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Healthy Relationship Conference Reaches 185 Youth

Suffolk, VA.  On Saturday, February 11, Walk In It, Inc. conducted their 17th annual Healthy Relationships Conference at Kings Fork Middle School.

The 17th annual Healthy Relationships Conference began at 9 am and ended at 9 pm and consisted of several workshops, classes, seminars, performances and concluded with a formal banquet. Walk In It, Inc. Executive Director, Jennell W. Riddick, opened and lead the conference and was assisted by several speakers throughout the day. Conference facilitators lead workshops in communication, friendships, relationships and self-awareness throughout the morning sessions. After lunch activities featured drama, poetry, and dance. The formal banquet featured dinner, games, dancing, talent showcase and a presentation of gifts.

The Healthy Relationships Conference was sponsored by Walk In It and with support from Suffolk Public Schools and Kings Fork Middle School. 166 girls from Ladies of Distinction (L.O.D.), a Walk In It program, and 19 boys from a young male mentorship program participated in the Conference. Ladies of Distinction operates throughout the year at 18 sites in Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton County and Chesapeake. Each year, the individual sites come together at The Healthy Relationships Conference to celebrate, encourage and understand the importance of positive self-identity, how to choose friends wisely, how to respectively relate with peers and adults, how to handle difficult people and how to safely use social media.

Walk In It is a non-profit, 501c3 organization, founded by Jennell W. Riddick in 2006. Walk In It Inc. is dedicated to the empowerment of girls and women. Whether in the classroom, an after-school club, a conference/retreat, or personal mentorship, W.I.T positively impacts the educational and social lives of its participants. Through a combination of practical life skills and empowering life improvement strategies, W.I.T makes a difference one step at a time.

Founder and Executive Director, Jennell W. Riddick, is driven to make a difference through her organization. “I am honored to help our students understand that they deserve and can have healthy relationships in every area of their lives,” said Riddick, “during the Conference they were given the V.I.P. treatment to let them know how valuable they are to us and to encourage them to constantly carry themselves with dignity and respect at home, school and throughout the community.”

Through Walk In It initiatives and programming the organization has successfully assisted in the empowerment and molding of thousands of girls throughout Western Tidewater since 2003. 98% of Walk In It participants attend college, 65% improve by at least one letter grade in targeted subject area, and 75% receive fewer or no behavioral infractions in school. To learn more about Walk In It and Reverend Jennell Riddick, you can visit

McAuliffe seeks funding for mental health screenings in jails

By Tyler Hammel, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Gov. Terry McAuliffe urged Virginia legislators on Friday to include in the state budget funding to conduct mental health screenings in jails and to hire investigators to examine suspicious jail deaths.

In a meeting with reporters, McAuliffe addressed a topic that many law enforcement and mental health experts say is critical: About 16 percent of Virginia’s jail inmates were “known or suspected to be mentally ill,” according to a study last June.

“We need someone in those jails who can determine if someone has an issue with mental health,” McAuliffe said at a news briefing. In a letter to legislative leaders, he called on the General Assembly to approve his budget request for $4.2 million “to provide for training of jail staff in mental health screening and to provide grants to jails for mental health assessments.”

McAuliffe also asked for $200,000 for the Virginia Department of Corrections to hire two investigators “to review deaths and other major situations in local and regional jails.”

The request for the investigators was spurred by the death of Jamycheal Mitchell in 2015. Mitchell, who suffered from schizophrenia, was placed in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth after stealing about $5 of snacks from a 7-Eleven. Although a judge ordered that Mitchell, 24, be sent to a psychiatric hospital, he ended up staying in the jail for four months, losing 40 pounds, until he was found dead in his cell.

McAuliffe had asked for money for jail death investigators and mental health services in jails in the proposed budget that he submitted to the General Assembly in December. Both the House and Senate eliminated the money for mental health screenings. The House eliminated both investigator positions; the Senate kept one.

To fund the requests, McAuliffe proposed cutting funding for an upcoming commemoration of historical events at Jamestown. In 2019, the state will mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of the House of Burgesses at Jamestown, as well as the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies.

The budgets being prepared by the House and Senate would provide $10 million for promoting and hosting the commemorative activities. McAuliffe suggested cutting that amount in half, to $5 million.

McAuliffe generally praised House and Senate leaders on the budgets they have crafted. Lawmakers still must work out differences in a conference committee and have both chambers approval a final budget before the legislative session ends Feb. 25.

Legislators must revise the second year of the $105 billion budget that the General Assembly adopted in 2016. That’s because tax revenues fell short of projections, causing a shortfall of more than $1 billion.

Both legislative bodies and McAuliffe agree that state employees and teachers deserve more compensation; however, they have proposed different ways to achieve this.

McAuliffe suggested a one-time, 1.5 percent bonus for state employees. The House and Senate proposed a 3 percent pay raise for state employees, with a targeted increase for state police, Capitol police and sheriff’s deputies.

