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The Fairfax County School Board is looking at adding more holidays, including Diwali and Yom Kippur, to a proposed calendar for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year.

The board reviewed a proposed calendar from Fairfax County Public Schools staff during a work session yesterday (Tuesday), with a vote on the matter scheduled for their next regular meeting on Jan. 27.

The proposed 14-holiday schedule would begin July 1 and have a two-week winter break, one-week spring break, and days off for students through professional work days. It would mirror neighboring school districts’ holidays, a staff presentation showed.

FCPS staff recommended adding Diwali and Yom Kippur as full holidays with Rosh Hashanah as a day off for students. Staff would have the option to use it for professional development or also take the day off at their own discretion.

The proposed calendar includes an observance of Eid al-Fitr in 2023, even though it falls outside of school hours. The Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan will begin at sundown on Friday, April 21 to sundown on Saturday, April 22 next year.

FCPS is officially observing those four holidays for the first time this academic year, but the school board stopped short of granting students days off.

Last year’s calendar development proved unusually tense, with numerous residents voicing concerns about the process and local religious leaders expressing disappointment from a diversity standpoint.

Superintendent Scott Brabrand said yesterday that he accepted responsibility for a calendar process last year that was divisive and hurtful but added that he thought the calendar process this year was enhanced. 

It is complex. There’s no perfect calendar process. I think this process was better than the process we had before,” Brabrand said.

This time around, FCPS enlisted a calendar committee, consisting of school staff, students, parents and associations, to weigh in on the changes. FCPS Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith said several faith-based groups were invited, but not all chose to participate.

School board members wondered whether staff assigned different weights for priorities identified through a community input process that included surveying staff, students, and families. Brabrand said the proposal wasn’t a formula, but the staff’s best solution.

Despite a nearly two-hour long work session, school board members called for clearer justification from staff regarding which holidays will be recognized and adding Veterans Day as a day off for students.

“We want for this to not come across as arbitrary to our community, that people can take a look at the same data and kind of come close to the same conclusion,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

School board members suggested that the survey feedback wasn’t incorporated as well as it could have been.

Guided by U.S. Supreme Court rulings throughout the last century, public school holidays for religious occasions must be justified with a secular reason, such as high absence rates.

Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said the proposed calendar was driven by FCPS’ operational needs, not one that reflects community feedback.

“We need to work on this calendar more to ensure that that has that mutual respect and inclusivity of all in it,” she said.

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A retired priest who headed the Catholic Diocese of Arlington’s Office of Child Protection and Safety for seven years has been indicted for allegedly sexually abusing a boy in Fairfax County two decades ago.

Virginia’s Office of the Attorney General announced this morning (Tuesday) that a grand jury handed down two felony charges against Terry Specht, 69, of Donegal, Pennsylvania on Dec. 20.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court grand jury charged Specht with aggravated sexual battery of a child under the age of 13 and sexual abuse of a child under the age of 18 with whom he had a custodial or supervisory relationship.

According to the indictments, the abuse occurred between March 1 and Sept. 30, 2000 and involved Specht “intentionally touching…intimate parts or material covering such intimate parts” of a victim identified as G.H., who was a minor at the time.

Specht served as a priest in the Diocese of Arlington from 1996 to 2012, including as director of its Office of Child Protection from 2004 to 2011.

The Diocese of Arlington says it first received an allegation of sexual abuse against Specht in 2012. The allegation was reported to law enforcement, and Specht was placed on administrative leave while the diocese’s review board conducted an investigation.

According to a report by The Washington Post at the time, the investigation concerned abuse of a teen boy that occurred in the late 1990s while Specht was parochial vicar at the Saint Mary of Sorrows Catholic Church in Fairfax.

“The Review Board found the allegation to be inconclusive, and law enforcement never brought charges related to the 2012 allegation,” Diocese media relations director Amber Rosebloom told FFXnow in a statement, noting that Specht was granted a request for medical retirement in 2012 and has not served in priestly ministry since.

According to the Diocese, Specht’s role in its Office of Child Protection was as a policy administrator and instructor, and he was not involved in the 2012 investigation or in assigning priests. A subsequent third-party review of the office’s policies, staff, and procedures did not find any issues.

