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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Deanna Davison

For-Profit Colleges Leave Many Students with Big Debts

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Higher education and the profit motive, many argue, do not mix – and students at for-profit colleges often pay the price.

ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit college institution with about 130 campuses in 38 states, shut down in September2016 after then-President Barack Obama’s administration blocked its students from receiving federal student aid. The institution had 40,000 students enrolled among all campuses when it closed.

For-profit schools have a history dating to colonial America, according to the book “Higher Ed, Inc.: The Rise of the For-Profit University.” In those days, a scarcity of places for people to receive a formal education resulted in entrepreneurs teaching practical skills and trades, as well as reading and writing.

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities, a trade organization that represents 1,500 for-profit colleges, praised a judge’s ruling in March that said Obama’s Department of Education failed “to consider various categories of relevant evidence” in reviewing the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, the largest accreditor of for-profit colleges in the U.S.

In September 2016, the Education Department removed the council’s accrediting authority, following a lengthy controversy over its capability to be an effective overseer for students and billions in taxpayer dollars.

“Yes, our sector has had bad schools like every sector of higher education,” Gunderson said in a news release. “But it is time that everyone across the political spectrum stop, step back and look for ways to work together to establish public policies that treat all sectors of higher education on a fair and equal basis.”

Government regulation of for-profit colleges has become less restrictive since President Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education. DeVos froze regulations that protected students from loan defraudment and paused the gainful employment rule, which states: “In order to be eligible for funding under the Higher Education Act Title IV student assistance programs, an educational program must lead to a degree at a non-profit or public institution or it must prepare students for ‘gainful employment in a recognized occupation.’”

According to Inside Higher Ed, Obama’s administration created the gainful employment rule to establish accountability for career education programs when they produce too many graduates with debt they cannot repay. Schools could have their federal funding eliminated if they did not meet requirements.

Democratic attorneys general in 17 states and Washington, D.C. sued DeVos in October, alleging that freezing those regulations violated federal law. The Department of Education said those allegations were “frivolous.”

Sales and recruiting techniques, specifically at ITT Tech, were discussed in a 2012 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. It said that in recruiting students, ITT Tech staff members followed a script called a “Pain Funnel,” asking increasingly uncomfortable questions.

When addressing prospective students who signed an enrollment agreement but indicated they may not want to start school, ITT Tech representatives were instructed to “poke the pain a bit” and “remind them what things will be like if they don’t continue forward and earn their degrees,” the report said.

The script’s questions, designed to elicit emotional pain from prospective students, were intended to persuade vulnerable individuals to apply to the school. The pressure culminated with the question: “Have you given up trying to deal with the problem?”

ITT Tech is not the only for-profit institution to face legal action for allegedly defrauding students. In December 2016, DeVry University – an Illinois-based university with 38 campuses across the U.S., including two in Virginia – settled a lawsuit from the Federal Trade Commission that claimed the school used deceptive advertising to recruit and mislead students.

DeVry paid $100 million to the FTC: $49.4 million for students harmed by the advertisements, and $50.6 million for student loan forgiveness. All unpaid private student loans the school issued to undergraduate students between September 2008 and September 2015 were forgiven, as well as more than $20 million that students owed the school in tuition and fees.

An ITT Tech advertisement from 2007, which details the feel-good story of graduate Charlie Graves, promises viewers and prospective students the chance to attain their goals. The website of the Career Education Colleges and Universities touts similar success stories of students from diverse backgrounds who earned degrees and launched careers in fields ranging from advertising and nursing to computer science and audio production.

But critics say “success” is not the outcome for many students at for-profit colleges, particularly when it comes to loan debt.

Time magazine reported in January that more than half of borrowers – 52 percent – who attended a for-profit college in 2003 defaulted on their student loans after 12 years. Borrowers from two-year community colleges defaulted at half that rate: 26 percent.

Judith Scott-Clayton, who wrote a recent report on student borrowing for the Brookings Institution, said the high percentage of for-profit students who default on their loans does not illustrate the full scope of the issue.

For-profit colleges are generally more expensive to attend than community colleges, so more students tend to take out loans, and at higher amounts. The Brookings Institution report said its findings “provide support for robust efforts to regulate the for-profit sector, to improve degree attainment and promote income-contingent loan repayment options for all students.”

