Rebecca Speakman, constituency captain for Educators Can't Wait, moderates the discussion during a candidate forum Thursday evening in Fairmont hosted by Educators Can't Wait.

FAIRMONT — Mental health issues in the schools topped a list of topics addressed at a candidate forum Thursday evening in Fairmont hosted by Educators Can’t Wait, a teacher-led constituency team of the WV Can’t Wait movement.

Rebecca Speakman, constituency captain for Educators Can’t Wait, said 16 candidates showed up at the forum, held at Turley Center on the Fairmont State University campus. They all signed the WV Can’t Wait Pledge.

Gubernatorial Candidate Stephen Smith said those signing the pledge agreed to never cross a picket line, never take corporate money, never hide from a debate and “promise to run the kind of grassroots campaign where we’re listening to the people instead of out-of-state corporate interests.”

“I’m proud to be here supporting the statewide Educators Can’t Wait Team, which has invited and collected more than 15 candidates from across the state one year before the election to hear directly from teachers and parents and school service personnel what they want from the legislature,” Smith said. “This is what it looks like when we build politics and power from the ground up — teachers and educators dictating to candidates and politicians what they want a year before election day.”

Smith said he is one of the total 59 candidates who have signed the WV Can’t Wait Pledge.

Speakman, who moderated the forum, opened the discussion on the subject of mental health.

“I believe that a lot of our educators feel like this is one of the most important issues to be addressed,” she said.

Tonya Stuart Rinehart, a teacher from Harrison County, talked about the issue of students using profane language to talk back to teachers and destroying their rooms.

“We’ve even had in one school, when a teacher had said, ‘you need to stop doing this particular behavior,’ we had a 5-year-old point a finger gun at her face and say, ‘no, I’m going to do that anyway,’” she said.

She said bus drivers are also frustrated. “We’re really trying to make some changes there and get some support, and it’s not just about throwing money at the problem and getting more personnel,” she said. “Our students absolutely need more support services, but our teachers need protected as well. And a lot of times we feel the burden to be all things to these kids that come in with so many problems.”

Candidate Elliott Pritt, who is running for the state House of Delegates in the 32nd District, responded to her concerns.

“There’s no silver bullet for this issue,” he said. “Anybody that tells you there is, is lying straight to your face. My sense is that we, as a society and as a state, our local communities, we’ve lost our sense of community. We’ve lost ownership and responsibility over our neighbors. You know, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”

Pritt said the answer to that question is “yes, we are.”

“We should all be looking out for one another,” he said. “The problem is, we’ve asked education professionals to take on that role and then we, as a society, have stepped back from that role, and this is an issue.”

He said they could talk about increased funding and putting mental health professionals in every school, but he said rekindling the sense of community is crucial.

Pritt also said it’s important to get people working in dignified jobs and making sure they’re paid enough to live on.

Candidate Candi Sisler, who is running for the state House of Delegates in District 53, talked about what can be done for education professionals to help protect them in these situations.

She said it’s vital to become familiar with the Safe and Supportive Schools Act and enforce it.

“If a student has to be removed three times from your classroom…then that student is not allowed to come back to your classroom until there’s been a meeting with the parents, administrators and a plan put in place to address that behavior,” she said.

She said the student’s needs also have to be addressed.

“Why is the behavior happening?” she said.

Eric Hrin can be reached at 304-367-2549, or ehrin@timeswv.com.

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