March 2021

Lawmakers amend Virginia Human Rights Act; kill workplace harassment bills

By David Tran, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed several bills this session expanding employment protections for people with disabilities and domestic workers but killed a pair of workplace harassment bills.

Five bills were introduced during the 2021 session to amend the Virginia Human Rights Act. Three passed the General Assembly. The Virginia Human Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, among other groups. Virginia last year became the first Southern state to pass sweeping anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through the Virginia Values Act.

House Bill 1848 extends employment discrimination protection to people with disabilities. The legislation unanimously passed both chambers and Gov. Ralph Northam recently signed the bill into law.

“I am very happy that the bill has widespread support,” stated chief patron Del. Mark D. Sickles, D-Fairfax, in a press release. “I can’t thank our advocates enough, and am grateful for the leadership in Attorney General Mark Herring’s office and for the guidance of the disAbility Law Center.”

Workers with disabilities

 Employers with five or more employees must make reasonable accommodations to workers with disabilities unless the employer can demonstrate such accommodations would place an “undue hardship” on the employer. Current federal law prohibits discrimination under the basis of disability for employers with 15 or more employees.

Del. Kathy Tran, D-Springfield, said during a House subcommittee hearing that in 2019 the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was twice as high as those without disabilities.

“People who have disabilities, who are able to and want to work, I think we should try to help them be part of the workforce,” Tran said.

A person who claims they were denied reasonable accommodation must file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. They would need to exhaust all administrative processes before pursuing a lawsuit.

Colleen Miller, executive director of the disAbility Law Center of Virginia, an advocacy organization, said the bill’s passage is “an important development for Virginians with disabilities who are in the workforce and wish to be fully employed.”

Domestic workers’ rights

A trio of bills centered on domestic workers’ rights, dubbed the Virginia Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, were introduced in both chambers this year. Last year, Virginia lawmakers passed a bill guaranteeing minimum wage to domestic workers. 

The bills’ patrons highlighted the impact of excluding domestic workers from employment laws, which they said are bound to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow-era laws. Domestic workers include occupations such as “cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs,” according to the bills. 

A majority of domestic workers are women of color and are three times as likely to live in poverty than other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute, an independent economic research organization. 

Introduced by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, Senate Bill 1310 extends employment nondiscrimination to employers with one or more domestic workers. It also expands employment protections to domestic workers, including laws regarding the payment of wages. 

“This is a huge step forward to provide stronger workers rights and a safer workplace for 60,000 Virginia domestic workers,” McClellan stated in a press release. “As the daughter, granddaughter, and great granddaughter of domestic workers, I know how essential domestic workers are to the economy and how poorly mistreated they’ve been for generations.” 

McClellan’s bill passed the General Assembly and now heads to the governor’s desk. The House companion bill, HB 1864, from Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also passed the General Assembly and awaits the governor’s signature.

Lawmakers also passed HB 2032, patroned by Del. Wendy W. Gooditis, D-Clarke. The measure does not amend the state’s Human Rights Act, but it ensures domestic workers are not excluded from employee protection laws. Workers will be able to file complaints regarding workplace safety. Virginia is the 10th state to pass such legislation. Portions of the bill that would include domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act were removed.

Failed sexual harassment bills

The two bills amending the Human Rights Act that lawmakers could not advance would have strengthened current workplace sexual harassment laws.

Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, introduced HB 2155 to expand and clarify the definition of workplace harassment and sexual harassment. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 6-7. It was the delegate’s second attempt to pass such protections.

The Senate companion bill, SB 1360, reported out of the Senate Judiciary committee, but was sent back and never picked back up. Patroned by McClellan, the legislation died over concerns on the bill’s absence of employers’ liabilities, especially for small businesses. 

Watts said her bill aimed to provide clearer definition of workplace and sexual harassment. The language in the bill comes from federal court harassment case decisions over a span of two decades, Watts said.

Watts’ measure clarifies that employers would be liable for the supervisors’ actions. She said committee members who voted against the bill failed to understand the guidance of employers’ liability is not currently spelled out in Virginia’s law. Employers may be alleviated from any liability if they can prove they “exercised reasonable care” to prevent and correct harassment or if employees “unreasonably” fail to take actions on “preventable or corrective opportunities” to avoid further harassment, according to the bill.

