When Paula Penson got the call from Shorter University administrators Thursday morning that she had been terminated from her post as director of campus safety, she was in the midst of a vacation.
"I knew it was coming," said Penson, who had worked in this position for eight years. "I just didn't know when. The way they fire people, it doesn't have to be a certain time or day, they just do it."
Her termination fell around four months after she came forward alleging sexual and work harassment against her by former Vice President of Student Affairs Corey Humphries, who resigned Nov. 8. The allegations concerned inappropriate touching by Humphries, a direct supervisor of Penson's, and nit-picking of her job performance and work ethics.
According to documents provided to the Rome News-Tribune, an investigation, which concluded Nov. 29, by conflict investigator David Archer, who was appointed by the law firm representing Shorter, found Humphries actions didn't "rise to the level of sexual harassment under the law." However, the investigation did find Humphries "violated Shorter's policy against inappropriate touching."
University spokeswoman Dawn Tolbert said Thursday morning, "I can confirm that Ms. Penson is no longer employed at Shorter University. Out of consideration for the person's privacy, it is the university's policy to not provide comment on personnel matters."
During the call, Penson said she had to press Lance Moore — who was assigned to a supervisory role over campus safety in the wake of Penson's allegations — and Susan Zeird, the vice president of finance, to tell her the reasons for her firing.
She did not pick up the termination papers from the school Thursday, but said she was told she violated university policy by speaking with the Rome News-Tribune in November.
Penson said additional reasons given were related to Moore writing her up twice for insubordination for not communicating with her staff the way he wanted her to, along with violating a Department of Labor policy by not giving termination notices to three coaches, who had worked part-time for her but were hired for athletics.
Initially, Penson said she was mad upon hearing the news, but she then felt relieved, closing a difficult chapter in her life that left her "degraded." Since her allegations, she has been excluded from university activities and directors' meetings, she continued, along with having her office moved from the welcome center to an "itty bitty" office without windows in the Fitton Student Union.
Three days before Shorter's Christmas vacation, starting Dec. 20, Penson was put on leave, after her attorneys had been in contact with the university's counsel and a decision was made to separate her from the situation, she said.
"I just can't keep going into this every day," she recalled thinking. She came back to work after the break ended in January.
Along with the termination, Penson — who is a Shorter alumna — was issued a criminal trespass warning prohibiting her from coming onto school property.
Wildlife researchers trapped a golden eagle on a ridgeline north of Rome on Thursday morning and fitted it with a transmitter to track its migratory pattern. This marks the second year in a row that the biologists have successfully netted a golden eagle between Rome and Dalton.
Tricia Miller, Conservation Science Global chairwoman in Cape May, New Jersey, led the group that waited patiently on the ridge top for three days before successfully netting the bird. Deer carcasses from road kill were placed in an opening in the ridgeline as bait, and a game camera caught the bird coming in for a free meal before the research team came down to set up on the bait station.
Miller said the bird netted Thursday was an adult male and estimated that it was at least 6 years old.
"It's probably older than that by the looks of it," Miller said.
This marks the fourth year researchers affiliated with the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group have set up on the ridge north of Rome. Last year, the team put a transmitter on what U.S. Forest Service biologist Ruth Stokes believed to be a second-year eagle that weighed about 10 pounds.
The transmitter continually releases data as long as it is within reach of a cell tower.
The signal was lost May 6, 2017, near Yellowknife in the Northwest Territory of Canada and has not been recorded yet this year.
Miller said she fears that bird may have been lost over the winter months.
"The fact that he didn't return indicates that he might not have made it," Miller said. "Typically there is increased mortality rate for young birds. You really have a high mortality rate for first-year birds, it drops a little bit for second-year birds and the survival rates get better as they age."
In addition to the birds' migratory patterns, the study is also seeking to develop information related to habitat the birds frequent.
" We 're looking at threats, not just during migration," Miller said. "The transmitter was bought by Georgia DNR and we want to know where they come from, and what they're doing when they're in Georgia."
