. The Oklahoman makes the argument, “The more public views are shaped by concrete information, the better.” Again, all true, but the document is widely available. A simple Google search takes anyone to ample places to find it. In fact, it’s now available through a link on Okie Funk. Where’s the praise for Okie Funk, which just published its 1,500th blog since 2004?

I’ve gone through the document, and, of course, I don’t view it like Lankford does. Here’s one of the opening statements: “Iran will modernise the Arak heavy water research reactor to support peaceful nuclear research and radioisotopes production for medical and industrial purposes.” Here’s another one: “Iran will not produce or test natural uranium pellets, fuel pins or fuel assemblies, which are specifically designed for the support of the originally designed Arak reactor . . .” Here’s another one: “For 15 years Iran will not, and does not intend to thereafter, develop, acquire or build facilities capable of separation of plutonium, uranium or neptunium from spent fuel or from fertile targets, other than for production of radio-isotopes for medical and peaceful industrial purposes.”

Obviously, the language here is quite technical. The crux of the agreement is that Iran will NOT develop a nuclear weapon and consequently sanctions against that country will then be ultimately lifted. Under the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency would be allowed access to monitor Iran’s nuclear activity. Here’s a New York Times guide on the agreement.

I find the agreement positive and historic, and a way to establish better relations with an important Middle East country. It’s a much better path than trying to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, as some political leaders would have it. I believe most Americans are growing tired of the human and financial cost of perpetual war. In the end, if Iran DOES violate the agreement it gives the U.S. and its allies more credibility to sanction the country or even attack it. What’s even more important to realize is that all bets are off if the U.S. believes it’s getting threatened by a nuclear attack by Iran or any country.

Lankford, of course, doesn’t view the agreement in this way, and he went on the Senate floor to express his views. The speech, which you can find here, is fairly typical for a conservative hawk. Essentially, the argument is that the agreement doesn’t go far enough to reign in Iran’s nuclear program, and it contains loopholes that allow Iran to escape detection of building a nuclear weapon. It’s not difficult to suspect that Lankford’s main reason for opposition, however, is the general Republican policy to reject anything proposed by President Barack Obama as a political gambit.

But the one statement that really stands out in Lankford’s speech is this sentence:

My concerns are there are loopholes in this agreement big enough to drive a truck through, specifically this truck is the truck that is big enough to drive through.

I’ve tried to wrap my head around the syntax and structure of that sentence, especially beginning at the word “specifically.” Did Lankford have a photograph of a monster truck on a screen behind him as he uttered these words? To me, the phrase “this truck is the truck that is big enough to drive through” means driving through the truck, not the loopholes.

A minor point? Simply an awkward sentence? Perhaps. We can understand Lankford’s meaning in the context of the overall speech. But The Oklahoman editorial board continues to try to place an aura of “the wise sage” around Lankford, even though it has become clear he’s as much an ideologue and panderer as U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe. Just using a “truck” metaphor alone shows his opposition to the agreement goes beyond his concern for his argument.

He’s concerned about his truck-owning base of voters, too.

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