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Arrest made in Mason County homicide

POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — A murder investigation is underway in Mason County.

A suspect was arrested Friday afternoon following a wellness check at a residence on Belle Road in Point Pleasant.

A social media post said the person charged was quickly located and taken into custody.

State police are investigating the death.

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Narrow exceptions for youths to take medicine for gender dysphoria would be struck in House bill

Last year, legislators passed a ban  on gender surgery for minors, but wound up allowing treatment with medication under narrowly-tailored circumstances. They were acting on concern that some youths going through gender dysphoria may act on suicidal thoughts if they are barred from treatment of any kind.

Today, most members of the House Health Committee advanced a bill to strike those exceptions, which specifically relate to opinions by medical professionals and parents that a young patient might commit self-harm or hurt someone else without medicine.

House Bill 5297 was introduced just today and discussed by the committee for about 15 minutes before advancing the bill on a voice vote. The bill now goes to the full House. All of this happened shortly before this coming Wednesday’s “Crossover Day” deadline for bills to be passed from one chamber to the other.

No one, including physicians, testified about the bill’s reasons or effects.

Nobody on the House Health Committee explicitly spoke in favor of the bill.

The Fairness West Virginia organization put out a statement shortly after the committee meeting to blast the legislation.

“When we say that parental rights matter, that includes the right to fill your child’s prescriptions without 134 legislators standing in the way,” said Isabella Cortez, gender policy manager for Fairness West Virginia.

“Lawmakers have no business telling parents whether or not they can take their child to the doctor to receive medically-necessary, lifesaving treatment. This last-minute mad dash to eliminate this care is abhorrent.”

Last year’s bill, “Prohibiting certain medical practices,” focused on irreversible gender-affirming surgery, although physicians said that doesn’t happen with minors in West Virginia.

A revised version of that bill also included gender-altering medication. As debate unfolded in the Senate, debate focused on peer-reviewed medical studies concluding the use of medications in gender dysphoria can lower the risk of depression and suicide.

The Senate finally passed a version of the bill allowing treatment with medication if a minor has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by two doctors, if the doctors express written opinions that the treatment is medically necessary to limit self-harm or harm to others, if the minor and their parents or legal guardians agree, and if the medications are the lowest dose necessary.

The House Health bill strikes out those exceptions. 

Anitra Hamilton

Delegate Anitra Hamilton, D-Monongalia, spoke against further restrictions.

“I think our ultimate goal is the prevention of suicide. I also think it’s important, and it has been a topic of debate, of allowing parents to be able to guide children’s medical care, to decide what’s best with their children,” Hamilton said.

“Preventing this type of care has shown to increase anxiety, depression, suicidal ideations, even psychological distress — so being able to provide them with a level of treatment that will prevent these type of medical illnesses in our children is so important for us to do.”

Mike Pushkin

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed an amendment to allow minors who are already using medication related to gender dysphoria to continue having it prescribed.

“For the government to come in and just kick somebody off of this — come in between them and their physician and their parents and say ‘We know best; this is not for you’ — it can be incredibly detrimental,” Pushkin said.

His proposed amendment was defeated 8-11.

As the meeting concluded, Pushkin made a motion to bring up and consider a resolution that, if advanced by the full Legislature, would have opened up West Virginia’s abortion and fertility treatment policies to a vote by the citizens.

That motion was defeated 3-16.

The committee then adjourned.

 

 

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Senate majority derails Crown Act by sending it to another committee for review

Story by David Beard, The Dominion Post 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The resurrected CROWN Act came to the Senate floor Friday morning, after narrowly passing out of Judiciary the evening before, only to be swatted back to another committee – where it may die.

Eric Tarr

SB 496 aims to prohibit discrimination based on race that includes discrimination based on hair textures and protective hairstyles historically associated with a particular race, where the term protective hairstyles includes braids, locks, and twists.

After being read for the first time, Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, moved to have the bill referred to his committee.

He said the bill carries significant fiscal implications and the requested fiscal notes haven’t been issued.

