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School board sets calendar dates, plans to start earlier in 2021

BOONE — The Watauga County Board of Education chose on Feb. 10 to approve a regular start date for the 2020-21 school year as well as approve an earlier start date for the following year, in potential defiance of current North Carolina law.

This would put teachers starting back on Aug. 11 in 2020-21 with students starting on Aug. 17. The following year for 2021-22, teachers would begin on Aug. 3 and students would return on Aug. 9.

N.C. statute 5C-84.2 states that “Except for year-round schools, the opening date for students shall be no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26, and the closing date for students shall be no later than the Friday closest to June 11.” Some school systems can apply for a one-week waiver to start earlier if they have missed eight days on average in four out of the last 10 years.

According to media reports, some school districts chose to test the law in August 2019 by opening school earlier.

According to Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott, 13 school systems chose to start earlier for the 2019-20 school year by using a loophole in the law about the flexible year-round calendar option. He said the board’s attorney advised that a year-round calendar is defined as when students are in attendance at least one day all 12 months of the year. Charlotte public radio station WFAE 90.7 reported that several school districts felt that optional summer school should count as year-round status.

“I fully support those 13 school systems that started earlier,” Elliott said. “I appreciate that they are pushing the issue and leading the way for school systems in our state.”

Elliott said he does not want WCS to be in the middle of a legal fight and wants to respect the law. He told the board that he is unaware of any risk or consequences for not following the school calendar law, but wants WCS to act in a good faith effort to try to comply with the statute — at least for this year.

Elliott and other Watauga administrators have been vocal in the last few years about advocating for school calendar flexibility and local board control of start dates. Typically the school board would have considered the following year’s calendar in November or December, but Elliott said administrators were trying to wait as long as possible to monitor what the state legislature might do in its last legislative session.

The Raleigh News and Observer reported last February on the decade-long battle of who should be responsible for determining when the school year begins and ends — North Carolina’s public schools or the tourism industry. This is a battle that Elliott felt should be a no-brainer.

“I believe you, the board of education, with teachers and parents should be making the decision about our school calendar, not summer camp owners, not tourist attraction owners and not beach resort owners,” Elliott said.

During the meeting Elliott outlined three calendar options for the board — two with earlier start dates and one with a regular start date. The option Elliott recommended included approving a typical start date for 2020-21 as well as looking ahead by approving an earlier start date for 2021-22.

By planning two years ahead, Elliott said it gives WCS time to see what, if anything, the legislature will do about the school calendar law. Board Chairman Ron Henries said that in the event the legislature decides to enforce its interpretation of the current law, the WCS calendar committee would reconvene to decide on a 2021-22 calendar start date.

“I would argue that if the legislature does nothing to correct the start dates for those 13 other districts, that ... most school systems in the state will follow with an earlier schedule,” Elliott said.

According to Elliott, the 13 school districts that did start earlier have reported better test scores for high school end of course exams. He said often the first semester of school is rushed for many students, and sometimes high school students aren’t able to finish exams before Christmas break due to school closings because of weather.

An earlier start date would allow the school system equal semesters of 90 days each, instead of the fall semester being shorter.

Student representatives Emmie Huffman and Haleigh Lawson echoed these sentiments, and said the fall semester often feels shorter. Huffman said students often feel “crunched” for time to finish exams before Christmas. Henries said if students take exams after Christmas, that sometimes creates issues with seniors who are graduating early.

Watauga High School Counselor Wes Calbreath said the school typically has 30 to 40 mid-year graduates, and some try to start college early by the spring. Last year, students were in a bit of panic when exams were delayed and some were unsure if they could start their post-secondary plans.

“Even if there were consequences, I think we’re doing it for the right reasons,” said board member Jay Fenwick.

The school board also approved the hiring of Jeff Trexler as the school system director of maintenance. Trexler will be taking over for Danny Clark, who is retiring, Elliott said. Trexler is a graduate of WHS and said his first job was as a custodian cleaning the Margaret Gragg Education Center, where the board hosts its meetings.

Blowing Rock community leader Harriet Davant dies

Blowing Rock community leader Harriet Carolyn Browning Davant died Feb. 9 at the Foley Center in Blowing Rock at the age of 96.

“She was the epitome of a Southern lady,” said Lynn Lawrence, longtime Blowing Rock volunteer and “Quiet Corner” columnist for The Blowing Rocket. “She helped to shape the foundation of our town. I remember as a child, her heart was helping the kids of the town, us mountain children. It’s a real loss.”

