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Morning Notes

Early Voting Starts Today — Voters can now cast their ballots for the Nov. 2 general election by mail or by visiting the Fairfax County, North County, and Mount Vernon government centers. Virginia has three statewide offices and all 100 House of Delegates seats up for election, and Fairfax County voters also face a school bond question. [Fairfax County Government]

Parents of Sexual Abuse Victim Object to Plea Deal — The family of a girl who was sexually abused by a relative wants a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge to reject a plea deal today (Friday), arguing that the 17-year maximum prison sentence is insufficient. They feel Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano has prioritized defendants over victims, a criticism increasingly leveled against progressive prosecutors across the U.S. elected on promises of reducing mass incarceration and addressing historical inequities in the justice system. [The Washington Post]

Virginia Adds QR Codes to COVID-19 Vaccine Records — “As requests for proof of COVID-19 vaccination by businesses and employers increases, the Virginia Department of Health has announced that QR (quick response) codes are now available. Virginia is now the fifth U.S. state to adopt the SMART Health format for QR codes.” [Fairfax County Health Department]

Vienna Unveils Annual Holiday Ornament — “The town of Vienna later this year will begin selling a 2021 holiday ornament, which depicts the ‘Taking Flight’ bronze statue situated in front of the Vienna Community Center. Vienna Town Council members on Sept. 13 unanimously approved the sale of the ornaments, which will be available at the community center, Town Hall and at the upcoming Oktoberfest celebration.” [Sun Gazette]

Tysons 5K Run Raises Money to Feed Community — “Tysons Partnership is proud to have sponsored the @foodforothers Tysons 5K and Fun Run. Sunday’s Fun Run raised over $91,000 for community members facing food insecurity. Thank you to everyone for your support and participation in this year’s race!” [Tysons Partnership/Twitter]

Merrifield Church to Celebrate 151st Anniversary — “The First Baptist Church of Merrifield will kick off their 151st Homecoming Anniversary Weekend on Saturday, September 18 and Homecoming Sunday Service on Sunday, September 19. Immediately following the worship service we will have a soft opening Ribbon Cutting ceremony followed by Lunch on the Grounds.” [Greater Merrifield Business Association]

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A man who allegedly raped a woman at a home in West Falls Church and threatened her with a machete is now facing felony charges, including rape and abduction.

An Annandale woman testified in a preliminary hearing in Fairfax County General District Court on Monday (Aug. 30) that she thought she was going to die the night that she says Juan Pablo Guzman-Gonzalez, 51, sexually assaulted her.

During the encounter, which took place on Dec. 1 and 2, 2020, she closed her eyes and told the man to think about her daughter, the woman said in court in Spanish, speaking through an interpreter.

The alleged rape occurred after Guzman-Gonzalez was arrested and arraigned for a separate Aug. 30, 2020 incident involving the same woman.

A judge found probable cause on the felony charges for rape, strangulation, and two abduction counts, one each for the August and December incidents. The case will now go before a grand jury, which will determine whether to formally indict Guzman-Gonzalez.

An attorney for the Commonwealth said the state isn’t looking to prosecute misdemeanor charges.

In August at his West Falls Church home, Guzman-Gonzalez and the woman got into an argument and he bit her hand, which was holding her keys. He also took away her phone and punched her in the stomach, she testified.

Gonzalez told police it was only a verbal argument with no physical contact between them, according to a police report.

The woman said in court that she then barricaded herself and her daughter, who was in the home at the time, in a vacant room and used a chair to block the door. She said Guzman-Gonzalez tried using an electric saw to get into the room. According to police, he was cutting a hole in the door to open it.

“My daughter was terrorized,” she said, adding that she told her daughter to call 911.

Court records listed addresses in West Falls Church and Centreville for Guzman-Gonzalez, which also said he lives with his wife, but the Annandale woman described having an on-again, off-again relationship with him that included vacationing together and text message exchanges before she filed a police report on Dec. 8.

“He asked her to come over and she trusted him that he was sorry,” the police report said of the December meeting. “He convinced her things would be better. She asked him if he would hit her again and he said no.”

However, when they met at his West Falls Church residence, Guzman-Gonzalez instead started choking the woman, squeezing her neck to the point she had difficulty speaking, and calling her offensive words, she said at Monday’s hearing.

She tried to leave and even attempted to run toward a kitchen door when he was in the bathroom, according to the police report.

Stephen Sheehy, the defendant’s attorney, said yesterday (Tuesday) that he did not want to comment on the charges.

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(Updated at 4:05 p.m.) A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed a case today (Friday) that sought to recall Dranesville District School Board Representative Elaine Tholen.

Tholen’s legal team had argued against letting the case continue in court, which came after a parents’ group called Open FCPS Coalition collected and submitted over 5,000 signatures to protest school closures during the pandemic.

“Citizens who disagree with elected officials’ policy choices should vote for someone else in the next election, not ask courts to yank them from office,” Tholen’s legal team previously argued in seeking to dismiss the case.

The group, which has received funding in part from a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a nonprofit committed to with center-right policy advocacy, voiced opposition to how the school board handled the closures. A petition submitted to court argued that keeping schools closed hurt children with disabilities the most.

The legal team for Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, argued in part that the lawsuit contained “no allegations that comes close to showing that Tholen acted with ‘wilful,’ ‘evil’ or ‘corrupt’ intent.”

“We are very pleased that the Court dismissed this case and saw it for what it was – an attempt by a small number of people to substitute their judgment for that of the full elected School Board,” a Fairfax County School Board spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to a full, five-day schedule of in-person classes starting next week.”

Democrats weighed in on the matter Friday.

“Republican operatives are leading these so-called ‘bi-partisan’ groups seeking to overturn the democratic election of our officials,” Fairfax County Democratic Committee Chair Bryan Graham said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The pandemic has caused a difficult situation for all of us, and our school board has done a tremendous job balancing the need to keep our community safe while serving the education needs of our students” and more.

Del. Marcus Simon, a Democrat whose office covers part of Tysons, called the dismissal a signal that recall efforts are a waste of time and resources. He said on Twitter that the “statute is being misused to frivolously harass elected officials by a small minority” of constituents.

Open FCPS Coalition had also been collecting signatures to recall two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen. The group previously said those members were chosen because those representatives gathered the least amount of votes, which lowered the amount of signatures needed to file recall efforts.

When it submitted the petition for Tholen on July 19, Open FCPS Coalition said only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way that it felt was consistent and a priority.

The petition required that a special prosecutor to handle the case. Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley of Albemarle County was appointed to that role on Aug. 10.

“[Hingeley] concluded that he could not prosecute the recall petition because it did not have a sufficient basis to move forward,” the school district said in a statement. “So, he moved to dismiss the petition and the judge granted the motion to dismiss.”

In a statement, Open FCPS derided Hingeley’s decision to request a dismissal as evidence of politics being put ahead of children’s well-being.

“It is a shame that the voices of thousands of parents have been silenced by a Commonwealth’s Attorney, who just like the School Board, is more interested in politics than the wellbeing of our kids,” Open FCPS Coalition founder Dee O’Neal said. “Hingeley chose special interests over parents and children who deserved representation.”

In a statement, Tholen called the legal case “an ordeal” but said she was glad she could now focus her attention on the students who will return for five days a week of in-person learning on Monday (Aug. 23).

“I am excited to say, we have over 180,000 students starting school next week. Those students need our full attention to keep them safe and to give them the best education possible,” she said. “They are still suffering in a pandemic, just like the rest of us. Please, let us put these divisive events behind us and work together to give our students the positive, undivided attention they deserve.”

Fairfax County Public Schools has implemented a universal masking rule and announced earlier today that staff will be required to be vaccinated by late October.

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The Virginia State Capitol building in Richmond (via Doug Kerr/Flickr)

The Virginia General Assembly has wrapped up its first fully in-person session since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Convened on Aug. 2, the special session concluded on Tuesday (Aug. 10) after the House of Delegates and state Senate appointed eight new judges to the Virginia Court of Appeals and passed a plan to spend $3.5 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds.

The eight-day session marked the first time in 17 months that the State Capitol in Richmond hosted the entire legislature. While the Senate continued meeting in person throughout the pandemic, the House conducted most of its business remotely, with the exception of a one-day veto session in April 2020 and the initial days of a special session in August 2020.

“It was just really nice to see people again getting together,” Del. Mark Keam (D-35th) said by phone while driving back from Richmond on Tuesday.

The special session still required some adjustments in response to the continued threat of the coronavirus.

Plexiglas shields were erected around each legislator’s desk in both chambers, and Keam says all of the Democrats at least were fully vaccinated with masks donned throughout the session, though there was less consensus about the etiquette for greeting people.

