Chester Gap native receives Naval promotion
On December 15 in Jacksonville, Florida, at the Naval Air Station, where military personnel gathered to observe a transfer of leadership, Cmdr. Michelle Higingbotham relieved Cmdr. Koonce of his role as commander of the Center for Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit.
According to a Navy media account of the ceremony, Higingbotham, formerly Earley and a native of Chester Gap, Virginia, seized the opportunity to say: “It is a tremendous honor and privilege for me to assume command.” Both parties wished each other well, with warm wishes extended to each other’s families and the future in store for them both. “Treasure the time,” Koonce advised Higingbotham, “It will go by quickly.”
The common denominator between these two individuals is their readiness to serve at a time when their service is desperately needed. Koonce began his service in August of 1990, the same month that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. After graduating from Rappahannock County High School in 1992 and joining the Navy in 1994, Higingbotham would receive a commission from the Limited Duty Officer program in 2005, around the time that Vladimir Putin was loudly declaring the 1991 fall of the Soviet Empire the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century; today, as the atrocities in Ukraine animate our televisions and many wonder if Bush junior’s victory in Iraq was merely a reshuffling of the playing field, the armed forces are as desperate as ever for commanders like Koonce and Higingbotham who lead with grace and courage.
Her commitment to excellence shows in other parts of her speech at the ceremony. “‘Training and readiness’ will be priority one as we go forward with our mission,” Higingbotham declared. She is the first female to hold this position.
UPDATE: Parents slam School Board for division’s failure to notify them about alleged child abuse
The Warren County School Board faced several emotional parents seeking answers about alleged child abuse that is under investigation at Hilda J. Barbour (HJB) Elementary School in Front Royal, Va.
“I want you to picture a 27-year-old teacher smacking [my 4-year-old daughter] in the back of the head,” said Tyler Wright during the board’s regular Wednesday, June 7 meeting. “The same teacher who took her out of my arms every day, and I trusted with the safety of her and my son was the same one that was harming them.”
According to Wright, Warren County Public Schools (WCPS) employees Kayla Bennett, an HJB preschool teacher, and Cassandra Carter, her instructional assistant, were suspended from the school division on May 4 and May 5, respectively. After hearing from the public and following a closed meeting last night, the School Board voted to approve their dismissals.
According to Wright, WCPS Supervisor of Special Services Lisa Seal contacted him on May 9 about the alleged incidents involving his child.
“Why did it take until May 9th for Lisa Seal to call me? Why did I hear from other parents about the allegations that were made towards my kids in the classroom before [Seal called me]?” Wright asked School Board members. “No one from the school system made contact with me.”
After speaking with Seal, Wright said he specifically asked his two children if their teachers were harming them.
“My daughter informed me that she had been yanked by the arm to the ground, and my son informed me of the same, along with a couple of names of students he had witnessed being smacked or hit with items in the class,” said Wright. “I was outraged, as any parent would be.”
Wright, some of his family members, and numerous other parents and residents who spoke during the board’s community participation segment questioned why WCPS did not notify them sooner of what was happening at HJB, chastised board members and WCPS employees for withholding information, and urged them to do better.
Jennifer Mulligan of Front Royal, Va., whose son was in the HJB class that is under investigation, explained to board members that multiple students may have been physically assaulted in the classroom, some of who are disabled and non-verbal.
“As parents, our biggest fear is not being able to protect our children, and this situation has only magnified that fear,” Mulligan said. “I firmly believe that we need to do more to protect our children, especially those… who are unable to protect themselves.”
Mulligan suggested a “simple solution” — install cameras in the classrooms, particularly those for preschoolers and students with disabilities.
“If this was in place already, the situation would not have occurred,” Mulligan said. “And if it had, it would’ve been caught a lot sooner, and these children would not have had to go through what they’ve had to go through.”
Another parent, Karla Snell (above), who is an instructional assistant at Warren County High School, said both her son and daughter attended HJB. Her daughter just graduated from fifth grade, while her young son just started preschool during the past year. And while her daughter loved every minute and every person at HJB, her son can’t say the same, Snell told the board members.
“Why is that my 3-year-old son’s first-ever school experience… has been shattered by one individual and people who wouldn’t speak up?” asked Snell, noting that all WCPS employees are mandatory reporters who have an individual duty to report known or suspected abuse or neglect relating to children.
WCPS on May 19 issued a press release addressing the situation that said the administration became aware of a complaint involving staff members at HJB and promptly placed the staff members on leave while a joint investigation with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and the local Department of Social Services was initiated..