The 2012 Senate report on ITT Tech stated: “Compared to public colleges offering the same programs, the price of tuition is higher at ITT Tech. Tuition for an associate’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $44,895. The same program at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana cost $9,385.”

Tuition for a bachelor’s degree in business administration at ITT Tech’s Indianapolis campus was $93,624. The same program at Indiana University in Bloomington was $43,528.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a former admissions and financial aid counselor for ITT Tech, said she sold associate degrees for about $30,000 and bachelor’s degrees for about $60,000.

“On average, students enrolled in for-profit colleges take on student loan debt that they cannot manage,” said Cottom, now an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.”

“Whether that is because these students are more likely to be economically vulnerable or if it is because employers don’t seem to value these degrees very much, we aren’t exactly sure.”

Cottom said her work at for-profit colleges, which she discusses in her book, informed her interest. Later, she decided to do research on for-profit colleges as a sociologist because she thought the expansion of these institutions and their degrees were understudied.

She thinks it is important to keep in mind the circumstances of students who attend for-profit schools. Many individuals enrolled in such programs are people who have been disadvantaged in accessing high-quality, not-for-profit higher education, she said.

“As a sociologist, one of our long-standing disciplinary interests is in how and why inequality happens. I study for-profit colleges as a way to understand contemporary inequality,” Cottom said.

“When this [student debt] happens, people can be worse off for having pursued higher education than they would have been had they never gone to school at all.”

The National Center for Education Statistics’ most recent report on bachelor’s degree graduation rates showed a significant disparity in graduation rates for students at for-profit colleges versus not-for-profit colleges. Twenty-three percent of students at for-profit colleges graduated within six years; the six-year graduation rate for students at public not-for-profit colleges was 59 percent.

Some students who studied at for-profit institutions have said they felt they wasted their time.

Erika Colon, 35, of Boston, took out $15,000 in loans for a medical administrative assistant certificate at a campus of Corinthian Colleges. The chain of colleges closed after it was found to have misrepresented post-graduation employment statistics.

“They are just giving students high hopes for nothing and just taking people’s money,” Colon said.

‘Bamboozled’ ITT Tech Grad Saddled with Massive Debt, Subpar Degree

By Deanna Davison and Brandon Celentano, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Bobby Donovan always loved video games. The 29-year-old from suburban Hanover County played games like World of Warcraft and League of Legends daily and worked as a senior game adviser at GameStop for a few years after high school. When Donovan saw ITT Technical Institute was offering a bachelor’s degree program in video game design, he jumped at the idea.

But his hopes of attaining that degree and furthering his career did not last long. Donovan entered the program at the for-profit college’s Midlothian campus in fall 2010. By the following fall, the program had lost its accreditation and was eliminated.

Donovan said ITT Tech received late notice that the video game design program was not meeting the expectations of its accreditor. Contrary to Donovan’s belief, he was never enrolled in the bachelor’s program. Instead, he and other students in the same situation were transferred into a graphic design or visual communications program. And that program was for an associate’s degree, not a bachelor’s.

“They cut the program and never enrolled anybody into the bachelor’s program,” Donovan said. “They only enrolled people into the associate’s, so you were never on track for the bachelor’s. We didn’t know they did that. They never told us, or they never told me.”

When Donovan learned the video game design program was eliminated, he looked into transferring schools. But there was one significant issue: What he thought was his best option, ECPI University, another large for-profit institution in Virginia, would not accept his credits. He felt he had no choice but to stay at ITT Tech and complete the associate’s program, which he did. He graduated in 2012.

Donovan, who now lives in Woodbridge in Northern Virginia, estimated that he took out about $50,000 in loans to fund his associate’s degree. His loan debt is split between a federal and a private lender. Approximately $20,000 of it is from the private lender ITT Tech used, who sold Donovan’s debt to Student CU Connect in 2013. The loan has a variable interest rate that started around 12 percent but has increased to about 16 percent. It caps at 16.75 percent.

“The amount is really just unheard of for an associate’s degree,” Donovan said. “If I didn’t have student loans, I would probably have an extra $1,000 every month.”

