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DA releases detailed report after Ward, Fox death investigation
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WATAUGA — After reviewing materials provided to the District Attorney’s office by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the District Attorney’s Office, led by Seth Banks, has concluded that the actions of the law enforcement officers, when viewed through the lens of a reasonable officer put in the same circumstances, were justified on April 28, 2021, when Sgt. Chris Ward and Deputy Logan Fox were killed.

Overall, the State Bureau of Investigation collected at least 123 items of evidence.

“Given the overwhelming weight of the evidence available to this office, it is clear that the actions of law enforcement personnel at 553 Hardaman Circle often rose to the highest levels of heroism as they sought to fulfill their oaths to protect and to serve our community and their comrades against the violent acts of Isaac Barnes,” the DA wrote in the report. “Further, the evidence indicates that the Officers’ belief that it was necessary to use deadly force in self defense was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances. We conclude that officers on the scene acted lawfully and in a manner that was consistent with their duties as law enforcement officers.”

Banks said in a statement that the role of the DA is largely limited to the determination of when to pursue criminal actions. The task before his office in relation to the events on April 28, Banks said, was to determine whether criminal offenses were committed by anyone who could be prosecuted.

“In order to make that determination, the District Attorney’s office has thoroughly reviewed the investigative materials provided by the State Bureau of Investigation and the Office of the State Medical Examiner,” Banks said in a statement. “The report that we released on Friday summarized the relevant facts that we reviewed in coming to our determination that no criminal charges were warranted in this case, given the reality that the criminally responsible party, Mr. Isaac Barnes, was deceased.”

(Left) Sgt. Chris Ward and K-9 Deputy Logan Fox (right) of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office were killed in the line of duty on April 28.

In a statement on Friday evening, July 29, to the Watauga Democrat, Sheriff Len Hagaman said it was both “difficult and sad to read,” the report, but “District Attorney Seth Banks did a phenomenal job in articulating the release of his findings with a clearly thorough and thoughtful legal review, which also showed a compassion to an extremely difficult and emotional event.

“In the District Attorney’s articulation of a fair and impartial review, it underscored the real need to seriously focus on mental health and domestic violence issues for our North Carolina and Watauga County citizens if we are to honestly avert such tragedies,” Hagaman said.

The following is information from the DA’s report.

On April 25, 2021, Reatha Barnes, the stepmother of Isaac Barnes, called the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office at 5:21 p.m. Ms. Barnes reported that Isaac Barnes threatened his father, Joseph Barnes, with a knife. The State Bureau of Investigation learned the details of the threatening event were as follows: Isaac Barnes would regularly camp in the Watauga County woods. Isaac Barnes would park his Toyota Highlander and not leave the wooded area for days.

On April 25, 2021, Isaac Barnes requested that Joseph Barnes help him with a dead battery in the Toyota Highlander.

Joseph Barnes and Isaac Barnes traveled into the woods via a utility vehicle. Once in the woods, Isaac Barnes grabbed Joseph Barnes’ clothing and held a knife against Joseph Barnes’s person. Joseph Barnes attempted to reason with Isaac, but Isaac made statements about killing his mother, Michelle Ligon, and stepfather, George Ligon.

Isaac Barnes made Joseph sit down, and Isaac stood over Joseph with the knife. Isaac made delusional statements such as Isaac being a “god head” and people being blood sacrifices or peasants. Eventually, Isaac allowed Joseph to get off the ground and work on the vehicle. Isaac Barnes stood holding the knife and armed with a pistol on his person.

While in the woods, Isaac Barnes told Joseph Barnes that his mother, Michelle Ligon, kicked him out of her house approximately 10 days prior to April 25, 2021. Isaac Barnes had been living in the Toyota Highlander in the woods since he was made to leave Michelle Ligon’s home. Isaac Barnes eventually allowed Joseph Barnes to leave after approximately four hours. Joseph Barnes convinced Isaac Barnes to allow him to leave by agreeing to retrieve a rifle and give it to Isaac Barnes. As soon as Joseph Barnes returned to his residence, he contacted his wife, Reatha Barnes. Ms. Barnes then reported the incident to the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office. Joseph Barnes did not give Isaac Barnes a rifle.

