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State may let schools dodge accountability for suspending for more offenses

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By: Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail

A group chosen by state education leaders has recommended giving county boards of education, and perhaps even individual principals, freedom to label student offenses currently considered less serious as more serious.

This would allow schools to newly punish such offenses with out-of-school suspensions without having it held against them.

The recommendation, which would have to be approved by the West Virginia Board of Education to take effect, comes amid continuing national concerns that schools are overusing suspensions and black students are being disciplined more harshly for the same offenses as white students.

A 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education found that while black students made up only 5 percent of students in West Virginia K-12 public schools in the 2011-12 academic year, they represented 11 percent of students who received out-of-school suspensions.

 

Also, as reflected in the committee discussion Tuesday, which lasted about two hours and was the first meeting of this group, some in West Virginia are concerned younger students are misbehaving more seriously than in the past, possibly because they’ve been raised amid the opioid crisis.

Committee member David Wright, a Princeton Middle School teacher, supported the recommendation, but also expressed concern about subjectivity being used to target students.

“If the teacher loses respect or power in their classroom, it’s a done deal, there’s no learning going on,” said Sabrina Rohmiller, a Kanawha County special education specialist. She said a currently “Level 1” disruption could mean that.

Current state school board Policy 4373 mandates that certain offenses go in certain “levels.” Level 1 currently includes, among other things, cheating, “disruptive conduct,” “disrespectful conduct,” “inappropriate appearance” and “inappropriate language.”

The levels go up to 4, which includes “battery against a school employee,” “illegal substance related behaviors,” “possession and/or use of dangerous weapon” and actions that would be felonies if adults did them.

State Department of Education officials said Tuesday that out-of-school suspensions can currently be given for offenses in any level.

But the state’s relatively new school accountability system, which labels schools in categories including standardized test scores and attendance and produces color codings for performance in each category, now measures elementary and middle schools partly on what percentage of their students have no out-of-school suspensions.

The state, however, doesn’t count out-of-school suspensions for Level 3 and Level 4 behaviors against that percentage (Level 4 is defined in state law).

Drew McClanahan, assistant director in the state education department’s Office of Leadership and System Support and formerly a Nitro High assistant principal, said Tuesday’s recommendation was to allow county school boards to decide what constitutes a Level 1, 2 or 3 behavior, including allowing school boards to allow their principals to make that determination individually.

Something like “disrespectful conduct” could thus be reported as a Level 3 offense and a school could then suspend a student for that and not suffer on the accountability system, which not only provides color labels but also sets forth increasing state interventions for school systems that aren’t performing well enough on the state’s criteria.

“Each district, each school, each LSIC [local school improvement council], those individuals need to have input with their county to determine what is appropriate at the county level to be able to provide for the appropriate interventions,” McClanahan said. “... [County school boards] need the ability to operate outside of this particular behavior being tied to this particular level at all times.”

He said avoiding the accountability system “is most definitely not the intent of the revision of the policy ... the movement has been to give more local control.”

The committee’s members included a superintendent, a county school board member, a bus driver and teachers, but no one who isn’t currently employed by or a board member of West Virginia’s public school system.

State school board member Miller Hall and Dave Perry, the state board’s president, attended, and Hall said Perry chose the members with McClanahan’s help. Perry said school employee union leaders chose people to serve on it, and the education department (he didn’t know whom in it) chose the rest.

Perry has pushed back against the education department’s previous attempts to hold schools accountable for out-of-school suspensions. The department earlier suggested not exempting out-of-school suspensions for Level 3 behaviors from the accountability system, but changed course.

On Tuesday, Perry noted that he, while in the state Legislature, introduced successful legislation that stopped out-of-school suspensions from counting against schools’ attendance rates.