Education, West Virginia Legislature

Third Grade Success Act, bill to criminalize school staff sexual contact with students pass in closing hours of legislative session

MORGANTOWN – After a long day of haggling and back-and-forth amendments, the final version of the Third Grade Success Act passed in the final half hour of the last day of the legislative session.

Also rescued just in time was the bill to criminalize school sexual contact with students.

The education bill passed in the form of HB 3035, which deals with “high-quality education programs” and creates a “multi-tiered system of support intervention for grade-level literacy and numeracy by the end of the third grade.” The bill has been going back and forth between the House and Senate.

The Senate and House worked with similar bills that differed in details, and on Thursday the Senate amended its bill, SB 274, the Third Grade Success Act, into this one, along with HB 3293 dealing with dyslexia and dyscalculia; the amendment struck the House Grow Your Own West Virginia Pathway to Teaching Pilot Program from the bill.

Back in the House Saturday afternoon, they learned that the Senate also removed a requirement for students to be at grade level in math by third grade; a provision to allow counties to phase in early childhood classroom assistant teachers where they are most needed, with full implementation by 2026; for assistant teachers to exercise control of a class in a teacher’s absence; and an option to employ paraprofessionals in place of assistant teachers.

So the House amended those back in and bounced it back to the Senate, where senators questioned the value of those amendments. Negotiations continued through the day. At 11:02 p.m., the House took the bill back up, concurring with the Senate amendments and adding some of its own.

It wasn’t clear from the floor conversation if those House provisions remained in the bill, though they appeared to. At 11:33 p.m. the Senate received the House message and Senate Majority Leader said the bill reflected a significant compromise and the intent of the Third Grade Success act hadn’t been changed. The bill passed at 11:34 and it heads to the governor.

SB 187, the bill to criminalize school staff sexual contact with students, was saved from failure just three hours before the session ended. The House passed it on Friday but the Senate rejected the House amendments on Saturday. The House took it back up around 9 p.m. Saturday night.

The bill creates a new felony for any public or private school teacher, principal, counselor, coach, other employee or volunteer to engage in sexual intercourse, sexual intrusion, or sexual contact with any student regardless of the student’s age. Student consent, or occurrence of the act off of school property or outside of a school function do not qualify as defenses.

The House on Friday passed an amended version that only applies to students ages 18-20, including in post-secondary schools. The Senate rejected that on Saturday and sent it back to the House.

On the House floor that night, Delegate Joey Garcia, D-Marion, said they had been looking at it more broadly to include college students, but the day was nearing its end.

“The thing about this bill is the immediate need to protect kids in that are in high schools. I think it’s important now to finish the job.” They can come back next year and do more.

Delegate Mark Zatzalo, R-Hancock, agreed, saying students can enter a wide variety of social settings and occupations after they turn 18, where the bill wouldn’t protect them. “High schools are definitely critical.”

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, is lead sponsor and said in January that the county prosecutor there approached him about the bill because of two teachers who were involved in relationships with students. The students were over 18 so the prosecutor had no means to bring a case.

The House receded from its amendments and passed the bill at 9:14 p.m. It goes to the governor.

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