“Some people shook hands. Some people just bumped their elbows,” Keam said. “…I can’t speak to what the Republicans are doing, but for the Democrats, we went out of our way to not only practice safe protocols, but also to show to the public that, you know, you’ve got to take this seriously still.”

For Keam, whose district includes Vienna and part of Tysons, highlights of the adopted American Rescue Plan Act budget bill include the $700 million to expand broadband with the goal of achieving universal access by 2024.

That kind of major investment would’ve taken much longer to put together without the federal funds, which were approved by Congress in March, Keam says, noting that while the need for broadband is most acute in Virginia’s rural areas, Fairfax County also has gaps in coverage.

“As a one-time expense, we’re finally able to catch up on the broadband infrastructure that we need,” he said.

As chair of House’s higher education subcommittee, Keam cited subsidizing financial aid for college students as another top priority. The General Assembly allocated $111 million to that, along with $250 million to upgrade ventilation systems in K-12 public schools.

Other ARPA funds were allocated to small business recovery, unemployment benefits, water and sewer infrastructure, and bonuses for some law enforcement officers. The bill also requires that the Department of Motor Vehicles resume walk-in services.

Keam and the rest of the recently formed Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus had hoped to see more money devoted to making government services — particularly the Virginia Employment Commission, which will receive more than $800 million — more accessible for people who are not fluent in English.

The budget includes $500,000 to help state agencies expand language access, according to a news release from the AAPI Caucus.

“Things like language [assistance] and other things that take more time to develop and hire more people, they didn’t think that we could use the money right away for that,” Keam said. “But that’s something that they want to work with us into the next year.” Read More

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Fairfax County Courthouse (via Google Maps)

(Updated at 2:30 p.m.) The Fairfax County Courthouse is renewing its mask policy once again even as the judicial system tries to inch back to normal amid a backlog of cases.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court issued an amended order today (Wednesday) stating that, effective immediately, masks will again be required to enter the judicial complex and in all public areas in the courthouse, though judges have the authority to let individuals take off their masks in their courtrooms.

At the same time, courts are starting to resume more in-person procedures. Plexiglass barriers have been installed to keep jurors socially distanced, and defense attorneys as of last month have been able to meet with clients in the jail rather than trusting in Zoom to meet confidentially.

But amid the safety efforts, many cases have been delayed, putting a pause on justice.

“The backlog remains a major factor in our operations and is unlikely to be fully resolved for years,” said Ben Shnider, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission, which now includes Fairfax County.

That reversed a loosened CDC policy that began May 13 — prior to the highly transmissible delta variant making up over four out of five coronavirus cases in the U.S.

The Fairfax County Courthouse says its reversal was due to the CDC update but noted that a presiding judge may direct otherwise in individual courtrooms.

Inside the courthouse, there’s yet to be a criminal trial with the new plexiglass format for the county’s chief public defender, Dawn Butorac, who wonders if the changes will influence jurors’ perceptions.

“It’ll be interesting to see how a witness is perceived in that environment,” she said. “It’ll be closer to normal.”

Under a transition plan that was last adopted on July 7, the Fairfax County Circuit Court restarted in-person hearings for all civil trials and non-Friday motions on July 1.

The courthouse installed the plexiglass changes this summer to increase the number of criminal trials, but backlogs remain throughout the system.

During the pandemic, arrests continued, but courts scaled back operations. Notably, in early 2020, the Virginia Supreme Court suspended a state law that adds another level of protection to one’s constitutional right to speedy trials. The suspension was renewed in September.

Even as operations ramp back up, citizens still have the option to postpone jury duty when summoned to court. COVID-19 questionnaires allow people to postpone their legally required obligation, depending on individuals’ circumstances regarding the virus. Exemptions include health conditions such as cancer, obesity, heart issues, and asthma, as well as pregnancy and smoking.

While the backlog in cases will still be a challenge, Fairfax County’s most recent budget enabled the commonwealth attorney’s office to add 15 positions, increasing its staff to 83.

That means there will be 50 prosecutors compared to 25 attorneys in the public defender’s office, according to Butorac.

“In theory…we have progressive prosecutors that should be prosecuting less,” Butorac said.

Descano and his office have sought to adopt a progressive approach that seeks alternatives to jail sentences when possible, arguing that diversion efforts can keep people from being unnecessarily criminalized and help prevent recidivism.

