Chris Schulz Published

Disciplinary Disparities Focus Of Public Comment At Board Of Education Meeting

School choice. Lindsay Johnson

Early in its Dec. 14 meeting, the West Virginia Board of Education heard public comment from two individuals concerned with disciplinary issues in the state’s schools.

Rev. Franklin Hairston of the Harrison County NAACP spoke first to discuss racial bullying and harassment in schools.

“My goal for being here today is for you to understand that we have a problem in Harrison County, West Virginia, and in other counties all throughout West Virginia, as it pertains to racial bullying, harassment, unfairness and discipline, and a push for academic achievement,” Hairston said.

He listed more than half a dozen incidents in schools where little or nothing was done to address the racial harassment students face, including his own daughter.

“I’ve been addressing issues with race in her schools since she was in the second grade from being called outside of her name, picked on because of the color of her skin, the texture and style of her hair, the build of her body, and she’s even been hit by few male athletes,” Hairston said.

He went on to request disciplinary data for Harrison County schools, but also urged statewide action including diversity in recruitment of teachers and diversity and racial sensitivity training.

“The issues with our children are not just with students, it’s also with our educators.”

The Board is not allowed to deliberate or take action on any topic addressed by a member of the public that is not already on the meeting agenda.

Hairston was followed by Rev. Matthew Watts, who spoke more broadly about the multiple crises facing the state’s poor children. Watts listed several chronic issues impacting low-income children in the state including low labor force participation and poor health outcomes, before focusing on education.

“Probably the most profound crisis we have is in education,” Watts said. “Four reports were produced in the last four months that I thought would have resulted in summits being held all over the state.”

Watts referred to the board’s own School Discipline Report and 2021 Summative Assessment Results, the Higher Education Policy Commission’s College-Going Rate report, as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Released in July, the School Discipline Report showed that poorer students were more than twice as likely to be referred for disciplinary action in schools. Both the Summative Assessment and NAEP results showed a drop in academic achievement across the state, while the college-going study indicated less than half of all high school graduates in the state go on to post-secondary education.

“If that’s not a crisis in education, I don’t know what it is,” Watts said. – “It’s pretty profound among poor children, so what I’m here to request is we’ve got to take some action.”

Watts asked the Board to help facilitate discussions in all 55 counties and at individual school levels, on how to address educational issues. He also asked that funds from the American Rescue Plan Act be set aside to help address the issues.

Watts ended by encouraging the Board to develop a suspension tracking system that posts every week online.

“This is a national problem,” he said. “Why can’t we be first in solving something for change? Why can’t we take the lead in West Virginia?”

Discipline was briefly discussed later in the meeting when Superintendent David Roach gave an update on the Student Discipline Report.

He stated that data has been distributed to county and school level leadership, and that the Board of Education directed the Department of Education to expand the scope and depth of the report to address these issues more effectively and develop a plan moving forward.

“Educators, students, families, community partners, and other stakeholders will be involved as part of a comprehensive response,” Roach said. “A detailed analysis and potential action steps will be developed and presented to the West Virginia Board of Education to ensure that all students have equitable access to safe and high quality learning opportunities in West Virginia classrooms.”

Board member Debra Sullivan said she was glad to see progress being made on the issue, and expressed disappointment with the initial report for its lack of actionable items.

“There was really nothing there that you could get your hands on to deal with,” she said.

Sullivan also pointed out the ambiguity of some of the data, and looked forward to greater detail that will better help school leaders.

“I know that you’ll be looking at the various demographics, all the indicators, and not just race, but SES (Socio-Economic Status), and gender, and special ed populations, and are certain special ed populations being cited more frequently than others, the learning disabled versus a behaviorally challenged,” Sullivan said. “There’s such a wealth of information that the schools could use.”