Both bills defined workplace harassment as an unwelcome conduct based on race, religion, natural origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and more. Sexual harassment includes a sexual advance, a request for sexual favors, or any conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace.

Watts said her bill will remove a glass ceiling and “power differential” that contributes to workplace and sexual harassment.

“If you don't go along (with the workplace harassment), then you will be denied professional opportunities, work opportunities moving forward,” Watts said. “It is a power struggle, and that power struggle makes it a point of leverage.”

Prior to her bill’s death, Watts said there also was confusion over the Senate bill’s language, referring to the committee's dispute on McClellan’s bill.

“There wasn’t a real focus as there needed to be,” Watts said.

McClellan’s bill was met with debate from other lawmakers in the Senate Judiciary committee, such as Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, over the bill’s language. McClellan asked Petersen if he wanted to add an amendment. He said he didn’t. 

“I just want this bill to go away,” Petersen said. 

Petersen questioned if his wife asking men “to move the furniture for her” constituted sexual harassment. Multiple lawmakers said the bill’s language was too broad. 

McClellan, a gubernatorial candidate, is committed to advancing anti-workplace harassment laws, either as a legislator or governor, according to her spokesperson. 

Watts said she will reintroduce her bill next year. She said she will make sure there is an understanding that the bill contains a “sound, legal approach” to employers’ liability. 

“I believe that the majority of the members do believe that this is something that needs to be spelled out to protect employees, and particularly minorities and women,” Watts 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.

Schools can opt for remote learning during inclement weather

By Sarah Elson, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers insisted there will still be snow days for public school students, though the General Assembly recently passed legislation allowing unscheduled remote learning during inclement weather. 

“I have heard this bill referred to as ‘the killer of snow day dreams,’” said Alan Seibert, superintendent of Salem City Schools, during a subcommittee meeting. “That’s not the case.” 

Lawmakers passed two identical bills stating school divisions can opt for virtual learning during severe weather conditions and emergency situations that result in the cancellation of in-person classes.

Remote learning or distance education is when the instructor and student are separated by location and do not physically meet. 

“I would like to emphasize that this is not a bill to eliminate snow days but simply provide some flexibility to school systems,” said Del. Joseph McNamara, R-Roanoke, who introduced House Bill 1790. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, introduced Senate Bill 1132, an identical bill. The bills had strong support in both chambers, though they each moved through the Senate with unanimous support. 

 “As you know this pandemic has made us think outside the box and some benefit has come from this thinking,” said Mark Miear, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in the New River Valley, during the House subcommittee meeting. 

Public schools must offer 180 days or 990 hours of instruction each year or receive a reduction in state aid, according to Virginia law. School districts typically build in extra snow days for inclement weather. If those days are used up, schools must make up days to meet the required instruction time. The bills also allow schools to make up missed instruction by scheduling a remote learning day.

Both bills state that no school division can use more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year unless the superintendent of public instruction grants an extension. 

 “I'm really glad that the state is allowing this type of [learning] to happen in the 21st century, because it'll allow us to be able to have days that actually count toward that 990 hours,” said Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

Miear said unscheduled remote learning days will allow the school district to set an end date for the school year and schedule summer programs. Some districts can miss 17-20 days for inclement weather, Miear said. The updated policy will allow for instruction to be “more consistent.”

Moving to online learning during inclement weather will not make up for lost education, Owen Hughes, a permanent substitute teacher at Elmont Elementary School in Ashland, stated in a text message. 

"Remote teaching only truly takes place when there is remote learning,” Hughes stated. “This means that if students are disengaged and not learning, teachers aren't teaching they're just talking and staying busy."

Smith said that it will be easy to implement remote learning days because Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has been teaching students through virtual learning. The school  provided some students with laptops and hotspots if they needed it.

“Now if we hadn't had an infrastructure in place, it might be really difficult to be able to pull off one of these unscheduled instructional days from the legislation, but we already have the infrastructure in place,” Smith said.

