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Panel calls for ‘paradigm shift’ in Virginia school-to-prison pipeline

Schools have become places of trauma for students of color and help reinforce centuries of systemic racism by driving students into the criminal justice system, according to speakers at a recent University of Richmond symposium. 

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By Christina Amano Dolan

Schools have become places of trauma for students of color and help reinforce centuries of systemic racism by driving students into the criminal justice system, according to speakers at a recent University of Richmond symposium.

The UR School of Law hosted a six-hour event via Zoom with four presentations, nine panelists and over 200 attendees. The event featured UR law students, educators, social justice advocates and activists.

Suspension and expulsion are used disproportionately against Black students, other students of color and those with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those punishments, along with arrests at school, often lead to students having a criminal record, according to the NAACP. The trend is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Julie McConnell, a UR law professor, said the origins of the school-to-prison pipeline is decades old. McConnell is the director of the university’s Children’s Defense Clinic, a program where law students represent indigent children in court.

 The school-to-prison pipeline has been an issue for many years, but it began to take hold during the “superpredator era” in the 1990s, following incidents such as the Columbine High School shooting, McConnell said. The superpredator theory centered around fear there was going to be a wave of violent kids threatening communities and schools. The theory popularized strict zero tolerance policies in schools.

“We would automatically suspend and expel kids who got in trouble in school for very minor offenses in many cases,” McConnell said.

She referenced a 2015 incident in South Carolina when a school resource officer tossed a student across a classroom after she refused to surrender her cellphone.

Zero tolerance policies mandate predetermined punishments for certain offenses in schools, including the possession of a weapon, alcohol or drugs, according to Shared Justice. Minor offenses often punishable by suspension or expulsion include disorderly conduct and insubordination.

McConnell and other speakers discussed how punitive policies often drive students into incarceration, as some offenses previously handled within schools are now dealt with by juvenile courts. McConnell said suspending minors results in higher rates of dropout, mental health problems, delinquency and substance abuse issues.

Virginia lawmakers have worked to return punishment back to the schools. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, sponsored two measures that passed the Virginia General Assembly last year. Students cannot be charged with disorderly conduct during school, on buses or at school-sponsored events. School principals no longer have to report student acts that constitute a misdemeanor to law enforcement, such as an assault on school property, including on a bus or at a school-sponsored event.

Valerie Slater, executive director for the RISE for Youth Coalition, said there are disproportionate rates of suspension in Virginia. RISE for Youth is a campaign focused on dismantling the youth prison model.

Black youths from ages 15 to 17 made up 21% of the state’s overall population during the 2016-2017 school year, but they accounted for 57% of youths suspended statewide, according to a 2019 Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis and RISE for Youth report. Black teens also made up 49% of Virginia minors reported to juvenile courts by school authorities and 54% of minors detained in local jails, according to the same report.

The country’s history of racial bias and discriminatory practices have enabled the school-to-prison pipeline, speakers said.

One panel focused on Richmond’s history of segregated housing trends, such as the illegal practice of redlining. That is when creditworthy applicants are denied housing loans based on the applicants’ race or neighborhood where they lived. White students as a result were concentrated in wealthier suburban areas and Black students in underprivileged urban centers, said panelist Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“We can easily see the vestiges of this history just in the way that we assign students to schools,” said panelist Kathy Mendes, a research assistant at the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

Mendes said children of color from under-resourced areas often attend schools with insufficient resources.

Panelist Rachael Deane, legal director of Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program, said communities of color are “incredibly over-policed.” Community policing of these areas spills into schools, exposing children of color to constant surveillance by school resource officers, Deane said.

Heavy policing in schools does not effectively prevent juvenile delinquency, speakers said. Zero tolerance policies fail to consider the mental well-being of disadvantaged children. Children with behavioral problems may experience external stressors such as high rates of neighborhood crime, domestic violence and extreme poverty.

“If you never got into the issue of why a student was fighting, then you are doing nothing but delaying another fight after suspending them,” said Rodney Robinson, winner of the 2019 National Teacher of the Year award. Robinson is a 19-year teaching veteran of Richmond Public Schools.

Schools need to replace school resource officers with mental health counselors, and teach students how to cope with trauma rather than driving them out of schools, Robinson said.

Robinson said he witnessed the severity of the school-to-prison pipeline issue while teaching convicted juveniles at Virgie Binford Education Center. He said there is a need for reformative school programs.

“To me it wasn’t about the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s a school-to-cemetery pipeline,” Robinson said. “Because if you’re failing these kids, and they’re not graduating, and they’re ending up in such horrible conditions, then eventually they will end up a victim of street violence.”

Educator bias against students of color needs to be eliminated, Robinson said. He said teachers should understand how their privilege may affect how they view students.

Valerie L’Herrou, a Virginia Poverty Law Center staff attorney, said she feels “hopeful” about recent racial justice protests. L’Herrou said the protests showed more people are open to reexamining their privilege and role in maintaining racist structures.

Siegel-Hawley and other speakers proposed altering schools’ rezoning criteria in order to fully desegregate Richmond communities.

Slater encouraged leaders to focus on the “roots” over the “symptoms” of the school-to-prison pipeline, and to create programs to permanently rehabilitate children and communities.

Educational funding needs to be equally distributed throughout the commonwealth, Slater said. She also proposed expanding the definition of school resource officers to include other forms of support such as credible messengers. Credible messengers are individuals who have passed through the justice system, transformed their lives and provide preventative support to at-risk youth, according to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

“It is time for a paradigm shift in Virginia,” Slater said. “It is time to realize that a healthy, thriving community is the greatest deterrent to justice system involvement.”

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Five Acres of Prime Riverfront to be Put Aside for the Public

Capital Region Land Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, James River Association and City of Richmond, teamed up to purchase the properties located at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street in the City of Richmond.

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From yesterday’s press release:

Capital Region Land Conservancy (CRLC), in partnership with The Conservation Fund, James River Association and City of Richmond, is honored to announce that it has entered a contract to purchase the properties located at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street in the City of Richmond. CRLC is working with its partners to acquire the 5.207 acres to serve the community in multiple ways. This exciting land acquisition will create one contiguous publicly accessible riverfront space and allow for the completion of the Virginia Capital Trail. It will also expand city-owned parkland in Richmond’s East End and enable the establishment of new river access and environmental education programs.

Located between Great Shiplock Park and the former Lehigh Cement Co. site, the parcel that CRLC has under contract is the only remaining privately owned parcel along the north bank of the tidal James River in Richmond. Once funding is secured to permanently protect the property from development most of it will be transferred to the City of Richmond. This transfer will help create a riverfront park featuring access to the James River envisioned by the Richmond Riverfront Plan.

“The life of our great city, and the health and welfare of our residents, has always been tied to access to our river and riverfront, and after the year we’ve been through, that is as important today as it’s ever been,” said Mayor Levar Stoney, speaking today at Great Shiplock Park. “I’d like to thank our partners at the Capital Region Land Conservancy, The Conservation Fund, the James River Association, and all the organizations and individuals who worked so hard to preserve our city’s iconic views and natural beauty to create additional parkland for refuge and recreation that can be enjoyed by all residents for generations to come.”

By acquiring and protecting the properties at 3011 and 3021 Dock Street, CRLC, The Conservation Fund and the City of Richmond will fulfill one of the most referenced components of the local comprehensive plan over the past 50 years. Specifically, the 2009 Richmond Downtown Plan highlights “preserving existing and historic viewsheds towards the river is essential to connecting the city to the river. Future development along the riverfront needs to be carefully considered so that it will not impact significant historic views such as “the view that named Richmond” from the top of Libby Hill Park.” It is noteworthy that this acquisition comes on the 170th anniversary of the City of Richmond acquiring 7 acres to become Libby Hill Park. It was one of the first five parks in the city and designated by city engineer Wilfred Cutshaw to offer “breathing places” for citizens to take in healthier air.

“For nearly twenty years, Scenic Virginia has advocated for the preservation of The View That Named Richmond through the acquisition of this parcel for parkland,” said Scenic Virginia Executive Director Leighton Powell. “Today is the realization of a dream come true, and we and our supporters could not be more thrilled or grateful that the historic view that connects Richmond to its sister city Richmond-Upon-Thames will be protected much in the same way that it has been in England for more than a century.”

CRLC has received support for the purchase of the riverfront parcel from The Conservation Fund and James River Association. CRLC is receiving financial and logistics support from The Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit organization that specializes in working with local partners to protect land and water resources. The James River Association, a local member-supported nonprofit organization, has also pledged its support for CRLC’s acquisition of the parcel as a financial partner.

