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West Virginia editorial roundup

May 1, 2019

Recent editorials from newspapers about West Virginia:

April 30

The Exponent Telegram, on a free community college program:

The state’s great experiment in free community and technical college has begun. Students are now able to apply for grant money that will cover tuition at some of the state’s community colleges.

The Community and Technical College System’s website launched last week, and prospective students can learn how they can take advantage of the program.

Applicants must first seek out other scholarships and grants, and then the balance is covered by the state program.

The grant does not cover the cost of books or special fees with certain courses and it does not cover all programs at community colleges.

The programs covered by the grant are for specific fields that have a high demand in the workplace right now.

“These eligible academic programs represent high-demand fields so our students are earning their credentials for the careers that matter in West Virginia,” said Sarah Tucker, chancellor for the state’s Community and Technical College System. “From allied health fields and computer science to electric utility and welding technologies, these are the programs that lead to real jobs — and allow our graduates to continue living, working and raising their families in the Mountain State.”

The program has some conditions: You must be a legal state resident for at least a year; you must have a high school diploma or equivalent; you must promise to live and work in West Virginia for at least two years after graduation; you must complete two hours of community service each semester.

In addition, the student must maintain a 2.0 GPA and must take a drug test before each academic term.

The conditions for free tuition are not, in our opinion, out of line. A free education is worth all the stipulations.

And while the grants do not pay for student housing or food, the bulk of those applying are going to be students who are living at home and likely holding down a job at the same time.

This new program comes after two years of efforts by the Legislature. To illustrate its importance, the bill passed both houses unanimously during this year’s regular session.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who pushed the program through the legislative process, as well as his fellow lawmakers, should be applauded for putting in practical regulations while implementing a very valuable program.

By helping students get basically a free education and preparing them for key jobs in the marketplace, we stand to see an improved economy and we might help keep young people from moving to other states to make a living.

“It opens the door to high-demand jobs,” Tucker said. “It allows people to earn credentials close to home. It’s adaptable to their busy schedules. It’s in sync with industry needs, so graduates have jobs waiting on them. And, thanks to this forward-looking investment by the state, it’s now more affordable than ever before.”

This is a program that can make a big difference not only to our economy, but to people’s lives as well.

This is a grand experiment. We trust it will be successful.

Online: https://www.wvnews.com/theet

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April 28:

The Herald-Dispatch on criminal charges filed against a drug company executive stemming from the opioid crisis:

Within the context of all the misery and suffering brought on by the opioid epidemic, the filing of criminal charges against another drug trafficker may not seem like a big deal.

But a case that surfaced last week in New York takes a significant leap in casting executives of drug manufacturers and distributors in the light that much of the public sees them — as simple drug dealers, not unlike the ones that Huntington police arrest and charge all the time.

Only in the case of the drug company executives, the volume of pills used illicitly can far exceed the drugs purveyed by the common street dealer.

In the New York case, Laurence Doud III, the retired CEO of the Rochester Drug Co-Operative, was arraigned last week on two counts of conspiracy related to drug trafficking. According to prosecutors, Doud is the first drug industry executive or former executive to face drug-trafficking charges.

If the charges leveled against Doud are true, then calling his activities drug trafficking appears to be justified. Prosecutors say he turned his small New York firm into a supplier of last resort for independent pharmacies whose dubious practices got them cut off by other distributors, an indictment unsealed (April 23) alleges.

Although Doud claims he is being used as a scapegoat to cover up wrongdoing by others, data trotted out by prosecutors certainly suggest something was awry at Doud’s company during the last few years.

According to prosecutors and an Associated Press report, from 2012 to 2016, Rochester’s sales of oxycodone tablets skyrocketed from 4.7 million to 42.2 million — an increase of about 800% — and its fentanyl sales soared from approximately 63,000 dosages in 2012 to more than 1.3 million in 2016. During the same period, the company’s internal compliance office flagged 8,300 orders but reported just four to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

An internal alert system flagged about 7,800 orders that exceeded a monthly purchase threshold, but the company still filled most of them without contacting the pharmacy or reporting the activity to the DEA, according to court papers filed with Doud’s indictment.

To date, much of the litigation blaming the prescription drug manufacturing and distribution industry for this nation’s opioid crisis has taken place in civil court. That’s the case for many local governments in the Tri-State area who are seeking damages from the drug companies for the costs they’ve suffered in coping with deaths and overdoses over the last decade-plus.

But it is refreshing to think that at least one set of prosecutors is willing to take a case into the criminal realm if they think an individual should be held accountable for what appear to be reckless actions. Perhaps big company executives will be more attuned to obeying the law — and preventing abuses of deadly drugs — if they know they will be held personally responsible and perhaps spend time behind bars. Anyone knowingly breaking the law and violating safeguards should be held accountable and face the full wrath of the law.

After all, more than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2017, according to the AP. If that’s not criminal, what is?

Online: www.herald-dispatch.com

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April 28

The Roanoke (Virginia) Times on Appalachia stereotypes:

Ron Howard is making a movie based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.”

