Chris Schulz Published

Despite Legislative Action Last Year, Discipline Continues To Be Focus Of Session

An empty school hallway is largely white and well-lit, with bright blue doors at the end of the hallway.Adobe Stock/M. Ireland Photography

This story originally appeared as a video package on the Jan. 24, 2024 episode of The Legislature Today.

Discipline has always been a part of a school education. But in recent years, concerns over student and teacher safety have elevated discipline to be the school issue of the day. The West Virginia Legislature has attempted to address the matter and has indicated it will continue to do so this year.

Last year, state education groups told legislators that school discipline was at a near crisis level. Since then, the West Virginia Department of Education has analyzed discipline data that shows it is a multifaceted, complex issue.  

Adam Henkins, director of Safe Schools, Athletics and Title IX for Monongalia County Schools, said things have changed a lot for students in recent years, including the pervasiveness of vaping and cellphones. But another big factor is that the environment outside of the classroom, at home and beyond, has changed.

“Maybe 15 years ago, a student misbehaved and a parent was called home or a student was suspended from school for a day,” Henkins said. “The outside environment, the home environment would take care of that behavior, we’d come back to school and we’d see a different child. That’s not the case anymore.”

He said suspension could now mean giving a student exactly what they want because they don’t want to be in school in the first place. In more serious cases, it could mean sending a student away from caring educators and back to an unsafe home environment. Henkins believes that keeping a student in school provides the opportunity not only to, in many cases, meet their basic needs, but also teach correct behavior.

“Behavior is nothing different than teaching math or English,” he said. “They need to know what they don’t know, and it’s our job to teach them. If you don’t know addition or subtraction, we don’t discipline a child, right?”

Behavioral issues were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Younger students in particular returned to classrooms without the social conditioning of previous generations.  

State education officials are hopeful that identifying these trends is the first step towards correcting them, but what the legislature’s role is in the process remains to be seen.

The legislature attempted to address discipline issues last year with House Bill 2890. It was written to give school teachers and administrators more leeway in school discipline that results from a personality clash between teacher and student. The intent is to allow a teacher to remove a disruptive student to a different environment to protect the integrity of the class for the duration of that class period.

Henkins said he appreciates the flexibility HB 2890 has provided educators, while recognizing that the law could use some clarification in certain areas, such as in cases of special education students. 

“It basically gives you an opportunity to sit down with the principal as the teacher, sit down with the parent as the teacher, and express what is going on,” he said. “So now the principal has had a chance to correct the behavior. Now you’re bringing the family in, you’re bringing the teacher in, you’re bringing the principal in to try to correct the behavior.”

Teachers and educational leaders say the law has been implemented inconsistently, and with potentially serious consequences. For example, statute mandates that students be suspended if removed from a classroom three times in one month.

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, is the chair of the Senate Education Committee. She is also a third grade teacher and said she has heard from other teachers around the state that HB 2890 is only being implemented intermittently.

“It baffles me, it baffles me that you have a state law and people just decide that they don’t want to do it, or you know, that they don’t have to follow it,” Grady said.

Grady said once the law is passed, it is out of the hands of legislators, and it needs buy-in from everyone in the system. Not only are students being disrupted, she said school discipline is contributing to teachers leaving the profession. 

“This is the number one thing that they have brought to me and said, ‘This is our number one issue,’” she said. “This is the problem that we think is facing education today, whether it’s learning, affects the learning of others, or whether it affects any other part of the school. It’s driving teachers away.”

Grady said she has spent the months between sessions listening to educators across the state, from teachers in classrooms to administrators and board of education members. She’s also spoken to parents and even companies involved in alternative education solutions to ensure she’s considering all of the state’s various needs.

As for a specific legislative solution, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, indicated during a legislative lookahead event that alternative education for disruptive students will be a focus for lawmakers this session. 

“What we need to do in the classroom is be able to take that disruptive student out, move them to a classroom where there’s cameras, behavior specialists, and allow those teachers to do their jobs without the disruption,” he said.

Grady said whether it be a clarification of HB 2890 or a new approach to alternative education, the legislature needs to take action. But she said part of what makes legislating the issue so difficult is schools are still dealing with the fallout of the state’s addiction crisis, leading to students with a lot of adverse childhood experiences.

“We have to find that balance of meeting the emotional needs of the traumatized child, but also making sure that that child’s trauma does not inflict trauma on somebody else,” Grady said. “And that’s the hardest part is it’s, you know, it’s not as cut and dry as saying, well, one way is great for everybody, because it’s not.”