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.

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Katie Bashista

Northam Signs ‘Stop Gun Violence’ License Plate Bill

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation Thursday authorizing a “Stop Gun Violence” specialty license plate.

In a session when gun safety proponents failed to make gains despite concern over recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas, even the license plate bill was controversial.

Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 287 after one of his constituents, Carol Luten, came up with the idea. Luten is involved in raising awareness about gun violence prevention and gun safety in Falls Church.

“Mostly it was a constituent request that happened to fall in line with one of my priorities anyways,” Simon said. “She said it’s like a moving billboard for her cause.”

The bill was more controversial than Simon expected. What he thought as simple license plate bill turned out to be more, as it drew opposition from the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“The license plate’s proposed wording implies that violence which is not committed with a firearm is somehow acceptable by comparison, or that the inanimate object itself is responsible for human violence,” the league said in its position statement on the bill.

Another controversial portion of the bill came up when Del. Matt Fariss, R-Campbell, introduced an amendment that would make the plates revenue-sharing rather than simply highlighting an interest. Starting in 2020, the plates will cost $25: $10 will go toward making the plates themselves and $15 will go to the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services

“I am against all gun violence,” Fariss said. “I feel like most gun violence is due to behavioral and mental issues. I wanted to make sure that funding would be directed to and available for the Department of Behavioral Health to help.”

Simon says this was the most controversial portion of the bill.

“Suggesting our gun violence problem is really a mental health problem and a lack of mental health resources really misses the point,” Simon said. “Certainly there are some cases where better mental health care may have prevented certain incidents, but most gun violence doesn't have anything to do with mental health, and most people living with mental illness are not dangerous.”

Simon described the session as a tough year for bills related to guns. More than 70 such measures were filed at the start of the session.

“This is the one piece of legislation on either side that managed to thread the needle and get out of the legislature,” Simon said.

Two Bills May Save Babies’ Lives

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — On July 1, Tennessee added a rare genetic disorder called MPS I to its newborn screening program. On July 13, Ruby Kate Leonard, whose parents live in Russell County, Virginia, was born in Bristol, Tennessee. Nine days after that, Ruby Kate’s parents received a call that she tested positive for MPS I. Treatment for the infant began immediately.

Had Ruby Kate been born in Russell County, early detection and treatment would not have been possible — because Virginia does not test for MPS I. When state Del. Todd Pillion, a Republican whose House district includes Russell County, heard Ruby Kate’s story, he introduced a bill to rectify the situation.

HB 1174 would add MPS I and Pompe disease, another rare genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. On Monday, the Senate joined the House in passing a version of the bill. The two chambers still must work out minor differences before the legislation goes to Gov. Ralph Northam to be signed into law.

The law would be welcome news to Ruby Kate’s family.

“We had heard of the disease, but we didn’t really know what it was,” said Ashley Keene, Ruby Kate’s mother. “She’s the first baby in Tennessee to be diagnosed with the disease through the new screening program.”

MPS I is caused by a gene mutation that prevents cells from breaking down glycosaminoglycans, which leads to cell, tissue and organ damage. Pompe disease is a result of a buildup of glycogen in the body’s cells that impairs muscles and organs, including the heart. Early detection of these disorders is crucial in saving babies’ lives.

Other conditions also require immediate attention. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, introduced HB 1362 after a baby boy in his district died after being diagnosed with a condition called MCADD too late. Since he was born on a Saturday and labs are closed on the weekends, the test results didn’t come in until the following Monday and the baby didn’t make it. The bill asks The Division of Consolidated Services and any other contracted labs by the Department of Health to screen newborns and children for time-critical disorders seven days a week.

“Had the labs been open on weekends the child would’ve been healthy,” Austin said.

A Senate Education and Health subcommittee approved HB 1362 on Tuesday. Monday’s Senate approval of HB 1174 included a substitute saying the bill can go into effect so long as funds are appropriated for it.

“This legislation will move Virginia in the right direction to make this critically important early detection possible, which is a crucial first step toward better health outcomes and lower long-term health costs,” Pillion said in a press release.

Ruby Kate has been receiving treatment at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., since September and has recently recovered from a fever. The family is now dealing with possible complications with her kidneys, according to the Ruby Kate’s Fight Facebook page.

“In the midst of everything we’re going through it’s just nice to know that this could help other babies like Ruby Kate,” Keene said.