The state, he said, could see an increase in lawsuits spurred by the legislation, and the attorney general suspects it has problems and wants to review it (he later modified that comment, when pressed, and said the AG just wants to review it). While admitting he has no evidence that lawsuits will increase, he wants to see the fiscal notes.

“As Finance chair I’m very aware of things that bring risks to the general revenue,” he said. “I have like a 99% confidence that we have an increased expense to the state.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, supported Tarr, saying witness testimony about incidents in schools indicates lawsuits will arise. And by adding another protected class to the Human Rights Act, “there is some education that needs to happen.”

Three attorneys in the Senate all disputed Tarr’s claim.

Charles Trump

Judiciary chair Charles Trump, R-Morgan said the bill will in fact reduce lawsuits and state expenses. Racial discrimination is already illegal and this bill clarifies that discrimination based on hair is a form of racial discrimination. “It will require fewer cases, not more if we pass this bill.”

He pointed out that the exact same bill passed the Senate 32-2 in 2020. (The two votes against came from Tarr and Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, who again opposed the bill Thursday in Judiciary.)

Given that Crossover Day – when bills have to leave their house of origin and go to the other side – comes Wednesday, “I believe it is unnecessary and imprudent this late in the session” to send it to finance.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said Tarr and his supporters make the invalid assumption that West Virginians are racist.”

And Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, contradicted Rucker, saying the bill doesn’t create a new protected class, because it falls under racial discrimination.

Lead sponsor Sen. Mike Caputo. D-Marion, listed some of the states that have already passed this legislation and have stated they’ve seen no fiscal impact – including Alaska, Oregon and Tennessee.

The vote to send it to Finance was 22-12, with nine Republicans and all three Democrats voting to keep it before the full Senate. President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, was among those in the majority.

The 2020 bill, after passing out of the Senate, died in House Judiciary. A House floor effort to discharge it from committee to have the full body consider it failed.

Nothing in SB 496 calls the bill the CROWN Act, but this has been the name of some of the House versions, and of legislation in other states. CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.

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Service of longtime public official Joe Martin remembered

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Friends confirm that Joe Martin, a longtime public servant from Randolph County, was found dead in his Charleston residence Thursday.

Joe Martin, right, during his time as Elkins mayor with U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph. (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives via Picryl.com)

Martin’s career included time as mayor of Elkins (1977-1987), member of the House of Delegates, majority leader in the House of Delegates, cabinet secretary and other roles.

Former state lawmaker Rick Staton, who replaced Martin as majority leader in 2001, said all of Martin’s public service was very sincere.

“He was a strong believer in the institution of the capitol,” Staton told MetroNews Friday.

Martin left the legislature to become the Secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety for new Gov. Bob Wise in 2001. Martin told MetroNews at the time he was looking forward to the change.

“I scratched my head a number of times (as a lawmaker) and said, ‘Why are they doing things that way? I bet I could do it better,’ and the governor (Gov. Bob Wise) has given me an opportunity,” Martin said.

West Virginia went through two significant floods during the Wise administration. MetroNews caught up with Martin during a visit to a flood-ravaged area in 2001.

“I visited one home where they actually opened the door to let the water run in one side and opened the door to let it run out the other side at a lower level. There was pretty serious damage,” Martin said.

When Wise left office, Martin became deputy chief of staff under then Gov. Joe Manchin.

Staton said Martin was an effective state lawmaker who was very good in his role as majority leader. He said he’ll remember his sense of humor.

Staton said those who knew Martin have been sharing stories since hearing of his death.

“We’ve all got our special stories about him but nothing but love and sympathy right now,” Staton said.

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WVU Campus Warning issued following burglary, arson reports

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia University Police issued a Campus Warning following burglary and arson reports at the same Life Sciences Building location on the WVU Downtown Campus.

Police received a report Wednesday morning of a burglary that was not in progress on the fourth floor of the Life Sciences Building. The suspect or suspects made forced entry to a faculty member’s office in the east hallway sometime between the afternoon of Feb. 19 and the morning of Feb. 21. Police reported evidence of a forced entry and burn marks on the door. The faculty member reported missing testing materials.