Hughes is concerned some students will not have access to a working internet connection during inclement weather. The General Assembly this session funded the expansion of rural broadband internet access, though it will take a while to implement the infrastructure.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, sponsored a related bill. SB 1303 will require both online and in-person learning to become available to students by July 1. The student's parent or guardian would decide on the learning modality. The bill expires August 2022. 

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.

New Behavioral Health Practice in South Hill

Onaiza Anees, MD, is available for psychiatric appointments at CMH Behavioral Health at 140 East Ferrell Street in South Hill starting March 1, 2021.

South Hill, VA (2/28/21) – VCU Health Community Memorial Hospital (VCU Health CMH) is pleased to announce the opening of CMH Behavioral Health in South Hill on March 1, 2021. Onaiza Anees, MD, will start seeing patients ages three and older in this practice, located at 140 East Ferrell Street.

Dr. Anees earned her medical degree in Pakistan at Sindh Medical College. She completed an Adult Psychiatry Residency at Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center - Icahn School of Medicine in Bronx, New York. She finished her Child Psychiatry fellowship at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, New York, where she graduated as the Chief fellow of her department. Dr. Anees trained in psycho-dynamic psychotherapy at New York Medical College in Valhalla, New York.

Dr. Anees has worked with children, adolescents and adults throughout her career. She believes in individualized treatment for each patient, building a healthy therapeutic relationship. She incorporates psychotherapy, medication, nutrition, exercise and emphasizes the mind-body connection. “Each patient is unique. They bring their own story, family dynamics, background, genetics, and circumstances. It is my goal to help the overall health and well-being of all my patients; by making sure they are getting the care they need at every stage of their lives,” Dr. Anees explains.

Dr. Anees is a member of the American Child Psychiatric Association. The new practice will start taking appointments starting March 1 when the practice opens. Call (434) 584-5400 March 1 or later to make an appointment with Dr. Anees.

Governor Northam Proclaims March Women’s History Month in Virginia

Virginians encouraged to participate in virtual events, honor the leadership and contributions of women in the Commonwealth and throughout history

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today issued a proclamation and made the following statement on Women’s History Month, which is celebrated in Virginia and nationwide during March to honor trailblazing women who have helped move the country and the Commonwealth forward.

“Virginia has no shortage of pioneering women who have made history by overcoming doubt and discrimination, by daring to step into roles that had never been held by a woman, and by breaking down barriers for those who would follow. During Women’s History Month, we celebrate milestones in gender equality, and we uplift the stories of women who have impacted our world with their creativity, advocacy, service, invention, and discovery.

“As we honor the progress we have made, we must also acknowledge that many of these gains were not inclusive of all women, particularly women of color. In Virginia, we will continue to lift up all who identify as women as we strive for a more equitable future.

“We went into the 2020 General Assembly session calling it the ‘year of the woman’, with Eileen Filler-Corn becoming the first female speaker of the House of Delegates, and L. Louise Lucas becoming the first female and African American President Pro Tempore of the Senate. In addition, Charniele L. Herring became the first female and first African American legislator to serve as House Majority Leader, and Suzette Denslow became the first woman to serve as Clerk of the House of Delegates and Keeper of the Rolls of the Commonwealth. Her counterpart, Susan Clark Schaar, has served as Clerk of the Senate for two decades.

“Following decades of advocacy and with women at the helm, Virginia became the 38th and final state needed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which brought the nation one step closer to ensuring true gender equality is enshrined in our Constitution.

“Finally, 2021 was ushered in with Kamala Harris taking office as the first woman and first Black and South Asian Vice President of the United States. I am proud to stand alongside so many brilliant and intrepid women leading our country and this Commonwealth forward, especially in my cabinet, across our Administration, and directing our state agencies. Women’s History Month is both an opportunity to recognize the importance of women’s representation wherever decisions are being made, and to learn about the women who have helped us reach this moment, paving the way for the change makers of today and tomorrow.”

 

The theme of Women’s History Month in 2021 is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced,” which extends last year’s recognition of the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the continuing fight for suffrage for all women.

Virginians are encouraged to participate in Women’s History Month events hosted by the Northam Administration and community organizations taking place online and throughout the Commonwealth. A list of some of these events can be found here.