“Parents of children in the affected classroom were contacted and urged to speak to their children and reach out to WCPS personnel if they had any additional questions or information,” according to the release. “Measures were taken to ensure that educational services and support continued uninterrupted in the classroom, with staffing adjustments being made.”
During his report to the School Board on Wednesday, WCPS Superintendent Christopher Ballenger read a statement explaining the process that is undertaken by the school division regarding incidents involving allegations of child abuse.
When WCPS is notified of a complaint, Ballenger said the process is to ensure that there is a clear determination of an alleged complaint.
“All school system employees are mandated reporters if the complaint concerns child abuse or neglect,” he said. “The school system employees are required to contact the Department of Social Services, per School Board policy… at the time of an initial allegation of abuse or neglect.”
Ballenger said that the school system can take many actions related to the allegations, and as a practice, any abuse or neglect complaints are followed with the removal of any staff member alleged in the complaint policy.
“This practice helps to ensure the safety of students, employees, employee’s rights and to ensure that an investigation can be conducted properly,” said Ballenger. “It is not the school division’s responsibility to determine if there is any upholding to abuse or neglect if that has occurred. This will be determined by the local Department of Social Services or the Sheriff’s Office.”
If there is no merit to any of the allegations, as determined by the Department of Social Services or the Sheriff’s Office, then the school system may reinstate an employee to active duty, he added.
But “if it is determined that allegations do have merit, or there is a finding, then WCPS will take additional actions as required by School Board policy with the Code of Virginia,” said Ballenger.
School Board responses
Members of the Warren County School Board took the opportunity during each of their reports to address the residents who spoke about the child abuse allegations.
School Board Vice Chair Ralph Rinaldi and board members Antoinette Funk, Andrea Lo, and Melanie Salins were present during the board’s Wednesday meeting. School Board Chair Kristen Pence was absent.
“This is very serious, and we need to take it seriously,” said Lo. “It’s very helpful for us to hear from you.”
Funk (above), who explained that there are certain things that board members cannot publicly discuss, empathized with the parents. As a parent of a special needs child who was nonverbal until almost age five and as an educator, Funk said that she doesn’t take their concerns lightly.
“But we have to work through and are bound by policies and procedures, and that is a tough pill to swallow,” she said. “There’s nothing I can say that will make that any easier.”
Salins suggested that every WCPS employee should sign a mandatory reporter document.
“If the policy is the problem, then I want the policies changed,” she said. “I want to know that every single employee has to sign an acknowledgment that they are a mandatory reporter. Nobody should set foot in a classroom if they have not signed something acknowledging that they’re a mandatory reporter.”
Among other suggestions, Salins also called for bringing in an outside investigating firm “to investigate not the crime, because that is the sheriff’s department’s job, but to investigate us [the School Board] and every employee in our district who was involved,” she said.
Several members of the audience applauded that suggestion.
In an email sent to the Royal Examiner tonight, Salins said that earlier in the meeting, she made a motion to remove the personnel report and addendum from the consent agenda in order to allow more discussion, which happened during a closed session after the last action item.
“After reading us out of closed session, we voted on agenda item 6C personnel report and 6D personnel report addendum,” Salins wrote in the email. “I made the motion, with Mrs. Lo seconding, to accept the personnel report as presented for the dismissal of Kayla Bennett and Cassandra Carter, to accept the resignations as presented with the exception of [two other employees], to accept the appointments and transfers as presented, and to accept the personnel addendum as presented. The vote was unanimous.”
To watch the School Board’s June 7 meeting in its entirety, go to:
To watch the School Board meeting in its entirety, go to: https://wcps.new.swagit.com/videos/234392.
To watch a previous interview the Royal Examiner conducted with Tyler Wright regarding this situation, go to: https://royalexaminer.com/town-talk-incident-involving-hilda-j-barbour-elementary-staff-members-sparks-investigation-and-concern/.
A Fond Farewell to Barbara Way: A Pillar of Front Royal Women’s Resource Center
Front Royal Women’s Resource Center announces the retirement of its cherished Executive Director, Barbara Way. After years of influential service, she’s leaving an indelible mark on the Center and the many lives it has transformed.
Barbara’s passionate and tireless service to the Front Royal Women’s Resource Center has been nothing short of transformative. Her leadership and dedication propelled the Center to new heights, enabling it to reach more local women and positively impact their lives.
