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Arlington County has created a new youth program aimed at diverting young people who commit crimes from the criminal justice system.

The program, called “Heart of Safety,” is the first county program established to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults, according to a press release from the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the top prosecutor for Arlington and the City of Falls Church, announced today (Tuesday) that she signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit and a county initiative called Restorative Arlington to found Heart of Safety.

Restorative Arlington began in 2020 to introduce to the public schools system, legal system and community new ways of holding people accountable for their crimes without putting them through the court process.

The founders of Heart of Safety say it will give victims a say in what they need to feel that justice has been served, while holding those who committed the crime accountable and reducing future crimes in the long run.

“Heart of Safety is about survivors’ rights, youth rehabilitation, and crime prevention; for survivors, it’s the peace of mind of taking charge of their recovery; for young people, it’s a second chance to make right what they did wrong; and for the community, it’s an investment in crime prevention,” said Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on a justice reform platform in 2019.

People who commit crimes and victims can volunteer to resolve their case through a conferencing process. Either the victim or the person who committed the crime must be 26 or younger when the incident took place to participate.

Cases have to be identified and deemed appropriate for the conferencing process, which is overseen by a trained facilitator. This person talks with both parties to listen to their experiences, understand what they need and determine if they should meet. If so, the facilitator brings the participants together to draft a restoration plan and follows up with them later to ensure they completed the plan and are satisfied with the outcome.

If this process doesn’t resolve the case, the Commonwealth’s Attorney can open a prosecution case.

“Heart of Safety embodies the priorities and interests of our community and is in full alignment with best practices in restorative justice diversion,” Restorative Arlington Executive Director Kimiko Lighty said. “We are grateful to be able to offer this long-awaited option for people who have been harmed in our community.”

Restorative Arlington worked with volunteers — victims of crimes, formerly incarcerated persons, teens and young adults — over the course of two years to establish Heart of Safety, according to the county.

Leaders of Restorative Arlington, meanwhile, are working with Arlington Public Schools to draft an agreement that would allow schools to refer students directly to Heart of Safety. The county says this will allow schools to hold students accountable for wrongdoing while keeping them out of the criminal justice system.

“Restorative Arlington’s Heart of Safety program will provide a great new option for diverting some youth from the traditional court process,” said Earl Conklin, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit Director. “It is an alternative model that has proven successful for both the youth and those who have been harmed.”

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With a flurry of touchdowns, an Arlington girls flag football team won the NFL Flag Football National Championship in Las Vegas this past weekend.

The Virginia Hurricanes, a team made up of sixth grade girls mostly from Arlington, dominated the competition in their age range during the six game tournament. The team routed their opponents during the tournament by a combined score of 96 to 8.

The team has been playing together for about three years. That continuity and cohesion is what makes this group special, the players tell ARLnow.

“We have all the right pieces. So, when it all fits together and is working, it feels like we could beat anyone,” quarterback Zoe Connor says.

Receiver Adriana Ordenes agrees, saying it’s the sometimes unquantifiable traits that can turn a good team into a great one.

“It’s a team sport. There’s not just one player that does everything,” Ordenes says. “Everybody is working together.”

Coached by Mike Rivera, this isn’t the first time the Virginia Hurricanes has won or participated in the national championship. In fact, two other girls teams he oversees — including the Virginia Girls 14U and the 12U squads — made it to this year’s tournament as well in Vegas, also playing extremely well.  Additionally, he runs a program for girls basketball teams.

But Rivera says the sixth grade Hurricanes were particularly successful due to that togetherness.

“They just have a lot of good team chemistry,” he says. “They’re great kids who get along well and are so supportive of one another. They are very unselfish.”

The tournament is sponsored by the NFL, with each team representing an NFL franchise. The Virginia Hurricanes won the regional tournament in New Jersey in June, so they went to Las Vegas representing the New York Jets. The NFL team provided apparel, jerseys, and brand new cleats to the players.

Like any great team, they did overcome some challenges along the way. Lyla Kelly, who plays cornerback on defense and center on offense, has cystic fibrosis, which landed her in the hospital at times during the season. But she says that her teammates always picked her up by checking on her and not missing a beat when she couldn’t be on the field with them.

