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Freedom Virginia launches a second attack ad against Dunnavant
Also: Hundreds of Virginia teachers have lost licenses over sexual misconduct or sex crimes
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Freedom Virginia launches a second attack ad against Dunnavant
Freedom Virginia has launched another attack ad against state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) over her votes on legislation that would have lowered prescription drug prices. This new ad is part of a five figure ad buy targeting Henrico voters.
Dunnavant is facing a challenge from Del. Schuyler VanValkenberg (D-Henrico) in November.
“Virginians are struggling to afford their life-saving medicine, and Senator Dunnavant’s constituents deserve to know that she does not stand by their side in the fight for lower drug costs,” said Rhena Hicks, executive director of Freedom Virginia. “Senator Dunnavant offered no alternative plan in the face of what is undeniably a medicine affordability crisis. Henrico residents deserve better.”
The legislation being referenced was SB 957, a bill that would have created a Prescription Drug Affordability Board in Virginia. The legislation passed in the state Senate 26-13. Dunnavant voted against the bill, however.
Dunnavant is facing a tough challenge after redistricting shifted her district to the left. According to VPAP, SD-16 leans Democratic.
Hundreds of Virginia teachers have lost licenses over sexual misconduct or sex crimes
By Darlene Johnson, Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. — Approximately 280 Virginia teachers have lost their license over two decades for felony sex crimes with a minor or a student, or inappropriate misconduct involving a minor or student.
That is just over 41% of the teachers who had action taken against their license, according to Capital News Service analysis.
The Virginia Department of Education has tracked the data since at least 2000. A teacher can lose their license for any misdemeanor or felony that involves a student or minor, and also for misconduct considered to be detrimental to students, among other reasons. Not all conduct detrimental to students involves a crime or sexual misconduct.
Almost 700 educators had action taken against their license. The causes ranged from sex crimes such as sexual abuse of minors, production of child pornography using students without their knowledge and sexting with students, to felony convictions that involved drugs and murder.
Overall, it is a low number of licenses lost when compared to Virginia’s approximately 92,000 teachers. But the sexual misconduct or abuse allegations made annually against teachers are much higher. Many child safety advocates think child sexual abuse prevention, overall, and in schools, could still be improved with better reporting mechanisms and more consistent discussion, training, and resources.
Legislation passed in 2008 required Virginia courts to report known teacher convictions for certain offenses. The law also called for local school boards to create policies to address complaints of sexual abuse of a student by a teacher or employee. A majority of actions against teacher licenses in the VDOE database were made after 2011, the year the state Board of Education passed guidelines to help prevent sexual misconduct and abuse in Virginia schools.
The guidelines called for clear procedures on how to report suspected misconduct and abuse, and for training of school personnel and volunteers. The guidelines also outlined types of inappropriate conduct with a student.
Tracking sexual misconduct in schools
Charol Shakeshaft is a professor in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University. She began researching school employee sexual misconduct in the 1980s. Teacher-initiated sexual misconduct occurs more than it is reported, according to Shakeshaft.
“I believe that we have left it to children to keep themselves safe,” Shakeshaft said. “We need to stop expecting children to be responsible for their safety in schools and expect school employees to keep children safe.”
Children may be less likely to report sexual abuse by school employees for reasons such as threats, feeling that no one will believe them or believing the behavior is acceptable, Shakeshaft said.
“I believe we care more about the comfort of adults than the safety of children,” Shakeshaft said. “Tracking this information shines a light on adult sexual misconduct and misbehavior.”
Students and school employees need training and education to better prevent abuse, and to encourage better reporting, Shakeshaft said.
‘One case is too many’
Every Virginia teacher is required by state law to complete training in child abuse recognition and intervention as a condition of initial licensure. The training is not required for renewal of a license if it has already been done once. Every Virginia teacher is required to report suspected abuse, according to state law.
Protecting students from adult misconduct is a shared responsibility that must be a priority at all levels, stated Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons in a release to Capital News Service.
“While the school employees who offend often represent a small fraction of the commonwealth’s teachers and support staff, one case is one too many for our children,” Coons stated. Coons will continue to expect “diligence in reporting and supporting state board processes to remove licensure for misconduct.”
Individual school districts maintain records of alleged sexual misconduct, according to the VDOE. School employees must report alleged or suspected abuse to school administrators, and to the Virginia State Child Abuse Hotline or the Department of Social Services.
