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Without funding, student discipline bill will hurt the kids who need the most help


Without funding, student discipline bill will hurt the kids who need the most help

Feb 15, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Kelli Caseman Sharon Iskra
Without funding, student discipline bill will hurt the kids who need the most help
Teachers and legislators agree there's a discipline problem in schools, but they don't agree on how to fix it. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)

West Virginia’s students have a discipline problem. Legislators are moving a bill that, on its surface, reads like a balanced solution for both educators and students. It’s not. It may make it easier to remove disruptive students from the classroom, but puts nothing in place to help them.   

Senate Bill 614 amends and reenacts code relating to behavior intervention and safety of elementary school students — kids ages 5-12. Here’s the bulk of what the bill does: If a teacher decides that a student is “violent, threatening, or intimidating toward staff or peers, or creates an unsafe learning environment or impedes on other students’ ability to learn in a safe environment,” the student is removed from class. Parents or guardians are called to pick the child up, as the child is automatically prohibited from riding the bus. If the family can’t get the child by the end of the school day, the school can call law enforcement. 

That child is then suspended for 1 to 3 days and offered alternative learning arrangements. The student remains in this limbo until administration completes a risk assessment — however long that may take. After that, the student can return to school provisionally for 5 to 10 days. If another incident occurs during that time, the child is out for the remainder of the semester or school year at the discretion of the teacher, principal or vice principal. If the principal or vice principal disagrees, the teacher can appeal to the superintendent. 

Notably, the bill does not detail any course of action for the child’s family to appeal the decision, or to press for action if the process drags on. In fact, it appears the family (who might know better than anyone the reasons for the child’s behavior) isn’t consulted at all during this process.

Meanwhile, if a county school system doesn’t have a behavioral intervention program or a partnering county system with which to share one, the child’s fate remains the same. A virtual school option may be offered, but that may not work for a child given individual characteristics or external factors like internet accessibility. 

Perhaps to someone outside of the public education system, this reads like the best of both worlds, meaning everyone gets what they need to ameliorate the situation, but beneath that veneer, consider these points:

  • Only a small number of schools even have an elementary alternative discipline program. According to reporting by Amelia Knisely, only 13 of the state’s 55 counties have one. The bill suggests that counties could partner with neighboring counties with such a program but doesn’t offer any funding to incentivize such a partnership. 
  • Not all schools have behavior intervention programs. Kanawha County Schools General Counsel Lindsey McIntosh told a legislative committee, “Through our multi-tiered system of support, we have a bunch of behavioral interventions we can go through before we ever get to suspension.” But those systems tend to exist in larger, more affluent schools, and not every county system can afford them, especially with public school enrollment and school aid formula funding both declining. Not every county has a strong tax base or can pass a school levy to fix those issues. Finally, many systems face big gaps in the resources available to students due to factors like geography and workforce. 
  • According to the bill, students can’t return to school until a risk assessment is completed. Such assessments are usually administered by school psychologists. The recommended student-to-school psychologist ratio is 1 to 500. The national average is 1 to 1127. In West Virginia, the ratio is 1 to 1818. Will staff have time to quickly assess these kids, or will there be long waiting periods since school psychologists are already tending to other students’ needs (and since the bill prescribes no deadline by which they must be done)? What will families do in the interim? These little ones can’t watch themselves alone at home. 
  • Students who are removed from class can’t ride the bus home. If their parents don’t pick them up, the school may call law enforcement, which brings a whole new set of consequences to both child and family. Last school year, one out of every four foster care students was suspended. Imagine a kindergartner removed from her natural family for what are already distressing reasons and placed in a new foster care home. Shortly thereafter, because she had a bad day adjusting to her new class and new peers, her foster family is reported to law enforcement. Think of the stigma and shame this child now carries, for behaviors she may be too young to understand. 
  • West Virginia has one of the worst rates of childhood poverty in the country and currently the second-highest rate of child abuse and neglect. Do we really think it’s in the best interest of students struggling in these conditions to attend school virtually — depriving them of healthy meals they so often rely on, and subjecting them to additional hours in an environment that may be the very reason they’re acting out in the first place? 

We know that children who act disruptively do so for a variety of reasons; there could be problems at home or in school, physical ailments or unmet needs. Kids in elementary school are often too young to articulate their needs, which often leads to disruptive behavior. 

Our state has historically underinvested in resources that address social determinants of health, as well as adolescent mental health programs. Instead, we’ve put more faith in education as the “great equalizer.” Teachers are asked to bear a significant portion of the responsibility to meet students’ basic needs, respond to trauma, and provide social and emotional learning.

Maybe that’s not fair to our teachers, and these behaviors that are sometimes violent and threatening to students in our classrooms aren’t fair to them, either. 

But this bill gives just half the solution: it relieves the teacher and protects the other kids, but in the majority of counties, steers the disruptive child out of the classroom and into a void where much-needed help simply does not exist. It’s step one down a long road of repetitive system failures. 

Tackling discipline problems, especially in our youngest students, should begin with thoughtful investigation and a protocol that doesn’t escalate a kindergartner’s bad day into a home-wrecking, week- or month-long debacle involving police. If lawmakers want to address adverse behaviors in school, they should begin by assessing the problem and directing much-needed funding to ensure kids aren’t pushed out of the classroom and to the curb without resources and support to address the root causes of their behavior.