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Six animals lost in fire at Plumpton Park Zoo

RISING SUN — Six animals perished when smoke filled the Bird and Reptile House at Plumpton Park Zoo Saturday morning.

“We lost four birds and two snakes,” said Nick Lacovara, owner of the zoo on Telegraph Road in Rising Sun. One of the birds was Jewel, the macaw that made public appearances on behalf of the zoo at events including SunFest. The pair of hyacinth macaws and the African grey parrot were also victims of the fire and smoke.

A snake in the collection was found later under the rubble.

According to the Office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal, the fire was deemed accidental, as the result of what investigators called an “unspecified event within the reptile building.”

The loss of the structure was estimated at $150,000.

Matt Blakely, in charge at the fire scene for the Community Fire Company of Rising Sun, said his crew arrived to find the building engulfed in smoke.”There was smoke flowing from the eaves and down to the floor,” Blakely said.

Zoo staff told Blakely they found fire just inside the door and used fire extinguishers to knock it down.

Firefighters removed reptiles from the enclosures inside the building and brought them to the waiting hands of staff and volunteers. Each was whisked away to be assessed.

“The building is gutted,” Lacovara said. “Smoke damage is extensive.”

Veterinarians were called to the zoo to check on the affected animals.

Plumpton Park Zoo is closed Saturday. Those who had tickets will be rescheduled or refunded.

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Remembering Rep. John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian

ELKTON — Again — and definitely to return — Cecil Solidarity lined public sidewalks over the weekend expressing its constitutional right to assemble in a display of unity after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement.

The North East protest took place two days after the death of civil rights icons Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Rev. C.T. Vivian, both on July 17. Lewis and Vivian were instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement, defending voter rights, and the overall fight for equality in the United States.

Now, nearly 60 years later, that fight continues.

Cecil Solidarity organizer Christine Givens reminded the protestors on Sunday of the importance of the work done by Lewis and Vivian.

Remembering Vivian, Lewis

Some will notice that the Cecil County government lowered its flag at the county administration building for Congressman Lewis. 

Rev. Vivian was one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s close advisor and a “field general in his movement for civil rights and justice,” Givens told protestors. He was instrumental in directing protests, facilitating trainings on non-violence as was dedicated to coordinating voter registration and community projects in segregated cities.

Vivian was arrested often, beaten and almost killed (as was Lewis), “but his work never stopped,” Givens said. He would go on to establish the Black Action Strategies and Information Center and the National Anti-Klan Network. Vivian is the 2013 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Rep. Lewis, Givens said switching gears, stayed on the frontlines of progressive movements throughout his life. Lewis was the keynote speaker at the March on Washington in August 1963, and helped lead more than 600 peaceful, orderly protestors across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in March 1965.

“They intended to march from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate the need for voting rights in the state, but were attacked by Alabama State Troopers in a brutal confrontation that became known as Bloody Sunday,” Given said at the Sunday protest in North East, “news broadcasts and photographs revealed the senseless cruelty of the segregated South and helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Lewis is “often referred to as one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced,” she said. “He dedicated his life to protecting human rights, securing civil liberties, and building what he called the beloved community in America.

“Sound familiar?”

Sowing the seeds

Lewis was a devoted advocate of the philosophy for non-violence and civil disobedience “as the means to bring about real change in our country,” Givens said. He was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

“We are civil disobedience.”

Givens reminded Cecil Solidarity that the movement for change comes in stages — and at this moment in time that’s where “we are right now.”

Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey the demands of a government occupying power without violence or active methods of opposition, Givens explained.

“Its usual purpose is to force concessions from the government or occupying power — you know, the good trouble, the necessary trouble,” Given said, “good trouble” being a favorite phrase of Lewis.

“… [Lewis] understood that these tactics had the power to not only change laws, but to change the hearts and minds as well.

“He understood that the things that he and his other brothers and sisters were doing day-in and day-out for years, had the power to not only change the laws, but also to change the hearts and minds as well.

“When we think about Cecil County, that is exactly what we’re out to do.”

Setting discourse

Now is the time to “get in the way” of discrimination — and if that’s radical then, Givens said, lean into it.

To those that are nervous about joining the movement — or at least standing behind it — Givens said don’t be. The goal is not to ruin lives, but to stand for what is right.

“When you take a public platform and you spew hate, you deserve whatever is coming to you,” Givens said, “because for every action, there are consequences, especially when you’re not doing the right thing.”

A Harford County man, who identifies himself by his stage name Kid Casper, also took to the microphone on Saturday — a familiar face among the speakers of Cecil Solidarity.

His opening remarks reminded the group of where they stand in the community — and that’s with influence.

“Are you a thermometer or are you a thermostat?” he asked.