“It’s so welcoming and everyone always supports me with everything,” Kelly says. “There’s not one person who treats me any differently.”

Her teammates agree.

“Lyla is such a great athlete and teammate. Nobody really notices [that she has cystic fibrosis] all that much,” Connor says. “On our team, she’s just a really good player. And a really good friend.”

The teammates talk about how Coach Mike Rivera, who lives in the Woodmont neighborhood, makes the sport fun for them, but also knows that he’s focused on the same thing they are: winning.

“Coach Mike… makes it so much fun, but the [coaches] don’t make too much fun so that we all goof around. We get serious,”  says Ordenes. “And I love winning.”

When the final whistle was blown and the Virginia Hurricanes knew the championship was theirs, they celebrated by “screaming and jumping around” and drenching their coaches with water blasters (the tournament was also sponsored by Nerf).

But Kelly, Connor, and Ordenes all say that their work isn’t done yet. Sure, winning one championship is nice, but they hope that bond they have will help them win again next time.

“We just get each other,” Ordenes says. “We’ve been playing with each other for so long that we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We all help each other out on the field.”

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(Updated 4:20 p.m.) Against the backdrop of Alexandria’s City Council voting to reinstate School Resource Officers, Arlington school and police officials say they’re confident kids and staff will be safe without daily police presence.

That’s because, leading up to the decision to remove SROs this summer, the county spent six years investing in other school safety pillars, adding counselors, enhancing building safety and beefing up emergency management operations, according to School Board Chair Barbara Kanninen.

When the School Board ended the program — out of concern for racial disparities in juvenile arrests — they did so knowing that staff could handle regular student disruptions without involving law enforcement, she said.

“I believe that background made us uniquely well-situated to think about the next step regarding SROs,” she said last night (Wednesday) during a discussion hosted by the Arlington Committee of 100 on school safety without SROs.

“It’s difficult talking about different jurisdictions in a harsh way, but the fact is that the Alexandria superintendent didn’t recommend removing SROs from schools for the simple fact that they didn’t believe they had the resources in place,” Kanninen continued. “They felt they needed SROs for safety.”

The discussion, which addressed current police engagement efforts and Arlington’s Restorative Justice program, couldn’t have been more timely. Not only did unsafe conditions in Alexandria schools lead the City Council to reinstate SROs this week, but also, APS recently had two safety-related incidents in which police got involved.

Panelists in the most recent Arlington Committee of 100 discussion Wednesday night (via Arlington Committee of 100/Facebook)

On Friday, allegations of sexual battery during Yorktown High School’s Homecoming football game resulted in a police investigation. Last Wednesday, police responded to false claims of a school shooter at Washington-Liberty High School.

As for Alexandria, Kanninen emphasized the fact that City Council narrowly voted to remove SROs against advice from the School Board, which voted 6-3 to keep them.

“We’re in a different situation,” Kanninen said. “We believe we have the resources and supports in place to keep kids safe as possible.”

In unsafe situations such as fights, she said APS has staff trained in defusing those situations and prefers this approach to introducing kids to the juvenile justice system.

“We don’t want their first interaction to be with a police officer,” she said.

Still, Kanninen said administrators will call 9-1-1 any time there’s a safety threat. For example, police were called to Washington-Liberty High School over the school shooter claim, conducted an investigation, found no threat and gave the “all clear” later that morning.

“Just like any other building, organization, or anyone in Arlington, if something happens, we’re going to call the police,” she said. “There have been situations where events happen in schools, and as a follow-up, parents may call the police. But for schools, we would do it if it’s a safety threat.”

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Arlington police officer interacts with kids (photo via ACPD)

Arlington Public Schools and the Arlington County Police Department are hashing out their new working relationship following the School Board’s decision to remove School Resource Officers from school grounds.

Rather than place officers in school buildings, ACPD has formed an off-site Youth Outreach Unit tasked with developing engagement opportunities for and building relationships with kids. This summer, the Arlington School Board became the second in the region to remove SROs from school grounds out of concern for racial disparities in juvenile arrests.

