The Emporia Police Department has received what they are calling a "Credible Threat" of violence at this year's Virgninia Peanut Festival. The EPD, assisted by other law enforcement agencies, will have multiple tents and an increased presence. Festival attendees are asked to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings. If you see something, say something.

Current Weather Conditions

 
Seven Day Forecast for Emporia, Virginia
 

Community Calendar Sponsored By...

 

2018 Capital News Service

CApital News Service Returns for 2018

Now that the General Assembly is back in session, the VCU Capital News ServiceThe Capital News Service allows Emporia News readers to follow the highlights of the Virginia General Assembly.

Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South. This year there are 28 Student Journalists and new advisors.

CNS operates as a three-credit course (formally listed as MASC 475) during spring semesters, when the General Assembly is in session. Each CNS student is assigned to serve one or more clients. Students must devote substantial time outside class to CNS — at least 10 hours a week. The students in MASC 475 meet twice a week to discuss and plan stories and work on reporting and writing skills.

During the fall semesters, the CNS system occasionally is used to distribute stories students do for other courses, such as MASC 404 (Specialized/Projects Reporting). Throughout the year, CNS can help newspaper editors find VCU students who can do freelance stories, internships and other assignments.

Wilma Wirt, who has since retired from the mass comm faculty, established CNS in 1994 for two reasons:

  • To give VCU’s journalism students an opportunity to actively cover and write about the Virginia General Assembly.
  • To give the state’s weekly, twice-weekly and thrice-weekly newspapers better access to the legislature — something Wirt deemed important in the everyday lives of all Virginians.

All stories sent by CNS will be published by Emporia News, but not all will be promoted to the front page. To read the stories that do not make the front page, click on the Capital News Service link in the top menu.

In Virginia town, African-American elders hold mixed views on confederate statue

The Confederate statue in Leesburg, Virginia, does not represent a certain Confederate figure, but rather a generic Confederate soldier. (Capital News Service photo).

By ALEXANDRIA CAROLAN, Capital News Service

LEESBURG, Virginia -- Gertrude Evans, 70, was born into the Jim Crow South and lived through the rocky integration of Leesburg when firemen filled a swimming pool with cement and garbage rather than permit its integration.

More than a half-century later, she turned to art as therapy to work through that traumatic period when she wasn’t allowed to sit on the red stools at Little John’s drugstore or watch a movie at the neighborhood Tally Ho theater.

The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last year brought “everything to the surface,” she told Capital News Service recently. “…  I mean you see (racism), you see it.”

For the first time, she said, she’s been thinking too about the Confederate statue in front of the Leesburg courthouse. She doesn’t believe it should be moved but, still, “it’s the first thing you see” downtown.

“It causes conversation — good.” But “take it down and put it in Ball’s Bluff (Battlefield), you’ll never see it again,” she said. History will be forgotten.

Leesburg’s statue, like so many others around the country, became the subject of renewed concern following the 2015 murder of nine black church members by a white supremacist who posed on social media with a Confederate flag. One member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has recommended the statue be moved to Ball’s Bluff Battlefield two and a half miles away where the Confederacy defeated the Union.

Virginia law prevents the county from moving or relocating the monument. In September 2017, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors decided not to ask the state for authority to move the statue, but it asked the county’s heritage commission to make recommendations this summer regarding the statue and its surroundings.

Capital News Service recently interviewed community members in Leesburg as part of a series exploring the views of African-American and white residents in five southern cities where Confederate statues stand on public land in front of courthouses.

Teams of reporters traveled to Anderson, South Carolina; Easton, Maryland; Elizabeth City, North Carolina; Franklin, Tennessee; and Leesburg, Virginia. They also interviewed leaders of the Maryland Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Most residents, black and white, were wary of taking dramatic steps, such as removing the statues, that would inflame tensions within their communities and could make it more difficult for future generations to understand the Civil War and segregationist Jim Crow eras. Most residents also said they preferred adding more context to Civil War memorials than removing them all together.

Derek Summers Jr., 36, and the founder of Loudoun County’s Citizens’ Committee against Domestic Violence, said he feels the Confederate statue’s gun pointing at him when he drives or walks past it on North King Street nearly every day.

“It’s like letting you know that in the hearts and mind of some of these folk here, the fight’s not over,” said Summers, seated on a bench next to the statue.

David Dixon, 59, owner of Jackson’s Barber Shop a few blocks down the road, has passed the statue on his commute to Leesburg for 24 years. He said the monument doesn’t bother him.

“My personality and the way I am, I really don’t care,” he said. “ … I look more toward the future than the past.”

Marquez Mitchell has passed the Leesburg statue when he visits Jackson’s for a haircut every few weeks. Confederate monuments “represent hatred and slavery, even though on paper they said we were free,” the Harpers Ferry resident said.

As a child, 41-year-old Chris Johnson would go to concerts near the courtyard of the statue. Johnson, a lifelong Leesburg resident, said the statue doesn’t bother him, but “what it stands for” does.

“They don’t need to destroy it necessarily, because there are people who find value in it. But I think for the greater good it is something that should be moved,” Johnson said.

Jim Roberts who leads a walking tour to commemorate African-American history here, leaves the statue off his itinerary. As a child, Roberts played near the statue and never paid much attention to it. He believes the newcomers are offended by it, not so much the old-timers.

“I can’t waste time thinking about what happened 150 years ago because it’s over and done with,” he said.

Horace Nelson Lassiter, 84, a barber at Robinson’s Barber shop which opened in 1962 said the statue “doesn’t bother me. I don’t care what is already done,” he said.

Lassiter was one of the first black police officers in the Loudoun County Deputy Sheriff’s Department in the 1960’s, and took the position “to show black people that they could get a job.”

“There’s still racism (in Leesburg). It hasn’t changed ... It’s not the younger people, it’s the older people in my age group,” Lassiter said.

Lassiter’s wife, Mary Louise Lassiter, 81, a prominent activist in Loudoun County and former local NAACP chapter president wants the statue to stay and for visitors to understand the pain slaves went through on courthouse grounds.

“When they’re told, hopefully they’ll understand the torture of all of those people who were put in those stocks.”

Formerly A Slave Market, Now a Favorite Lunch Spot

The square where the statue sits operated as a slave market throughout of the Civil War. Today the statue is surrounded by restaurants, coffee shops, a bar and the original courthouse. Government employees often lunch feet away from where whipping posts, cages and auction blocks once stood.

While the slave auctions in Leesburg were much smaller than those in other Virginia towns, the courthouse was the epicenter of the city’s slavery institution. In 1856, the court ordered that whippings move off courthouse property, according to newspaper advertisements at the time.

Three lynchings of black men accused of crimes also took place in Leesburg, in 1880, 1889 and 1902, according to the “Lynching in Virginia” history project at George Mason University.

Six years later, in 1908, the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Leesburg chapter paid to have the statue erected to commemorate soldiers who had died in the war. Like most

Confederate statues across the South, the Leesburg statue’s unveiling came during “a terrible period of disenfranchisement — the Jim Crow period where enforced segregation and disenfranchisement really started to bleed,” said Jim Hall, author of the “Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.”

The president of the Leesburg chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy declined to comment, but the national organization has said it does not support racism, white supremacy or the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville, and that it opposes their use of Confederate symbols.  Many of its members say the Civil War was not about preserving slavery, a view historians dispute.

“The statues that celebrate the Confederacy were put up when African-Americans were demanding to be treated like human beings,” Loudoun County Board of Supervisors Chair said Phyllis Randall, the only member of the board to vote in favor of asking the state for authority over the statue.

Known as "Loudoun's silent sentinel," the bronze figure built by famed sculptor Frederick William Sievers is a soldier with his gun cocked and his eyes fixed forward. It stands higher than both the Korean War monument to the right of the courthouse entrance and the Revolutionary War monument to the left.

In 2005, the local United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter organized the cleaning and rededication of the statue.

It was cleaned with ground up walnut shells to help dissolve the mint green oxidation covering it.

Statue Oversees Businesses District

The generic soldier has an unobstructed view of the Downtown Saloon, a biker bar established in the 1960’s and decorated in bras and Confederate symbols. The menus have images of the courthouse and statue on them. The bar sells T-shirts with art of the statue. Sometimes, motorcycle riding members of the Mechanized Cavalry of the Sons of Confederate Veterans visit and park outside.

A sticker on the mirror behind the bar says “Dixie Rider,” overlayed on top of a Confederate flag.

Scott Warner, in a black T-shirt with a Confederate flag on the left pocket, said of the statue: “Any soldier who dies for what he believes in needs to be honored.” The statue’s fate has “become a political issue and it shouldn’t be,” he said. “It’s our history.”

Not many people paid attention to the statue “until Charlottesville,” said 46-year-old Jim Boyce, seated in the restaurant. “You can’t get rid of everything,” he said. “If you get rid of everything, the history isn’t here.”

Margaret Brown, a member of the Black History Committee at the local Thomas Balch Library, protested against the statue last summer after the march in Charlottesville. She said the biker bar was an intimidating presence for protestors.

“There were some guys who were across the bar who were pretty aggressive with their motorcycles,” revving the engines and glaring at the protestors, she said.

Phillip Thompson, president of the Loudoun County NAACP, said the statue shouldn’t be located in a place for justice. “The courthouse is a seat of power and people were trying to send a message to black citizens,” he said.

Pastor Michelle Thomas, a member of the nine-person commission assessing the future of the statue, said the statue “has the microphone —  of hate and oppression and fear.”

Evans, though, has mixed feelings. The statue controversy has made her want to know more about the Civil War era.

“I know my ancestors were enslaved. But I don’t know how they were treated,” she said. “It just makes me think and wonder … I’m very interested in that whole era.”

CNS staff writers Ariel Guillory and Elisee Browchuk contributed to this report.

Virginia Seeks to Curb Rising Number of Missing Persons

 

By Tianna Mosby, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Morgan Harrington went to a concert in Charlottesville in 2009 and did not make it home. Keeshae Jacobs was headed to a friend’s house in Richmond in 2016 but never arrived. Ashanti Billie disappeared after leaving for work in Virginia Beach in 2017.

Those three young women were among the hundreds of “missing person” cases investigated in Virginia over the past decade. Two of them – Harrington and Billie – were murdered; Jacobs has yet to be found.

Across the United States, as many as 90,000 people could be missing at any given moment, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The number increases substantially every year, according to the AWARE Foundation.

More than 240 adults are missing in Virginia, according to the Virginia State Police. In 2016, a fairly typical year, 14 names were added to the list. But last year, the list grew by 39 names – and so far this year, 17 more people in Virginia have gone missing. State officials and organizations are looking to reduce the number of missing persons by creating a new alert system and raising awareness about the problem.

Legislation Regarding Missing Persons

Currently, Virginia authorities issue alerts and mobilize search resources only when people of certain ages go missing:

  • If the person is 17 or younger, the state can issue an Amber Alert or an Endangered Missing Child Media Alert.
  • If the person is 60 or older, the state can issue a Senior Alert, sometimes called a Silver Alert.

But Virginia hasn’t had an alert system to warn people to look for a missing adult between the ages of 18 and 59 – until now.

During the 2018 legislative session, Del. Jerrauld “Jay” Jones, D-Norfolk, successfully sponsored HB 260, which will create an alert system for missing persons who are neither children nor senior citizens. The new notification will be called an Ashanti Alert in honor of Billie Ashanti, who was abducted last year from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Jones’ bill received unanimous support in the House and Senate and from community groups and citizens.

“What was striking,” Jones said, “was the number of people who reached out to me saying this happened” – that they had a friend or family member who had gone missing.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law in March. It will take effect July 1.

Under the new Virginia Critically Missing Adult Alert Program, law enforcement officials will be able to send a local, regional or statewide alert if they believe a missing person has been abducted and the “disappearance poses a credible threat” to the individual’s health and safety.

The Ashanti Alerts will go to the media, who then could inform the public to be on the lookout for the missing adult.

Jones’ measure wasn’t the only bill about missing persons proposed this legislative session.

Current law states that people who have been missing are presumed dead after seven years. Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, proposed HB 1565 to shorten the time span to two years; however, the proposal failed.

Brewer’s bill would have significantly reduced the number of active missing person cases in Virginia by classifying about 75 of them as legally dead.

For people such as Keeshae Jacobs’ mom, Toni Jacobs, reducing the number of years before being presumed dead would be crushing. Her daughter has been missing since September 2016, and she has not given up hope. Toni Jacobs continuously posts on social media, attends events to spread the word and advocates for other missing persons.

“I want people to know this is happening. It could be happening to not just my daughter but someone else’s daughter,” Jacobs said.

She said she will not give up until her daughter is found.

Raising Awareness about the Problem

Last year, in an effort to support missing persons and their families, Virginia designated a day in April as Missing Persons Day. The second annual event was held April 28.

There are at least 240 people aged 18 and up who have gone missing in the state. They include 22 people from Richmond, 14 each from Norfolk and Chesapeake, and 13 from Virginia Beach.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services created a resource guide for families on the first steps they should take when a member goes missing. According to the department, Virginia does not have a waiting period in order to file a missing person case. As a result, law enforcement agencies can send out an alert right away if they deem it necessary.

Across the nation, organizations have been formed to support efforts to find missing persons and to offer help to families.

Although putting faces on milk cartons was phased out by the Amber Alert system in the late 1990s, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children provides missing person listings by direct mail and online.

In Virginia, the AWARE Foundation and Help Save The Next Girl seek to educate people about predatory violence and advocate for families of missing persons.

AWARE stands for “Always Watch and Recognize your Environment.” The foundation works to connect people to search and rescue teams, events and law enforcement agencies.

Help Save The Next Girl, a nonprofit based in Roanoke, was founded by Gil and Dan Harrington after their 20-year-old daughter, Morgan Harrington, was abducted and murdered in Charlottesville. Although Morgan went missing mid-October 2009, her remains were not found until the following January when a farmer was driving his tractor through an Albemarle County pasture.

The organization works to educate school- and college-aged women on the dangers of predatory crimes and how to protect themselves.

“There have not been a lot of families who speak about abduction, rape and murder of their daughters,” Gil Harrington said. “At the end, you are devastated. How do you be an advocate at that point?”

The Harrington family also provides emotional and other support to people who have a relative who has gone missing.

“I’ve helped a lot of families pay for funerals and electric bills because when they’re in court, they’re not making money,” Harrington said.

Rural County Accuses Drug Makers of Fueling Opioid Epidemic

 

By Lia Tabackman, Capital News Service

Tucked between news of budget meetings and beauty pageant winners published in The Dickenson Star’s 2017 “Year in Review” is a grim statistic: Dickenson County was first in the state and sixth in the nation in opioid overdose deaths per capita.

In Dickenson County, in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia bordering Kentucky, residents have been dying of prescription opioid overdoses in recent years at a rate of about 40 per 100,000 people – more than seven times the statewide rate.

The newspaper’s annual review is cited in the introduction of a lawsuit filed by Dickenson County against 30 pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and providers including Purdue Pharma, Abbott Laboratories and CVS Health Co.

Represented by the Sanford Heisler Sharp law firm and the Cicala Law Firm, Dickenson is suing for $30 million in damages. The suit says the defendants deliberately increased the flow of opioids into the county, state and country.

The case is one of the latest examples of communities across the nation suing pharmaceutical companies and associated businesses and alleging that they had a role in creating the epidemic. In Virginia, the city of Alexandria is suing for $100 million while in neighboring Maryland, Montgomery and Prince George counties have also taken legal action.

Joanne Cicala, founder of the Cicala Law Firm, which has offices in Texas and New York, says those who are responsible for and profited from the epidemic must be held accountable for its costs.

“The opioid epidemic is not accidental. It is not a natural disaster; it is a man-made crisis,” Cicala said. “And worse – the companies that did this were not just seeking to build market share – they knew they were creating addicts.”

In more than 100 pages, the lawsuit tells the story of how Dickenson County – with a population of fewer than 16,000 residents spread out over 334 square miles – was drawn into a prescription opioid overdose epidemic that claimed more than 500 lives across the state in 2017.

Did manufacturers ‘push opioid as safe, effective drugs’?

As with any drug that enters the prescription market, the distribution process begins with manufacturers. In the case of the opioid epidemic, one of the manufacturers is Purdue Pharma, a company known for its best-selling opioid – OxyContin.

In Dickenson County, the lawsuit claims, Purdue Pharma and other defendants recognized “the enormous financial possibilities associated with expanding the opioid market.” So they “rolled out a massive and concerted campaign to misrepresent the addictive qualities of their product, and to push opioids as safe, effective drugs for the treatment of chronic pain,” the suit alleges.

According to the lawsuit, the drug manufacturers took part in a “campaign of deception” rooted in a since-disavowed study by Dr. Russell Portenoy published in the medical journal Pain in 1986.

In the study, Portenoy claimed that opioids could be used for long periods of time “without any risk of addiction” to treat chronic pain unrelated to cancer. The study said patients in pain would not become addicted to opioids because their pain drowned out the euphoria associated with the drugs.

Within a decade, Portenoy was financed by at least a dozen pharmaceutical companies, most of which produced prescription opioids.

The lawsuit argues that Portenoy’s study – paired with the practice of spending millions of dollars on promotional activities that understated the risks of opioids – not only legitimized but normalized the prescribing of opioids in Dickenson and across the country.

In the case of OxyContin – Purdue’s time-released version of oxycodone – promotional materials given to physicians included this key sentence: “Delayed absorption as provided by OxyContin tablets is believed to reduce the abuse liability of a drug.”

