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Saffeya Ahmed

Legislators Introduce Journalist Protections

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Two delegates, both former journalists, introduced legislation Monday to protect student journalists from censorship and shield reporters from having to disclose confidential sources.

Dels. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, and Danica Roem, D-Prince William, urged the General Assembly to pass such legislation.

“Journalism matters. Facts matter,” Roem said. “We have to get this right.”

Sponsored by Roem, House Bill 2250 — introduced for the second year in a row — would protect members of the press from being forced by courts to reveal the identity of anonymous sources.

“The whole point of the shield law is to protect reporters from being jailed for protecting confidential sources,” said Roem, a former reporter with The Prince William Times.

In 1990, Roem’s former editor Brian Karem served jail time  for withholding the names of anonymous sources while reporting in Texas.

“He did it to protect his sources’ confidentiality,” Roem said, “and to keep his word.”

Virginia is one of 10 states that does not implement shield protections for members of the press; Roem also pointed out that a federal shield law does not exist. HB 2250 includes a clause requiring sources to be revealed when there is an “imminent threat of bodily harm,” Roem said.

In addition to shield laws, Hurst said it’s urgent the legislature also pass HB 2382, which he is sponsoring. The bill would safeguard the work of student journalists from administrative censorship.

If the bill passes, Virginia would join 14 other states in providing protections for high school or college students. Half of the states with current protections for student journalists passed legislation in the last four years.

“Thorough and vetted articles and news stories in student media shouldn’t be subject to unnecessary censorship by administrators,” Hurst said.

Hurst has advocated for measures close to his heart since election to office in 2017. A former anchor and reporter for WDBJ 7 news in Roanoke, Hurst was dating Alison Parker, a fellow WDBJ reporter who was fatally shot on live TV in 2015, along with photojournalist Adam Ward.

The bill would create the freedom for student journalists to publish what they please without fear of administrative retaliation.The institution would be allowed to interfere only if  content violates federal or state law, invades privacy unjustifiably, creates clear danger or includes defamatory speech.

While the current legislation focuses on implementing protections for student reporters in public schools and universities, Hurst said he wants the protections to eventually encompass private institutions. He said the legislation was “something that would, as fast as possible, put protections in place for student journalists at our public schools, our public colleges and universities.”

These pieces of legislation come at a time when professional journalists are increasingly targets of violence. A 2018 report by Reporters Without Borders — a nongovernmental organization that promotes journalistic free speech worldwide — found nearly 350 journalists were detained, 80 killed and 60 held hostage by November. More than 250 reporters globally were jailed in 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Hundreds March For Women and Minority Rights in Richmond

By Saffeya Ahmed and Corrine Fizer, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Hundreds of social justice advocates, community members and students marched for women’s rights Saturday in Richmond.

The two-mile reprise of the 2017 Women’s March began at 9 a.m. at the Arthur Ashe Jr. Athletic Center as participants holding brightly decorated signs walked toward the intersection of West Broad Street and North Boulevard.

“What do want? Equal rights. When do we want them? Now,” demonstrators chanted in support of both women and minority rights.

Demonstrators made their way back to the Arthur Ashe Center around 10:30 a.m. for an expo where speakers urged reform, marchers danced to empowering music and dozens of vendors sold handmade products and spread awareness about social justice movements.

“I often times get asked … where is this surge of energy from women coming from?” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, who spoke at the expo. “I like to tell them, it’s always been in us.”

Carroll Foy sponsored legislation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — which prohibits sex-based discrimination — in efforts to make Virginia the 38th and final state necessary to include the ERA in the U.S. Constitution.

“We now know we must have a seat at the table,” Carroll Foy said. “We have to be where the decisions are being made and where the laws are being written.”

After marching to and from the Arthur Ashe Center, participants gathered to hear social justice advocates and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

“Every issue is a woman’s issue,” McClellan said. “We’ve had a long, complicated history. And now we fight and we march today to make sure our voices are heard.”

Spanberger thanked the work of “strong women” who helped send a total of 126 women to Congress during the 2018 midterms.

“For anyone who needs something to show their daughters or young people or anyone else,” Spanberger said, “look at who’s in Congress. Look at what we have happening in Congress.”

Spanberger — who beat Republican Rep. Dave Brat in one of Virginia’s most hotly contested races of the 2018 midterm elections — represents Virginia’s 7th District in the most diverse Congress to step foot in Washington.

“We have women from all over the country,” Spanberger said. “We have our first Muslim women. Our first Native American women in Congress. We have our youngest woman ever in Congress.”

Nearly a quarter of the 116th Congress is made up of women, the most in U.S. history, according to Pew Research.

“I love seeing women in power,” said 11-year-old Natalie Rodriguez, who participated in the march, “because I know that when my grandma was growing up, it wasn’t like that.”

Several speakers also addressed immigrant rights. Some expressed frustration with the now-longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history. The U.S. entered the shutdown Dec. 22, 2018, stemming from a deadlock over President Donald Trump’s $5 billion funding request for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. 
“By shutting down the government, that’s sort of like saying, ‘I’m not going to reopen until you give me my wall,’” said march organizer and local activist Seema Sked. “It’s very childish.”

As a Muslim woman, Sked focuses her advocacy efforts toward fighting Trump’s travel ban, fighting Islamophobia and creating equity for immigrants. She recently traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, to help asylum seekers with the interview process.

“Just to see the conditions that folks are in, and to see the children, and how everyone’s so desperate to find a better life and a safe place,” Sked said, “that’s really, really important to me because I look at that and think that could be me.”

Several marchers supported immigrant rights similar to Sked, holding up signs that read “immigrants are not enemies” and “make America kind again.”

This is the second year that Women’s March RVA has held an event after having been inspired by the National Women’s March held annually in Washington. The march took place a week earlier than the organization’s sister marches, giving Richmond residents the opportunity to partake in one or both events.

The National Women’s March will take place in Washington at 10 a.m. next Saturday.

Legislators Outline Plans for Expanding Mental Health Services

By Saffeya Ahmed, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — Legislators proposed recommendations Tuesday to expand Virginia’s mental health services — including “right-sizing” the state hospital system, altering law enforcement training procedures and providing correctional facilities access to health records.

A General Assembly subcommittee will push legislation requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to “right-size” the state hospital system by ensuring the appropriate number, capacity and locations of state hospitals. The legislation seeks to improve the current state hospital model and increase access to hospital beds across Virginia.

As of 2017, Virginia had less than 1,500 hospital beds spread across nine state mental health hospitals, according to DBHDS. The hospitals also consistently operate at peak occupancy, which is nearly 15 percent above the 85 percent occupancy rate considered safe for both patients and staff, according to the same report. 

“Access remains an issue,” said Paula Margolis, senior health policy analyst for the Joint Commission on Health Care, a research group created by the General Assembly. “Temporary detention order process remains an issue, with how there’s not enough hospital beds for people. [The legislative panel is] restructuring the system so that people are better served.”

The Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the Commonwealth in the 21st Century focuses on the delivery of all mental health services — short-term, long-term and emergency — to all Virginians.

“There’s somewhat of a stigma built up around mental health that prevents people from getting care,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, chairman of the subcommittee. “It’s important that mental health issues [are] given the same dignity as physical health issues.”

Deeds has a personal connection to the issue. In 2013, Deeds took his son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, but the young man was  released because no psychiatric beds were available. Less than 24 hours later, Gus stabbed his father multiple times and then committed suicide. Deeds later said the system failed his son.

Last year, Deeds sponsored legislation that requires schools to teach about the importance of  mental health in ninth and 10th grades.

During the legislative session that begins Wednesday, the subcommittee will seek approval of legislation that updates training standards for law enforcement personnel to include mental health sensitivity and awareness.

From 2012-17, Virginia saw an 18 percent increase in the number of people with mental illnesses imprisoned in local jails, according to a 2017 report by the Virginia Compensation Board. The inclusion of sensitivity and awareness training is specifically focused on people experiencing behavioral health issues or substance abuse crises.

“We’ve got to build a system of care,” Deeds said, “so that people no matter where they are in Virginia have access to the services they need.”

The subcommittee also hopes to amend state law so that correctional facilities can obtain patient mental health records when needed without requiring consent.

Other legislative recommendations for 2019 include:

  • Expand “telehealth” — ways of providing health care via technology

  • Support the University of Virginia in developing a clinical fellowship in telepsychiatry

  • Ask the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to explore treatment options for people in mental health crisis who have complex medical needs

  • Fund a pilot program for a psychiatric emergency center  

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