According to Descano’s office, it will continue to prioritize alternatives to incarceration when a case “best meets the safety and justice needs of the community.” In a statement, Shnider said prosecutors are trained to avoid reflexively seeking the most punitive outcome in every case.

Photo via Google Maps

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Morning Notes

Vienna Restaurant Requires Vaccinations to Eat Indoors — The Latin American restaurant Blend 111 announced on Friday (July 30) that, effective immediately, indoor dining will be limited to people who are fully vaccinated with unvaccinated people still free to eat outside. Patrons are asked to confirm their vaccination status when reserving an indoor table, but at some point, proof may be required. [Blend 111]

Police Arrest Spa Worker for Sexual Battery — “On July 29, 2021, officers with the Vienna Police Department executed a search warrant at the Green Spa located at 111 Church St. NW. Concurrent with the search warrant, officers arrested Hongsub Song, a/k/a ‘Greg’ for the sexual battery of a female client and for performing unlicensed massage. Mr. Song was held at the Fairfax County adult detention center without bond.” [Vienna Police]

Kennedy Daughter Wins Court Case over McLean Urn — “The daughter of Robert F. Kennedy has won a federal legal battle to claim a six-foot-high urn planter from the front yard of ‘Hickory Hill,’ the family’s former home in McLean, Va., after a judge ruled that an agreement made in 2010 by the estate’s new owner to relinquish it was binding, even though he made it under the mistaken belief that the urn was a family heirloom.” [The Washington Post]

Inova Proposes Adding Behavioral Health Capacity — “Inova Health System filed a letter of intent with the Commonwealth of Virginia last week to build 20 additional inpatient behavioral health beds at Inova Mount Vernon Hospital…If approved, the completed project will increase behavioral health capacity at IMVH to 50 beds, a 67 percent increase over the current capacity.” [Inside NoVA]

Vienna Firefighters Participate in Cancer Study — “Several VVFD firefighters, along with other volunteer firefighters from @ffxfirerescue, are taking part in the National Firefighter Cancer Cohort Study and had their first blood draw this morning…Our participation will play a small part to determine risk factors & develop cancer prevention & risk reduction strategies.” [Vienna Volunteer Fire Department/Twitter]

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Fireworks (via Timothy Wolff/Unsplash)

The Fourth of July is coming up this weekend, and with Monday (July 5) as a designated federal holiday, many public facilities and services will be shaking up their schedules.

The Fairfax County Health Department announced today (Friday) that all of its COVID-19 vaccination clinics will be closed on Independence Day, but walk-in services will be available at the Fairfax County Government Center and the former Safeway at Mount Vernon Square in Alexandria on Saturday.

A vaccine site at Springfield Town Center will also be open for walk-ins on Monday.

Here are some other closures that county residents should keep in mind this holiday weekend:

Fairfax County Government

Fairfax County Courts

Town of Vienna

  • Town offices will be closed all day.
  • The Vienna Community Center will be closed.
  • The holiday will not affect waste collection. Residents scheduled for pick-up on Mondays can place their waste by the curb as normal, but no brush, bulk, or yard waste will be collected.

City of Falls Church

  • All city offices and services, including City Hall, the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, and the Falls Church Community Center, will be closed.

Public Schools

County Libraries, Recreation Centers, Parks

Public Transit

  • Fairfax Connector buses will operate on a Saturday service schedule on Monday. Check the Connector website for details on specific routes.
  • WMATA Metrorail service will operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday. Details on routes and closed stations can be found on the Metro website.
  • WMATA Metrobus will operate on a Saturday service schedule on Monday.

County Trash and Recycling

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Morning Notes

Summer School Delayed for Special Education Students — The families of roughly 1,200 students with special needs were informed last Wednesday (June 23) that their summer school that was supposed to start Monday (June 28) has instead been delayed to the end of July. Fairfax County Public Schools has only been able to hire 75% of the teachers needed to run the special education program. [The Washington Post]

Vienna Hires New Spokesperson — The Town of Vienna has hired Karen Acar Thayer as its new public information officer, effective yesterday (Monday). Responsible for the town’s communications, marketing, and outreach efforts, Thayer’s past experience includes work as a promotional services manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority and as communications director for Falls Church City Public Schools. [Town of Vienna]