“When I heard that she had passed, I thought at least mama will get to see her friend again,” Lawrence said, noting her mother and good friend of Davant, Betty Pitts, who died in June 2018.

“She was very well thought of in the community — the Davant family have been the real icons and supporters of Blowing Rock,” said Mayor Charlie Sellers. “She’s going to be missed. What (the Davant family) contributed to our community is second to none.”

Davant and her late husband Charles, who died in 2003, first moved to Blowing Rock in 1948, seeking to escape the polio epidemic. The couple then opened the town’s first medical clinic in the early 1950s.

“Her husband spent many long hours working in the medical clinic, making house calls day and night, and then working in the emergency room clinic,” Suzanne Miller said of Davant in 2016.

The legacy of the Davant family continues at the Harriet and Charles Davant Jr. Medical Clinic at the Foley Center at Chestnut Ridge, which opened in 2017. Her son Charles “Bunky” Davant III continues the family legacy at the Blowing Rock Medical Park.

“Davant led many projects for the betterment of her beloved mountain community,” her obituary stated. “She was smart, funny, independent, loyal and dedicated to family, friends and her community. She was relentlessly cheerful. She was beloved by all who were fortunate enough to know her.”

The Blowing Rock Community Foundation named her “Woman of the Year” in 2016, describing her as a “steel magnolia” and “the ultimate Southern lady.”

“Her husband first hired me when I first started working for the town of Blowing Rock,” Councilperson Doug Matheson said. “Harriet takes over you just like a mom ... That Southern accent of hers, when you listen to her, you think you’re in Charleston (S.C.). She was very supportive of the doc and very supportive of the things they could do. They really cared about the locals of Blowing Rock. She was just so many things to so many people in town.”

Davant was a founding member of the Watauga Medical Auxiliary, a group of physicians’ wives who were very active in promoting quality medical services in Watauga County, and also served on the board of directors for the Blowing Rock Hospital. Davant also worked with Watauga County Schools and was a trustee for the Morehead Scholarship Foundation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Volunteering was close to Davant’s heart as she encouraged summer residents to give their time and talent to areas where they were needed, starting a tradition that has continued today through multiple charitable nonprofits in the town.

“She laid the foundations of volunteering 68 years ago for education, quality of life, a time for fun and exploring and the dedication to help bring high-quality medical care and services to our community,” Miller said in 2016.

All the while, Davant raised two children, as explained at her 2016 Blowing Rock Woman of the Year presentation by Miller, the previous year’s winner.

“She kept a pony in their front yard in downtown Blowing Rock,” Miller said. “Her daughter loved horses and was allowed to ride horses during the day all around town. One day, her daughter came home reeking of a foul odor, at which time Harriet discovered that her daughter had fallen off the horse into a horsey mess. She was undressed outside and sent straight to the bath. Her clothes went to the trash can.”

Meanwhile, Miller said, Davant’s son was in the attic building a rocket.

“And it went off early,” Miller said. “Straight through the roof.”

Davant is survived by her son Dr. Charles (“Bunky”) Davant III and Bunky’s wife Teena; her daughter Dianne Davant Moffitt and Dianne’s husband H. Lee Moffitt; her granddaughter Ashley Winkelmann and Ashley’s husband Eric of Blowing Rock; her granddaughter Alyse Burke and Alyse’s husband Patrick of Boone; and grandson Charles Davant IV and Charles’s wife Meaghan of Washington, D.C. Davant is survived by six great-grandchildren: Kylie and Luke Winkelmann, Browning and Jack Proctor, and Madeleine and Charles Davant V.

Funeral services for Harriet Carolyn Browning Davant were to be held Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 2 p.m. at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal in Blowing Rock. The body will lie in state, at the church, from 1-2 p.m. Burial will follow in Woodlawn Cemetery in Blowing Rock.

Kruger resigns as App State provost, Norris appointed as interim

BOONE — After serving as the provost and executive vice chancellor of Appalachian State University since 2015, it was announced on Feb. 10 that Darrell Kruger is stepping down from the position effective immediately.

According to a message from Chancellor Sheri Everts, Kruger will be assigned to special projects within the chancellor’s division for the remainder of the academic year. Appalachian State spokesperson Megan Hayes said that it was Kruger’s decision to step down as provost.

“I support Darrell in his decision, and I know everyone in the Appalachian community joins me in extending appreciation to him for his leadership and service to the university and his work to support Appalachian’s slow and steady enrollment growth and superb graduation and retention rates,” Everts said in her comments. “I know he is also especially proud of our ranking first in faculty Fulbright scholars for Master’s Comprehensive universities.”