“Are we going to record the temperature? Are we gonna set it out here?”

He encouraged his fellow protestors to move with love. Move forward with small acts that change somebody’s perspective — even if for just a day. As that could grow from a day, to a week, to month to year.

“We can change lives out here, y’all. It doesn’t matter how many years of bad that this town has had,” he said.

Social media backlash meets on Main Street

However, the group, which has working toward accountability in Cecil County law enforcement, has received some scrutiny for its public demonstrations. Social media critics have taken to their keyboards to warn residents of the “hate group”.

Over the weekend, residents took to Facebook as Cecil Solidarity lined itself on the Main Street bridge at the beginning of North East’s downtown. Posts show that residents opposed to the protests were “locked and loaded” and encouraging others to “run them over.”

Where children were taking a break, one driver swerved his vehicles in-and-out of the white lines in a threatening manner, one protester recalled. Shortly after, around 1 p.m., a large pickup truck sped through the tight one-way road.

The Main Street in North East is just large enough for one car on the bridge, as it gradually widens to allow parking near the restaurants.

Though this was not the first negative response Cecil Solidarity has received in its two months of protesting, it is be one of the more aggressive reactions the group has felt, according to group members.

Eight weeks in

Cecil County is not isolated from the continued work of social justice sweeping the country.

Since the death of George Floyd nearly two months ago, each week the grassroots organization Cecil Solidarity has held a peaceful protest in one of the county’s municipalities.

These protests all start out the same: Cecil Solidarity members meet in a public location, with opening inspirational remarks before they walk to popular roads in the county towing signs and chanting slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cecil Solidarity has thus far addressed county law enforcement through conversation and round-table discussions. But, still, some feel that the movement is meant to polarize the community.

The Cecil Whig has been to all but three protests organized by Cecil Solidarity. Each protest begins with motivational speakers — several of which Brown led, alongside middle school student Keiana Giersch, Elkton resident Tyra Hill and Rising Sun teacher Erinn Chioma and several others.

Each takes the microphone connected to a speaker and shares their experiences with racial discrimination — either through narrative or spoken word. These stories motivate the group — now reaching almost 2,000 members — through videos and on the streets.

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CCPS receives notice from group of fellow educators

Cecil County — The work of administrators and teachers with Cecil County Public Schools to improve the literacy rates for students in the county recently earned the attention of a group of fellow educators throughout the country who wanted to learn the secret of the district’s success.

Prior to the end of the 2019-2020 school year, CCPS was contacted by the group Curriculum Matters, which is a group of educators from around the U.S. that are focused on building a professional learning network around the use of excellent curriculum, according to the group’s website.

CCPS Instructional Coordinator for Elementary Language Arts Dr. Cathy Nacrelli said that she and CCPS Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Lawson were contacted by Curriculum Matters because the group heard of the success the district was having using an open education resource, which is a resource that is freely accessible. Normally schools and districts use one of the larger publisher based resources such as Mcgraw Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and others.

Nacrelli said the program is known as Bookworms K-5 Reading and Writing and can be found on the website

The Bookworms program was originally authored by Dr. Sharon Walpole of the University of Delaware and the late Dr. Michael C. McKenna of the University of Virginia. According to Nacrelli, the program is based upon solid research fundamentals and consists of very specific routines that teachers and students follow.

According to Nacrelli, the Bookworms curriculum is made up of three different blocks of time that account for 45 minutes each or 135 minutes of instructional time for young students grades K-5. Unlike other programs that focus on having young readers engage with texts that may be below their grade level but equal to their overall literacy level, the Bookworms program challenges students by having them read texts that are at a students grade level, thereby challenging them with texts they might not have read under earlier systems.

“This program was very different from things we have done in the past,” Nacrelli said, noting that when the district originally implemented the program in 2016, there was some risk involved in using a new curriculum based on a different methodology than was previously being used.

“It is a solid routine based upon very good research,” Nacrelli said. “In doing the research they looked at what really works. The idea is to stick to solid, simple routines that are most effective.”

CCPS Associate Superintendent for Education Services Dr. Carolyn Teigland said Nacrelli showed great leadership in implementing the program. Teigland noted that the new program is working for students because they are being challenged by reading more complex texts. She noted most importantly that the proof of the program’s success is in the numbers.

Since 2016, the district has seen an overall improvement in reading proficiency of 11.4 percentage points from where the rate stood in 2016. In fact, from 2016-2017 Cecil County noted the highest improvement in reading proficiency rates for any county in the state. In 2016, students in grades 3-5 were only reading at a 30.8 percent proficiency rate, based upon the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments. By 2018 that rate had increased to 40.7 percent under that year’s PARCC assessment, while the numbers further increased to 42.2 percent in 2019 under the Maryland Comprehensive Assessment Program.

