Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The Pocahontas County Board of Education is required to follow a long list of policies and procedures – created on both the state and county level – to ensure that all students receive a high quality education in a safe and welcoming environment.

Each policy the board creates is placed on a 30-day comment period to allow employees, parents, community members and students the opportunity to share their opinions on the efficacy of the policy and to make suggestions on how to make it a better policy.

These policies can be as simple as the grading scale, to more serious issues, such as expulsion of students for bad behavior, or conduct.

The board recently released a policy for comment which is on the serious side. The title is Mandatory Expulsion for Conduct in Group A.

Superintendent of Schools Terrence Beam explained that the policy covers three Level IV offenses – possession of a deadly weapon on school grounds; physically assaulting a staff member; and possession with intent to sell narcotics.

In the new policy, if a student is found guilty of one of the three offenses, he or she will be mandatorily expelled for one calendar year.

Beam said he and the board members have worked closely on drafting the policy and hopes the community and students understand the need for severe punishment.

“I understand the concern that people have in this country about the safety of students in schools,” Beam said. “We don’t have to look too far or too far back to remember the shootings. We had shootings last year in Florida. We all remember Columbine and Sandy Hook. Every single case, the community members would say, ‘I never believed it would happen here.’”

Beam said he hopes the policy will deter students and keep the schools safe. With the changing times, he said the schools have to change, as well.

“When I went to school a hundred years ago, we didn’t have that kind of problem,” he said. “We had kids that drank beer and got in fights, but now, they’re taking really hard drugs, and they don’t know how it’s going to affect them. They do things at their homes and to their parents, to their siblings, that we would never had considered could possibly happen.”

Between the increase in drug use through the opioid epidemic and the increase in violence in schools, Beam said it is time to be black and white with an issue and to have a zero tolerance policy.

“I believe that we need to do something with zero tolerance,” he said. “I am afraid, sometimes, of zero tolerance. I always think a little bit of gray doesn’t hurt, but in this case – what’s happening is, we’ve had students bring guns to school in vehicles, and those vehicles have been locked or unlocked; the guns have been loaded, sometimes unloaded. The guns have been locked up, sometimes not locked up. It’s just been a wide variety of things.”

Beam said he understands that students love to hunt and like to leave straight from school to go hunting during certain seasons, but he feels it is too risky to have guns – for any reason – on school property.

“I don’t believe that any of those cases [where students had guns in their cars] those kids had any ill intent,” he said. “I don’t. But, that doesn’t mean that if there’s guns on the property and kids are aware of those, and somebody gets mad and wants to just react – to have something available to them, it’s a scary proposition.”

Beam, who is himself a hunter, sympathizes with the students who like to hunt, but when it comes to safety, he has to err on the side of caution.

“Hunting is part of our culture,” he said. “It’s part of my culture. I don’t hunt like I used to, but when I was the age of these kids, I hunted every day the season was in, and it didn’t matter what the season was. We live in a different world today, and we simply can’t take the chance of having guns on school premises. We just can’t.”

West Virginia has been fortunate that it has not had any school shootings.

“I don’t want to be reactive,” Beam said. “I want to be proactive. This doesn’t guarantee that our kids won’t get hurt in some way, but anything that we can do within the limits of the law to protect our kids, I think we need to.”

While there are other policies which require expulsion, this policy is different in that the expulsion is a mandatory 365 days or a whole calendar year. With lower level expulsions, Beam has the power as superintendent to allow a student to go back to school on a probationary period before the expulsion time is over.

“We have kids right now that have been expelled out of our school system for level II and level III violations,” he said. “Those would still have the opportunity to come back before the days are up. I have the latitude to bring them back if I choose. We’ve had this situation before. I have allowed some kids to come back that were level III, and I allowed others not to because of the behavior of the kids after the expulsion. I look at their effort to try to clean themselves up and make the right decisions after the expulsion.”

If this new policy is passed, the students who are expelled for one of the three offenses will not have the option to return early. They will be subject to the full 365 day expulsion. They also will not be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities, enter the school buildings or attend any extracurricular events, including games and dances.

The students will be provided with homebound instruction, which covers all their classes except Career and Technical Education [CTE] instruction.

With the policy currently out on public comment, Beam said he welcomes individuals to share their opinions – pros and cons – to help the board make the policy as effective as possible.

“We are really very interested in the community’s ideas about this,” he said. “I know there’s going to be some very hard backlash on this. We invite the citizens to send us letters, send us emails. Phone calls don’t really help me. I need something in writing that I can show our board that these are people who have concerns. We may want to follow-up with a conversation with them about the policy if there is a misunderstanding of what it says.”

Beam added that while the policy is out on 30-day comment, since it is such a serious issue, the comment period may be extended to ensure all individuals have a chance to review it and ask questions and/or voice their concerns.

If the policy is adopted, Beam said he plans to have a meeting at Pocahontas County High School with the students. The meeting will be open to parents. He wants to discuss the policy with the students and let them know exactly what will happen if someone violates the policy.

Included in the meeting will be board attorney Jason Long, board president Joe Walker, safety director Ron Hall, Beam and principal Joe Riley.

“We would say, ‘guys, this is the law,’” Beam said. “‘There’s not going to be exceptions. It doesn’t matter who you are, who your mom and dad are. You may be valedictorian of the class, but if you break this rule, you’re going to get expelled for 365 days.’

“If you don’t do it that way, then you get accused – which we have been in the past – of picking and choosing and allowing certain kids back and others not.”
Beam is the first to admit that mistakes have been made in the past when it comes to allowing expelled students to return to school early, and he says, with this policy, that will not be an issue.

“I will admit to God and everyone else that there have been a couple of situations that I allowed a student back in the school system probably quicker than I should, and that’s a mistake I made as a human being, but that doesn’t give me the right to continue to make that same mistake,” he said.

“We want to take all that guess work out, and we’re going to take the possibility of favoritism out,” he continued. “We want to eliminate it all. We want to say, ‘we’re going to paint everyone with the same brush and no matter who you are – whether you’re the top student in the whole school or quarterback of the football team – whatever it happens to be, they all will be treated the same.”

Beam said the main goal of the policy – and the goal of the board of education – is to keep students safe and give them a healthy environment in which to learn.

“We don’t want to treat these kids like they’re criminals,” he said. “We’re not trying to do that. All we’re trying to do is protect them and our schools.”

The policy may be found online at pocahontas k12.wvnet.edu/boe/policies-on-comment/ 

Click on Policy-JCBB-a Mandatory Expulsion Policy-comment to download the Word document.