The Senate budget sets aside about $83 million to give K-12 teachers a 2 percent raise. In contrast, the House proposed taking $62 million from the state lottery and giving to local school boards to use for teacher pensions or salaries.

“While each chamber has chosen its own method for addressing teacher compensation, I applaud both for keeping our teachers in the mix for discussion during conference,” McAuliffe wrote in his letter.

He said education was another area of agreement.

I am especially pleased to see that we agree on the need to protect public education from any programmatic reductions in funding,” McAuliffe’s letter said. “Public education is the backbone of a growing economy and our collective actions have demonstrated its priority and our shared commitment to protect public education from the effects of slow revenue growth.”

In his session with reporters, McAuliffe said Virginia’s budget situation is complicated by uncertainties in Washington over federal funding for Medicaid, the health care program for low-income Americans.

The federal Affordable Care Act encouraged states to expand Medicaid. But President Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to repeal the ACA. This might involve replacing Medicaid with block grants to the states.

Virginia did not expand Medicaid under the ACA. The non-expansion states might receive smaller block grants than the states that expanded Medicaid, McAuliffe said.

“If they block-grant Medicaid, that is very problematic for the commonwealth of Virginia,” he said.

Low-key turnout in Richmond for Strike4Democracy

By Jesse Adcock, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In a second straight day of national protests, Strike4Democracy, a coalition of activist groups, organized General Strike Day, a series of more than 100 demonstrations and meet-ups across the country to protest the Trump administration.

“It is a time for us to gather resistance and to address the serious issues against our community today,” said Tammie Hagen, organizer for New Virginia Majority, a voter outreach and education group.

Her organization and Food Not Bombs hosted a local Strike Day event at the nonprofit RVA Createspace. The event featured a “free skool” session, an activity Food Not Bombs has been holding for decades focusing on community issue discussions over a free meal.

Strike4Democracy’s website offered a rationale for the protests.

“We witness expanded ICE raids, travel bans, Trump’s mobilization on the border wall, as well as attacks on the rights of workers, women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, and our environment,” the website states.

It encouraged participants to stay home from school and work, if possible, in order to coordinate within their communities for further resistance and action. According to the website, Friday’s activities were also meant to help people prepare for a mass strike on March 8, dubbed “A Day Without a Woman.”

While Strike4Democracy drew hundreds of participants in some cities, it proved low-key in Richmond, with about a dozen people gathered at RVA Createspace.

“We need more people like this,” said attendee Charles Lee Skinner. “People need to not be afraid to let your voice be heard. That’s one of my main concerns.”

Strike4Democracy followed Thursday’s protest called “A Day Without Immigrants.” Many immigrant employees stayed home from work, their children stayed home from school, and some businesses closed. Marches in support of immigrants were held in major cities.

The mass protest and strike flared in reaction to President Trump’s immigration agenda and the arrest of almost 700 people in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids across the country over the past week.

“We’re having a ‘free skool’ because we tend to try and live life with purpose and meaning,” Hagen said. “But there’s so many things that are outside of that scope. The more we join link to link, the more we will be heard.”

She said these events help educate members of the community on issues that can seem too large to understand, or even affect.

“We’re going to shut down, sit down and just be ourselves,” said Christopher Green, who had come to speak about his experiences in the prison system. “We can still have our voice heard; we can still make a difference.”

Green, who had his voting rights restored last year by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, spoke out against a constitutional amendment proposed by Senate Majority Leader Senator Thomas Norment, a Republican from Williamsburg.

SJ 223, which was passed by the Virginia Senate on a 21-19 party-line vote, would strip the authority of the governor to return the voting rights of felons. Instead, nonviolent felons who met conditions set by the General Assembly would have their rights automatically restored. Violent felons would be required to wait five years and pay a fee before having their rights restored.

“It’s basically a poll tax,” Green said. “Everybody needs a chance to be redeemed.”

RVA Createspace was founded by Arthur Kay, with the purpose of being a multi-functional teaching, working and collaboration space. “Our strategy is to encourage cooperation among the community, without bias,” Kay said.

Environmentalists disappointed by House’s coal ash bill

By Julie Rothey, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A bill approved by the House on Friday would require Dominion Virginia Power to study whether its controversial coal ash ponds might pollute the water, but environmentalists say the legislation doesn’t do enough.

SB 1398 would requires energy companies to identify the risks of heavy metals polluting the groundwater and alternatives methods of disposal when they apply for a permit to decommission a “coal combustion residuals unit,” commonly called a coal ash pond.

These ponds, a mixture of the byproduct of coal combustion and water, are often near rivers. Dominion has four sites around Virginia containing millions of tons of coal ash. The company hopes to close the ponds by treating and discharging the water and then burying the remaining coal ash with a protective seal.