While the new unit builds up its presence, ACPD and Arlington Public Schools are discussing their respective roles in maintaining school safety, which will be outlined in a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

“We are meeting with the Youth Outreach Officers now to determine how they will interact with students and schools during the school year,” APS spokesman Frank Bellavia said. “We are also beginning the process developing the new MOU ACPD/APS MOU. As part of that process, we are creating focus groups with school-based staff and administrators to further discuss the future of our SRO relationship with the shared goals of best serving our students, schools, parents and the broader community.”

Work on the new MOU began on Aug. 30, according to APS. A final draft will be posted for review on Nov. 1, at which point the community will have 15 days to provide feedback on it.

Currently, ACPD’s Youth Outreach Unit has four corporals, two sergeants and a lieutenant who also oversees the Community Outreach Units, ACPD spokeswoman Kirby Clark said. Two team members were previously School Resource Officers.

“The [Youth Outreach Unit] team was selected following a standard internal process, open to all members of the department who hold the rank of officer or corporal,” Clark said.

The unit has fewer than half the 17 officers once assigned to the SRO unit, according to a March 2021 presentation.

Members were assigned to the unit in August and have started attending community events, including the Community Conversations with the Chief and the Arlington Police, Fire and Sheriff 9/11 Memorial 5K Race, Clark said.

“While attending community events and conducting proactive engagement on a daily basis, members of the Youth Outreach unit regularly seek to have meaningful conversations, answer questions, and build relationships with community members,” Clark said.

Feedback from the community conversations will inform the Youth Outreach Unit’s “specific programs, mission and objectives,” she said.

The unit is developing educational programming that could cover topics once addressed by SROs, such as Virginia’s legal system, internet safety, cyberbullying, dating safety and substance abuse. The unit also aims to partner with community groups and organizations to host relationship-building activities, such as sports.

“Given the very recent formation of the unit, specific programs and partnerships are still in development,” Clark said.

The unit and ACPD patrol officers will continue to respond to school-based incidents, which can be reported by calling the Emergency Communications Center at (703) 558-2222 — or 911 in an emergency, ACPD said last month. Non-emergency incidents can be reported through the Online Police Reporting System or by calling (703) 228-4300.

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Arlington Storm ballplayers meet U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (courtesy photo)

For the first time, a team of 9-year-old baseball players from the Arlington Babe Ruth League is going to the league’s version of the World Series.

The team, dubbed the Arlington Storm, is headed to Florida’s Treasure Coast today (Wednesday) to compete for the national title. The trip comes after winning the Virginia state championship and the Babe Ruth Southeast Regional Championship last week in Snow Hill, North Carolina.

“We’ve got some really good ball players, [and] they’re becoming really good teammates, most importantly,” said team captain Jeff Groharing, who is an attorney with the Department of Justice by day, and a baseball coach by morning (practice starts at 7:30 a.m. daily).

The boys will face several other teams from across the country in a series of games leading up to the championship on Thursday, Aug. 5.

“I’m burning up all my leave, but there’s no better way to spend it,” said Groharing, who says the kids have been having a whirlwind of a time since they won regionals.

After their victories the team received encouragement from Rep. Don Beyer and even visited the U.S. Capitol and met with Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Getting attention from the Senators is neat for the boys,” Groharing said. “Both Senators Warner and Kaine seemed to enjoy spending time with the boys as well.”

Groharing started coaching the team when his son, who is on the team, was 7. He says parents love sending their kids to practice because they start their days early and learn values, such as teamwork and discipline.

“I don’t think they realize how much of an accomplishment it is for them to get it this far,” he said.

Arlington was well-represented down in Florida last weekend by another youth sports team. The Arlington Soccer Association’s team of 15-year-old boys won the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships on Sunday, and three players received individual awards, we are told.

https://twitter.com/vayouthsoccer/status/1419712632794370057

https://twitter.com/arlingtonsoccer/status/1419711801030332421

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Arlington County is asking residents how and when they use athletic fields.

