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‘A trainwreck waiting to happen.’ Board worries new school discipline bill lacks guardrails

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‘A trainwreck waiting to happen.’ Board worries new school discipline bill lacks guardrails

Sep 14, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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‘A trainwreck waiting to happen.’  Board worries new school discipline bill lacks guardrails
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Lockers in a Kanawha County school in West Virginia. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

State school board members fear a new school discipline bill, which gives teachers broad power to remove disruptive students, will result in more kids unnecessarily removed from classrooms.

The bill, passed earlier this year, gives teachers in grades six through 12 new guidelines for removing disruptive students from their classrooms. 

It requires that if a student is sent out of their classroom three times in a calendar month that they be placed in suspension or an alternative school.

West Virginia Board of Education President Paul Hardesty said Wednesday that the bill is a “trainwreck waiting to happen ” as the state is trying to address pervasive discipline disparities that largely target children who are minorities or in foster care. 

He said the legislation, crafted by Republican lawmakers, was too vague. 

“The language says, ‘as determined by the teacher.’ It could include failure to bring a pencil to class,” he said.

Hardesty noted that substitute teachers, who may not be trained to work with students with disabilities, could remove kids at will. 

Drew McClanahan, director of Leadership Support & Development at the West Virginia Department of Education, expressed similar concerns to state school board members at their monthly meeting. 

“This gives every decision ability to the teacher regardless of what is in code,” he said. 

Not every school has an in-school suspension option, he noted, so some students will be forced into out-of-school suspension.

Lawmakers behind the bill aimed to help teachers manage their classrooms and felt students shouldn’t have to miss out on learning due to a disruptive peer.

Data from the West Virginia Department of Education released earlier this year showed more than 28,000 students were suspended during the 2021-22 school year, and most of those students were either Black, disabled, homeless, in foster care or came from low socio-economic families. 

Roughly one in four of the 4,276 foster care students were suspended because of disciplinary issues. 

Around one in five of all Black students were suspended. 

On Monday, state schools Superintendent Michele Blatt presented information about student discipline to lawmakers, who were gathered in Charleston for Legislative interim meetings. 

While she noted work to better safeguard students with disabilities, including installing cameras in their classrooms, Del. Sean Horbuckle noted that her presentation didn’t include information about how the state planned to address its uneven discipline of  minority students.

“I wondered, is this something the state doesn’t care about anymore?,” he told West Virginia Watch.

“I will credit our Legislature for doing things for students with disabilities,” he added.

Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, spoke out against the new school discipline bill and voted against it. 

He feared the legislation will further adversely affect minority students around the state.

“Just removing kids from the classroom is a step backwards. We haven’t dealt with the other issues of expulsion,” he said. 

Hardesty said that while the bill may have been well-intentioned, it failed to address the discipline and learning issues the state needs to address.

“Stay tuned. This is not good,” he said. 

The legislation also requires teachers to file a report within 24 hours on the removal of a child from the classroom for disruptive behavior in the West Virginia Education Information System. 

The state is currently working on developing a public-facing dashboard that will show detailed school discipline data collected from districts, according to McClanahan. 

Additionally, many school leaders and teachers have received specialized training about the root causes of student misbehavior along with best classroom practices, he said. 

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to remove that personality clashes could be used to remove a student. That was eliminated in the final draft of the bill.