W.Va. House Ed Committee hears expulsion data for low income students

Charleston — Rev. Matthew J. Watts, the senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston and CEO of HOPE Community Development Corporation, asked the W.Va. House of Delegates’ Education Committee to require “accountability” regarding the high percentages of low-income white and black student expulsion rates in state schools.

House Education chair Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, greeted the committee and guests at the Jan. 30 meeting by welcoming Watts, noting that it was Watts’ birthday. The room filled with applause for the reverend.

Watts presented a timeline of federal, state and independent educational reports that noted 20,000 students suspended per year, with higher suspension rates for poorer white students and black students. Watts noted that middle- and lower-class black suspension rates remain equal, adding that black male students, regardless of household income, are suspended at higher rates than any other group.

Watts speculated that neglect of the data over the decades has normalized the issue and said the problem is systemic. “It’s going to take legislative action for change.”

Watts does not think student demographics expelled at higher rates were premeditated acts or malicious intent. He said, “Something is built into the cultural lens of the school system.”

Watts suggested an implicit bias.

“When someone in the school system has to make a decision, it appears that African-American and lower-income white children are being treated more harshly.”

He called for accountability. “We are not looking for villains.”

Watts said his goal is to inform, find the problem and fix it.