David Hodges, 31, a former classmate of Donovan’s, enrolled in ITT Tech’s visual communications associate’s program in 2010. He withdrew from the institution after a year.

“I feel that I educated my professors more than they educated me,” Hodges said. “I enjoyed my classmates, but not the program. The art program at ITT Tech is comparable to an eighth-grade art class.”

Hodges, who lives in Richmond, is now a self-employed street artist and fine arts painter, but he said it is no thanks to his time at ITT Tech.

“I tell everyone I’m self-taught because I learned nothing at ITT Tech,” he said.

In 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency founded in 2011 to protect citizens from unfair bank and lending practices, sued ITT Tech. The bureau alleged the school’s enrollment and financial aid advisors used predatory lending tactics to coerce students into costly private loans they could not afford. The lawsuit also alleged ITT Tech misled students about their post-graduation job prospects and the transferability of earned credits.

“ITT marketed itself as improving consumers’ lives, but it was really just improving its bottom line,” Richard Cordray, the bureau’s former director, said in a news release when the bureau filed the lawsuit. “We believe ITT used high-pressure tactics to push many consumers into expensive loans destined to default. [This] action should serve as a warning to the for-profit college industry that we will be vigilant about protecting students against predatory lending tactics.”

ITT Tech closed its campuses and declared bankruptcy in September 2016, after the U.S. Department of Education judged the school failed to meet accreditation standards twice that year and eliminated ITT Tech’s ability to receive federal student aid. Some students who were enrolled at the time or had recently withdrawn – within the previous 120 days – could apply for loan cancellation, but that applied only to federal loans, not private loans.

Because Donovan graduated in 2012, neither of those options applied to him. He received an email from ITT Tech on Sept. 6, 2016, explaining the school’s closure. The response blamed the federal government for forcing the school to close, Donovan said, and offered no options relevant to him other than providing information on how to obtain his academic transcript.

“The Department of Education’s August 25 letter imposed a combination of requirements on ITT Educational Services, Inc. that we believe are unprecedented in the history of the Department of Education,” the email stated. “Please know we worked diligently to identify alternatives that would have allowed you to start or continue your education at ITT Tech and earn your degree. But the Department of Education’s actions have forced us to cease operations at the ITT Technical Institutes.”

The email shared a list of schools that ITT Tech said had entered into agreements allowing students to transfer credits. The email also included a list of schools in students’ local areas or online that offered similar programs. Donovan said he thinks the schools ITT Tech mentioned were also for-profit colleges. The website is no longer active.

Donovan said his student loan debt will hang over his head for years to come. He is still motivated to earn a bachelor’s degree, but it is not feasible for him to return to school just yet.

“It’s kind of been put on the back burner after starting a family, getting a house,” he said. “[The debt] affects a lot of things – not just going back to school, but really starting my life outside of school after one huge mistake.”

He also said if he were to pursue a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school, he doubts his associate’s degree would be considered; thus, he would likely have to start over with zero credits.

“I don’t think any actual college or university will actually recognize it as a degree,” Donovan said. “But I’m not 100 percent sure. I haven’t found out yet.”

He is doubtful his associate’s degree has been valuable in his post-ITT Tech job pursuits either, he said, but he remains positive and hopeful for the future.

“The people that I met [at ITT Tech] are great people,” Donovan said. “Some of the teachers were really good. It was a learning experience. I know I’m not going to be bamboozled again.”

Legislators, Advocates Show Support for Medicaid Expansion

‘Safe Virginia’ Task Force Will Address Gun Violence

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia House Democrats announced the formation Tuesday of a “Safe Virginia” task force to address gun violence in communities across the commonwealth.

Del. Charniele Herring of Alexandria said the initiative is a direct response to House Republicans’ Select Committee on School Safety, which the GOP members said would not take up gun issues. The Democrats have sent a letter to House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, inviting Republican delegates to join the group.

Del. Kathleen Murphy of Fairfax, who will co-chair Safe Virginia with Del. Eileen Filler-Corn of Fairfax, said they commended Cox and Republicans for creating the select committee, which will hold its first meeting April 26. But Murphy said she believes it is important to do more and discuss questions regarding guns.