Nacrelli said the district knew it was on to something when it received the first testing data in the winter of 2016-2017 showing significant improvement in reading proficiency.

Nacrelli said that while proficiency levels in the 42 percent range are not where the district ultimately wants to be, the improvement rates as a result of the Bookworms program as been significant and trending strongly upwards.

In addition, Nacrelli said the numbers have shown an increase in every student subgroup, meaning that the improved results are not the result of simply one group of students showing a marked improvement, but an improvement that is shared by all students across various distinguishing lines.

Test scores for 2020 were not available due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing significant disruption to the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Nacrelli said the district though was still using the routines established by the program as part of the district’s virtual learning set-up following closures due to the virus. She said that teachers could still work through many of the routines with students in a virtual synchronous environment to continue helping to develop student’s reading proficiencies.

Dr. Jennifer Hammer, who serves as CCPS’ executive director for elementary education said that as an administrator working directly in schools over the last 15 years she had really been able to see an impact as a result of the program. Hammer noted that students were showing a high interest in reading books that were a part of the program. She also noted that the books are challenging for students and consists of books that are very diverse and represent a number of different cultures and perspectives.

Tiegland also mentioned the broader range of books available under the program and noted that the books students read do not consist simply of works of fiction, but also include a broad range of non-fiction topics that appeal to a broader range of students.

Elizabeth Felts, owner of Heart Felt Gifts in Rising Sun, works on one of her window repurposing pieces. The boutique is open Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 114 South Queen Street.


FILE — In this Feb. 13, 2020 file photo, President Donald Trump’s nominee to the Federal Reserve, Judy Shelton, appears before the Senate Banking Committee for a confirmation hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington. In a shift, the Senate Banking Committee is likely to back President Donald Trump’s unconventional nomination of Shelton for the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors in a party-line vote Tuesday, July 21. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

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Man gets five years in Elkton-area attempted rape

ELKTON — A man who tried to rape his next-door neighbor last summer inside her Cecil County home — as she was getting lemonade after inviting him onto her screened-in porch — received a five-year prison term Tuesday as part of a sentence in which he also must register as a convicted sex offender for the rest of his life.

Cecil County Circuit Court Administrative Judge Keith A. Baynes imposed a 12-year sentence on the defendant, Donald Lee Todd, 43, for attempted second-degree rape and then suspended seven years of it. Baynes also imposed a concurrent six-month sentence on Todd for a related second-degree assault conviction.

Todd had pleaded guilty to those two offense in February, as part of plea deal in which prosecutors later dropped 10 related charges against Todd, including first-degree rape, false imprisonment and home invasion.

He will serve his five-year term in a Maryland Department of Corrections prison. The judge gave Todd credit for 362 days that he had served in the Cecil County Detention Center without bond since his arrest, which occurred shortly after the July 2019 the incident.

Baynes ordered Todd to register as a convicted sex offender for the rest of his life, allowing law enforcement officers to routinely monitor him in person and citizens to keep tabs on his current address through the online sex offender registry.

In addition, the judge ordered Todd to serve five years of supervised probation after completing his five-year term. Baynes listed mental health counseling and alcohol and drug treatment as some of Todd’s probation conditions.

Moments before Baynes imposed the sentence and outlined the supervised probation conditions, the defense had maintained that Todd’s excessive intoxication on the night of the incident impaired his judgment and drove his criminal actions.

“Had it not been for that (severe intoxication), he would not be before this court,” Todd’s defense lawyer, William C. Brennan, who practices with a Greenbelt-based law firm, told Baynes.

Brennan also proffered that, because of his client’s intoxication, which purportedly had been exacerbated by mixing alcohol with his prescription medication, Todd misconstrued the intent of the victim’s invitation to him to sit with her on her screened-in porch.

Leading up to the attempted rape

During Tuesday’s sentence hearing, after Brennan had called him as a defense witness, Robert Petrella, 82, provided background relating to the events leading up to the victim inviting Todd to her adjacent home shortly before midnight on July 25, 2019.

Petrella explained that, at the time of the incident, Todd had been living with him for about three years at his residence, where he had his own bedroom, and that Todd had successfully battled his alcoholism — save for two setbacks — during that time.

Within that time span, according to Petrella, he had seen Todd drunk only twice — the first time, early on, when the alcohol made Todd “giddy,” and the second time, on July 25, 2019, when Todd’s inebriation made him withdrawn and ill-looking.

Worried about Todd’s condition that night, Petrella called 911, prompting an ambulance crew and Cecil County Sheriff’s Office deputies to respond to their residence with emergency lights flashing on their vehicles, he said. Much to Petrella’s chagrin, paramedics concluded that “the solution” was for Todd to “go to bed,” sleep it off, in other words, after examining him, he added.