The full text of Governor Northam’s Women’s History Month proclamation is available here or below.

Sandra Ann Wicks Allen

February 04, 1951 - March 01, 2021

Sandra Ann Wicks Allen, 70, passed away Monday, March 1, 2021. She is survived by her husband, Jeffery Neal Allen; her children, George Squires, Timothy Squires (Brenda), Jamie Squires, Cassy O’Neill (Chris) and Darlean Brown; step-children, Jessica Petry (Elliott) and Leanna Collins (Dave); eleven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to Fountain Creek Baptist Church, 8099 Brink Rd., Emporia, Virginia 23847.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com.

Virginia 10th State to Pass Domestic Worker Protections

By Hunter Britt, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills providing protections and benefits for the state’s domestic workers.

 House Bill 2032, introduced by Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke, extends employee protection laws to domestic service workers that allows them to file complaints regarding workplace safety. The Commission of Labor and Industry would investigate such claims.

Domestic worker is defined as an individual paid either directly or indirectly for services of a household nature performed in or about a private home. This includes jobs such as “companions, cooks, waiters, butlers, maids, valets and chauffeurs.” The bill states that domestic work does not include jobs that are irregular or uncertain. 

This bill will affect around 60,000 workers in Virginia, according to Erica Sklar, a national organizer for Hand In Hand, a national network of employers of domestic workers pushing for better working conditions. Lawmakers said 90% of the workers are women and half are women of color.

“Virginia is the 10th state to pass legislation like this,” Sklar said. “There's also two cities that have passed this legislation, Seattle and Philadelphia.”

Domestic workers were exempted from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which outlined protections such as a 40-hour maximum workweek and minimum wage requirements. Political scholars say that Southern Democrats joined with Republicans in opposition to the FLSA. A Congressional bill introduced in 2019 sought to repeal the exemption and also expand coverage to domestic workers under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against discrimination in employment.

Alexsis Rodgers, the Virginia state director of the advocacy group Care in Action, said she wants people to understand the challenges of being a domestic worker. Care in Action is a nonprofit that advocates for millions of domestic workers in the nation. Domestic workers are excluded from workplace protection policies, which many lawmakers had not previously considered, Rodgers said.

“Sometimes it’s having a new idea or concept introduced and taking a little more time to educate lawmakers,” Rodgers said. “We’ve certainly seen progress along the way.”

The original bill would have covered domestic workers under the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Act, but that portion of the bill was removed, Rodgers said. She hopes the act will eventually include domestic workers.

Del. Cia Price, D-Newport News, also introduced a bill this session advocating for domestic workers’ rights. The General Assembly passed HB 1864, which expands the definition of employer in the Virginia Human Rights Act to protect domestic workers from workplace discrimination. The act prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other factors. 

 Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, carried Senate Bill 1310, which includes domestic workers in employee protection laws, including laws regarding the payment of wages. The bill also extends protection to domestic workers from workplace discrimination.

"These were jobs that were originally done for free under slavery and then were limited jobs available to African American women,” McClellan said when introducing her bill. “As part of Jim Crow they were excluded from minimum wage, workers’ comp, the Human Rights Act, our OSHA laws, our unemployment comp laws—not just here in Virginia, but throughout the South and at the federal level." 

McClellan said she is passionate about fighting for domestic workers’ rights.

“I understand from my own family experience how important domestic work is,” McClellan said. “We trust domestic workers to care for our loved ones in our homes, and their work allows other people to work.”

Opponents of Gooditis’ measure worried over the protocol that allows for a residence to be inspected when a domestic worker files a complaint. Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, said before the bill’s passage that he worried “the government will now be able to enter an employer's house without a search warrant if this conference report is agreed to.”

“My concern about this is that now we’re setting up a system where if you have someone who performs childcare in your home or cleans at your home, now the government is going to be able to come in to inspect that residence,” McDougle said.

McClellan said that in order to conduct an inspection officials will need permission from the owners of the residence or workplace. 

“No one would be able to come in without a warrant in the scenario that the senator from Hanover just described,” she said. “Again, there will be no inspections without the consent of the owner, operator of the workplace.”