The DSS investigates and tracks the number of alleged reports made. The VDOE tracks when DSS makes a founded disposition against a teacher that leads to licensure action. That means the investigation met the required evidence standard, which is based primarily on direct evidence, not anonymous complaints. The actions must also be proven to be out of the scope of employment.
The VDOE reports all actions against licenses to a national database, and checks the database monthly, Pyle stated.
There is a lot of variation between the number of abuse reports made to DSS, the number of founded victims, and the number of licenses that were lost.
In a seven-year period, DSS received almost 12,000 statewide allegations of abuse or misconduct by a school employee or teacher. The number of allegations against teachers is higher. The most recent data available through the DSS accountability reporting portal was from 2013-2020. However, action was only taken against 377 teaching licenses in that same time frame.
Proving sexual misconduct in schools can be ‘difficult’
Sexual abuse was the third most frequent type of child abuse in Virginia last year. There were just over 3,000 investigations of alleged sexual abuse by Child Protective Services, which is a part of DSS.
There were 809 cases of sexual abuse that met the CPS “evidence standard,” or 26% of investigated cases, according to the most recent DSS report. The burden of proof required by state code is just enough evidence to make it more likely than not that the asserted facts are true.
Schools are the No. 1 place outside of the family where abuse occurs. There were 48 founded abuse cases in Virginia public schools last year and four cases in private schools, according to DSS. There were over 400 reports made.
CPS investigates allegations of sexual abuse that occur within a school or home, along with law enforcement as the situation demands.
Both teacher advocates and CPS workers have previously expressed the need for improved guidance on sexual abuse complaints involving school employees, according to a 2019 report from the Virginia Commission on Youth.
The Commission noted that proving a case of sexual abuse by a school employee has additional reporting elements that can be difficult, and that the scope of employment standard should not apply. Several recommendations were made to improve training material and reporting processes.
Record requests of sexual misconduct or abuse
CNS sent records requests to 10 of the state’s largest school districts to get the total number of any sexual assaults or misconduct reports made against faculty, staff, or employees in a recent three-year period.
Only four districts provided the records without charging a fee. Government organizations can charge the public a fee to fill a Freedom of Information Act request.
Chesapeake City responded that there were 11 reports alleging sexual misconduct with a student since 2019. Henrico County reported 23 instances. Stafford County had four. Richmond City had five reports in 2022. The reports represent allegations made, and should not be considered confirmation of guilt or misconduct.
Other districts either did not respond, stated they had no available records, or quoted costs to fill the records anywhere between $125 to $418.
Chesterfield County told CNS multiple times that there were no records “responsive to the request.” CNS pressed the agency for clarification. The representative responded that they do not have an “existing” record and they would have to “pull individual records and create a report.”
The agency stated that they are not required to create a record in response to a FOIA request, and they considered the request closed. This is technically accurate, and the better request would have been just for all records of allegations.
However, no other school district denied the request due to wording.
CNS also sent a records request to DSS. The department pointed to a dashboard that provides an overview of alleged abuse or neglect reports. 2020 is the most recent year data is available.
The DSS dashboard shows higher numbers than what school districts provided, but it also includes other forms of abuse that could lead to action against a teacher’s license.
Combined allegations made against teachers and school employees:
Chesapeake City: 118 total allegations in 2019 and 97 total allegations in 2020.
Chesterfield County: 59 total allegations in 2019 and 50 total allegations in 2020.
Henrico County: 116 total allegations in 2019 and six total allegations in 2020.
Richmond City: 102 total allegations in 2019 and 62 total allegations in 2020.
Stafford County: 20 total allegations in 2019 and 22 total allegations in 2020.
Number of actions against teaching licenses in the above districts since 2000:
Chesapeake City had 12 licensure actions.
Chesterfield County had 25 licensure actions.
Henrico County had 31 licensure actions.
Richmond City had 18 licensure actions.
Stafford County had 12 licensure actions.
Audit finds excessive CPS caseload
Almost 53,000 children were identified as possible victims of child abuse or neglect in Virginia last year, according to the DSS. That includes mental and sexual abuse.
Of the total identified, 4,911 victims met the evidence standard in investigations. Some children experienced more than one type of abuse.
However, almost 40,000 of those children received a “family assessment response.” DSS uses that as an “alternative response” to an investigation. The assessment includes determining if there are immediate child safety concerns, services needs of the child and family that could deter abuse or neglect, and risk of future harm to the child.
The Office of the Inspector General released a statewide audit of CPS departments last year that recommended several ways the department could improve.
One finding from the report was that case screening was not always handled in accordance with CPS requirements. The audit found instances where referrals made to CPS should have been assigned an investigation track instead of a family assessment track, and vice versa.
