BY: AMELIA FERRELL KNISELY – WestVirginiaWatch,com
Thomas Warner has spent nearly two decades in public education, finding happiness in watching young students discover they can play an instrument — maybe something they didn’t think they could achieve.

He teaches in Cabell County, an area deeply impacted by the state’s drug epidemic and foster care crisis. More than a decade into those problems, Warner, 48, sees how they spill over into students’ behaviors — outbursts and issues with impulse control. There are times he has felt unsafe.

“When I see behaviors that I don’t think are appropriate for the classroom, I’m kind of analyzing those for a second and trying to look for the outside reason,” he said. “You never know what students have gone through the night before.”

Across the state, many teachers and teachers’ unions said student discipline is a pressing issue in public education — a problem that needs an immediate, effective and a compassionate response.

“I have students who are concerned about, ‘Where am I sleeping tonight? What am I going to eat tonight?’ Or they’re worried about getting food for their siblings,” said Sen. Amy Grady, who is a fourth grade public school teacher in Mason County.

School discipline issues have spiked post pandemic, and West Virginia is one of several states that have already enacted stricter punishments for disruptive students. This legislative session, school discipline has emerged as a top education focus for lawmakers and may include a focus on alternative classrooms.

Some teachers want policies that protect them and support removals of disruptive students. Other educators are skeptical that the largely Republican and pro-school choice lawmakers will do what’s best for public education and should, instead, focus on providing mental health support for kids.

Nearly half of grandparents in many counties raise their grandchildren, often because of the state’s crippling substance abuse problem. Children in the state are referred to Child Protective Services investigations at a rate higher than the national average, and the state has the nation’s highest rate of children coming into its troubled foster care system. The children also live in one of the poorest states in the country with a high hunger rate.

That trauma often spills out in behavioral issues, teachers said.

“Teachers feel like social workers, counselors, administrators,” said Alicia Kinder, 50, a special education teacher in Raleigh County. “When am I supposed to teach?”

West Virginia students posted their lowest math and reading scores in 2022.

Teachers point to student disruptions as a part of the shortfall.

“There’s a real pull between teachers to get those [test] scores up, but we’re seeing such a drain on our time spent in instruction just dealing with these behaviors,” Kinder said.

One in every 10 students faced suspension last year
Data from the West Virginia Department of Education showed that nearly one in every 10 students faced suspension last school year. Many students were repeat offenders, The Parkersburg News and Sentinel reported.

State data also showed that students who were Black, disabled, homeless, in foster care or came from low socioeconomic families faced more severe school discipline.

Aggressive, imminently dangerous and illegal behaviors increased during the 2021-22 school year from the previous school year. Fred Albert, president of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, recalled an incident last school year where a young student broke the finger of a classroom aid.

Andrew Ashley, 36, is a middle school teacher in Wood County. “The biggest thing is students don’t have the same respect for authority,” he said.

“Teachers are being bit and kicked and nothing is being done about it. There needs to be something in the law that if there is this type of behavior then some action will be taken. I think parents and guardians need to understand,” said Del. Elliott Pritt, a Republican member of the House of Delegates and middle school teacher in Fayette County Schools. “Who’s going to want to get spit or kicked or hit in the face for $35,000 a year?”

Who’s going to want to get spit or kicked or hit in the face for $35,000 a year?

– Elliott Pritt

Pritt said that many times teachers had a hard time getting ahold of parents to discuss discipline issues, which was partially influenced by many children being raised by someone other than their biological parents.

Such conditions have added to a glaring teacher shortage. Around 50% of new teachers in the state leave the profession within their first five years; discipline has made the problem worse, Albert said.

“That has grown worse because they just feel that they don’t want to come to work and be threatened,” he said.

Pritt acknowledged many students have experienced traumatic situations but feels it is coming at the expense of the other students in the class.

“I have a whole classroom who deserves an education,” he said. I cannot justify having an out of control classroom or alter my [lesson] plans constantly.”

Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill in an attempt to address student discipline. The legislation required 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.

Implementation of the bills has been mixed or, according to some teachers, basically nonexistent at their schools. State school board members criticized the legislation as lacking guardrails and worried that it would result in students being unfairly removed or have no option but out-of-school suspension, which fuels drop out rates and low academic performance.

This year lawmakers said they’ll be doing much more to address student discipline issues, mostly focusing on protecting teachers and bolstering their ability to remove disruptive students. There’s already legislation that expands last year’s discipline bill into elementary schools.

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, is a fourth grade public school teacher in Mason County. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
Grady, a leader in the Senate, emphasized legislation must balance protecting classroom instruction time and teachers while also addressing emotional and behavioral needs of children. It will be a challenge to tackle both of those in legislation, she noted, which is likely to focus on elementary classrooms.

“If our education system is going to get better, we’ve got to focus on the teaching part of it,” she said, noting that some teachers often spend hours after school documenting students’ behavior.

“Can you tell me any other job where you’re expected to put up with being assaulted?” she asked.

Pritt, R-Fayette, has several bills in the works and expects school discipline to be equally as important to House members.

“This doesn’t mean we don’t care about kids,” he said. “We’re not talking about punishment, we’re talking about discipline.”

Del. Elliott Pritt, R-Fayette, is a middle school teacher in Fayette County Schools. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)
Alternative learning classrooms could be in legislation
Lawmakers, including Grady, are mulling over creating separate learning environments for kids who have been removed from their classrooms.

An alternative discipline program in Raleigh County Schools, called T-4 Academy, places students in a very small, highly-specialized location with trained individuals to help students with behavioral issues. Allen Sexton, director of special programs at Raleigh County Schools, shared the program’s success with lawmakers in January.

Grady told MetroNews that she planned to introduce a bill that would expand something like the T-4 Academy across the state. It could cost about $280,000 for one year to serve about 12 students, she said.

West Virginia State School Board President Paul Hardesty supports the idea of “a self-contained alternative program” rather than sending kids home.

“It will cost some money, but it can work,” he said.

Grady is also exploring if counties could use some of the millions of dollars in pending opioid settlement money to provide behavioral support employees in their school systems.

Warner wasn’t thrilled about the idea of separate classrooms as the answer for behavioral issues.

“I think the Legislature is kind of asking to be the punisher,” he said. “It depends on what resources those students who go to that place receive. if they’re just going in there to sit for the rest of the day … I don’t think it would be a good tool in modifying that behavior.”

Teachers call for an investment in counselors, social workers
Lawmakers will also have to pass legislation that complies with federal and state laws regarding discipline of students with disabilities, including those who have Individual Education Plans or IEPs.

Holly Sheldon, a senior advocate with Disability Rights West Virginia, said schools are already failing to follow students’ IEP and behavior intervention plans, resulting in students being unfairly disciplined.

“Children with a disability require assessments and services and not discipline, classroom removal or expulsion. Schools cannot discipline the disability out of a student,” she said.

Kinder, who works with students with disabilities, cautioned against any “one fits all approach” legislators might have regarding discipline.

“For children with disabilities, who often may have communication issues, a lot of times what we see as behavioral problems is really just communicating needs,” she said.

There are also concerns about what any discipline legislation might mean for Black students, who have faced disproportionate discipline referrals in the past.

Teachers interviewed for this story all emphasized a need for an investment in mental resources. For many, it was more important than bills bolstering student discipline.

They also expressed mistrust in the Legislature after legislation that critics said took funds from struggling public schools.

Ashley called for more counselors and social workers in schools — particularly for positions that are solely dedicated to supporting students’ mental health.

Not every school in West Virginia has a full-time counselor or social worker. The governor’s Communities in Schools program is trying to address some of the shortage.

“I think their efforts would be better spent on trying to help students stay out of trouble as opposed to dealing with them after they’ve gotten in trouble,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to say that West Virginia students posted their lowest math and reading scores in 2022, not the nation’s lowest.

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