Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Melissa Steffan's Profile

Email: steffm (at) spu (dot) edu
Melissa Steffan is a senior at Seattle Pacific University where she is studying journalism and political science. She is a member of University Scholars, SPU’s honors program, and she recently began work on her senior honors project, which seeks to determine whether or not the legal precedent set by the Pentagon Papers case, New York Times v. United States, is applicable to the Wikileaks War Logs releases in 2010. She will graduate in June 2012.

Melissa worked for three years at SPU’s student newspaper, The Falcon, most recently as editor-in-chief. During her time at The Falcon, she reported on campus issues including student senate meetings, the death of a student, and issues surrounding SPU’s GLBTQ group, Haven. She recently received two Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence awards for general column writing (first place) and general news writing (second place).

Directly following her summer 2011 internship for Public Data Ferret, Melissa worked as a reporting intern for The Washington Post.

Melissa Steffan's Recent Posts

New report: urban traffic pollutants can lower birth weight

August 16th, 2011

According to a new study from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences polluted air from diesel and gasoline combustion and paved road dust increases the likelihood of low birth weight among infants by as much as five percent for every 25 percent increase in carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and can contribute to other fetal development problems. A research team from University of California Los Angeles, University of California Berkeley, and University of Southern California determined that low birth weight was more prevalent among pregnant mothers exposed to the higher levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other traffic pollutants found in urban environments. The study, titled “Traffic-Related Air Toxics and Term Low Birth Weight in Los Angeles County, California,” was also supported by the California Air Resources Board, and published last week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Read the rest of this entry »

Shoreline native leads nonprofit transforming drug-wracked Guineau-Bissau, one student at a time

August 12th, 2011

Editor’s note: Public Data Ferret’s “mother blog” site Social Capital Review periodically profiles noteworthy nonprofits or community initiatives with ties to our base coverage area of Western Washington.

One Seattle-based nonprofit with a big heart and a Christian mission is making a difference in one of Africa’s smallest countries.

Headed by Shoreline native and former Fresno Bee reporter Chris Collins, West African Vocational Schools reaches out to young people in Guinea Bissau, a poor country rife with political violence and drug cartels.

WAVS student in auto repair class/WAVS

WAVS is founded on the belief that outside aid alone will not overcome the widespread poverty and instability; instead, the organization believes that educated leaders must transform Guinea-Bissau from within, Collins said in a phone interview.

“WAVS … is really encouraging ethical practices, people who are dedicated to investing in their country,” he said. “The people who are graduating are instilled with skills to be successful, but also ideals to make them strong leaders in the country.”

WAVS runs a school in Canchungo, a city that serves as a regional hub for many other villages, where over 100 students learn important employability skills such as sewing, computer basics, English and auto mechanics. Read the rest of this entry »

“Donut Hole” sale could bring more growth to Maple Valley

August 5th, 2011

The “Donut Hole” is up for sale. And if King County sells it, the City of Maple Valley could become 156.5 acres larger by the end of the year and gain housing and jobs.

It is a somewhat tricky proposition, though. If King County can successfully relocate the regional roads maintenance facility on a land parcel it owns called “the Donut Hole” at 228th Avenue S.E. and S.E. 272nd Street, then new development there could bring more housing, jobs, or both to the City of Maple Valley. Energized by the county’s recent call for qualified developers of the 156.5-acre spread, the city council will hold a public hearing for pre-annexation zoning at its August 22 meeting. The city could annex the property whether or not it is redeveloped, but it must allow the county to keep the roads facility there if a planned new location at the site of the current Cascade Shooting Facilities in Ravensdale does not garner required environmental permits.

Complicating the situation is whether or not developers can step forward, with feasible, well-financed proposals for the Donut Hole. If the King County cannot sell the property, it may have less reason to bear the expense of vacating the land and relocating the roads facility. Read the rest of this entry »

National Academies: green buildings can harm health, productivity, costing billions

July 26th, 2011

SUMMARY: According to a recent report prepared for the United States Environmental Protection Agency under the supervision of the Institutes of Medicine of the National Academies, the use of new, energy-efficient building materials or construction methods in new or retrofitted buildings, in response to climate change concerns, may not only save energy but can also restrict ventilation, heighten allergenic symptoms, promote the growth of fungi and bacteria, and increase the risk of infectious diseases – contributing to indoor health symptoms and lowering productivity while costing the economy tens of billions of dollars per year. The report recommends the EPA develop and implement new, indoor health-related standards for building materials and ventilation, in order to elevate the indoor environment as a priority in climate change policy. Read the rest of this entry »

UW study urges stronger response to student Net addiction

July 21st, 2011

SUMMARY: A new study by University of Washington researchers of students at UW and the University of Wisconsin finds that Internet addiction among college students may be as common as asthma among children. The study found that 4 in every 100 college students may have an Internet addiction, resulting in sleep loss, poor grades, and decreased home involvement. Moreover, the study found that students with depression were about 24 times more likely than their peers to exhibit problematic Internet usage. This makes Internet addiction a cause for alarm that could require intervention and treatment in some cases. As a result, the authors recommend that pediatricians begin to assess children for signs of Internet addiction more frequently and beginning at a younger age. Read the rest of this entry »

