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10-year-old donates kindness to hundreds in annual event
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As millions of Americans gathered in stores across the country on Black Friday to buy Christmas gifts for their families and friends, 10-year-old Northfielder Nika Hirsch placed scarves, hats and other winter weather accessories on the gratitude tree at Northfield Library.

Making sure each of the items were properly placed, Nika and her mother Jana soon began an approximately 15-hour journey as part of their “100 Kind Deeds Day,” a testament to what Nika says the Christmas season is about: Giving to those in need and encouraging others to do the same.

Despite the onset of the pandemic, they still planned to donate an assortment of play items to people across the region, give $130 in books to the Minnesota Children’s Hospital in St. Paul, collect trash, make other surprise donations and do other random kind deeds. Nika has written notes to teachers who are working longer hours during COVID-19 and planned to make surprise donations to health care workers. She worked with Northfielder Samantha Roback to deliver “This Life Rocks” ice cream — rainbow M&M’s and cookie dough — contact-free to the doorways of Northfield residents.

Though Nika, Jana and the 15 other volunteers frequently say they are committing 100 kind deeds on Black Friday, the actual number of good things they do is likely hundreds more. For example, they count buying chocolate for everyone inside of one store as only one kind deed.

A tradition of giving

The tradition began in 2016 when Nika was 6. Jana and Nika started talking about the what’s often a competition each Black Friday for people to get the most lavish gifts, and agreed that it would be good if people shifted their focus from material objects to doing good things. From there, the duo set up the This Life Rocks Instagram page, a site that now has 2,043 followers and includes pictures of Nika trying to spread happiness and cheer through messages painted on rocks she placed throughout the community and other kind gestures. The This Life Rocks Facebook page has 573 likes.

“A lot of adults have told us it’s their favorite day of the year,” Jana said of 100 Kind Deeds Day.

Above all, their work is intended to spark a chain of giving, a process they believe is even more important this year as the pandemic continues wreaking havoc on everyday life.

“This year has been really hard for people, and so it will be good to spread some cheer,” Nika said.

“A lot of people are feeling lonely and bummed out,” Jana added.

In a typical year, Nika, a fifth-grade student at Greenvale Park Elementary School, enjoys visiting the Humane Society and Mall of America the most on Black Friday. She hides rocks and gift cards at certain stores, pays for the meals and drinks of others, and donates quarters to unlock grocery carts at Aldi. They usually visit a Veterans Affairs building, but COVID-19 restrictions limited that outreach this year.

“We always surprise Santa with a present,” Jana said.

Nika typically doesn’t like the attention her good deeds bring and instead tries to focus on the overarching message of her work. Nika’s father has twice battled cancer, and she believes it is her responsibility to reach out and help others as her family has been helped.

“A lot of people have helped me, so it feels really good to give back,” Nika added.

To her mother, Nika’s mindset is a part of the girl’s extraordinary kindness and wisdom.

“It’s sort of just who Nika is,” Jana said.

“It’s not about stuff, it’s not about those kinds of material things, it’s about being a community. It’s a really beautiful way to show your community and your greater country, state, world that we are all here for each other and care for each other.”

Rezoning for college's student housing plan gets Planning Commission endorsement
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The Northfield Planning Commission last week recommended the City Council approve a conditional use permit and rezone nine parcels on the north and south sides of West St. Olaf Avenue to allow for a substantial St. Olaf residential project to take place by 2022.

The rezoning would make way for the development of a 300-bed residential hall. The residence hall would be designed with four separate houses with interconnected hallways and lounges. Another 140 beds would be added in 14 proposed townhouses along St. Olaf Avenue near the college’s west entrance. All units are intended for college juniors and seniors. The townhouses would replace aging residences, ranging from 78 to more than 110 years old, that the college has acquired over the years.

The more than $60 million development would come on the land west of Lincoln Avenue that used to hold the school’s Honor Houses and President’s House. According to college officials, the demolished President’s House building had been deteriorating and its basement was leaking. The president’s residence has since been moved to temporary off-campus housing. The Honor Houses, originally built for private residential use, were not designed to accommodate current residents. The new townhouses are expected to allow for the college to redevelop the Honor House program.

