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Data: Black, foster care students in West Virginia face more severe school discipline

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Being Black or enrolled in the foster care system are some of the biggest risk factors for facing school suspension in West Virginia, one of the U.S. states with the most children in foster care per capita, according to new data released this week by the state Department of Education.

Roughly one in four of the 4,276 foster care students enrolled in West Virginia public schools were suspended last school year because of disciplinary issues, and they were more likely than their peers to receive out-of-school suspensions rather than in-school suspensions, according to a report released Wednesday during the state Board of Education's May meeting.

The disparity was particularly notable for Black foster care students, who on average lost 14.7 days last year due to suspension, about three weeks of classroom time and roughly six more days than non-foster Black peers and white foster care peers. Around one in five of all Black students in West Virginia public schools were suspended during the 2021-2022 school year, regardless of foster care status.

Other students more likely to be pulled from the classroom by educators for behavioral issues: children considered to be low-income, experiencing homelessness or living with a disability.

The latest data is part of a years-long effort by state education officials to better understand discipline practices at the school level and how those practices affect student learning and well-being. In 2020, the state Legislature passed a law requiring the state Department of Education to compile statewide data on school disciplinary actions and develop a plan to address disparities.

West Virginia has the highest opioid overdose death rate in the nation per capita, and one of the highest rates of children in foster care or being raised by grandparents or other guardians different from their biological parents. The state is also dealing with a teacher shortage, a lack of certified educators and severe learning loss from missed instructional time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last year, West Virginia had some of the steepest declines in national test results in reading and math across all states.

State Board of Education President Pat Hardesty called the new data released Wednesday "a problem of epic proportions" and said it's no wonder student proficiency is so low.

"We're failing our kids," he said.

State Department of Education officials said this week the agency will begin implementing policy changes and other programming to further track and address these disparities. That will include creating a discipline data dashboard that will be available for public viewing on the department website.

The agency will also start revisiting policies that dictate discipline levels, definitions and identified behaviors. A focus will be identifying alternatives to excluding disruptive students from the classroom and expanding training on classroom management for educators, as well as social and behavioral supports for students.

Around 19% of the more than a quarter of a million students enrolled in West Virginia state-funded schools during the 2021-2022 school year were referred for disciplinary action and around 28,700 — 11% of all students — were suspended at least once, according to the report.

Out of all students referred for discipline last year, more than half — 56% — were suspended, but the odds of being removed from the classroom because of disruptive behavior after a referral were higher among certain vulnerable groups: 73% for foster care students, 65% for students with disabilities, 64% for Black students and 60% for students from low-income homes and students experiencing homelessness.

For Black students with disabilities or enrolled in foster care, the risk increased further. The data showed 73% of Black disabled students and 85% of Black foster care children were suspended after being referred for disciplinary action last year.

In total, 65% of all students suspended for more than 10 days last school year were from low-income homes.

Foster care children represented about 2% of all students enrolled in West Virginia K-12 public schools last year, and 4% of all students suspended. Black students represent 4% of the student population, and 8% of all students suspended.

Children with disabilities represent 19% of the student population, and 27% of all students suspended. The report showed 3% of students enrolled in West Virginia schools were experiencing homelessness, but represented 5% of total school suspensions.

Students who were suspended were also more likely to be considered "chronically absent" from school, according to the report.

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