One of the original concerns for the eastern Golden eagles was the growing use of wind turbines along Appalachian ridges to produce energy. There has been a lot of problems with eagles being killed by the turbines out west.
Golden eagles are more abundant in the western United States. They are similar in size to the bald eagle, but unlike the bald eagle, goldens rarely nest in public areas and are much more reclusive
The team was excited last year because the bird took a much more westerly migratory path up and down the spine of the Appalachian mountain range than many of the other birds that haven't been fitted with transmitters.
Most of those birds have headed into Quebec and eastern Canada.
Work crews have the go-ahead to start on a series of road preservation projects over Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in Rome.
Motorists know the sites as the bridge on Turner McCall Boulevard near Kroger and the bridge on U.S. 411 South between Darlington Drive and Primrose Road.
"The work includes painting of the steel superstructure and replacement of the bridge joists," said Mohamed Arafa, district spokesman for the Georgia Department of Transportation.
The GDOT awarded a $430,809 contract to Southeast Bridge Corp. of Tarpon Springs, Florida, for what's technically described as rehabilitation of three bridges at various locations on Ga. 1. Area Engineer Rickey Boatner said the U.S. 411 site has a median that divides it into two structures.
The work is not expected to disrupt traffic.
"Traffic probably won't even see those guys," Boatner said. "They'll mostly work under the bridge, except when they move to the deck. There may be some lane closures then."
The company has through the end of July to complete the work on all three structures.
Arafa said GDOT would notify drivers of any scheduled lane closings in advance.
Read this story online for a link to see other projects scheduled in Floyd County by the Georgia DOT.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Hufstetler adds greater protections against surprise out-of-network medical bills than its counterpart that passed the House.
"The House bill deals with transparency and that's good ... but we need more than the fact that it's very obvious (patients) are getting hosed," the Rome Republican said.
Senate Bill 359 requires hospitals to notify patients ahead of time if a scheduled procedure will involve a contract provider outside of the facility's network.
Physicians and insurance companies also would be responsible for ensuring the charges are known up front.
But, unlike House Bill 678, it also includes caps on out-of-network reimbursement rates for emergency services, based on the independent FAIR Health database. Currently, contractors set their own rates.
"The issue is to level the playing field, so physicians and groups would rather be in-network than out-of-network," said Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, a physician and co-sponsor of the bill.
SB 359 passed out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday with unanimous support and is expected to be scheduled for a full Senate vote next week.
However, it's opposed by a number of insurance groups, who contend it puts their members at a financial disadvantage.
The issue most often affects radiologists, anesthesiologists, pathologists and emergency room doctors, according to Graham Thompson, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Health Plans.
"I know this is to protect consumers in ER situations when they cannot be a savvy shopper ... The problem for the Georgia Association of Health Plans' self-employed and small businesses around the state is how we go about accomplishing that," he told the committee.
Thompson and Allan Hayes, who represents America's Health Insurance Plans, both said they want a different standard for the charges that can be billed to a patient.
"It's the same discussions, the same objections, the same concerns we've had for the last couple of years," Hayes said.
The two said they support the competing House bill, but were willing to keep working with lawmakers on a compromise.
Hufstetler's bill is backed by the Medical Association of Georgia and a coalition of physician groups that hailed it as a bipartisan move to take the patient out of billing disputes over unexpected out-of-network care.
"Surprise insurance gaps require a comprehensive — not piecemeal — solution, and SB 359 provides exactly that," said Dr. Brett Cannon of ApolloMD, a board member of Physicians for Fair Coverage.
Bills have through Wednesday to pass at least one chamber of the Legislature, and the deadline for final passage is midnight on March 29. Hufstetler said he expects there to be negotiations between supporters of the House and Senate bills in the coming month.
"We know this bill won't go all the way through the way it is," he told the committee. "My preference is to keep it as it is for now."
Today's artwork is by Yitsela Vazquez, a fifth-grader at Alto Park Elementary School.