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Public schools in West Virginia have suspended Black students at twice the rate of white students over the past five years, underscoring a disparity highlighted in 2015.

State education officials earlier this month pledged to partner with minority leaders, study the problem and review statewide discipline policies.

“We’re going to make sure that we’re providing for opportunities for mentoring processes in there, restorative practices in there, structures in there that our schools and districts can use,” said state Education Department official Drew McClanahan.

But the Rev. Matthew Watts, a long-time community activist on Charleston’s West Side, is skeptical. He has spoken with state Board of Education officials, school superintendents and lawmakers since a 2015 study cited the disparity in West Virginia and throughout the South.

“Thousands of children have been suspended from school since this was brought to their attention in 2015,” Watts said.

Out-of-school suspensions steadily have declined for all students in West Virginia, but the gap endures. Over the past five years, 14% of Black students have been suspended compared to 6% of white students, according to data McClanahan presented to the state school board Feb. 10.

National research has shown Black students are more likely to be disciplined for more subjective transgressions — such as disrespect and loitering — than white students, who are more likely to be suspended for such offenses as smoking and vandalism.

State officials say they are partnering with West Virginia’s Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs and an advisory group of minority leaders to work with communities and schools on the problem.

McClanahan said officials also need to reduce disparities in other areas, including student achievement and attendance, and between other groups of students, such as those from low-income and wealthier families.

“This is a conversation that’s been going on for quite some time,” he said. “And the conversation needs to happen. But the time for simple conversation has passed. We have to be committed to creating actionable steps to ensuring that we’re getting to every child, no matter their background.”

To Watts, the refrains sound familiar.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned,” he said, “it’s that I’ve learned how not to get anything done. I’ve got a Ph.D. in it in working with the state board and the state Department of Education.”

The trick? “You just keep starting over,” he said.

State school board President Miller Hall, the agency’s lone Black member, insisted positive change is coming.

“Let me tell you this,” he said, “and you can put it in the paper: It’s going to happen.”

Hall would not commit to reversing a 2019 board policy change that gave schools greater leeway in suspending students. But McClanahan said some suspension policies likely will be revised.

“I think it’s safe to say that we’re committed to taking things like zero-tolerance policies out,” he said.

Black students aren’t alone in feeling the impact of suspensions, Watts said. In a state where white people make up more than 90% of the population, that group makes up the vast majority of suspended students. Watts, who is Black, noted suspended children are more likely to grow up to be imprisoned adults.

By suspending thousands of students, schools “are, in essence, sentencing thousands of poor white children to lives of poverty and hopelessness and despair,” Watts said.

The minister sought a meeting to discuss his concerns with state Schools Superintendent Clayton Burch, who initially was receptive but never called back, Watts said. After a third request, Watts received a two-page letter that he said surely took officials longer to craft than it would have to talk to him.

“It’s like ‘50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,’ ” he said. “It’s two pages of ‘We’re not going to meet with you.’”

Burch did not comment for this story.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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