“It is not possible to separate school safety from gun safety,” Murphy said. “People are focused on the tragedy of gun violence, so now is the time to move forward.”

Republican Del. Roxann Robinson of Chesterfield, a member of the select committee, said its efforts are also borne from the desire to do more. She said panel members want to focus on bipartisan school safety improvements without unduly burdening schools and taxpayers.

“The committee will not consider issues Republicans and Democrats disagree on, such as restricting gun access or arming teachers,” Robinson said. “Rather, it will consider such tactics as adding metal detectors in schools, improving the check-in process for people visiting the school during school hours, and how to safely protect students in the event of an attack.”

Murphy and Filler-Corn said the Safe Virginia task force will focus on gun violence not only in schools but across the state. They hope the recent spike in activism from young people in Virginia and the United States will inspire state lawmakers to take action.

“Three out of the 10 deadliest mass shootings have taken place in our country in the last six months,” Filler-Corn said. “We need to get to work to find common sense, bipartisan solutions to address this crisis.”

The House Democratic Caucus has selected regional chairs for the panel: Del. Delores McQuinn for Richmond, Del. Marcia Price for Hampton Roads, Del. John Bell for Northern Virginia and Del. Chris Hurst for Southwest Virginia.

Safe Virginia plans to hold meetings from May to October across Virginia to hear comments from constituents, law enforcement authorities and state and local leaders.

VCU Gun Violence Panel Gets ‘Beyond the Politics’

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Addressing gun violence in America often leaves gun control supporters and Second Amendment advocates at an impasse, a panel of experts said at a town hall-style discussion of the issue at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t come with an operating manual; there is no guide to how amendments should be interpreted,” said John Aughenbaugh, a VCU political science professor. “Reasonable regulations are allowed by the government, but it gets complicated: What is a reasonable regulation?”

Aughenbaugh was joined on Friday’s panel by Lori Haas, Virginia’s director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence; Jessica Smith, former public safety initiatives coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General and a doctoral candidate at VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs; and Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

About 50 students and others attended the event, which was organized by the VCU Student Media Center and The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper. The title of the discussion was “Beyond the Politics.”

The idea behind the panel was that even in times of harsh partisan discourse, citizens with differing perspectives should be able to have civil discussions about public issues and work toward solutions. Panel moderator Fadel Allassan, the paper’s managing editor, reminded attendees that although gun violence is a tense and emotional issue, this was not a debate; it was a respectful discussion.

Panelists agreed that discussing gun violence, and particularly mass shootings, can get muddied because of the terminology involved.

Haas said that while some public health experts may disagree, the FBI defines a “mass shooting” as four or more people killed in a single incident.

Part of what makes implementing public policy on mass shootings so difficult and unique to the U.S. is the Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms.

“I think it’s a part of the American identity that being able to own and carry guns is a right we have,” Smith said.

But people often disagree on what exactly that means and how it should be regulated.

Van Cleave said gun control regulations are often unfair and give the government too much power. He said while he worries about guns ending up in the wrong hands, he believes individuals should be able to defend themselves, their families and their homes.

“I was a deputy sheriff for six years,” Van Cleave said. “I was able to see the importance of people protecting themselves before we could arrive.”

“When we can identify people at risk of violent behavior and we do nothing to disarm them, I think we are culpable,” said Haas, whose daughter survived the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. “I don’t think it’s about legal gun ownership at all.”

Panelists agreed on the struggles of moving forward on addressing gun violence without a clear universal goal, which makes it even more difficult to reach consensus on what solutions look like.

Smith said it is important for people on all sides of the issue to keep it in perspective.

“We are a system based on incrementalism,” Smith said. “If we pass regulations, that doesn’t mean everyone’s guns will be taken away, but it also doesn’t mean all gun violence will stop.”

“A complete and utter victory is not going to happen,” Aughenbaugh said. “Policy-making requires compromise. Listen to what the other side wants. We’re not going to have a conversation if we’re not willing to listen to each other.”

International Women’s Day Ralliers Say ‘Women’s Time Has Come’

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Dozens of local activists and community members gathered Thursday for the 109th International Women’s Day rally and march to celebrate solidarity with women across the U.S. and worldwide. This year’s theme was “Press for Progress.”

