Shelia Coleman-Castells speaking in front of the House Education Committee in 2020. Photo courtesy WV Legislature.

This story was copublished with Black By God The West Virginian

More than two years ago, education researcher Sheila Coleman-Castells stood in front of members of the West Virginia House Education Committee to present a solution to a pressing issue.

Coleman-Castells had been hired by nonprofit Our Future WV to create a comprehensive plan to address the issue of racial disparities in school discipline. Black children were being suspended far more often than other students, both in West Virginia and nationwide. And that disparity was leading to lower test scores and higher rates of incarceration for those Black students.

“Invest in our children now, and they will invest in our beloved Mountain State for the rest of their lives,” Coleman-Castells wrote.

But lawmakers didn’t take action, choosing instead to kick the can down the road. They passed a bill requiring the state Department of Education to collect more data on the issue, and charging them to come up with a plan to address it. 

The first batch of data was delivered on Sunday; it confirmed that little has changed over the past decade, and education officials and lawmakers still haven’t broached the subject of how to fix the existing problems.

“The fact that [the new report] is unwieldy and unreadable is bad enough,” said Coleman-Castells, a former public school teacher who spent two decades training teachers as well as working with federal agencies on education research and equity issues. “But it doesn’t tell you what they’re going to do in the future. And that, I think, is its biggest flaw.”

Research trail to nowhere

When Coleman-Castells presented her plan to lawmakers in 2020, West Virginia  already had an established record of racial disparities in how public school kids were disciplined

Her proposal included four initiatives to provide support and training to key groups: parents, students, current teachers and future teachers.

It proposed a Black parents collective to help parents advocate for their children, a Black student success initiative to help children be prepared for post-secondary education or the workforce, a program to provide training to current West Virginia teachers about how to teach Black students and a program to help the state recruit and retain Black teachers.

Coleman-Castells asked the Legislature to help fund the programs and had letters of support from then-state Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine and Fred Albert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Moving forward, the intent of the WV Department of Education is to work as a collaborator and partner with you and other entities, including community organizations and local school systems, to address the inequities that affect the lives of Black West Virginians disproportionately,” wrote Paine, who had already announced his retirement when he wrote the letter.

Lawmakers passed the bill requiring the state to analyze more data. That new data from West Virginia education officials shows there are still stark disparities in the ways that Black students, low-income students and students with disabilities are disciplined in state public schools. And there’s still no plan.

The 14-page document given to lawmakers Sunday is little more than a collection of links and data without context. It contains nothing about how the data was collected, has a section with data missing and includes inaccurate data in another place. Unlike previous reports from the state Department of Education, it does not include any recommendations or analysis of the data.

“This isn’t anything that any parent or even any education research professional can read and truly know what’s going on in the schools,” said Coleman-Castells.

Drew McClanahan, West Virginia Department of Education director of government relations, addresses lawmakers on Sunday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

Drew McClanahan, director of government relations for the state Department of Education, presented the 2022 report to lawmakers and acknowledged the discipline disparities. He added that the department was “still committed” to identifying the root cause of discipline disparities and addressing them.

After an initial email answering a question about the data, West Virginia Department of Education officials did not respond via email to further, detailed questions about inaccuracies within the report and plans for addressing the disparities shown by the data.

Sen. Rollan Roberts, a Republican from Raleigh County and a sponsor of the 2020 bill, was the only lawmaker to speak on Sunday in reaction to the report.

“I think this is the first step,” Roberts said, nearly a decade after the department started studying the issue of school discipline. “I think that’s what the intention was of the bill. To bring out the numbers, figure out what the trends are, and then begin to address those trends and I think that’s what you’ve communicated to us today.”

But meanwhile, community leaders like Charleston’s Rev. Matthew Watts have been raising alarms for years of the long-term effects of these disparities on West Virginia kids.

“[The impact of school discipline] falls heavily on the most marginalized, and the poorest people,” Watts said, adding that he wants to work together with school officials to address the issue. “And the cycle will be perpetuated until we come together and figure out how to address it today.”

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor