Spring 2021 Capital News Service

Virginia Moves Closer to Ban Plastic Foam Containers

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- From vermicelli bowls to crispy chicken, Pho Luca’s, a Vietnamese-owned Richmond restaurant, uses plastic foam containers to package takeout meals. That may soon change after the General Assembly recently passed a bill banning such packaging.

After negotiations on a Senate amendment, the House agreed in a 57-39 vote last week on an amendment to House Bill 1902, which bans nonprofits, local governments and schools from using polystyrene takeout containers. The Senate passed the amended bill in a 24-15 vote.

“We’re just leveling the playing field,” said Del. Betsy B. Carr, D-Richmond, about the amendment. “So not only do restaurants, but nonprofits and schools will be subject to this ban in 2025.”

Food chains with 20 or more locations cannot package and dispense food in polystyrene containers as of July 2023. Remaining food vendors have until July 2025. Food vendors in violation of the ban can receive up to $50 in civil penalty each day of violation.

Carr said she is glad Virginia is taking the lead to curb plastic pollution and that the measure will “make our environment cleaner and safer for all of our citizens (by) not having (polystyrene) in the ditches and in the water and in the food that we consume.”

This is the second year the bill was sent to a conference committee. Last year’s negotiation resulted in a reenactment clause stipulating the bill couldn’t be enacted until it was approved again this year by the General Assembly.

The COVID-19 pandemic loomed over this year’s bill dispute as businesses shift to single-use packaging, such as polystyrene, to limit contamination.

Lawmakers skeptical of the polystyrene ban spoke out on the Senate floor, arguing the ban will hurt small businesses who rely on polystyrene foam containers, which are known for their cheaper cost.

“The places that give me these (polystyrene) containers are the places that are struggling the most right now,” said Sen. Jen A. Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach.

The pandemic has financially impacted the restaurant industry. In 2020, Virginia’s food services sector lostmore than 20% of its employees from 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Like many small businesses, Pho Luca’s has relied on polystyrene foam takeout packaging because it is affordable and functional.

Dominic Pham, owner of Pho Luca’s, said he has been in contact with several vendors that sell polystyrene alternatives, but it has been a challenge for Pham to find suitable alternatives.

Pho Luca’s currently uses plastic foam containers that cost about a nickel per container, Pham said. The alternatives will cost about 55 cents more. However, Pham said he is willing to make the change, recognizing that polystyrene containers are detrimental to the environment.

Pham said he distributed surveys to consumers on the possibility of raising prices to offset the cost of polystyrene alternatives. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“Even if we have to upcharge them a dollar for the recyclable, reusable containers, people (are) happy to do that, they don’t mind,” Pham said.

The use of plastic foam containers has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states and cities have reversedor delayed restrictions and bans on single-use plastics since April 2020, according to a USA Today report.

The pandemic also has resulted in an increase in single-use plastics, such as plastic bags and personal protective equipment. A 2020 reportin the Environmental Science & Technology journal estimated plastic packaging to increase 14% as consumers seek out prepackaged items due to sanitary concerns.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic sparked renewed interest in single-use plastics, environmental organizations and businesses have spoken against the use of plastic foam containers. Polystyrene biodegradesslowly and rarely can be recycled, posing a risk to wildlife and human health, according to Environment Virginia.

MOM’s Organic Market, a mid-Atlantic grocery chain, has used compostable containers and cups since 2005.

“I think that it's the right thing to do for the environment, for communities, for our residents,” said Alexandra DySard, the grocery chain’s environment and partnership manager.

DySard said purchasing compostable takeout containers instead of polystyrene foam containers has not financially hurt the chain. She said using a plastic lid that can be recycled locally is a better alternative than using polystyrene foam.

Polystyrene alternatives will become more affordable and accessible the more businesses use those products, DySard said.

“If it's a statewide change, that's kind of the best case scenario because everybody makes the change at once,” Dysard said. “And it's driving demand for the product up and costs down.”

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk. If signed, Virginia will join states such as Maryland and Maine to ban polystyrene foam containers.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Lawmakers kill bill requiring officers render aid, report wrongdoing

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A Senate committee recently killed a bill intended to minimize police misconduct and incentivize accountability among law enforcement. 

House Bill 1948, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, required law enforcement officers to report misconduct by fellow officers. Another part of the measure, which some opponents called too subjective, was that on-duty officers provide aid as circumstances objectively permitted to someone suffering a life-threatening condition, or serious bodily injury. 

