Cops and Courts, Featured, West Virginia Legislature

House bogs down in long debate over removing reference to systemic racism from school security office bill

MORGANTOWN – The House of Delegates got mired Thursday in a nearly hour-long debate over an amendment to remove three words from a 14-page bill concerning the hiring of school security officers.

The Democrats, being a super-minority, lost the debate but exacted retribution by exercising the constitutional right to have every subsequent bill, but one, read in its entirety.

The bill is HB 4851. It allows a public or private school to hire an armed security officer who is former military or law enforcement.

The amendment, by Delegate Elias Coop-Gonzalez, dealt with the required training for the officers, which must include “awareness of systemic and individual racism, cultural diversity, and implicit bias.”

His amendment proposed to strike the words “systemic and individual.”

The battle began when Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, asked Coop-Gonzalez and one other Republican to answer questions – called yielding for questions – and they refused.

Fluharty, angry, said, “If you refuse to yield you’re not doing your job.” He continued, “This bill [he meant the amendment] is about division, creating division and lowering standards.”

Law enforcement training includes racism, he said. “Apparently we know more than the actual experts.” West Virginia’s history arose out of combating racism. “Stuff like this is complete nonsense.”

Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, pointed out that action on the bill was delayed on Wednesday, which was Black Policy Day.

Anyone can be racist, he said, it’s not just about being white. “It doesn’t make you less of a Republican if you acknowledge that we have systemic racism in our country. … We know of laws and polices that have been unfair and set people back.”

And Delegate Anitra Hamilton, D-Monongalia, talked of her own experience with racism, being refused treatment for a collapsed lung in a hospital emergency room – which nearly cost her her life.

Systemic racism, she said, refers to mistreatment arising from systems, structures or expectations.

“We don’t want to agree to those things happening here,” she said. “We will not grow and prosper if we keep getting hung up on words that prevent us from dealing with the problems. … West Virginia has a problem with systemic issues that are happening every day.”

Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said he opposed the original version of the amendment in Judiciary Committee.

“We don’t need to be afraid to talk about these topics and educate ourselves about these topics,” he said. “I will be the first one to stand up and say racism is alive and well.”

But he opposes labeling all of society, and the entirety of American history as racist, he said, and he

rejects teaching that people are inherently racist.

Judiciary chair Tom Fast, R-Fayette, said keeping the three words in the bill would essentially codify that the entire society and whole educations system are racist or biased. “This amendment rejects that notion.” He also noted that the word “systemic” doesn’t appear in state code, so amendment would broaden the bill’s scope to racism in general.

Coop-Gonzalez, who is a Guatemalan-born Latino, said, “I understand racism well, particularly since I have been a victim of it.” He was attacked by an opponent in his election campaign for his heritage, but was elected, nonetheless.

The amendment was adopted in a 75-20 vote, with nine Republicans – including Steele – voting no.

After the amendment vote, Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, demanded the bill be read in full. When that was done, the vote on the bill was 89-0, with seven delegates who’d participated in the debate and the prior vote registering absent for this one. It goes to the Senate.

With seven of the 10 bills on the calendar being read in full – with all passing unanimously – the floor session ran about two hours.

Among the others, HB 4320 was debated and passed before the fracas began.

It grants parents and guardians access to minor children’s medical records, except those who are high school graduates, emancipated or married.

Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, objected to the provision allowing parents access to records for children’s drug rehabilitation and venereal disease. That is sensitive information and is in code for a reason, because of the nature of some parent-child relationships, he said.

Pushkin objected to the bill applying to non-custodial biological parents.

Lead sponsor Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis, defended the bill: “What we are not doing is denying access to that care” for the minors. They can still have access to care without parental permission; the bill grants access after care.

It passed 85-11 and goes to the Senate. One Republican joined 10 Democrats to vote no.

HB 4885 is a response to the many posts seen on social media of protesters blocking traffic on streets and highways. It prohibits walking, sitting, standing, kneeling, lying down or placing an object in a road to block traffic. The bill doesn’t list any form of penalty for violations.

It passed 92-0 and goes to the Senate.