One of Barbara’s key accomplishments includes the expansion of the Center’s scholarship endowments. These funds directly facilitate the annual ‘Dare To Dream’ grants, which achieved a record-breaking award of $12,000 this year. This notable increase in financial support for women pursuing their dreams is a testament to Barbara’s commitment and hard work.
Barbara’s departure is undoubtedly significant for the Front Royal Women’s Resource Center. Her relentless pursuit of the Center’s mission has left an enduring legacy that will continue to inspire and guide the organization’s future endeavors.
While Barbara steps down from her official role, her influence remains woven into the fabric of the Front Royal Women’s Resource Center. We express our deepest gratitude for her years of devoted service and wish her all the best in her next chapter.
We invite donations to the Front Royal Women’s Resource Center to honor Barbara’s impactful work. These can be designated ‘In Honor of Barbara Way’ and will contribute to the ongoing support and empowerment of local women.
Library defunding/book removal advocates, Samuels Library defenders clash on D-Day 2023
The Fiscal Year-2023/24 budget public hearing of Tuesday evening, June 6, may have inadvertently, yet appropriately, been scheduled for the 79th anniversary of D-Day, the pivotal Allied invasion of the Nazi Germany-led fascist Axis’s “Fortress Europe” that turned the tide of World War 2 on the western European front.
For what transpired inside and outside the Warren County Government Center as the FY-24 budget public hearing approached and was then launched at 7:30 p.m. led the Warren County Board of Supervisors to view a lengthy “beachhead” battle, albeit verbal, over the future shape the political, governmental, cultural, and societal standards this community may take.
At issue for the bulk of over 70 speakers at both the budget public hearing (our count was 65) and majority of Public Comments (counted 9 total) on non-agenda items was whether continued County funding of Samuels Public Library should occur while a total of 134 books requested for removal by the “CleanUpSamuels” website advocacy group remain on library shelves. The budget public hearing, at which board Chairman Vicky Cook explained the defund/fund issue should be the focus of comments, was convened at 7:30 p.m. in front of a packed to capacity WCGC meeting room. With most speakers going to or near their 3-minute speaking limit, the public hearing adjourned some 65 speakers later at 11:12 p.m. Our count was 34 to defund pending removal of cited books, 26 to fully fund the library and let its own review process control content, with a few who seemed on the fence favoring removal of certain books but not really favoring defunding of the library.
The board took no action, as they must wait a week following the public hearing to vote on approval of the budget. After the meeting went back to a few more Public Comments and other more routine business items, the meeting was adjourned at 11:57 p.m. But prior to that adjournment, County Administrator Ed Daley congratulated the board and staff on their FY-2024 budget preparation, noting that no negative public hearing comment had been directed their way on any other budgetary matter than library funding. County Finance Director Alisa Scott made a PowerPoint summary of budget highlights and proposed expenditures to kick off the public hearing, prior to public feedback.
But on that Samuels Library public feedback D-Day “beach front” it was on. To one side were CleanUpSamuels advocates who see continued use of county tax revenue in support of the library an unacceptable use of public funds while 134 books they seek removal of as “pornographic” remain on library shelves. And to make their point, many pro-defund library speakers read sexually-tinged passages from some books in question.
On the other side, an attempt to institute religious extremist-based censorship was cited by library defenders and opponents of a blanket banning of the books requested for removal by the CleanUpSamuels group and supporters. As noted in a July 5 article in the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record, the book removal website received initial social media exposure from a May Facebook post by the “Young Adults of St. John the Baptist (Catholic Church)”. A number of defund the library pending removal of the books in question speakers either cited ties to the church or are known congregation members.
However, one library funding supporter, Tom Howarth, described himself as a lifelong Catholic, but not of the type he had listened to speak prior to his rising to be the 50th public hearing speaker. Noting an abundance of what he termed “zeal” in comments of library critics, of much of that zeal he observed, “This strikes me as an incredibly gross character assassination of the director of the library and her staff. And it’s done, apparently in the name of religious zeal. I can’t believe that my Lord and Savior would have anything to do with destroying a person’s public reputation. And that is what’s happening here tonight,” Howarth said.
After referencing his Catholicism from the “cradle” though work on two parish councils through a decade of work with the poor and homeless, Howarth added, “I’m a Catholic but I don’t want a Catholic library. I don’t want a library that’s run by any religion. Jefferson would be spinning in his grave if he listened to this conversation tonight in Virginia in 2023. Unfortunately, what we have is another orchestrated political attack on a public institution: the press, your electoral system, public schools, and now the public library. Where does it end?” Howarth asked of religious zeal being applied to how a community’s entire population, perhaps a nation’s, must live.
