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Dozens of Children in Virginia Are Fatally Shot Each Year

 

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Around 9 p.m. on the Fourth of July in 2013, 7-year-old Brendon Mackey and his father were walking through the parking lot of the Boathouse restaurant in the Brandermill subdivision in Chesterfield County on their way to watch the fireworks display over Swift Creek Reservoir. Suddenly, the boy fell to the ground.

Bryan Mackey thought his son had tripped or passed out, and reached to pick him up. “When I had him in my hands, I looked at his face and I knew he wasn’t there,” Bryan Mackey told reporters at the time. “I could see it in his eyes, that blank look in his face.”

Brendon had been struck in the head and killed by a random bullet that authorities believe had been fired into the air in celebration. Police have yet to find the person who fired the fatal shot.

Brendon, who was about to start third grade at C. E. Curtis Elementary School in Chester, was one of more than 620 children in Virginia and 26,000 nationwide fatally shot since 1999, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Virginia victims included 80 children age 10 and younger. Three died in gun incidents before reaching their first birthday, a Capital News Service analysis of the data found. Nationally, about 3,000 children 10 and under – including more than 180 who hadn’t turned 1 – have been fatally shot since 1999.

The mass shooting that killed 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day has propelled the debate over gun violence into the national conversation. Students who survived the massacre and their counterparts across the country have declared “Never again” and advocated for gun law reforms.

While mass shootings are relatively rare, gun-related deaths of minors – age 17 and younger – are distressingly common. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, 39 minors in Virginia and about 1,640 nationwide died as a result of guns.

Accidents like the tragedy involving Brendon Mackey represented 7 percent of all gun-related deaths of minors in Virginia since 1999. Thirty-seven percent of the deaths were suicides, and 53 percent were assaults. The remaining deaths were undetermined.

“Our kids have become collateral damage for the unacceptable policies of the gun lobbies,” said Lori Haas, Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Haas became involved with the issue after her daughter Emily, 19, was shot and injured in the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when a gunman killed 32 people. When it comes to gun deaths of minors, Haas said, “Even one is too many.”

The statistics on gun-related deaths

Nationally, of every 100,000 Americans age 17 and under, two are killed by gunfire each year, according to the CDC data. In Virginia, the rate is 1.9 gun-related deaths per 100,000 minors. The highest rates in the nation are 9 deaths per 100,000 minors in the District of Columbia, 5.5 in Alaska and 4.1 in Louisiana.

The data showed a distinction between younger children and older ones. Since 1999 in Virginia:

·         139 children age 13 and under were fatally shot. About 66 percent of those deaths were classified as assaults, 20 percent as accidents and 11 percent as suicides.

·         482 Virginians between 14 and 17 died from gunfire. Almost half of the deaths – 49 percent – were assaults, 44 percent were suicides and nearly 3 percent were accidents.

Those numbers show that suicide is more prevalent among older children than younger ones – a fact underscored by the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System. That system found that Virginians age 15 to 19 were seven times more likely to commit suicide than those age 10-14.

The CDC data show that 44 percent of minors killed by guns in Virginia were African-American. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of Virginians are African-American. This indicates that black children are fatally shot at a disproportionately high rate in the state.

The debate over gun control

In March, thousands of Virginians participated in the international March for Our Lives, protesting government inaction on gun control legislation. About 5,000 people, including students and politicians, marched on the state Capitol. The protests came after a legislative session in which members of the General Assembly clashed over dozens of bills involving gun regulation.

Lawmakers proposed more than 70 gun-related bills. Some sought to restrict access to guns, including by children. Others sought to expand gun rights, including letting people bring guns to church. In the end, only two of the bills passed. Both have been signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam:

·         House Bill 287, introduced by Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, will create a specialty license plate with the message “Stop Gun Violence.”

·         Senate Bill 669, sponsored by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, seeks to keep guns out of the hands of Virginians age 14 or older who have been ordered to get mental health treatment. Under this law, which took effect immediately on April 18, such individuals face restrictions on purchasing, owning and transporting firearms.

SB 669 was meant to address what Haas and other gun control proponents call “victims of access.” This is the idea that even when children are involved in gun-related accidents or deaths, they are victims of negligence by people who allowed them access to the weapons.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, tried to address that issue by introducing a measure making it a Class 1 misdemeanor to knowingly give a child of 4 or younger access to firearms.

