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Ben Shanahan, Arizona Daily Sun 

Northern Arizona’s Bernie Andre (10) shields the ball from a Northern Colorado defender Saturday evening in the Walkup Skydome.

Annual celebration shares STEM with community

Even rainy weather couldn’t dampen the excitement for the sixth annual Flagstaff Community STEM Celebration at the Northern Arizona University Walkup Skydome Monday night.

This year, 110 organizations, clubs and other groups presented on subjects ranging from the Grand Canyon to the human body, encouraging participants to take care of themselves and Flagstaff’s remarkable environment, to dream big and to discover more about the vast world they live in.

Albert the Abert’s squirrel, the mascot for the Flagstaff Sustainability Program, even made an appearance.

Adults and children alike reveled in the educational festivities as they wandered through colorful displays that freckled the Skydome floor, gathering freebies and tidbits of information about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Robotics activities were named the favorite among young learners like Valani Kamrowski, 11, a fifth-grader at Cromer Elementary, and Marceau Dramais, 10, a fifth-grader at Montessori School of Flagstaff. Participants could watch local specialists like the Coconino High School robotics team control the robots, as well as program and drive the robots themselves.

Other crowd-pleasers included bottle rockets, thermal infrared cameras, and a space simulation using a large black tarp and weighted objects, where participants were asked to try to get a marble to make a figure eight around a blow-up “Earth” and baseball “moon” to simulate the Apollo 13 mission’s return trajectory.

Isabel Zeilman, 10, a fourth-grader at BASIS Flagstaff, said the event is great for science lovers, even if they don’t know which topic they like most.

“Find something you like in science and maybe it will be here and you can study it more,” she said.

This was true for Mackenzie Spillman, 13, an eighth-grader at Mount Elden Middle School. Though she said social studies is her favorite subject in school, she enjoys visiting STEM night each year. Her favorite activity this year was the balloon-powered cars.

Through these activities, local organizations are able to speak directly with such students and encourage them to take an interest in STEM. This mission inspires groups to return year after year.

Megan Taylor, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Flagstaff, said even though local meteorologists work around the clock, the organization has found a way to host a table at STEM night every year. This year, the meteorologists had soda bottle tornadoes available for students to use.

“Science is fun! That’s the whole point of tonight. That’s why people come here and put their booths on. It’s all about the fun for us, too, and being able to make science fun for the kids,” Taylor said. “It’s not only about the kids, but it’s neat to be able to connect with the adults, too, and share what we do in the community.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Flagstaff has also been a repeat contributor. Deanna Burrell, teen director and events coordinator, said the goal of the event is to show that STEM is more than beakers and Bunsen burners. This year, the Boys & Girls Club booth demonstrated density with the floating hard-boiled egg test.

Adult attendees agreed that this event successfully demonstrates STEM’s diversity and the community these subjects create in northern Arizona.

Stephanie Hanson has lived in Flagstaff for 12 years and has two children who attend Sechrist Elementary. She said the kids love seeing their teachers and friends at an event like this, as well as doing hands-on activities they can take home with them.

“Just getting excited about science and creativity and fostering that creativity is awesome. I think our community does a great job at that,” Hanson said.

Trump's monument changes return to spotlight

SALT LAKE CITY — As Democrats in Congress prepare to scrutinize President Donald Trump's review of 27 national monuments, most of the recommendations made by ex-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke remain unfinished, seemingly stuck on the backburner as other matters consume the White House.

Trump acted quickly in December 2017 on Zinke's recommendations to shrink two sprawling Utah monuments that had been criticized as federal government overreach by the state's Republican leaders since their creation by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.

But in the 15 months since Trump downsized the Utah monuments, the president has done nothing with Zinke's proposal to shrink two more monuments, in Oregon and Nevada, and change rules at six others, including allowing commercial fishing inside three marine monuments in waters off New England, Hawaii and American Samoa.

Zinke is now gone — after resigning in December amid multiple ethics investigations — and has joined a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm. Trump has nominated as his replacement Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other corporate interests.

A sweeping public lands bill signed into law on Tuesday by Trump creates five new monuments — two of which Zinke suggested — but none of the reductions or other changes he recommended.

The monument review was based on arguments from Trump and others that a law signed by President Theodore Roosevelt allowing presidents to declare monuments had been improperly used to protect wide expanses of lands instead of places with particular historical or archaeological value.

Today, the House Natural Resources Committee will host a hearing that the Democratic majority said will focus on the "inadequate" nature of the administration's review. Democrats claim the move to shrink the monuments was illegal and overlooked overwhelming support for keeping them intact.

Speakers include tribal leaders, a leading paleontologist and a conservationist who are expected to say their arguments for protecting the land were ignored during the review.

