West Virginia’s Black community requests updates to discipline disparities law

CHARLESTON — On the day set aside to honor a civil rights pioneer, members of the Black community in West Virginia say more needs to be done to address disparities in school discipline that hurt minorities and people in poverty.

Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day with lawmakers still working on the sixth day of the 60-day annual legislative session. It was also West Virginia NAACP Day when leaders in the Black community gathered at the Capitol to lobby lawmakers on issues important to them.

“In January 2023, I am still placing hope that all persons are created equal and deserve equity, as equality is two-thousand-late,” said Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia. “We are still dreaming. When will the dreams become a reality?”

One of those issues was how discipline in the state’s K-12 public school system disproportionately hits Black students, other minorities, and students from poor families.

“The haves and the have-nots must stop,” said Walker, the co-chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party and the House of Delegates’ lone Black woman. “Stop redlining education with the high number of suspensions and expulsions with African-American students.”

Speakers are seeking changes to a law passed in 2020 meant to provide data on school discipline disparities. Senate Bill 723 required the Department of Education to look at statewide data on school disciplinary actions and develop a plan to reduce the number of disciplinary actions. The department is required to submit a report to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability every two years.

Data on disparities was released last July by the Department of Education during legislative interim meetings, but some officials and Black leaders remained unhappy with the data, which they said was too broad and didn’t provide school-level data needed to target schools with the largest disparities. The department also did not release any plan to address disparity issues as required by the new law.

The Tuesday Morning Group, an organization focused on economic and social justice issues, wants to see the law created by SB 723 amended, requiring the Department of Education to report progress on addressing disparities annually to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. They also want disparity reports presented to LOCEA during every legislative interim meeting.

“It needs to be amended to where the Department of Education gives a report at least annually, and we’d like to see reports given in the legislative interim sessions,” said the Rev. Matthew Watts, a leader in the Tuesday Morning Group. “We really want to keep this thing before the public so the public realizes that this needs to be dealt with at the local level.”

The July data release looked at five years of data beginning with the 2017-2018 school year. According to the report’s data, Black students made up 4 percent of the student population in the 2021-2022 school year but made up 10 percent of all disciplinary referrals. That percentage has stayed mostly steady over the last five school years.

Broken down by severity levels with level 1 being least severe and level 4 being most severe, 10.9 percent of level 1 referrals were Black students and 7.8 percent of level 4 referrals were Black students. According to the report, 9.4 percent of all in-school suspensions in 2021-2022 were Black students, while 9.8 percent of all out-of-school suspensions were Black students.

Out of 170,188 actions and interventions in 2021-2022, there were 52,355 actions involving detention, 32,613 incidents resulted in in-school suspensions, 30,011 resulted in out-of-school suspension, 386 resulted in alternative education placement, 157 resulted in expulsion, and 54,666 were listed as “other interventions.”

To address complaints from Black leaders and some members of the state Board of Education, State Superintendent of Schools David Roach said in December that the department would expand the scope of the original data report, as well as release a plan to address the disparity issue.

The issues go beyond race. According to Watts, school suspensions have been normalized in public schools, coming down harder on students from low-income families, regardless of color. He says the issues are affecting thousands of students, contributing to their under-education and affecting the state’s poor showings on statewide summative assessments.

“People must understand the scope and magnitude of the problem,” Watts said. “What we do now is that 70% of all the students suspended are low-income children. The preliminary data really kind of shows the suspension rate is a real driver of academic performance among a lot of low-income children.”

With many of these students still in the public school system, Watts said it’s not too late to help them. Black leaders are calling for the use of remaining American Rescue Plan Act federal funds for after-school programs and other community efforts to help students, such as academic enrichment programs, efforts to increase job skills and training levels.

The Department of Education received $762 million in ARPA funds in 2021. That’s not counting the $448.8 million the department received through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in 2020.“How do we have a solution that really engages the public? To do that, there needs to be resources allocated at the public level so the community organizations, faith-based organizations can provide tutoring and mentoring after school, weekends, and during the summer,” Watts said. “Ultimately, we have to stabilize the families so that they can have more stability and have more resilience in the children. It’s really all hands on deck.”

State Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Amy Grady, R-Mason, said she was meeting with Watts Monday afternoon to discuss The Tuesday Group’s recommendations. Grady said she’s been in communication with Watts.

“Rev. Watts and I have talked over text messages about those issues and the cultural divide,” Grady said. “There are a lot of disciplinary issues that are happening in schools, such as (Charleston’s) West Side that he feels are a little bit extreme and we need to make sure that teachers and staff understand the differences there and what can help and what can’t.”

House Education Committee Minority Chairman Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said he would re-introduce a bill to require cultural competency training for teachers in West Virginia. The bill would require teachers to be taught about different cultural traditions, practices, world views based on ethnicity, race and other factors.

According to Hornbuckle, the Wayne County school system has a similar program which has helped lower discipline disparities and improved educational outcomes for minority students. Hornbuckle said the bill would give teachers the tools they need to bridge cultural differences.

“I think what Watts is talking about is well placed, but I also think there are other things that we can do that can alleviate some of these things,” Hornbuckle said. “We have this disparity. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that someone is outright trying to punish somebody, but there is something there, whether it be someone not having experience with someone who does not look like them, talk like them, or act like them. We need to be looking at measures like that.”

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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