Lopez said he was motivated to sponsor House Bill 950 by the many incidents in which children in the state accidentally end up shooting themselves or others.

“Regardless of what you think about the Second Amendment, I think we can all agree that the Founding Fathers were not talking about 2- and 3-year-olds,” Lopez said.

HB 950 died in the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.

Republican opposition to such legislation has largely centered on concerns over Second Amendment rights. Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, was one of the most vocal opponents of gun control legislation in the 2018 session.

When the debate was coming to a head in the General Assembly in March, after the Florida shooting, Freitas gave a speech defending his party’s position in the gun debate. Freitas said the ultimate goal of gun control legislation from Democrats was to “gut the Second Amendment.”

“When the policies fail to produce the results you are promising your constituents, you’ll be back with more reasons to infringe on Second Amendment rights,” Freitas told Democrats in the House.

But during the legislative session after Brendon Mackey’s death, the General Assembly was moved to action. In 2014, lawmakers passed a pair of bills making it a felony to injure someone through the reckless use of firearms.

“Any person who handles any firearm in a manner so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life and causes the serious bodily injury of another person resulting in permanent and significant physical impairment is guilty of a Class 6 felony,” the legislation stated.

The bills were aimed at preventing accidents as a result of celebratory gunfire. Supporters dubbed the legislation “Brendon’s Law.”

General Assembly concludes session, but work remains

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — The Virginia General Assembly gaveled the 2018 session to a close on Saturday but remained divided over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, forcing a special session to resolve its differences.

Gov. Ralph Northam said after adjournment that he plans on dealing with the issue “sooner rather than later” by calling a meeting to set the special session, which could take days or weeks. He did not give a specific time for setting the meeting or the special session.

“We’ve left one of our largest missions unfinished,” Northam said to legislative leaders. “As you all know, I want to be done with health-care expansion.”

Northam, who took office in January, ran on a campaign that included expanding Medicaid. But as the legislature wound to a conclusion in its final days, it became apparent that a special session would be needed.  

Northam expressed pleasure over the resolution of a number of issues, including the increase of the grand larceny threshold, strengthening the Metro system that operates in Northern Virginia and reform on policy with Dominion Energy.

 On Medicaid, while the Senate budget has no provisions for such expansion, the House spending plan allows for increased federal funding — which the administration of President Donald Trump opposed earlier this month. Republicans control both chambers by two-member margins, but there were bitter differences over Medicaid.

House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, said he is optimistic about the special session.

“We are all committed to completing work on a state budget long before July 1,” said Cox, completing his first session as speaker.

Senate Democratic leader Richard Saslaw of Fairfax and caucus chair Mamie Locke of Hampton blamed Senate Republicans for “holding up the entire budget process for political reasons.”  

Senate Republican leader Thomas Norment Jr. of James City responded that his colleagues continued to oppose Medicaid expansion in the budget.

“Senate Republicans remain unanimously committed to passing a clean budget without Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we will continue to work towards that goal in the special session,” Norment said in a statement.

The House and Senate met from 9 a.m. until just before 2 p.m. on their final day, which included action on major legislation to assist the troubled Washington-area Metro system, which is critical to populous Northern Virginia.

Conference reports on Senate Bill 856, which was sponsored by Saslaw, and House Bill 1539, proposed by Del. Timothy Hugo, R-Fairfax, are both multifaceted, containing multiple provisions to improve Metro. These provisions include a dedicated funding stream of  $154 million a year from multiple existing sources, including transportation taxes and revenue from the North Virginia Transportation Authority. They also include the creation of a Metro Reform Commission, and a requirement to send a financial report on the performance of bus and Metro systems to the General Assembly. Neither bill will be enacted unless Maryland and the District of Columbia adopt similar provisions.

“From the start, my position was that a funding package for Metro had to go hand-in-hand with meaningful reforms without raising taxes,” Hugo said in a news release.

The legislature concluded its work the day after Northam signed one of the most-discussed bills of the session. Despite lingering opposition, the governor approved SB 966, which lifts a rate freeze that had been in effect for Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power Company, but allows the utilities’ broad discretion in reinvesting customer revenue. Critics claimed the bill, developed with heavy involvement from Dominion, favors utility interests over those of consumers.

In another utility-related action earlier this session, lawmakers approved SB 807 by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, which extended the moratorium on the closure of ponds where Dominion Energy stores its coal ash, allowing the state and utility another year on reaching agreement over how to address environmental concerns.