“As a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Father Specht underwent a criminal background check and completed VIRTUS safe-environment training,” the Diocese said. “He also underwent recurring background checks every five years, consistent with diocesan policy.”

The Diocese says it reported a second, separate allegation of abuse that it received in 2019 to police and has shared information and files related to both allegations with Attorney General Mark Herring’s office.

Specht is the third person to face charges as part of an ongoing, statewide investigation of clergy-related sexual abuse, according to the attorney general’s office.

“Children should always feel comfortable around religious leaders in their life, without fear that they could somehow hurt them,” Herring said in a statement. “Our joint investigation with the Virginia State Police into potential clergy abuse in Virginia remains ongoing, and I am proud of the work that we have done so far.”

Specht’s case is scheduled to go to trial in October 2022.

Herring encouraged Virginians who might have information about this case or any other instance of clergy abuse to speak up. His office launched a clergy abuse hotline in 2018 that remains available 24/7 at 1-833-454-9064 and www.VirginiaClergyHotline.com.

“No matter how long ago the incident occurred, we will take it seriously and make sure that you get the help and support you deserve,” he said.

The Diocese of Arlington similarly encouraged people with information about Specht or other incidents of misconduct or abuse to contact the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-691-2131 or its victim assistance coordinator at 703-841-2530.

“The Diocese of Arlington has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse and continues to be fully committed to training our clergy, staff and volunteers to identify and report suspected instances of abuse,” Rosebloom said. “No one with a credible accusation of abuse of minors is serving in the Diocese.”

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Fairfax County housing officials want to assist religious congregations interested in using their existing buildings or land to help create affordable housing.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors talked about the idea at its housing committee meeting last Tuesday (Nov. 23). While in the preliminary stages of discussion, the proposed collaboration could help religious groups that need to sell vacant property to address struggling finances, officials suggested.

“A lot of these congregations are, especially the older ones, are facing economic and financial pressures, and they’re looking for a lifeline out of that,” Braddock District Supervisor James Walkinshaw said. “We’re in a little bit of a race against time here.”

He shared that developers are asking to buy excess land from religious groups and build million-dollar-plus homes on those parcels, thereby giving faith organizations revenue that would help them continue providing services to their congregations.

Senior Facility Could Serve as Model

Faith organizations have a model for one way to approach redeveloping their land through Chesterbrook Residences, an assisted living facility with a capacity for 109 residents that opened at 2030 Westmoreland St. in McLean in 2007.

The project used land donated by the Chesterbrook Presbyterian Church, which sought to create an assisted living facility for low-income seniors when it dissolved in 2000, according to a history provided by Chesterbrook Residences.

The $13.5 million project also involved a partnership with the Lewinsville and Immanuel Presbyterian churches and Temple Rodef Shalom. Local and federal grants provided $12 million, and the religious groups raised the remainder, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman said in a blog post.

“The National Capital Presbytery donated the land for this project. Without this gift, the cost would likely have been too burdensome,” Schwartzman wrote.

Other Options for Religious Groups

Places of worship could also pursue other strategies, such as retrofitting part of a building, while still maintaining a worship space.

They could demolish an existing structure to build a new one with both housing and worship space, according to Judith Cabelli, director of the county’s Affordable Housing Development Division.

“There might be a…parking lot on site that is much larger than the house of worship needs, and a multifamily building could be built on that parking lot, and then parking could be reconfigured,” she said.

But the complex and sometimes lengthy permitting approval process can create barriers.

Chairman Jeff McKay noted that congregations could also face development challenges, from stormwater management to zoning. Their buildings may be located in environmentally sensitive areas that limit development.

To address those concerns, county leaders are looking for ways to streamline the approval process, possibly working with an initial batch of congregations to help their projects succeed. If that route is pursued, the initial group could later be expanded to more congregations, McKay suggested.

Next Steps

County staff proposed providing a handout, a video, or another resource to help religious groups. Cabelli said the county envisions having community educational meetings and adding a “Faith in Housing” section to the Department of Housing and Community Development’s website.

An informational video could be launched in early 2022 with meetings to follow throughout the year.

Housing and Community Development Director Tom Fleetwood said he plans to continue examining possible approaches to bring back to the housing committee.

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