The drug companies’ sales representatives marketed directly to physicians, ensuring that doctors would be advocates for certain drugs, the lawsuit said. As a result, it contended, the pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to insert their products directly into specific markets.

In 2014 alone, the manufacturing defendants named in the Dickenson lawsuit spent more than $168 million on pursuing branded opioid sales contracts with doctors, the lawsuit said.

Twenty-six years after publishing his study justifying the prescription of opioids, Portenoy acknowledged that he erred in understating the risks of addiction associated with such drugs.

“Did I teach about pain management, specifically about opioid therapy, in a way that reflects misinformation? Well, against the standards of 2012, I guess I did,” Portenoy said in an interview that year with The Wall Street Journal. “We didn’t know then what we know now.”

How pharmacy benefit managers influence drug prices

As explained in the lawsuit, pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, are the middleman between the manufacturers and the marketplace; they influence which drugs are used most frequently, set prices for pharmacies and control what drugs are covered by health insurance providers.

PBMs include Caremark, Express Scripts and OptumRX – all named as defendants in the lawsuit. These companies serve as gatekeepers through controlling lists known as “drug formularies” that identify prescription drugs with the greatest overall value.

PBMs and pharmaceutical companies negotiate financial arrangements, including rebates for preferred placement on drug formularies, the lawsuit said. It said manufacturers compete for spots on the list in order to ensure greater utilization of the drugs they make.

Not only do PBMs have the power to make opioids cheaper – they can make less addictive medications harder to acquire, the lawsuit said. For example, it said, United Healthcare places morphine on its lowest-cost coverage tier with no prior permission required; in contrast, Lyrica, a non-opioid drug prescribed for nerve pain, is on the most expensive tier, requiring patients to try other drugs first.

Not just a health crisis but an economic one

The impact of the opioid epidemic in Dickenson County is multifaceted. While the county’s overdose rates are the most conspicuous consequence of the epidemic, the increased flow of opioids into the region has had a ripple effect on the county’s economy, health care system and workforce.

In 2017, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified Dickenson County as one of eight Virginia counties that are vulnerable to the rapid dissemination of HIV and hepatitis C infections among people who inject drugs.

L. Christopher Plein, a professor of public administration at West Virginia University, said the opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, but it also has far-reaching economic consequences.

“Communities become severely stressed by having to respond and deal with this crisis, and they may lack the resources to provide treatment, engage law enforcement and provide recovery services,” Plein said. “These communities may not be as attractive to outside investors and businesses if they develop a reputation of being tied to the opioid epidemic.”

The lawsuit argues that the opioid epidemic has significantly and negatively impacted nearly every aspect of the county’s $26 million budget and the public services it provides, including health care, emergency medical services, social services, law enforcement and drug prevention, education and treatment.

Dickenson County has had to buy opioid antagonists such as naloxone – medications that can reverse drug overdoses. Moreover, the county has lost tax revenues because of the opioid crisis, the lawsuit said.

For example, the drug epidemic has affected the job market and workforce in Dickenson County. The Virginia Employment Commission reported last week that Dickenson’s unemployment rate in March was 6.6 percent – double the statewide rate. Dickenson had the fifth-highest jobless rate among Virginia’s 133 counties and cities.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, says these consequences can no longer be ignored.

“Dickenson County is on the tipping point of having an unemployable workforce,” Pillion said. “They have difficulty recruiting industry because the only articles in the news are talking about overdoses and opioids.”

Purdue responds: ‘No longer promoting opioids’

In response to the growing number of lawsuits brought against the company, Purdue Pharma announced in February that it would stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors.

“We have restructured and significantly reduced our commercial operation and will no longer be promoting opioids to prescribers,” the company said in a written statement.

Purdue officials said that they cut their sales staff in half in the week following the announcement and that the remaining staff would pivot to focus on other products.

Kevin Sharp, lead counsel for Dickenson County’s lawsuit, called the announcement a step in the right direction. But he said the damage already inflicted demands a more comprehensive response.

“There’s a lot more that has to be done to solve this problem,” Sharp said. “They have to remedy past harm. And the parties are going to have to work together to find out the best way to minimize – and end if possible – the harm that is being caused.”

Purdue Pharma has yet to file a response to the Dickenson County lawsuit but provided the following statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines with collaborative efforts to solve this public health challenge.

“Although our products account for less than 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.”

Expanding treatment for opioid addiction

In April 2017, the Virginia Department of Medical Assistance Services launched the Addiction Recovery and Treatment Services program to help increase access to treatment for Virginians battling opioid addiction.

The ARTS program was established primarily to help ease the burden on hospital emergency departments in treating patients with opioid-related issues, particularly in rural areas like Dickenson County.

The program expands treatment to Medicaid recipients by combining traditional medicine with counseling and other support systems. It also offers training and financial incentives to providers to encourage participation among outpatient treatment centers, doctors and hospitals.

“Providers are responding to the critical need for addiction treatment,” said Dr. Katherine Neuhausen, chief medical officer for DMAS. “Today, more than 350 new organizations are providing these life-saving services to Virginia Medicaid members. The number of outpatient opioid treatment services has increased from six to 108, including 79 office-based opioid treatment programs combining medication with counseling and other essential supports.”

According to an evaluation by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, the program has increased the number of Medicaid recipients receiving treatment for opioid addiction by more than 50 percent, and the number of opioid-related emergency hospital visits by Medicaid recipients declined by nearly one third.

(Editor's Note: According to the data compiled as this story was researched, from 2007-2017 there have been 2 opioid-related deaths in the City of Emporia and 3 in Greensville County. During that time frame 3.2% of the total deaths in the City and 2.3% of the total deaths in the County were opioid-related as compared with the 35.5% mortality rate in Dickenson County - in both 2007 and 2011 more than half of the deaths in Dickenson County were opioid-related)

Southwest Virginia Legislator Targets Opioid Crisis

As a health care professional, state Del. Todd Pillion of Abingdon has a special perspective on the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the localities he represents in Virginia’s General Assembly.

Pillion, a pediatric dentist, has successfully sponsored key legislation to address the crisis. He represents the 4th House District, which includes Dickenson County and parts of Wise, Russell and Washington counties.

“Virginia has become a leader in passing not only legislation but regulations through the Board of Medicine and Dentistry,” Pillion said. “There’s no magic bullet – this epidemic isn’t going to go away no matter what we do. But we have seen improvements.”

During this year’s regular legislative session, the General Assembly passed three opioid-related bills introduced by Pillion, a Republican who was elected in 2014. Gov. Ralph Northam has signed the measures into law:

  • HB 1556 will add the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone and other Schedule 5 drugs for which a prescription is required to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program. This will allow the Virginia Department of Health to monitor whether prescribers and dispensers are following state regulations and to deter the illegitimate use of prescription drugs. By adding naloxone to the list, officials can track if it is being co-prescribed with opiates in order to prevent fatal overdoses.
  • HB 1157 will require the Department of Health to develop and implement a plan of action for substance-exposed infants in Virginia. The plan must support a “trauma-informed approach” to identifying and treating substance-exposed infants and their caregivers, explore how to improve screening of substance-using pregnant women, and use multidisciplinary approaches to intervention and service delivery during the prenatal period and following birth.
  • HB 1173. Under current law, physicians who prescribe opioids are not required to request information from Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program as long as the prescription does not exceed 14 days and is treatment for a surgical or invasive procedure. HB 1173 eliminates the exception for prescriptions related to surgical and invasive procedures to bypass the PMP.

The three new laws will take effect July 1.

Latest Heist Highlights Cryptocurrency Trading Risks

By Scott Malone, Capital News Service

The most recent bitcoin theft involving one of India’s largest cryptocurrency trading platforms serves as a reminder of the risks associated with buying and selling internet money.

Coinsecure fell victim to a heist in April, resulting in the loss of 438 bitcoins – roughly $3.6 million at current bitcoin prices.

According to Coinsecure’s website, the stolen tokens were siphoned off to a bitcoin address, also known as a wallet, between 12:35 a.m. and 6:29 a.m., April 9. Though a chief security officer notified the platform’s technology head, questions remained over what happened and how it was handled.

Coinsecure’s incident is the latest of a growing list involving cryptocurrency exchange thefts – one of the major issues that leave proponents and critics divided on the future of such decentralized digital currencies, which don’t require a central bank but rather function through individual transactions.

Supporters believe that cryptocurrencies, like bitcoins, are the wave of the future – a paradigm shift from the traditional banking system. For example, Tim Draper, a bitcoin supporter and founder of venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, predicted on Twitter in April that bitcoins will be worth $250,000 each by 2022.

As a major investor in bitcoins, Draper’s optimistic prediction shouldn’t be shocking, but sharply contrasts opinions held by other Wall Street powerhouses, among them Warren Buffett and Charles Munger of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Skeptics, or “nocoiners” as they are called in crypto-culture, are accused by critics for opposing bitcoin because of competitive reasons. But many observers consider the speculative value of the cryptocurrency to be a major problem.

“In most markets, when you trade an instrument there is some purpose to the instrument underneath. You buy a stock because there’s a company that has earnings, you buy currencies because there’s a country that has a gross domestic product – imports and exports,” said David Golumbia, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Politics of Bitcoins: Software as Right-Wing Extremism.”

“Bitcoin is just bitcoin; there is nothing that drives its value.”

Concerns over speculative value are one possible reason these e-coins have received a risky image. Other factors include the hacks and heists that spotlight security issues within the platforms many coin-holders use for trading.

For example, Coincheck, one of the largest cryptocurrency exchanges in Asia, suffered a hack in January that resulted in roughly $530 million of stolen funds, overtaking the disappearance of $480 million worth of bitcoins from an exchange called Mt. Gox in 2014.

According to

​​

Golumbia, these exchange companies are one of the major ways individuals make off with millions of dollars’ worth of bitcoins. In many cases, he said, the exchanges themselves were responsible for the thefts.

The popularity of the exchanges gives a glimpse into understanding the difficulties associated with buying and selling cryptocurrencies.

A bitcoin owner who wants to sell it for U.S. dollars would have to use a blockchain, a digital list that allows people to transfer cryptocurrencies and also publicly records the transactions.

“There’s no organization associated with that; there’s no company,” said Golumbia, whose book examines the influence of libertarian and conservative thought in the cryptocurrency movement. “All you can do on that network is send bitcoins from one address to another and there’s a fee associated with that. That’s all you’re doing – moving the money.”

However, there’s no guarantee someone will accept the transaction on blockchain. This is where exchanges come in. Cryptocurrency exchanges, such as Coinsecure, connect buyers and sellers for a price. They act as middlemen, taking a fraction of the currency as payment for making the trade happen.

“Roughly speaking, you pay a little bit more than you would on the blockchain network,” Golumbia explained, and “the transactions will happen relatively quickly because it’s kind of internal to [exchanges], as opposed to putting [a transaction] up on the blockchain where it could literally never happen.”

Not only that, there may also be concerns about Russian involvement in blockchain technology. Last year, members from over two dozen countries attended a meeting in Tokyo to discuss standards for blockchain. When asked why Russia was so interested in the technology, a Russian intelligence agent said that “the internet belongs to the Americans – but blockchain will belong to us,” according to the New York Times.

Because there is no guarantee that a buyer will actually pay for the bitcoin, exchanges have become popular for trading cryptocurrencies, but they also “essentially hold your bitcoin, and that isn’t how the bitcoin network was supposed to work,” Golumbia said. Someone who owns cryptocurrency tokens and uses an exchange to buy and sell must rely on the exchange’s security.

“These securities have been shown to be real places of failure,” Golumbia said, “either because people can hack them, or because the operators have been dishonest and walk away with a lot of the [tokens].”

Naval Ravikant, CEO of AngelList, a website for company start-ups and investors, views the issue differently. “Blockchains are a new invention that allows meritorious participants in an open network to govern without a ruler and without money,” he said in a 2017 tweetstorm.

The Mt. Gox hack serves as an example of the cybersecurity risks associated with using these exchanges.

Short for “Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange,” Mt. Gox was created in 2006 to buy and sell trading cards online for the fantasy game, Magic: The Gathering. In 2010, Mt. Gox switched to exchanging bitcoins instead of trading cards, soon becoming the largest bitcoin exchange on the planet.

When Mt. Gox began exchanging bitcoins, the company “started to have huge amounts of money in their accounts,” Golumbia said. “Those accounts are like bank accounts, but they don’t have anything like the security infrastructure that a bank has.”

By the beginning of 2015, Mt. Gox was bankrupt, $480 million in cryptocurrencies had vanished, and Mark Karpelès, the chief executive of the company, was arrested by Japanese police in connection to the company’s collapse.

While cryptocurrency exchanges add a level of transaction security, there’s no guarantee the exchanges themselves are legitimate or have proper security in customer holdings.

Considering the security risks associated with the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies and that nothing truly backsthem, a question remains: Are these currencies anything like the yen or dollar? Or is the trading just glorified gambling?

Golumbia leans toward the latter and believes regulators will likely think the same.

But Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, has said that bitcoins were like “bars of gold in a vault that never move” and that it’s a “hedge of sorts against the whole world falling apart,” according to CNBC.

So far in 2018, a few companies have stopped allowing bitcoins as acceptable payment, including Microsoft and Steam, a large video game distribution platform, according to Forbes magazine. In January, the North American Bitcoin Conference stopped allowing individuals to pay for the conference’s tickets with cryptocurrencies, according to Business Insider.

Regulation could be a crucial step for the future of cryptocurrencies, potentially convincing more companies to accept it as a form of payment.

Goldman Sachs understands this, which is why they soon hope to trade bitcoins if the company can receive regulatory approval, according to the New York Times.

However, regulation could come with a catch.

“If [regulators] did allow a market, it would be because the currency didn’t move very much,” Golumbia said. “In which case, who would care?”

This is a double-edged sword for cryptocurrencies. If bitcoins were to become a stabilized currency, they would lose some of their appeal. If someone bought a bitcoin for $250,000 in 2022 – assuming Draper is correct about his prediction – and sold it for $251,000 in 2023, traders would no longer have the huge earning potential that made cryptocurrencies so popular.

“This has been the paradox of the bitcoin stuff from the beginning,” Golumbia said.

Meantime, Coinsecure has been assuring customers that funds held by the company are safe and that an investigationis underway. The company also stated that all bitcoins will be returned to customers if recovered. If the bitcoins are not recovered, 10 percent will be refunded in bitcoins and 90 percent in rupees.

“We are working with global exchanges and experts to help us track the movement of funds,” the company stated on its website.

Opponents and Supporters Disagree on Future of Cryptocurrencies

As bitcoin grows in popularity as a standard for internet money, becoming a common topic in mainstream media and economic communities, skeptics and supporters disagree where the future of cryptocurrencies is headed.

Bitcoin supporters see benefits in a currency market untethered from traditional regulation.

Mike Novogratz, the former manager of Fortress Investment Group, is starting a $500 million cryptocurrency hedge fund. Novogratz believes that people “can make a whole lot of money on the way up, and we plan on it,” according toBloomberg.

Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning, free-market economist, made remarks in the 1990s that seemed to presage cryptocurrencies, according to Coindesk. “The one thing that’s missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash, a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B, without A knowing B or B knowing A,” Friedman said.

But many experts and economists are skeptical of anonymous internet trading using cryptocurrencies. They cite such concerns as the drug trade, tax evasion, and market instability.

Charles Munger, vice chairman for Berkshire Hathaway, called bitcoins a “noxious poison” at a Daily Journal Corp.meeting in February. Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s multi-billionaire CEO, told MarketWatch that “you can’t value bitcoin because it’s not a value-producing asset.”

Only time will tell how cryptocurrencies will integrate into future markets – if bitcoins are “Enron in the making” as billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal said on CNBC, or if they’ll soon be worth a quarter of a million dollars each as bitcoin supporter and venture capitalist Tim Draper predicted.

As of May 3, the price of a single bitcoin was just over $9,500.

Virginia Battles a ‘Crime that Hides in Plain Sight’: Human Trafficking

By Sophia Belletti and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Robin Foster had worked with abused and neglected children for years, but it wasn’t until she came face to face with a trafficking victim that she fully recognized the dimensions of the crisis that brought a 17-year-old to a hospital emergency room early one morning.

The teen came to the hospital complaining of a sore throat but ran off when Foster tried to call her mom for permission to treat her.

“I chased her up the street at 1 in the morning,” Foster recalled.

Foster, who heads the Child Protect Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she later learned from police the girl had run away from her group home in Northern Virginia and was being trafficked by a man in a hotel in Richmond.

Human trafficking – a $150 billion global criminal enterprise, according to the International Labor Organization – is increasingly on the radars of law enforcement, politicians and nonprofits across the country. Statistics show the problem is worse in Virginia, and in the Richmond area, than in many other states and localities.

In 2017, Virginia ranked 15th in the United States for the most reported cases of human trafficking for sex and cheap or free employment. Last year, the state reported 156 cases, and 70 percent of those were sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Richmond ranked ninth nationwide in the number of calls per capita to the hotline, according to the organization’s 2017 report on the 100 most populous U.S. cities. Virginia Beach ranked 71st for calls per capita and Norfolk was 77th.

The Richmond region’s location at the junction of interstates 64 and 95 makes the area an attractive place for traffickers, as does its large tourism and hospitality industry, says the Richmond Justice Initiative, a faith-based, anti-trafficking group.

