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Combating human trafficking should be bipartisan

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

Combating human trafficking might be one of the few things ripe for bipartisan action in Virginia and across America. 

At last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Latisha’s House Foundation founder and CEO Elizabeth Ameling explained to the “Combating Human Trafficking” panel’s audience that the average age of those first trafficked is 12 years old — at which point, they are assaulted multiple times a day. The vast majority of the victims, an estimated 96% and upward according to Ameling, were sexually abused beforehand, making them more vulnerable to traffickers.

Tanya Gould, the director of anti-human trafficking for Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General and a survivor of human trafficking, emphasized that human trafficking is not a faraway problem in a different land. Rather, she said emphatically during the conference, “This is happening here in America.”

In a polarized world where Republicans and Democrats agree on very little, we can come together on the fact that the sex trafficking of young children inside our country is a problem that deserves attention and action. Dave Yost, the attorney general of Ohio, joined Gould and Ameling on the conference panel. He made an assertion that I hope all voters hold true: “We don’t throw away human beings in America.”

Yost has worked to address the colossal problem in Ohio with “Operation Buyer’s Remorse,” in which the state strictly enforces laws against buying sex in order to stem the demand. He emphasized to conference attendees that there is no market for human trafficking without buyers. With Operation Buyer’s Remorse, his goal is to force them out of Ohio.

Yost also argued that the porous southern border is exacerbating the human trafficking problem in our country. Unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southern border, for example, have been found working on farms in Ohio, he said.

It’s also important to draw attention to Big Tech’s role in facilitating human trafficking networks and transactions. Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled executives over Big Tech’s part in exploiting children. And multiple state attorneys general, including Virginia’s Jason Miyares and Ohio’s Yost, are pursuing legal action regarding social media’s impact on children’s mental health.

But according to the CPAC panel’s experts, more legislative work is needed to combat human trafficking. And bipartisan endeavors are much more likely to yield successful results. In particular, Gould mentioned that creating and maintaining an accurate human trafficking database is an important next step for Virginia. Accurate data collection and maintenance would help with identifying trends and guiding state policy.

Virginia also needs to follow Yost’s example and strictly enforce laws against buying sex to stifle demand. Not only did Ohio’s Operation Buyer’s Remorse send a signal to those trying to purchase sex, but it also led to the rescue of more than 100 human trafficking survivors.

By the time these and other survivors of human trafficking are rescued, Ameling explained they almost always have a criminal record preventing them from acquiring jobs in many domains. Theft, drug possession, and identity fraud are among the crimes listed on their rap sheets, often before they are even 18 years old.

In some cases, Ameling explained, people trafficked when they were very young, without much in terms of education or skill, continue the line of work as they become adults. When survivors are rescued, “prostitution” ironically often appears among their other misdeeds. To facilitate the rehabilitation of trafficking survivors, legislators should consider methods and conditions for the expungement of criminal records so that survivors have a chance to move on and pursue training and careers of their choice.

At places such as Latisha’s House Foundation, survivors are clear about what they need to survive and thrive. They are not voiceless. As Yost put it, “Survivors have a voice. It’s time for us to listen.”

My son was rejected from Thomas Jefferson High School. The Supreme Court should have heard our case

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner

As a parent, you learn how to help your child handle rejection. It’s a dagger every time, seeing hurt and disappointment on your child’s face. But you can turn it into a “teachable moment” and tell your children that if they work hard, chase their passions, and are kind to others, they have the power to make their dreams come true. 

I struggled to create a teachable moment out of my eldest son’s rejection from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

TJ, located in Fairfax County, Virginia, is one of the nation’s top-ranked public high schools. It has an arduous STEM curriculum. To get in, prospective students used to have to take an entrance exam. But in 2021, just before my son applied, the school board implemented a new admissions process to advance racial equity in the student body. 

Let me tell you a bit about my eldest son. By the time he was 10 years old, he was putting together all of our furniture. He called it “Legos for adults.” He loves figuring out how things work and regularly assembles our family’s bicycles. He finished middle school in the accelerated academic program and honors geometry with an overall GPA of 4.2. He also completed the three engineering courses available to students there.  

