Chris Schulz Published

Student Pregnancy, Cybersecurity Focus Of Education Committees

From left, Sens. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, Rollan A. Roberts, R-Raleigh, Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, Jay Taylor, R-Taylor, and Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, sit behind a bench desk in the Senate Education Committee room Jan. 30, 2024.
Senators listen to a presentation on digital investigations against child abusers during a Senate Education Committee Jan. 30, 2024.
Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

To start the week, education committees in both chambers have focused on supporting students in difficult situations. 

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia has the eighth highest teen birth rate in the country.

During their meeting Monday, the House Education Committee discussed House Bill 5179. Also known as Jaycie’s Law, the bill would require that each county board develop a written attendance policy for pregnant and parenting students and excuse all absences due to pregnancy or parenting related conditions up to eight weeks.

The bill originated from a social worker in Cabell County who had seen the school system requiring teenage girls to go back to school one week after giving birth. 

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, moved to amend language that would require schools to refer pregnant students to pregnancy health organizations.

“It requires the school to refer a girl to an unlicensed health care provider,” he said. “A lot of them also are religious based, maybe they’re not a member of that religion. There’s a lot of issues with that, sending somebody, putting it in code to go to this place that looks like a doctor’s office, but isn’t a doctor’s office.”

Pushkin’s amendment originally removed any reference to pregnancy health organizations from the bill. But after discussion, he reformed the amendment to make the requirement a permissive choice to refer students to the organizations. 

Del. Rolland Jennings, R-Preston, said he believed the bill’s referral to resources fulfilled the lawmakers’ promise to support pregnant women made when the state’s abortion restriction was passed in 2022. 

“This is giving support where the schools have to at least discuss with these young mothers places where they can go and get support for them,” he said. “If we make it permissive, some schools may do it. Others don’t want to get involved, won’t do it. And I think by making it so they have to do it, we’re doing the best for these young ladies.”

The amendment did pass, and the bill was recommended to the full chamber.

Other Business

The House committee also advanced bills regarding in-state tuition for all National Guard members and their dependents, as well as Hope Scholarship funding.

House Bill 4945 makes several changes to code relating to the Hope Scholarship, including permitting the Hope Scholarship board to provide an estimate of the program’s future enrollment to the Department of Education by Dec. 10 of each year for funding, rather than relying on the prior year’s enrollment.

“This would allow us instead of it being solely based on the number of applications received in the prior year, it would allow us to estimate,” said Amy Willard, assistant treasurer of savings programs for the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office. “We would do that using trends that we’re seeing in the program, any data that we have on birth, stuff like that to try to estimate that incoming kindergarten class. But there is still the provision that if there was unused money, like at the end of the fiscal year, that that appropriation would be reduced. So we would still always estimate what our need was for the year.”

Pushkin again moved to amend the bill, this time excluding Hope Scholarship funds from being used out of state. About $300,000 in Hope funds were spent out of state in the program’s first year.

However, Del. Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, pointed out that a similar restriction had been proposed when the Hope Scholarship was being created.

“One of the reasons why it was voted down at that time was because of the purchase of curriculum and purchase of, paying for field trips or paying for other things that the state does buy out of state,” he said. “And when we’re talking about, you know, the amount of students that do potentially attend border school, schools that are outside of our border are from border counties. Remember, we’re still trying to give the parents of West Virginia an option for their education. And that’s the whole purpose of the Hope Scholarship.”

The amendment was rejected, and House Bill 4945 was recommended to the full House, with a reference to the Finance Committee.

Other bills advanced by the committee:

  • H. B. 4882, extending in-state tuition rates to all members and veterans of the National Guard, reserves, and armed forces as well as their spouses and dependents.
  • H. B. 5038, relating to research and economic development agreements for state institutions of higher education.
  • H. B. 5050, relating to authorizing legislative rules regarding higher education.
  • H. B. 5056, relating to substitute service personnel positions.
  • H. B. 5153, relating to revising, updating and streamlining the requirements governing the West Virginia Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Scholarship.

Teaching Cyber Security

In the Senate Education Committee Tuesday morning, senators heard from law enforcement about the need for students to be educated about online safety. 

Senate Bill 466 requires the state board to develop an education program to teach safety while accessing technology. The committee previously discussed and laid over the bill on Jan. 18, and both times the discussion focused on the requirement for instruction on the risks associated with sharing sexually suggestive or sexually explicit materials.

SGT Jillian Yeager of the State Police’s Crimes Against Children Unit told the committee her office of 12 investigators has received 6,000 tips of sexual cybercrimes against minors in the past four years, mirroring a national spike during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. She said education like the kind proposed in Senate Bill 466 would go a long way to reducing such instances.

“I firmly believe that if we mandate cyber safety training in the state, that it will greatly reduce our number of cyber tips simply by educating children to help themselves not become victims to these predators online,” Yeager said.

The committee voted to recommend the bill to the full Senate, and laid over the only other bill on the agenda due to time constraints.