The International Women’s Strike was organized by the Richmond chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and supported by numerous social justice groups such as Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Fight for 15.

The rally began at Abner Clay Park in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. Event leaders ignited the crowd, inviting everyone to sing the “Battle Hymn of the Women,” a feminist rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which dates to the 1860s. Its message resounded: “Women’s time has come.”

Rally speakers highlighted the importance of women of all backgrounds and experiences.

“If all women and femmes went on strike, the world would fall apart,” said Vanessa Bolin, a Native American activist who served as a medic at North and South Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation. “The world needs us. My hope is that each of you will find your voice and use it to change the world.”

Rebecca Keel, a community organizer and 2016 Richmond City Council candidate, called rally attendees to action.

“It is a core tenet of feminism that the personal is political,” Keel said. “Let’s examine not only our movements but ourselves. Let’s vote with our dollars in supporting candidates we believe in that will make our path to liberation easier.”

Some speakers focused on specific political issues such as the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines. Jamshid Bakhtiari, Virginia’s field organizer for Chesapeake Climate Action Network, invited community members to send letters to Gov. Ralph Northam to urge him to take action against the pipelines.

After speeches concluded at the park, rally attendees marched as a group to Richmond City Hall and then to the Bell Tower on the grounds of the state Capitol, where Democratic Dels. Elizabeth Guzmán of Prince William and Debra Rodman of Henrico spoke, echoing the messages of unity.

As College Tuition Rises, Senate Panel Kills Bill Mandating Public Input

By Lia Tabackman and Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – In Fall 2010, Virginia Commonwealth University increased annual tuition by almost 24 percent, tacking $1,700 on to each in-state student’s bill in one fell swoop.

While that jump may seem like an outlier, tuition increases have been the norm at the state’s institutions of higher education during the past decade.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia have increased tuition by an average of 82 percent over the past 10 years. While various factors, including state budget cuts, contribute to tuition increases, these decisions take place at board meetings where it can be difficult for students and members of the public to make their voices heard.

Even so, a bill by Del. Jason Miyares, R-Virginia Beach, to mandate public input on proposed tuition increases – as required in 10 other states – appears to be dead for this session.

HB 1473, which sought to require university trustees to hold a public comment period, unanimously passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 6. After the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 14-1 in favor of the bill, it then was sent to the Senate Finance Committee – which supporters saw as a bad omen.

They were right. On Tuesday, the Finance Committee killed the bill on a 6-4 vote. The next day, the committee reconsidered the matter – but the bill again was “passed by indefinitely,” 7-6.

The committee heard testimony from representatives of the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, as well as from representatives of Partners for College Affordability and Public Trust, a progressive advocacy agency for college affordability.

“It’s bad enough that the cost of higher education in Virginia is spiraling out of control,” said James Toscano, president of the affordability group. “But failing to ensure the voices of students and parents are heard before public appointees set tuition is a blow to good governance and transparency.”

While Toscano argued that Miyares’ bill is important for transparency, Betsey Daley, U.Va.’s associate vice president for state governmental relations, said the measure was unnecessary, as emails from board members, the president and other officials are already available online.

“One public hearing is not a substitute for year-round input we have at U.Va.,” Daley said.

According to the State Council of Higher Education of Virginia, there is an inverse relationship between state funding and the rate at which tuition increases at public colleges and universities. When the state provides support for these institutions, the colleges themselves are better able to control fluctuating tuition costs.

In 2010, for example, VCU felt the impact of a $40 million budget cut, the same year tuition increased by 23 percent.

Virginia has established a cost-share goal of the state funding 67 percent of university operations and students fronting the remaining 33 percent; however, the state is expected to pay only 47 percent in 2018. Students will carry 53 percent, a record high.

According to SCHEV, it would take more than $660 million in additional state revenue to reach the 67/33 cost-share goal. But doing so could lower tuition costs by $2,700.

In the meantime, Virginia students owe more than $30 billion in student loan debt.

SB 394, a bill that would create a state ombudsman for student loan issues, has unanimously passed in the Senate and appears to be on its way for House approval.