What should not matter to the Fairfax County School Board — but apparently does — is that my husband is Indian American, which makes my son Indian American.  

The school board changed the admissions process at TJ because it wanted fewer Asian students at the school. And school board members got their way: the number of incoming Asian students to TJ dropped 19% between 2020 and 2021. (One school board member infamously texted another: “I mean there has been an anti asian feel underlying some of this, hate to say it lol.”) 

In the new admissions process, there is no entrance exam. Students are evaluated on a 900-point scale in which GPA is only worth a maximum of 300 points. Other points are awarded for attending an underrepresented middle school and other “Experience Factors.” Students write admissions essays that have little to do with STEM or academics.  

After following the new admissions process, my son was wait-listed at TJ. Then he was rejected. If his rejection had come after doing poorly on an entrance exam, I would know what to say to him. But how do you motivate your son to work harder at STEM — his passion — when his work isn’t what he’s being judged on? 

It’s a hard awakening. Our family has never seen my son’s Indian ancestry as a limiting factor — as something for which he’d be stereotyped and deemed unwanted. On the contrary, like so many other American families, we carry the immigration story of my husband’s family as an inspiration. 

In 1975, my in-laws migrated to the United States from Punjab, India, seeking more opportunities for their future children and grandchildren. They knew what it was like to live in a stratified society where group identity matters more than individual capability: 30 years earlier, their families had been part of the forced migration between India and Pakistan in which Muslims were pushed west and Hindus and Sikhs were pushed east.  

In America, my father-in-law worked in factories while my mother-in-law cleaned houses, made rotis for restaurants, drove a bus, and later worked in a factory. They worked because they believed in the American dream — that here in the U.S., all people would be treated equally under the law and could rise or fall by their own merit. 

I want my children to believe in that dream, too.

This week, the Supreme Court declined to hear the Coalition for TJ’s lawsuit challenging the school’s new admissions process as unconstitutional. I’m a member of the coalition, along with other Fairfax parents and TJ alumni worried about the school. We’re represented by Pacific Legal Foundation, a nonprofit legal organization that argues the new admissions process violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

My sons and I are disappointed in the court’s decision to not hear our case — not so much because of my eldest son, who has settled in at our local high school, nor even because of my other two sons, who plan to apply to TJ, but because this was an opportunity for a teachable moment. Our Supreme Court declined the opportunity to show us what kind of country we are and what kind of future we are capable of building. 

We will continue to fight for a future in which individual capability counts more than group identity. That’s a dream that we must protect for present and future generations of all races.

Fairfax County Public Schools can’t get enough money

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner

This week, Fairfax County’s school board is scheduled to adopt its fiscal 2025 proposed budget, totaling $3.8 billion, an 8.6% increase of $301.8 million from fiscal 2024. Rather than adding tax dollars to an already egregiously inflated sum, the local school district desperately needs a zero-based budgeting process, an external audit, and continued oversight.

The fiscal 2025 budget increase includes a 6% market scale pay increase for all employees, totaling $170.7 million. While a market scale pay increase might make sense for lower-paid employees such as teachers and bus drivers, given inflation, it is not at all clear why the district’s administrators need a pay increase.

Fairfax County’s public schools’ administrators’ salaries are already much too high. In 2022, Superintendent Michelle Reid’s annual salary was $380,000, more than double Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s salary the same year, $164,394. In comparison, the average national public school superintendent’s salary in 2022 was $121,209.

In fact, many of Fairfax County’s school district administrators are earning more than the governor of the commonwealth. At least 21 of the district’s administrators made significantly more than Youngkin in 2022. For example, the chief equity officer, Nardos King, made $232,074. 

Despite being a controversial pick for the arguably unnecessary administrative position, and her already suspiciously high salary, King is unresponsive to the district’s parents. Still, as one of the local school district’s employees with a salary already higher than the top-paid federal administrator at the Department of Education, she will enjoy an almost $14,000 raise in the proposed school budget.

