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Will Gonzalez

Legislature approves excused absences for student mental health

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- The General Assembly passed an amended bill that will allow K-12 students excused absences for mental health issues and create uniformity for how Virginia school districts address emotional and mental health needs within its schools.

House Bill 308, introduced by Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would give the Virginia Department of Education until Dec. 31 to establish guidelines for public school districts to grant students excused absences if they are dealing with mental or behavioral health issues.

Charles Pyle, director of media relations at the DOE, said it’s too early to know what guidance the DOE would issue, including whether a student would be required to provide a written doctor’s note and if a limit would be instated on the amount of time or consecutive number of absences from school.

Virginia currently has no standard for addressing mental health in schools, and each school approaches it differently.

“There are some high schools and middle schools that have mental health clubs, so to speak, where they are trying to provide more peer support,” said Bruce Cruser, executive director of Mental Health America of Virginia. “There is at least one teacher who is involved in helping recognize symptoms of mental health problems and can direct kids to the appropriate resources. In other places, it’s not in the open like that.”

The House worked closely with the DOE on several bills this year. There are three other House bills in which the department has been tasked with drafting standards or guidelines. HB 753 requires the DOE to establish a definition of social-emotional learning and develop standards for social-emotional learning across public schools from grades K-12. HB 836 requires the DOE to develop a plan to adopt and standardize microcredentials of teachers in STEM fields. HB 817 requires the DOE, in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, to develop health and safety best practice guidelines for the use of digital devices in schools.

Pyle said when the General Assembly passes legislation that tasks the DOE with drafting standards or guidelines, the organization combines its expertise with contributions from the public.

“The Department of Education is always happy to support legislators by answering their questions and providing information about related statutes or board regulations,” Pyle said.

Mental health issues among young people in the U.S. have become more prevalent over the past few decades. Fifty percent of people with mental illnesses start showing symptoms by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to the organization, 16.5% of Americans ages 6-17 -- or 7.7 million people -- experienced a mental health disorder in 2016. Only half of those people received treatment.

Cruser said it’s important to take the mental health of young children and teens seriously, especially with mental illness as stigmatized as it is.

 “The suicide rate of youth in Virginia continues to increase and the number of children with serious emotional disturbances continues to increase, so it’s definitely a serious issue,” Cruser said. “The sooner any kind of emotional or behavioral disturbances can be identified, the better the treatment is.”

Bill allows renters to make certain repairs if landlord doesn’t respond

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- A bill that gives tenants the power to make repairs on their property and deduct the costs from their rent, with conditions, recently passed the Virginia Senate and is expected to advance in the House. 

Senators voted unanimously in committee and on the floor to pass Senate Bill 905, introduced by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, which gives a tenant the right to seek repairs that constitute a fire hazard or serious threat to the life, health or safety of occupants. Such conditions include the infestation of rodents and lack of heat, hot or cold running water, light, electricity, or adequate sewage disposal facilities. 

Tenants would have the right to secure a contractor to fix the issues and deduct the cost from their rent.

First, the tenant would submit a written complaint to their landlord and allow them 14 days to fix the issue before the tenant secures a licensed contractor to complete the repairs. The tenant must provide documentation and itemized receipts of the repair to the landlord. The tenant would be allowed to deduct the costs of the repairs, not exceeding one month’s rent, from subsequent rent payments.

Sen. John Bell, D-Loudoun, proposed an amendment that was rejected during the Senate committee hearing, requiring the tenant to obtain two repair estimates. 

Currently, state law allows the landlord more time to fix issues that compromise the health and safety of the tenant. The tenant can file a detailed, written complaint and give notice that the rental agreement will terminate on or after 30 days, if the landlord hasn’t fixed the issue within 21 days. If the problem is fixed, the tenant can’t break the lease. 

A tenant, though legally empowered under current law to terminate the rental agreement would still, in most cases, need to have a deposit plus first month’s rent to secure a new place, which can present a roadblock for renters.

