COVID-19, Higher Ed, News

UNC student starts petition to cancel in-person classes

Now-retracted ICE policy on foreign students helps spur student advocacy

For weeks, faculty, staff, and students in the University of North Carolina System have been petitioning for a transition to remote-only instruction.

On June 12, graduate workers and professional students at UNC published a response to UNC’s Roadmap for Fall 2020. Last week, more than 30 professors, teaching assistants, and graduate students started a petition asking for remote learning to be the default mode of instruction, more transparency, and a commitment to protect the health of the campus community. The petition now has over 2,700 signatures.

Now, two days after ICE rescinded a policy that would have stripped international students of their visas if their courseload was entirely online, students say there is no excuse for the university to continue with an in-person reopening plan.

ICE’s policy met with outrage from UNC students, and in the face of what many saw as a lackluster response from the university, students worked together and took action to help their international peers. Less than 12 hours after ICE announced its new policy, Ruth Samuel and Marcella Pansini, both seniors at UNC-Chapel Hill, collaborated to create a Google Sheet of all the in-person and hybrid classes UNC is offering this fall as a resource for international students.

24 hours after ICE’s announcement, Ankush Vij, a senior studying computer science and entrepreneurship, created a website that filters through the live data from the spreadsheet and allows students to check classes based on major.

UNC’s response to the policy was as opaque and haphazard as its reopening plan, which inhibited “students from making decisions in a timely manner,” said Vij.

When asked about his reaction to the rescission of the policy, Vij told Policy Watch that it had paved the way for creation of a petition to cancel all in-person classes at UNC for the fall semester, which he published today on Change.org.

Within hours, the petition already had over 150 signatures.

Vij’s petition lists multiple concerns from the Carolina community, such as the statistic that 30 percent of students still plan to attend parties and other large gatherings and that many members of fraternities have stated that they will not be following social distancing guidelines. (Nearly 20 percent of the undergraduate population takes part in Greek life, according to UNC’s admissions website.)

The petition also mentions UNC Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Bob Blouin’s statement at a Carrboro Town Council meeting on Tuesday that there were 164 beds set aside for isolating students that tested positive for COVID-19 and for those quarantining, which the petition and Indy Week reporter Sara Pequeño said “feels like an underestimate.”

Vij writes in the petition:

With currently 37 UNC athletes, coaches, and athletics’ staff members testing positive for COVID-19 as of July 13, the devastating impact on the Chapel Hill community, both on- and off-campus, is inevitable as more than 8000 residential students plan to return to campus in a few weeks. Allowing an influx of young people within the age group has been shown to be the driving force behind COVID-19 clusters of outbreaks before [and] is irresponsible and contradictory to a claim of wanting to protect the Chapel Hill community.”

News

Death records secrecy bill is killed … twice

New bill containing uncontroversial provisions remains in limbo

“In my eight years in the General Assembly, the reason this bill is before you may be the most bizarre thing that I’ve ever dealt with.” — Rep. Josh Dobson (R-Avery, McDowell, Mitchell).

Dobson was referring to Senate Bill 380, a bill the House passed unanimously on Tuesday that has been the subject of multiple gut-and-replace changes, including one that would have made secret death investigation records.

SB 380 was introduced in March 2019 by Sens. Andy Wells (R-Alexander, Catawba), Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey), and Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) as a bill about the state trail system. It passed the Senate before a House committee substitute turned it into a bill to reestablish the North Carolina Milk Commission.

The Milk Commission version of the bill stayed in the House Judiciary Committee until mid-June 2020, when it was transformed into “an act to clarify felonious possession of electronic sweepstakes machines.”

On Monday, it became the vehicle to revive the uncontroversial portions of Senate Bill 168.

SB 168, a bill ostensibly designed to make some technical modifications to block-grant funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, sparked protests and gained national attention for including a provision making death investigation records closed to the public.

On Monday, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed SB 168.

“Senate Bill 168 includes a provision to change the handling of public records by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner which could have the unintended consequence of limiting transparency in death investigations. While I believe neither the Department of Health and Human Services which proposed it, nor the General Assembly which unanimously passed it had any ill intent, the concerns that have since been raised make it clear this provision should not become law,” Cooper wrote in a statement on Monday evening.

Strangely, a vote to override the governor’s veto was placed on Tuesday’s calendar, but the bill was later referred to the Senate Rules Committee where, presumably, it will be left to expire.

Shortly before the governor’s veto, the House Committee on Rules and Operations approved Senate Bill 232, a repeal of the death records investigation legislation.

SB 232 passed the House almost unanimously on Tuesday evening. The two “no” votes came from Representatives Michael Speciale (R-Craven) and Allison Dahle (D-Wake), the latter of whom also voted “no” on SB 168.

Asked why she voted against both the death investigation records legislation and the repeal of that legislation, Dahle told Policy Watch her Tuesday vote was a technical mistake.

“It was an operator error,” she said on Wednesday. “I thought I voted yes, and I can’t change it the day after.”

Later, the Senate concurred 43-4 and sent the measure on to Gov. Cooper.

In addition to repealing the death records secrecy provision, SB 232 indefinitely extends the law allowing people to wear face masks for public health reasons.

