By Erin Beck, writing for the “When All Are Counted” Project
Last week, I was sitting in a meeting of West Virginia lawmakers who were talking about a survey of how prepared schools are for school shooters, and I thought about kids with disabilities.
At the West Virginia Legislature’s interim meeting, held at the Cacapon Resort in Berkeley Springs, representatives of the state Department of Education assured lawmakers that the survey was comprehensive.
But after, those representatives said it didn’t include questions specific to kids with disabilities, such as steps schools had taken to protect kids who use wheelchairs or might need extra assistance understanding directives.
West Virginia state law says that each county board of education must assess the safety and security of its schools and report that information to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability each year. Questions may include whether they’ve hired school resource officers, installed weapon detection systems, or upgraded doors and windows. And a review of the 2021-2022 report shows schools spent $15 million doing so.
But the report also shows the survey didn’t ask about whether schools included measures like obtaining fidget devices for kids who can’t sit still, noise-canceling headphones for kids with sensitivity issues, or practicing escape routes with kids in wheelchairs.
Additionally, police officers in schools is a tactic that hasn’t been shown to deter these shootings and may make kids of color feel unsafe, knowing they’re already often disproportionately disciplined.
On May 24, 19 children and two adults were killed at a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas.
Saturday night, five were killed and 19 were injured at an LQBTQ+ club in Colorado Springs.
Online, I noticed how perspectives varied about the event. LGBTQ+ people talked about how it felt to be a targeted group. People with certain disabilities also talked about how it felt to be more in danger.
Every time there’s a mass shooting I think of us ♿️— hijade2madre on IG & Hive (@HijaDe2Madre) November 21, 2022
How many weren’t fast enough? How many didn’t hear what was happening? How many couldn’t make it through the crowd? How many couldn’t see an exit?
For my part as a member of the communications staff for the Think Kids “When All Are Counted” Project, I’m sharing stories focused on the needs of those with disabilities.
In some cases, if lawmakers are assessing a problem, that might lead me to ask if the particular needs of kids with disabilities were determined. If they’re proposing a plan or solution, it might lead me to ask if kids with disabilities will be helped.
I perked up during the session on early childhood literacy screenings to determine which kids need extra help. I was hoping that those screenings might be a way to gather data on kids with intellectual and learning disabilities in West Virginia schools. But another representative of the Department of Education said schools use various tools to measure literacy, and some schools don’t use them at all.
Del. Joe Ellington, R- Mercer and chairman of the joint committee, asked Sonya White, Department of Education teaching and learning officer, to provide more information about which counties do and which don’t conduct the screenings considered “best practice.” While Ellington is a supporter of local control, he also sees the value of more data. But even so, that additional information wouldn’t show if the screenings identified disabilities, specifically.
During another presentation, the McChrystal Group, a consulting LLC based out of Virginia, presented their findings on whether the behemoth state Department of Health and Human Resources should split into two agencies. Lawmakers, who support such a change, weren’t happy with their recommendations that it wouldn’t.
But I was most interested in the part of the presentation when Sen. Charles Trump, R- Morgan, asked about allegations that DHHR won’t respond to letters from Disability Rights of West Virginia, a federally mandated agency to protect and advocate for people with disabilities.
Advocates have told me that instead of living independently in communities, dozens of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are being held in state-owned psychiatric hospitals. Those facilities aren’t meant for people to live in indefinitely, and I worry that without individualized care, as well as socialization and help learning to perform tasks needed to live on their own, kids today will be filling those hospitals, where they’ll be more susceptible to abuse because of their vulnerability, in the future.
So how does this relate to the “When All Are Counted” project?
I know the following paragraph sounds jargony, but don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet; stick with me.
We have described the project as a review of the lack of health surveillance data on three specific populations in West Virginia: kids with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ population and the Black population.
According to the CDC, public health surveillance is the “collection, analysis, and interpretation of health-related data.” Also, according to the CDC, the goal is to “provide information that can be used for health action by health personnel, government leaders, and the public to guide public health policy and programs.”
That means if your doctor reports to the health department that you have COVID-19 or the flu, that’s health surveillance, and that data might motivate the health department to notify people there’s been a sudden increase, for instance.
It could also mean that if the public and decision-makers don’t understand the needs of all kids, their initiatives won’t meet those needs.
So why did we pick the three groups we picked?
We want to help kids live healthier, happier lives and grow up to be healthier, happier people. We know that when it comes to getting the health care needed for that to happen, we know that some groups in particular have a harder time than others.
For instance, I wrote last month about JaQue Galloway, who lives in Wheeling, but has to travel to Pittsburgh for the specialized health care needed for her two sons because she said local healthcare providers aren’t equipped to meet their needs.
And when working with Think Kids earlier this year, I emailed the state Department of Health and Human Resources to see if they tracked how many kids in West Virginia have autism. A spokeswoman responded that the data wasn’t available.
I also asked education officials how many kids have individualized education plans, but could only find county-level data on kids in special education classes, which doesn’t show the big picture.
To be fair, our research team has told me this dearth of data related to specific at-risk populations is a problem everywhere.
But hopefully, as our research team conducts focus groups throughout the state with the Black and LGBTQ+ populations, as well as with people with disabilities, West Virginia can figure out how to do all kids justice.
Because how can we if we don’t know who we need to help and where the problems are? How can educators help them if because we’ve ignored their needs, parents are keeping them home? How can we if, because we don’t count them, kids are resorting to getting their care out-of-state, or not at all?