The Virginia Poverty Law Center noted its support of the bill and stated that in addition to speeding up the repair process, the proposed bill would reduce the number of cases in Virginia’s courts, because tenants are given the opportunity to handle issues themselves instead of having to take landlords to court. Christine Marra, the group’s director of housing advocacy, said that the bill benefits tenants by allowing them to deduct the cost of donated repairs.

“There are a number of nonprofits across the commonwealth that do home repair for homeowners, but will not do them for renters because they don’t want to unjustly or unduly enrich the landlord,” Marra said. “I hope this will encourage them to start doing repairs for tenants.”

According to Elizabeth Godwin-Jones, a Richmond attorney who represents landlords, the original bill was too vague about what would constitute an emergency condition and how the tenant was allowed to go about getting the work done.

Now that the tenant is required to hire a licensed contractor and provide the necessary documentation, she said there’s little a negligent landlord could do to challenge their tenant in court and force them to pay their rent in full.

 “To me, the landlord already has a bit of a black eye, if it was something really serious and they didn’t do what they were supposed to do,” Godwin-Jones said.

Stanley patroned another renter’s rights bill, one which didn’t advance. The bill would have given tenants the right to use their landlord’s failure to maintain the property as a defense if they were taken to court for failure to pay rent.

Virginia’s eviction rates are among the highest in the country. Princeton University’s 2016 Eviction Lab study showed that five of the 10 cities with the highest eviction rates in the U.S. are in Virginia, and Godwin-Jones believes the problem is rooted in poverty more than it is in landlord-tenant legislation.

“To me, the biggest thing to help the eviction problem would be to raise the minimum wage and have more affordable housing options, but that’s terribly underfunded, and the funding hasn’t kept up with the increase in the rent,” Godwin-Jones said.

After making it to the House of Delegates, the bill was assigned to a General Laws subcommittee, which recommended advancing it. A committee on Thursday postponed hearing the bill because Stanley was still in the Senate and could not speak to the bill.

Bill Defining Milk Aims To Give Dairy Farmers Supermarket Advantage

By Will Gonzalez, Capital News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- As people drink less dairy milk and some turn to plant-based alternatives such as oat, soy and almond milk, dairy farmers say they're struggling. That’s why Virginia is the latest state to advance legislation restricting the use of the word milk for marketing purposes.

Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, introduced House Bill 119, which defines milk as the lacteal secretion “obtained by the complete milking of a healthy hooved animal.” The bill prohibits plant-based milk alternative products from marketing their products as milk. Knight, a pig farmer, said agriculture is the largest private industry in Virginia, and the state government has to protect it. The bill reported out of the Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources committee Wednesday, and heads to the House floor.

Virginia produced about 1.6 billion pounds of dairy milk in 2018, and the number of permits issued to dairy farmers is on the decline, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“We’re losing about one dairy farm a week in the state of Virginia, and farmers are struggling hard,” Knight said. “I thought, ‘well, maybe these plant-based fluids are capitalizing on the good name of milk.’”

HB 119 was amended to say that 11 out of the following states need to pass similar legislation for the law to go into effect: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia. A bill that passed the North Carolina legislature carried a similar stipulation.

Michael Robbins, a spokesperson from the Plant Based Foods Association, believes the bill is unnecessary, and the dairy industry has created a “bogeyman” in plant-based milk, instead of addressing the tangible issues the dairy industry faces.

“We view these bills as a solution in search of a problem,” Robbins said. “There is no consumer confusion on plant-based dairy alternatives versus dairy coming from a hooved animal. Consumers know exactly what they’re purchasing.”

Mississippi and Arkansas passed their own “truth in labeling” laws for plant-based meat alternatives such as tofu dogs and beyond burgers, which were challenged and overturned on the grounds that they violated the First Amendment. Robbins said if milk labeling bills become law, the plant-based food industry will fight them in court.

“Right now, because none of those bills are in effect, there’s no standing to challenge them in court, but step one would be to file an appropriate lawsuit,” Robbins said.

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