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

Lawmakers Pass COVID-19 Workers’ Compensation Bills

By Sam Fowler, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly passed multiple bills allowing health care workers and first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they are disabled or die due to COVID-19.

“We did it!” Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, said in a Twitter post. “Health care heroes who got COVID on the job will get the retroactive workers comp presumption they deserve!”

Hurst’s House Bill 1985 expanded workers’ compensation benefits for health care workers “directly involved in diagnosing or treating persons known or suspected to have COVID-19,” including doctors and nurses. The bill provides coverage from March 12, 2020 until Dec. 31, 2021. 

The health care worker must have been treated for COVID-19 symptoms and been diagnosed by a medical provider to qualify for compensation before July 1, 2020. The individual must have received medical treatment and a positive COVID-19 test to be eligible for compensation after July 1, 2020. 

The bill also said health care workers who refuse or fail to get vaccinated for COVID-19 will not be eligible for workers’ compensation. The aforementioned rule doesn't apply if a physician determines vaccination will risk the worker’s health. 

“This is how we honor our brave health care heroes that put themselves in harm’s way to treat those infected with this horrible virus,” Hurst said in a press release. “They sacrifice for us and deserve our utmost praise and admiration, but they also deserve our help.”

There were concerns about the bill’s costs, according to Hurst. The Senate tried to remove the bill’s retroactive clause, but the bill passed the House and Senate with bipartisan support following negotiations. 

The Virginia Nurses Association said the bill will make it easier for nurses to access benefits.

“Unfortunately, too many Virginia nurses caught COVID-19 while treating patients,” the association said in a Facebook post. “For those that got very sick, there is no easy way to file for workers’ compensation, and many have suffered not only physically, but financially.” 

Senate Bill 1375 and HB 2207 cover workers’ compensation for first responders who are diagnosed or died from COVID-19 on or after Sept. 1 of last year. The measures include firefighters, police officers, correctional and regional jail officers and emergency medical services workers. The bills require an official diagnosis through a positive COVID-19 test and symptoms of the disease.

The House bill, sponsored by Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, originally included a retroactive clause that compensated cases going back to March 2020, but that was taken out of the legislation’s final version.

“We fought tooth and nail to provide our first responders - the real heroes of the pandemic - coverage under workers' compensation for COVID and we got it done,” Jones said in a Twitter post. 

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 Restaurants Grapple with Plastic Foam Container Ban

By David Tran, Capital News Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black History and America’s Future

By Quentin R. Johnson, Ph.D.

Black History Month, sometimes called African American History Month, occurs every year in February. Officially recognized by then-President Gerald Ford in 1976, the commemoration grew from groundwork established by Carter G. Woodson and others during the opening decades of the twentieth century. The observation provides a moment to reflect on the contributions African Americans have made throughout the centuries of U.S. history and to honor their achievements. Throughout February’s days, Black History Month affords an opportunity to open conversations and learn more about the intertwined histories of the diverse groups of people who comprise the American population.

February was chosen for this observation because of its link to the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. President, and Frederick Douglass, a former slave who achieved renown as an author, speaker, and activist for the abolition of slavery. The month opens with National Freedom Day, marking the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Lincoln signed the Congressional resolution that became the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery.

As Black History Month concludes, our nation will move forward with a renewed understanding of the need for inclusive and thoughtful dialog about the things we value. Virginia’s community colleges have a lot to contribute to this vital conversation. Glenn DuBois, Chancellor of the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), recently acknowledged, “When it comes to the issue of race, Virginia has baggage.” Referring to the 1607 Jamestown settlement, he explained, “Much of the modern America we know sprang from that tiny outpost on the banks of the James River. And race plays a leading role in so many of the chapters of that story, including bloody clashes between native tribes and English settlers; the origins of American slavery; the Revolutionary and Civil wars whose battle scars yet mark Virginia soil; and the shadows of Reconstruction and Jim Crow that linger yet.”