Legislators left Richmond without approving any of the numerous gun control bills that were submitted after recent mass shootings in Florida, Texas and Las Vegas. Among the gun-related bills only one passed — SB 669, which restricts access of weapons to minors 14 and older who had received involuntary mental health treatment. Cox formed a select committee to study school safety, but said the panel would not take up gun issues, angering Democrats.

Bay Advocate, Omega Proteins Differ Over Menhaden Cap

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A Chesapeake Bay advocate says the General Assembly's failure to place a cap on Virginia's lucrative menhaden catch leaves unanswered questions about key elements of the region’s ecology.

Menhaden are a small fish harvested mostly for the production of oil and fish meal, but they also play a role in the ecosystem as food for other species like striped bass and osprey. Virginia harvests the majority of menhaden on the Atlantic Coast, accounting for 80 percent of the total harvest according to the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission.

About 70 percent of that 80 percent is harvested by Omega Protein, a company based in Reedville since the early 20th century.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, tried twice during the 2018 legislative session to reduce the menhaden harvest in the Chesapeake Bay from its current limit of 87,216 metric tons.

Initially, Knight introduced HB 822, which proposed a limit of 51,000 tons. But that bill died in the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 13.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration then asked that the issue be reconsidered. So Knight introduced HB 1610, which also sought to cap the menhaden harvest in the bay at 51,000 metric tons but also increase allowable total of the fish caught in the Atlantic by 2,000 tons.

“I personally view this as a little bit more friendly to the industry to mitigate some of their concerns,” Knight said.

On Feb. 28, the committee voted 11-10 in favor of HB 1610, clearing it for a vote by the full House. However, on Tuesday, the bill was sent back to the committee, effectively killing it for the session.

The bill would bring Virginia within limits set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commissions, a compact of 15 coastal states that agree to protecting and better utilizing fisheries.

Ben Landry,  Omega Protein’s public affairs director, said the company opposes the commission’s limits. He said the caps advocated  by the organization and Knight’s legislation unfairly targeted the company without scientific evidence.

“We have been in business for a long time, and we think that we should be fighting against the ASMFC cooperatively,” Landry said. “Virginia was targeted and disadvantaged by this, and we shouldn’t have to take it.”

Landry was referring to the  commission increasing its total quota for fishing menhaden by 8 percent in November but cutting Virginia’s allocation of the total harvest.

Environmental groups including  the Chesapeake Bay Foundation considered  the legislation as a way of protecting menhaden. Reducing the cap by 36,000 metric tons would have had little effect on Omega Protein, said  Chris Moore, a senior scientist for the foundation.

Even with the limit, Moore said, the company “would actually be able to catch a little bit more than their average for the last five years” in the Chesapeake Bay.

Landry said  setting the cap based on the company’s current average yield of menhaden is shortsighted. He said Omega Protein pulled  109,000 metric tons in 2006.

Moore said the impact of the menhaden fishery is wide-ranging and ultimately affects many businesses and communities that depend on the bay in different ways. Moore said, for example, that certain studies have indicated that striped bass had been in danger of starving without a healthy menhaden population, which also provides food for flounder and bluefish.

Coal Ash Pond Closure Moratorium Bill Heads to Governor

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND — A bill extending the moratorium on the permanent closure of coal ash ponds has won House approval and awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become the only legislation on the issue to survive the 2018 session.

The House on Tuesday unanimously voted in favor of SB 807, sponsored by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, and co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield. Surovell said he was happy for the extension and hopes the bill, which has been supported by Dominion Energy and environmental groups, is a “net positive for everyone.”

“We can come up with a coal-ash solution which not only resolves the problem forever but also creates jobs to clean the environment at the same time,” said Surovell, referring to the positions that would be created to recycle the coal ash.

Robert Richardson, a spokesman for Dominion, said the utility will provide the state with information on coal ash recycling costs.

“We are fully committed to closing these ponds in a manner that is protective of the environment,” Richardson said.

Coal ash is a toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants.

Among its provisions, the bill requires Dominion to file an RFP, or a request for proposal, to assess the costs of recycling ash in the ponds. Though Dominion already recycles a portion of its total coal ash, it remains in favor of “cap-in-place” measures of permanent closure. This method of closing the ponds with a protective seal has been targeted as unsafe by environmental organizations concerned about groundwater contamination.