The university announced Kruger’s hiring to the provost position in April 2015 after conducting a national search for roughly six months; he started serving in the role the following July.

In a memo sent to the university’s Academic Affairs staff on Feb. 4, Kruger stated that when he interviewed for the position, he indicated his intent to serve in the role for three to five years.

“I am at the five-year mark and my stepping away from this role now enables a smooth transition in Academic Affairs,” Kruger stated in the memo.

Kruger said he was proud of what he and his peers had achieved together, and said they made “Appalachian stronger.”

“I value the collegial friendships that I have cemented here, and I will remain a member of the university and wider community with a different title in front of my name,” Kruger said in the memo. “I wish you all well as you continue to grow Appalachian and build on the accomplishments we have achieved together.”

The university stated that a national search for provost and executive vice chancellor will be established in fall 2020.

Some faculty members are questioning the nature and timing of Kruger’s departure from the position. At a Faculty Senate meeting on Feb. 10, Chair Michael Behrent said he was disappointed by what had “happened to” Kruger.

“He was one of the most appreciated members in higher administration on campus,” Behrent said. “Many faculty in different departments emphasized his fairness and his decency.”

“It is very unusual for a provost to leave so suddenly in the middle of the semester. It’s also very disruptive to the institution,” Behrent said to the Watauga Democrat.

“Campus morale is low. Lack of credible answers ... about the failure to honor the pay raise promised in September, as well as widespread concern about the university’s enrollment goals, have resulted in dwindling confidence in upper administration,” Behrent added. “Many feel the university has prioritized athletics at the expense of academics and students."

An attempt to contact Kruger by the Watauga Democrat was returned with an email from Hayes stating that the university had no further information to share on the matter.

In late 2019, Kruger was a candidate for the president’s position at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, according to the Press-Republican in New York. The university ultimately selected a different candidate for the position.

Appalachian State University selected Heather Hulburt Norris as interim provost, according to Everts’ message. Norris previously served as the dean for the Walker College of Business, a position she has held since 2016.

According to the university, Norris joined the Walker College of Business faculty in fall 2003 in the Department of Finance, Banking and Insurance. She was named assistant dean for undergraduate programs in 2005, associate dean for undergraduate programs and administration in 2008, senior associate dean in 2012, acting dean in 2014 and interim dean in 2015.

Prior to her time at Appalachian, she served on the faculty at Bowling Green State University, Pennsylvania State University and West Virginia University. Norris has a bachelor’s in business administration degree in finance from James Madison University and a master’s and a Ph.D. in finance from Penn State University.

“Heather’s career of service to Appalachian, her passion for the continued success of the university and her stellar reputation combine to make her an excellent choice for interim provost and executive vice chancellor, and I thank her for stepping into this position,” Everts said in a statement.

Sandra Vannoy was then named as acting dean of the Walker College of Business. According to the university, Vannoy joined the Walker College of Business faculty as a lecturer in the Department of Computer Information Systems in 1998. She became an assistant professor in 2010, and was named assistant dean for graduate programs and research in 2014. Vannoy was promoted to associate professor and associate dean in 2015, and was promoted to professor in 2019.

Regional office in Boone assists human trafficking victims

BOONE — When people hear the phrase “human trafficking” they may think of the movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson, which depicts a father trying to find his daughter after she was kidnapped in a foreign country.

While that type of situation does happen, it is not the narrative for the majority of human trafficking cases in North Carolina, said Chatty Majoni — the Spanish services coordinator at OASIS in Boone. According to Project FIGHT (Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking), more than 4,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported in the Carolinas since 2007.

“Often times people don’t think that it’s happening here,” said Danyelle Smith. “Human trafficking happens everywhere.”

Project FIGHT is an initiative of the Salvation Army in the Carolinas that started in 2011. It has grown from operating out of one office in Raleigh to regional locations in Charlotte, Jacksonville, Asheville, Greenville and now Boone — serving all 100 NC counties. Smith serves as the case manager in Project FIGHT’s Boone office that opened in February 2019, and is located at 136 Furman Road.

According to Smith, from April to December of last year, she served 21 survivors of human trafficking — 75 percent of them were from Western North Carolina. This included victims from Avery, Ashe, Watauga, Alleghany, Wilkes and Caldwell counties, she said.

Human trafficking takes place across all demographics, Smith said. Likewise, a trafficker can be from any demographic as well.

What is human trafficking?

Smith explained that human trafficking encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. In these cases, the sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion or the person induced to perform such act is a minor child.

When it comes to sex trafficking, more often than not the perpetrator is not a stranger the victim doesn’t know. It’s typically the opposite, and often begins with some type of relationship, Smith said.