WVU Police received a second report Friday that the same office in the Life Sciences Building had been broken into. Police determined forced entry was made overnight leaving new tool and burn marks on the door. Nothing was reported missing following the second forced entry investigation.

Later Friday, officers found five additional office doors on the floor that sustained similar damage, indicating attempted entry.

Anyone with information about these incidents is asked to call 203-293-COPS (2677) or visit UPD at 992 Elmer Prince Drive. Information may be shared anonymously.

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House opens bill to yet another exemption for vaccine requirements in schools

Earlier this week, delegates took a bill to eliminate vaccine requirements for public virtual schools and expanded it to also eliminate state vaccine requirements for West Virginia’s private and parochial schools.

Today, delegates voted to expand the bill again — amending it to allow parents citing religious beliefs to opt out of vaccination requirements for their children in any school in the state.

Todd Kirby

“For the people across our state who hold a religious belief that causes them to object to these vaccines, this is the fair way to do these people, to apply the U.S. constitution and the West Virginia constitution to them equally,” said Delegate Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, the sponsor of the amendment who is running for circuit judge.

The amendment was adopted on a 58-37 vote after debate of about an hour on Friday afternoon. Next up for the bill would be a passage vote in the House.

House Bill 5105 as first introduced had only one operative line to change the section of state law pertaining to vaccination requirements in the education system: “Any child attending public, virtual schools shall be exempt from the requirements of this article.”

It has now been broadened twice.

Shortly after the latest move, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department distributed a written opinion by health officer Steven Eshenaur.

“If you are anti-vaccination, you are pro-disease. It’s as simple as that. If you are anti-vaccination, you want to weaken or eliminate laws that protect all of our children. There is no other way to see it,” Eshenaur wrote.

“Speak up, West Virginians, and tell our legislators not to join what I call ‘Politicians for Polio.’ It escapes sound reasoning why anyone would want to weaken childhood immunization laws.”

The prevailing side of the Friday argument on the House floor contended religious beliefs should prevail in vaccination decisions, with some delegates citing the use of fetal tissue in some vaccine development.

“We need to protect religious liberties in our state,” said Delegate Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, who is running for state Senate. “Mountaineers are always free where it comes to religious liberties.”

Chris Pritt

Other delegates argued against the opening, saying society is safer from illness when there is broad protection against the spread of disease through vaccines.

Evan Hansen

“The reason why we have the law as we have it is that vaccines only provide the public health protection if most people are vaccinated,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia.

“You’re not just protecting your child by deciding to have them vaccinated. You’re protecting your neighbors. You’re protecting your grandparents. You’re protecting other kids that are immunocompromised and not able to take a vaccine. So there’s a reason.”

As of now, the West Virginia Department of Education boasts that the state has one of the most effective school-entry vaccine preventable laws in the nation:  “The vaccination laws have proven to improve attendance rates for students and staff while ensuring children stay healthy, safe, and ready to learn.”

West Virginia students entering school for the first time must show proof of immunization against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, and hepatitis B unless properly medically exempted.

Measles has seen a resurgence in the news recently with the situation of an elementary school in Florida experiencing measles cases among six students.

Brandon Steele

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, cited a recent trip he took to Virginia to say he didn’t see with his own eyes children who were suffering from communicable disease.

“I’ll tell you what I didn’t see was hospitals full of kids with measles and mumps,” Steele said. “Or kids laying in the streets stricken with polio.”

Mike Hornby

Delegate Mike Hornby, R-Berkeley, talked about his early years in Zimbabwe as he argued against opening up vaccination exemptions even more.

“I grew up in a third world country, and I’ve seen polio first-hand,” he said. “With global travel the way it is and the recent outbreaks of measles in states and polio in other states, I don’t think this is the right time to not vaccinate our kids.”

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Annual West Virginia Academic Showdown’s regional competition continues at WVSU Friday leading up to statewide finale

INSTITUTE, W.Va. — A total of twelve high school academic teams were going head-to-head at West Virginia State University Friday for the third time in an ongoing rivalry to see which top teams make it to the final rounds.