While there is not an official estimate on the number of trafficking victims in the United States, the Polaris Project, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization that runs the hotline, estimates the number to be in the hundreds of thousands.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a bill giving federal and state prosecutors greater power to pursue websites that host sex-trafficking ads and enabling victims and state attorneys general to file lawsuits against those sites.

Trump’s action came a few days after several executives from the website Backpage.com were arrested on 93 indictments including knowingly facilitating trafficking through their website and allegedly laundering millions of dollars. The deaths of some trafficking victims have allegedly been linked to the website.

However, critics of the bill say it conflates legitimate and willing sex work with forced trafficking.

“I think it’s ridiculous that the two are being compared because the key difference is that trafficking victims cannot choose to stop working, they are not being empowered by what they do like sex workers are, and it (the bill) doesn’t address the reasons why people are being trafficked,” said Fay Chelmow, founder and director of ImPACT Virginia.

Chelmow founded ImPACT, a nonprofit fighting to prevent and end the sex trafficking of children, in May 2015 after reading the U.S. Department of Education report, “Human Trafficking in America’s Schools.” Chelmow said she was alarmed to learn how vulnerable youth are lured into the commercial sex industry by traffickers who scout middle and high schools.

“There still needs to be more advocating work around simply educating people that this is an issue in the first place, because trafficking is very profitable,” said Chelmow, a registered nurse since 1984 and a former hospice and palliative care nurse in Boston, Massachusetts, before moving to Richmond in 2010. One of the reasons trafficking is so lucrative for criminal perpetrators, she said, is that they can sell the same person “over and over and over again.”

Human trafficking “is a crime that hides in plain sight,” said Charlotte Gomer, press secretary for Attorney General Mark Herring. “It is very difficult to identify victims and prosecute traffickers. Trafficking is about supply and demand and, unfortunately, as long as there is a demand for commercial sex and cheap or free labor, human trafficking will continue to exist.”

She said the attorney general’s office works with the city of Richmond and Henrico and Chesterfield counties to provide training, resources, victim services and operational assistance to combat trafficking.

During this year’s General Assembly session, Herring won passage of legislation that will make it harder for people who are charged with trafficking-related crimes to post bail – essentially placing a presumption of no bond for such offenses.

Del. Michael Mullin, D-Newport News, cosponsored the legislation with Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond. Mullin, who works as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Suffolk focusing on sexual assault and gang-related cases, said that fighting human trafficking transcends partisan politics. The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously and has been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.

“This is a bipartisan issue and something everyone seems to agree we need to work on,” Mullin said in a statementearlier this year.

Gomer said Herring has been working to combat human trafficking since he took office in 2014. In early 2017, Herring signed a memorandum of understanding creating the Hampton Roads Human Trafficking Task Force, a partnership involving his office, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Virginia State Police and Hampton Roads law enforcement agencies, and Samaritan House, a Virginia Beach nonprofit that provides emergency shelters for domestic violence victims and homeless families.

Advocates Press for Prevention and Solutions

At Children Hospital, Foster said the biggest medical roadblock when helping child human trafficking victims is finding them a secure place, away from their exploiters.

“Where do you place these kids? So what if you recognize that they’re victims? You can’t discharge them home, so where are we putting them? A lot of the time they have drug dependency so they might have to stay in the hospital to make sure they don’t have to go through drug withdrawal,” Foster said.

Foster said helping victims is even more difficult in the case of family-controlled trafficking.

Elisabeth Corey, a survivor of family-controlled child sex trafficking and abuse, recounts those experiences in her advocacy and book, “One Voice.” She said that her encounters with domestic violence and incest began when she was 2 years old and that after years of familial sexual abuse, her father began selling her.

Corey said her parents were highly involved at medical appointments but answered the doctors’ questions with lies. For example, Corey said she was seen frequently at a young age for urinary tract infections, but her mother told nurses it was a result of bed-wetting. Corey said that should have raised alarms because bed-wetting is a symptom, not a cause of urinary tract infections. Likewise, she said the frequency she was being seen by doctors should have raised concerns.

“It was mind-blowing they would just trust what my parents said,” Corey said. “When I was being trafficked, they (medical professionals) weren’t even addressing domestic violence – so no one even had a word for trafficking, no one was even looking for it.”

It wasn’t until Corey had severe pelvic pain during a sleepover that red flags were raised. A neighbor took Corey to the emergency room after being unable to contact her parents.

Doctors alerted child protective services officials, who placed Corey in foster care in Northern Virginia.

“Foster care was so bad – I was getting raped in foster care – that I rescinded my story so that I could go back home,” Corey said. “I literally preferred my home to the foster care environment.”

In 2016, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one out of six runaways might be children sex traffic victims and that the vast majority of those runaways had been in foster care or social services care.

Foster credited the work of Chelmow and others in drawing attention to the victimization of children by traffickers. Ten years ago, she said, the problem and strategies to fight it were “totally off the radar.” There is more awareness overall, she said, with information being placed in “schools, hospitals, airports, at bus stations – critical points people are being trafficked.”

The role of the federal government, at the same time, has helped reshape the fight against trafficking, Foster said, as has the view that “the trafficked person is a victim and not part of the problem.”

Still, many problems remain, especially among higher-risk populations – minors in the foster care or social services systems; the homeless, young people with a history of running away; and LGBTQ youth.

LGBTQ youth “are already so marginalized, and it’s all about exploiting vulnerability,” Chelmow said. “Being marginalized makes you even more vulnerable.”

Despite the wide variety of backgrounds from which young people can be trafficked, Corey said, there are common elements in identifying the abused.

“I work as a life coach all over the world, and it’s almost scary how everybody, regardless of how similar experiences are, reacts to trauma the same way,” Corey said. “We really have to get away from the idea that trafficking is in a silo because it’s not.”

Authorities investigating human trafficking should be ready to consider issues ranging from emotional abuse to financial problems, she said.

According to Foster, among the signs that medical professionals can look for is the presence of someone who is not related to the person seeking help but who acts as if they are – for example, “someone who is like an uncle but won’t really act or look like an uncle.”

Other signs include anxious behavior from a patient, the inability to speak for themselves, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Foster said practitioners should also be aware of excuses used to justify physical trauma and the possibility that any overdoses were done with the intent to commit suicide.

Some of these problems may also be seen by teachers, Corey said.

“I know, we already ask our teachers to do a lot, but they are the first responders to spotting this because they see the children every day,” Corey said. “Another solution is asking survivors what they need and what other survivors need, because we know our experience and solutions need to be trauma-informed.”

However, Corey is aware that finding survivors who are willing to speak out can be difficult due to threats to their safety from their abusers.

“Another reason they don’t come forward is that people who are trafficked have been manipulated into thinking this is their choice and it’s their fault, and they don’t know what trafficking is or what its definition is,” Corey said. “Another side of it, and this is true for me, is that they disassociate and repress the memories.”

A major part of Corey’s work as a life coach and running her website beatingtrauma.com revolves around addressing how trauma manifests through memory loss. She left home at 18, but it was not until the birth of her children in her 30s that she remembered the trafficking and other forms of physical and sexual abuse she experienced.

“There were years of me going to Christmases and events with my family before I remembered the abuse,” Corey said. “I remember always feeling angry around them and like something was not right and I couldn’t name exactly what it was, but my children reminded me of what had happened. A lot of times, children will remind survivors of their own trauma.”

Corey is no longer in contact with her family. She said avoiding the generational cycle of abuse is difficult, but possible.

“I believe that anyone who abuses their children was also abused as a child, but that does not mean every person who was abused will then go on to abuse their own children,” Corey said. “There is a process to deal with the trauma and to address it.”

Virginia Communities, Legislators Breathe New Life into Preserving Black Cemeteries

BLACK CEMETERIES

By George Copeland Jr. and Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – On a hot Saturday in April, volunteers work under a bright sun and the noise of buzzing insects to find and remove unchecked nature and neglect from the graves of thousands of African-Americans, from everyday citizens to some of the most important leaders in local, state and national history.

The neighboring Evergreen and East End cemeteries serve as the final resting place of Maggie Walker, the first female bank president in the U.S.; John Mitchell, a newspaper publisher who risked his life to crusade for civil rights; and Rosa Dixon Bowser, founder of the Virginia State Teachers Association.

“When Black Richmond was the ‘Harlem of the South,’ when Jackson Ward was known as ‘Black Wall Street,’ these are the people who made those places,” said Brian Palmer of the Friends of East End Cemetery volunteer group.

But the state of the burial grounds can be a stark contrast to the stature of the prominent figures buried there. Over the years, Evergreen, East End and many other black cemeteries across Virginia have fallen into disrepair, uncared for and unacknowledged. More recently, concerned residents have rallied to restore, record and maintain the history of the many laid to rest.

“It is not, shall we say, stunningly beautiful to someone who is more familiar with cemeteries like Hollywood [where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is buried], or the Confederate section of Oakwood, but to us, it is remarkable,” Palmer said of the work accomplished in East End since community efforts increased in 2013.

Across the commonwealth, volunteers like Palmer labor to restore the state’s African-American cemeteries, shining a light on a part of Virginia’s history often overshadowed by the legacy of the Confederacy. In recent years, these volunteers have seen support from a new source: the Virginia General Assembly, which has approved state funding for cleaning up and maintaining several of these cemeteries.

East End and Evergreen, on the line between Richmond and Henrico County, were the first African-American cemeteries in Virginia to receive help from the state government. In 2017, House Bill 1547 was signed into law. It allowed qualifying charitable organizations to collect maintenance funds for the two cemeteries – $5 annually for every person interred who lived between January 1800 and January 1900.

This led to a wave of similar legislation in 2018, with five bills passing the General Assembly. Most of the bills focused on African-American cemeteries in specific locales – CharlottesvilleLoudoun County and Portsmouth. In addition,HB 284 will extend state funding to every African-American cemetery established before 1900 and allow the caretakers of those sites to receive maintenance funds from the state.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who introduced both pieces of legislation, said HB 284 was meant to clear up any ambiguities in HB 1547.

“This year,” McQuinn said, “we came back to say, ‘Let’s be clear: Localities have access to these funds.’”

Palmer remains ambivalent about the legislation; his group has made several attempts to reach out to and meet with McQuinn to discuss it in greater detail. In addition, Friends of East End Cemetery, a nonprofit organization, had applied to receive state funding under HB 1547 before HB 284 was filed, and a final decision from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources is still pending.

Even without state support, members of the group remain focused on their work, a process of renewal where the number of volunteers can top 200, a donated wheelbarrow can be a huge boon and new discoveries are spotlighted on sites like FindAGrave.com.

Palmer first stepped into East End Cemetery in the summer of 2014 with his wife Erin while making a documentary. There, they encountered an armed hunting group who said they had permission to use the grounds. (Later, Palmer said he contacted the previous owner, who contradicted this claim.)

The following year, the Palmers joined in the volunteer efforts, helping to rediscover and archive the names of people buried there more than a century ago. State officials say East End Cemetery has nearly 4,900 graves that qualify for assistance and Evergreen has 2,100.

“We’ve had quite a few groups out here,” said John Shuck, a volunteer at East End and Evergreen since 2008. The two cemeteries have received help from college students, churches and Henrico County government. “Get people coming back out, you know, in ones and twos, but it all helps.”

Similar signs of progress are evident in Evergreen Cemetery, which covers more area than East End. Evergreen’s larger scale is matched by both the size of its volunteer force and signs of disrepair.

While the grounds are visited by both tour groups and mountain bikers, Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the EnRichmond Foundation, Evergreen’s new owner, emphasizes the work done so far remains “a shoestring operation.” Visitors can see support for that statement: A number of memorials are broken or obscured by overgrowth, and piles of decades-old detritus, collected by workers, line some of the paths in the lower areas of the cemetery.

Maris-Wolf, formerly a professor at Virginia Union University, Randolph-Macon College and the University of Louisiana, described the potential effect of extra revenue as a “game changer, not only for us but for all the cemeteries that will receive state funding.”

Before 2017, there were attempts in the General Assembly to provide equity in state support for graveyard maintenance, but they failed. However, success has come at the municipal level, thanks largely to community organizing.

In 2015, the city of Charlottesville gave $80,000 to the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery to support their work in the city-owned burial grounds. The group hopes to “restore the extant markers, to attempt to identify the many unknown burials and to share information about the known individuals buried at the historic cemetery,” alongside videos,audio tours and an active presence on social media.

“We are very encouraged by recent legislation to provide funding for the preservation” of their cemetery and other African-American burial grounds, the group wrote. “We are hopeful that everyone will have the opportunity to tell their stories of our shared history.”

The struggle to maintain this aspect of Virginia has been long and fraught, even as the state’s black cemeteries remain unknown to most residents of the commonwealth.

Dr. Michael Blakey, an anthropologist and professor at the College of William & Mary, describes cemeteries as “the first archaeologically observable symbolic behavior, a language of memorialization, at the origins of Homo sapiens.”

“Thus, especially in slavery but for all people, cemeteries and mortuary ritual assert our humanity – human dignity – just as their desecration represents its denial.”

This is echoed by Dr. Lynn Rainville in a 2013 article published in the Journal of Field Archeology. Documenting her research into the topic in Albemarle County, Rainville described multiple black burial grounds throughout the area, neglected and overlooked due in part to housing development, racial shifts in local demographics leading to an absence in maintenance, vandalism and “inconsistencies in state laws.”

The result of this lack of care and gap in public awareness is evident even among the volunteers.

Robyn Young, along with her husband James Atkins and their daughter Cameron, continues to help reclaim East End as part of the Midlothian chapter of Jack & Jill of America. But she was struck by the fact “that I can’t find family members buried in these cemeteries for either of us,” despite being Richmond natives.

“I didn’t even know about this cemetery until today,” said Atkins, who has family buried at the nearby Oakwood Cemetery.

Palmer has encountered this juxtaposition in occasional interactions with the public.

“We still talk to people that come through and do the ‘Tsk, tsk – it’s a shame that the black community can’t take care of this place,’” Palmer said.

“The black community, through its tax dollars, has been sustaining every Confederate monument on public property in this city.”

These problems persist at a time when Virginia’s relationship with its Confederate history has grown more contentious. Legislation seeking to remove memorials to the Confederacy has repeatedly failed, while efforts to find alternative solutions have been met with criticism and outrage.

More monuments are still to come. This summer, construction will likely begin at the state Capitol on the Virginia Women’s Memorial, which will feature Confederate Capt. Sally Louisa Tompkins among a racially diverse group of notable women.

Pastor Michele Thomas of the Loudoun Freedom Center, a group that works to spotlight and protect multiple burial grounds against corporate interests and obscurity, declared historic preservation to be “one of the key civil rights issues of our time, because it’s still governed under Jim Crow laws.”

“Separate but equal is more pronounced in death than it is in life, and you can see that clearly with these properties,” Thomas said. “And so when it is our society has not evolved in our law, we’ve not evolved as a society.”

Despite such obstacles, work on African-American cemeteries continues across Virginia. The EnRichmond Foundation has partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University and other organizations in developing new techniques to improve Evergreen for both visitors and those interred, while the Friends of East End Cemetery, with help from VCU and the University of Richmond, unveiled a digital mapping of the cemetery last month.

While Palmer and his fellow volunteers still see signs of disrespect of East End from time to time, there’s a clear joy in seeing the families of those laid to rest come to the site to help ensure their ancestors’ memories are acknowledged and maintained.

“It’s inspiring, most definitely,” Palmer said, “because I think it can be kind of easy to be overwhelmed, but when you see people actually investing energy and time ...”

Visiting her parents’ and grandparents’ graves for the first time since 1994, Doris Smith described the work done so far as “fantastic.”

“Last time we were here, we couldn’t even get back here, you couldn’t even see their graves,” Smith said. “I think it’s really beautiful that people are getting out, doing and keeping it up.”

The 5 Laws Focused on Virginia’s Historically African-American Cemeteries

At the start of the 2018 legislative session, members of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates introduced five bills that would provide funding for the state’s historically African-American cemeteries. All five passed the General Assembly and have been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam.

This follows the passage in 2017 of a bill to assist two black cemeteries in Richmond and Henrico County. Until then, legislators regularly rejected attempts to address the unequal treatment of American-American grave sites and burial grounds in comparison to white-majority cemeteries and Confederate memorials.

In a 2013 article in the Journal of Field Archeology, Professor Lynn Rainville discusses this lack of equity: “Even though we have just elected an African-American president, our racially sensitive society unequally values the contributions of some individuals and communities. In the case of historical, black cemeteries, the voices of descendants and concerned residents are often ignored if a burial ground stands in the way of economic development or new construction. Conversely, it is taken as a given that ‘culturally valued’ graveyards, such as that of 19th-century presidents or white elites, will not be disturbed.”

In a statement sent to Capital News Service, a spokesperson for Northam echoed those sentiments and said the new laws “will help to expand upon the Commonwealth’s efforts to highlight, steward, and preserve additional African American cemeteries.”

Here are the new laws set to assist Virginia’s African-American cemeteries. All of them will take effect July 1:

  • House Bill 284, introduced by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond. It adds any locality or person who owns an African-American cemetery established between January 1800 and January 1900 to the list of historic organizations qualified to receive funding for the preservation of the burial grounds. The cemetery owners may receive $5 for every person interred who lived between 1800 and 1900.
  • Senate Bill 198, introduced by Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and HB 527, filed by Del. Matthew James, D-Portsmouth. These identical bills add Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portsmouth to the list of historic cemeteries qualified to receive funding.
  • HB 360, introduced by Del. David Toscano, D-Charlottesville. It adds the Daughters of Zion Cemetery in Charlottesville to the list.
  • SB 163, introduced by Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun. It adds the African-American Burial Ground in Belmont to the list.