​​Schools Still Need State’s OK to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. — Legislation allowing Virginia school districts to start classes before Labor Day is dead for this session of the General Assembly. ​

A Senate committee on Thursday postponed until 2019 consideration of the remaining two bills that would have given local school boards the power to decide when to begin classes.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health folded House Bill 1020 into House Bill 372 and then voted 9-6 to put off the legislation until next year.

Supporters of the bills said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

“We lose roughly two weeks of the school year that other localities get for things like advanced placement testing,” said Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

VanValkenburg co-sponsored HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority. That measure did not get out of the House Education Committee.

Under the current law, in place since 1986, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

School districts can get the waiver if they have been closed an average of eight days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day.

Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, introduced HB 372 as part of her platform for education reform. She said she believes in giving school boards the authority to make decisions instead of state government bureaucrats.

2 Rare Diseases May Be Added to Newborn Screenings

Krystal and Haley Hayes spoke to a committee on newborn screenings in December. (Photo courtesy of the Hayes family)

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Like a typical 12-year-old girl, Haley Hayes texts, browses the internet, socializes with friends and family, and loves to sing – especially to Carrie Underwood. What Haley doesn’t typically share with her peers is that she was born with a rare genetic condition called Pompe disease.

Haley has suffered muscle loss and other complications because of the disease. She might have been spared some of those health problems had she been born in a different state.

Del. Todd Pillion, R-Washington, has introduced a bill that would add Pompe disease and MPS I, another genetic disorder, to Virginia’s newborn screening program. If these diseases are caught early, immediate treatment can make a significant difference in the patients’ quality of life – and may even save their lives.

Pompe disease is a result of a buildup of glycogen in the body’s cells that impairs muscles and organs, including the heart. MPS I is caused by a gene mutation that prevents cells from breaking down glycosaminoglycans, which leads to cell, tissue and organ damage.

The disorders were brought to Pillion’s attention after a baby from his House district, Ruby Kate Leonard, was diagnosed with MPS I. Ruby Kate was born in July in Bristol, Tennessee, where the state tests for conditions like hers. She was diagnosed at just nine days old, and the early treatment she’s receiving allows for the best possible outcome.

“Had she been born in her hometown of Russell County, Virginia, the screening for MPS I isn’t operational yet,” said Tyler Lester, Pillion’s legislative assistant. “It would not have been caught.”

Ruby Kate’s father, Elijah Leonard, set up a Facebook page to share Ruby Kate’s story, provide information regarding fundraisers and keep friends and family updated on her progress. The page has over 2,000 likes.

Haley Hayes was diagnosed at six and a half months with the help of doctors from Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. Her mother, Krystal Hayes, believes Haley’s life could have been different if she was born in a state that tested for the disease at birth.

“We know with earlier treatment, there’s some issues that could’ve been avoided. Muscles were lost that we can’t get back,” she said.

After Haley was diagnosed, she received three enzyme treatments at VCU and then was transferred to Duke University Medical Center, where her care continues.

Both the Hayes and Leonard families have advocated for Virginia to add these diseases to the newborn screening program. Pillion’s bill, HB 1174, was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions and awaits a vote of the full House.

Krystal and Haley Hayes have traveled to North Carolina to promote the cause, and they told Haley’s story at a meeting of the Virginia Newborn Screening Advisory Committee in December. The advisory committee voted unanimously in favor of adding both Pompe disease and MPS I to the program.

“For families going forward, they can find out at birth and get the child on treatment sooner,” Krystal Hayes said. “We’ve seen very many families over the years whose babies haven’t made it because they had diagnosed them too late – so it can honestly save a baby’s life.”

Schools May Get Authority to Open Before Labor Day

By Chelsea Jackson and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Summer vacation may be cut short for some Virginia students after two bills rescinding the so-called “Kings Dominion law” – which restricts schools from starting before Labor Day – passed the House this week.

House Bill 372 and HB 1020 would allow school districts to decide whether classes start before or after Labor Day. The difference between the two measures is that HB 372 would require districts to give students a four-day Labor Day weekend. Delegates approved both bills on split votes Tuesday.

Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico, a co-sponsor of HB 36, which also sought to give school districts that authority, said there are academic benefits to starting school before Labor Day.

“We lose roughly two weeks of the school year that other localities get for things like advanced placement testing,” said VanValkenburg, who has been teaching for 12 years and is currently at Glen Allen High School.