After the report was received by the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, a lieutenant in the Sheriff’s Office spoke with Joseph Barnes regarding the incident. The lieutenant also contacted Isaac Barnes’s mother, Michelle Ligon, to verify her safety. The lieutenant informed the family of their options regarding criminal charges or an involuntary commitment order. The lieutenant then discussed with a captain about possibly conducting a welfare check on Isaac Barnes prior to any charges or orders filed.

The Watauga County Sheriff’s Office determined that it was not tactically safe to conduct a check while Isaac Barnes was deep in the woods. Instead, the Sheriff’s Office disseminated a “be on the lookout” or “BOLO” for Isaac. The following day, Monday, April 26, 2021, a captain with the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office contacted Joseph Barnes. The captain explained the involuntary commitment process to Joseph Barnes. Joseph Barnes indicated that he did not want to pursue an IVC because of possible retaliation by Isaac Barnes.

Photo submitted 

Michelle Ligon and George Ligon died on April 28 at their home.

That same day, the captain spoke with Michelle Ligon, Isaac’s mother. Michelle Ligon informed the captain that Isaac recently received a summons for jury duty that affected Isaac’s mental health because of his aversion to law enforcement. The captain also spoke with Michelle Ligon regarding the IVC process. From discussions with Isaac Barnes’ parents, the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office ascertained Isaac’s telephone number and service provider. Sheriff’s Office personnel contacted Carolina West, Isaac’s telephone company, in an effort to find Isaac. They discovered that Isaac’s telephone had been inactive since April 8, 2021.

The following day, April 27, 2021, the captain again contacted Joseph Barnes for another update regarding Isaac. Joseph reported that he had no contact with Isaac since Sunday, April 25. The IVC process was discussed again. Later on April 27, 2021, Isaac was spotted by a sergeant with the Beech Mountain Police Department. Isaac was seen through a wooded area getting into a vehicle off Daisy Ridge Road.

Joseph and Reatha Barnes went to the magistrate’s office on the night of April 27, 2021, to seek either criminal charges or an involuntary commitment order. However, the magistrate’s computer system was not working. After technical support was not able to solve the issue, the Barnes couple were told to come back the next day.

The next morning at 9:41 a.m., the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office received a call regarding a welfare check on George Ligon, Isaac Barnes’s stepfather. George Ligon did not report to work, so a coworker traveled to George Ligon’s home. Mr. Ligon’s coworker arrived around 9:21 a.m. and was unable to find anyone at the residence. Consequently, the coworker called WCSO.

At 10:03 a.m. on April 28, 2021, the WCSO conducted a welfare check at 553 Hardaman Circle, Boone, NC. A Watauga County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant and Deputy (Dep.) Logan Fox were the first to arrive at the home. Three vehicles were present at the residence, but no one responded to repeated knocking by the Sheriff’s Office. Dep. Fox walked around the rear of the residence but did not find anyone there. The lieutenant called for backup, specifically requesting a ballistic entry shield in preparation of entering the residence.

Sgt. Christopher Ward and Dep. Logan Fox entered the residence at 10:39 a.m. along with a Watauga County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, deputy and investigator. Immediately upon entry, the officers noticed blood on the floor. The blood was smeared on the floor in drag marks. Upon searching the upstairs portion of the residence, the deputies discovered the bodies of Michelle and George Ligon in a bathroom. The bathroom door was partially barricaded by the two bodies. The deputies searched and cleared the remaining rooms upstairs. Furniture in the home appeared to have been moved to prevent entry into the premises.

Once it was determined that no one was upstairs, the deputies made their way down to the basement. At the basement entrance, they encountered an obstruction within the doorway which prevented further entry. While attempting to breach the obstructed doorway, Dep. Logan Fox was shot at 10:42 a.m. by Isaac Barnes. The remaining deputies regrouped at the top of the stairs. Bodycam video shows Dep. Fox’s body being moved, and his equipment being removed from his person.