Dr. Ted Maris-Wolf of the Evergreen Cemetery and the EnRichmond Foundation, reflecting on the swift passage of the bills through the General Assembly, said, “That was a great day, a tangible sign of progress.”

“These are sacred sites of history and memory, and for the state to help dignify them in that way, I think was an honor for everyone associated.”

Virginia Works to Improve Voting Process Before Midterm Elections

By Logan Bogert, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – As Virginia prepares for the November midterm elections, the State Board of Elections approved a number of policy changes aimed at clarifying the voting process and making ballots easier to understand.

On March 23, the board met for the first time since the Northam administration was sworn in. The panel unanimously voted to roll out new ballot standards for the Nov. 6 general election. The goal of the standards is clarification – including allowing candidates to use nicknames, more readable fonts and user-friendly instructions on the ballots.

Each ballot will include instructions on how to vote. It will also state, “If you want to change a vote or if you have made a mistake, ask an election worker for another ballot. If you make marks on the ballot besides filling in the oval, your votes may not be counted.”

Chris Piper, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, said the process for revising the ballot standards began before last November’s election, when one voter in Newport News improperly marked their ballot. This led to a tie in the 94th House District race between Democrat Shelly Simonds and Republican David Yancey. During a special meeting of the State Board of Elections in early January, the names of both candidates were placed in a bowl and one was drawn; Yancey was declared the winner.

“The ballot standards were something that was targeted as one of the first things that needed to be looked at,” Piper said.

He said the changes are “really designed to make the ballot standards document more user-friendly and easier to understand for the localities and the vendors who design ballots. It clarifies some things that had come up over the years – it wasn’t in response to anything that happened in November, but certainly lessons learned went into the development.”

The Department of Elections also ensures that each voting machine in Virginia is working properly.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law reports that more than 500 election officials in 41 states, including Virginia, indicated that they will use machines and computers that are more than a decade old in this year’s midterm elections. That number is down from 2016, when the Brennan Center reported that 43 states used electronic voting machines that were at least a decade old.

“Every single machine that’s deployed on Election Day goes through a thorough legit fix and accuracy test which provides the machines with a whole lot of different scenarios and makes sure that it’s working as it should prior to deployment,” Piper said.

In 2017, Virginia decertified paperless touch-screen machines, causing 22 localities to get rid of such devices and replace them. Currently, all localities in Virginia and all voters vote by voter-verified paper ballot. This ensures that there is a voter-verifiable paper audit trail for every vote cast.

“The determination of the Board of Elections is that a voter-verified paper ballot is the safest method to vote in the commonwealth,” Piper said.

Beginning July 1, a new law will require the Department of Elections to annually conduct a post-election risk-limiting audit of ballot scanner machines in use in the commonwealth. Piper said the State Board of Elections is working through those standards, but will soon provide “assurance to the public” that all elections are conducted properly and that the results “were accurate and the will of the public.”

There are several ways to register to vote. Citizens can register on paper by printing off a form on the State Board of Elections website, in person at any office of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles or directly on the website of the Board of Elections or the DMV.

Virginians also can register through third-party groups that conduct voter registration drives. Such activities have been a source of controversy in recent years. In January 2017, Vafalay Massaquoi of Alexandria was convicted of submitting fake voter registration forms while working for a progressive advocacy group, New Virginia Majority. The following June, former James Madison University student Andrew Spieles was also convicted of fabricating voter registration forms while working for HarrisonburgVOTES.

Anyone who requests 25 or more voter registration forms is required to complete training on how to conduct a voter registration drive and receive a certificate that they’ve completed training. However, Piper said that certificate is for “the organization as a whole, not necessarily each individual.”

After getting the certificate, the organization’s representatives can distribute voter registration forms to prospective voters.

If registering to vote on paper, the newly registered voter should be provided with a receipt that is on the form itself that “provides contact information for the individual to follow up with them,” Piper said. According to the guidelines set forth by the State Board of Elections on conducting voter registration drives, completed applications must then be delivered to a voter registration office within 10 days of registering or on the day of the next election registration deadline.

Some third-party groups say Virginia makes it hard to vote.

Rock the Vote, the largest nonprofit and nonpartisan voter registration organization that works to build the political power of young people, lists Virginia as a “blocker state” in regard to voting. It notes that Virginia does not provide automatic or same-day voter registration. Virginia also requires voters to show a photo ID at the polls – a policy that Rock the Vote considers restrictive.

In addition to ranking states based on voting policies, Rock the Vote provides election reminders and information on upcoming elections aimed at millennials on its website.

“Young millennials will be the largest voting block this year,” said Shaneice Simmons, Rock the Vote’s civic engagement manager. “This generation is extremely socially and politically conscious.”

The party primary elections will be held June 12. The deadline to register to vote in the primaries or update an existing voter registration is May 21, and the deadline to request an absentee ballot to be mailed is June 5.

“There is going to be so much on the table for young people to be able to create so much change this year,” Simmons said. “It’s just about making sure that we’re not leaving it on the table – we’re not allowing others to make decisions for us and electing people that represent our values.”

The deadline to register to vote or update an existing registration for the Nov. 6 general election is Oct. 15. To request an absentee ballot to be mailed, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Oct. 30. To request an absentee ballot by appearing in person, requests must be received by 5 p.m. on Nov. 3.

For-Profit Colleges Leave Many Students with Big Debts

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Higher education and the profit motive, many argue, do not mix – and students at for-profit colleges often pay the price.

ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college institution with about 130 campuses in 38 states, shut down in September2016 after then-President Barack Obama’s administration blocked its students from receiving federal student aid. The institution had 40,000 students enrolled among all campuses when it closed.

For-profit schools have a history dating to colonial America, according to the book “Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University.” In those days, a scarcity of places for people to receive a formal education resulted in entrepreneurs teaching practical skills and trades, as well as reading and writing.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a trade organization that represents 1,500 for-profit colleges, praised a judge’s ruling in March that said Obama’s Department of Education failed “to consider various categories of relevant evidence” in reviewing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the largest accreditor of for-profit colleges in the U.S.

In September 2016, the Education Department removed the council’s accrediting authority, following a lengthy controversy over its capability to be an effective overseer for students and billions in taxpayer dollars.

“Yes, our sector has had bad schools like every sector of higher education,” Gunderson said in a news release. “But it is time that everyone across the political spectrum stop, step back and look for ways to work together to establish public policies that treat all sectors of higher education on a fair and equal basis.”

Government regulation of for-profit colleges has become less restrictive since President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education. DeVos froze regulations that protected students from loan defraudment and paused the gainful employment rule, which states: “In order to be eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act Title IV student assistance programs, an educational program must lead to a degree at a non-profit or public institution or it must prepare students for ‘gainful employment in a recognized occupation.’”

According to Inside Higher Ed, Obama’s administration created the gainful employment rule to establish accountability for career education programs when they produce too many graduates with debt they cannot repay. Schools could have their federal funding eliminated if they did not meet requirements.

Democratic attorneys general in 17 states and Washington, D.C. sued DeVos in October, alleging that freezing those regulations violated federal law. The Department of Education said those allegations were “frivolous.”

Sales and recruiting techniques, specifically at ITT Tech, were discussed in a 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It said that in recruiting students, ITT Tech staff members followed a script called a “Pain Funnel,” asking increasingly uncomfortable questions.

When addressing prospective students who signed an enrollment agreement but indicated they may not want to start school, ITT Tech representatives were instructed to “poke the pain a bit” and “remind them what things will be like if they don’t continue forward and earn their degrees,” the report said.

The script’s questions, designed to elicit emotional pain from prospective students, were intended to persuade vulnerable individuals to apply to the school. The pressure culminated with the question: “Have you given up trying to deal with the problem?”

ITT Tech is not the only for-profit institution to face legal action for allegedly defrauding students. In December 2016, DeVry University – an Illinois-based university with 38 campuses across the U.S., including two in Virginia – settled a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission that claimed the school used deceptive advertising to recruit and mislead students.

DeVry paid $100 million to the FTC: $49.4 million for students harmed by the advertisements, and $50.6 million for student loan forgiveness. All unpaid private student loans the school issued to undergraduate students between September 2008 and September 2015 were forgiven, as well as more than $20 million that students owed the school in tuition and fees.

An ITT Tech advertisement from 2007, which details the feel-good story of graduate Charlie Graves, promises viewers and prospective students the chance to attain their goals. The website of the Career Education Colleges and Universities touts similar success stories of students from diverse backgrounds who earned degrees and launched careers in fields ranging from advertising and nursing to computer science and audio production.

But critics say “success” is not the outcome for many students at for-profit colleges, particularly when it comes to loan debt.

Time magazine reported in January that more than half of borrowers – 52 percent – who attended a for-profit college in 2003 defaulted on their student loans after 12 years. Borrowers from two-year community colleges defaulted at half that rate: 26 percent.

Judith Scott-Clayton, who wrote a recent report on student borrowing for the Brookings Institution, said the high percentage of for-profit students who default on their loans does not illustrate the full scope of the issue.

For-profit colleges are generally more expensive to attend than community colleges, so more students tend to take out loans, and at higher amounts. The Brookings Institution report said its findings “provide support for robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, to improve degree attainment and promote income-contingent loan repayment options for all students.”

The 2012 Senate report on ITT Tech stated: “Compared to public colleges offering the same programs, the price of tuition is higher at ITT Tech. Tuition for an associate’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $44,895. The same program at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana cost $9,385.”

Tuition for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $93,624. The same program at Indiana University in Bloomington was $43,528.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a former admissions and financial aid counselor for ITT Tech, said she sold associate degrees for about $30,000 and bachelor’s degrees for about $60,000.

“On average, students enrolled in for-profit colleges take on student loan debt that they cannot manage,” said Cottom, now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“Whether that is because these students are more likely to be economically vulnerable or if it is because employers don’t seem to value these degrees very much, we aren’t exactly sure.”

Cottom said her work at for-profit colleges, which she discusses in her book, informed her interest. Later, she decided to do research on for-profit colleges as a sociologist because she thought the expansion of these institutions and their degrees were understudied.

She thinks it is important to keep in mind the circumstances of students who attend for-profit schools. Many individuals enrolled in such programs are people who have been disadvantaged in accessing high-quality, not-for-profit higher education, she said.

“As a sociologist, one of our long-standing disciplinary interests is in how and why inequality happens. I study for-profit colleges as a way to understand contemporary inequality,” Cottom said.

“When this [student debt] happens, people can be worse off for having pursued higher education than they would have been had they never gone to school at all.”

The National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent report on bachelor’s degree graduation rates showed a significant disparity in graduation rates for students at for-profit colleges versus not-for-profit colleges. Twenty-three percent of students at for-profit colleges graduated within six years; the six-year graduation rate for students at public not-for-profit colleges was 59 percent.

Some students who studied at for-profit institutions have said they felt they wasted their time.

Erika Colon, 35, of Boston, took out $15,000 in loans for a medical administrative assistant certificate at a campus of Corinthian Colleges. The chain of colleges closed after it was found to have misrepresented post-graduation employment statistics.

“They are just giving students high hopes for nothing and just taking people’s money,” Colon said.

‘Bamboozled’ ITT Tech Grad Saddled with Massive Debt, Subpar Degree

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bobby Donovan always loved video games. The 29-year-old from suburban Hanover County played games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends daily and worked as a senior game adviser at GameStop for a few years after high school. When Donovan saw ITT Technical Institute was offering a bachelor’s degree program in video game design, he jumped at the idea.

But his hopes of attaining that degree and furthering his career did not last long. Donovan entered the program at the for-profit college’s Midlothian campus in fall 2010. By the following fall, the program had lost its accreditation and was eliminated.

Donovan said ITT Tech received late notice that the video game design program was not meeting the expectations of its accreditor. Contrary to Donovan’s belief, he was never enrolled in the bachelor’s program. Instead, he and other students in the same situation were transferred into a graphic design or visual communications program. And that program was for an associate’s degree, not a bachelor’s.

“They cut the program and never enrolled anybody into the bachelor’s program,” Donovan said. “They only enrolled people into the associate’s, so you were never on track for the bachelor’s. We didn’t know they did that. They never told us, or they never told me.”

When Donovan learned the video game design program was eliminated, he looked into transferring schools. But there was one significant issue: What he thought was his best option, ECPI University, another large for-profit institution in Virginia, would not accept his credits. He felt he had no choice but to stay at ITT Tech and complete the associate’s program, which he did. He graduated in 2012.

Donovan, who now lives in Woodbridge in Northern Virginia, estimated that he took out about $50,000 in loans to fund his associate’s degree. His loan debt is split between a federal and a private lender. Approximately $20,000 of it is from the private lender ITT Tech used, who sold Donovan’s debt to Student CU Connect in 2013. The loan has a variable interest rate that started around 12 percent but has increased to about 16 percent. It caps at 16.75 percent.

“The amount is really just unheard of for an associate’s degree,” Donovan said. “If I didn’t have student loans, I would probably have an extra $1,000 every month.”

David Hodges, 31, a former classmate of Donovan’s, enrolled in ITT Tech’s visual communications associate’s program in 2010. He withdrew from the institution after a year.

“I feel that I educated my professors more than they educated me,” Hodges said. “I enjoyed my classmates, but not the program. The art program at ITT Tech is comparable to an eighth-grade art class.”

Hodges, who lives in Richmond, is now a self-employed street artist and fine arts painter, but he said it is no thanks to his time at ITT Tech.

“I tell everyone I’m self-taught because I learned nothing at ITT Tech,” he said.

In 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency founded in 2011 to protect citizens from unfair bank and lending practices, sued ITT Tech. The bureau alleged the school’s enrollment and financial aid advisors used predatory lending tactics to coerce students into costly private loans they could not afford. The lawsuit also alleged ITT Tech misled students about their post-graduation job prospects and the transferability of earned credits.

“ITT marketed itself as improving consumers’ lives, but it was really just improving its bottom line,” Richard Cordray, the bureau’s former director, said in a news release when the bureau filed the lawsuit. “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. [This] action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT Tech closed its campuses and declared bankruptcy in September 2016, after the U.S. Department of Education judged the school failed to meet accreditation standards twice that year and eliminated ITT Tech’s ability to receive federal student aid. Some students who were enrolled at the time or had recently withdrawn – within the previous 120 days – could apply for loan cancellation, but that applied only to federal loans, not private loans.

Because Donovan graduated in 2012, neither of those options applied to him. He received an email from ITT Tech on Sept. 6, 2016, explaining the school’s closure. The response blamed the federal government for forcing the school to close, Donovan said, and offered no options relevant to him other than providing information on how to obtain his academic transcript.

“The Department of Education’s August 25 letter imposed a combination of requirements on ITT Educational Services, Inc. that we believe are unprecedented in the history of the Department of Education,” the email stated. “Please know we worked diligently to identify alternatives that would have allowed you to start or continue your education at ITT Tech and earn your degree. But the Department of Education’s actions have forced us to cease operations at the ITT Technical Institutes.”

The email shared a list of schools that ITT Tech said had entered into agreements allowing students to transfer credits. The email also included a list of schools in students’ local areas or online that offered similar programs. Donovan said he thinks the schools ITT Tech mentioned were also for-profit colleges. The website is no longer active.

Donovan said his student loan debt will hang over his head for years to come. He is still motivated to earn a bachelor’s degree, but it is not feasible for him to return to school just yet.

“It’s kind of been put on the back burner after starting a family, getting a house,” he said. “[The debt] affects a lot of things – not just going back to school, but really starting my life outside of school after one huge mistake.”

He also said if he were to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school, he doubts his associate’s degree would be considered; thus, he would likely have to start over with zero credits.

“I don’t think any actual college or university will actually recognize it as a degree,” Donovan said. “But I’m not 100 percent sure. I haven’t found out yet.”

He is doubtful his associate’s degree has been valuable in his post-ITT Tech job pursuits either, he said, but he remains positive and hopeful for the future.

“The people that I met [at ITT Tech] are great people,” Donovan said. “Some of the teachers were really good. It was a learning experience. I know I’m not going to be bamboozled again.”

Dozens of Children in Virginia Are Fatally Shot Each Year

 

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Around 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July in 2013, 7-year-old Brendon Mackey and his father were walking through the parking lot of the Boathouse restaurant in the Brandermill subdivision in Chesterfield County on their way to watch the fireworks display over Swift Creek Reservoir. Suddenly, the boy fell to the ground.

Bryan Mackey thought his son had tripped or passed out, and reached to pick him up. “When I had him in my hands, I looked at his face and I knew he wasn’t there,” Bryan Mackey told reporters at the time. “I could see it in his eyes, that blank look in his face.”

Brendon had been struck in the head and killed by a random bullet that authorities believe had been fired into the air in celebration. Police have yet to find the person who fired the fatal shot.

Brendon, who was about to start third grade at C. E. Curtis Elementary School in Chester, was one of more than 620 children in Virginia and 26,000 nationwide fatally shot since 1999, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Virginia victims included 80 children age 10 and younger. Three died in gun incidents before reaching their first birthday, a Capital News Service analysis of the data found. Nationally, about 3,000 children 10 and under – including more than 180 who hadn’t turned 1 – have been fatally shot since 1999.