Under the current law, school districts are required to start after Labor Day unless they obtain a waiver from the Virginia Department of Education.

To get a waiver, school districts must have been closed an average of eight to 10 days per year during any five of the last 10 years because of weather or other emergency situations.

According to the department, 86 public school districts in Virginia have the waiver and already start before Labor Day. They include Virginia’s largest school district, Fairfax County, and most districts in the western part of the state. Other large school districts in Virginia, such as Virginia Beach and Richmond, do not have a waiver to adopt a pre-Labor Day start date.

Opponents of the bill include members of the tourism industry who argue an earlier start date takes away from their business. A later start date means a longer season for attractions like Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens. Both theme parks employ teenagers who would have to quit if school began earlier.

The “Kings Dominion law” was put in place in 1986 and has been challenged several times. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe supported the law and opposed an earlier start date to the school year. Gov. Ralph Northam has yet to take a position on the topic.

“We support the ability of local school boards to determine the start date and the end date of the school year,” said Andy Jenks, director of communication and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools.

Jenks said that while he does support bills that give them this authority, the next step is to consult with the community to see what opening school date will work best for them, a process Jenks said could take up to a year.

HB 372 passed by a vote of 76-22. HB 1020 passed 75-24. The legislation will move to the Senate for consideration.

Virginia Lawmakers Stir the Pot on Brunswick Stew Day

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Carroll Tucker stuck the long, wooden stirring paddle into the 85-gallon pot of stew. He let it go, and it didn’t move.

“Do you know what it means if the paddle can stand up by itself?” said Tucker, longtime friend of this year’s Brunswick stewmaster and member of the “stew crew.”

“It’s ready.”

Senators, delegates and hungry residents lined up outside a tent on the Capitol grounds Wednesday to get a taste of this year’s stew. Legislators declared the fourth Wednesday of January Brunswick Stew Day nearly 20 years ago, and it’s the county’s most celebrated tradition.

“It’s been a cherished endeavor for many years,” said Tracy Clary, this year’s stewmaster. “The first Brunswick Stew was cooked in 1820 in Brunswick County right on the banks of the Nottoway River.”

Clary has lived his entire life in the county, which borders North Carolina, and has participated in the Taste of Brunswick Festival for years. Of the seven years he’s competed in the cook-off, he’s placed in the top four six times, winning for the first time in October.

The winning dish, which Clary served again Wednesday, is a chicken-based stew with pork, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, butter beans, corn and a seasoning consisting of just four ingredients – salt, sugar, black pepper and ground red pepper.

Clary and his crew cooked the mixture from midnight until the last spoonful of the 340 to 350 quarts of stew was served just before noon.

“Once you start the pot to get cooking, you’ve got to constantly stir it so it doesn’t burn,” said Tucker, a member of the crew. “We’re constantly adding ingredients, sitting around talking, just having good fellowship and cooking the stew.”

The long hours tending the pot were rewarded when around 10:30 a.m. senators, representatives and other lawmakers lined up to grab a bowl. By 11 a.m., the stew was running low.

“The governor’s not going to have anything to stir if he doesn’t come down here soon,” said a member of the stew crew.

Shortly after, Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Roslyn Tyler, who is from Brunswick, made their way to the tent just in time to get their fix. They gathered around the steel pot, which was almost as tall as the stewmaster himself, to take pictures with Clary and the stew crew. Then they took turns stirring the pot.

“It’s like paddling my boat,” Northam called out as he grasped the paddle and stirred the remaining stew.

Brunswick County administrator Charlette Woolridge said she hasn’t missed a Stew Day in the 11 years she’s held the position. She said Stew Day is an important event in the county’s history because it’s an opportunity for locals to showcase Brunswick County, interact with elected officials and Virginia residents and share their beloved stew.

“We’re just happy and proud to host this event annually,” she said. “We get great enjoyment and fulfillment out of this, and we look forward to doing this for years to come.”

Tangier Island Recovers From Icy Grip

By Sophia Belletti and Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — As temperatures on the Chesapeake Bay dropped as low as 9 degrees early this month, a barricade of ice up to 10 inches thick formed around Tangier Island, preventing boats from bringing groceries, medicine and other supplies to the 722 residents on that speck of Virginia off the Eastern Shore.

Fortunately,  a variety of agencies came to the rescue —  the U.S Coast Guard out of Maryland, the Virginia National Guard and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources organized emergency ice-breaking operations to free Tangier Island.