This is not a good thing.

It will no doubt be a very well-done movie. Howard’s resume includes “Apollo 13,” ″The DaVinci Code” and being brought in to rescue “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” But it’s not a movie that is likely to be helpful to those of us in Appalachia.

Vance’s book certainly told truth — his personal truth about growing up in an unstable family in southern Ohio and seeing lots of people who simply decided not to work and take advantage of welfare instead. That’s undoubtedly true; we’d be fools to deny that those kind of things happen. But is that the whole truth about Appalachia?

Appalachia is so poorly-understood beyond its borders that it’s painfully easy to stereotype. We see that every time some out-of-town political candidate comes to Roanoke and starts talking about coal as if the mines were next door. Most of Appalachia — which culturally covers everything west of the Blue Ridge Mountains out to the foothills of Ohio — doesn’t even mine coal at all. Appalachia is a far more diverse region than people give it credit for, sometimes even the people who live in it. That’s where “Hillbilly Elegy” the movie is likely to be so damaging. If people outside the region see Vance’s book brought to life — the drug addicts, the welfare cheats, the layabouts —and think that’s an accurate depiction of all of Appalachia, it will just become yet another stereotype for a region that’s been stereotyped long enough. It’s as if you could only watch one movie about New York and what you saw was “American Gangster.” You’d form a very different impression of the city than if you watched, say, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

The popularity of Vance’s book has prompted some literary rejoinders, pushing back against his depiction of the region. First came “What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia” by Elizabeth Catte, a historian who lives in the Shenandoah Valley. More recently comes “Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy,” a collection of essays by scholars and community activists in the region, edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll. These rebuttals are all well and good, although they do tend to be a bit ideological. Catte is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, hardly typical in Appalachia, or anywhere else. The New York Times reviewed “Appalachian Reckoning” and found that “for every essay . . . that’s provocative, another is unreadable,” stuffed with academic language about ”“wider discursive contexts.”

—What Appalachia needs is not another book, but an entirely new story to tell about itself. In popular culture, if Appalachia gets depicted at all, it’s in a negative way. Think “Deliverance.” Or District 12 of “The Hunger Games.” Our fear is that the movie version of “Hillbilly Elegy” will simply add to those negative portrayals. Appalachia certainly has its problems, particularly in adapting to a new economy that puts a premium on things that the region doesn’t have — principally, a highly-educated workforce. Amazon chose to locate in Arlington, where 71 percent of the adults 25 and older have a college degree. In Buchanan County and Covington, that figure is 8.3 percent. The economics of the so-called “knowledge economy” are pretty cruel. Vance depicts an Appalachia peopled by lazy people who disdain education. “We don’t study as children, and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. Our kids perform poorly in school,” he writes at one point. In another, he says: “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than 20 hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.” Perhaps that’s so in some places, but there is another Appalachian story to be told — we just need a larger megaphone through which to tell it.

—Students in Southwest Virginia (the portion of Appalachia we care most about) don’t “perform poorly in school” as Vance writes. They perform quite well. The Virginia Department of Education divides the state into eight regions. In 2018, one region finished first in the state in the Standards of Learning testing in all three categories — reading, math and science. Was this Northern Virginia, the sons and daughters of the state’s most well-to-do and well-educated citizens? No. Northern Virginia finished second. Instead, the region that finished first was Southwest Virginia — from Pulaski County. And yet state officials in Richmond still dared to ask St. Paul attorney Frank Kilgore — a frequent booster for the region — whether Southwest Virginia “has the DNA to fill cybersecurity jobs.” That’s insulting, but typical.

—In 2015, Dickenson County merged its high schools into Ridgeview High School. What was the first team from Ridgeview to win a state championship? Not the football team, but the robotics team. That team went on to compete in the world championship in Detroit, in which it placed 9th out of 64 teams — and was a finalist for an award that honored enthusiasm. Vance might have known some lazy people growing up, but he sure didn’t know these kids.

—The Dickenson students weren’t even the only team from Southwest Virginia to go to the world championship last year, either. So did a team from Southwest Virginia Community College that included students from six different high schools in the region.

—Students in five Southwest localities — the counties of Wise, Russell, Washington, Bland and Norton — took part in NASA experiment that involved launching satellites into low-earth orbit.

—The American Wind Energy Association sponsors an annual contest where school teams compete to build functioning wind turbines. One school system has become — no pun intended — a powerhouse in this competition. Is this school system in Northern Virginia, which aspires to be Silicon Valley East? No, it’s Bath County, where last year, the team from Bath County High School took first place in the nation.

Given all this talent, technology companies ought to be competing to locate in Appalachia, not acting as if it didn’t even exist. These are the stories we need to be telling the world — that we are a topographically-challenged and economically-challenged part of the country that is populated by smart, hard-working people.

We don’t need an elegy; we just need a new economy — and a chance to tell the world a different story than the one Ron Howard and J.D. Vance will.

Online: www.roanoke.com