The mass shooting that killed 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day has propelled the debate over gun violence into the national conversation. Students who survived the massacre and their counterparts across the country have declared “Never again” and advocated for gun law reforms.

While mass shootings are relatively rare, gun-related deaths of minors – age 17 and younger – are distressingly common. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, 39 minors in Virginia and about 1,640 nationwide died as a result of guns.

Accidents like the tragedy involving Brendon Mackey represented 7 percent of all gun-related deaths of minors in Virginia since 1999. Thirty-seven percent of the deaths were suicides, and 53 percent were assaults. The remaining deaths were undetermined.

“Our kids have become collateral damage for the unacceptable policies of the gun lobbies,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Haas became involved with the issue after her daughter Emily, 19, was shot and injured in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when a gunman killed 32 people. When it comes to gun deaths of minors, Haas said, “Even one is too many.”

The statistics on gun-related deaths

Nationally, of every 100,000 Americans age 17 and under, two are killed by gunfire each year, according to the CDC data. In Virginia, the rate is 1.9 gun-related deaths per 100,000 minors. The highest rates in the nation are 9 deaths per 100,000 minors in the District of Columbia, 5.5 in Alaska and 4.1 in Louisiana.

The data showed a distinction between younger children and older ones. Since 1999 in Virginia:

·         139 children age 13 and under were fatally shot. About 66 percent of those deaths were classified as assaults, 20 percent as accidents and 11 percent as suicides.

·         482 Virginians between 14 and 17 died from gunfire. Almost half of the deaths – 49 percent – were assaults, 44 percent were suicides and nearly 3 percent were accidents.

Those numbers show that suicide is more prevalent among older children than younger ones – a fact underscored by the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System. That system found that Virginians age 15 to 19 were seven times more likely to commit suicide than those age 10-14.

The CDC data show that 44 percent of minors killed by guns in Virginia were African-American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Virginians are African-American. This indicates that black children are fatally shot at a disproportionately high rate in the state.

The debate over gun control

In March, thousands of Virginians participated in the international March for Our Lives, protesting government inaction on gun control legislation. About 5,000 people, including students and politicians, marched on the state Capitol. The protests came after a legislative session in which members of the General Assembly clashed over dozens of bills involving gun regulation.

Lawmakers proposed more than 70 gun-related bills. Some sought to restrict access to guns, including by children. Others sought to expand gun rights, including letting people bring guns to church. In the end, only two of the bills passed. Both have been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam:

·         House Bill 287, introduced by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, will create a specialty license plate with the message “Stop Gun Violence.”

·         Senate Bill 669, sponsored by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, seeks to keep guns out of the hands of Virginians age 14 or older who have been ordered to get mental health treatment. Under this law, which took effect immediately on April 18, such individuals face restrictions on purchasing, owning and transporting firearms.

SB 669 was meant to address what Haas and other gun control proponents call “victims of access.” This is the idea that even when children are involved in gun-related accidents or deaths, they are victims of negligence by people who allowed them access to the weapons.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, tried to address that issue by introducing a measure making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly give a child of 4 or younger access to firearms.

Lopez said he was motivated to sponsor House Bill 950 by the many incidents in which children in the state accidentally end up shooting themselves or others.

“Regardless of what you think about the Second Amendment, I think we can all agree that the Founding Fathers were not talking about 2- and 3-year-olds,” Lopez said.

HB 950 died in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

Republican opposition to such legislation has largely centered on concerns over Second Amendment rights. Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, was one of the most vocal opponents of gun control legislation in the 2018 session.

When the debate was coming to a head in the General Assembly in March, after the Florida shooting, Freitas gave a speech defending his party’s position in the gun debate. Freitas said the ultimate goal of gun control legislation from Democrats was to “gut the Second Amendment.”

“When the policies fail to produce the results you are promising your constituents, you’ll be back with more reasons to infringe on Second Amendment rights,” Freitas told Democrats in the House.

But during the legislative session after Brendon Mackey’s death, the General Assembly was moved to action. In 2014, lawmakers passed a pair of bills making it a felony to injure someone through the reckless use of firearms.

“Any person who handles any firearm in a manner so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life and causes the serious bodily injury of another person resulting in permanent and significant physical impairment is guilty of a Class 6 felony,” the legislation stated.

The bills were aimed at preventing accidents as a result of celebratory gunfire. Supporters dubbed the legislation “Brendon’s Law.”

Jails Struggle to Help Mentally Ill Inmates

 

By Yasmine Jumaa and Irena Schunn, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Arrested for taking $5 in snacks from a convenience store, Jamycheal Mitchell was placed in a cell in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth. Authorities planned to send Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia, to a mental hospital. But that never happened.

Over the next four months, Mitchell withered away, losing more than 40 pounds. He died in his cell on Aug. 19, 2015.

“I had to ask again: ‘You sure this is my cousin?’ ” Jenobia Meads told reporters after seeing Mitchell’s body at the funeral home. “It looked like he was 67 years old.”

Mitchell’s death underscored the prevalence of people with mental illnesses in Virginia’s jails. More than one in six inmates is mentally ill, according to a 2017 study by state officials. Despite years of discussion and attempts at action, lasting reforms have proved difficult to achieve.

“As a mental health reformer, I’ve told people for a long time it’s like eating an elephant,” said Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath. “You take a bite and you feel full, but then you look at what’s ahead of you, the work ahead of you, and you realize that you haven’t really done much.”

A senator motivated by tragedy

In 2013, Deeds was stabbed multiple times at his home in Bath County by his 24-year-old son, Gus, who then committed suicide. Gus Deeds had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but mental health care system officials released him after they could not find an open bed in the state psychiatric system during the six-hour window allotted by law at the time.

The tragedy motivated Deeds, a member of the state Senate for 17 years, to become an advocate for mental health reform. He heads the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century.

The subcommittee expects to issue a report on its findings by the end of 2019. In the meantime, members of the panel have endorsed several budgetary and legislative proposals on such issues as alternatives to incarceration, crisis and emergency services, and housing.

The work will continue under a new state mental health commissioner. Hughes Melton, chief deputy commissioner for the Virginia Department of Health, was recently named by Gov. Ralph Northam to head the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. He will succeed Jack Barber, an agency veteran who has been commissioner for three years.

“The joint subcommittee is at a critical point in our work, as we only have about a year and a half of life left,” Deeds said. “We cannot afford to lose one inch of ground or one moment of time.”

Deeds said he looks forward to working with Melton to achieve the subcommittee’s goals.

Virginia’s lack of psychiatric beds

The move will be closely watched in the state, which has struggled to improve mental health services. Among the challenges has been the loss of thousands of psychiatric beds since the 1960s, when mental health advocates pushed for community-based programs and the deinstitutionalization of patients.

Community-based treatment is cost-efficient in managing mental health problems and establishes a level of care that can address problems before they become emergencies. But psychiatric hospitals and other residential facilities are necessary in the event of a mental health crisis like the one experienced by Gus Deeds.

According to a 2017 survey by the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center, Virginia has about 1,500 psychiatric beds – not nearly enough to meet the needs of people with severe mental illnesses.

When left untreated, severe mental illness may result in behavior that can put the person in the custody of law enforcement – placing the burden of psychiatric treatment on correctional facilities.

“People with mental illness are sometimes caught up in situations where paranoia, or whatever drives them to do something that somebody may consider a criminal act, and the result is they wind up in jail,” Deeds said. “There’s probably a better way for us to respond to that.”

Individuals with psychiatric diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to be in a jail or correctional facility than in a hospital bed, according to research by the Treatment Advocacy Center. About 4 percent of U.S. adults have a serious mental illness, while 20 percent of inmates are diagnosed with a severe mental disorder – leading some to characterize prisons and jails as America’s “new asylums.

The Hampton Roads Regional Jail, where Mitchell was held at the time of his death, has become an unofficial mental health institution for Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Chesapeake. Nearly half of the jail’s 1,100 inmates are diagnosed as mentally ill, according to a study by the Virginia Department of Corrections and state Compensation Board.

The Compensation Board works with sheriffs and other constitutional officers. The General Assembly has directed the board to issue an annual report on the number of jail inmates with mental illness. The board’s 2017 report put the number at more than 7,450 – almost 18 percent of the statewide jail population.

Mitchell’s death prompted a criminal investigation by the Virginia State Police, an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into whether the facility violates the rights of prisoners and a $60 million federal lawsuit filed by Mitchell’s family. Both investigations and the lawsuit are ongoing.

The punitive approach of correctional facilities creates an environment ill-suited for the rehabilitation of mental illness, critics say. The Compensation Board reported that 1,335 jail inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses were placed in solitary confinement last year.

Another death, this one in Fairfax County

Jamycheal Mitchell wasn’t the only mentally ill person to die in a Virginia jail. Natasha McKenna, who also suffered from schizophrenia, died in the Fairfax County Jail in 2015. A lawsuit filed in 2016 against the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office alleges that insufficient training factored into McKenna’s death.

McKenna, 37, died after being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by correctional officers trying to move her to another cell. Attorney Harvey Volzer, who is representing McKenna’s mother, declined to comment on the case. However, when Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ray Morrogh investigated the case in 2015, he determined that no crime was committed and that no charges would be filed against the officers.

The Treatment Advocacy Center has found that individuals diagnosed with severe mental disorders are more likely than other offenders to end up back in jail.

“We need to make sure we have discharge plans, that we have a way for them to kind of parachute into the community and seek and receive treatment services,” Deeds said. “We need to be looking at the whole person and the way we can treat them.”

Addressing that need, the 2016 General Assembly awarded six regional and local jails $3.5 million to establish pilot programs that provide mental health services to inmates while incarcerated and after their release.

A ‘pretty ambitious’ list of solutions

In 2014, the General Assembly passed a bill proposed by Deeds that extended the time limit on emergency custody orders, established a registry of available psychiatric beds in public and private hospitals, and designated state hospitals to serve as facilities of last resort. The legislation sought to ensure that beds would be available for citizens, including inmates, who experience a mental health crisis.

Deeds has asked the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia to study alternative solutions for people having severe mental health issues.

Having options is crucial because the state hospital system is overcrowded, said Rhonda Thissen, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Virginia. “If we can find alternatives for people that are in the community, that are not in jail, it would make it easier for people in jail to get a bed in the state hospital.”

Deeds said possible solutions being examined by his subcommittee include:

§  Diverting less serious offenders to treatment facilities, instead of prisons and jails. “If you have a real diversion program, you reduce the number of people with serious mental illness that are in our jails and prisons,” the senator said.

§  Providing treatment services and programs to inmates to lower recidivism. “You’ve got to make sure that the jails and prisons, the jails in particular, have a real connection with mental health,” Deeds said.

§  Offering treatment options for inmates being discharged to ease their reentry into society.

“All of that is pretty ambitious,” Deeds said. “We need to be looking at the whole person and the way we can treat them.”

Recent Developments in Mental Health Reforms in Virginia’s Jails

§  2014: An online bed registry is launched to expedite the search for available psychiatric care.

§  2016: Gov. Terry McAuliffe requests nearly $32 million from the General Assembly to update and standardize mental health care in correctional facilities across the state.

§  2016-17: More jail officers receive crisis intervention training.

§  July 2017: A new law requires mental illness screening for people booked into jails.

§  2018: The General Assembly approves a bill granting correctional facilities the authority to treat individuals incapable of giving consent. That gives correctional staff the same authority as those employed by psychiatric institutions.

Pathways to Prevention: Measures to Curb Gun Violence

(Editor's Note: This is the final installment of an in-depth series by the Student Journalists of the VCU Capital News Service)

By Claire Comey and Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Lori Haas’ daughter is pregnant with her second child. That might sound like an exciting but somewhat mundane life event for most adults, but for Haas, it means more. Eleven years ago, her daughter, Emily, sat in a French class at Virginia Tech when a gunman entered the room and killed 12 of her classmates and 16 other students.

So when Haas tells people Emily is pregnant, she is excited, but she always thinks of the parents who will never get to be grandparents because of gun violence.

“It’s visceral pain for those families, and they don’t get over it,” she said. “There’s no closure.”

After a mass shooting such as the Tech massacre, community leaders consider policy solutions and ask the “what if” questions about security problems and mental health awareness. But what can actually be changed to help prevent another mass shooting? Haas is pushing for answers.

In the wake of the April 16, 2007, shooting, Haas became friends with some of the victims’ parents. They still grieve.

“They cry every Christmas, they cry every birthday, they cry every anniversary, they cry every Mother’s Day,” Haas said.

That’s why Haas spends every day working for gun control legislation as the Virginia state director for the National Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

“Sometimes I just don’t understand how our lawmakers can put the ease of access to a firearm above somebody’s life, and that’s what they’re doing,” Haas said.

Haas advocates for national “extreme risk laws,” which allow families or law enforcement authorities to ask a court to remove someone’s access to guns if the person “poses an imminent danger” to themselves or others.

Haas is also a proponent of universal background checks on all firearm purchases.

“You can prohibit someone from purchasing or owning a gun, but if they can just go online or go to a gun show or go to the street corner and buy one, the prohibition doesn’t do you any good,” she said.

Regulation works in America, Haas said, so it would be common sense to regulate firearms more.

“The notion that we can’t regulate access to firearms is harming our friends, our families, our neighbors, our communities,” Haas said. “It’s deadly and there are deadly consequences, and I find it morally objectionable that people place more value on convenience than on someone’s life.”

Security: Be ALERRT

In the case of an attack, the most important thing is to be vigilant and aware of your surroundings, said Pete Blair, the executive director of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training at Texas State University in San Marcos, south of Austin. Being conscious and reactive is key.

“The first thing is to have situational awareness, and if something seems wrong, to start acting as if it is wrong as quickly as possible,” Blair said.

ALERRT is becoming a national standard for first-responder training for active attacks. It began as a collaboration between the San Marcos Police Department and the Houston County Sheriff’s Office in response to the Columbine Massacre of 1999. Now the training is the standard for all agents in the FBI, and many states have adopted it for all first responders.

Mike O’Berry, assistant chief of the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department, said that having the same training is key in collaborating with other agencies responding to an attack on campus.

“We’re going to get lots of agencies that we don’t work with every day,” O’Berry said. “We’ve all been trained the same so we can seamlessly all get together in groups and all deal with the situation based on the same training.”

ALERRT trains not only first responders but also civilians on how to prepare for any kind of attack. The program teaches a three-pronged strategy – avoid, deny and defend:

  • Avoid means to simply get as far away as possible from an attacker.
  • If that is not possible the next step is to deny them access to your location. “Close and lock the door, barricade it and keep them from getting to you,” Blair said.
  • The final step and last resort is to defend yourself by any means necessary. “You have a legal right to do that, and if the choice is to do nothing or be murdered, we encourage people to try to protect themselves,” Blair said.

The ultimate way to stay safe, according to ALERRT and the VCU Police Department, is to report any suspicious activity to authorities. O’Berry said safety is everyone’s responsibility.

“Those are the things that we need people to call in,” O’Berry said. “And it’s the only way to keep VCU safe – everybody looking and observing the environment because the police can’t do it alone.”

Mental Health Treatment

After a mass shooting, many people say the shooter’s mental health triggered the violence.

That assumption not only reflects an incorrect causal relationship but also contributes to a harmful stigma, said psychologist Peter LeViness of the University of Richmond, who served as an expert witness for the defense after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

“I think people are quick to connect mental illness to the shooters,” LeViness said. “I don’t think it’s as common a link as people want to believe.”

There are only a few disorders that “actually increase the risk of violence,” and even then, the connection is not obvious, he said.

According to a 2016 American Psychiatric Association study, mass shootings by “people with serious mental illness” account for fewer than 1 percent of all gun-related homicides.

“I don’t think it’s causal,” LeViness said. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of people with the same disorder wouldn’t do that, and then when people say it was the depression, that just makes the stigma worse.”

More often, shooters have had a grievance or grudge they want to settle, or they had a childhood filled with violence, he said.

“They think, ‘I’ve been treated badly, and someone needs to pay back for that,’” LeViness said.

After a mass shooting, survivors can have lasting mental effects, said LeViness, who is also director of counseling and psychological services at Richmond and a threat assessment trainer in Virginia.

In the short term, survivors might exhibit a loss of concentration, appetite or sleep – possible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Support from family and friends can help. At school, administrators can bring in grief counselors to help with returning to normalcy.

Even people miles from a mass shooting can be affected by the event.

Lissa Brown, a school psychologist for Henrico County, said the children she works with in Virginia are experiencing secondary trauma in the aftermath of the February shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“It’s just the veiled threat that something might happen to them,” Brown said. “These children are still traumatized.”

Many students and teachers told Brown that they don’t feel safe.

“We see a lot of hyperactivity, a lot of hyper-vigilance, because children are just concerned about what’s going to happen during their school day,” Brown said. “Sometimes they’re not able to focus because they’re always on guard or thinking about how they’d react.”

Brown emphasized the need for accurate threat and risk assessment in determining if a student could harm themselves or others.

“I feel that all children who are at risk for harming themselves or harming others need mental health care,” Brown said. “And if that was my child, he would need mental health care, and if he had killed my child, I would be so hurt, but that child was asking for help.”

LeViness supports what he sees as sensible gun control. Research shows that restricting access to guns can prevent suicide, he noted. But more than that, LeViness said people must be more interested in one another.

“The more we can connect with people and be socially engaged,” LeViness said. “Who is not connecting? Who is on the fringe?”

A New Generation Takes the Forefront in Gun Control Debate

(Editor's Note: This is part three of a four part series by the Student Journalists of theVCU Capital News Service. Alexandra Sosik has prepared a timeline of school shootings that is available here.)