The CleanUpSamuels website front page describes “The Issue” as the presence of “many pornographic books in the children’s section of Samuels Public Library. These books graphically detail sexual activity between minors and are written for young readers. Our tax dollars fund the purchase and circulation of these abhorrent books. We need to let the Board of Supervisors know that these books do not align with our values.” A number of library defunding speakers said they were parents whose families use the library and expressed concern about their children, and others, having access to material tackling LGBTQ and other issues of a sexual nature.
However, one library supporter who spoke later in the meeting noted that children under 12 were not allowed in the library without an accompanying adult or parent, though another person present suggested the library age cap for parental accompaniment was 10. A check with the library the following day revealed that library policies list the accompanied by parent or adult age at 11 and under. A number of County public library funding supporters wondered if parental involvement and oversight shouldn’t be the pivotal controlling factor for what the community’s children are reading, as opposed to political calls for governmental defunding of the community’s public library. For as a “public library” it is open to all of a community’s citizens regardless of religious affiliation or political perspective.
But as noted above, to make their point on the pornographic context of books in question, many defund the library speakers quoted graphic passages at length from several books on the requested removal list. Library funding supporters countered that graphic passages were being taken out of context so that the theme of the books referenced was not conveyed. The pro-funding and self-described anti-censorship contingent argued that rather than pornography, many, if not all, the books in question were written to provide emotional guidance or support to school age youth facing sexual identity crises of their own. Does a book describing teens falling into a life of prostitution do so to encourage such a life, or to warn against it as a tragic mistake, some wondered of one repeatedly referenced book.
A visit to the CleanUpSamuels website the day after the public hearing revealed that the group had advertised prepared comments and book transcripts for supporters to read at the June 6 meeting: “We will provide excerpts from the books and a script, so you don’t need to worry about what to say! Please arrive at 6:30 p.m. for handouts and instructions,” the CleanUpSamuels website front page stated.
The day following the public hearing debate Samuels Library staff verified that 597 requests for reconsideration forms (on library content) from 53 individuals seeking to have 134 books removed from the library had been received to date. That is in a county of some 40,000 people, one library supporter noted.
Stay tuned as the supervisors proceed to their vote on a final FY-2023/24 budget, with Samuels Public Library funding or not, at its special meeting of June 13.
Click here to watch the video of the meeting.
However, we noticed that the first three budget public hearing speakers — following Finance Director Alisa Scott’s PowerPoint presentation on the FY-24 budget (31:00 to 36:11 mark where color bars appear to interrupt the video) — John Lundgren, Dale Carpenter, and Tom Hinnant, appear to be missing prior to Chris Estes taking the podium at the 36:35 video mark. There was some discussion with staff during the meeting concerning some technical problems.
Paving the Path: U.S. Army and Warren County unite under PaYS Program
June 7, 2023, ushered in a groundbreaking collaboration between the U.S. Army and Warren County, Virginia, under the auspices of the Partnership for Your Success (PaYS) program. This unique alliance was brought to life during an earnest signing ceremony that marked the commitment to provide our brave veterans with a secure future in civilian life.
The PaYS program, a strategic collaboration between the U.S. Army and a diverse range of partners, including private industry, academia, and government bodies, assures soldiers and ROTC Cadets five job interviews and potential employment post-service. This fruitful partnership saw Lieutenant Colonel Felicia Brooks, commander of the Baltimore Marine Battalion, and Sheriff Mark Butler of Warren County Sheriff’s Office signing the memorandum of agreement.
An Exciting Road Ahead
Throughout the signing ceremony, the underlying theme was clear – a dedication to bridging the gap between military and civilian life for our veterans. Lieutenant Colonel Brooks expressed the program’s intentions to connect America with its Army, making it the service of choice for future soldiers while ensuring employment opportunities.
Brooks also emphasized the mutual benefits for the PaYS partners – access to a pool of professional veterans with exceptional work habits who adhere to the highest standards of conduct. This paves the way for organizations like the Warren County Sheriff’s Office to recruit from a pool of potential employees who bring the discipline and work ethics inherent in their military background.
A Track Record of Success
For two decades, the PaYS program has partnered with more than 1,000 partners, including giants like Amazon, General Motors, and Comcast. With Warren County Sheriff’s Department now on board, the reach of this innovative initiative extends even further.
Sheriff Mark Butler spoke of the invaluable leadership skills, camaraderie, integrity, courage, and honor that veterans bring to the table – values that align with his motto of “leave no veteran behind.” This program reaffirms these values, bridging the gap between military service and civilian life.
