Civil Rights Issues in West Virginia

Chapter 7

Findings and Recommendations

Following is a brief summary of key findings of the West Virginia Advisory Committee, drawing on the testimony of participants at the Logan, Morgantown, and Charleston forums and additional documentation submitted. Each finding is accompanied by a set of recommended approaches, and in some cases, specific actions, that can address the finding.

Finding 1. Troubled Police-Community Relations

Recent publicized incidents of police brutality have sharpened longstanding tensions between law enforcement agencies in the state and West Virginians who belong to racial minority groups, particularly African Americans. In addition to the perception that police officers often use excessive force against black suspects and defendants, minority citizens perceive a pattern of discriminatory treatment and petty harassment by officers, including disproportionate stops and arrests of black youth under Charleston’s curfew law, the Youth Protection Ordinance.

Tensions between police and minorities are exacerbated by the fact that law enforcement agencies in the state are overwhelmingly white and male, with very few minority and female officers, especially in the upper ranks. Efforts to recruit, hire, and promote qualified minority officers have been insufficient, and outdated civil service regulations may also limit hiring. There are also concerns about low age and educational requirements for police recruits in general. Low pay relative to other jurisdictions impedes the recruitment, hiring, and retention of highly qualified officers of all backgrounds, although many currently on the job are experienced and dedicated officers who serve despite low pay. Current promotion criteria do not take sufficient account of an officer’s ability to communicate and interact fairly with citizens of diverse backgrounds.

There are concerns in communities that internal and external procedures for providing oversight of police activities and penalizing officer misconduct are inadequate. Existing citizen review boards in Charleston and Bluefield have little authority. Efforts in the state legislature and in communities to establish additional citizen review boards have been controversial and have met with resistance from law enforcement agencies.

To improve police-community relations, some law enforcement agencies in the state are working with public officials, community groups, and businesses to promote the involvement of officers in the communities they serve through such efforts as the federally funded COPS program.

Recommendation 1.1

The West Virginia legislature should take steps to (1) review the effectiveness of existing citizen review boards in the state, for example, in Charleston and Bluefield, that oversee police activities; (2) evaluate the need for, and the potential advantages and disadvantages of, instituting citizen review in other communities, either as a statewide board or as individual boards in different jurisdictions, and examine the authority that such boards might have; and (3) issue the result of such evaluation and if justified pass legislation implementing the desired review board.

Recommendation 1.2

The Charleston Police Department should review statistics on stops and arrests under the city’s Youth Protection Ordinance, in terms of race, sex, and area of residence, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the ordinance. Based on this information, the Charleston police and the City Council should modify the law if deemed justified by the findings or eliminate the law if it is found discriminatory.

Recommendation 1.3

The West Virginia State Police and local police departments should take vigorous steps to recruit, hire, retain, and promote more minority and female officers. Some of these steps include (1) examining relevant civil service regulations to determine whether they impede the hiring of qualified minority and female officers, and evaluating the need to modify the regulations; (2) examining testing instruments used for hiring and promotion, and examining tests used in other states, with a view to updating or replacing tests if necessary; (3) actively recruiting in minority communities; and (4) broadening criteria used in promotion decisions that consider the officer’s interpersonal and communication skills and ability to interact with citizens of diverse backgrounds.

Recommendation 1.4

The West Virginia legislature and state and local law enforcement agencies should investigate the extent age (as an indicator of maturity and judgmental capacity) and education of law enforcement officers may be correlated with officer misconduct, and should evaluate the desirability and feasibility of raising age and educational requirements for recruits. They should also examine the feasibility of raising officer pay in order to attract more recruits with some postsecondary education and retain highly qualified and able officers.

Finding 2. Barriers to a Quality Education for Racial Minorities

Regulations promulgated by the West Virginia State Board of Education in 1996, known as Policy 2421, prohibit harassment and violence in the public schools based on race/ethnicity, sex, or religion, and require county school boards to develop procedures for responding to harassment incidents. The policy also calls for county boards of education, working with communities, to develop comprehensive harassment prevention programs. A promising example of such a program is the Civil Rights Team Project launched in 1999 as a pilot in 12 secondary schools in the state.

Despite this progress, harassment in schools continues to be reported to organizations such as the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force, the NAACP, and the American Friends Service Committee. Although some schools and educators have responded effectively to such incidents, in other cases little has been done, and the absence of comprehensive and coordinated measures reflects the need for more thorough enforcement of the 1996 regulations.

School systems in the state typically have very few minority personnel, especially in teaching and other professional positions, resulting in a lack of minority role models for students. This is a concern not only for minority students, who may feel they lack advocates in the school system, but also for white students whose understanding of diversity would be enhanced by contact with minority teachers.

There is also concern among minority parents that some schools and educators set low expectations for the academic achievement of minority students and do not encourage them to prepare for college. However, educators point to several programs underway in the schools, such as the Advisor-Advisee program, designed to help all students transition to college or work.

Recommendation 2.1

To fully comply with the 1996 Board of Education regulations (Policy 2421), county school boards should step up efforts to develop and implement programs aimed at preventing and responding to harassment in schools. County school boards should plan and collaborate with state and local agencies as called for in the regulations to implement programs. The West Virginia Civil Rights Team Project, launched as a pilot program in 1999 by the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, is showing encouraging results and should be expanded to other schools in the state.

Recommendation 2.2

With a view to providing minority role models for all students, county school boards should undertake vigorous and sustained actions to hire and promote minority professionals, especially for teaching and school administrative positions. Special attention should be given to recruiting African American teachers at all levels but particularly for grades below the high school level. In addition, to ensure that schools support high academic achievement for all students, local school systems should work to identify and replicate best practices aimed at helping minority students set and achieve high goals.

Finding 3. Discrimination Against Minorities in Hiring and in the Workplace

Minority communities continue to have deep concern and frustration about racial discrimination in hiring. In areas where almost all businesses are owned by whites, many small businesses engage in informal hiring practices, drawing on a pool of relatives and friends; this situation sets the stage for discrimination against minority applicants, yet businesses with fewer than 12 employees are exempt from state antidiscrimination laws. At the same time, some of the state’s largest employers such as coal companies, hospitals, and school systems have very few minority employees, and some that are federal contractors have resisted making public their required affirmative action plans.

In welfare-to-work programs, meanwhile, it is reported that minorities are often placed in lower-paying programs and in jobs that offer less opportunity for educational advancement or permanent job status, thus diminishing the chances for minority clients to achieve sustainable integration into the paid work force.

African American employees report disturbing incidents of discrimination and harassment in the workplace, including discriminatory treatment by employers, racial taunts by co-workers, and even physical violence. In the short term, they have few options for responding to such treatment without endangering their jobs. Although channels exist for filing complaints with state and federal agencies, this process may take years, and thus does little to help employees resolve their immediate concerns.

Recommendation 3.1

The West Virginia legislature should evaluate the allegation that small businesses, because they are exempt from state antidiscrimination laws, may discriminate against racial minorities in hiring without consequences. If this allegation is supported, the legislature should devise corrective measures, possibly including action to reduce the number of employees that qualify a business as an employer subject to antidiscrimination laws.

Recommendation 3.2

State and local authorities responsible for welfare-to-work programs should evaluate placement and referral practices to determine the extent racial bias may play a role, and if warranted, should develop corrective measures. Regardless of race, clients should be encouraged and given support to continue their education while in the programs in order to improve their future job prospects.

Recommendation 3.3   

Allegations that employment discrimination complaint processing is excessively slow and hampered by red tape should be investigated. Appropriate state and federal agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, and the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office, together with advocacy organizations such as the NAACP, should participate in assessing whether mechanisms for processing such complaints can be enhanced to provide speedier relief to victims of discrimination and restore public trust in the system.[1]

Finding 4. Barriers to Education and Employment for People with Disabilities

Failure of some state and local education authorities to comply with key federal disability statutes deprives children with disabilities of their legal right to a “free appropriate public education.” A particular concern is the qualifications of personnel serving students with disabilities. Some county boards of education do not enforce the requirement that special education teachers be certified in that field, raising the possibility that personnel without appropriate training may be teaching students with disabilities.

There are specific concerns about the education of hearing-impaired students. The practice of hiring uncertified, less-proficient sign language interpreters to work in the schools, which in part reflects a shortage of highly trained interpreters, increases the isolation of deaf students in mainstream classrooms and makes the instruction from hearing teachers less accessible to them.

Adults with disabilities face many barriers to sustainable integration in the work force, most notably the lack of affordable health care coverage for people with substantial health needs. At the time of the forum, there was concern that to maintain health coverage under Medicaid and Medicare, many adults with disabilities had no choice but to remain on public assistance rather than accept paid employment.[2] Other barriers to employment include the lack of accessible public transportation, especially in rural areas, and the lack of assistive technologies in the workplace.

Recommendation 4.1

The West Virginia Department of Education should monitor local school systems around the state to determine the extent of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other federal disability laws, and should take steps to increase compliance. In particular, the Department of Education should enforce training and certification requirements for special education personnel working in local school systems.

Recommendation 4.2

Because of concern about the proficiency of sign language interpreters hired by the schools, the West Virginia Department of Education should (1) consider requiring certification for interpreters working in mainstream classrooms and evaluate the impact such a requirement would have; and (2) consider measures to increase the long-term supply of proficient interpreters, which might include offering courses in American Sign Language to hearing students at the elementary-secondary level to promote career interest and proficiency.

Finding 5. Hate Crimes

According to data collected by the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force and the West Virginia Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR), most recorded hate crimes and incidents in West Virginia involve racial bias, followed by those with a sexual orientation bias. Until 1998, reporting of hate crimes to the UCR program was sporadic and incomplete. Indeed, only 37 percent of law enforcement agencies reported data to the state police in 1998. But since then, almost all agencies have begun to report hate crime data to the UCR program. Public officials have maintained that hate crimes and incidents are a serious problem in the state.

The Hate Crime Task Force, formed in 1992 as an advisory committee to the West Virginia Human Rights Commission, has greatly enhanced the state’s ability to prevent and respond to hate crimes and incidents. It has done so through collaborative efforts involving law enforcement agencies, civil rights organizations, school systems, and community groups. The task force is supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, as administered and approved by the West Virginia Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Despite the progress achieved, ongoing and expanded training is needed to increase the ability of law enforcement agencies to recognize and respond appropriately to hate crimes. It is critical to build greater awareness of the special characteristics of hate crimes as acts of intimidation and terror against classes of people, as well as against the specific victims targeted. Such awareness is a prerequisite for taking action to prosecute hate crimes that occur, deterring future hate crimes, and creating a climate of community understanding that decreases the likelihood of such incidents.

In particular, it is important to consider ways to provide greater institutional continuity to the police training program. The program still depends heavily on the catalytic role of the West Virginia Hate Crime Task Force, an advisory committee without its own staff or offices.

Recommendation 5.1

Law enforcement officers are the front-line responders to hate crimes and incidents. Their ability to recognize hate crimes as such, report them to appropriate data collection programs, provide assistance to victims, and help bring perpetrators to justice can be enhanced through effective education and training on hate crimes. The training program underway since 1997, involving law enforcement agencies and the Hate Crime Task Force, should be given greater institutional support and continuity with a view to reaching more officers through preservice and in-service programs.

Recommendation 5.2

Because most hate crimes and incidents are committed by young people, often in and around schools, hate crime prevention programs in schools are a critical form of outreach. The West Virginia Civil Rights Team Project, launched by the Civil Rights Division of the West Virginia Attorney General’s Office and currently underway in selected secondary schools, has shown great promise and should be expanded to other schools in the state.

Recommendation 5.3

Recognizing that people with physical and mental disabilities are sometimes targets of bias-motivated crimes, the West Virginia legislature should consider including people with disabilities as a protected class under the state hate crimes statute. As a first step, the legislature should examine relevant statutes in states that currently include people with disabilities as a protected class and assess the experience of their implementation.

Recommendation 5.4

In the light of the achievements of the Hate Crime Task Force, the West Virginia legislature should consider providing additional support and institutional base to the task force with a view to providing more permanence to its work and additional resources for its ongoing and planned programs.

[1] As part of the affected agency review process, Norman Lindell, then director of the West Virginia Human Rights Commission and member of the Advisory Committee, clarified the Human Rights Commission’s complaint processing. He noted: “The Commission has changed its process in order to complete its investigation of cases on average within 180 days from the date the complaint is filed. We have a sophisticated case management system which tracks all cases on the Commission’s docket. The average age of cases currently under investigation is 120 days. Further we have established two separate alternative dispute resolution programs. The Commission offers a voluntary program to attempt to settle cases early in the investigatory process. Either party may request participation in the pre-determination conciliation/mediation program. The investigative staff may recommend that a particular case may benefit from this program. If that occurs, the parties are contacted to ask if they would be interested in participating in the program. The Commission is resolving approximately 60% of the cases in the program. The Commission can also compel the parties to participate in mediation after a finding of probable cause. The administrative law judges are requiring all cases assigned to them be mediated.” Norman Lindell, memorandum to Marc Pentino, Eastern Regional Office, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Jan. 30, 2002.

[2] A possible remedy to this concern is provided by the passage of the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act in late 1999, which allows people with disabilities to retain federal health benefits if they resume work. This point is described in greater detail in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report, Sharing the Dream: Is the ADA Accommodating All? October 2000, p. 34.