House Panels Reject LGBTQ Anti-Discrimination Bills

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Subcommittees in the House of Delegates killed several bills this week that would have expanded protections for LGBTQ Virginians in housing and the workplace.

Two bills had passed the Senate late last month. Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, sponsored SB 202, which would have prohibited public employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, sponsored SB 423, which would have included discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity as unlawful housing practices under the Virginia Fair Housing Law.

Both bills were tabled Thursday on 5-2 party-line votes by a subcommittee of the House General Laws Committee.

“It is painfully evident today that Virginia is not for all lovers,” Wexton said afterward. “Simple access to a place to live without discrimination is a basic fundamental right of all people. It is shameful that the House Republicans killed this in subcommittee when it passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Also on 5-2 votes, the General Laws subcommittee rejected HB 401, introduced by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, and HB 1547, by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax. Those bills aimed to add the same protections in employment and housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Simon, who introduced his legislation for the fourth consecutive session, said the National Association of Realtors amended its code of ethics in January 2014 to guarantee nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. That guarantee should be included in Virginia’s Fair Housing Law to protect individuals seeking housing from people who aren’t Realtors, he said.

Bill Janis of the Family Foundation of Virginia, a faith-based nonprofit, said such anti-discrimination bills were unnecessary because of existing regulations.

“The largest employers in the Richmond area, Capital One and Virginia Commonwealth University . . . already have good hiring policies involving these issues,” he said. “They’re already hiring, in large measure, based on the qualifications and merits of the applications of the positions, not based on other criteria.”

Another bill regarding nondiscrimination on the basis of gender identity was killed Tuesday in a House Commerce and Labor subcommittee. HB 1466, sponsored by Del. Debra Rodman, D-Henrico, would have prohibited health insurance providers from denying or limiting coverage to transgender Virginians.

Rodman’s bill was rejected on a 5-3 vote, also along party lines.

House Passes Sexual Harassment Policy

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – After weeks of dispute over how to reform the General Assembly’s sexual harassment policy, the House of Delegates passed a bill Thursday that establishes new training requirements.

The bill by Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, would require anti-sexual harassment training to be completed every two years by General Assembly members and full-time legislative staff.

A bill by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, that would have included all forms of workplace harassment was killed in committee Friday. Watts’ HB 1053 also called for new mechanisms for victims of harassment to file complaints, aiming to make the process more streamlined.

HB 371 passed 88-10. Watts and nine other Democrats voted in opposition; two House members did not vote.

“I see both sides of the aisle trying to get to the same place, just through different vehicles,” Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said on the House floor. “Our intention is to continue to take this issue very seriously, as we always have. Especially in this day and age, when we see women feel safe to talk about instances where they have been harassed, or manipulated, or harmed, we want to continue to encourage them to come forward.”

Watts, the longest-serving woman in the House, said in a telephone conference call with reporters later that the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“The bill specifies training, but it has no guidelines for what should be part of it,” she said.  “Republicans say to trust the system. Trusting the system got us where we are today.”

In debate on Wednesday, Robinson defended the legislation’s details.

“It took me about 45 minutes to read through it,” Robinson said, referring to the training course. “And every one of the sections includes what needs to be done if there’s a problem.”

Gilbert said Republicans are committed to addressing the issue.

“We are going to continue to develop this program, if this bill passes … and demand a level of accountability that we would all expect,” Gilbert said.

A similar bill by Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Richmond – SB 796 – has been referred to the Senate Rules committee.

Watts told reporters that the accounts of sexual misconduct survivors speaking out during the #MeToo movement of the last few months as well as the growing number of women in politics have represented a major shift.

“We never had more than 19 women serving at any one time,” Watts said. “Now we have 28. #MeToo speaks to decades of women getting around situations, trying to preserve their professional career as well as their own moral integrity. It’s time to have a full and open discussion of protections that are needed to make sure these instances are properly handed and allow due process for all individuals involved.”

Watts said the General Assembly’s history with sexual harassment is “not without a major blemish,” referring to former Speaker of the House Vance Wilkins Jr. The Republican resigned his position in 2002 after allegations of sexually harassing two women and paying one of them a settlement of $100,000 to remain silent.

