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V.I. Youth Commission May Return

Yegin Habtes, executive director of the developmental disabilities center, and Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry at Thursday's committee hearing (Photo by Bill Kossler).The long-defunct Virgin Islands Commission on Youth will be reestablished and its volunteer members given broad oversight over all programs in all agencies affecting youth in the territory, if a bill approved in committee Thursday becomes law.

Sen. Janette Millin-Young, the bill’s sponsor, said the original commission became defunct during the 1980s, after a governmental reorganization under Gov. Alexander Farrelly. She suggested the board will help the territory capture more federal funds and ensure that programs for youth met their needs.

The bill calls for an 11-member commission, nominated by the governor and approved by the Legislature, where at least five members are under the age of 22, at least two of which are full-time students at the University of the Virgin Islands, with members divided among the three major islands.

The commission would have a full-time executive director, also nominated by the governor. The bill summary says the commission would be "charged with the administration, coordination, implementation and supervision of all programs related to youth within the territory of the Virgin Islands."

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Within the bill, the commission is directed to collaborate with government agencies in the implementation of youth programs; to collect and maintain statistics and data on territorial youth programs; and to monitor all youth programs and submit an annual report with recommendations to the governor.

It is also given the power to accept gifts and donations for youth programs.

The bill specifies this commission would meet at least four times a year and members would be compensated $75 for each meeting.

There was no debate on the measure Thursday and no witnesses testified.

Voting to send the bill on for further consideration by the Rules and Judiciary Committee were: Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Craig Barshinger, Neville James, Sammuel Sanes and Janette Millin-Young. Sens. Carlton "Ital" Dowe and Louis Patrick Hill were absent.

The committee also approved a bill sponsored by Malone, Russell and Sanes to make the language in V.I. Code consistent with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, by replacing phrases such as "handicapped individuals" with preferred formulations that are regarded as more respectful, such as "individuals with disabilities."

Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands Executive Director Amelia Hedley Lamont, Education Commissioner LaVerne Terry and V.I. University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Executive Director Yegin Habtes all praised the bill but all raised the same concern, asking that the term "mental retardation" be replaced with "intellectual disability."

Senators said such an amendment would be added when it is considered by Rules and Judiciary.

A bill sponsored by James requiring the Department of Education to end the first semester for public schools before the Christmas holidays was also brought before the committee.

James said especially on St. Croix, where many students take part in Crucian Christmas Festival activities that time of year, finishing up exams after the long holiday puts students at a disadvantage. "When they return to school you are pretty much asking students to go from zero to 60 overnight."

St. Croix Federation of Teachers Legislative Chairperson Betina Jules-Larocque testified her union supports the bill, but recommend implementing it at a later date to allow time to prepare.

St. Thomas Federation of Teachers President Vernelle Delagarde testified against the bill, saying there should be a unified, territorywide school calendar as there was a single collective bargaining agreement. The St. Thomas union does not object to the change, she said, but to each district being treated separately.

James said amendments were being drafted to change some of the language concerning collective bargaining agreements, and senators discussed making the change affect both districts. No amendment was offered Thursday.

All three bills were approved with the support of all senators present.

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