The bill also expanded the current definition of bias-based profiling, which is prohibited in Virginia, to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Bias-based profiling is when a police officer takes action solely based on an individual’s real or perceived race, age, ethnicity or gender. 

The measure passed the Virginia House of Delegates last month on a 57-42 vote and the Senate Judiciary committee killed the bill this week on a 9-6 vote. Levine introduced a similar bill last year that also failed in the Senate.

“I call HB 1948 my good apple bill because it separates the vast majority of law enforcement that are good apples from the few bad apples that are not,” Levine said when the bill was before the House. 

Dominique Martin, a policy analyst for New Virginia Majority, said before a House panel that the bill would establish a mechanism to create accountability among officers. 

“One of the major themes when discussing long lasting approaches to police reform is the need for change at the institutional level,” Martin said. “One aspect is addressing organizational culture. It incentivizes a more accountable culture amongst law enforcement.”

Vee Lamneck, executive director for Equality Virginia, spoke in favor of the bill.

“LGBT people, especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous LGBT people, are more likely to be victimized by discriminatory police practices,” Lamneck said. “Transgender women are six times more likely to endure police violence and Black transgender women experience even higher rates of being antagonized and criminalized by police.”

HB 1250, also known as The Community Policing Act, took effect on July 1, 2020. The law prohibits police from engaging in bias-based profiling while on duty.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, expressed concern with the part of Levine’s bill that required officers to provide aid to someone with a life threatening injury.

“The concern is that a lot of times in situations where you don't know whether life-saving aid is necessarily required in that instance, the outcome may be that someone is injured more than is immediately recognizable,” Schrad said.

Schrad said the bill was a response to events such as the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in police custody. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and will stand trial in March. The three other officers, J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, will stand trial in August on charges of aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

 “It's the George Floyd response that the officers there did not render aid,” Schrad said.

John Clair, police chief for the Marion Police Department, in Smyth County, agreed with Schrad.

“We're police officers, medical aid should be left to medical professionals,” Clair said. 

The requirement to render aid is not in the state code and though it is a requirement already for many districts, there is a need for consistency across the commonwealth, Levine said.

“I’m confident that the vast majority would do so anyway,” Levine said. “This makes it a matter of policy; it will be taught in training.”

Several bills centered on police reform have died during this General Assembly session. A measure by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Woodbridge, would have established data collection on use of force incidents that would be reported to the superintendent of Virginia State Police. HB 2045 and SB 1440 would have eliminated qualified immunity. The bills would have made it easier for plaintiffs to sue police officers in civil court for depriving the plaintiffs of their constitutional rights. Both bills were struck down within the last two weeks. A similar measure from Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, who patroned HB 2045, was also struck down during the 2020 General Assembly special session. 

Schrad said Levine’s bill and the qualified immunity bill would have taken away legal protections and created a strict liability for police officers. Opponents of the qualified immunity bills also said there would be a negative impact on hiring new police recruits.

“These kinds of issues all taken together create such a standard of both strict liability, and no protections for law enforcement officers that we’re really throwing them under the bus,” Schrad said.

Levine said his bill was both modest and large. 

 “It’s large because it really tries to make it clear there is no thin blue line, that the goal of law enforcement is to serve the public first and you should not be covering up bad acts, severe acts of wrongdoing, that’s not technical or minimal, by your fellow officer,” he said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Bill to reduce felony drug possession charges dies in subcommittee

By Hyung Jun Lee, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers hoped to advance a bill that would eliminate felony drug possession charges and shift a focus to treatment, not punishment, of substance abuse. The measure had bipartisan support and backing from many commonwealth attorneys’ and lawyers around the state, but it died in a House subcommittee. 

Anyone found in possession of controlled substances would face misdemeanor charges under House Bill 2303 introduced by Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. The bill would also amend the conditions set for probation under the current first offender statute, which allows drug possession charges to be dismissed if certain conditions are met.

A person caught with the possession of a schedule I or schedule II controlled substances under the current law could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison. That includes drugs with high potential for abuse and dependence such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. Possession of items with drug residue on them can also lead to felony charges, such as a crack pipe or heroin needle.

Under Virginia’s first offender statute individuals with no previous narcotic criminal record may get their case dismissed if they successfully pass a treatment program, make efforts to maintain employment, complete community service and remain drug and alcohol free during probation. 