Mary Riley Styles Public Library Anticipates August Reopening — The Mary Riley Styles Public Library expects to have an official ribbon cutting for its newly renovated building in early to mid-August with a grand opening celebration to follow in September or October. Construction has been ongoing since early 2020 and includes the addition of more than 6,000 square feet of space. [Falls Church News-Press]

Supreme Court Declines to Hear Transgender Bathroom Case — “The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a Virginia school board’s appeal to reinstate its transgender bathroom ban, handing a victory to transgender rights groups and a former high school student who fought in court for six years to overturn the ban.” [Associated Press/WTOP]

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Outside the Fairfax County Courthouse (via Google Maps)

A civil engineer for the Fairfax County government has been accused of soliciting sex from an underage boy online.

Francesco Lauretti, 46, of Vienna, was allegedly caught in a sting operation for a felony charge regarding computer solicitation. Police say he proposed sex with a minor under 15 years of age and was arrested March 30, about a week after the alleged offense.

Following an arraignment on March 31, the Fairfax County General District Court held a preliminary hearing last Wednesday (June 16) and moved the case to the county’s circuit court for a grand jury to determine if there is probable cause.

Lauretti has been on paid administrative leave from his job with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation since March 31 “pending the outcome of an ongoing internal investigation,” according to the county.

An attorney for Lauretti argued that he should be released without a bail stipulation that required him to not use the internet, a restriction that can be imposed on other defendants.

The attorney said in a court filing that Lauretti has been seeing telehealth providers virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an internet ban would also result in the defendant’s imminent unemployment.

His current attorney, Michael Sprano, said he did not have any comments to make presently.

The charge is a Class 5 felony that involves using a communications system or other electronic means to solicit “with lascivious intent” a person that the accused knew or had reason to believe was a child less than 15. If the offender is more than 7 years older than the child, as in this case, a conviction carries a minimum prison sentence of five years.

According to a court document filed earlier this year, Lauretti has a wife and kids.

Photo via Google Maps

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A former Oakton High School student will get another day in court after a three-judge panel ordered a new trial in her lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board over school officials’ handling of a sexual assault report in 2017.

In an opinion released yesterday (Wednesday), Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judges James Wynn Jr. and Stephanie Thacker reversed a judgment rendered by a jury in 2019 and sent the case back to the U.S. District Court for a new trial, stating that the lower court incorrectly defined the legal standard to determine whether officials knew about the reported assault.

“We hold that a school’s receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX — regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood the report to allege sexual harassment or whether they believed the alleged harassment actually occurred,” Wynn wrote in the majority opinion.

A third judge on the panel, Judge Paul Niemeyer, wrote a dissenting opinion that Fairfax County Public Schools is not liable under Title IX — the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education — because its conduct was not so indifferent that it caused or amounted to discrimination.

Identified in court documents as Jane Doe, the plaintiff argued in a complaint filed against the school board in 2018 that FCPS administrators and employees did not meaningfully and appropriately respond to her report that a fellow student sexually assaulted her during a school band trip.

A junior at the time, Doe said she “struggled academically, emotionally, and physically” as a result of the experience, alleging that school officials suggested she might be disciplined for the incident and did not inform her parents about her report or the result of the subsequent investigation, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit representing her.

A jury in Alexandria determined in August 2019 that Doe had been assaulted and that the experience affected her education, but they found that the school board could not be held liable because it didn’t have “actual knowledge” of the assault, a term some jury members later said they found confusing.

That confusion became the basis for Doe’s appeal of the ruling, which came before the appeals court for oral arguments in January.

“I’m so grateful that the Fourth Circuit is sending my case back for a new trial, and recognized that Fairfax’s legal arguments would lead to ‘absurd results’ for student survivors like me,” Doe said in a statement provided by Public Justice. “It means a lot to me that the appeals court’s strong opinion will protect other survivors. Every student deserves to feel safe in school.”

An FCPS spokesperson said yesterday that the school system “respects the court’s decision” and was in the process of reviewing the opinions.

Public Justice attorney Alexandra Brodsky, who delivered the plaintiff’s arguments before the Fourth Circuit, said in a statement that the appeals court’s ruling makes clear “ignorance is no defense to violating students’ rights.”

“FCPS’s behavior — dismissing a student’s report of sexual assault out of hand — is too common among school districts across the country,” Brodsky said. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Jane Doe’s case should serve as a warning that all schools must train staff to recognize and address sexual harassment.”

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