By Alexandra Sosik and Fadel Allassan, Capital News Service

For the second time in as many months, thousands of students throughout the country united in a national school walkout last week, demanding government action on gun control with their piercing cry of “never again.”

The walkout marked 19 years since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire in Columbine High School in Colorado, murdering 12 fellow students and a teacher. In the aftermath of that bloodbath, President Bill Clinton urged Congress to pass gun control laws. But nothing happened then – or after the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016 or Las Vegas last fall.

But after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, the political winds seemed to have shifted in favor of gun control. What made the difference? Generation Z – roughly defined as those born in the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.

On March 24, 17-year-old Harry Kelso stood atop a van with a megaphone in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He looked at the crowd of some 5,000 gun control advocates gathered before him at the Richmond March for Our Lives.

“I pray for the school year without the drills and the hide-and-lock exercises we’ve experienced since elementary school that remind us of the ever-present danger we face,” Kelso, a senior at Hermitage High School in Henrico, told the crowd. “I pray for the day I don’t have to pray about this anymore.”

Cameron Kasky – the 17-year-old firebrand and Marjory Stoneman Douglas student who made a name challenging Florida Sen. Marco Rubio during a CNN town hall – echoed a similar message at the main rally happening simultaneously in Washington, D.C. More than 800,000 people attended that demonstration.

“My generation, having spent our entire lives seeing mass shooting after mass shooting, has learned our voices are powerful and our votes matter,” Kasky said. “We must educate ourselves and start having conversations that keep our country moving forward. And we will. We hereby promise to fix the broken system we’ve been forced into and create a better world for the generations to come.”

Kelso and Kasky, in Richmond and D.C., respectively, were two of the many voices participating in the March for Our Lives – a protest sparked by the shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14. The protest, like a school walkout staged 10 days earlier, was organized primarily by high school-age youths.

It all started Feb. 16, two days after the shooting in Parkland, when the hashtag #NeverAgain began trending on Twitter. That became the impetus for a rally that was originally planned for Washington but then spread to cities and towns across the nation and world.

The movement, inspired by tragedy and fueled by anger, has used social media to galvanize members of Generation Z. Among other tactics, they have confronted businesses and excoriated political leaders who accept financial donations from the National Rifle Association.

The students have had some success. Just weeks after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Florida enacted a gun-control law that bans rapid-fire “bump stocks” and raises the minimum age for buying a firearm from 18 to 21. Although Virginia did not follow suit, Democratic legislators have formed a committee to consider ways to stop gun violence, and Republican lawmakers appointed a panel to bolster school safety.

It’s not unusual to see Kasky or other survivors of the Parkland shooting such as David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez on cable news promoting their cause nationally. In Richmond, students such as Kelso and Armstrong High School freshman Corey Stuckey lead the charge.

The recent activity among young people surrounding gun control has been a long time coming.

Since 1982, there have been 98 shootings in the U.S. in which three or more people were killed. Sixteen of those incidents happened at schools. Of all mass shootings, Marjory Stoneman Douglas had the seventh-highest number of fatalities; Sandy Hook ranked fourth; and Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed in 2007, was third.

On Dec. 14, 2012, 20 children and six staff members were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In response, parents created the Sandy Hook Promise to “prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child.”

But the Sandy Hook tragedy did not prompt governmental action on gun control. After the Columbine massacre in 1999, Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, explained why such incidents don’t necessarily result in new laws.

“The Columbine shootings have energized the gun-control debate, and moreover, they have given the emotional edge to the gun-control advocates,” Sabato told the Denver Post. “However, an edge in a debate is not an edge in Congress or the state legislatures.”

Today’s generation of students advocating gun control faces a similar test, and questions remain about whether they can impact the 2018 midterm election.

“One of the most difficult times for a movement is after the initial burst of energy when grinding work needs to be done,” said Derek Sweetman of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. “The movement will not end on Election Day, but I do expect many students in the movement will view the results as a measure of their influence, and therefore will work toward that date.”

The Sandy Hook survivors were too young to understand the magnitude of their tragedy, much less utilize technology to express their emotions. The Columbine survivors lived in a pre-digital age. The students leading the #NeverAgain movement, Sweetman said, are in the right place at the right time.

“Our political environment has destabilized some established political truths, and that has left more room for real action than we saw after Sandy Hook,” Sweetman said. “The students are taking advantage of that.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia said the students’ efforts have already been more successful than previous attempts to influence gun policies. For example, Kaine noted, Walmart agreed to stop selling firearms to people under 21; Kroger decided to stop selling guns altogether in its Fred Meyer stores; and Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles.

Kaine, a Democrat, also credited activity in Congress to young activists. A spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in March lifted a decades-long ban that prevented the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research on the causes of gun violence. In addition, the bill prods federal agencies to upload records into the background-check system for gun purchases.

“I had grown somewhat despondent in my efforts with the General Assembly and Congress. But then I saw the students of this country ... standing up and saying to adults, ‘What matters more – our safety or political contributions?’” Kaine told students at the March rally in Richmond. “Now I have more hope because of you.”

Scott Barlow, a member of the Richmond School Board, said he has been inspired by the students’ grassroots activism.

“Students haven’t had the opportunity to lend their voice in this debate. Now they’re bringing the perspective of people who are most impacted by school shootings, and the most impacted by gun violence in our city,” Barlow said about the rally. “It was the first time in a long time I felt optimistic about our ability to legislate gun safety.”

Tuition and Student Debt Increasing in Virginia

 

By Adam Hamza, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Most students who graduated from Virginia’s public colleges and universities last year left not only with a degree but also with a financial burden: an average student loan debt of about $30,000.

At Virginia Commonwealth University, once among Virginia’s most affordable institutions, students owed an average of nearly $31,000. As college and university tuition continues to rise, new laws that take effect this summer aim to help students get a grip on how much they owe.

Tuition increases have become the norm as decreases in state funding have pushed universities to boost prices to cover costs. These tuition hikes coincide with statewide trends in higher education costs and student loan debt.

At VCU, officials are proposing an increase of $844, or 6.4 percent, in tuition and mandatory fees for the coming academic year as part of the 2018-19 budget, said Karol Kain Gray, vice president of finance and budget.

Other institutions also are raising tuition. Virginia Tech approved a 2.9 percent hike in tuition and mandatory fees, the University of Virginia adopted a 2.5 percent increase and the College of William & Mary raised tuition 6.5 percent for incoming in-state undergraduate students. Current William & Mary students will continue to pay the tuition in effect when they were admitted.

From 2007 to 2017, college tuition and fees in Virginia have increased each year by an average of $578, or 6 percent. During the decade, VCU’s tuition and fees have increased annually by an average of  $743, or 8.4 percent.

This year, in-state undergraduate students at VCU paid $13,624 in tuition and mandatory fees. That was the fifth-highest amount among Virginia’s 15 four-year public colleges and universities. VCU’s tuition has more than doubled — it’s up 120 percent — since the 2007-08 school year. Back then, in-state undergraduates at VCU paid $6,196 — the fifth-lowest amount in Virginia.

At a recent forum hosted by the VCU Student Government Association, Gray outlined the university’s budget goals and explained how the school uses its funds and why it needs a tuition increase. About 40 people attended the session, including students, staff and members of the Board of Visitors.

For VCU, the 6.4 percent increase is part of a $33 million request to fund its “highest priority” needs and other academic and administrative priorities. Some of the high-priority needs, according to Gray, are raises for teaching and research faculty and adjuncts, and additional need- and merit-based financial aid for undergraduates.

VCU’s average instructor salary of $49,000 is lower than other four-year institutions in Virginia. Tech, U.Va., George Mason University and William & Mary have average instructor salaries between $53,600 and $63,700, according to the American Association of University Professors 2016-17 report on university salaries.

“We have to start looking at where we’re going and at having reasonable increases to support the things we deserve to have,” Gray said. “This hurts our ranking, it hurts our [faculty] retention and it’s a morale issue.”

Tripp Wiggins, an 18-year-old VCU freshman, said he came to the forum looking for fiscal transparency from the university. He left feeling like there wasn’t enough information about why VCU is relying on tuition as its primary source of revenue.

“I feel like I understand how the funds are being managed,” Wiggins said. “But I still don’t have a clear understanding why the burden [of education costs] is going towards student tuition when there are other ways of getting revenue.”

From a Public Good to a Private Benefit?

In Virginia, the state shares the cost of education with students by providing general funds to universities. Universities then set tuition based on how much state funding they will receive. This educational and general fund is used to finance faculty salaries, financial aid and improvements to classrooms and academic buildings.

In 2004, Virginia set a cost-sharing goal: The state would cover 67 percent of the educational cost, and students would cover the remaining 33 percent through tuition. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

According to the 2017-18 tuition and fees report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, students are paying for 53 percent of the cost of their education, with the state picking up 47 percent.

Changes in state funding and the economy have pushed universities to increase tuition and fees to maintain their academic standards and growth, officials say.

At the VCU budget forum, Dr. Charles Klink, senior vice provost for student affairs, said this represented a shift in the perception of higher education overall.

“At one point people saw higher education as a public good. Now it seems more like a private benefit,” Klink said.

For students paying for their education through loans, lawmakers in the most recent General Assembly session passed new laws to protect borrowers from drowning in debt.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, introduced legislation that would help students manage their federal loans, while Del. Marcia “Cia” Price, D-Newport News, sponsored a bill to create a student loan ombudsman. Both bills have been signed by Gov. Ralph Northam and will take effect July 1.

Obenshain’s bill, SB 568, requires public colleges and universities to provide students with an annual statement about their federal loans. This statement includes how much money they have borrowed so far, the potential amount they will owe and estimated monthly payments.

“I want to ensure that college students know how much they are actually borrowing and how much it will cost them in interest so that hopefully we can help get under control the overwhelming debt that our students often face upon graduation,” Obenshain said.

Price’s bill, HB 1138, created a state student loan ombudsman within SCHEV. According to the bill summary, this office is will be an advocate for borrowers by helping them understand their rights and responsibilities under their loan. The office also will review and attempt to resolve complaints from borrowers.

There are other methods universities can use to keep tuition hikes low while maintaining growth. Gray said one way is increasing the number of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

At VCU, for example, 10 percent of students are from out of state, according to SCHEV reports. Tech and U.Va. enroll about 30 percent from outside Virginia.

Examination of NRA Spending Shows a Tactic of Hidden Influence

(Editor's Note: This is the second part of a four part series produced by the Student Jurnalists of the VCU Capital News Service.)

By Jacob Taylor, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – All 33 bills related to gun control and gun issues in Virginia were killed during the 2018 General Assembly session by a Republican-majority House of Delegates committee that received more than $4,000 in donations from the National Rifle Association.

The NRA uses money to influence and impact gun reform on all levels of government through political donations and independent expenditures. Since the NRA is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, its tax returns are public records. These records give a glimpse into the amount of money the organization actually spends.

For the year ending in December 2016, the NRA’s 990 form Schedule C ‒ the most recent 990 form available online ‒ shows that it spent $5.45 million nationally on political campaign activities.

The NRA also spent $33.3 million for Section 527 exempt function activities, which are defined as “all functions that influence or attempt to influence the selection, nomination, election, or appointment of any individual to any federal, state, or local public office or office in a political organization, or the election of Presidential or Vice-Presidential electors, whether or not such individual or electors are selected, nominated, elected, or appointed,” according to the Internal Revenue Service website.

Yet, these numbers are small compared to the amount of money the NRA spends on independent expenditures.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit organization, tracked 5,133 NRA independent expenditures over the last 13 years, on local, state and federal levels, totaling $115.9 million. Some of these expenditures include television, internet and radio advertising, postage and phone calls.

At the state level, specifically in the Virginia General Assembly, the numbers show a general trend: Republicans receive the majority of donations. Not a single dollar was donated to Democratic legislators by the NRA in 2017.

The largest individual donations in 2017 ‒ $1,500 ‒ went to House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox of Colonial Heights and Del. Michael Webert and Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, both of Fauquier County.

NRA donations to all Virginia candidates and committees in 2017 totaled $31,580, while current Republican legislators received $16,450, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

A further examination of contributions for all Virginia candidates and committees, from 1996 to 2017, showed the NRA spent $685,478 on Republicans, including $85,660 donated to the Republican Party of Virginia. During that same time span, $88,007 was spent in donations to current assembly Republicans, according to VPAP.

“I do think that the NRA has an oversized voice,” Del. John J. Bell, D-Loudoun, said. “Some of the contributions have had an undue influence, and in Virginia, it’s kind of a worst-case scenario because we have unlimited contribution amounts.”

Bell is a member of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, where every Republican member received an average of $366 in donations from the NRA during the 2018 legislative session, for a total of $4,400. Bell also said that two NRA lobbyists had been present at nearly every meeting during this year’s session. Hiring lobbyists to go to committee meetings is another tactic used by the NRA to spread influence.

One of those lobbyists is Beatriz Gonzalez, who works for Capital Results LLC and is retained by the NRA, according to VPAP. She did not return an email requesting an interview.

From Gun Shows to Capitol Debates, Firearms Are in the Crosshairs

Gun Culture in Virginia

By Kevin Walter Johnson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Forty days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a day after nationwide rallies organized by student advocates against gun violence, Virginia’s ninth gun show of the year was held at Richmond Raceway. Standing beneath the Pepsi sign in the food court of the exhibition hall, two men with rifles on their backs discussed current events.

“I’ve been deliberately avoiding the news. They’re lying just to attack us,” one man said. The other replied, “There’ll be a war coming if they keep this up; they’re asking for it.”

That conversation reflected the tone of many people attending the Showmasters Gun Show on March 25. Through the sets of double doors and past the state’s most well-defended hot dog stand, the tables of red, white, blue and camouflage stretched to the back of the room. The expo center held more than 750 vendors, according to the event organizers, selling tactical gear, military history and especially firearms. Attendees of all ages shuffled between the collapsible tables that displayed guns of all calibers. These veterans, hunters and gun enthusiasts offered a glimpse of the modern culture surrounding guns in Virginia.

*****

To understand part of the gun culture in Virginia, consider the results of the 2017 gubernatorial election.

Republican candidate Ed Gillespie ran a campaign emphasizing the importance of the Second Amendment, a message reinforced through donations and advertisements from the National Rifle Association.

To counter this, Democratic nominee Ralph Northam supported gun control legislation and spoke out against gun violence after the Las Vegas shooting in October. In the general election, Northam beat Gillespie 54 percent to 45 percent.

After the election, the debate shifted to the Virginia Capitol, the most prominent battleground for gun-related legislation. Dozens of firearm-related bills were introduced in the House of Delegates and state Senate.

Democrats pushed for gun control bills including efforts to establish universal background checks for gun buying and to ban bump stocks and similar gun modifications. Republicans advocated bills to expand gun rights, including a measure to repeal the prohibition on carrying firearms or other dangerous weapons into a place of worship.       

In the end, almost all of the bills failed in what Gov. Northam characterized as a bipartisan legislative session.

On March 2, the friction over guns and gun legislation boiled over in the House and led to a heated speech from Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper. He admonished the Democratic delegates for their criticism of the Republican Party in the wake of the school shooting, furthering the divide between the two parties on the issue. The Democratic response was similarly impassioned, with many representatives calling for an apology from Freitas.

*****

At the March 25 gun show, another symbol of Virginia’s gun culture stood 30 feet from the entryway, behind a table and handing out stickers that read “Guns Save Lives.”

That table, manned by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, was neatly set with pamphlets and flyers carrying the group’s information. The VCDL spokesman at the gun show, who asked not to be identified, described the group as a “grassroots gun rights organization protecting Virginia citizens’ right to the Second Amendment.” The group has received attention from the news media since its founding in 1994 for attacking many Democratic state officials for their positions on gun control.

“We’re here to provide information and a sense of representation for the gun owners of Virginia,” said the spokesman. “While we lobby through grassroots methods, we are totally bipartisan.”

The group’s website proclaims its philosophy to “go on the offensive.” Information on membership and events are placed between articles decrying the “Dangers of Universal Background Checks” and alleging a media bias against firearms.

*****

While Virginia gun culture is most exposed in the public setting of a gun show, a more hyperactive and radical portion of gun enthusiasts live in anonymity online.

On vaguntrader.com, internet servers provide a home base for more than the buying, selling and trading of guns. The online forum plays host to hundreds of topic boards, organizing site visitors into categories ranging from posts about recent Virginia gun legislation to members’ recent fishing trips to blatant political statements.

In a forum post titled “WARNING!!! Our Governor has us in his sights,” anonymous users attack Democratic legislators and officials both in state and national politics for their efforts to enact gun control measures.

When messaged for a comment on these and similar posts, no site moderators responded. The site’s thousands of members create a web of gun owners in Virginia, hidden in internet anonymity and holding an important role in Virginia’s gun culture.

*****

The NRA’s registration table was the first and last thing visitors saw at the Richmond gun show, placed squarely in front of the entrance. For groups like the NRA and the VCDL, visibility plays a crucial role in their establishment of modern gun conventions in Virginia. These groups act as the face of gun culture in the state, while sites like vaguntrader.comcontribute a buried forum for the spread of far more than weapons.

In the parking lot outside the exhibition hall, the sound of conservative radio host Alex Jones’ show “Infowars” projected from the open door of a Dodge pickup, an older man in the driver’s seat with his rifle next to him. When approached, he refused to speak about the event or his personal views on the culture of guns in the state. He shut his door and turned up the volume.