According to the college, the development would enable at least 100 students who are living off campus to move back. In the process, St. Olaf officials say poor student behavior reported off campus would be reduced and the college would become more competitive in pursuing students seeking an on-campus residential experience.

St. Olaf officials say the facilities will also allow for expanded summer conferencing.

Despite voting to approve, Planning Commissioner Betsey Buckheit said “the serious issue” she sees with the project is that St. Olaf was seemingly trying to force the city’s hand by having already bought the properties they were seeking to change through zoning. She added she wants Northfield and St. Olaf to establish where the college’s boundary ends to provide neighbors a clear understanding.

St. Olaf Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Jan Hanson said it is in the best interest of the city and St. Olaf to address the college’s “unique needs” while protecting the existing buffer between college development and the neighboring residential district.

Planning Commission Youth Representative Sofia Chihade asked whether there was a good way to recommend the rezoning while members state their desire for St. Olaf not to acquire any more properties. In noting the city cannot prevent St. Olaf from legally purchasing land, Buckheit said the City Council could instead still “hold the line” on zoning requirements.

Commission rejects more parking

The Planning Commission rejected the addition of more than 180 parking stalls north of the proposed development, an increase the college said was needed for overflow student and event parking.

In amending the motion, Planning Commissioner William Schroeer said even if the students who live off-campus return to school grounds, St. Olaf would still surpass minimum parking code standards by more than 100 stalls. To Schroeer, extra parking also goes against the city’s Land Development Code and would increase the presence of impervious services and create additional traffic.

In requesting the increase in parking stalls, Hanson noted students are already struggling to find parking on nearby Lincoln Avenue, adding the college can limit any environmental impact from additional parking by controlling the number of cars students are allowed to bring on campus. However, Planning Commissioner Tracy Heisler expressed concern that adding parking would result in “induced demand,” and cause more students to want cars.

Public feedback mixed

In a public comment submitted prior to the meeting, St. Olaf Avenue residents Greg Kneser and Sandy Kimmes spoke against the additional parking. Kneser said he is “very concerned” about the possible increase in vehicle traffic on the stretch with the pre-existing number of non-motorists who utilize the area.

Paul Jackson said though he supports the rezoning and conditional use permits, he did not support additional parking due to its perceived adverse impact on the city’s recently adopted Climate Action Plan.

Hanson noted the college explored alternative sites for the development but wants any expansion to occur on “The Hill,” and use existing infrastructure. According to officials, any development will be done with cognizance of the existing character of the area. Rain gardens are expected to be installed along with the townhomes.

Current college plans do not call for the development of the popular sledding hill in front of Old Main but do include the rezoning of the field at the bottom of the hill to college development.

Nearby residents Karen Saxe and Peter Webb said they favor only rezoning land north of First Street West and not the field at the bottom of Old Main. To them, not rezoning the field would lessen any perception that St. Olaf is encroaching into residential areas to the east of campus.

“We have heard from St. Olaf the assurance that St. Olaf has no plans to develop this field,” they wrote. “This being the case, it is no disadvantage to St. Olaf to remove the field from the rezoning plan. To leave that field as it is and not rezone would lessen the perception that St. Olaf is gradually encroaching into residential areas to the east. We urge the City Council to reject the request to rezone he field.”

They also said they were “very concerned” about the impact to the neighborhood from any traffic increase along First Street West, especially by service vehicles entering the delivery area at the back of the proposed new dorm.

Northfielder Toby Barksdale said he is concerned that rezoning the rugby field by First, Second and Linden streets to college development would “open the possibility of surprise development in the future.”

“I have a concern that a rain basin has been proposed for the rugby field but is not indicated on the maps,” he said. “I also seek clarity on plans for the several college-owned houses located on St. Olaf Avenue but which are not directly affected by the new construction.”

Retired St. Olaf professor and Manitou Street resident Bob Jacobel said though he is “generally sympathetic to” projects, he is “very skeptical” of the proposition that the project will reduce the number of students living on campus.

“I really hope someone that the Planning Commission can pursue this point and pin down those numbers with the college or debunk the argument and let’s be honest about what this will and will not do,” he said.