The deputies then formed a perimeter around the outside of the premises while Sgt. Ward and an investigator maintained positions inside. An additional investigator attempted to communicate with Isaac Barnes from the doorway of the residence. At approximately 10:57 a.m., a shot was fired from within the residence. The investigator inside the residence saw Sgt. Ward fall in the upstairs portion of the residence. Both investigators inside the residence took cover outside.

A third investigator returned fire from outside of the residence with his rifle. Officers began calling for Sgt. Ward, but received no response. At 10:58 a.m., deputies reported from inside the residence and returned fire. Another exchange of gunfire occurred at 10:59 a.m. During both exchanges two investigators, a sheriff’s deputy and a police officer fired their .223 rifles. Prior to these exchanges at 10:58 a.m. and 10:59 a.m., no law enforcement personnel had discharged their weapons.

After the gunfire ceased, law enforcement held the perimeter. Support and resources from surrounding jurisdictions began saturating the area. At approximately 12:08 p.m., a rescue team composed of law enforcement officers from Appalachian State University Police Department, Boone Police Department, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, as well as two firefighters entered the residence. The rescue team saw Isaac Barnes’ head appear in the basement stairwell and took fire from Isaac Barnes.

Boone Police Officer Evan Laws’ ballistic helmet deflected a bullet. Officer Laws and an App State officer returned fire. The team was able to extract Sgt. Chris Ward but not Deputy Fox.

Sgt. Ward was transported to a hospital but was later pronounced dead from a gunshot wound.

While the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office was the first agency on scene, numerous surrounding agencies assisted over the course of the day, including the Boone Police Department, Appalachian State University Police, Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office, Hickory Police Department, Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department, Morganton Public Safety and the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. The State Bureau of Investigation took full control of the scene at 6:53 p.m. After the extraction of Sgt. Ward, the standoff continued through the afternoon and evening.

Negotiations with Isaac Barnes were attempted but law enforcement personnel were never successful at making contact with him. Law enforcement deployed drones, bomb-defusing robots, and tactical gas canisters to end the standoff. Throughout the afternoon, law enforcement continued to hear sporadic gunfire. At 9:30 p.m., robots confirmed two deceased bodies within the basement of the residence.

At 9:56 p.m., the SBI Special Response Team made entry into the residence, and confirmed all inside were dead. The bodies of Michelle and George Ligon were recovered upstairs in a bathroom. Deputy Fox’s remains were recovered near the entryway to the basement. Deputy Fox never fired his weapon. However, his issued Glock 22, .40 caliber appeared to be missing several rounds. One round was chambered, and the magazine contained only 10 rounds.

Spent .40 cartridges were found in both the basement as well as the staircase leading to the basement. No law enforcement officers fired .40 caliber rounds at the scene. Inside a basement bedroom, Isaac Barnes’ body was located on a bed with a Smith and Wesson M&P handgun chambered in .357 SIG in his right hand.

Autopsies were performed on all five individuals. Dr. Jerri McLemore of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that the cause of death for Michelle Ligon was sharp force injuries to the head and neck. George Ligon’s cause of death was sharp force injuries to the neck. Both George Ligon and Michelle Ligon had defensive wounds on their arms and hands.

The autopsy of Dep. Logan Fox found that his cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. The autopsy of Sgt. Christopher Ward found that his cause of death was also a gunshot wound to the head. Isaac Barnes’s cause of death was a gunshot to his head, consistent with a self-inflicted injury. Isaac Barnes also had a gunshot wound through his chest.

The autopsy findings show this to be an indeterminate range gunshot wound with “no soot, stippling, burned, or unburned gunpowder particles” around the wound. On his person was a firearm magazine containing 15 rounds. In addition to recovering Deputy Fox’s service weapon and spent .40 caliber casings, the SBI recovered two additional firearms in the basement – a Smith & Wesson revolver with one spent casing and four live rounds, along with a Smith and Wesson M&P semi-automatic handgun chambered in .357 SIG.

The Smith and Wesson M&P that was found in Isaac Barnes’ right hand contained a chambered round and six rounds in the magazine. Several sharp-edged items were recovered as potential murder weapons of George and Michelle Ligon. One knife was recovered in a basement sink and appeared to have been recently cleaned, according to the report.