Fairfax County’s per-pupil spending is also significantly higher than the national average. In the fiscal 2024 budget, the cost per K-12 public school pupil was $19,795. Meanwhile, the national per-pupil average the same year was $12,612. With over-crowded classes of more than 30 pupils per classroom in some elementary schools, and limited middle school sports options, the Fairfax County’s taxpayer’s dollar value is questionable.

To fund the ballooning expenditures in our public schools, Fairfax County’s residents are witnessing their property taxes increase at an alarming rate. The tax increases are directly correlated to what seems to be the school district’s flagrant spending. More than half of Fairfax County’s property taxes are allocated to public schools. Substantial increases in home and vehicle assessment values, coupled with high tax rates, mean that the monthly property tax increases from 2019 to 2023 amount to the cost of an additional car payment for many of the county’s families.

Despite these tax increases, in part to fund exorbitantly high administrative costs, legal fees, and significantly above national average per-pupil spending, Fairfax County’s children do not seem to be getting much in terms of a return on investment. For the past few years, the district’s students fared poorly on their standardized tests. Last year, 25% of Fairfax County’s public school students failed their math test, 43% failed the writing test, 22% failed reading, and 38% failed the history standards of learning test.

Many private schools that are charging less than what Fairfax County’s public schools receive per pupil are performing much better in terms of students’ performances on standardized tests. Such enhanced performance in private schools at a lower per-pupil cost greatly supports the argument for school choice, in which taxpayer dollars follow students instead of failing systems. But we must first agree that the purpose of taxpayer-funded education is to teach children, not to employ overpaid administrators and follow orders from teachers unions.

The idea that Fairfax County Public Schools’s overpaid administrators and Democratic-endorsed school board members can buy their way out of the colossal learning loss problem they caused with an increasingly inflated budget is both misguided and irresponsible. Throwing hard-earned taxpayer dollars at Fairfax County’s public schools does not automatically result in student achievement any more than it yields competence from district administrators.

Virginia child marriage bill misses the mark in protecting minors

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

Virginia state legislators are considering a bill that would establish the legal marriage age to be 18 without exception. Under the current law, children ages 16 and 17 can marry in the commonwealth with exceptions.

Minors tying the knot is not a particularly pervasive problem in the commonwealth. Since 2019, only 27 minors have wed in Virginia. Many people, such as Family Foundation legislative counsel Josh Hetzler, argue there are important reasons to object to this bill. Likely top among them is teenage pregnancy.

Protecting children is a noble aspiration. But there are logical inconsistencies in our legislators’ passion for protecting minors.

At the heart of this matter is the question of when a child is mature enough to make adult decisions. Virginia’s age of consent is 18, which would be logically consistent with the marriage bill. If an adult has sexual relations with a minor, he or she is subject to criminal prosecution. 

However, Virginia also has a “Romeo and Juliet law,” which allows children ages 15 to 17 to engage in sexual intercourse without fear of criminal prosecution. Effectively, two teenagers can legally conceive a baby together, but under the proposed marriage legislation, they would not be permitted to marry right away, even with the support of their parents.

The state’s abortion law further complicates the matter. Virginia law stipulates that a parent, grandparent, or adult sibling living with the minor must grant permission for the abortion. Planned Parenthood, however, highlights that there is a legal loophole in which a judge can excuse a minor from this requirement. The organization further offers its resources to assist the minor with the judicial bypass process to attain an abortion.

In the spirit of protecting children, Virginia also rightfully has laws in place to prevent minors from purchasing tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana. The commonwealth further legally protects children under 18 from altering their bodies with tattoos or body piercings. In 2023, Virginia senators also considered a bill to prevent minors from having permanent transgender-related surgeries, but the Education and Health Committee voted against it.

Meanwhile, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R-VA) administration issued its Model Policies for Virginia’s public schools in 2023, specifying, among other things, that parents must be notified and grant permission if their children would like to change gender identities in school. The policy is predicated on the commonsense notion that parents, not agents of the government, have the child’s best interest at heart.

Many of the Democratic-majority school boards and liberal superintendents in Virginia subsequently issued defiant statements detailing they would refuse to follow the updated guidelines. Effectively, children in these districts as young as 5 years old can change their gender identities without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Given that social transitions often lead to physical transformations, these are extremely mature decisions that Virginia’s schools are allowing young children to make without their parents’ permission.

