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Five years ago, Berkeley County parent Amber Pack noticed bruises 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 afraid to get on a school bus in the morning, so she sent her daughter to class one day with a secret recording device.
“I think it’s happening way more than anyone knows because the people who are targeting kids with special needs know they can’t go home and say what happened,” Pack said. , 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 imposing new measures to punish teachers who nonverbally abuse 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 impose sanctions on someone who is a school employee who abuses a student so badly that he will know that I am sitting on his chest,” Justice said.
These latest bills would ban teachers suspected and guilty of harming non-verbal students from working in schools again and would require more constant viewing of footage from classroom surveillance cameras. But while the governor is pushing for laws he says would increase accountability in the classroom, some say the bills are a reactive response to a problem that needs more preventative action.
The few laws in place to make it easier to detect teachers who abuse students are relatively new.
In 2019, the judiciary passed a bill requiring schools to install security cameras in every special education classroom.
But while the camera footage may exist, schools are only required to review it if abuse is reported. The West Virginia Senate voted last month for a bill that would require schools to check such security footage more regularly.
“I think it’s important for you to know that the abuse on that day – that day that we saw – included slapping, banging heads on desks, throwing children to the floor by the hair on 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 non-verbal and cannot speak for themselves,” mother Beth Bowden said at a January 20 Senate Education Committee meeting. 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 is also a lawsuit stemming from an incident at Horace Mann Middle School, also in Charleston, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Advocating for new penalties for teachers and other employees who harm non-verbal students, parents said it was difficult to ensure such teachers and staff did not end up in schools unless they weren’t. there is a criminal charge.
House Bill 4503 and the accompanying Senate Bill 535 both come from the governor’s office. These proposals call for the revocation of teaching licenses in cases of proven or suspected child abuse. A separate measure, House Bill 4562, would place unlicensed school staff on administrative leave or reassign them while they are investigated for child abuse.
“There are a lot of different bills going through the Legislature, on ‘how to keep kids safe,'” said Kate Flack, CEO of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network. “And there are a lot of people in our schools who are really fighting to make sure children are protected.”
Flack’s network oversees the response of local law enforcement, medical providers and schools to child abuse in 44 West Virginia counties. They advocated for the passage of other laws addressing child abuse in previous sessions, including ‘Erin Merryn’s Law,’ which created a statewide task force to address child abuse. in schools, as well as programs to educate school staff on how to spot signs of abuse in schools. children.
But while laws like these have been seen as a success, Flack said programs sometimes struggle because lawmakers haven’t provided additional funding to implement them.
“Every time you put more money into systems, into implementing bills, the better results you’ll get,” Flack said.
With the Erin Merryn Act, schools were also able to benefit from a partnership with the Benedum Foundation, which worked on a program that teachers and other school employees could use.
National child abuse prevention advocates say the approach to increase oversight and punishment is more reactive than anything, and that the state must focus on the long-running crisis in schools – as well as ways to support and prevent child abuse in the home.
Jim McKay of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia says it’s important to have more teachers, aides and others in schools who can recognize and report abuse. Equally important are policies that prevent abuse or neglect in the home by supporting vulnerable low-income families.
“I have reservations that lawmakers will pass extended cameras in schools – which is one piece of the puzzle – but also pass a bad bill, like Senate Bill 2, that would limit allocations unemployment for families,” he said. “It puts families under even more pressure [where] parents do not have what they need to support their children.