2021-2-4

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.

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