WVSU is one of seven regional competition hosts for the West Virginia Department of Education’s 2024 Academic Showdown.

Up to two teams from each school can enter the double elimination competitions, and Friday’s teams included students from Poca High School, George Washington High, Ripley High, Charleston Catholic, Saint Albans, Buffalo, and Sissonville High School.

Students were answering timed questions in a number of different categories, including math, science, history, sports, fine arts, pop culture, among other subjects.

WVDE Director of Communications, Christy Day explains how the now third annual academic showdown works as it leads up to the final competing teams.

Christy Day

“We’ve got regions around the state, they started at Marshall, they will end with a finale on April 23 at the State Culture Center, so the top two teams from each region will advance on to the finale,” said Day.

The showdown started in January at Marshall. Since then, teams from schools across the state have been making their way around to various state colleges and universities to compete and showcase their knowledge.

Day said the academic showdown started with 21 teams in its first year in 2022 and now it’s up to 90 teams as more schools join every year.

West Virginia’s Showdown is among the largest high school academic competitions in the country, using National Academic Quiz Tournament questions.

Day said it’s a way for students to put their academic skills to the test just like they get the opportunity to do physically in sports.

“We needed an opportunity to celebrate academics similarly as we do athletic competitions, and that’s what this showdown provides,” she said.

Day went on to say that students look for a healthy and complete way to share their knowledge, and this gives them the chance to do that.

“We have seen it go down to very stiff one-point matches, and so the teams seem to come prepared and ready to participate,” added Day.

She said how it works is by a sponsor at each school sponsoring a team and preparing them throughout the fall semester to compete in the showdown in the spring.

On Jan. 13 at Marshall one of the two teams from Huntington High School took home first place and a team from Winfield High received second place.

Following that on Feb. 9 at West Virginia University, two teams from Morgantown High School placed both first and second in the competition there, but the one scheduled at Shepherd University had to be postponed due to inclement weather.

Day said the showdown can pose quite the challenge for students but they seem to enjoy it.

“It really is taxing, I mean you have to have a pretty thorough depth of knowledge in these content areas to perform well, and these students they come prepared and ready to compete,” said Day.

Fairmont State University will be the next host of the competition on March 8. Concord University will follow on March 16, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in Logan on March 23.

Day said the winning teams at the finale on April 23 at the Culture Center will win cash prizes and of course, obtain some bragging rights.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History partners with WVDE to host the Academic Showdown.

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House passes bill allowing workers to retaliate against physical attacks without fear of firing

Employees who defend themselves from attacks in the workplace could not be fired under a bill passed Friday by the House of Delegates.

House Bill 5621 says that anyone who is physically attacked by a workplace intruder and responds with reasonable and proportionate force — including the potential use of deadly force — to defend themselves or others may not be punished or fired for their actions. The bill allows self-defense not just for actually being attacked but also for instances of a reasonable apprehension about being attacked.

The bill passed 91-5 and now goes to the state Senate.

J.B. Akers

Delegate J.B. Akers, R-Kanawha, explained the bill during today’s House floor session and advocated for its passage.

He described the case law of a Martinsburg convenience store clerk who was at work in 2000 when a woman wearing a mask and pointing a firearm demanded the store’s money. While employees emptied the cash register, the clerk grabbed the woman, disarmed her and restrained her until law enforcement officers arrived.

The clerk was fired for failure to comply with a corporate policy prohibiting workers from intervening in a store robbery.

“Our Supreme Court held that the employee could not be terminated for exercising their right to self-defense, so this has been a common law exception to the at-will doctrine since at least 2001,” Akers said. “This continues to be litigated at times, and what we have now is a common law definition or common law description of what that self-defense means.

“So what this would do is we would actually legislate and codify what it means to exercise your right to self-defense and actually provide clarity to employers.”

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Senate passes bill expanding work requirements for nutrition benefits up to age 59

Senators passed a bill that would expand requirements for work or employment training for able-bodied adults without dependents for benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The bill passed on a 32-2 vote and now goes to the House of Delegates.