Nearly two weeks after the snowstorm, regular activity on the waters around Tangier resumed Wednesday, and the mail delivery ferry went out to Tangier’s residents for the first time Thursday morning.

“We’re happy to help with what is really life-saving work,” said Gregg Bortz, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Tangier is located in the Chesapeake Bay and consists of three villages — Ewell, Tylerton and Rhodes Point. The island depends on boats for mail and shipments, and single-digit temperatures and thick ice made that impossible.

Tangier Island falls within the Coast Guard’s 5th District, which includes Maryland and Virginia.

“The Coast Guard has a history of providing assistance to Tangier,”  said Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald Hodges. “The organizations that responded to Tangier Island were based on the availability of assets with ice-breaking capabilities.”

Then the Virginia National Guard flew in from Richmond, making two trips to deliver additional food.

Island officials sought assistance from the Coast Guard, which sent the cutter Chock on Jan. 3. The ship conducted ice breaking and supply delivery until Jan. 5, Hodges said.

“The Chock had to be redirected to break ice in another area, and second request was submitted to the Coast Guard by Tangier for assistance,” Hodges said. “The Coast Guard was unable to facilitate the request, and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management took over relief duties.”

According to Bortz, a 100-foot Maryland icebreaker, the J. Millard-Tawes, was brought in from Crisfield, Maryland, 13 1/2 miles from Tangier.

Clearing a path, he said, was “the primary goal.”

The Maryland DNR was called to the island last in 2015. Bortz said the U.S. Coast Guard primarily responds to Tangier while Maryland DNR focuses on helping nearby Smith Island, Maryland.

Capt. Eddie Somers of the J. Millard-Tawes was part of the rescue team that met trucks of supplies at the city docks in Crisfield and took the two-hour journey to Tangier.

Besides the Tawes, the Maryland DNR has three ice-breaking vessels -- the  John C. Widener in Annapolis, A.V. Sandusky in Kent Narrows and Big Lou on the Choptank River.

Tangier Mayor James Eskridge said the island hasn’t experienced ice like this in many  years. The community, he added, always pulls together.

“Some 40 years ago, folks would have bonfires and go ice skating,” he said. “This was the closest to an ice storm we’ve had since then.”

Higher Ed Advocates Lobby Legislators

By Katie Bashista, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- College educators and students across Virginia took to the offices of state legislators Thursday to make their case on Higher Education Advocacy Day. Participants met with lawmakers to discuss the importance of higher education and the need for support from the General Assembly.

Justin Moore, a junior at Virginia Commonwealth University studying chemical life sciences and engineering, was among the participants. He met with legislators to remind them to think of college students when they’re “making decisions on the floor.”

“I’ve spoken to representatives about the importance of continuing to finance state institutions to a degree in which it’s affordable for students to pursue higher education and degrees that come along with that,” Moore said.

Representatives came armed with statistics that they handed out to legislators. From 2008 to 2017, they said, spending per student in Virginia decreased by $1,069, putting a greater financial burden on students.

While the advocates generally support Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s proposed budget regarding higher education, they are seeking a salary increase of at least 2 percent for faculty.

The citizen lobbyists argued that more benefits would attract and help maintain top faculty members. Participants urged lawmakers to support a bill by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, to provide tuition waivers for dependent students of faculty members.

The event drew representatives from universities across the state, including Randolph-Macon College, George Mason University and VCU. They handed out position papers to senators, delegates and their assistants and spoke to them about the issues at hand. The students said they wanted to  put a face on the issue of funding higher education.

The Virginia General Assembly has just begun the 2018 session, so it was difficult for those lobbying to meet directly with a lawmaker. Advocacy Day participants often had to go through an aide or assistant to communicate their positions.

Jennifer Moon, legislative assistant to Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, met with a group from VCU: Moore, Ph.D. biochemistry student Briana James and faculty members Sarah Golding and Joyce Lloyd. Lloyd is a professor in the Department of Human and Molecular Genetics at VCU as well as the director of training programs for the Center of Health Disparities. She said having students in attendance helped the message get across.

“I want to make sure legislators are keeping in mind that higher education is suffering a little bit and that we need some attention at this moment,” she said.

Golding is a professor of biology and works for the Center of Health Disparities. She said  students have suffered because of VCU’s tight budget.

“We’re at a point where that cannot go on,” she said. “We need our students to be able to pay off their loans, and we also need to be able to retain our best faculty.”

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