As passed by the Senate 29-11 on Feb. 7, SB 1398 said Dominion would have to complete the environmental assessment on a coal ash pond before getting a permit to close the facility. The director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality “shall issue no draft permit to provide for the closure of any CCR unit until he has reviewed and evaluated the complete assessments and all comments received relating to that CCR unit,” the bill said.

However, that language was dropped in the version of the bill that the House passed 96-1 on Friday. Under the House-approved version, the Department of Environmental Quality would not have to consider the environmental studies when granting permits to close coal ash ponds.

The DEQ director “shall not suspend, delay, or defer the issuance of any permit” pending the completion of the environmental assessment, the House version said. “In deciding whether to issue any such permit, the Director need not include or rely upon his review of any such assessment.”

Environmentalists were upset that the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources had removed the stronger language from the Senate version of the bill.

“There were some really important pieces that were removed,” said Jamie Brunkow, Lower James riverkeeper for the James River Association. He said the group is especially disappointed that, under the House version, the DEQ wouldn’t have to wait for the environmental reports before granting a permit.

“You might say that the only thing that remains are some of the ashes of the first bill,” Del. Mark Keane, D-Fairfax, said when introducing the bill on the floor.

Dominion wants to close its coal ash ponds at:

  • Possum Point Power Station on Quantico Creek in Prince William County
  • Bremo Power Station on the James River in Fluvanna County
  • Chesterfield Power Station on the James River in Chesterfield County
  • Chesapeake Energy Center on the Elizabeth River in Chesapeake

The James River Association said it found arsenic and other heavy metals in the groundwater near the 13 million tons of coal ash stored at Dominion’s Chesterfield location. But leaving the ash in ponds isn’t an option, either. Both North Carolina and Tennessee have had untreated coal ash flood rivers, causing environmental damage.

Nate Benforado, staff attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that his organization supports the work the General Assembly is doing but that there’s still more to do.

“Most notably, whether it makes sense to continue the closure permitting process while DEQ is waiting to receive more detailed information that would help make sure we get these sites closed right the first time,” Benforado said.

The bill would apply only to coal ash pits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, all of which are owned by Dominion.

Under the legislation, Dominion would have to include in applications for a “dewatering” permit:

  • A description of any water pollution from the coal ash pond and possible solutions
  • The feasibility of recycling the coal ash
  • The possibility of removing the coal ash to a lined landfill
  • A demonstration of the “long-term safety” of the closed coal ash pond

Coal ash rose to the forefront of environmental activism in Richmond a year ago when Dominion received a permit to release the treated wastewater from its coal ash ponds at the Bremo Power Station into the James River. The James River Association and the Southern Environmental Law Center successfully campaigned to have the requirements of the permit increased.

The process of dewatering Bremo coal ash ponds has started, but the coal ash remains. Dominion’s planis to “cap in place” the pits, by covering them with plastic and soil. Brunkow said there is still risk for contamination in this method. Dominion officials say the process will not pollute the water.

Other options are moving the coal ash to another, more modern lined landfill, or recycling the ash into cinder blocks and concrete.

The move to dewater coal ash ponds came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued rules two years ago calling for the closure of dormant coal ash ponds after the spills in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The bill will now go back to the Senate, where senators will vote on the House version of SB 1398. If the Senate rejects the House version, a conference committee will be formed to work out the differences.

Assembly OKs amendment to help surviving spouses of disabled vets

By Ashley Luck, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A constitutional amendment to expand a tax exemption for surviving spouses of disabled veterans has passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

The amendment cleared the Senate on Friday after winning approval from the House on Feb. 6. It now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who will have until late March to act on the measure.

Currently, surviving spouses of disabled veterans get an exemption on the property taxes for the house in which they and their partner lived. Under HJ 562, the amendment proposed by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, spouses would continue to get the exemption if they move to another home.

Assuming McAuliffe approves the constitutional amendment, it still has a long way to go. By law, it must be approved again by the 2018 General Assembly and then by voters in a statewide election in November 2018.

Moreover, if voters adopt the constitutional amendment, the General Assembly must craft legislation for implementing it, noted Del. Jackson Miller, R-Manassas. He is vice chairman of the House Privileges and Elections Committee, which held a hearing on HJ 562 on Feb. 3.

During the committee meeting, Miller said the enabling bill could address a concern he has about the tax exemption.

“In the corresponding legislation, could it be written that a spouse of a deceased member of our military couldn’t purchase a far more expensive home in the commonwealth of Virginia? Could the legislation say that the tax value of the home would have to be equal to or lesser than the current home?” Miller said.

“The testimony we kept hearing is people wanted to scale down because they lost a spouse. And when they scale down, they would lose their ability based on the home they are in when their spouse was killed. The concern I have is, someone that would perhaps scale up from a $200,000 house to a million-dollar house and now not paying property taxes.”

The committee voted unanimously – 21-0 – in favor of the amendment. So did the full House (97-0) and Senate (39-0).

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