Trey Kay, Laurie Stern, Matthew Hancock Published

The ‘Toxic Stew’ Of School Discipline


Across the nation, students of color and those from poor families are more likely to be suspended from school, and data from West Virginia reflects this national trend. 

In fact, research shows when a teacher thinks a student of color is misbehaving on purpose, they’re more likely to get suspended or expelled. Missing just two days of school each month makes a student less likely to graduate, which has a big impact on their prospects for the future. 

On this episode of Us & Them, host Trey Kay looks at discipline disparities in our schools – a new West Virginia law designed to get tough on misbehaving students – and the way one alternative Kanawha County school gives students the support to recover. 

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council, the Daywood Foundation and the CRC Foundation.

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Teacher Ash Setterstrom, counselor Billie Walker and principal Wayman Wilson are part of the staff at the Chandler Academy in Charleston, WV. Chandler is for students who’ve been expelled or removed from one of Kanawha County’s eight high schools or 13 middle schools. Chandler’s goal is to get students stabilized and send them back to their home schools, but often that system turns out to be a vicious cycle. Most of the students at Chandler come from low-income families, and about a quarter are Black. Some struggle with mental illness while others have been stigmatized after being expelled from their home school, and almost all of them struggle with low self-esteem. Credit: Ash Setterstrom
Ash Setterstrom has taught history at the Chandler Academy in Charleston, WV for six years. She finds it rewarding to work with students who have discipline problems because she was one of them. When she was a student in the Kanawha County School system, she says she hated authority and loved getting suspended. She spent her middle school years — the late 90s — at an alternative learning center like Chandler. Credit: Ash Setterstrom
Most of the people who work at the Chandler Academy in Charleston, WV have been there for a long time. They are passionate about what they do. Counselor Billie Walker has been at Chandler for 33 years. Credit: Ash Setterstrom
Community members showed up to a school board meeting in St. Paul, MN in February 2023. Many expressed concerns about safety days after a student was stabbed to death in one of the local high schools. Credit: Matt Sepic/MPR News
Eric Sloan spoke during a special listening session of a school board meeting in St. Paul, MN in February 2023. The board welcomed speakers to comment on school safety and to share ideas to make St. Paul Public Schools safer after a student was stabbed to death at a local high school days before. Credit: John Autey/Pioneer Press
Jayanti Owens is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management. She’s a sociologist who works on issues of race and inequality in school systems. She works with school districts nationwide on a study to gauge how race affects the response to school behavior. 

Schools or districts interested in being involved with the work Dr. Owens is doing to help reduce racial/ethnic disparities in discipline can email to learn more:

Here’s a link to her study, Double Jeopardy: Teacher Biases, Racialized Organizations, and the Production of Racial/Ethnic Disparities in School Discipline.

Credit: Jayanti Owens

Joe Ellington is a delegate from Mercer County, WV and is the current chair of the House Education Committee. In the 2023 session, Ellington co-authored a new state law to make school discipline more rigorous. He’s a practicing obstetrician and gynecologist. Credit: West Virginia Legislature
Matthew Watts, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Charleston, WV, is a longtime civil rights leader and no stranger to the West Virginia Legislature. He’s fought to close the wealth gap in housing, job training and economic development. He says that he is almost ready to retire, but this issue of school discipline is really important to him and that guilt plays a role. That’s because when he was working with Black kids more than 20 years ago, he did not believe it when they told him their discipline was different than that of white students. In 2015, Rev. Watts and others began paying attention to the reports coming out of academia and the U.S. Department of Education that documented racial disparities in school discipline. For years he tried to get data from West Virginia – and when he finally saw what was going on – he was appalled. Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Kanawha County is the largest and most diverse school district in West Virginia. Tom Williams, superintendent of Kanawha County Schools, says the new legislation proposed by Del. Joe Ellington will help teachers teach. Williams is hopeful that the new law will give schools all over West Virginia the guardrails they’ve long needed to provide consistency along with flexibility. Credit: Kanawha County Schools