The signing of the memorandum of agreement and the presentation of a certificate of participation to Warren County by Lieutenant Colonel Brooks capped off the ceremony. The event is a testament to all parties’ commitment to recognizing, honoring, and aiding our veterans as they transition into civilian life.
Unlocking the Power of Education and Professional Development
Sergeant Timothy Stowes, an army recruiter from Winchester, has a personal connection to the transformative power of the Army. 13 years into his service, he uses his experience to encourage young individuals to enlist, emphasizing the Army’s commitment to education and personal growth.
Currently, the Army offers comprehensive tuition assistance and access to the Montgomery GI Bill, facilitating free college education for its members. Stones himself has used these opportunities to earn one degree and is currently pursuing another, all while developing his career within the Army. These educational opportunities enrich the lives of Army members and prepare them for successful transitions into the civilian workforce.
Warren County commits to supporting veterans with U.S. Army PaYS partnership
Local scholars shine: James Madison University honors Front Royal graduates in Class of 2023 Commencement
James Madison University (JMU), one of the nation’s leading lights in higher education, takes great pride in announcing its students who graduated with honors during the May 2023 commencement exercises. These students have exemplified academic excellence across a broad range of disciplines, each making their unique mark in their chosen field of study.
Graduating Cum Laude, Meghan Dennis, Jordan Reyes, and Abigail Frey of Front Royal have been acknowledged for their exceptional academic performance. Dennis earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Hospitality Management, Reyes in Individualized Study, and Frey in Nursing. In an outstanding accomplishment, Tyler Chaparro-Compton, also of Front Royal, graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Biology.
In addition to these laureates, JMU also honors other graduates who have successfully completed their degrees. Timothy Cochran of Bentonville earned his degree in Biology, while Kellsie Hollands, Michael Carter, Abegail Lee, Caitlin Thompson, Robert Look, and Olivia Hilton, all of Front Royal, graduated in fields such as Education, General Psychology, Individualized Study, Integrated Science and Technology, and Public Administration respectively.
JMU, established in 1908 and nestled in Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley, is renowned for fostering engaging relationships between students and faculty, driving educational innovation, and supporting advanced research. The university prides itself on offering state-of-the-art amenities and facilities, including NCAA Division 1 athletics, and consistently boasts the highest post-graduation job levels among all Virginia colleges.
In a world that increasingly values knowledge and innovation, these students’ achievements underscore JMU’s commitment to nurturing academic excellence and developing future leaders. The university extends its heartfelt congratulations to all its graduates for their perseverance, resilience, and dedication. As they embark on their professional journeys, these alumni are set to continue their pursuit of excellence, reinforcing JMU’s esteemed legacy.
Front Royal Elk Lodge establishes scholarship fund for skilled trades
Front Royal Elk Lodge 2382 is making a significant investment in the future of the community by establishing a scholarship fund for the skilled trades. Recognizing the importance of providing opportunities for young men and women to gain assistance in learning a trade and entering the workforce, the lodge recently presented a check for $3,000.00 to Laurel Ridge Community College. This partnership marks the beginning of a long-term relationship aimed at benefiting the local community and its young workforce.
On May 30th, Jim Sheppard, the Exalted Ruler of Front Royal Elk Lodge, along with Michael Kominek (Loyal Knight) and Stan Williams (Lecturing Knight), presented the $3,000.00 check to Laurel Ridge Community College. The funds will be utilized to establish the first scholarship dedicated to supporting students pursuing skilled trades education.
The decision to focus on the skilled trades stems from a recognition within Front Royal Lodge 2382 that not all young individuals are destined for a traditional four-year college degree. The lodge understands the value and needs for skilled workers in the community and aims to provide assistance to those who choose to pursue a trade. By supporting students in gaining the necessary skills, the lodge hopes to help them enter the workforce and contribute to the local economy.
To foster a deeper understanding of the college and its programs, Elk Lodge representatives embarked on a tour of the Laurel Ridge Community College campus and facilities. Dr. Kim Blosser, President of Laurel Ridge Community College, Larry Baker, Corporate Training Manager, and Andrew Gyurisin, Foundation Development Manager, guided the representatives through the campus, showcasing the resources and opportunities available to students.
Front Royal Elk Lodge intends to establish a long-term relationship with Laurel Ridge Community College, working closely to identify and support students who show a passion for the skilled trades. Through this collaboration, the lodge aims to make a lasting impact on the community by empowering young individuals with the necessary skills and education to excel in their chosen trades.
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