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, which has opposed “cap-in-place” policies, supported the bill. Lee Francis, the league’s communications manager, said the organization has worked with Surovell and that the bill gives legislators the tools needed to make a decision.

“I think this bill will help give us clarity on how to start going forward, and hopefully lawmakers will have more information when we address final closure options,” Francis said.

Lawmakers tried addressing the coal ash issue from many angles this session, but ultimately settled on extending the moratorium as a way to get more information before acting.

Virginia May Issue ‘Ashanti Alerts’ for Missing Adults

By Irena Schunn and Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – The abduction and slaying of a 19-year-old Norfolk woman prompted General Assembly approval of legislation to create an Amber Alert-like system for “critically missing” adults.

The “Ashanti Alert” called for in HB 260, sponsored by Del. Jerrauld Jones, D-Norfolk, was approved by the Senateon Thursday and now awaits the signature of Gov. Ralph Northam to become law.

Ashanti Billie was abducted in 2017 from Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where she worked at a sandwich shop, and later found dead in Charlotte, North Carolina. Because Billie was an adult, she didn’t meet the criteria for an Amber Alert.

Once Ashanti went missing, we became more aware of other situations where something like this had happened but there was no mechanism in place,” said Jones, who represents the 89th House District, where Billie lived. “This is a public safety issue, not a partisan issue.”

Eric Brian Brown, described by authorities as a retired Navy veteran who worked at the base with Billie, has been charged with kidnapping in Virginia and in connection with her death in the Charlotte area.

Members of Billie’s family connected with Jones through their friend Kimberly Wimbish, who had worked with the delegate on his election campaign last year. They asked him to draft a bill to help those who currently don’t qualify for missing persons alerts.

Wimbish, who initially used Facebook to publicize the young woman’s disappearance, said the case raised awareness about missing adults, especially in the Norfolk area where people had connections to Billie.

“Everyone said she would give them her last. That she was always helpful and friendly,” said Wimbish, who serves as the family’s spokesperson. “We have to know and believe her kindness was taken for granted.”

Jones said the bill gives Virginia State Police the power to set criteria for the “critically missing adult alert.”

Currently, Virginia has three alerts for missing persons:

  • Amber Alerts and Endangered Missing Child Media Alerts, for missing persons under age 18.
  • Senior Alerts, sometimes called Silver Alerts, for persons 60 or older.

That leaves a gap for adults between 18 and 60 years old.

If approved by the governor, the Ashanti Alerts will be modeled on the Amber Alerts. An Amber Alert includes issuing emergency messages over public broadcasting networks, displaying electronic messages on highway signs and sending texts to all cellphones within range of the cellular carrier towers in the affected area.

Amber Alerts are also spread voluntarily by other state agencies, the news media and nonprofit organizations. For example, a program called A Child Is Missing can make 1,000 telephone calls with a recorded alert within a minute, according to Virginia’s Amber Alert Plan.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that Amber Alert systems nationwide have helped in the recovery of more than 540 children.

Last year, the General Assembly declared April 29 as “Missing Persons Day” to recognize the 600 Virginians missing at that time, and their families. Advocates are getting ready for the second annual Virginia Missing Persons Day.

House Panel Next to Consider Senate Coal Ash Legislation

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- A Senate bill extending the moratorium on permanently closing coal ash ponds appears to be the only legislation on the issue poised to move forward from this General Assembly session.

Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, introduced six pieces of legislation on coal ash, and coal ash ponds, where stored ash potentially risks contaminating groundwater.

The lone survivor is SB 807, which  passed in the Senate 37-3 last week. Co-sponsored by Sen. Amanda F. Chase, R-Chesterfield, the bill would extend the moratorium on closing ponds where coal ash is stored until after the next legislative session, and would also require that Dominion Energy, the owners of the coal ash ponds, submit reports  to the General Assembly and governor on the cost of recycling the material. Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of coal-burning power plants

The bill’s next step is to go before a subcommittee of the House Commerce and Labor Committee.

Surovell said he has doubts about Dominion Energy estimates that recycling the utility’s ash would cost more than  $4 billion.

“I'm not convinced that Dominion’s numbers are accurate. I’m hopeful that with the new process we put in place, that the cost assessments for recycling will come down.” Surovell said.

According to Surovell, the Dominion utility rate cap bill  has dominated the session to the point that other legislation, including his own, suffered.