CDC: Haitian cholera epidemic imported by Nepalese soldiers

July 20th, 2011

SUMMARY: According to a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report, the cholera outbreak in Haiti in October 2010 was caused by contaminated river water downstream from a United Nations military camp for Nepalese soldiers. The study was conducted by  researchers in France and Haiti, and found that Nepalese soldiers in a United Nations camp near the Artibonite River likely imported the cholera accidentally. According to the researchers’ conclusions, determining the origins of the cholera outbreak reduces suspicion that the strains were deliberately imported. Read the rest of this entry »

EEOC Seattle office charges Fred Meyer with overlooking sex harassment

July 14th, 2011

SUMMARY: The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Seattle Field Office has charged Fred Meyer Stores, Inc., with failing to address blatant sexual harassment of female employees by a customer at one of its stores in a Portland suburb who over a two-month period in 2009 grabbed the breasts of three female employees; touched the buttocks and tried to pull onto his lap another worker; and groped the knee and rubbed against the body of a third. According to the EEOC’s July 12 complaint, Fred Meyer “subjected … female employees to a sexually hostile work environment” at the Oak Grove store in Milwaukie, Ore., in 2009. Failure to correct instances of sexual harassment on the basis of gender in the workplace constitutes unlawful employment practices, violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title I of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. The case will be heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon and will seek monetary reparations for damages to the employees. Company spokesperson Melinda Merrill said Fred Meyer stores is examining the complaint and will soon file a response with the EEOC. Read the rest of this entry »

U.S. Ninth Circuit: Kent teacher not responsible for student’s sexual misconduct

July 13th, 2011

SUMMARY: The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has found a Kent School District teacher to be not responsible for one developmentally disabled student’s sexual misconduct during the school day. Madhuri Patel, the mother of a developmentally disabled high school student, identified as A.H., alleged that Francine Wilhelm, a Kentridge High School special education teacher, failed to adequately supervise A.H. during trips to the bathroom, where she had multiple sexual encounters. Patel alleged that Wilhelm deprived A.H. of her right to bodily integrity, a federally protected due process right under the Fourteenth Amendment. However, the Court ruled against Patel, stating, “The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause generally does not require government actors to protect individuals from third parties.” The case could still proceed based on negligence claims, in the state’s court system.

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  • According to the Court’s ruling, A.H. is a former Kentridge High School student who is classified as “mildly mentally retarded” and has difficulty determining how to behave in social situations. After a 2006 investigation revealed A.H. was being coerced by three of her peers, the school placed A.H. on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which included enrollment in a self-contained classroom led by Francine Wilhelm. The IEP included a “no contact” order between A.H. and other students, as well as complete adult supervision of A.H. throughout the school day, especially during passing periods, lunch, and bathroom times. In 2007, Wilhelm began to allow A.H. to go to the bathroom unsupervised.
  • According to the court document, Wilhelm said she believed she was allowing A.H. to grow toward independence. Patel filed suit against Wilhelm and the school district in 2007 when Wilhelm interfered with a potential sexual encounter between A.H. and Matt, and both students admitted to having sex in the bathroom at least five times. Patel pressed not only state and tort law claims, but also a federal civil rights claim. A district court dismissed Patel’s federal claim, finding that Wilhelm had not deprived A.H. of her federal rights. Patel appealed the ruling, and her federal claim forms the basis of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision.

KEY LINK: Madhuri Patel v. Kent School District, United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, July 11, 2011


  • The United States Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit ruled that Francine Wilhelm, a special education teacher at Kentridge High School, did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment due process rights of A.H., a minor and “mildly mentally retarded” student enrolled in Wilhelm’s classes during 2006 and 2007.
  • In the federal case, Madhuri Patel, A.H.’s mother, alleged that Wilhelm failed to uphold A.H.’s Constitutional due process rights to bodily integrity. According to the ruling, the sole issue at hand for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was to determine whether Wilhelm had deprived the student of these federally protected Fourteenth Amendment rights.
  • The Court of Appeals affirmed the district judge’s ruling, stating that Patel’s federal claim “fails as a matter of law,” because it failed to “show that (1) the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and (2) the conduct deprived the plaintiff of a federal constitutional or statutory right.”
  • As legal precedent for its decision, the Court of Appeals cited Cf. DeShaney v. Winnebago Cnty. Dep’t of Social Services. However, Patel argued that her case could be distinguished from DeShaney on the basis of the school’s “custody” of A.H. during the day. The Court found no such evidence for custody and declined to distinguish the two cases.
  • The DeShaney ruling found that the state is not responsible to protect individuals from third-party actors. Two exceptions to this rule, the “special relationship” exception or the “state-created danger” exception, do not apply to the facts of Patel’s case, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled.
  • The Court found that Wilhelm did not knowingly place A.H. in immediate danger. As a result, Patel’s claim against the teacher failed to bear the burden of proof against her. “At worst, Wilhelm committed a lapse in judgment by allowing A.H. to quickly use the next-door bathroom on her own. Whether these circumstances rose to the level of negligence is a question that will be resolved by a jury in Washington state court,” the Court stated.
  • Although her federal civil rights case has failed, some of Madhuri Patel’s claims against KSD and Wilhelm may still be viable under state law.

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