According to the DA’s office, the applicable law as it relates to the use of deadly force recognizes a right to use deadly force to protect one’s self from death or great bodily harm. This is commonly known as the right of self-defense. Under North Carolina law, police officers or other law enforcement personnel have the same right to defend themselves as any other individual in North Carolina.

“Throughout our review it was clear that the actions at 553 Hardaman Circle often rose to the highest levels of heroism as they sought to fulfill their oaths to protect and to serve our community and their comrades against the violent acts of Isaac Barnes. Further, the evidence indicates that the Officers’ belief that it was necessary to use deadly force in self-defense was reasonable given the totality of the circumstances,” Banks said in a statement. “The actions of Isaac Barnes mentally and physically effected more than his four victims. Other officers showed true courage facing life threatening danger with clear eyes. The victims’ families, law enforcement and the entire community will forever be scarred. Our community is tremendously fortunate to have law enforcement officers with the bravery required to face danger despite the risks and their own injuries.”

In the event that the state brings a criminal action against an individual who claims that they used force as an act of self-defense, the burden of proof rests with the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant did not act in self-defense. The Supreme Court of North Carolina has held that the use of deadly force is justified if a person reasonably believed in the necessity of the use of that force to prevent the person’s death or great bodily injury. State v. Norris, 303 N.C. 526 (1981).

Editor’s note: This report was edited to remove some graphic, specific details related to the victims. A link to the full, unedited report can be found at drive.google.com/file/d/1MSE-WXqRUo3YgWmh0zm_GDzt6QNr-9X0/view?usp=sharing.


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Watauga County in need of foster parents to help provide stability

WATAUGA — The need for foster parents is never ending, said Jessica Hunter, licensing and adoption social worker from Watauga County Department of Social Services.

Prior to the initial outbreak of COVID-19, there was a “steady flow” of foster parents in the area as she licensed between 30 and 40 people each year. When DSS reopened after the peak of the pandemic in 2020, Hunter said she is now licensing about five people a year despite a constant need for foster parents.

As of publication, there are 70 children in foster care in Watauga County — 28 children ages zero to five, 25 children ages six to 12 and 17 children ages 13 to 18, according to DSS. Thirteen of these children are with relatives, 20 are in group homes and the remaining 37 children have been placed with foster parents.

There are currently 26 family foster homes associated with the Watauga DSS.

Hunter said the main goal of fostering is to provide a safe and stable environment until a child can be reunited with their biological parents. She said many people state their hesitation to foster a child as the fear of “getting too attached,” but Hunter said this is often a good thing. She said it is hard for many foster parents to say goodbye to the children they care for, but that meant the child was in a loving environment.

Another concern Hunter hears is a fear of fostering a child with behavioral issues. Hunter said some children in foster care may have behavioral issues just like anyone else, but that DSS offers a variety of resources to help foster families prepare.

Each child in foster care has a social worker that comes to the home at least once a month and is often in communication one to two times a week. The social workers and others at DSS can provide referrals for other resources.

Hunter said that 77% of teenagers in the nation who enter foster care will not get placed with families and will end up at a group home. She said once an individual ages out of a group home, it can be difficult to find support to do things like open a bank account, find housing and secure a job, which furthers the cycle of poverty.

When there are not enough foster families for all of the children requiring placements, oftentimes these children go to group homes. Hunter said that group homes provide shelter and safety, but with many children under the care of staff, it is difficult to provide individual attention that help children build bonds.

Hunter said in her experience as a social worker, children who enter foster homes adjust more easily to adulthood than those who enter group homes.

Hunter said when there are no openings at group homes, it can feel like DSS is begging people to consider helping children in need. She said there have been instances this year where children have slept at the office after they were removed from their homes.

Destiny Mahala entered the foster care system at 9 years old. After the passing of her father and her mother’s incarceration, Mahala, who was then in fifth grade, was called into the office of her elementary school and told she would be removed from her home.

At such a young age, Mahala did not know what was going on when it was explained to her that her home life was “unstable and unsafe.” She was confused, when after three weeks of staying with her aunt, she was separated from her brothers and placed with distant relatives.