The moratorium  passed with support from environmental groups and Dominion Energy.

Dominion spokesman Robert Richardson said that Dominion has taken several actions to protect the environment since it was ordered in 2015 to resolve the coal ash issue.

Richardson said that Dominion plans to reduce the number of coal ash ponds at the Bremo power station in New Canton to just one within the next six months. The utility has already reduced the number of ponds at Possum Point in Dumfries from five to one. Overall, Richardson said, Dominion will have reduced the number of coal ash ponds under federal regulation from 11 to four.

Richardson also said that Dominion is currently recycling over 700,000 tons of coal ash a year, and is draining water from its Chesterfield power station ponds. He said Dominion stands by “cap in place” practices and that it has followed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.    

“What we are hoping first as far as a priority, is closing these ponds in a way that is fully protective of the environment.” Richardson said

Environmental groups have been skeptical, however, especially after Dominion was found guilty in federal court of violating the Clean Water Act for contaminating Virginia’s Elizabeth River with arsenic in 2017. The judge in the case, however, said the leak was considered small enough that it didn’t pose a threat to public health.

The Virginia branch of the Sierra Club, which filed the Elizabeth River suit, considers “cap in place” unsafe, The organization supports Surovell’s bill.

“Removing the ash or potentially recycling are the only responsible way to deal with toxic waste,” said Kate Addleson, director of the club’s Virginia chapter.  “We feel it’s important to make sure there are ways to evaluate the best way to dispose of the ash properly before moving forward.”

House OKs Limiting School Suspensions to 45 Days

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Virginia students who break school rules may no longer face the possibility of a yearlong suspension under legislation approved by the House of Delegates to address what some lawmakers call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

House Bill 1600, which passed 84-15 on Tuesday, would reduce the maximum length of a suspension from 364 days to 45 days. It is one of several measures lawmakers introduced in response to complaints that Virginia schools overreact to minor infractions – and sometimes charge students as criminals for transgressions that should draw a detention.

“At the end of the day, if our students are out of school, they’re not learning,” said the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Del. Jeffrey Bourne, who previously served on the Richmond School Board. “We should not continue to use access to education as a punishment and expect positive results.”

On its way toward passage, the bill was amended to allow school officials to impose a suspension of up to 364 days if “aggravating circumstances exist” or if the student is a repeat offender.

Del. R. Lee Ware Jr., R-Powhatan, said he historically had reservations about limiting schools’ options in disciplining students. However, he called HB 1600 “a responsible middle course.”

“It allows a considerable amount of latitude to educators with the responsibility of maintaining order in schools,” Ware said.

HB 1600 was among a slew of proposals introduced this legislative session to address how Virginia schools discipline students. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia has one of the highest rates in the nation for referring students to law enforcement. Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, has called the situation “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.”

Several of the bills never made it out of committee. They included:

  • HB 445, which sought to end a requirement that principals report certain misdemeanor crimes to law enforcement. The bill, proposed by Carroll Foy, was rejected in a 5-2 vote by a subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • HB 296, which would have prohibited suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade, except for violent crimes, drugs or other serious offenses. The House Education Committee voted 12-10 vote to kill the legislation. The bill was sponsored by the panel’s vice chair, Del. Richard Bell, R-Staunton.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, opposed Bell’s measure, saying it would “make our classrooms less safe.”

“I don’t think it's up to us to try to micromanage discipline issues in the local schools. That's why we have local elected school boards,” Cole said.

While such legislation met opposition in the House, the Senate has been more receptive.

On Thursday, the Senate Education and Health Committee approved SB 170, which, like Bell’s legislation, would bar suspensions and expulsions in third grade and below. The committee voted 11-4 in favor of the measure. SB 170, sponsored by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin County, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed SB 476, sponsored by Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania. Like Carroll Foy’s bill, it would give school principals the discretion not to call police on students who commit misdemeanors or other minor crimes.

Reeves’ measure has been assigned to the House Courts of Justice Committee –the same panel ​whose subcommittee killed Carroll Foy’s proposal.

Black Caucus, Bipartisan Group of Legislators Fighting ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND -- The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus was joined Monday by a bipartisan group of state legislators supporting  bills to combat  the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Expulsion and suspension policies are the targets of several pieces of legislation, including a bill by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. HB 1600 caps long-term suspension at 45 days instead of the current 364.