The County’s Public Spaces Master Plan, adopted in April 2019, calls for a public survey every five years to garner feedback to determine how and when Arlingtonians use the available athletic fields.

The collected data will be used to update the permit process, availability of fields, and who has access when.

“We have a finite amount of park spaces,” Jerry Solomon, Community Engagement Manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation, writes to ARLnow in an email. “Our goal is to ensure we are using them as efficiently and effectively as possible. We need to determine if we are offering field spaces at times that people can best access them.”

Fields for adult soccer leagues, for example, are most needed outside of typical working hours. Baseball diamonds for Little League should be accessible when the players are, like on weekends or after school.

This survey will help make sure this is the case, plus provide additional data that may not be as self-explanatory.

The survey specifically asks about activity start and end times for different age groups as well, like if kids 9 and youngers should end their field use prior sundown on weekdays and who should have access to lighted fields.

In total, Arlington has 96 athletic fields — a mix of rectangular fields (35), diamond fields (42), and a combination of the two (19). That can be further broken down into lighted (37) and not lighted fields (59) as well as natural grass (80) and synthetic turf fields (16).

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that the fields that have the most use on an individual basis are the lighted, synthetic turf fields. On average, each one of those fields gets more than 2,100 hours of play per year. This is compared to an average of 700 hours per non-lighted, natural grass field.

For years, which fields got lights has been a source of community contention.

Athletic field use in Arlington is often not a free-for-all or on a first-come, first-serve basis. Nearly all of the fields are either only accessible to permit holders or priority is given to permit holders.

Only six of the 96 athletic fields in Arlington are available as drop-in fields, or “community fields.” Even those, though, can be reserved for scheduled programs or practices.

That has drawn the ire of some residents, like those who live near Pentagon City and want to see one or both of the softball diamonds at Virginia Highlands Park opened up for community use.

There’s even a tiered priority system for the allocation of permits, which was first recommended in 2016 due to an “inequity” that existed in how fields were allocated.

Arlington Public Schools are given first priority, then county-organized non-profit youth sport leagues, then adult leagues, then for-profit sports leagues, and, finally, individual rentals or other organizations.

Some fields also have agreements with local universities for their use.

All of this, plus Arlington’s growing population, is resulting in heavy use and demand for athletic fields. According to the PSMP, the county could need an additional 11 rectangular and 2 diamond fields by 2035 to maintain the current levels of use and access.

The hope is that the survey and public feedback will allow for better, more efficient, and more fair use of the limited field space.

This survey will be open until the end of the month, says Solomon, at which point DPR will review and report findings to the Public Spaces Master Plan Implementation Committee in the spring.

There could be more opportunities to provide feedback come the spring and summer, Solomon noted.

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The Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation is asking residents if they would attend indoor programs and classes this winter.

In an email sent yesterday, the parks department announced that as staff prepare for winter, they are exploring opportunities for safe indoor classes and programs.

The survey asks whether residents are comfortable attending or sending children to indoor programming, or whether they would rather stick with virtual activities.

“It’s really to take folks’ temperature,” spokeswoman Susan Kalish said.

Whether the department hosts programs this winter is “not up to us — it’s up to the guidelines,” she said, referencing state health guidelines.

One guideline in Phase 3 of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Forward Virginia plan, initiated in August, tells establishments to keep 10 feet of distance between attendees when exercise activities, singing or cheering are involved. In all other settings, the minimum distance required is six feet.

Program sizes will be smaller and in some cases, due to constraints, particular classes may not be viable, Kalish said.

Community centers will have one-way entrances and exits, be reconfigured and cleaned more frequently, the email said.

Options for physical activities range from gymnastics to therapeutic adapted services, and other suggested topics for programming include history, music, science and discovery, languages and nature.

The parks department continues to offer virtual programs for people of all ages, abilities and interests. For now, the department said outdoor spaces are open and it continues to run “Programs in the Park (while the weather is good).”

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Arlington’s RISE program is looking for volunteers to mentor court-involved high school students.

The program aims to provide a support system for young adults in Arlington County who might not have one at home, program coordinator Erika Yalowitz said. RISE also welcomes the siblings of at-risk students to participate in the activities.