Yet marriage — not body-altering surgeries, social gender transitions, pregnancies, or abortions — seems to be the biggest enemy of childhood innocence, according to the state House and Senate. If Virginia’s legislators are truly committed to protecting the innocence of children, there are better ways to do that than attacking minors’ marriage exceptions, which are used in only very few cases.

The transgender activist’s hall pass

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

It’s no wonder there are so many people claiming to be transgender. The identity provides a hall pass, or sometimes quite literally a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

As one example, there are laws against indecent exposure in Washington, but not if one identifies as trans and is on White House grounds, apparently.

Presumably, assault is illegal and prosecuted even in California. But the rules are not the same if the male assailant identifies as trans and the victim is Riley Gaines. The former collegiate swimmer must have deserved to be held hostage and punched in the head by enraged college students in April 2023 for daring to speak out about the rights of female athletes and the original intent of Title IX.

Despite the permitted abuse and harassment on multiple college campuses, Gaines’s women’s rights and free speech trail led her most recently this month to a library in Missouri, where Bethany Hamilton joined her. Hamilton, one of the world’s best female surfers, objects to the World Surf League’s new trans inclusion rule. 

Hamilton has faced more than her fair share of adversity, and competing against males should not be added to her list. In 2003, a shark bit off Hamilton’s left arm. With what can only be described as remarkable tenacity and superhuman resilience, she returned to the sport a mere 26 days after the attack. Two years later, she took first place in the National Scholastic Surfing Association Championship. 

Like Gaines, Hamilton believes in the “radical” notion that females deserve a space to compete against each other.

There are undoubtedly many trans activists displaying “Be Kind” magnets on their car bumpers who would disagree with Hamilton. These activists, rarely athletes themselves, fervently argue that males should have access to female spaces, including sports. And while there is a general societal expectation that opponents to Hamilton’s viewpoint might attack the argument and not the person, we all know that the rules and norms don’t apply to the transgender community. They are special.

In their latest protest efforts, for example, trans activists unsurprisingly showed up to the Missouri library event with Gaines and Hamilton donning trans flags as their heroic capes. A particularly cruel attendee wore a shark costume. It’s difficult to know if, in an unfortunate coincidence, that attendee was identifying as a shark (don’t assume!). More likely though, the attendee was simply committing one of the most heinously awful bullying attacks possible against Hamilton — taunting her for the life-altering, traumatic nightmare she suffered as a 13-year-old.

The vast majority of people recognize the hypocrisy and injustice of allowing these radical activists to do and say whatever they please — others’ rights be damned. But they don’t talk about it publicly because they are afraid of being canceled or fired from their jobs. 

Still, this matter is drawing attention. This year, along the sidelines of a turf field, I overheard a group of parents discussing the possibility of collegiate sports scholarships for their athlete sons. One of the fathers said, “Let’s put dresses on them. It’s a game changer.” All the parents laughed and then looked around nervously to see who had heard them.

We are living in a world in which teachers are telling our children from the youngest ages that there is a new social hierarchy of humans. And according to this hierarchy, bullying matters less or more depending on the racial, sexual, and gender identities of the perpetrator and the victim. 

The question, then, isn’t why are more children now identifying as transgender, but really, why aren’t they? Who doesn’t enjoy being above the law? 

Casino bill highlights extreme political corruption in Fairfax County

Read Fairfax Virginia Chapter Leader Stephanie Lundquist-Arora’s new op-ed in the Washington Examiner about a plan to put a casino in her community. Stephanie clearly lays out why the casino is problematic, emphasizing the concerns residents have about the increase in crime and traffic congestion that will likely follow the casino’s construction.

This op-ed was written by Stephanie Lundquist-Arora, IWN member and chapter leader in Virginia. Originally appeared on Washington Examiner.