Hudson proposed changes to the statute that requires people to continue being tested but not that they continue to test negative. Hudson said that is in recognition “that relapse is a part of recovery from any drug abuse.”

Hudson said that incarcerating someone for drug possession is not the correct way to treat substance abuse.

“It’s a concrete step we can take this year to reduce the harmful consequences of prolonged incarceration as an ineffective deterrent and treatment strategy for substance abuse,” Hudson said during the House Courts of Justice subcommittee hearing for the bill. 

Nathan Mitchell, community outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Henrico County-based McShin Foundation, said the bill is the first step toward reforming the criminal justice system. The McShin Foundation offers multiple programs for those in recovery from substance abuse.

Mitchell, a former felon , said the current system can be damaging to people who suffer from the disease of addiction.

“I became a felon,” Mitchell said. “And with that all of my civil rights, my ability to vote, my ability to run for office, serve on a jury, have a gun were all taken away with one fell swoop.” 

Anyone charged with a felony in Virginia loses civil rights such as the right to vote, hold office, and serve as a juror. The bill would remove felony violations of drug possession from the definition of barrier crimes related to criminal history checks for employment and a range of volunteer opportunities. 

“Health care problems require health care solutions and HB 2303 is a good first step at recognizing that drugs and substance use disorder are not a criminal justice issue,” Mitchell said. “They are in fact, a health care issue.”

Misdemeanor possession is already employed in many states such as Iowa, Oklahoma and Mississippi and also neighboring states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

 “It is a drug reform that has bipartisan support coast to coast,” Hudson said.

South Carolina and Iowa have enacted similar legislation and utilize escalating penalties where the punishment increases with every subsequent offense, according to Attorney Steve Mutnick, who serves as General Assembly counsel. In Iowa, a first time drug possession offense is a one-year misdemeanor. However, the third offense is a five-year felony. 

“Continuing to accelerate the penalty and incarcerate someone for longer doesn’t seem to really get at the root cause,” Hudson said.

Norfolk Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi testified in support of the bill on behalf of six commonwealth’s attorneys from across the state.

“Substance abuse disorder is a matter of public health and that the primary focus of dealing with a public health issue should be the public health system,” Fatehi said. 

Though the legislation marks a departure from the state’s approach to drug possession, Fatehi said the measure would bring Virginia in alignment with neighboring states and the federal system. 

Fatehi said the only concern they had was directly addressed by the language in a budget amendment submitted by Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield. The budget amendment would divert money saved from less incarceration due to reduced felony drug possession charges into treatment programs. Coyner said that jails report there aren’t enough treatment service programs.

“This is a rare instance where we can both be more just and create a significant cost savings for the people of the commonwealth of Virginia,” Fatehi said.

Supporters of the bill pointed out that the legislation was not decriminalizing or legalizing drugs or condoning the use of hard drugs. The measure also would not reduce felony charges for people caught distributing drugs or possessing drugs to distribute. 

“There is no simple possession that is worth more than 12 months in jail,” Fatehi said.

Richard Johnson, with the Virginia Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he lost his nephew to a heroin addiction. 

“Instead of policy wise trying to teach people with addiction a lesson, this legislation tries to solve the problem,” Johnson said.

The panel never picked Hudson’s bill back up before crossover day, which is when each chamber must complete voting on any bills that will be advanced to the other chamber. Delegates said the bill was important, but there was concern about having enough time to secure the funding needed to redirect into treatment. A substitute was submitted on Feb. 3 but never heard before the subcommittee.

Hudson said the bill addressed the most immediate harms. 

“We will go another year of marking another wave of Virginias with this stamp that bears life long consequences,” she said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Virginia Legislators Kill Special Education Bill

By Katharine DeRosa, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- Virginia lawmakers killed a proposal that would allow some special education students another year of instruction because of the struggles of virtual learning caused by COVID-19.

House Bill 2277 proposed that high school students with special needs who are set to graduate in the 2021 school year and who are 22 years old after Sept. 30, 2020, be allowed to take an extra year and graduate in 2022. Students who are younger than 22 are automatically eligible for another year, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“While other students might have more time to make up whatever was lost because of COVID-19, the kids that were going to age out this year will never get that chance,” said Del. Robert Bell, R-Charlottesville.

