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News brief: NATO expansion, White House abortion battle, Las Vegas school violence

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Finland's president and prime minister have put out a statement that their country must apply for NATO membership without delay.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Their statement makes it all but certain Finland will join the military alliance. Nearby, Sweden is expected to follow. For generations, Finland has been oriented toward the Western alliance but carefully stayed out of NATO. Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed that.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt was recently in Helsinki, Finland. He's currently in Odesa, Ukraine. And he's on the line. Hey there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How important is this call by the Finns?

LANGFITT: It's huge, I mean, what we've seen, particularly since the invasion of Ukraine in late February by the Russians, this kind of reordering of the European security order. I've spent a lot of my time traveling in Europe, talking to people about it. And this sort of confirms for what many people have known for weeks, that the Finns are headed towards NATO. The Swedes and the Finns are very close politically. So Sweden is not going to want to be left out of this. And they're expected to apply and be welcomed into NATO with open arms. Now, this is really a sea change in public opinion. And it's just been in a few months, you know?

If you go back, for a number of decades, people in both countries, they weren't really interested in NATO. They were - didn't want to provoke Russia. But given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, many Finns sort of say, well, what's the point in trying to accommodate Russia? Now, the process of joining NATO is expected to take, maybe, a number of months. But if all goes to plan, the entire Baltic Sea - that includes Sweden, Finland, the Baltic states - will effectively become a NATO lake. And of course, as we've said before, this is not at all what President Putin intended.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Is there a way to measure the change in Finnish public opinion over the last couple of months?

LANGFITT: Oh, it's been incredible, Steve. I mean, if you went back maybe six, seven months ago, maybe 25, 30% of people, as it always had been, were interested in NATO, not many. Right now, the latest poll I've seen is 76%. And I can tell you from just walking around Helsinki, those numbers are absolutely real. And I talked to many people who said, you know, they weren't interested in NATO, and what they've seen in Ukraine has really changed their minds. Of course, Finland and Russia, they share an 800-mile border. So this is of particular concern. And the Finnish president - it's interesting. Just yesterday, when he was signing a security agreement with the British - with Boris Johnson, he spoke rhetorically to the Russians. And he said, quote, "you caused this. Look in the mirror."

INSKEEP: Isn't there some relevant history here?

LANGFITT: Oh, there really is. It's not the main driver. But I think it's really important context. Soviet Union invaded Finland back in 1939. This was known as the Winter War. And Russia, basically, was able to take Finnish territory that it felt it needed as protection against a possible attack from Germany. The Finns fought very hard, but eventually were overwhelmed by a bigger and better-armed Soviet force. And when I was in Helsinki, I talked to a guy named Joonas Kontta. He's a lawmaker in the Finnish parliament. And he told me his great-grandfather, Stefan (ph), lost 200 acres of forest land when Finland was forced to cede territory to the Soviets. And Kontta told me, until recently, the Winter War had seemed a bit remote. And then he said this.

JOONAS KONTTA: We always honor the veterans and the people who sacrificed so much for our independence. But now, when Russia attacked Ukraine, we have these memories opened once more. And we don't want to be alone ever again.

LANGFITT: When you look at the images from Ukraine, do you relate to them in any way given the history of this country?

KONTTA: I do relate to them. There are a lot of civilians, cities, towns, villages that are being demolished by Russia. It's just cruelty after cruelty.

LANGFITT: And so, Steve, I think, for many Finns, these old wounds from a war that was many, many decades ago are really - you know, to some degree, really resonating again.

INSKEEP: Frank, always appreciate your insights. Thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: As expected, the Senate rejected a bill to assure abortion rights. And Vice President Kamala Harris urged her side of that debate to look at the next election.

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KAMALA HARRIS: This vote clearly suggests that the Senate is not where the majority of Americans are on this issue. Our priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders at the local, the state and the federal level.

INSKEEP: The country is awaiting a Supreme Court ruling that could throw out the constitutional right to an abortion. That would throw power back to the states. Though, President Biden also faces questions about what he could do.

MARTINEZ: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has been looking into all of this. Tamara, so what political pressure is the White House facing?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Abortion rights advocates are encouraging the administration to do whatever it can to make it easier for people to get abortion services. And advocates I've spoken with also want the president to use his bully pulpit to raise alarms about the consequences of overturning Roe v. Wade. But there's also an acknowledgement that if Roe does fall, it's not like the president can sign an executive order and just bring it back. That's not the way our system works. As Morgan Hopkins, interim executive director of the abortion rights group All* Above All, put it to me, they want the White House to get creative and try actions even if they aren't guaranteed to hold up in court.

MORGAN HOPKINS: And we've seen in the pandemic what is possible and what the federal government can do in a public health crisis, which this will be, a public health crisis. And we want to see that same kind of energy for people who are going to need abortion care.