RISE — which stands for Respect, Integrity, Self Esteem and Empowerment — offers group and one-on-one mentor-mentee interactions in sessions that are both recreational and formational, to build lasting quality relationships, Yalowitz said. One part of the program is about self-improvement and planning for the future, while another aspect is mentors and mentees bonding via activities like going to a movie theater or carving pumpkin.

The mentorship program’s goal is to build relationships that will benefit the mentees even after they graduate high school.

“Most [mentees] have stayed at least until they complete high school,” Yalowitz said. “And then when they find a job or when they want to go to college, they have someone in addition to their parents, or their uncles or aunts or teachers at school to give them recommendation letters for a job or for college, and that is very valuable because we are creating a support structure that they didn’t have before.”

The program is currently in need of male mentors. Many of the mentors are women, while a majority of the mentees are boys. Preferably, the program coordinators would like to partner boys with male mentors and girls with female mentors, Yalowitz said.

Those interested in applying can reach out to Yalowitz via email at [email protected].

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(Updated at 5:15 p.m.) One of Arlington’s youth soccer teams is forfeiting games after members say a player was wrongfully removed from the team.

The Division 1 recreational soccer team LAFC has already forfeited two games, and members say they may forfeit a third this weekend if fellow player Tania Mendez can’t join them on the field. Her coaches and teammates are protesting a decision by the organization that oversees the league, the Arlington Soccer Association (ASA), which said she was too old to play.

The issue came to a head when an ASA official showed up at a game on Saturday, September 21, and told the team their forward was no longer allowed on the field — something coaches said was a change in policy.

Coach Deanna Herrity told ARLnow it was the players who then made a decision: “I asked my team if they wanted to play the second half without Tania. And they said ‘no.’ And I said alright ‘we leave.’ And we left.”

‘Playing makes me feel at peace’

Tania Mendez immigrated to the U.S. when she was 14 after growing up in El Salvador. She’s lived in Arlington for the last five years.

After arriving in the U.S., learning English meant repeating grades 8 and 11. Now she’s 19 and starting her her senior year at Wakefield High School. But no matter where she’s lived, she’d played soccer, and even dreamed of going pro when she was younger.

“All my life has been spent playing soccer and I think that there’s no other sport that makes me feel as happy as soccer does,” Mendez told ARLnow in an interview in Spanish. “Every time I’m on the field I forget everything else, playing makes me feel at peace.”

But after playing two games with the team this season, ASA’s Recreational Soccer Commissioner David Gould informed the team midway through their game on Saturday, September 21 that Mendez was ineligible to play due to her age. Several teammates and her the team’s coaches told ARLnow it was a confusing confrontation, with Mendez telling ARLnow that she was speechless at the time.

“It was a very diminishing moment,” said one of her teammates, Valentina, 17, a senior at Washington-Liberty High School. “She just doesn’t deserve the treatment she’s been receiving from the ASA.”

Coach Herrity said the ASA has helped make the league welcoming for all kinds of players in the past, including by offering scholarships to cover registration fees. However, she said she fears this action represents a new policy that could harm other players like Tania who also need their help.

“It’s going to disproportionately affect immigrants,” she said in an interview with ARLnow. “Oftentimes you’ll have friends who are immigrants who are not the typical age of the peers of the grade.”

It’s a concern she said she worries about in the larger picture of youth soccer participation falling, and becoming a sport for wealthier, whiter children.

Policies and Older Players

Coaches Andrea Leeson and Herrity had registered Mendez with the ASA, but that on the Friday before their second game, the organization emailed them that Mendez had been removed from the roster “effective immediately” because of her age. After not receiving a reply to their follow-up emails, the coaches put Mendez in the game the next day, which led Gould to arrive and ask her to be removed.

Leeson and Herrity said they were surprised by the ASA’s actions because it had been a long-standing policy at ASA to approve older players who had stayed behind to catch up on English.

In the ASA’s handbook, it notes that the recreational soccer leagues are sorted by grade level groups, “with the exception of players who are out of sync with other students their age (i.e.: due to repeating or skipping a year or more of school).”