Virginia students with disabilities age out of the school system at 22 years old, according to the VDOE. Those 22 and older are dependent on the bill if they want to attend another year of high school.

Each student with disabilities in Virginia develops an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, throughout their education. The VDOE provides tips for helping parents and teachers navigate a student's IEP amid virtual learning. Tips include practicing communication skills, hands-on, non-digital activities and documenting progress for a teacher’s review.

Special education students have had a difficult time thriving in the virtual learning environment, Bell said during the bill’s subcommittee meeting. He said the final year of school is crucial to prepare special needs students for post high school life.

“It is heartbreaking to think what those kids are going to have to do to manage,” Bell said.

The legislation didn’t make it past crossover day, when bills must pass the chamber in which they originated. 

“The bill is simple,” Bell told legislators during the bill’s hearing. “It’s not easy, but it’s simple.”

Bell said he introduced the measure because he has a personal attachment to special education. His 18-year-old son attends the Virginia Institute of Autism in Charlottesville. 

Bell said he wants the change to be made, whether through this legislation or another method. 

“If for some reason it's easier or better to do it, just through the budget that's fine too,” Bell said.

Bell said he was not surprised the bill didn’t pass because of how much money it would cost to implement. The bill’s passage would require an additional 1,000 students to be served, which would cost $5 million during the 2022 fiscal year, according to the legislation’s impact statement. 

Bell introduced an amendment to the state budget that adds $5 million to public education. The money would provide free public education as deemed by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The proposed budget for state education assistance in 2022 is $7.8 billion.

“I’m hopeful that they will see this as a priority,” Bell said. 

The bill passed out of committee, but it died in appropriations. 

There are almost 168,000 students with disabilities currently enrolled in Virginia public schools, according to the VDOE. In the 2019-2020 school year, 84 students with disabilities were over the age of 22, according to the VDOE. A total of $12,111 is spent per public school student each year, VDOE stated on its website.

Renesha Parks, director of exceptional education at Richmond Public Schools, said HB 2277 has pros and cons. 

“I do feel that because of their age, they probably should be with age-appropriate peers,” Parks said.

Park said students would benefit from working with community partners instead of continuing in high school. The success of these students depends on public schools connecting them with resources as they enter adulthood, she said.

RPS works with Resources for Independent Living, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence, the VCU Center on Transition Innovation and SOAR365, Parks said. The organizations offer a variety of services, including working with adults to set up plans for higher education, job training, employment and independent living. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

House Advances Legislation Recognizing Water as Human Right

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- The city of Petersburg made headlines last year when the city disconnected water service to non-paying residents preceding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Del. Lashrecse D. Aird, D-Petersburg, criticized the city’s action as “inhumane” and the dispute reached Virginia Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver, who in a letter ordered the city to restore service to 150 residences that still didn’t have water last May.

Aird introduced House Joint Resolution 538 to ensure no person in the commonwealth is denied access to water. The measure recognizes the access to clean, affordable water as a human right.

The Virginia House of Delegates advanced the measure in a 61-33 vote mainly along party lines, with six Republicans voting for the bill. The resolution now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Aird said the resolution lays out the foundation for future substantial policies. If passed, the next step will be turning the legislative recommendations into concrete legislation.

 “We can begin to frame policies that really make it so that we're humanizing hardship,” Aird said. “And we're taking an approach that is trying to put the safety and wellness of people first.”

The measure calls for a statewide water affordability program and decriminalizing water utilities’ nonpayments. It stresses that state agencies implement strategies to limit water contamination and pollution by residents and industries.

Aird said the resolution developed after meeting with families who had their water disconnected or are actively disconnected from water service. She experienced challenges to water access first hand growing up. 

“Unless you've actually lived that life and you've experienced it, you don't really fully recognize how much of a hardship this is,” Aird said. “And so for me, it's personal. It’s deeply a matter and sense of urgency.”

Numerous studies show race and socioeconomic disparities in water affordability and accessibility. Racist discriminatory practices, such as residential segregation, have long-lasting effects on Black communities’ water access and infrastructure, according to a 2019 report by the Thurgood Marshall Institute at The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. 

Aird also sponsors HJR 537, which declares racism a public health crisis. She said social determinants of health can be found everywhere, from schools and hospitals to water access.

A U.S. Water Alliance report stated Black and Latino households are nearly twice as likely to not have complete indoor plumbing compared to white households. That number soars to 19 times as likely for Native American households.

Many communities in the Central Appalachian region, which include parts of Southwest Virginia, are without basic water and sewer infrastructure, according to a 2011 United Nations report. Two-thirds of homes in West Virginia and Southern Virginia discharged raw sewage, which is water containing excrement and debris, directly into streams and ground surfaces.

Oliver wrote in his letter that Petersburg residents struggle with poverty and obesity, factors that increase risks of severe illness from the pandemic. He said people need running water to keep a sanitary residence and to reduce risks from the pandemic.

Moratoria on utility disconnections, such as water, reduce COVID-19 infections by nearly 4% and mortality rate by more than 7%, according to a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Jorge Aguilar, southern region director of Food & Water Watch, an environmental organization, said safe access to water is essential to human health and the state must invest in upgrading water infrastructures.

“This declaration of water as a human right is a good first step in signaling that the state is committing itself to tackling the long term challenges of the water crisis,” Aguilar said, “and ensuring that Virginians have access to clean safe, affordable water now and in the future.”

If the bill is enacted, Virginia will join states such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California, to recognize water as a human right. 

The federal government does not recognize access to water as a human right, but has drinking water regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act.

Rev. Faith Harris, interim co-director of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light, a state affiliate of the environmental organization, Interfaith Power & Light, said the resolution can open up further discussion and legislation among lawmakers on Virginia’s water access crisis. 

“People don't think about how important access to water is, and we need to put this on the front burner for all of us,” Harris said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

 

Virginia lawmakers advance bills eliminating mandatory minimums

By Aaron Royce, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly advanced criminal justice reform measures that would eliminate mandatory minimums in favor of allowing judges more sentencing discretion. 

Senate Bill 1443, introduced by Sen. John S. Edwards, D-Roanoke, narrowly passed Friday on a 21-17 vote. 

The bill proposes to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences in Virginia for various crimes, including aggravated involuntary manslaughter, child pornography and violating a protective order for abuse victims. The legislation does not include Class 1 felonies such as willful and deliberate murder. 

Lawmakers in support of the bill emphasized that judges should be trusted to deliver the appropriate sentences without utilizing a sentencing policy that they say has been abused. Critics said the bill dismantled the criminal justice policies in place after years of deliberation.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said during the bill’s committee hearing last month that mandatory minimum charges have proliferated like “crazy” during his two decades as an attorney, especially for DUIs. 

“People pay a lot of money to stay out of jail,” Surovell said. 

He added that mandatory minimums force people who have legitimate defenses to plead guilty because the consequences of losing are too great. Surovell also said juries aren’t informed of mandatory minimums before they issue sentencing recommendations. 

Under the Senate bill, crimes such as DUI charges or illegal gun possession by a felon also would have mandatory minimums removed.

The nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program, or WRAP, worries that the bill lessens penalties for egregious drunk drivers. The current bill eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders and those with high blood alcohol concentration. The organization requested the bill be amended, but it was not.

“I don’t know if people really recognize the disproportionate carnage that these two types of drunk drivers are responsible for, both in Virginia and nationally,” WRAP CEO Kurt Erickson said in an interview. He said those examples “are not the standard DUI offenses.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving is also opposed to the bill. The organization said shorter sentences won’t adequately punish drunk drivers for their actions. 

Tinsae Gabriel, deputy policy director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said criminologists have long made it clear that it is the certainty of being caught and punished quickly and not the severity of the mandatory sentence that deters crime. 

“I also want to emphasize that repealing mandatory sentences does not mean people go without accountability,” she said. “What it means is that judges who are selected by the General Assembly and who are informed by guidelines would be able to consider all relevant facts and circumstances about a case before they impose an appropriate sentence, instead of a ‘one size fits all’ punishment.”

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance’s policy director Jonathan Yglesias echoed similar support. Yglesias said mandatory minimums provide “little real safety for victims or true accountability for offenders.”

Yglesias said he thinks the bill is timely also, given that domestic and sexual violence cases have occurred “far more often” since the pandemic. Erickson said, however, that Virginia’s drunk driving fatalities also rose from 249 to 253 last year, even with less people on the roads.

The Senate bill directs the secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security to create a work group composed of lawyers, correction’s officials and other stakeholders to study the feasibility of resentencing persons who previously received a mandatory minimum sentence. The report is due in November. 