With this in mind, the VCCS has initiated the development of a new strategic plan with a revitalized emphasis on equity, diversity, and inclusion, not just for African Americans but for all people irrespective of race, ethnicity, income level, gender, or other inherent challenges. As president at Southside Virginia Community College, I am strongly committed to work aligned with the statewide initiative that is being done by our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. One of our goals is to have a college community that is reflective of the communities and students we serve.

In honor of Black History Month and in preparation for moving forward into our shared future, I encourage you to get to know someone who is different from you. Talk to someone with a different ethnic group, race, gender, or culture.   Open a dialog with someone who is older or younger. Have a conversation with someone whose life experiences differ from yours. Ask questions, share, and listen. Learn from people who tell stories about their own and their community’s struggles. There is much to be done to reconcile inequities. We need to be not just accepting but appreciative of our differences and of our likenesses.

I am an eternal optimist. I am also a realist. I am an African American male in America, and I have faith in my country, in my college, and in the will of people to change. I believe the future looks bright for all of us. 

________

Dr. Quentin R. Johnson is president of Southside Virginia Community College, an institution of higher learning that provides a wide variety of education opportunities to a diverse student population within a service area that spans ten counties and the City of Emporia. He can be reached via email at quentin.johnson@southside.edu.

Lawmakers Vote to Remove Confederate Name from Highway

By Cameron Jones, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia General Assembly has approved a bill renaming sections of U.S. Route 1 almost 100 years after it was named in honor of the first and only president of the Confederacy.

The bill, introduced by Del. Joshua Cole, D-Fredericksburg, passed the House earlier this month with a 70-28 vote. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week with a 30-9 vote. 

Counties and cities have until Jan. 1, 2022 to change their portion of Jefferson Davis Highway to whatever name they choose, or the state will change it to Emancipation Memorial Highway.

“Change the name on your own, or the General Assembly will change it for you," Cole said to House committee members. 

Sections of the highway that run through Stafford, Caroline, Spotsylvania and Chesterfield counties will need new signage and markers, according to the bill’s impact statement. Commemorative naming signs will be replaced, along with overhead guide signs at interchanges and street-name signs. The changes are estimated to cost almost $600,000 for all localities. The changes in Chesterfield will cost an estimated $373,000 because there are 17 Jefferson Davis Highway overhead signs on Routes 288 and 150.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy conceived the plan for Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Davis was a Mississippi senator who became the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Virginia General Assembly designated U.S. Route 1 as Jefferson Davis Highway in 1922. 

“Jefferson Davis was the president of the Confederacy, a constant reminder of a white nationalist experiment, and a racist Democrat,” Cole said. “Instead we can acknowledge the powerful act of the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Cole said the change acknowledges the positive history of the Civil War and reminds people of the emancipation and freedom that came from it. 

The bill received little pushback in House and Senate committees. A Richmond City representative said their initial concern was the interpretation if districts would have the opportunity to choose a replacement name. Signs are already going up renaming the route to Richmond Highway in Richmond. 

Sen. Scott A. Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, voiced his support for the bill. He responded to concern that the change dishonors a veteran. He said he believes the bill “strikes a reasonable balance” by giving counties time to rename their portion of the highway, or they will give it a default name which “doesn’t carry the political baggage.”

A poll by Hampton University and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Virginians are still divided on changing the names of schools, streets and military bases named after Confederate leaders (44% supported the idea and 43% opposed it).

Eric Sundberg, Cole’s chief of staff, said there were two camps of people that opposed the bill. He said some were openly racist and called Cole’s office to make offensive remarks. Then there were people who said they did not want to “double dip” on renaming the portion in their respective district and wanted it all to be named Richmond Highway. 

Stephen Farnsworth, professor and director at the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, said efforts to rename the highway have never received much support in Richmond until this year.

“Virginia has rapidly moved from a commonwealth that treasured its Confederate legacy, to one that is trying to move beyond it,” Farnsworth 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.

Lawmakers ban gay panic defense in Virginia

By Cierra Parks, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that will ban the use of a person’s perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity as a defense in court for the assault or murder of an LGBTQ person. 

“It’s done: We’re banning the gay/trans panic defense in Virginia,” Del. Danica Roem, D-Manassas, said in a Twitter post

Roem introduced House Bill 2132, which passed the Senate 23-15 on Thursday with an amendment. The House approved the amendment in a 58-39 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Ralph Northam’s desk for a signature.