The organization is governed by the Virginia Youth Soccer Association, which states in its bylaws that players must be under 19 years of age. However, the organization also notes that the rules of the national U.S. Youth Soccer Association supersede its own. Within the national organization’s policy and players rules document, players 19 years and under are included in the “youth” league category.

ASA approved a 19-year-old player on the team earlier this year, according to emails reviewed by ARLnow. Emails showed how written requests from the coaches for an exception led ASA staff to manually override the age limit in the online registration system.

In the February emails, Gould wrote that helping with the registration was “not a problem” and added that “she’s back there now!” in reference to the player signing up. That lenience, however, has seemingly changed.

“Arlington Soccer Association has allowed 19 year old players up until now, but [recently has] chosen to interpret their policy such that this 19 year old girl cannot play,” Leeson said. “We have exhausted our options in discussing this with them, as they don’t respond to our emails or requests to discuss this in more detail.”

ASA Executive Director Adam Brick responded after publication, telling ARLnow that, “While I am unable to comment on any specific individual’s situation, I am happy to clarify the age-limit rule which comes under the auspices of the United States Soccer Federation (US Soccer), US Youth Soccer (USYS) and the Virginia Youth Soccer Association (VYSA).”

Brick emphasized that based on age-grouping charts posted here from the VYSA, a student who turns 20 years old in 2020 is not eligible for youth soccer programs.

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Local professionals have the opportunity to contribute to the Arlington community through new a mentorship program managed by Arlington’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Services Unit.

RISE — an acronym for respect, integrity, self-esteem and empowerment — pairs at-risk kids with an adult in their community. Mentors help their mentees develop social, emotional and practical skills, program coordinator Erika Yalowitz wrote in an email to ARLnow.

“The objective is to provide young Arlingtonians a path to achieve their dreams,” Yalowitz wrote.

Yalowitz says participants in the program are usually Arlington high school students with histories of delinquency or status offenses, like breaking curfew or skipping school, or those who have been otherwise identified as at-risk. Participation is voluntary for mentees.

The group of mentors and teens typically meets in the evening on the first Wednesday of every month to participate in activities like hiking, bowling or mini-golf. Those interested in mentoring must commit to the program for a minimum of one year, submit to background and criminal record checks and attend on-site training.

Local businesses can also support the program by donating to help cover the cost of meals and activities. Anyone interested can contact [email protected] or [email protected]

Photo courtesy Erika Yalowitz

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Arlington Babe Ruth Baseball works with the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation to provide the county’s children — more than 1,300 boys and girls from age 4 to 12 — a high quality baseball program in the local area. With eight levels of play, ABR promotes equal competition, camaraderie, full participation, good sportsmanship and fun!

Teams are forming now for Spring 2018. Register by Feb. 1 on the ABR website: www.ArlingtonBabeRuth.com.

Neighborhood Teams

ABR endorses the neighborhood/school concept in youth sports. Where possible, ABR groups players on teams based on the neighborhood in which they live, or the school that they attend. Most likely players’ friends are on school teams which practice in their own neighborhoods.

We use the neighborhood principle at every level except the oldest–Majors 70′ (our intermediate size field league, 50/70) for 11 and 12-year-olds, where a modified draft creates a more competitive playing experience.

Commitment to Coach Training

ABR is committed to providing each player with an enjoyable and valuable baseball experience, helping kids learn the game while developing life skills and an appreciation for baseball. We provide each coach in the league with coach training clinics and coaching manuals covering safety, skills, teaching the game, and managing the ups and downs of competition.

Outstanding Travel Baseball

For those ABR players seeking a highly-competitive experience in addition to recreational baseball, ABR Travel Baseball is a nationally-competitive youth baseball organization for players ages 8-12. ABR Travel teams participate in the Cal Ripken all-star tournaments and regularly advance into the Virginia State Cal Ripken Tournament. ABR Travel’s 2017 8YO, 9YO and 10YO Storm teams won their District Championships and after winning their State tourney, the 10YO Storm team represented Virginia in the Southeast Regional Tournament last summer.

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