“This is not only a moral issue, but a policy in law,” Watts said. “We must use our power for good to be sure that whoever is doing this stops immediately.”

Gun Control Bills Die in Virginia House of Delegares Subcommittee

The Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee of the Virginia House of Delegates considering and killing the banning of bump-stocks and training for carriers of concealed carry permits, both of which are supported by a majority of Virginians, including Republicans.

 

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – A House subcommittee shot down multiple gun control bills Thursday despite a tear-filled statement from a survivor of last fall’s Las Vegas shooting who urged legislators to ban bump stocks.

Cortney Carroll of Henrico County was one of several citizen lobbyists who attended the meeting of the Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee. She urged delegates to support HB 41, which aimed to ban the sale of bump stocks, devices that significantly increase the number of rounds that can be fired per minute.

Carroll had been at the country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 when Stephen Paddock, using rifles fitted with bump stocks, killed 58 people and injured about 550.

“I believe in guns, but I just don’t think these are necessary,” Carroll said. “Think of your children, your family, your friends. Please don’t let [Las Vegas] happen again, not in our state.”

The subcommittee chairman, Republican Del. Thomas Wright of Amelia County, said that while he empathized with Carroll’s perspective, he did not think banning bump stocks was the answer.

“Until the evil in people’s hearts changes, the laws we pass cannot fix that,” he said.

The subcommittee also heard from supporters of HB 602, which would have required people applying for concealed carry permits to demonstrate competence with a gun in person. Applicants can currently complete National Rifle Association or state-certified online courses.

Jonathan Romans, a local gun safety activist, said the training could reduce accidents, which he called a public safety issue.

“Having training for people who want to carry outside the home is not an infringement on constitutional rights,” Romans said. “Gun activists have called this a gun-grabbing scheme, but that’s just not the case.”

Lori Haas, Virginia’s state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, also urged the committee to support the bill.

“We require law enforcement to undergo hundreds of hours of training,” Haas said. “The average citizen could certainly benefit from this training.”

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, countered: “But we’re not police officers. We don’t need the same amount of training to carry a gun.”

The subcommittee also rejected HB 596 and HB 927, which would have prohibited the sale or transfer of certain magazines and firearms. Del. Betsy Carr, D-Richmond, said she introduced the bill because her constituents were concerned by the abundance of gun violence in their communities.

All of the bills were killed on 4-2 party-line votes.

Businesses May Get Tax Credits to Train High School Students

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Juniors and seniors in Richmond City Public Schools would receive paid apprenticeships and training with local businesses, and participating employers would get tax credits from the state, under legislation filed by a bipartisan pair of lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Glen Sturtevant and Democratic Del. Jeffrey Bourne, who both represent the city in the General Assembly, are seeking to establish a pilot program for the 2018-19 or 2019-20 academic year.

Under the program, up to 25 Richmond students would receive “competitive compensation” while being trained in high-demand fields.

Sturtevant and Bourne say it is important to help students who do not pursue traditional college degrees prepare for the workforce.

“This pilot program will provide a great opportunity for bright and hardworking students to get hands-on experience,” Sturtevant said.

Participating local businesses would receive a $2,500 tax credit per student per semester. Student compensation would equal “no less than the value” of that credit. The total tax credits awarded by the state could not exceed $125,000 a year under the legislation.

Sturtevant and Bourne previously served together on the Richmond School Board for four years.

The lawmakers have submitted companion bills to create the apprenticeship program. Sturtevant has introduced SB 937 in the Senate; Bourne is carrying HB 1575 in the House. Both measures are awaiting committee hearings.

Gov. Northam Delivers Message of Hope in Inaugural Address

By Deanna Davison and Sarah Danial, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ralph Northam took office as Virginia’s 73rd governor on Saturday and urged citizens to maintain the strong “moral compass deep in our hearts” to help guide the state forward.

In his inaugural address to a crowd of about 5,000 outside the state Capitol on a day of stinging cold, Northam reflected first on his childhood on the Eastern Shore, the time he spent fishing and crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay and the advice he received from his father.

“If things get dark or foggy, if you can’t find your way,” his father said, “keep your eye on the compass. It’ll always bring you home safely.”

