By Ryan Quinn email@example.com Aug 15, 2022
The Rev. Matthew Watts, pastor at Grace Bible Church and nonprofit leader on Charleston’s West Side, speaks during a West Virginia Board of Education meeting last week.
West Virginia public schools doled out about 30,000 out-of-school suspensions last school year, in a state with roughly 251,000 public school students.
In 70% of these suspensions, it was a student from a low-socioeconomic-status family being ejected from school, even though these poorer students represent only half of public school student.
The West Virginia Department of Education defines low-socioeconomic status as being directly certified by the state as eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch through meeting qualifiers such as receiving food stamps. For years, children from these families have been suspended significantly more than their representation in the student population.
While the education department said numbers aren’t yet available on children in foster care last school year, they, too, were disproportionately suspended from public schools in earlier years.
This is data the department presented last month to state lawmakers, who mandated the report. A Black Charleston pastor is using the report to reiterate what he’s been saying for years in this 93% white state: African Americans aren’t the only ones suffering from a school discipline disparity.
The Rev. Matthew Watts told the nearly all-white West Virginia Board of Education last week that these suspensions are “a major driver of systemic, generational poverty because it has a cumulative effect — that most of the kids suspended from school are low-income children, and they’re stacked in these low-income communities, and so it retreads itself and perpetuates itself over time.”
Watts is a pastor and nonprofit leader on Charleston’s West Side, one of those low- income communities and one with a large population, at least for West Virginia, of African Americans.
“This issue has been viewed as being merely a problem of African American children,” Watts said, “but it really has a strong socioeconomic component.”
Paul Hardesty, a resident of Logan County and new president of the state school board, said he can personally relate.
“I go back to my roots in Logan,” said Hardesty, who previously led the county school board there. “When you see a child that lives in a tough circumstance to begin with, and he comes to the only place where he gets any kind of positive reinforcement, and then he gets suspended, where does the thing spiral to? Out of control. What little bit of hope he had is lost.”
Although there are other school discipline disparities, the racial disparity continues, according to the education department data. Black students represented only 4% of West Virginia public school students last school year, but they received 10% of all out- of-school suspensions and 8% of all expulsions.
National research has shown that Black students are more likely to be disciplined for more subjective offenses, like disrespect and loitering, than white students.
The state school board oversees the education department.
The department’s July 24 report to state lawmakers lacked information on the actual number of individual children being suspended. This obscures how many of last school year’s 30,000 suspensions were because of some students being repeatedly sent home from school.
The department, since it presented that report, still hasn’t said when or whether it will provide either that information or county- or school-level data.
“The Department will continue to meet with community partners to discuss the issue, the data and the reporting,” spokeswoman Christy Day wrote in an email. “The [board] has requested the issue be included on its September meeting agenda for further discussion.”
She wrote earlier that “counties and schools have access to the data to analyze, and disaggregate as is needed, and the [department] will continue to assist them in root- cause analysis, strategic planning and any other need that a county or school may request.”
The state school board has also not reversed its 2019 policy change that gave county school boards, and individual principals if those boards so decide, freedom to label less-serious student offenses as more serious. That allowed schools to punish less- serious offenses with out-of-school suspensions without the state education accountability system dinging these schools.
Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, said right after the July 24 presentation of the report that, “I think, if we had the ability to see the county-by-county reports with those same table categories, I think you might have something to write about.”
He said, “I suspect that many of the issues are not statewide, they are county issues, there are pockets, individual schools, where we have failures. Failure of leadership maybe, failure of training possibly.”
Roberts’ committee didn’t make time during the July 24 meeting to publicly discuss the report after the education department presented it. Yet, that presentation and state school board members’ subsequent discussion, even if fueled by Watts showing up at their board meeting, represent rare times that the state’s top education policymakers have publicly discussed the longstanding discipline disparities.
It remains to be seen whether they will keep focused.
“West Virginia lawmakers have a long history of ignoring uncomfortable issues — sometimes for generations — when it seems as though there is little political pressure to act,” The Parkersburg News and Sentinel wrote in an editorial July 30, specifically on the racial discipline disparity.
“If lawmakers and education officials believe as they say, that this is a real problem, for goodness sake how many more years’ worth of students are they going to let suffer before they act to address it?” the editorial said.
There have been multiple previous reports on that discipline disparity, but Roberts, elected in 2018, said he hadn’t seen them.
Roberts said, “I think we haven’t been diligent in finding out the documentation of the data. ‘Well, we have 55 counties and, you know, everybody does things differently and we just don’t know.’ It’s excuses, excuses.”
He said that, “now, we have some hard, fast numbers, we maybe have some trends that are developing, our world society is changing. Is that part of what is going on? I don’t know, but at least now, from now on, we will be able to track things much better, and the conversation like we’re having right now is going to continue. And I think it should continue, like it must continue if we’re going to help the kids that are hurting. Because, if we don’t reach these kids now and help them now, they’re going to be the ones that are in jail, and we’re going to be paying the jail bill.”
Watts suggested the state school board create “a way of having [the latest report] disseminated around the state, disaggregating the data, 55 reports for the local school boards, encourage them to have virtual meetings around the state. Then we would get the issue exposed, and then people can realize that it’s in their vested interest to work with their local school to solve the problem.”
But he also spoke against simply talking about it more.
“It’s going to take decisive action by people engaged at the local level,” Watts said, “and we think we can help you lay out a plan as to how to do that.”
Ryan Quinn covers education. He can be reached at 304-348-1254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.