The process

During her presentation, Hanson said St. Olaf has conducted an online student survey, engaged focus groups and held listening sessions to develop project plans.

The majority of the school’s residence halls were built between 1956-63. However, Olson noted the college has faced a shortage of more than 400 on-campus beds since the 1990s as enrollment has outpaced residential development. To combat the shortage, St. Olaf has sometimes had up to three students living in the same room and allowed several hundred to live off campus.

The St. Olaf Board of Regents approved the project in January. The project was temporarily paused in May due to financial uncertainty wrought by COVID-19. Plans call for construction to start next year, and occupancy by fall 2022.

The Northfield City Council was set to consider approving the conditional use permit and rezoning the nine properties Dec. 1. Results were not available at press time.

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Lawsuits: Ex-jailer used excessive force; city, county officials didn't step in
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Two former Rice County jail inmates are alleging Rice County failed to train and supervise its deputies, and that those omissions not only led to injuries suffered at the hands of a rogue former corrections officer, but didn’t discourage other officers to speak up as James David Ingham needlessly took out his aggressions on the inmates.

One of the two suits, filed by Marcus Allen King, also names the city of Faribault and two of its police officers, and several county corrections and law enforcement officers as plaintiffs. The other, filed by Elizabeth Benjamin names only Rice County and former corrections officer James David Ingham, of Dundas.

The suits, filed Sept. 17 in U.S. District Court, say Ingham abused and tortured the jail inmates following their Sept. 6-7, 2019 arrests on drunken driving, and that Rice County, which had previously disciplined Ingham for mistreating inmates, harassing coworkers and lying when questioned about alleged policy violations, should have known Ingham posed a risk to inmates’ health and safety.

Ingham, who was placed on administrative leave following the incidents, pleaded guilty in October to two counts of misconduct of a public officer, one count for each victim. Prosecutors initially filed seven charges against Ingham, including felony third-degree assault, but asked to have all but the two dismissed in exchange for Ingham’s guilty plea.

Ingham is no longer a county employee, though the date and nature of his departure aren’t being released by the Rice County Attorney’s Office.

According to Minnesota District Court filings, Benjamin was arrested Sept. 6. That evening, following a discussion with Ingham and Deputy Stacy Sartor, Ingham allegedly stepped into Benjamin’s cell and confronted her. As Benjamin backed away from Ingham, he stepped toward her and struck her in the chest with enough force to throw her into the air and against a jailhouse wall, according to court filings. She reportedly needed four staples to close a head wound.

Early the following morning, Ingham removed King from the holding cell so the booking process could be completed. When a commotion ensued, additional deputies and police officers assisted Ingham in carrying King from the holding room, according to the federal lawsuit. King was then placed face down on a hallway floor with hands cuffed behind his back while deputies reportedly put him in a restraint chair.

As King was put into the chair, Ingham allegedly kneed King in the groin, applied pressure to King’s neck and “extreme pressure” over his face and nose. While King begged for help and for Ingham to stop, Ingham continued to used “excessive and unnecessary” force against King over an extended period of time, according to the suit.

King’s suit alleges that as many as nine Rice County deputies and Faribault officers watched as Ingham abused King, and that despite an obligation to intervene, failed to do so.

In two emails, sent by a sheriff’s deputy and Faribault Police officer to their respective supervisors and reviewed by investigators late last year, officers expressed concerns that Ingham used excessive force against King, pressing his arm on the inmate’s neck when King was passively resisting, pushing the handcuffed inmate into a restraint chair and pressing his knee into the inmate’s groin. Twice, Ingham reportedly applied pressure just under King’s nose to subdue him, once when he was physically unable to comply, according to Rice County charging documents.

Rice County, in its Nov. 13 response to King’s suit, admits that Ingham was “guilty of malfeasance of office, willful neglect of duty and bad faith,” but argue that the county and its deputies aren’t responsible for either King or Benjamin’s injuries. Instead, the county’s attorney argues that King and Benjamin’s illegal acts contributed to or brought about any damages incurred.

Responses from Ingham and the city of Faribault are not yet available.