The Senate amendment adds oral solicitation, or hitting on someone, as an unacceptable justification for the gay or transgender panic defense. 

The panic defense has historically been used in cases where a member of the LGBTQ community was attacked because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Defendants use the panic defense to justify “heat of passion” murders or assaults. 

“This [bill] means someone’s mere existence as an LGBTQ person does not excuse someone else and does not constitute a reasonable provocation to commit such a heat of passion attack,” Roem said.

The statute does not dismiss traditional self-defense lawsuits. This means LGBTQ people can still be prosecuted for attacking someone.

There have been at least eight instances in Virginia where the panic defense was used, with the last case in 2011, according to Carsten Andresen, a researcher and criminal justice professor from Austin, Texas. He said he has tracked 200 homicide cases nationally where the panic defense was attempted. Andresen reached out to Roem in support of the bill. 

His research included five murders and three assaults in Virginia between 1973 and 2011 that Andresen said used the panic defense to justify or excuse a defendant’s violent actions. Mark Hayes murdered Tracie Gainer, a transgender woman, in 2002. Hayes claimed he “lost it” and murdered Gainer after engaging in sexual intercourse. In 2011, Deandre Moore, age 18, pleaded guilty to killing 20-year-old Jacques Cowell by stabbing him multiple times. Cowell was openly gay and there were witness accounts that the two had a physical relationship. Moore received a 40-year prison sentence, with 15 years suspended.

“In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial,” Andresen wrote in support of the bill. He said use of the panic defense “suggests that it is permissible to commit violence” against LGBTQ people.

Sen. Joseph Morrissey, D-Richmond, spoke in opposition of the bill, saying lawmakers should not pass laws that prohibit defendants from making a defense and that lawmakers would be going “down a very slippery slope.” Morrissey said any defendant who would offer the panic defense “would of course be rejected.”

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said this is not the first time Virginia has expressly prohibited a defense. Legislators repealed in 2008 the code section that provided defense from carnal knowledge when a defendant marries a child 14 years or older.

“When we have found an affirmative defense to be abhorrent to public policy we have gotten rid of it,” McClellan said. 

McClellan said she wished she could agree with Morrissey that no judge would accept the panic defense, but referred back to the Virginia cases where it was used successfully.

“We know the bill is constitutional, we know also, the bill has existing precedence, which is why it has earned overwhelming bipartisan support in state houses across the country,” Roem said.

The American Bar Association in 2013 recommended that local, state and federal legislatures curtail the availabilty and effectiveness of the gay and transgender panic defense. Roem said that similar bills have been implemented in other state legislatures. Virginia will become the 12th state to ban the panic defense, according to the policy organization Movement Advancement Project. The defense is also banned in the District of Columbia.

There are currently 39 states that allow the panic defense to be used in cases where hate crimes resulted in the assault or murder of an LGBTQ individual. This typically results in a murder charge being lessened to a charge of manslaughter or acquittal.

Roem said she worked with Wes Bizzell, president of the National LGBT Bar Association, to prepare the bill. She also thanked Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, for speaking in support of the bill in committee.

Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was murdered in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. The judge barred Aaron McKinney’s defense lawyer from using the gay panic defense in the murder trial. McKinney said Shepard’s advances triggered memories of sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Police said the crime was motivated by robbery, but Shepard’s sexual orientation likely made him the target. There were four people involved in the brutal crime. Two were found guilty of murder and two were charged with being an accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.

Roem was in high school when Matthew Shepard was murdered. She said the case had a profound effect on her and prevented her from coming out due to a fear of being ostracized and attacked. 

“It was requested to me by one of my Manassas Park student constituents who’s out, hoping not to have to live in the same fear in 2021 that I did in 1998,” Roem said of the bill.

Roem said there are people who don’t believe hate crimes such as the one against Shepard happen today in Virginia. She affirmed that they do happen, and she believes it is time to do something about it.

“We have to look at this from the perspective of ‘what do we do to make an affirmative statement that LGBTQ lives matter, and that you can’t just kill us for existing,” Roem 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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