UPDATE: After the publication of this opinion editorial, Stephanie sent it along with talking points and a link to a local petition drive working to stall the casino, to her chapter members and alerted other Virginia grassroots groups of the situation. These groups later credited Stephanie with providing the information. As a result of Stephanie’s actions and her efforts to coordinate other grassroots groups, the Casino project was put on hold until 2025. In an email to her chapter, Stephanie wrote: 

Thanks to everyone who contacted Virginia’s senators and signed the petition against the casino in Tysons Corner! This afternoon, the Senate Resources Subcommittee voted 4-0 to delay the casino proposal until 2025. The war isn’t over yet, but this is a wonderful victory in an early battle. Our politicians’ votes shouldn’t be for sale, and only our engagement will keep them honest (or at least pretending to be).

This week, Virginia senators are considering a bill to permit a casino in Fairfax County. Residents are overwhelmingly against the bill, but its sponsor, Democratic state Sen. David Marsden, doesn’t seem to be at all dissuaded by the opposition of his constituents.

In fact, Marsden completely excluded the community and local politicians from the legislative drafting process. In particular, relevant Fairfax County Board of Supervisors members Dalia Palchik, Walter Alcorn, and Chair Jeff McKay were left out of Marsden’s legislative plot with the casino’s developer, Comstock Holding Companies.

Marsden’s unwavering support for casino development in a community that neither wants nor needs it doesn’t pass the smell test. In politics, when things do not pass that test, following the money can solve many mysteries. The case of this casino plan is archetypal.

Political action committees and special interest groups associated with the casino have provided large donations to many of Virginia’s politicians. The casino is part of a proposal for The View development in Tysons, a joint venture by Saudi Arabian firm Khalid Juffali and the Northern Virginia firm Clemente Development. In the last four months, Clemente has given $205,000 to Building a Remarkable Virginia PAC, which is one of the largest donors to Marsden and his allies in the state Senate.

On Oct. 18, 2023, Clemente gave $25,000 to Building a Remarkable Virginia PAC and $10,000 directly to Marsden. Five days later, the PAC donated $24,000 to Marsden. Following his triumph in the November 2023 election, on Jan. 5, Clemente donated an additional $180,000 to the Building a Remarkable Virginia PAC.

A mere 12 days after Clemente’s generous donation to one of Marsden’s most supportive political action committees, the senator introduced a bill to permit a casino in Fairfax County. The bill, of course, contains exceedingly specific stipulations that would allow a casino only in the Juffali/Clemente development.

From all appearances, it would seem that a commercial firm has partnered with a Saudi Arabian firm to buy Marsden and some of his colleagues to pass legislation against their constituents’ interests. And Clemente’s financial funneling into Building a Remarkable Virginia PAC, rather than simply donating directly to Marsden, indicates that there seems to be an interest in hiding the funding pathways.

Marsden is not alone in accepting large political donations from the casino developer and its affiliates. In 2023, Virginia Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell received $95,000 in campaign contributions from Building a Remarkable Virginia PAC and $6,772 directly from Comstock. Clemente also generously donated $100,000 to the chairwoman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Louise Lucas.

But these well-funded senators must find it difficult to argue that a casino in northern Fairfax County is for the public good. The Tysons Corner area is doing exceptionally well without it. There are plenty of jobs and opportunities for the residents. With all the debauchery associated with casinos, the main argument in favor of casino development is for the local economy’s development and growth. Yet Tysons Corner residents are fervently opposed to it.

Marsden and other proponents of casino development argue that despite the rise in crime, traffic congestion, and many other problems associated with casinos, Fairfax County would benefit from the casino’s tax revenue. However, McKay shared his concerns in a letter to the Virginia General Assembly that 70% of tax revenue from gaming would go to the state, rather than to Fairfax County. In other words, Fairfax County, which does not need the economic growth from a casino, would shoulder all of its burden and gain only a small fraction of its tax benefit. No, thanks.

The money associated with the casino development’s political donations is difficult to trace, though not impossible. Affiliated companies donate to political action committees that give to candidates, who donate to other candidates.

It will be interesting to watch Virginia’s politicians as SB675 progresses. Which of them are for sale? And which of them have given up pretending to care about their constituents’ interests?

Marsden already showed his hand when he sponsored the bill. Are his colleagues equally as committed to crony capitalism? Time will tell.