Those relatives, Cindy and Robert Price, changed her life.

Cindy had adult children when the couple decided to foster Mahala, who stayed with them for three years until her mother regained custody. From the ages of 12 to 14, Mahala stayed with her mother, but when their home life grew increasingly unstable, Mahala returned to live with the Prices.

Mahala still has a relationship with her mother and is grateful for the stability living with the Prices has given her. She said the Prices raised her to succeed by teaching her how to work and provide for herself while supporting her financially and keeping her safe.

Mahala said while she never stayed in a group home, one of her brothers did. She said he was provided much needed structure, but was not given the individual attention he needed to process the trauma he experienced.

Building a relationship with the Prices gave Mahala a sense of security. She said they were always there for her, even when she had behavioral issues.

Mahala said she had seen more than 15 therapists and struggled with cussing, jealousy and sensitivity while staying with the Prices. She said the combined support of social services and her foster family allowed her to process her experiences in a healthy way while accomplishing the goals she set for herself.

“It means a lot to me because I don’t think I would be exactly where I am today. I probably wouldn’t have a degree, I probably would have dropped out of high school. I wouldn’t have nowhere near as much support and love,” Mahala said. “I never thought I would have graduated high school. I thought I would have taken my life by that point. But I graduated high school, I got my associate degree, I bought my own car, I just signed the lease on my apartment. I never thought that I would do all that, but I did.”

Mahala said, now more than ever, she is grateful for the Prices ongoing support. She said as a soon-to-be student at UNC Wilmington, she is appreciative of having somewhere to call home on school breaks. She said the Prices “truly stuck by” her, which is what inspired her to study social work.

“I just want to be what I didn’t have. It makes me sad almost. It feels at times that I didn’t deserve to be somebody who was on the good side of it, but I was and now I can move forward with that and give back in any way possible,” Mahala said.

While she had great foster parents, she said social services, the Watauga County school system and many friends stepped forward to support her.

“My best friend, Silvia Trivette and her mom, Tonya, spent a lot of time with me from the time I was in sixth grade until now. They also had such a huge impact on me, raising me and loving me like I was their family, too,” Mahala said. “I had amazing foster parents, but I also had friends and other families who loved and supported me through some of the hardest things in my life. Everyone who stepped up made me who I am today and for that I could never be thankful enough.”

Social services offer resources like assigned social workers and therapists to children in foster care, but they also provide support to foster families.

Debra Gragg, who has fostered in the High Country for 22 years, said Watauga DSS is just as committed to caring for children as parents are.

“I feel like they are my family and that if I need anything, I can call them and they are there to help me. I have had situations where a child got out of control and I called them and they stayed on the call with me until we got the issue resolved,” Gragg said. “I feel like we’re one big family and I know sometimes their hands are tied as for what they can do, but they care for those kids as well as I care for those kids and they want what’s best for them and they’re trying to do everything they can to do the best for them.”

In her 22 years of fostering, Gragg has cared for children in many different situations. Gragg said she has fostered infants “straight from the hospital” to 17-year-olds. In her time fostering, she has adopted seven children, four of whom still live with her. She has seen many children reunited with their biological families.

Gragg has two biological children with her husband, who are both now adults, and says she believes they learned a lot about “the real world” through their experiences having foster siblings.

“I am fostering this little one right now that, when she came to my house, was having to have sleep medication because of so much anxiety,” Gragg said. “She came to my house around May. By the middle of June, she did not need any sleep medication because she’s in a more stable environment and feels more secure.”

Gragg said she recommends fostering and Watauga DSS to anyone interested or on the fence about the process. She said that if foster families lean on social workers and the services offered through DSS, fostering is more than worth it.

“It just breaks my heart that these kids are already dealing with much more than I have ever dealt with in my childhood and then to have nowhere to go to land safely from that for a while — I just wish there were more people that could do it, even if it was just for emergency situations,” Gragg said.

Hunter said as long as someone goes through the training and is committed to caring for a child, they will make a great foster parent.