“These are dangerous times for gun owners,” the voice on the radio yelled. “Be prepared to defend yourself and your rights at any cost.”

Virginia Schools Participate in National School Walk-out - a CNS Social Media Story

Monument Reflects ‘Abiding Admiration’ for Native People

INDIAN MEMORIAL

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam and the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission welcomed leaders of Native American tribes at the state Capitol for a ceremony to dedicate “Mantle,” a monument honoring Virginia’s first inhabitants.

Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting celebrated the culture, contributions and significance of Native Americans. Many of the attendees dressed in traditional Indian garments, and each speaker passed to the next an eagle’s feather conveying strength, courage and wisdom.

“It’s apt, I think, that we gather here on Capitol Square – in many ways the very heart of our commonwealth’s diverse, vibrant and engaging civic life – to show our respect, to show our gratitude and to show our abiding admiration for native peoples who have lived in this land for thousands of years,” said Paul Nardo, clerk of the House of Delegates and a member of the commission.

Members of the community joined in celebrating the completion of “Mantle,” for which ground was broken last summer.

“Virginia Indian history goes back thousands of years before those settlers stepped ashore,” Northam said. “For the first time, we will recognize the courage and resilience of Virginia Indians on the same sacred ground where we write the history of tomorrow.”

The governor said the monument was a “long-overdue acknowledgment.”

“My hope is that progress, and the completion of this monument, will begin our journey toward healing,” Northam said. “We also celebrate the accomplishments of future generations who trace their ancestors to Virginia’s native tribes.”

At the ceremony, Frances Broaddus-Crutchfield, a commission member, read a poem she had written, also titled “Mantle.” During the reading, she played an Indian drum to symbolize “the heartbeat of the first Americans.”

The poem described the symbolism of the origin, structure and design of the monument:

Mantle is a chief’s cloak

A pathway, water

A seat for the weary

Strong from the remembrance of the rivers and the people

Strong from the beginning of time, unto eternity

A tribute to the first Americans

The monument was created by Alan Michelson, an installation artist and member of the Mohawk Nation. He described the public art as “a collaborative medium with many moving parts and players bringing their skills and experience to bear.”

“I was fortunate to work with a stellar design team,” Michelson said. “A concept is only as good as its design, and a design only as its implementation.”

Michelson traced his creative journey that led to the creation of “Mantle” as well as the many meanings its name may represent.

The monument has a spiral shape surrounding an infinity pool that lists the rivers in Virginia with Native American names. The name “Mantle” comes from the deerskin cloak reportedly worn by the Native American chief Powhatan.

“I wanted my design to embody not only the landscape past and present but the sacred harmonies underpinning and uniting all life here on Turtle Island,” Michelson said. “In contemplating a title for it, the word mantle seemed to fit.” He said it is a reference to:

  • Geology – the mostly solid layer of the earth between the crust and core.
  • Mollusk anatomy – the layer that forms, maintains and repairs the shell.
  • Leadership – the responsibilities and duties passed from one person to another.

Ken Adams, chief emeritus of Virginia’s Upper Mattaponi tribe, concluded the ceremony by leading a prayer to God and blessing the monument.

“As we celebrate you and celebrate the legacy of Native Americans,” Adams said, “as we place this memorial in your honor on these grounds, we cannot ever thank you enough for bringing us out of the dark ages that we experienced not so long ago.”

After Rally, House OKs Budget Expanding Medicaid


Delegates Mark Levine and Wendy Gooditis pose for a photo with Medicaid expansion supporters on Capitol Hill (Photo credit: George Copeland Jr.)

By George Copeland Jr., Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The House of Delegates passed a state budget that expands Medicaid in Virginia after advocates for the measure held a rally outside the Capitol.

Meeting in special session, the House voted 67-33 in favor of a budget for the 2018-2020 biennium that provides Medicaid coverage to more low-income Virginians. The legislation now moves to the Senate, which during the regular legislative session opposed Medicaid expansion.

Nineteen Republicans joined 48 Democratic delegates in voting for the House version of the budget.

“Our budget expands health care to 400,000 uninsured Virginians, and it increases funding for our schools, creates jobs and gives raises to teachers and law enforcement,” Del. David Toscano of Charlottesville, the House Democratic leader, and Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a joint statement.

“We are hopeful that our Republican colleagues in the Senate have seen the light and have heard the chorus of voices in support of expansion.”

House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican from Colonial Heights, expressed optimism that delegates and senators can reach an agreement on the budget.

Cox said the House passed “a strong, structurally-balanced two-year state budget that I am confident can serve as the foundation for a bipartisan, bicameral compromise.”

“Virginia has seen extended budget negotiations before, but what sets us apart from Washington is our willingness to work efficiently and directly to adopt a balanced budget before the current fiscal year ends” on June 30, Cox said.

The House vote came after legislators and citizens from across the commonwealth gathered Tuesday afternoon on the Capitol grounds.

Medicaid expansion advocates from Caroline County, Norfolk, Arlington and Charlottesville were joined by Democratic Dels. Mark Levine of Alexandria, Wendy Gooditis of Clarke County and Alfonso Lopez of Arlington.

“I really think our chamber will do what it needs to do, and I have to say, I think some Senate Republicans are coming around,” Levine said.

During the regular session, the House voted 68-32 in favor of a budget that included Medicaid expansion – a priority for Democrats. Expansion would include a Republican-proposed work requirement for those seeking Medicaid coverage.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has expressed his displeasure with the work requirement. (One Democratic delegate, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, voted against the House budget on Tuesday because of the work requirement.) President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this week mandating a similar requirement for food stamp recipients.

Gooditis, who was elected last fall, said her political career was driven in part by her struggle to obtain Medicaid coverage to assist her late brother with post-traumatic stress disorder. She credited the “all-around caregivers” she met during these years for both her election victory and the high spirits she felt going into the special session.

“Keep making noise. It’s how I got here, and it’s how we’ll get it done,” Gooditis said.

Some at the rally are already looking ahead to what policies could follow the proposed Medicaid expansion. They expressed enthusiasm for a single-payer health care system, or “Medicare for All.” Levine said he supports such a system.

“People need to know that these are real people’s lives,” Levine said. “They need to know this isn’t some theoretical question; this is a question of whether people get health care or not.”

Legislators at the rally were critical of the current state of health care coverage in Virginia. While Levine praised the efforts of Doctors Without Borders in providing services in Southwest Virginia and the Northern Neck, he was nonetheless “ashamed” that residents there must rely on an international group that normally serves developing countries.

Lopez discussed the good financial fortune his family had when their newborn baby was delivered prematurely last year, a comfort he stressed wasn’t shared by everyone in his House district. Lopez said the 49th District, which includes parts of Arlington and Fairfax counties, ranks as “one of the most educated” in the U.S. and yet has the “fourth-highest number of people who could benefit” from Medicaid expansion.

“Think about the family that has a baby born prematurely,” Lopez said. “Think about the family that’s struck down by a horrible disease or in a horrific accident. Health care could be devastating for their finances.”

“We’re going to get this done,” Lopez said. “We have to get this done.”

More Greyhounds May Need Homes if Florida Bans Racing

 

By Yasmine Jumaa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Greyhound rescue organizations in Virginia and elsewhere may see an influx of dogs needing adoption if Florida decides to ban greyhound racing.

Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission is considering putting such a ban on a statewide ballot in November. Florida has 12 greyhound racing tracks.

If voters approve the constitutional amendment, Florida would “phase out the racing over the next several years,” said Mark Lane, president of James River Greyhounds, a nonprofit dog-adoption organization, and Greyt Love Retirement, a foster shelter for retired greyhounds awaiting adoption.

Lane said the constitutional amendment being considered in Florida doesn’t address the future of retired racers and “finding a home for the vast number of racing greyhounds that would be without a career.”

Early Life and Racing

Kristen Avent, foster coordinator for James River Greyhounds, said the race dogs are not inhumanely taken from their families to immediately start training.

“Basically, from birth, they’re with their littermates and their mama,” Avent said. “Then, when they go to their kennels, they have all the dogs with them and they have the trainers there.”

James River Greyhounds has formed relationships with racetracks in Alabama and Florida. The organization arranges foster and adoptive homes when racing greyhounds from those tracks are retired.

“We’ve been down to the racetrack facilities in Birmingham, Alabama, and Daytona, Florida. The dogs are well taken care of,” Avent said. “The people at the track absolutely love them, they have dog treats for them and play with them — that sort of thing.”

Florida state Sen. Tom Lee, a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, said many racing greyhounds “live in inhumane conditions” and face mistreatment. However, Avent said the dogs:

● Are let out into the yard at least four times per day

● Practice racing around the track

● Sometimes get to go on car rides around the facilities

● Eat well

● Have constant company

Life After Racing

Avent said greyhounds usually have a smooth transition after their racing days.

“When you get them off the tracks when they retire, they’re sweet and easy to bring into a home because they’re already used to being handled by people,” Avent said.

Greyhounds are made available for adoption as early as 21 months old. But ultimately, the determinant is their racing ability, or lack thereof.

“When you bring them into a house, you just have to teach them, sometimes, how to use steps,” Avent said. “Then they just have to learn about furniture and things like that. But they learn very quickly, and they’re extremely loving. They love to be with you.”

Why Greyhounds?

“When deciding what type of dog that I wanted to adopt, I came across the retired racing greyhound breed and found them to be extremely laid-back, awesome personality and a very regal breed overall,” Lane said. “Once I adopted my first, the rest has been history, and I don’t regret it at all.”

Avent said the dogs’ sweet disposition and gentle nature won her over.

“They’re very affectionate, are eager to go anywhere you want to go — they want to be with you,” she said.

Lane said among his favorite greyhound mannerisms and attributes are:

● The greyhound roo, a sound they make that is a mix of barks, grunts and whines

● Their teeth chattering

● Their relaxed demeanor. Lane said a greyhound is “a 45-mph couch potato” that sleeps for most of the day.

Greyhound Adoption

“The importance of greyhound adoption is that once these athletes are finished their careers, they make awesome pets,” Lane said. “Adoption groups all over the U.S. and Canada fill the need to find appropriate retirement homes for these wonderful retired racing greyhounds.”

Lane started Greyt Love Retirement for two main reasons.

“The first was that I wanted to build a facility to be able to bring more retired racing greyhounds to the Richmond area to continue to educate about, advocate for and adopt out the retired racing greyhound,” he said. “The second was a realization that some potential applicants wanted to touch, feel and connect with their new family member, and JRG (James River Greyhounds) could not facilitate that request without having a foster shelter with potential available hounds.”

Besides the two groups headed by Lane, there is an organization called Around Town Hounds, which holds monthly walks and other events for members of the Richmond greyhound community.

“I have found that once you adopt a greyhound, you are now involved with a tighter knit community of dog owners,” Lane said. “As adopters, we rely on each other for dog sitting, being a knowledge bank of questions and answers, playdates and general camaraderie.”

Legislators, Advocates Show Support for Medicaid Expansion

Panel Discusses Solutions to ‘Bipartisan Problem’ of Gerrymandering

By Zach Joachim, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Leading redistricting reform advocates and Virginia Commonwealth University students explored ways to end gerrymandering at a panel discussion hosted by the VCU Political Science Department.

“Redistricting in Virginia: A Bipartisan Problem” brought together students and experts to discuss the practice in which legislators draw political districts with partisan intent. Panelists expressed optimism regarding the prospects of redistricting reform in Virginia and around the country.

Brian Cannon, executive director of OneVirginia2021, the commonwealth’s leading redistricting reform group, said the current process for redrawing legislative districts lacks transparency.

“It’s like sausage making, but worse, as to how they get these districts. Some of the lines are just abstract works of art that should be in the ICA,” Cannon said, referring to VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art.

Dr. John Aughenbaugh, a professor in the VCU Political Science Department, said the U.S. Constitution is not specific about redistricting, and that is the root cause of gerrymandering. The Constitution’s “time, place and manner clause,” Aughenbaugh said, gives states the power to determine election logistics. The panelists agreed that this is the foundational cause of traditional partisan redistricting practices commonly referred to as gerrymandering.

But Cannon argued the constitutional ambiguity can be employed to end the same practice it fostered.

“What works for redistricting in Iowa doesn’t work in California and might not work in Ohio. We can learn from all of them to improve redistricting in Virginia,” Cannon said. He said the Constitution “gives us the laboratory of democracy the states are supposed to be.”

This state-by-state approach to tackling gerrymandering has prompted a national climate in which states are looking to the courts for answers. Pending cases before the U.S. Supreme Court could mandate anti-gerrymandering legislation in states such as Colorado. Cannon said cases such as Bethune-Hill in Virginia, which alleges district lines were drawn based on racial demographics, could come down “any day now” and expedite the process.

Participants in Thursday’s panel discussed possible solutions to gerrymandering, such as having an independent commission draw political boundaries. But Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, said the solutions many reform advocates seek may simply not exist.

“This is complicated, and there is no perfect answer, or else we’d already be there,” Dunnavant said. “If you get voices in the room so that there’s transparency and accountability, that’s the best we can do.”

The panelists urged redistricting reform advocates to conceptualize solutions as approaches and principles in drawing districts, rather than logistical absolutes. Del. Lashrecse Aird, D-Petersburg, emphasized trust and transparency as foundational principles for reforming the redistricting process.

“Trust among the people we represent is extremely important,” Aird said. “Right now they don’t trust that the process includes things like transparency, or the removal of the ‘sausage making.’”

In addition to a collective insistence that a principled approach is the answer, Aird and the other panelists considered the establishment of independent commissions as a viable end goal for redistricting advocates to look toward.

“If moving to an independent structure actually builds that trust among the people we represent, it seems like that would be the thing to do,” Aird said.

The panelists went on to caution those in attendance about setting too much store in the idea of independence and nonpartisanship in the redistricting process. In an inherently political process, there will always be bias, they said.

“You’re not going to get rid of politics. We’re deciding who gets to vote in what jurisdiction,” Aughenbaugh said. “That’s a fundamental element of almost any definition of democratic politics – who gets to hold whom accountable.”

The panelists agreed that any hopes for an absolute solution would be idealistic. Rather, they emphasized the need for institutional accountability and transparency between voters and their representatives in a process long devoid of such principles.

“You want the rules to reflect our communities,” Cannon said. “Some will be blue, some red, some a shade of purple. But what’s important is that the communities are making the decisions.”

Dunnavant added, “There will never be a redistricting map that does not get contested. And so the conversation is a little unrealistic to think we can be

​​

proscriptive enough in law to create something that everyone can agree on.”

Nonprofit Helps Virginia Maintain Lowest Recidivism Rate

By Thomas Jett, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Over the past 14 years, Richard Walker went from dodging incarceration to running a volunteer organization aimed at helping other ex-offenders stay clean and out of prison. The efforts of groups like his are one reason Virginia has the nation’s lowest recidivism — or reoffense — rate for former inmates, state officials say.

The story of Bridging the Gap in Virginia began more than a decade ago.

“I had a substance abuse problem back then; this was in 2004,” Walker said. “I was a fugitive of justice from Henrico County. They arrested me at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’m hitting golf balls into a quarry in Prince George County after being on a two-day crack binge.”

After making bail at Riverside Regional Jail, Walker absconded to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was arrested for writing fraudulent checks.

Walker served time at a Virginia Department of Corrections camp in Halifax County. After re-entering society, he found that his criminal record kept him from landing jobs offered through the Richmond Career Advancement Center. Ultimately, he found work selling cars. 

"That was short-lived because I made good money and I hadn’t dealt with my drug problem,” Walker said. “I ended up going into treatment in 2006, and I haven’t looked back since.”

Within three years, Walker created a job for himself.

“We started in 2009 as a direct result of my incarceration,” Walker said. “I started Bridging the Gap in Virginia because I knew there were people with less experience, less credentials than I had, that were having a challenge in Virginia. When I found out the legislation and the laws in Virginia, it just motivated me to make changes.”

Charlotte Gomer, the public information officer for Attorney General Mark Herring, said re-entry programs like Walker’s are valuable resources for ex-offenders.

“Re-entry services have been proven to reduce crime, strengthen communities and ... can reduce violent reoffending by as much as 83 percent,” Gomer said. “The attorney general has made it a real priority to support re-entry, which is why he hired Virginia’s first full-time local jail re-entry coordinator to start and strengthen programs around the commonwealth.”

The efforts of Herring’s office and groups like Bridging the Gap in Virginia seem to be working. For the past two years, Virginia’s re-incarceration rate has been the lowest in the country among states for which data was available,according to the governor’s office.

About 22 percent of inmates released from the state’s prisons and jails end up re-incarcerated within three years. Virginia’s recidivism rate has fallen a full percentage point since the previous year. It’s the lowest among the 45 states that report three-year incarceration rates for felons. Nationally, more than two-thirds of convicted criminals reoffended in the past three years, according to the National Institute of Justice. 

Gainful employment is the key to helping ex-offenders re-enter society — and that is the main focus of Bridging the Gap in Virginia. Lawrence Bibbs III can vouch for that. The nonprofit helped him after he was released from prison on Aug. 29 after 30 years of incarceration.

“Since I’ve dealt with Bridging the Gap, each person has been a specialist in knowing how to focus your skill set into a specific area,” said Bibbs, who works for Amazon and owns a bricklaying company. “This situation where people are saying they can’t get a job — you just didn’t go to the right specialist that could employ you.”