“The Conservation Fund is pleased to be partnering with CRLC to protect this critical piece of riverfront in downtown Richmond,” said Heather Richards, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for The Conservation Fund.  “Increasing access to the James River and making trail connections for urban centers has never been more important, as we’ve seen over the past year.  This new parkland will serve the needs of so many Virginians and expand the vital connection between Richmond’s residents and the River.”

“The James River Association is a proud financial partner in the purchase of these five acres along the James River in the City of Richmond,” said Bill Street, Chief Executive Officer of the James River Association. “The riverfront parcel has great potential to provide needed access to the James River for outdoor recreation and environmental education experiences in Richmond’s East End.”

The closing date is scheduled for late Summer 2021. While some funding has been committed and grant writing and fundraising continues, CRLC and The Conservation Fund are seeking the public’s support to raise the capital needed to complete the acquisition in August and transfer the property to the City as soon as possible. Per the terms of the purchase and sales agreement with the seller USP Echo Harbor LLC, the purchase price cannot be made public at this time. It is however based on a fair-market appraisal of the property for its highest and best use.

CRLC intends to coordinate with the City of Richmond to conduct community engagement opportunities to envision uses of the future public open space and park. Community engagement will be conducted in close coordination with the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and will include local stakeholders, community organizations, and the general public.

“Not only are we proud to be adding additional park and open space lands to the serve the many residents and visitors of the Richmond region,” said CRLC’s Executive Director Parker C. Agelasto, “we are honored that this project is filling a critical need within the Riverfront Plan as well as protecting the incredible views from Libby Hill that have been part of a defining landscape for the region over many centuries.”

Background:

The USP Echo Harbor property had historically been Richmond’s busiest port prior to the expansion to Intermediate Terminal and relocation in 1940 to the Port of Richmond off Deepwater Terminal Road. In 2013, the City approved a plan of development containing more than 1,000,000 square feet in a nine (9) story building. Advocates for the Libby Hill Viewshed had expressed great concern that such intense development would irrevocably harm the “View that Named Richmond.”

In 2012, the City purchased the 1.5-acre Lehigh Cement Co. property for $2 million in order to expand public access to the James River and complete the Virginia Capital Trail prior to the 2015 UCI Road World Championships. The 2001 Richmond Master Plan stipulated that the City should endeavor to “acquire underutilized industrial, institutional or commercial property to provide additional public access to the James River. Any lands acquired should be carefully selected to minimize conflicts between adjacent land uses and new public usage. Do not promote the taking of private property to achieve greater public river access.”

The 2012 Richmond Riverfront Plan seeks to “improve visual and physical access to the river. In addition to creating new view corridors to the James River, preserving existing and historic viewsheds towards the river is essential to connecting the city to the river. Future development along the riverfront needs to be carefully considered so that it will not impact significant historic views such as ‘the view that named Richmond’ from the top of Libby Hill Park.”

Most recently, the newest citywide master plan Richmond 300 looks to “reserve appropriate riverfront and canal-facing sites for public amenities and river-related development such as boating services, picnics, etc.” Such will be the case of the 5.2 acres being acquired by Capital Region Land Conservancy.

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Virginia public transit grapples with reduced ridership, zero fare

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

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By Katharine DeRosa

Virginia public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others.

“We are serving a market of essential workers that can’t stay home; they have to use our service,” said Greater Richmond Transit Co. CEO Julie Timm during a recent presentation.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a state of emergency in March of last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move prompted limits on public and private gatherings, telework policies and mandates to wear masks in public, although some restrictions have eased.

GRTC faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report.

The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March to November 2019 with the same 9-month period in 2020. Overall, fiscal year-to-date ridership on local-fixed routes decreased the least (-16%), compared to the bus-rapid transit line (-49%) and express routes (-84%), according to GRTC data. Local-fixed routes had a 7% increase from March 2020 to March 2021.

GRTC eliminated fares in March 2020 to avoid “close interactions at bus fareboxes,” Timm said in a statement at the time. CARES Act funding made the move possible. GRTC will offer free rides until the end of June.

GRTC will need an additional $5.3 million when federal funding ceases to continue operating with zero fare, Timm said. Zero fare can be supported through the third round of federal stimulus money and Department of Rail and Public Transportation funding, advertising revenue and other funding sources, Timm said.

