Board Revisits Discipline Policy
Parental notification still absent from proposed changes, but could be introduced through amendments
Nearly a year after overhauling the student disciplinary system, the Fairfax County School Board is preparing to make several more adjustments to its Students Rights and Responsibilities handbook, among them, adding synthetic marijuana to the list of substances which result in a five-day suspension and mandating principals immediately notify police after alcohol, assault, firearm, bomb threat and certain drug violations.
Among other significant modifications proposed, according to board documents, are the inclusion of peer mediation and restorative justice as methods of resolving disputes and addressing student behavior; expanding the section on bullying to include electronic communication; and allowing cell phone and use of other electronics for class purposes if registered with the school.
The changes would also codify existing school policy against weapons on school property, except for authorized use in curriculum. It also adds spring loaded pellet guns to a list of weapons which do not result in mandatory recommendation for expulsion, according to the documents.
But the changes would not require administrators to notify parents at the beginning of a process that could result in a student's suspension or recommendation for expulsion — an action that disappointed some advocates who have pushed the protocol since the beginning of the board's months-long review of the disciplinary process, spurred by the suicide of Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old Woodson High student, last January.
At the board's Thursday night meeting, Sandy Evans (Mason) told community members, some of whom spoke about the absence of that change, she intended to prepare an amendment that would strengthen parental notification.
Evans supported an amendment with the same goal last year, but it failed at the voting table, along with a requirement to notify students they had the right to remain silent during questioning.
At the time, she and at-large school board member Ilryong Moon withdrew two other amendments aiming to involve parents earlier in the investigation of their child’s alleged misconduct.
Board members will submit amendments by May 1 and consider them in a work session. A vote is scheduled for May 10.
Board members discussed some of the proposed changes at a work session April 16, making good on last year's promise of continuing to evaluate the system regularly beyond the passing of amendments last June.
Those who spoke before Thursday night's meeting thanked the board for the progress made since reforms began, including the addition of restorative justice; a slowly decreasing number of suspensions and reassignments; and $400,000 in funding for suspension support, though they noted the funds have not been spent.
Staff said Thursday night that while the funds set aside last spring for that purpose are unencumbered, several options for how to use them are being explored; school board members and staff wanted to better assess what progress had been made and where the greatest needs were before moving forward on hiring or new programs.
The system did find $500,000 last year for restorative justice positions, among other disciplinary needs, staff said.
There are other promises and issues the board has not addressed, some speakers at Thursday night's meeting said, including adding a clause that would prevent students from signing a statement without parents present and a sentence that informed students they were not obligated to answer administrators' questions.
Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform Director Caroline Hemenway, who stretched the nearly 60 pages of the SR+R across the span of the board table before she began speaking, wondered why the board hasn't thought beyond punishment to prevention, including what her group calls PIRR — prevention, intervention, restoration and rehabilitation practices.
"Give principals the authority to give teachers the resources and training to do it right," Hemenway said.
"Have you thought beyond just infractions and punishments? Doesn’t FCPShave a role to play in preventing infractions, intervening wherever and whenverpossible to guide students toward good outcomes, getting help from outside the schools for students in crisis, and restoring and rehabilitating those who have been harmed in some way?" FZTR's Michele Menapace said to the board in a statement read by Greg Brandon.
Hemenway also echoed the urging of other speakers to put the discipline system under the same roof as student services, and in the same vein, take the Board of Supervisors invitation to collaborate on family services, including discipline but also extending to mental health, teacher and student work overload, high school start times, hunger, poverty and prejudice.
"Go to a new place. Bring in community and national experts ... we are here for free," Hemenway said. "We've started in this direction, and we have the opportunity to be true national leaders in best behavior practices. It is just a matter of will."
After the meeting, Hemenway said she was optimistic about moving forward; compared to last year's push for change, "the question now isn't if, it's when and how," she said.
Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who formerly acted as a special advisor to FZTR, worried May 10 was too soon to have adequate discussion about changes; it was planned to avoid overlapping with a budget vote the following week, Board Chair Janie Strauss (Dranesville) said.
"We're looking at making important changes and we are a new board," McLaughlin said. "I think the community has brought us some good things. I don't want to rush through this."
Superintendent Jack Dale said the board could enact changes as late as one meeting after the May 24 budget vote.