Meanwhile, as of Thursday, SB 380 — the measure to replace the noncontroversial parts of SB 168 — has not received final approval. It remains to be seen at this point whether lawmakers will take final action and send the measure on to the governor before concluding the 2020 short session.

News

NC House committee approves repeal of controversial death investigation records legislation

Bill would also remove “sunset” on law that allows wearing of face masks

The North Carolina House Committee on Rules and Operations voted today to remove controversial language in Senate Bill 168 involving death investigations records.

The otherwise uncontroversial bill, which adds some technical modifications to laws pertaining to the Department of Health and Human Services and its block grant funding, passed nearly unanimously in the House and Senate. (Rep. Allison Dahle, D-Wake, was the sole “no” vote.)

The controversial portion of the bill would prevent “all information and records provided by a city, county, or other public entity to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, or its agents, concerning a death investigation” from becoming public record unless the records “otherwise constituted public records while in the possession of the city, county, or other public entity.”

In a press conference last Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper called the provision “concerning.”

As public knowledge of the death records provision grew over the last week, Cooper has faced pressure to veto the bill in its entirety. If Cooper does not veto it by midnight tonight, it will become law with or without his signature. It should be noted, however, that the bill would not become effective until October 1.

A petition started by the Triad Abolition Project of Winston-Salem calling on Cooper to veto the bill received more than 8,000 signatures and was delivered to the governor’s office earlier today.

**[UPDATE: Gov. Cooper vetoed the bill Monday evening, saying that while he believed the provision had not been proposed with any “ill intent,” the concerns raised subsequent to its passage “make it clear this provision should not become law.”]**

“We believe SB168 not only obfuscates law enforcement involvement in the deaths of those they have in custody, but it also shields and protects law enforcement from being held accountable for deaths of civilians who are incarcerated, arrested, and detained,” the petition states.

The bill has also been the subject of protests in Winston-Salem and Raleigh as national debate around police accountability continues to rage.

Senate Bill 232, a bill that was originally written to require tracking of information on services provided to veterans, service members, and their families, was placed on today’s calendar for the House Rules Committee with the intent to replace the bill’s text with language that would repeal the death investigation records provision. It passed the committee without debate.

If both SB 168 and SB 232 become law, the death investigation records provision in SB 168 will immediately be repealed.

An amendment to the new SB 232 also extends the law that would allow people to wear masks for public health reasons.

A 1950s North Carolina rule targeting the KKK forbids wearing a mask in public. Lawmakers voted to suspend that law until August 1 earlier this year because of public health mandates to wear a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19. An early morning vote on June 26 removed a provision to extend that suspension, raising concerns that it might be illegal to publicly wear a face mask in the middle of a pandemic.

The new amendment removes the August 1 date of expiration on the suspension.

SB 232 now goes to the House floor.

News

Gov. Cooper signs bill increasing judicial discretion for low-level drug crimes

On Friday, Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 511, also known as “the First Step Act,” into law.

The new law increases judicial discretion when it comes to sentencing for certain drug crimes by allowing judges to bypass mandatory minimums when sentencing drug offenders whom prosecutors can currently charge as drug traffickers, but who in reality had no intent to sell or otherwise distribute drugs.

The defendants this bill helps must meet certain conditions, including successfully completing a substance abuse treatment program and providing “reasonable assistance” to prosecutors and law enforcement in the “identification, arrest, or conviction” of any accomplices or co-conspirators. They cannot have been previously convicted of a felony.

HB 511 was supported by lawmakers, police officers, and criminal justice reform advocates from both sides of the aisle.

Cooper signed the First Step Act into law one day after signing the Second Chance Act, marking two wins for criminal justice reform advocates.

Like the Second Chance Act, the First Step Act was introduced last year—by Representative Holly Grange (R-New Hanover) in March—and after passing unanimously in the House and Senate, was referred to the House for concurrence on October 24, 2019 and stayed there until June 11, 2020. The House passed the bill unanimously on June 17 and sent it to the governor the same day.

News

Governor Cooper signs Second Chance Act into law

Yesterday afternoon, Governor Roy Cooper signed Senate Bill 562 into law.

SB 562, or the “Second Chance Act,” allows people with nonviolent criminal records to have misdemeanors and certain low-level felonies expunged if they have fully served their sentence and paid their fines, and if the crime was committed when the person was between 16 and 18 years of age.

The bill also automatically expunges charges for people whose cases are dismissed or who are found not guilty or not responsible after December 1, 2021.

The bill was introduced by Senators Danny Britt (R-Columbus, Robeson), Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell), and Floyd McKissick (D-Durham, before his resignation in January) in April of 2019. It passed the Senate unanimously in May of that year, and then languished in the House until June 10, 2020, when the House passed it unanimously.

It was sent to the Senate for concurrence on June 11, passed unanimously on June 16, and was sent to the governor on June 18.

The bipartisan Second Chance Act enjoyed broad support from groups both progressive and conservative, including Americans for Prosperity, Koch Industries, the North Carolina NAACP, the ACLU of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center (parent organization of NC Policy Watch).

Upon signing the Second Chance Act into law yesterday, Cooper wrote, “We can give people who make amends for past mistakes the opportunity to clear their records. This bill offers that opportunity and a path to good jobs and a brighter future.”