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Lynchburg City Council candidates discuss laboratory schools, mental health during town hall

See story at The News & Advance...With early voting nearing its start Friday, six candidates for three at-large seats on Lynchburg City Council attended a town hall Monday night, debating issues such as lab schools and mental health, among several topics.

New candidates Patrick Earl, Martin Misjuns, Stephanie Reed and Walter Virgil Jr., alongside incumbents Treney Tweedy and Beau Wright, answered questions from a moderator at the forum hosted by the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. Larry Taylor, a new candidate for city council, was not in attendance at the town hall.

Candidates answered similar questions as at previous town halls on issues such as public safety, SOL scores and taxes. But on Monday, candidates also answered questions on topics not previously discussed as much, such as mental health and laboratory schools in Lynchburg.

For this town hall, candidates were split into groups of three. The first group featured Reed, Tweedy and Virgil, while Earl, Misjuns and Wright answered questions in the second group.
The evening’s first topic was on the mental health challenges coming out of the pandemic, and how it affects public safety in Lynchburg.

Reed, a local businesswoman, tackled the question first, calling what the city is experiencing right now a “mental health crisis,” saying many first responders are being called into mental health situations that require them to stay with patients longer, cutting into the available officers on patrol any given night.

“Sometimes these officers have to sit with these mental health patients for up to 72 hours, taking them off shift for that long until that patient is secured in a bed somewhere or released from the hospital,” Reed said, referring to the emergency custody orders and temporary detention orders (TDO) that officers are required to follow.

Reed said if elected, she would want to apply as many resources as possible to ensure those issues are being addressed.

Virgil, a community activist and Liberty University employee, argued council should look deeper into who is doing the most work in the community to figure out a solution.

“Being able to be aware of the collective work that is happening in the city is the most important thing so that we can effectively collaborate with individuals who are doing an effective job from a scientific standpoint,” Virgil said, “... so that we can be a good steward over the resources that we put out so we’re not replicating resources and support, but that we’re effectively collaborating with those who are already committed to those efforts.”

Additionally, Virgil said he wants citizens to be aware of the many mental health services for young people, which is where he believes mental health should be prioritized.

Tweedy pointed out last December’s announcement of an increase in pay for police officers was a move toward attracting more new officers into the department, knowing many current officers have been tied up in mental health facilities due to TDOs.

“There are many levels to this particular problem,” Tweedy said, “and Lynchburg has addressed them through historic investment, through partnerships and working together with organizations that have already been in place, and through our schools.”

Tweedy argued through continued investments into mental health, the city can cut into the crisis that threatens public safety in Lynchburg.

Misjuns took part of his time to thank elected state representatives in attendance, Del. Wendell Walker and Sen. Mark Peake, for their work to get funding for a regional crisis receiving center at Centra, calling it a “huge benefit” for the city as it will allow patients to check in there first as opposed to going directly to a hospital.

He said the answer for the TDOs and ECOs is exactly what the funding for the crisis center will do, allowing more officers to return to patrol duty.

“That is the next best step that we can take, and we’re heading in that direction and I’m looking forward to that opportunity,” Misjuns said about the regional crisis center.

Wright said he believes council is tasked with being a “convener across the community,” by bringing together the community with mental health organizations and law enforcement to address the issue.

Even with the announcement of the new regional crisis center, Wright said, council needs even more help from the state to increase the number of hospital beds and also funding from the state for additional police officers, saying “we get a lot of mandates from the state, but not the funding to do it.”

Earl credited the mental health crisis center as a good step but added, “Across the city, there are a lot of people who are asked to do the job they are not trained for,” particularly police officers and teachers.

“They are asked to deal with emotional distress they are not prepared for,” Earl said.
To address the issue, Earl said he wants to catch it early, calling for a boost in the mental health services provided to the youth, saying, “Over time, that will work its way out.”

The candidates tackled laboratory schools for the first time, a program that was given a $100 million investment in the state budget in June.

The program was a budget compromise, as Youngkin sought $150 million in funding for lab schools. Even aside from the investment of lab schools, the fiscal year 2023 education budget was the largest in the Commonwealth’s history.

Laboratory schools are partnerships between higher education institutions and local K-12 schools that aim to train students in hands-on learning in specific fields like STEM fields, literacy or trade and industry skills.

Each candidate was asked specifically if they would be interested in lab schools in Lynchburg.
Reed said she would be interested in any innovative way of educating students, saying she’s spoken with people about working to bring back different trade classes such as home economics and technology courses, but she also said she wants to focus on the current issues at hand for LCS such as recent SOL scores that have received some criticism.

Tweedy argued the current expansion of schools for innovation by the Lynchburg City School Board already is a good opportunity for students across the city.

Additionally, Tweedy said, LCS already is doing a fine job attracting home-school students, a sign its educational programming is going well.

Virgil argued there are “mixed reviews” on lab schools but said he wants to ensure all students have fair access to the programs at the schools, but that the full investment into lab schools go far beyond the local level.

Earl said he’s all for innovative ways to educate the children, but he wondered aloud where the money to fund it locally will come from.

“I guess my question is, where, if we wanted to start new and innovative schools, where are we going to get the money in a system that we are constantly looking for more,” Earl asked.
“We have schools of innovation; let’s invest in them.”

Misjuns criticized the incumbents for their stance on lab schools, saying “both Mr. Wright and Dr. Tweedy, they both voted against them this year. So we can know what the answer is” for those two.

He added he is for all different types of solutions on education, not just a one-size-fits-all solution.

“We’re looking for the opportunities that will fit the different children in our community,” Misjuns said, “and if there are different opportunities available ... we should be lobbying Richmond for those opportunities to get those in our city because if we get greater resources for our kids and greater options for them to learn ... we’ll have better outcomes across the board.”

Wright said when he first heard of lab schools, he thought it was a “typical political tactic to defund public education, so I was very skeptical of it.”

However, after learning more on the subject, Wright said he believes it is something that should be considered locally but not at the cost of a regular education.

Monday’s town hall was the final one for all candidates prior to the start of early voting, which begins Friday at the Registrar’s Office at 825 Kemper St.