 SB 562 also extends the age range for people affected to 59. The age range for current procedures is from 18 to 52.

And the bill would establish requirements to report information about how the program is working to a legislative oversight committee. There’s a three-year implementation schedule for the changes.

Rollan Roberts

“I would describe this legislation as a compassionately structured three-year plan designed to gradually ween able-bodied adults without dependent children off of SNAP benefits,” said Senator Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, chairman of the workforce committee.

“I remind this body that SNAP stands for supplemental nutrition assistance program. We have gotten into a situation over the years where we have multi-generational dependency upon these benefits.”

Committee testimony indicated about 8,000 West Virginians could be affected by the changes.

There have been some concerns about whether the state agency that oversees SNAP would be stretched thin while implementing the changes because it receives $622,000 a year in federal funding for administrative costs.

And organizations like Mountaineer Food Bank have questioned whether the bill will result in people locked into low-wage jobs to comply with the requirements — while still dependent on food bank services.

Kelly Allen

“Research in West Virginia and around the country shows that taking food assistance away from older people does not increase work. Instead, it makes people hungrier, harms our retailers and grocers, and increases the burden on our charitable food sector,” said Kelly Allen, executive director of the progressive-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

“Lawmakers should focus on getting bills across the finish line that increase access to child care rather than hurting older West Virginians.”

Roberts in his Senate floor remarks suggested counties could use opioid settlement money to help people who might be affected by SNAP changes to successfully complete drug treatment programs to participate in the workforce.

“I will say also that retailers are in need of help and workers, and many of these people can be trained and get jobs with the retailers,” Roberts said.

“Some have said that this will will hurt or cause more of the need for the food banks to provide them food. I would say this, they can keep their benefits if they will volunteer 20 hours a week at the food banks and help us distribute the food. There are many opportunities that this bill will help put into action.”

Mike Caputo

Senator Mike Caputo, D-Marion, questioned why an estimate of the cost of implementing the changes has not been provided. He proposed moving the bill back to the Senate Finance Committee until those answers are clearer.

“Clearly one thing we know is, there’s going to be an impact,” Caputo said.

Eric Tarr

Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said he was assured during prior committee testimony that any financial impact would be negligible. He argued against recommitting the bill to his committee, and senators voted down the motion to do so 32-2.

“The Finance chairman has considered it,” Tarr said. “It does not need to go back to Finance.”

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Kanawha man pleads guilty to lesser charge in pit bull attack

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A Kanawha County man has admitted to attacking a woman during an argument last September that involved two pit bulls.

Zachary Atkinson (WVRJA)

Zachary Atkinson, 21, of Cabin Creek, pleaded guilty to a lesser felony offense of unlawful wounding during a hearing Friday before Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster.

That means Atkinson will face a reduced prison term of 1-5 years. He was originally charged with malicious wounding following the incident on Sept. 2, 2023.

The 24-year-old woman said was attempting to walk home from a friend’s house at the Hide-A-Way Trailer Park in Cabin Creek when Atkinson approached her about owing him money. She said that’s when Atkinson beat her and ordered the two dogs to attack while he held her to the ground.

Atkinson admitted to the argument Friday, but claimed the dogs didn’t attack her on his command.

“We had got into a fight. Somewhere along in the fight, the dogs got out. As the dogs got out, we were still mid-way in the fight. She was on her way down the street and at that point in time, I had swung,” he told the judge.

Judge Webster then clarified what happened.

“So you swung and hit her, right? Then the dogs were not leashed, right? When you did it, if that’s a form of aggression, the dogs then attacked her, right?” she asked. “It was her belief that the dogs were basically called upon to do harm to her.”

Investigators said while the dogs were mauling the woman, Atkinson was beating her. The woman’s injuries were serious that required hospitalization, Webster said.

“We know in this case the victim had serious injuries would not be disputing from bites from a dog that were multiple,” she said.

The entire incident was captured on a security camera. Videos and photos were previously shown in court during a preliminary hearing last year.

Atkinson remains in the South Central Regional Jail. He will be sentenced April 11 at 2 p.m.

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