Letter of Transmittal

West Virginia Advisory Committee to
the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Members of the Commission
Mary Frances Berry, Chairperson
Cruz Reynoso, Vice Chairperson
Jennifer C. Braceras
Christopher Edley, Jr.
Peter N. Kirsanow
Elsie M. Meeks
Russell G. Redenbaugh
Abigail Thernstrom

Les Jin, Staff Director

The West Virginia Advisory Committee submits this report, Civil Rights Issues in West Virginia, as part of its responsibility to advise the Commission on civil rights issues in the state. The Committee approved this report in a vote of 11 to 0, with no abstentions.

Since the early 1990s, the Committee has observed a general stagnation of civil rights progress. Over the years, the Committee has noted news reports and received personal accounts that reveal persistent mistreatment of minorities by law enforcement officials, racially motivated acts of violence, harassment of minorities in schools and workplaces, and barriers to people with disabilities in education and employment. Its reports, Police-Community Relations in Southern West Virginia (1993) and Rising Racial Tensions in Logan County, West Virginia (1995), covered some of these problems. After these reports were released, the Committee decided to explore the extent of civil rights problems throughout West Virginia. The Committee held planning meetings across the state, consulting with advocates and community leaders, and then conducted three community forums in Logan (1998), Morgantown (1999), and Charleston (2000).

This report summarizes issues addressed at the forums by approximately 50 people. Organized as a summary of issues rather than descriptions of individual forums, it covers four themes: (1) police-community relations, (2) treatment of minority students and students with disabilities in public schools, (3) civil rights issues related to employment, and (4) hate crimes. Based on this information and limited follow-up research, the Committee draws the following conclusions:

1. Incidents of police brutality have heightened longstanding tensions between law enforcement agencies and minorities, particularly African Americans. Adding to the tension is the perception that officers exhibit a pattern of discriminatory treatment and petty harassment, including disproportionate stops and arrests. There are concerns that existing procedures for overseeing police activities and penalizing officers for misconduct are inadequate. As a remedy, some state legislators and advocacy organizations tried to establish a citizen review board but were met with resistance from law enforcement agencies. The scarcity of minority and female officers, especially in the upper ranks, exacerbates tensions between police and minorities. Many allege that efforts to recruit, hire, and promote qualified minority officers have not been sufficiently vigorous.

2. Despite prevention programs and state regulations prohibiting harassment in the public schools, incidents of harassment continue to be reported to state and community organizations. Although some schools and educators have responded effectively, in other cases little has been done, prompting many to urge more stringent monitoring and enforcement.

Schools in the state typically have few people of color in teaching and other professional positions. As a result, minority students are deprived of role models and advocates. At the same time, white students whose appreciation of diversity would be enhanced by contact with minority teachers miss out on this opportunity. Although there are programs to help students transition to college or work, minority parents are concerned that some schools and educators set low expectations for minority students and do not encourage them to prepare for college.

Some state and local education authorities have failed to comply with federal special education law. It was alleged that some county boards of education do not enforce the requirement that special education teachers be state certified. Because of a shortage of trained interpreters, some school systems are said to hire uncertified, less proficient sign language interpreters, to the detriment of deaf students in mainstream classrooms.

3. Against the backdrop of a shrinking state economy, there is deep concern and frustration in minority communities about apparent patterns of racial discrimination in hiring as well as incidents of discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It was alleged that many small businesses engage in informal hiring, drawing on a pool of relatives and friends, setting the stage for discrimination against minority applicants. A contributing factor here is that businesses with fewer than 12 employees are exempt from state antidiscrimination laws. In welfare-to-work programs, it was alleged that minorities are disproportionately placed in programs that provide low pay and little opportunity to get an education or a permanent job.

Adults with disabilities face many obstacles to joining the work force. Major barriers include the lack of affordable health care coverage, accessible public transportation, and assistive technologies in the workplace.

4. The West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force, an advisory committee to the Human Rights Commission, has made impressive strides in improving the stateís ability to prevent and respond to hate crimes by collaborating with law enforcement agencies, civil rights organizations, school systems, and community groups. Since the task force began recording incidents in 1992, 120 probable hate crimes were reported through June 2000, most involving racial bias. Yet many at the forums cautioned that this relatively low number is due to underreporting. Reporting of hate crimes and incidents is sporadic and incomplete due to lack of public awareness of the reporting process and the limited number of police departments tracking bias crimes, and because the stateís hate crimes statute does not cover crimes motivated by bias against the victimís disability or sexual orientation. Considering the likelihood of underreporting, these statistics show that hate crimes not only continue to be a serious problem, but also may be more serious and widespread than acknowledged publicly.

The Committee believes this report will help the public better understand the wide range of civil rights issues in West Virginia and how established bureaucratic structures can be improved to remedy problems.

Sincerely,

Ranjit K. Majumder, Chairperson
West Virginia Advisory Committee