“It is typically somebody who becomes like a boyfriend,” Smith said. “Then it can quickly turn into them asking (the victim) to have commercial sex for a myriad of things — substances, shelter or ‘because I love you, don’t you want to help me out?’ A lot of people don’t self identify because it started with what they identified as an intimate relationship.”

The trafficker may enter the relationship with an intention that is unknown to the victim. Majoni said a trafficker would rarely approach a victim and tell them they are a “pimp,” but would rather create a false narrative that they would care for and love the victim.

Both Smith and Majoni also discussed a trend in what they called “familial trafficking,” which is when a family would traffic their children or potentially other members like cousins to provide money for substances or shelter. Majoni added that she is familiar with a recent instance of white supremacy familial trafficking, with the trafficking restricted to the white supremacist group.

Substance use is a fairly common component in human trafficking cases in the area, Smith said. The cases also often intersect with other components such as domestic violence and sexual assault. This would add to the reasons why someone may not self-identify as a human trafficking victim, Majoni said.

While the majority of Smith’s clients were victims of sex trafficking, she has worked with those who were labor trafficked. The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons explains that labor trafficking is when a person is recruited, harbored, transported or obtained for labor or services. This type of trafficking is done so through force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Smith explained that within an agriculture industry, there may be migrant farm workers. Some of the migrant farm workers are in the U.S. here on H-2A visas, which allows workers to be employed by a specific farm. Smith said there is often a middle person called a farm labor contractor who would help connect the worker with an H-2A visa to a farm owner. It is during that process that Smith said exploitation can occur.

“Often times it will first start off with a fraudulent promise of when an individual is in their home country and has this job opportunity saying, ‘You’re going to be paid this much and your housing will be covered,’” Smith said. “Once (the worker) makes it to the U.S., (their) documents are withheld, they’re not paid what they were promised and the living conditions are not to standard. They may be met with threats of calling (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and being deported.”

With agricultural industries in the area like Christmas trees and pumpkins, Smith said there’s the potential that people could be exploited.

The Administration for Children and Families’ Office on Trafficking in Persons states that human trafficking and human smuggling are two separate crimes. Human trafficking is when a person does not consent to the action and does not require movement of a person from one place to another — meaning the victimization can take place transnationally or domestically. With human smuggling, individuals consent to their illegal transport across a national border, according to the office.

While Majoni is the Spanish services coordinator for OASIS, she said this doesn’t necessarily mean the trafficking clients she works with are all Spanish speaking. Rather, she had human trafficking training and agreed to work with victims as well as OASIS clients who were Spanish speaking.

However, as the Spanish services coordinator, if a trafficking victim is an immigrant survivor, Majoni said she can connect them with the Battered Immigrant Project through Legal Aid North Carolina. She can then help them navigate different visa programs if the victim wants to gain permission to stay in the country legally.

Human trafficking response

Smith said that when she started as the Boone case manager, she helped to establish a High Country Rapid Response Team that primarily focuses on Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties. The multi-disciplinary team meets quarterly and includes representatives from local law enforcement agencies, OASIS, Daymark, legal aid services and other organizations.

When a client comes into contact with Smith, she said she provides comprehensive case management by helping them achieve goals they have set for themselves. She uses her connections from the response team to help link them to resources for obtaining documentations (like birth certificates or identification), food, housing, clothing, mental health services, employment as well as transportation to an emergency shelter.

The Boone Project FIGHT location does not have its own emergency shelter yet, Smith said. She said there’s very few human trafficking specific shelters in the state, therefore Project FIGHT relies heavily on shelters like what is provided through OASIS. The organization can also help relocate individuals out of the area as well.

Smith and Majoni said Boone’s Project FIGHT and OASIS work hand-in-hand when in comes to case management to provide a holistic approach for a client. Majoni said it is a “game changer” to have Smith and Project FIGHT located in Boone.

“It wasn’t always a thing for domestic violence shelters to take trafficking victims and to know how that differs from every other victim,” Majoni said. “The N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence is doing a lot of training and helping our domestic violence agencies figure out how to best serve our trafficking survivors. But having this partnership with Danyelle has given us a head start in being able to work with the folks that come into our shelter.”

For more information on OASIS and Project FIGHT services, email Majoni at spanish@oasisinc.org or Smith at danyelle.smith@uss.salvationarmy.org. For immediate assistance or to make a tip, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-800-373-7888 or text “help” or “info” to 233733. Information on Project FIGHT can be found at www.salvationarmycarolinas.org/projectfight.