The House advanced its version Friday with less debate on a 58-42 vote. Introduced by Del. Michael P. Mullin, D-Newport News, House Bill 2331 also eliminates mandatory minimums for many crimes. 

The bill establishes sentence lengths for the second-offense of drug trafficking. The second offense would be not less than 10 years but no more than 40 years. The bill eliminated the requirement that the second offense be served consecutively with any other sentence. 

The House measure will allow eligible persons still serving a mandatory minimum for certain felony convictions to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

Now the bills head to other chambers where the differences will be resolved. Surovell cited a report that estimates eliminating mandatory minimums could save taxpayers $80 million every five years. 

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Mixed Reaction to Senate Passage of Bill for In-Person Education

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill which would require in-person instruction, along with virtual learning, be made available to Virginia public school students upon request passed the Virginia Senate Tuesday.

Senate Bill 1303, introduced by Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, aims to make sure students have the opportunity to attend in-person instruction. The student’s parent or guardian must make the request, according to the bill. The legislation passed the Senate on a 26-13 vote.

The bill does not lay out specific expectations of local school divisions in regard to in-person learning, according to the bill’s text. The original version of the bill required the measure to go into effect once the legislation passed the Virginia General Assembly, but an amended version of the bill removed that requirement. Without that stipulation, the bill will take effect on July 1, according to Dunnavant.

Many Virginia school systems, including Fairfax County, Hanover County and Alexandria City Public Schools, begin summer break in mid-June, according to their academic calendars.

During the bill’s committee hearing, Dunnavant said that it is more dangerous for children to not be in the classroom. 

“We have amazing evidence to show that being in school is safe for both students and teachers,” Dunnavant said. “We have profoundly disturbing evidence that not having in-person school for a body of our students is possibly, irrevocably damaging.”

“I think it is probably the most important thing that we can do this session,” Dunnavant added.

Dunnavant stressed the need for innovation in educating students in grade school similar to how many colleges were able to provide in-person education for students.

“If you look at the interventions and the innovations that they have created to make it safe, and again, without outbreaks, you would be so proud,” Dunnavant said on the Senate floor before the bill passed.

Dunnavant’s comments come after 20 active cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers led Hurt Elementary School in Pittsylvania County to abruptly stop in-person classes last week, according to the Danville Register & Bee

Chesterfield County Public Schools is trying a mixed approach, sending some elementary students to in-person classes while keeping middle and high school students fully online, according to NBC 12. Chesterfield returned to virtual learning after Thanksgiving when COVID-19 cases spiked. Chesterfield County School Board will discuss a broader return to in-person learning on Feb. 9.

The reactions to the bill from senators were mixed. Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington, called the bill “a slap in the face” to school board members despite expressing her support for the goal the bill was trying to achieve. Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, said it is critical that students returned to in-person schooling soon but criticized the bill’s terms for being too vague.

During the committee hearing for the measure, Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said that the people in communities are the ones that should make decisions concerning school operations. 

“It should not, in my opinion, be those of us from all over the state deciding what should happen in someone else’s jurisdiction,” Howell said.

Virginia Education Association President James Fedderman said in an email he strongly opposed the bill. He called the legislation an “unnecessary and ill-advised state mandate.”

The bill now moves to the House of Delegates.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Virginia Senate committee rejects hate crime expansion bill

 

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Legislators attempted to pass a bill that would expand the definition of a hate crime to include crimes against people based on perception, but opponents said the bill was too broad and could be misused. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill by for the year late last month. Four Democrats strayed from party lines to vote against the bill after much debate.

The current statute defines hate crime victims as those who are maliciously targeted based on race, religion, gender, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Legislators passed the legislation last year during the General Assembly session.

Senate Bill 1203, proposed by Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, aimed to ensure that someone who maliciously attacks a person based on their perception of that person’s membership or association within one of the aforementioned groups is held to the same standard as someone who attacks a person they know is a member of one of the groups. Hashmi’s bill also added color, national origin and gender expression to the list of protected classes.

Hashmi cited an incident during Black Lives Matter protests last summer in which Harry H. Rogers, an avowed high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, drove his truck into a crowd of protesters. Henrico’s Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor said her client, who was hit, was not protected under current hate crime legislation because he is white. She said Rogers drove his truck with the intention to disrupt the protests.

“Our current law looks more at the victim and the victim’s characteristics than it does looking at the offender and his intent,” Taylor said.

