Gov. Jim Justice delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 27, 2022, after a delay due to his diagnosis with COVID-19. Photo courtesy Governor's Office.

Five years ago, Berkeley County parent Amber Pack noticed bruising on her 5-year-old daughter’s arms. Pack’s daughter is nonverbal, and at the time, she was in her school’s special education program. Pack suspected something was wrong when her daughter seemed more scared of getting on a school bus in the mornings, so she sent her daughter to class one day with a secret recording device. 

“I think it happens way more than anyone knows about because people who target children with special needs, they know they’re not able to come home and say what’s happened,” said Pack, whose family received an undisclosed civil settlement in 2020 from the Berkeley County Board of Education.

Amid this and other high-profile cases of West Virginia school employees abusing students, lawmakers are pushing new measures to punish teachers who abuse nonverbal students. One is a bill introduced on behalf of Gov. Jim Justice, who touted higher penalties for employees who abuse students during his State of the State address last month. 

“I want to propose that we make the penalties for somebody that is a school employee that abuses a student so tough that they will know I am sitting on their chest,” Justice said.

These latest bills would prohibit teachers suspected of and guilty of harming nonverbal students from working in schools again, and require more constant viewing of surveillance camera footage from classrooms. But while the governor is calling for laws that he says would increase accountability in the classroom, some say the bills are a reactive response to an issue that requires more preventative measures.  

Security cameras

The few laws on the books meant to make it easier to catch teachers abusing students are relatively new.

In 2019, Justice signed into law a bill that required schools to install security cameras in every special education classroom. 

But while the camera footage may exist, schools are only obligated to review it whenever there’s a report of abuse. The West Virginia Senate voted last month for a bill that would require schools to check this security footage more regularly. 

“I think it’s important for you to know that the abuse from this day — this one day that we got to view — included slaps across the face, slamming heads on desks, throwing children to the floor by the hair of their heads, forcing a child to eat lunch on the bathroom floor, and countless [incidents] of verbal abuse to students who, for the most part, are not verbal and cannot speak for themselves,” said parent Beth Bowden during a Senate Education Committee meeting on Jan. 20. Bowden and several other parents of special education students at Holz Elementary in Charleston are suing the Kanawha County Schools system  after their children’s teacher was caught on camera hitting students. 

There’s also a lawsuit stemming from an incident at Horace Mann Middle School, also in Charleston, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail

In advocating for new penalties for teachers and other employees who harm nonverbal students, parents have said it’s hard to ensure these teachers and staff don’t end up back in schools unless there’s a criminal charge.

House Bill 4503, and its companion Senate Bill 535, are both from the governor’s office. These proposals call for the revocation of teaching licenses in the event there’s verified or suspected child abuse. A separate measure, House Bill 4562, would put non-licensed school personnel on administrative leave or reassign them while they’re being investigated for child abuse. 

“There’s a lot of different bills going on at the Legislature, for ‘how do we make sure kids are safe’,” said Kate Flack, CEO for the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. “And there’s a lot of people in our schools who are really fighting to make sure kids are protected.” 

Flack’s network oversees the response by local law enforcement, medical providers and schools to abused children in 44 West Virginia counties. They advocated for the passage of other laws dealing with abuse in previous sessions, including “Erin Merryn’s Law,” which created a statewide task force to address abuse in schools, as well as programs to educate school workers on ways to detect signs of abuse in children. 

But while laws like these have been deemed a success, Flack said sometimes programs have struggled because lawmakers haven’t provided any additional funding to implement them. 

“Anytime that you invest more money into systems, into implementation of bills, the better outcomes you’re going to have,” Flack said.

With Erin Merryn’s Law, schools were also able to benefit from a partnership with the Benedum Foundation, which worked on a curriculum that teachers and other school employees could use. 

National advocates for preventing child abuse say the approach to increase surveillance and penalties is more reactive than anything, and the state needs to focus on the longrunning crisis in schools — as well as ways to support and prevent abuse against children in the home. 

Jim McKay, with Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia, says having more teachers, aides and others staffing schools who can recognize and report abuse is important. Equally important are policies that prevent abuse or neglect at home by supporting vulnerable low-income families. 

“I have reservations that lawmakers will pass the expanded cameras in schools — which is a piece of a puzzle — but then also pass a bad bill, like Senate Bill 2, which would limit unemployment benefits for families,” he said. “That puts families under even more stress [where] parents don’t have what they need to support their children.”

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member, and the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.