Another finding from the survey of local DSS offices throughout Virginia was that some workers feel they have an excessive caseload. There is no limit to the number of cases each CPS case worker may have at one time, according to the audit. Some offices were also reportedly understaffed.
The Inspector General’s office concluded that important details regarding a referral could be overlooked if an office was understaffed. A recommendation was to determine the appropriate workload standards for CPS staff.
There are over 40 open DSS jobs currently listed for family services positions that would work on such reports of child abuse.
Sex abuse awareness takes center stage
Forty years ago, conversations about good, bad and secret touches were not common in Virginia schools.
The play “Hugs and Kisses” launched in Richmond in 1983 to teach children how to identify, report and protect themselves from sexual abuse.
The theater company estimated the play has served as an early intervention for the approximately 20,000 students who disclosed that abuse was taking place after seeing the play, according to Amber Martinez, the Virginia Repertory Theatre play coordinator.
There are about 150 performances of the play each year, and an estimated 45,000 to 55,000 students view it annually, according to Martinez.
Sexual abuse awareness education, based on state code and source interviews, is not consistently reinforced throughout Virginia schools. The “Hugs and Kisses” play is not mandatory, and schools choose how often they host the play, according to Martinez.
There has been pushback, especially in recent years, from school administrators and parents who are uncomfortable with discussion of “child sexual abuse,” according to Martinez. However, those schools will usually schedule a performance after they review the script and see testimonials, she stated over email.
“I will say that with the new governor we’ve had, it’s been trickier, and that’s where politics and local voting is so important — it trickles down to what we teach and learn in schools,” Martinez stated.
Teaching children and adults
The FLE curriculum must include age-appropriate and evidence-based programs on topics that include, among others, awareness and recognition of child sexual exploitation and abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and the meaning of consent, according to state code.
The importance of personal privacy and how to honor boundaries are also taught. The curriculum is reviewed every seven years and was last updated in 2020.
Nineteen of the state’s 132 school divisions did not offer FLE, according to a 2021 Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction survey. The greatest concentration of school divisions that did not provide FLE are in Southwest Virginia.
Republican lawmakers in 2022, as part of the governor’s efforts to promote parental rights in schools, introduced a bill to require parental consent before a child takes the FLE courses, and to allow review of any of the material in advance. The bill passed the House on a party-line vote, but failed to pass in the Senate.
FLE does not replace the responsibility of adults to keep children safe, Shakeshaft said. But the training could lead to an increase in reporting abuse, she said.
“We need to teach students about boundaries,” Shakeshaft said. “More importantly, we need to teach the adults better about boundaries.”
Families Forward created the Darkness to Light program curriculum, which teaches adults to identify when a child may be experiencing sexual assault, said Jamia Crockett, CEO of the organization. Families Forward works with educators and mandated abuse reporters through the school system, law enforcement and mental health professionals.
They also provide parent-peer support groups through their Circle of Parents program. This allows parents to have a peer network to connect with the proper authorities to report issues if they find out their child is a victim of sexual abuse, Crockett said.
‘Adults normalize harm’
Laurie Tasharski is the director of institutional abuse prevention for Stop Child Abuse Now in Northern Virginia. A comprehensive training approach is needed to better understand and report sexual abuse, she said. Training should focus on the ways children often disclose they are victims, even in ways they often “hint” at how a person makes them feel.
Instagram has become a place where young adults disclose abuse, Tasharski said.
“Kids are far, far more likely to disclose to friends or to disclose on social media than to tell an adult,” she said. “I think part of that is that adults normalize harm between kids, and adults don't react well.”
The burden of support for a survivor or a victim falls more heavily on younger people, through the ways they disclose abuse, she said.
Virginia training is more technical and focused on reporting the crime ‒ such as names of children involved and ages ‒ than it is about helping kids disclose information, Tasharski said.
“What we want to do is have conversations that make it safe for kids to say, ‘that person makes me feel uncomfortable,’” Tasharski added.
Students need more education based on preventing sexual abuse, Tasharski said. There is focus on school security in schools, such as metal detectors and active shooter drills. This is important, she said, but the number of children who have experienced abuse is also incredibly high. Approximately 3.5 million child abuse cases are reported annually, according to SCAN.
“Prevention work is always going to feel less important than anything that ends up with the police at your door or a criminal charge,” Tasharki said. “Unfortunately, we have a system that is geared to reacting when a crime is committed instead of preventing escalation of harm.”