Vee Lamneck, the executive director of Equality Virginia, said hate crimes are more than acts of violence. Such crimes are committed with the intention of inciting fear and dehumanizing groups, Lamneck said.

“Individuals with intersecting identities, especially Black, Latinx and Indigenous LGBTQ people are exposed to higher rates of violence,” Lamneck said. “Redefinition of the categories in this bill will help to further ensure that all diverse members of our communities are sufficiently protected by the law from hate crime violence and that perpetrators of such violence are held appropriately responsible.”

Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said during the committee hearing that the bill was a massive expansion of the current statute. Petersen said the proposed changes would be “pretty far off-field from the original purpose.”

Opponents, including the Virginia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the bill was too broad and could allow for the exploitation of who was a hate crime victim. Legislators pondered over if this meant a person of color could be charged with a hate crime for assaulting a white person and postulated several scenarios of how the bill could be misused.

Emanuel Harris, a representative for the Black Coalition for Change, called the questioning of the protection of white supremacists puzzling, offensive and laughable.

“The history has shown that the black community is the one being intimidated, not the other way around,” Harris said during the public comment portion of the meeting. Harris said the original statute needs to be expanded.

“I am offended that folks brought this and then clouded, or wrapped it up in BLM, and suggested that if we vote against it, somehow we’re not supporting the prosecution of hate crimes, cause that is not what we are doing,” said Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond. “This bill is offensive in so many different ways.” 

Morrissey was a co-patron for the hate crime legislation that passed in 2020.

Hashmi said Morrissey was approaching the bill from a position of privilege, at which point Senate Minority Leader Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, interrupted with an “Oh my God.” Hashmi continued and said the bill addressed race as well as oppressed and terrorized religious and LGBTQ communities. 

The Anti-Defamation League helped with the bill’s language. Meredith R. Weisel, representing the ADL, said the bill is important because it would help ensure that offenders who are mistaken about the victim’s protected characteristics can still be held accountable for a hate crime under the law.

Brittany Whitley, chief of external affairs and policy with the Office of the Attorney General spoke in support of the bill along with other citizens and attorneys.

Hashmi said in an email that she hopes to refine the language in the bill and will consider reintroducing it next year. 

"Addressing hate crimes is important for the well-being of our communities: hate crimes are designed to harm and inflict pain on not just the targeted individual(s) but also to intimidate and terrorize entire groups of people,” she said.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

Bill Advances to Remove Statue of Segregationist

By Zachary Klosko, Capital News Service

RICHMOND,Va. -- A Virginia House of Delegates committee voted Friday to advance a bill to remove the statue of former state Gov. Harry F. Byrd Sr. from Capitol Square. 

House Bill 2208, introduced by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, instructs the Department of General Services to place the statue in storage until its final location is chosen by the General Assembly.

“This statue serves only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our commonwealth,” Jones said.

The bill’s supporters included Rita Davis, counsel to Gov. Ralph Northam, who described Byrd’s work as preventing African Americans from voting, being seen or being heard.

“Had Mr. Byrd had his way, I would never have the opportunity to be before you, because I'm Black,” Davis said during the committee hearing. “The question is not whether we should remove Mr. Byrd’s statue from Capitol Square, but rather 'Why on earth would we keep it at Capitol Square?'”

 Speaker of the House Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Springfield, indicated during the hearing that the League of Women Voters also supported the bill.

The five Republicans serving on the committee voted against the measure.

Byrd, a Democrat, served as Virginia’s governor from 1926 to 1930 and as a U.S. senator from 1933 to 1965. He strongly opposed desegregation of public schools and led a “massive resistance” campaign in the South against the ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, according to documents from Old Dominion University’s Desegregation of Virginia Education collection. His statue was erected in Richmond’s Capitol Square in 1976 after his death in 1966.

Debate around the statue’s removal began last session, when Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, introduced a bill to remove it, though the bill was ultimately stricken from the docket. The General Assembly passed legislation last year allowing local governments to remove Confederate monuments. The removal of statues in Richmond was accelerated following protests after George Floyd died in the custody of a Minneappolis police officer who has since been charged with second-degree murder.

The Department of General Services estimates the removal to cost approximately $250,000, according to the bill’s impact statement. Storage costs are estimated at $7,000 per year until the final home of the statue is determined.

The Rules Committee passed the measure on a 13-5 vote. The bill now heads to the House floor for consideration.

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