Northam, 58, said Virginians can likewise rely on their inner compass.

“We all have a moral compass deep in our hearts, and it’s time to summon it again, because we have a lot of work to do,” said the former lieutenant governor and state senator.

Northam also spoke about transparency and the need for government officials to bridge the political divides. His core policy platforms as governor, he said, are those he believes are nonpartisan: expanding health care, reducing gun violence and ensuring equal access to education.

“Virginians didn’t send us here to be Democrats or Republicans,” Northam said. “They sent us here to solve problems. The path to progress is marked by honest give and take among people who truly want to make life better for those around them.”

Northam was sworn in after fellow Democrats Justin Fairfax took the oath as lieutenant governor and Mark Herring was sworn in for a second term as attorney general.

The inauguration drew a pair of demonstrations: About two dozen people protested the controversial natural gas pipelines, shouting “water is life” during a moment of silence. A smaller group, United We Dream, demonstrated on behalf of immigrants.

Capitol Square officially opened to the public at 9:30 a.m., and by 11:30 a.m., the stands were full. Spectators came prepared with heavy coats and gloves to brave the cold. Hot apple cider was served in blue Northam cups that said, “The Way Ahead.”

After the swearing-in ceremonies, representatives of Virginia’s Indian tribes gave a “Blessing of the Ground” for the new administration. Then the inaugural parade began, featuring dozens of groups from across the commonwealth. Cadets from Northam’s alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, marched across the grounds, saluting the new governor.

Northam’s first executive order was signed immediately after the parade. It “prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities in Virginia state government.”

Among the parade participants with a connection to Northam was the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. Northam served as a pediatric neurologist at the Norfolk hospital for 25 years. He said the lessons he learned there, including the importance of hope, will stay with him during his four years as governor.

“I have recognized the incredible power of hope and my responsibility to preserve it in the people I serve,” Northam said. “Hope is not just a source of comfort for the afflicted – it is a wellspring of energy to fight for a better tomorrow, no matter the odds. I am committed as your governor to fight every day for the hope that tomorrow will be better – for all of us, not just some of us.”

Senate Democrats Announce Legislative Plans

By Deanna Davison, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Senate Democrats said Tuesday they are excited to work with Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and continue Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s progress in this year’s General Assembly session.

Senate Democratic Caucus Chair Mamie Locke of Hampton said Virginia generated more than 200,000 new jobs and has enjoyed a “thriving economy” under McAuliffe.

“Virginians want economic security,” Locke said. “We must keep trends moving in the right direction. It is incumbent upon us to ensure no Virginian is left behind.”

She spoke at a telephone press conference during which the caucus outlined its agenda for the 2018 legislative session, which begins Wednesday. The agenda’s theme is “building safe, secure communities.”

Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said the Democrats plan to continue to push to expand Medicaid, the health care program for low-income people funded by the federal and state governments.

Barker said that under Medicaid expansion, Virginia’s savings would outweigh the state’s share of the cost.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, emphasized the Democrats’ commitment to improving conditions for working women and families by fighting to close the gender pay gap and achieve paid family leave.

“Parents should never have to choose between caring for a sick child and earning a day’s wages,” Ebbin said. “Access to paid family leave is not only the right thing to do – it makes good business sense.”

Sens. Louise Lucas of Portsmouth and Rosalyn Dance of Petersburg highlighted issues like ensuring quality education and voting rights and decreasing the incarceration recidivism rate. Lucas emphasized the achievement gap for students of color and disabled students. The Democrats said they plan to fight for universal pre-K and 21st-century job training, giving more Virginia students the opportunity to succeed.

Dance said the Democrats will continue McAuliffe’s efforts to restore voting rights to released inmates who served their sentences. She also mentioned implementing “no excuse” absentee voting, especially for the elderly.

“Every Virginian should have an opportunity to succeed, regardless of mistakes they have made in the past,” Dancesaid. “These people need to know their votes matter. Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around.”

The senators also discussed plans to reform mental health and substance abuse treatment, citing long wait times. Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, said Virginia must reform the system and ensure quality, affordable services for those who need help.

“We have to do these things this year, and I am confident we will,” Barker said.

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