Walker has several legislative allies. He has worked with Del. Delores McQuinn and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, both of Richmond, on issues pertaining to re-entry and criminal justice in general.

“I have always tried to work collaboratively with some organization or group to do that — looking at how do we provide a service to returning citizens so that there is a certain quality of life that they can expect as they exit the prison system,” McQuinn said.

McClellan said re-entry programs help not only ex-offenders but also the community.

“I support any efforts that remove barriers for returning felons resuming their lives,” McClellan said. “Once you get out of jail, if you can’t get a job, you’re more likely to do something to cause yourself to go back to jail.”

Walker, McQuinn and McClellan are behind legislation enabling former felons to find employment more easily.

The “Ban the Box” proposal seeks to remove questions about arrests and convictions from employment applications. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order that banned the box on state government applications.

During the General Assembly’s 2018 session, attempts to make that executive order a state law failed, although one bill cleared the Senate before dying in the House.

Even though there’s no state law, Walker said 16 cities and counties in Virginia have “banned the box” for ex-offenders.

“They have more of an opportunity to get a one-on-one interview with potential employers in various cities for city employment through ‘Ban the Box,’” Walker said. “People want to work; they don’t want to sit in squalor.”

Walker’s efforts extend beyond legislative changes. His organization also helps ex-convicts rebuild their lives through drug treatment, housing referrals and other services.

“God didn’t put me in here for me to give up, so I’m going to keep on doing what I do, believing that that million-dollar grant is sitting there waiting on me,” Walker said. 

Virginia Governor Declares April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month

By Sophia Belletti, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Eating disorders, stress, alcoholism, addiction and depression are leading medical problems affecting women and girls, but they are often forgotten because of the way breast cancer and intimate partner violence are highlighted with dedicated months.

Miriam Bender, chair of the group Women’s Health Virginia, commends the efforts of what she calls the “disease organizations.” But Bender said there is a need to raise awareness about the overall well-being of women and girls. So more than 15 years ago, Bender helped establish April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“A lot of days and weeks and months celebrate awareness of diseases, and a lot of issues don’t get highlighted in those individualized months,” Bender said. “They always focus on disease prevention or a problem instead of talking more positively about wellness.”

In July 2002, Bender and other activists pitched Women and Girls’ Wellness Month to 50 health organizations, women’s organizations and other groups.

“It was overwhelmingly positively received,” Bender said. “It was in July, and I thought who was going to show up in the middle of July – and the room was full.”

On Thursday, Gov. Ralph Northam, like his predecessors, signed a proclamation recognizing April as Women and Girls’ Wellness Month.

“It’s an important day and month,” Northam said at a ceremony at the MathScience Innovation Center in Richmond. “We have declared the entire month of April so that we can recognize the important contributions girls and women make to our commonwealth and to help you all keep healthy and get a good education and a good job.”

The ceremony was attended by fifth- through eighth-grade female students from the MathScience Innovation Center. Northam encouraged them to get involved, pointing to the pay gap and the lack of women in health care, policy and STEM-related fields.

“That’s why all the girls and the women need to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough – I want to be equal to everyone else,’” Northam said.

Bender said that once people and organizations bought into the idea of Women and Girls’ Wellness Month., they decided it would best be celebrated in April.

“We wanted to do it at a time when organizations who served women and girls could do something. And if it’s too close to the end of the school year, girls’ groups and university groups wouldn’t be involved,” Bender said.

The MathScience Innovation Center was chosen as the location of the proclamation signing to encourage young girls to enter STEM fields.

“We know that health and wellness are tied to the physical attributes of the body, but they’re also tied to the wellness of the spirit and the soul and how we persevere, overcome adversity and how we deal with trauma,” said Hollee Freeman, executive director at the center.

The governor was joined Thursday by Virginia first lady Pam Northam, Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond and Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.

Richmond’s New Art Gallery Raises ‘Important but Difficult Topics’


The Mending Project by Lee Mingwei is an interactive project where visitor's can bring their clothes to get stitched and pinned to the wall. (CNS photo by Katrina Tilbury)

Curtis Talles Santiago's "Infinity Series" uses jewelry boxes to depect scenes of violent injustice. (CNA photo by Katrini Tilbury

By Chelsea Jackson and Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – With an inaugural exhibit that challenges the city’s Confederate history and racial divide, Virginia Commonwealth University will open its Institute for Contemporary Art next week, and it’s generating excitement not only in Richmond but also in national and international art communities.

The 41,000-square-feet Markel Center, where the ICA is housed, cost $41 million and sits at the corner of Broad and Belvidere streets – the city’s busiest intersection, with an estimated 60,000 cars passing by every day. The location signifies the impact that officials hope the institution brings to Richmond.

The city’s only stand-alone gallery of contemporary art, which will open to the public April 21, sits between VCU’s Monroe Park Campus and the historic Jackson Ward community – a point that for decades was the divide between black Richmond and white Richmond in the one-time capital of the Confederacy.

Joe Seipel, the interim director of the ICA, said the idea for the project has been around for decades. Seipel and the ICA team say they have worked to ensure that everyone feels welcome to come enjoy the art gallery, a goal he hopes to accomplish by keeping admission free.

During a press preview Thursday, New York-based architect Steven Holl said he looked to Richmond’s deep and complicated history for inspiration and incorporated certain aspects to bridge a gap between the growing presence of VCU and the larger Richmond community. Holl’s firm, known for specializing in educational and cultural projects, was chosen from more than 60 that submitted proposals for the building.

“This may be one of my favorite buildings I’ve been working on because it makes an urban statement, because there is a relationship between the campus and the city, and it also is a statement on the concept of time,” Holl said.

The relationship among time, space and race relation was a strong influence on the ICA’s opening exhibit, “Declaration,” said the institute’s chief curator, Stephanie Smith. She conceived the idea with Lisa Freiman, Seipel’s predecessor.

“After the 2016 presidential elections, myself and Lisa Freiman decided to reshape the ICA’s inaugural exhibition given the climate of our country,” Smith said. “We were inspired to create a project that we would speak and give a platform to a diverse group of artists whose works reflect currents in contemporary arts but also catalyze change, convene people across the divide and to speak to important but often difficult topics that are relevant here as well as our nation more broadly.”

Freiman abruptly stepped down as the institute’s director in January after five years of overseeing the planning phases of the project. In a press release at the time, Freiman stated it was time for her to resume other projects she had put on hold. Despite her absence, Smith continued with the vision that created “Declaration.”

The exhibit includes projects from more than 30 artists, many of whom were commissioned by the ICA and whose work speaks to social issues of the environment, gender inequality, race and sexuality. “Declaration” features a range of mixed media platforms – from audio and film to painting and graphic design.

Expanding on one of his previous exhibits, Paul Rucker, the ICA’s artist in residence, created “Storm in The Time of Shelter” for the ICA. It features Ku Klux Klan robes in urban and contemporary fashions. The life-size figurines wear KKK robes made of colorful fabrics such as African prints and various shades of camouflage.

On the opposite end on the first floor is a massive wall featuring a series of individual screen prints. The piece is the work of Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and was created with the collaboration of local barbershops and salons. Each print is a quote from a conversation overheard in the shops, capturing the role these spaces play in the city’s black neighborhoods.

The diversity of “Declaration” reflects VCU President Michael Rao’s hope that the ICA will make the city an international destination.

“We hope to become through VCUs Institute of Contemporary Art a world-class cultural hub,” Rao said. He said the ICA will help “advance the arts and invoke human senses like they have never been invoked before.”

200 Rally for Gun Rights at State Capitol

The crowd at Saturday's gun rights rally. (CNS photo by Katrina Tilbury)

 

By Katrina Tilbury and DeForrest Ballou, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 200 people, some with handguns on their hips and others with rifles slung across their backs, gathered on the grounds of the Virginia Capitol on Saturday for a rally in support of the Second Amendment.

The peaceful crowd assembled at the Bell Tower at Capitol Square with the goal of defending their rights to self-defense and educating the public about the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The rally quickly turned political when Republican candidates Ryan McAdams, Corey Stewart and E.W. Jackson took the stage.

“We’re here today because we honor the Constitution and the God-given liberties and rights that have been endowed to us by our creator,” said McAdams, who is running for the 4th Congressional District seat currently held by Democrat A. Donald McEachin of Richmond. “Those same God-given rights are under assault, and they’re being threatened.”

Stewart, who is vying with Jackson and state Del. Nick Freitas for the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, spoke after McAdams. He cited a recent op-ed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens that argued that the Second Amendment should be repealed.

Stewart, who hopes to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, said every time a mass shooting occurs, gun control advocates blame law-abiding Americans, conservatives and President Donald Trump. Stewart said that gun-owning Republicans are also heartbroken when shootings happen and that they are the ones who want to protect their families.

“Unlike the left, who actually enjoys the fact that these tragedies happen because it plays into their narrative. It plays into what they are trying to do,” Stewart said. “They don’t honor life, folks. They disparage it.”

One of the main arguments made by the rally organizers, politicians and speakers was that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Critics dispute this. They point to a Harvard study of the National Crime Victimization Survey showing that fewer than 1 percent of victims defended themselves with a gun between 2007 and 2011.

Stewart said he opposes any compromise on Second Amendment rights; however, he said he supports enforcing existing laws against violent felons, the mentally ill and the potentially dangerous receiving guns.

Stewart, who chairs the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said he plans to place retired police officers in all of the county’s schools in the coming months.

McAdams and Jackson also said they want to focus on enforcing existing gun laws. They noted that the FBI was notified in advance that Nikolas Cruz posed a threat, but failed to act. Cruz has been charged with the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February.

“That young man who killed those 17 people should never have been allowed to get those weapons because he was clearly mentally ill and people knew about it even so much as to call the FBI about him,” said Jackson, a minister from Chesapeake.

Joe Savarese, who attended Saturday’s rally, agreed that the Second Amendment should not be compromised. He said gun control advocates are twisting the words of America’s Founding Fathers.

“They’re putting a 21st-century mindset, No. 1, into 18th-century men, and then they’re not reading their words as they were intended to be read. They meant exactly what they were saying. They weren’t offering opinion,” Savarese said.

The event was organized by the National Constitutional Coalition of Patriotic Americans. Richmond Capitol Police Public Information Officer Joe Macenka said authorities weren’t expecting any trouble from the crowd.

Job Fair Thursday!

THE GEO GROUP (LAWRENCEVILLE) IS SEEKING CORRECTIONAL OFFICERS, LPN, SERGEANT OF CORRECTIONS AND A VOCATIONAL INSTRUCTOR (ELECTRICAL).

JOB FAIR WILL BE HELD AT THE VIRGINIA WORKFORCE CENTER
LOCATED AT 1300 GREENSVILLE COUNTY CIRCLE
SUITE C, ROOM 105
EMPORIA, VIRGINIA ON
APRIL 12TH  10AM - 2PM

From Doughnuts to Dancing, ‘The Bachelorette’ Films in RVA Hot Spots

A group of men participate in a group date at the Capitol where they debated why each of them would make the best partner for Becca. April/8 (Credit: Reality Steve)

 

By Alexandra Sosik, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The Bachelorette is in town and looking for love – and Richmonders love to look for her.

Fans of “The Bachelorette” have been in a frenzy since photos of the hit ABC reality show filming in Richmond surfaced on social media over the weekend.

Rebecca “Becca” Kufrin, the show’s current love interest, was spotted filming a one-on-one date at Sugar Shack Donuts on Lombardy Street on Saturday. The shop posted that it would be closed to the public from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“She seems super down-to-earth and the kind of person that would live in RVA in real life,” said Peyton Hannon, 23, who attended a taping of the ABC reality show on Monday night at the Carpenter Theatre in the Dominion Energy Center.

Hannon said she and more than 1,000 other fans were told to arrive at the theater at 7:30 p.m., but Kufrin and contestant Leandro Dottavio arrived closer to midnight. The pair danced on a stage surrounded by fans as they were serenaded by Australian country music singer Morgan Evans.

A Twitter account by the name of “TheBachelorTV” invited Virginia “Bachelorette” fans to participate in the show’s taping with a tweet on Thursday: “Virginia #bachelornation it’s your turn! Come on a date with Becca and her men this Sunday 4/8!! Email BachelorRSVP@gmail.com now to save your spot #thebachelorette.”

Kufrin, 28, is originally from Minnesota. She was announced as the next bachelorette after unedited footage was televised showing bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr. breaking up with her to pursue a relationship with runner-up Lauren Burnham.

Reality Steve, a “Bachelor” blogger, officially tipped off fans that the cast and crew had arrived when he tweetedphotos of Kufrin and Chris Harrison, host of “The Bachelorette,” filming at the Quirk Hotel on Saturday.

Kufrin was also spotted by fans several times on a private trolley ride around Richmond, making stops at the Veil Brewing Co. and the Edgar Allen Poe Museum.

On Sunday, a group date was filmed at the Capitol, where a banner displayed “Beccalection 2018.”

“The group date was essentially an election debate,” said “Bachelorette” fan and VCU nursing student Sarah Daniel.

Daniel said Harrison, Becca and men dressed as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington asked the contestants questions to decide who would be the best partner for Becca.

Harrison has been spotted by many fans trying to guess where he might pop up next.

Melissa Hipolit, a reporter for CBS 6 News (WTVR), said she and her friends decided to eat dinner at Graffiato, an Italian restaurant next to the Quirk Hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action. They never thought Harrison would walk through the doors.

“We never expected to be sitting down to eat and have him literally sitting behind us,” Hipolit said.

Sherri Zhang, who was with Hipolit, said she was surprised when Harrison initiated a conversation.

“He saw my friend taking a pic of him, and when he walked by our table to be seated, he actually talked to us first,” Zhang said.

Hipolit said Harrison asked them how the food was and even took an interest in their jobs. She said Harrison told her he watches the local news wherever he travels. “I told him I was a local news reporter, and then one of my promos came on the television and I pointed to it.”

Season 14 of “The Bachelorette” premieres on May 28 on ABC. The Richmond episode is expected to air in July.

Gov. Northam Signs Rear-Facing Car Seat Requirements into Law

By Siona Peterous, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Beginning next year, Virginia will join more than a dozen states that prohibit children under the age of 2, or children who are below the manufacturer's suggested weight limit, to be placed in a forward-facing car seat.

The new law, House Bill 708, which Gov. Ralph Northam signed last month, will go into effect July 1, 2019. It was introduced by Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, after she was approached by AAA about the issue.

“I’m very proud to patron this bill because I have always worked on issues about public safety and kids’ safety,” Filler-Corn said. “How could I not introduce a bill that will save lives and protect our most vulnerable Virginians, our children?”

According to Martha Meade, the public and government affairs manager for Virginia’s AAA’s Mid-Atlantic region, the association has lobbied for issues of public safety on the roads for decades.

“This is an important change for Virginia because it is confusing for many folks who don’t know when the the right time is to switch their child to be forward-facing in vehicles,” Meade said. “All the major traffic safety organizations — AAA, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, National Highway Safety Administration and the Academy of Pediatrics — recommend a child stays rear-facing until age 2, or until they've reached the minimum weight and height requirement.”

Filler-Corn said she was surprised, but not discouraged, by the intensity of the opposition to what she views as a “common-sense safety measure.” Critics of the bill argued that the government should not have a role in how parents choose to raise and protect their children.

The bill went through several rounds of amendments before passing the House 77-23 and the Senate 23-17. Filler-Corn said she received bipartisan support. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, and Sen Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, were “amazing and very supportive” advocates for the bill.

 “Everyone has the right to raise their children as they see fit, but this really is a safety measure statistically proven to work,” Filler-Corn said. “When I’m faced with opposition, I compare the enforcement of rear-facing child seats to the requirement of everyone having to wear a seat belt. It’s very similar, but one is focused on children who can’t make decisions to protect themselves.”

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - 2018 Capital News Service

Emporia News

Stories on Emporianews.com are be searchable, using the box above. All new stories will be tagged with the date (format YYYY-M-D or 2013-1-1) and the names of persons, places, institutions, etc. mentioned in the article. This database feature will make it easier for those people wishing to find and re-read an article.  For anyone wishing to view previous day's pages, you may click on the "Previous Day's Pages" link in the menu at the top of the page, or search by date (YYYY-M-D format) using the box above.

Comment Policy:  When an article or poll is open for comments feel free to leave one.  Please remember to be respectful when you comment (no foul or hateful language, no racial slurs, etc) and keep our comments safe for work and children. .Comments are moderated and comments that contain explicit or hateful words will be deleted.  IP addresses are tracked for comments. 

EmporiaNews.com serves Emporia and Greensville County, Virginia and the surrounding area
and is provided as a community service by the Advertisers and Sponsors.
All material on EmporiaNews.com is copyright 2005-2018
EmporiaNews.com is powered by Drupal and based on the ThemeBrain Sirate Theme.

Submit Your Story!

Emporia News welcomes your submissions!  You may submit articles, announcements, school or sports information using the submission forms found here, or via e-mail on news@emporianews.com.  Currently, photos and advertisements will still be accepted only via e-mail, but if you have photos to go along with your submission, you will receive instructions via e-mail. If you have events to be listed on the Community Calendar, submit them here.

Contact us at news@emporianews.com
 
EmporiaNews.com is hosted as a community Service by Telpage.  Visit their website at www.telpage.net or call (434)634-5100 (NOTICE: Telpage cannot help you with questions about Emporia New nor does Teplage have any input the content of Emporia News.  Please use the e-mail address above if you have any questions, comments or concerns about the content on Emporia News.)