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Justice signs bills on Bible classes, reducing college oversight, disciplining educators, requiring AEDs, studying student discipline and enacting 'Tim Tebow'

Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed into law Wednesday a bill specifically saying that Bible classes are allowed in public high schools.

Some prominent West Virginia religious leaders opposed the legislation during this year’s regular legislative session, saying it discriminated against non-Christian faiths.

Justice also signed numerous other education-related bills Wednesday, the last day he had to sign or veto bills that passed during the session. Any he didn’t take action on by that time would automatically become law without his signature.

From requiring devices that can save students from heart attacks, to cracking down on educators who try to sexually abuse kids, here are some education bills the governor has now made law:

HB 4780 Bible classes

This says county school systems may offer Bible classes in public high schools.

West Virginia Department of Education General Counsel Heather Hutchens has said counties already were allowed to offer such classes “if the course was voluntary and from a historical perspective only.”

Education officials may allow the optional course to count as one of the four social studies credits high schoolers must obtain to graduate.

The law includes a line saying a point of the course is to teach “knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding the development of American society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Senators had previously removed the Bible references from an almost identical bill, changing it to say counties may offer a course “on sacred texts or comparative world religions.”

The Senate unanimously passed that version of the bill to the House of Delegates. But the House never acted on it.

In a twist, a majority of senators quickly then backed the House’s version of the bill, which the House had passed 73-26. That version, which Justice has now signed, references only the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Senate passed the House version with only Sens. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier; William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio; and Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, voting no. Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, was absent.

SB 760 Reducing state oversight of public college spending

This will allow more West Virginia public four-year colleges to become exempt from state oversight of their spending on things like multimillion-dollar buildings and new academic programs.

It will likely free Fairmont State, Shepherd and West Liberty universities from that supervision immediately.

The state’s larger colleges were exempted in a 2017 bill, so the new bill would leave Bluefield State College, Concord University, Glenville State College and West Virginia State University as the only four colleges that would continue to require state Higher Education Policy Commission approval for this spending and for creating possibly duplicative academic offerings.

Under this bill, colleges would have to meet any three of these five criteria to earn exemption:

  • A six-year graduation rate of at least 45% on average over three years;
  • A retention rate, meaning the proportion of first-time, full-time freshmen who return for a second academic year, of at least 60% on average over three years;
  • Not having an enrollment decrease of more than 5%, not including high-schoolers taking college classes, over three years;
  • At least 50 days cash reserved for operations on average over the past three years; or
  • A Composite Financial Index (CFI) of not less than 1, as determined by audits.

Schools that don’t currently meet enough criteria might meet them in the future and earn exemption. Alternatively, a school not meeting any criteria could persuade the Higher Education Policy Commission to grant exemption, and the commission could grant it, under the bill.

Each college has its own Board of Governors. The Higher Education Policy Commission is the agency that’s supposed to oversee four-year colleges from a statewide perspective.

The Senate passed this 28-5 with Beach absent, and the House passed this 91-9.

HB 3127 ‘Tim Tebow’ bill

This will allow home-schooled students to participate in the vast majority of public school sports and bands, if they take one online public school course.

This is often called a “Tim Tebow” bill, after the University of Florida quarterback who got to play public school sports despite being home-schooled.

The West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission regulates football, basketball and other sports and band for public, and some private, middle and high schools.

SSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said that, before the new law, home-schoolers could already participate in the sports and band of the public school their address is zoned for, if they took four online courses and were vaccinated, as public school students are.

While the bill will lower that requirement to one online class, it will keep the vaccination requirement and require home-schoolers to submit their scores on tests of their choosing to provide some means of determining academic eligibility.

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was the only senator to vote against this. He said he voted no because it didn’t also allow a student of a non-SSAC-member private school to play sports at other schools if their own school didn’t have the sport they wanted to play.

Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, was absent for the vote.

The House passed it 61-38, with only Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, absent.

HB 4378 Revoking licenses of teachers who abuse children

This will require county boards of education to — when there’s evidence an employee jeopardized a student’s health or safety — finish investigating the employee even if they resign before the investigation is done.

It will also strengthen the current requirement that county schools superintendents report suspended or fired employees to the state superintendent by mandating this reporting within seven days, and also requiring reporting of workers who resign amid investigations.

The state superintendent will also be required to maintain a public database “of individuals who have had adverse action taken against their teaching certificate by the state superintendent.”

It will also mandate that educators who “groom” students or minors for sexual abuse automatically lose their licenses for at least five years. This revocation will no longer be an optional choice left up to the state schools superintendent.

Grooming will be defined as “befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a student or minor, which may include the family of the student or minor, to lower the student’s or minor’s inhibitions” to sexually abuse them.

This mandatory revocation will also apply to any educator who “exploited a student” in various ways, including sexual abuse, that “escalated into a relationship with the exploited student within 12 months of that student’s graduation.”

In December, stories by The Arizona Republic, KJZZ and the Gazette-Mail revealed former University High Assistant Principal Pete Cheesebrough had kissed a student, his Monongalia County superiors had investigated him, they allowed him to quietly resign, he began teaching in Arizona, and now-former West Virginia state superintendent Steve Paine had declined to revoke the teaching certification he used to work in Arizona.

Paine wrote in an order that he didn’t want to affect Cheesebrough’s new teaching job.

Not revoking his certification could have also allowed Cheesebrough to return to teaching in West Virginia. Cheesebrough was never prosecuted or found guilty of any crime.

The Senate passed this with no nays and only Mann absent. The House passed it with no nays and only Delegates Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley; Nathan Brown, D-Mingo; and John Kelly, R-Wood, absent.

HB 4497 Requiring AEDs at games and practices

This will require automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on the school or event grounds during all games or practices “under the control, supervision and regulation” of the SSAC.

That means the vast majority of public school sports, and many private school sports.

The American Red Cross says AEDs can analyze the heart’s rhythm and deliver an electrical shock, also called defibrillation, to help re-establish an effective rhythm. Currently, the SSAC only recommends that schools have AEDs.

The Red Cross says AEDs are the only way to restore that rhythm during cardiac arrest, and for each minute defibrillation is delayed, odds of survival drop by about 10 percent.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House passed it 99-0. Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, was absent.

The law is named after Alex Miller, the Roane County High football player who went into cardiac arrest at a game at Clay County High in September and died.

SB 723 Making education department address student discipline disparities

This will require the state Department of Education to study school discipline statewide, develop a program to address the study’s findings and report back to lawmakers every two years on the discipline data and the progress made, both in the statewide program and in individual counties’ programs.

The law says this “will include information by subgroup, including but not limited to, race, gender and disability.”

Reports have shown black students in West Virginia, and nationwide, are receiving out-of-school suspensions from public schools at far higher rates than white students.

The bill cleared the Senate unanimously and the House passed it with only Delegates Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley; Jim Butler, R-Mason; and Marshall Wilson, I-Berkeley, voting no.

Funerals for Sunday, March 29, 2020

Clevenger, Ralph - Noon, Hodam Creek Cemetery, Hacker Valley.

Fox, Etta - 2 p.m., Blaine Memorial Cemetery, Cottageville.