“This is the conversation and it’s a hard conversation,” Timm said. “To fare or not to fare?”

GRTC serves a majority Black and majority female riders, according to the 2020 annual report. Commuters account for over half the trips taken on GRTC buses and almost three-quarters of commuter trips are five or more days per week. Nearly 80% of riders have a household income of less than $50,000 per year.

GRTC spends about $1.7 million to collect fares annually, according to Timm. Eliminating fares is more optimal than collecting fares, Timm said in March. She believes in zero fare operation because the bus rates act as a regressive tax, which takes a large percentage of income from low-income earners.

Free fares could lead to overcrowding on buses, opponents argue. However, Timm said that’s not a good reason to abolish the initiative.

“If we have a demand for more transit, I don’t think the answer is to put fares out to reduce the ridership,” Timm said. “I think the answer is to find additional funding sources and commitment to increase service to meet that demand.”

GRTC will continue to evaluate the effectiveness of the zero fare model, according to Timm.

“We’ll have a lot of conversations post-COVID about how we consider transit, how we invest in transit and how that investment in transit lifts up our entire region, not just our riders but all of our economy for a stronger marketplace,” Timm said.

GRTC added another bus route as the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March. Route 111 runs in Chesterfield from John Tyler Community College to the Food Lion off Chippenham Parkway. The route surpassed ridership expectations despite being launched during the pandemic, according to the annual report.

GRTC also will receive additional funding from the newly established Central Virginia Transit Authority. The entity will provide dedicated transportation funding for Richmond and eight other localities. The authority will draw money from a regional sales and use tax, as well as a gasoline and diesel fuel tax. GRTC is projected to receive $20 million in funds from the authority in fiscal year 2021. The next fiscal year it receives $28 million and funding will reach $30 million by fiscal year 2026.

These funds cannot be used to assist in zero fare operation, Timm said.

Almost 350,000 riders boarded the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, which includes passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics.

Metro’s $4.7 billion budget will maintain service at 80-85% of pre-pandemic levels, according to a Metro press release. Federal relief funds totaling almost $723 million filled Metro’s funding gap due to low ridership.

“The impact of the pandemic on ridership and revenue forced us to consider drastic cuts that would have been necessary absent federal relief funding,” stated Metro Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg. “Thankfully, the American Rescue Plan Act has provided a lifeline for Metro to serve customers and support the region’s economic recovery.”

Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million people in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020 and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease. HRT spokesperson Tom Holden said he can’t explain why HRT bus services saw a higher drop off than GRTC buses.

“We had a substantial decline in boardings in all our modes of transportation just as every transit agency in the U.S. did,” Holden said.

HRT operated with a zero fare system from April 10 to July 1, 2020. Ridership had a slight uptick from April to October, aside from an August dip. Fares for all HRT transit services were budgeted for 14.2% of HRT’s revenue for Fiscal Year 2020.

“We are hopeful that with vaccinations becoming more widespread, the overall economy will begin to recover, and we’ll see rates increase,” Holden said.

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Kroger donates $250K to Feed More for new donation center

Kroger Mid-Atlantic and The Kroger Foundation are donating $250,000 to Feed More for a new donation center at the non-profit’s 1415 Rhoadmiller Street location in Richmond.

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Kroger Mid-Atlantic and The Kroger Foundation are donating $250,000 to Feed More for a new donation center at the non-profit’s 1415 Rhoadmiller Street location in Richmond.

The new space will be called the Kroger Donation Center.

“Our partnership with Feed More is so important to the Kroger team and our company commitment to Zero Hunger Zero Waste,” said Allison McGee, corporate affairs manager for Kroger Mid-Atlantic. “With the recent move of our Mid-Atlantic division office to Richmond, we wanted to make a sizeable gift to Feed More that would allow them to better receive, process and sort food.”

“When Kroger says ‘Zero Hunger Zero Waste’, they mean it,” remarked Jeff Wilklow, Feed More’s Chief Development Officer. “From grants to our Agency Network, to funding for our Mobile Pantry Program, and now an upgrade to our donation center, they prove time and again that they are committed partners in our fight against hunger.”

Kroger Mid-Atlantic has supported Feed More for nearly 20 years and has donated more than one million dollars to the non-profit to help end food insecurity and over 4,000,000 pounds of food to Feed More’s network of area food pantries since 2010.

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