People and groups who advocated for the changes are disappointed with the inaction and in the dark about White House plans. Some critics of the monument review, meanwhile, say the delay shows Trump's intent all along was to launch the sweeping review as justification to shrink the Utah monuments to appease powerful politicians such as former U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who in return gave the president support for his causes.

Environmental, tribal and paleontology groups called the review an attack on protected land that put at risk habitat rich with ancient artifacts, wildlife and dinosaur fossils and sued the challenge the shrinkages at the Utah monuments.

On the other side are commercial fishing operators who say jobs will be lost unless Trump reverses Obama's 2016 creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts monument off the New England coastline, where boats previously targeted squid, swordfish, tuna and other fish.

Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, recalled meeting with Zinke in 2017 to air the industry's concerns.

"We left that room, I want to say, hopeful. And we still have some hope, but it would be great to actually have some results," she said.

Brady said hopes Trump would sympathize with the industry's economic struggles "seem to be forgotten so far to date."

Interior Department spokesman Alex Hinson said the White House has not requested information about the monument recommendations since Zinke submitted his proposals in August 2017.

A White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss deliberations said the Trump administration was still considering taking action, but declined to elaborate.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva said he believes the Utah monuments were targeted immediately for shrinking in order to open up the lands for the extraction of coal and uranium. The Arizona Democrat said in an interview that his efforts to confirm those suspicions had been frustrated when his party was in the minority, by the administration's refusal to turn over documents related to Zinke's recommendations.

Zinke and Trump advocated for a return to American energy dominance but through mid-February, lands stripped from the Utah monuments haven't been mined, according to state and federal officials who approve permits.

Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said today's hearing will focus on the Utah monuments, which he said serve as a template for what other communities could expect if more of Zinke's recommendations are acted upon.

Man found burned alive ruled suicide, medical examiner reports

When a Flagstaff Police Department officer received a report of a fire on the east side of Flagstaff near his location on Route 66, he drove through the Museum Club parking lot toward the wooded area where the fire was reported.

In the officer’s reports, he saw the flames on a person's body and attempted to put them out. The officer reported he did not see any movement at the time, and Ben Iravani, 66, was declared dead soon afterward on Dec. 19, 2018.

Alan Camp, who was a friend of Iravani from the Flagstaff Shelter Services, said he saw him the day he died. Camp acknowledged Iravani’s criminal history as a sex offender, but still made a point to talk to him.

“I talked to him because nobody else did,” Camp said. “He never raised his voice, a sweet guy.”

Flagstaff police gathered more information for its investigation soon after Iravani was found. And now, medical examiner officials have released a report ruling that Iravani’s death was a suicide.

Michael Madsen, assistant medical examiner, reported that Iravani had a medical history of schizoaffective disorder with a history of prior suicide attempts. The report also cited evidence found by Flagstaff police officers at the scene, that hinted toward the possibility of a suicide.

“[Iravani] was reported to smell of gasoline, and two empty plastic containers that also were reported to have a smell of gasoline were located next to a tree near the decedent,” Madsen wrote. “Also, near the decedent was a lighter.”

Medical examiner officials reported that Iravani was cleared of any serious drugs, but they found chemicals in his body that suggested he had smoked cigarettes.

The medical examiner reported the fire burned over half of Iravani's body.

Charles Hernandez, spokesman for the Flagstaff Police Department, said that this type of case is rare for Flagstaff whether it is a homicide, suicide or assault.

“During the course of our investigation and in speaking with several investigative leads and potential witnesses, our criminal investigations unit did not find any information that contradicted the medical examiner’s finding,” Hernandez said.

A black hoodie

A Dollar Store clerk and a police officer driving by the area both were reported as seeing a large man wearing a black hoodie in the area where Iravani’s body would be later found.

As part of their investigation, police officers reported attempting to find this man and contacted people who live in the neighborhood near where Iravani was found. No one in the neighborhoods reported anything suspicious. Additionally, officers reported making contact with multiple men in the area that matched the unknown subject’s description.

After investigating the scene and committing multiple interviews, an officer was able to view camera footage from several businesses, including the CVS in the area. An officer made the observation that several witness timetables matched up and indicated that the person seen by witnesses at the crime was likely Iravani before his death.

Iravani stood at 6'2", and medical examiner officials detailed that Iravani was wearing a black hoodie at the time of his death.

Hernandez reported that while they originally had difficulty contacting Iravani's next of kin, they were eventually contacted.


Court case centers on Native American kids in foster care

A federal law that gives preference to Native American families in foster care and adoption proceedings involving Native American children is facing the most significant legal challenge since it was enacted more than 40 years ago.

A federal judge in Texas ruled the Indian Child Welfare Act is unconstitutional, saying it is racially motivated and violates the equal protection clause.