Todd agreed to go to bed, but he wanted to smoke a cigarette in the driveway outside the residence first, according to Petrella.

The next-door neighbor saw Todd outside and invited him over to her attached, screened-in porch — because she wanted to talk to him about the reason law enforcement officers and paramedics had been at his home earlier that night, Petrella reported, relaying what he had learned after the fact.

Within moments after Todd walked over to that porch, the 56-year-old woman went into her residence to get them some lemonade, and Todd quickly followed her inside the dwelling, according to charging documents.

The attempted rape

Todd grabbed the woman from behind, forced her onto a couch, pulled down her pants and underwear, took off his pants and underwear and attempted to rape her, police said. All the while, police added, the woman tried to push Todd away and yelled numerous times for him to stop.

The woman’s 56-year-old housemate returned home during the attack, according to court records.

At first, after seeing Todd and the woman together on the couch, the housemate walked onto the porch to give them privacy, court records show.

Several seconds later, however, the housemate heard the victim yelling for Todd to stop, and she went back into the house to help the victim, according to court records.

Both women yelled at Todd, now standing, to leave the residence, but he would not do so at first, police said. Todd eventually left the house, but he immediately turned around and tried to reenter the residence to retrieve his cell phone and cigarettes, police added.

The women tried to push Todd away, as he attempted to force his way back into the residence, according to court records. At one point, Todd grabbed the attempted-rape victim’s housemate by the arm and punched her in the face, as she was trying to push him out the doorway, court records show.

Todd’s housemate, Petrella, heard the commotion, prompting him to come to his next-door neighbor’s porch, pull Todd away and lead him back to their adjacent residence, according to court records.

The lead investigator, CCSO Sr. Deputy Jeffrey Wathne, took evidence photos of abrasions and other marks on the attempted-rape victim’s arms, in addition to her housemate’s face, where Todd had punched her, police said.

Wathne also photographed the couch and the clothing that Todd had forcibly removed from the victim, police added.

In addition, Wathne interviewed both women and Todd’s housemate, all of whom gave similar accounts concerning the portions of the incident that they witnessed, police reported. Todd’s housemate told investigators that he could hear the women screaming at Todd to get out of their house, as he was heading next door to escort Todd home, according to police.

Investigators arrested Todd at his residence shortly after the incident, court records show.

Some three and a half hours after the incident, Todd maintained during a police interview that he and his next-door neighbor had consensual sex after she had invited him over to her home, according to court records, which also indicate that Todd denied punching the woman’s housemate in the face.

Recommended sentences

Maintaining that his client’s severe intoxication on the night of the incident should be considered a mitigating factor, Brennan asked the judge to give Todd a one-year jail term.

Brennan explained that his requested sentence would fall at the bottom of state sentencing guidelines, which called for a penalty of one to six years of active incarceration for Todd. State sentencing guidelines are based on a defendant’s criminal record and other factors.

Deputy State’s Attorney Patricia Fitzgerald, however, sought a penalty at the top of those guidelines — specifically recommending that the judge impose a 20-year sentence on Todd for his attempted second-degree rape conviction and then suspend 14 years of it, leaving Todd with a six-year term. Fitzgerald also asked for a concurrent six-month sentence for Todd’s second-degree assault conviction relating to the attempted-rape victim’s housemate.

Fitzgerald reported that Todd has a “domestic violence conviction” on his criminal record, which is relatively short.

The prosecutor rejected Brennan’s assertion that Todd’s intoxication propelled him in the attempted rape of his next-door neighbor, commenting to the judge, “Alcohol is not a defense.”

Fitzgerald also refuted Brennan’s contention that Todd’s high level of inebriation caused Todd to misread the reason that his next-door neighbor had invited him over to her place.

“It sickens me that it was even brought up,” Fitzgerald told Baynes, before emphasizing, “She (the victim) has a right to feel safe in her home.”

The attempted-rape victim was not present in the courtroom during Todd’s sentencing, although she had expressed her intention to attend the proceeding during a phone conversation with Fitzgerald on Friday. The prosecutor suggested that the victim changed her mind because, given the psychological damage caused by the attack, she never wants to see Todd again.

Todd apologizes

Clad in a black-and-white striped CCDC inmate uniform, Todd expressed contrition while addressing the judge moments before sentencing.

“I apologize for any trauma I caused her and her family. I sincerely apologize and ask for their forgiveness,” Todd said.

Then Todd blamed his intoxication for the rape that he attempted to commit on his next-door neighbor shortly before midnight on July 25, 2019 and acknowledged that he needs help dealing with his alcoholism.

“What transpired that night wouldn’t have happened if I had not been drinking,” Todd told the judge.