MARTINEZ: So what would that look like? I mean, what is the White House considering?

KEITH: They aren't revealing a lot of details yet. Press Secretary Jen Psaki says the president has been in meetings with people from across the government, working through possibilities.

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JEN PSAKI: Having the Gender Policy Council, our counsel's office and the Department of Health and Human Services come up with options and proposals for what we would do were this opinion issued to be final or a version of it to be final. So those are ongoing internal meetings.

KEITH: Psaki said the goal is making sure those who become pregnant in states that severely restrict or ban abortion are still able to get access to these services somehow. But she really did not get into specifics. And a White House official told me that some of the ideas being floated by advocates aren't even being considered by the White House. So take all of this with a grain of salt. But some I've spoken to say that Medicaid could provide funding for patients to travel from states that don't allow abortions to states that do. But this idea isn't a sure thing because every federal budget includes a provision that prevents federal funds from being spent on abortion services. The federal government could also potentially provide grants to states that still allow abortions to help them deal with an expected influx of patients. And the administration could work to make sure patients can still gain access to medication abortions, even as some states try to ban FDA-approved abortion pills.

MARTINEZ: OK. So if the options are so limited, then why is the White House still under so much pressure to do something?

KEITH: Plain and simple, this issue matters a lot to a lot of Democratic voters. So just like that failed Senate vote yesterday, Democratic politicians have to demonstrate that they are doing everything they can even as, one expert I spoke to said, the options are very limited and amount to nibbling around the edges.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Tamara Keith. Thanks a lot.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: In Las Vegas, Nev., a 16-year-old student is facing charges of attempted murder and sexual assault for attacking his teacher in class last month.

INSKEEP: That's one of many recent violent school incidents in the nation's fifth largest school district. Students and parents call this a distraction from learning and say they deserve safe schools.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us now to share what he's found after visiting local high schools. Kirk, what does the situation in Las Vegas - what about it stands out?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, A, nationally, there's been some reporting of an uptick in violence and harassment directed at teachers. And it appears that things may be worse in Vegas. The statistics aren't perfect. But if you look at calls from Clark County schools to police dispatch, there have been more than 8,300 responding to violence so far this school year. That's some 1,300 more than in the entire 2018-'19 school year. And the thing is, A, it's not just students attacking teachers or doing the fighting, it's parents, too. Another high-profile attack happened at Desert Oasis High School. A YouTube video captures a brawl in the high school quad. And you can see a dad right there in the middle taking swings.

(CROSSTALK)

SIEGLER: Now, parents, like Cherish Morgan, were outside on the sidewalk, frantically texting their kids who were trapped inside.

CHERISH MORGAN: Listen; our principal and our teachers should not be jumping on top of a parent to stop him from beating a student. That's - in what - there's no world where that is OK, there's just not.

SIEGLER: And, A, in the world of Vegas, if you will, violence has long been a problem. Think of the mafia's ties to this town. But since the pandemic, things have been especially tense - violent threats, harassment, theft, assaults and guns increasingly spilling into places a lot of folks thought once is safe.

MARTINEZ: Kirk, how does mental health play into all this?

SIEGLER: Well, Nevada ranks last in the nation for mental health access. There were 18 suicides during the one year and three months that schools went all-virtual. That's 15 months of virtual learning. That's a lot of stress and social isolation. And, you know, the pandemic also hit Vegas' economy really hard. So many people lost jobs when the casinos and entertainment industry shut down. There's just a lot of stress there as well.

MARTINEZ: So what's being done about it?

SIEGLER: Well, the district announced a slate of new safety measures after the 16-year-old student you mentioned, who attacked his teacher, was charged with attempted murder. They include panic buttons in classrooms, more security cameras, tougher penalties for students involved in the violence, as well as more mental health services, though, that's a funding issue. Jesus Jara is the CCSD superintendent. Let's hear from him.

JESUS JARA: The violence and the acts is what we're seeing across the country. And it's not just in schools, right? I mean, we're seeing it around adults. So it's now, how do we refocus our children to make sure that they stay focused in the classroom?

SIEGLER: But as the district in Vegas tries to address the rise in violence, you know, they also face a $6 billion deficit in maintenance and infrastructure. There's, as a result of all of this, pressure. There's a new ad hoc group of parents and students. And they're calling on Nevada's governor to hold a special legislative session to address the crisis. And, A, I would say the district is using federal funds for recruitment and retention bonuses for its beleaguered staff. You can imagine morale is pretty low. There are 1,000 open teaching positions. The district says the violence tends to be perpetrated by only a small group of students. It's getting a lot of attention, though. And things have quieted down, at least some, as the end of the school year approaches. So that's some positive news in this troubling story.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Kirk Siegler. Thanks a lot.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.