“We cannot keep using access, or lack thereof, to education as a punishment and continue to expect positive results,” said  Bourne, a former Richmond School Board chairman.

Bourne also endorsed legislation by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, whose SB 170 prohibits expulsion and suspension for students between pre-kindergarten and third grade. Stanley said the reforms sought were a “human issue,” and not partisan.

The Black Caucus said it wanted to highlight how legislators are crossing party lines on the issues. The process of separating students from their environment and ultimately sending them into the criminal justice system has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  A 2015 Study from the Center for Public Integrity said that on average, Virginia refers more students to law enforcement than any other state.

First-year Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge,  described the problem as  “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.” She has introduced HB 445, which would allow school systems to discipline students who commit certain misdemeanors instead of being required to report those crimes to police.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she has proposed budget amendments  to support school programs for  at-risk students, and also to set aside almost $700 million to end a cap on state-funded school support positions.

“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is we will lose an entire generation of students to the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Policy is only one side of the coin.”

Standing beside these legislators  was Stacey Doss, a mother of two boys in Lynchburg’s public school system. Her older son, who is autistic, drew national attention and the focus of the Center for Public Integrity after being charged with a felony in 2014 as an 11-year-old.

He had struggled with a school resource officer who had grabbed him after he had left class with other students. The same officer had earlier accused him of  a misdemeanor for kicking a trash can. The charges were dropped after an outcry over the case.

Doss said her 5-year-old has speech problems, and both sons have been ostracized and suspended.  The younger boy was currently under suspension for disorderly behavior, she said.

“He asked me, ‘Why can’t I go to school? I really want to go to school. I miss my friends,’” Doss said. “He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he does know that he is being kept away from something he enjoys.”

Bills Seek to Disrupt ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

By Kirby Farineau, Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Ryan Turk was an eighth-grader in Prince William County when a misunderstanding with a school resource officer over a 65-cent carton of milk escalated to theft charges.

The incident happened in May 2016 when Turk said he forgot his carton of milk that came with his school-issued free lunch. The police said Turk tried to “conceal” the carton of milk. When Turk separated himself from the resource officer, the incident ended with a suspension from school and a summons to juvenile court.

A year ago, the charges against Turk were dropped, but he remains a prime example of what critics call the “school-to-prison pipeline” – a trend to charge students as criminals for what might once have been detention-worthy transgressions. According to a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia charges students more often than any other state.

This trend has triggered a push in the General Assembly to reform criminal justice across the board. One of the latest and most vocal opponents of the pipeline is Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge.

Carroll Foy, who won an open House seat in November, spoke about the problem at an NAACP reception in Richmond last week.

“We send more students from the classroom to the courtroom than any other state in the country,” Carroll Foy said. “Now we lock them up early, and we lock them up at large.”

Carroll Foy plans to sponsor more than 10 criminal justice reform bills this legislative session. They include House Bill113, which would increase the threshold for grand larceny in Virginia from $200 to $1,000.

Virginia’s threshold for that felony crime is one of the lowest in the country and hasn’t changed since 1980. As a result, someone accused of stealing a cellphone or bicycle can be charged with a felony.

Increasing the threshold might protect children who make bad decisions and prevent them from becoming convicted felons, Carroll Foy told the NAACP leadership.

“The punishment should fit the crime,” she said. “Felonies should be reserved for some of the most egregious crimes in the commonwealth of Virginia, and that’s not happening.”

Carroll Foy is carrying legislation that might address cases like that of Ryan Turk, who initially was charged with a misdemeanor after the altercation at Graham Park Middle School in the town of Triangle in Prince William County. Carroll Foy’s district includes parts of Prince William and Stafford counties.

She has introduced HB 445, which would eliminate the requirement for principals to report certain misdemeanor incidents to police. Carroll Foy is not the only one concerned about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” So is the advocacy group Voices for Virginia’s Children.

Allison Gilbreath, the organization’s policy analyst, said other bills before the General Assembly seek to disrupt the pipeline.

For example, HB 296, sponsored by Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, and Senate Bill170, by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, would prohibit suspending or expelling students in preschool through third grade except for drug offenses, firearm offenses or certain criminal acts.

“One in five kids who are suspended in our public schools are pre-K through fifth grade,” Gilbreath said. “We want to really focus on the underlying problems that they’re experiencing.”

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