More than 20 states have joined hundreds of tribes, advocacy groups and the federal agency overseeing Indian affairs in urging an appellate judge to uphold the law. They say tribes are a political classification, not a racial one, and overturning the Indian Child Welfare Act would lead to untold damage in tribal communities.

"The fear is without the statute, Indian children will once again sort of disappear into the child welfare system and be lost to their families and their tribes," said Adam Charnes, who will present arguments on behalf of five intervening tribes before a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

The law has led to some emotional, high-profile cases, including one in 2016 in which a court ordered that a young Choctaw girl named Lexi be removed from a California foster family and placed with her father's extended family in Utah. Images of the girl being carried away from her foster home drew widespread attention.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law didn't apply in a South Carolina case involving a young girl named Veronica because her Cherokee father was absent from part of her life.

Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 because a high number of Native American children were being removed from their homes by public and private agencies. In adoptions of such children, the law requires states to notify tribes and seek placement with the child's extended family, members of the child's tribe or other Native American families. Tribes also have a say in foster care placements.

The law allows states to deviate from placement preferences when there is "good cause." The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to clarify the term in 2016 by saying state courts shouldn't consider socio-economic status, or ordinary bonding or attachment to host families, among other things.

The latest case centers on Chad and Jennifer Brackeen, a Texas couple who fostered a baby eligible for membership in both the Navajo and Cherokee tribes. The boy's parents voluntarily terminated their parental rights, and the Brackeens petitioned to adopt him.

The state denied their request after the Navajo Nation identified a potential home with a Navajo family in New Mexico. The Brackeens got an emergency stay and went to court.

They were able to adopt the boy in January 2018 after the placement fell through. The boy is now 3, and the couple is seeking to adopt his younger half-sister.

Attorneys general in Texas, Indiana and Louisiana joined in suing the federal government over the Indian Child Welfare Act in 2017. The states say the law is discriminatory, and the federal government has no right to tell states how to regulate child welfare cases.

"It coerces state agencies and courts to carry out unconstitutional and illegal federal policy, and it makes child custody decisions based on racial preferences," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has said.

Matthew McGill represents the Brackeens, two other couples from Nevada and Minnesota, and a birth mother in the case. He said the Indian Child Welfare Act may have been well-intentioned, but it illegally segregates Native American children by race and has upended his clients' lives.

"Fundamentally, the issue here is that the Indian Child Welfare Act subordinates individualized considerations of a child's best interest in favor of a blunt assumption that being placed with a tribe is going to be better for the tribe, and that's just demonstrably untrue," he said. "It's not going to be true in every case."

The Minnesota couple, the Cliffords, wanted to adopt a girl who lived with them after being in various foster homes for two years. The child ultimately was placed with her maternal grandmother, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. The tribe at first said she wasn't eligible for membership but later reversed course.

The Librettis in Nevada arranged with a pregnant woman, Altagracia Hernandez, to adopt her unborn child. Hernandez isn't Native American, but the biological father is from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in El Paso, Texas. The tribe intervened and has identified three dozen possible placements. Hernandez is a plaintiff in the case.

Tribes and tribal advocates say Native American children are still separated from their families at rates higher than the general population, and the law helps them stay connected to their tribes, relatives and culture.

The Indian Child Welfare Act defines Indian children as enrollees or potential enrollees who have a biological parent who is a member of any of the country's 573 federally recognized tribes. About a dozen states have similar laws, some of which expand the definition, said Sarah Kastelic, director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association.

When the federal law was enacted, studies showed up to one-third of Native American children were being taken from their homes by private and state agencies, including church-run programs, and placed with mostly white families or in boarding schools. Testimony in Congress showed that was due to ignorance of tribes' values and social norms. Kastelic also said there was a misconception that Native American families were unfit or too poor to care for their children.

"It was important to halt that removal, to correct state behavior, to put in minimum standards," she said.

Many Native American families have stories about loved ones who disappeared and never returned.

Allie Greenleaf Maldonado said her grandmother and uncles were placed in boarding schools, forced to cut their hair and beaten if they practiced their religion. When the grandmother died, Maldonado's mother was sent to live in Indiana with a Mennonite family who put bleach on her skin to lighten it, told her to say she was Armenian and kept her from communicating with her family, she said.

"They were ashamed she was Native American, and they made her ashamed she was Native American," Maldonado said. "To this day, she's never come back to the reservation. She says she's an apple, red on the outside, white on the inside."

Maldonado and her husband have an adopted son from a neighboring tribe. She said unlike her, 11-year-old Riley is growing up on the reservation and learning about traditional medicine and a culture that includes hunting and fishing.

"Only because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, (and) people following it, he has a community," she said.