There are no restrictions for fostering in Watauga County other than passing a background check, having a stable income and being at least 21 years old. Watauga DSS licenses single, married or cohabiting individuals who rent or own their home of any gender, sexuality and religion as long as they are willing to work with children’s biological parents and support teams while providing a loving home.

Watauga DSS currently has a need for any foster parents, but especially emergency and short term homes and those that can provide care for children over the age of five and sibling groups.

There are currently three children in Watauga County who have yet to be matched with adoptive families, nine to 17 years old.

An online information session about fostering in Watauga County will take place on Aug. 6 at 1 p.m. Anyone interested can email Jessica Hunter at jessica.hunter@watgov.org to receive the link. Training will begin in September Though the date has not yet been selected, training will take place every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. at DSS for eight to 10 weeks.


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Watauga Virtual Academy aims to increase flexibility in coming school year
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BOONE — Watauga County School’s online public school, the Watauga Virtual Academy, is working this summer to prepare programs aimed at increasing flexibility and options for students and families in grades Kindergarten through 8th grade across the county.

This fall, the WVA will offer K-8 homeschooled students the opportunity to attend part of their school day at the virtual academy. WCS has offered a similar program to high school students for the last several years, which allows dual-enrolled students to take part in athletics, clubs and extracurricular activities at Watauga High School.

WVA Principal Kelly Walker said opening the school to dual enrollment was part of a larger effort to ensure the virtual academy meets the needs of a wide range of parents and students.

“It’s our goal to build on our existing programs and opportunities that get students together and further the community that we’ve built over the past year in the WVA,” Walker said. “But we really want to look towards our opportunities to expand and be more flexible, too. We are so proud of the quality of our teaching staff and the things they’ve been able to offer students, and we want to make families aware of what’s available to them.”

Walker said the WVA is a structured online school that has licensed teachers at each grade level in which students attend classes every weekday. While the bulk of the work is online, she said the school had fostered a strong community of students and parents over the last school year with several in-person opportunities and gatherings.

“With in person events like our science and art nights, we’ve really grown together so much as a community,” Walker said. “I’m hopeful that offering dual enrollment this year will just further that goal.”

Watauga County Schools Superintendent Scott Elliott said enrolling in the WVA was a great way for families whose students need additional flexibility, or who might not be able to attend in-person classes every day, to access the benefits of public school in Watauga County.

“WVA students, and homeschool students who elect to dual enroll, have the same access to the wide range of activities, athletics and other events that our families know and expect from our brick and mortar schools,” Elliott said. “In a lot of ways, it’s the best of both worlds. Families can have access to the flexibility that comes with online learning, while still being able to take advantage of some of the things that Watauga County Schools offers its students that might not be available in other settings — small class sizes, a school-provided laptop, extra-curricular activities and athletics, etc.”

For more information about the Watauga Virtual Academy, contact Principal Kelly Walker by emailing walkerk@wataugaschools.org or calling (828) 264-7190.


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App State's P3 project nearing end as final construction set to start

BOONE — The final component for the $191 million P3 housing project on Appalachian State University’s campus is starting to take shape.

The multi-phase project, which started in 2019, has created new residence halls and parking lots on App State’s campus. In total, the project is providing nearly 2,300 beds for student housing.

In May, the last component of the P3 project began with the demolition of Eggers and Bowie residence halls. While the demolition process started a few months ago, the actual tearing down of the building could be seen in late July, according to App State news and media relations director Anna Oakes.

The area will be developed into a surface parking lot with approximately 150 spaces.

The final residence hall, New River Hall, received its certificate of occupancy the final week of July and residence assistants began moving in. A building dedication will be held in September.

Demolition of Gardner and Coltrane residence halls was completed in September 2021, and this area has been developed as surface parking with approximately 140 spaces. Completion is anticipated in the next couple of weeks, according to Oakes.

“This is the largest capital project in App State’s history. We broke ground on the first residence hall in 2019,” Chancellor Sheri Everts said in a statement. “Three years later, we are in the final stage of completion, and the project remains on time and under budget. Through this public-private partnership, we have replaced six residence halls with modernized living spaces for our students, have increased the total number of beds on campus and have provided better, more efficient parking facilities — all while saving the university time and money.”


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