The Fairfax County School Board tackled the Zero Tolerance issue Monday in a work session designed to help members flush out priorities for reform on the school system’s disciplinary policies.
The school system has been under increasing scrutiny that current disciplinary policies are overly punitive. Media profiles on the recent suicide of high school student Nick Stuban, and another about a middle school student expelled for having an acne medication in her locker, have heightened the public’s calls for reform.
The audience included a plethora of FCPS staff, concerned citizens, dozens of members from the advocacy group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform and members from Nick Stuban’s family. Because the room was filled to capacity, several people had to listen from the hallway under the watchful eye of a FCPS security guard.
Monday’s discussion was at times tense and emotional. School Board member Patty Reed made a poignant admission that she is “haunted” by a few of the disciplinary decisions made by the School Board. “The world is not black and white,” she said. “I think we made lifetime decisions for kids who made their first mistake.”
Consistency was a frequently used word in the work session. Board member Tessie Wilson argued that school board members can’t argue for both consistency and special circumstances when it comes to the application of discipline policies. “You can’t be consistent if each case is judged individually,” Wilson said.
The FCPS disciplinary hearings process has been criticized as unduly harsh. Students typically do not have parental representation and hearings officers have been judged by many students and families as overly adversarial. Board member Stu Gibson said officials need to address balance but added, “If we have students committing serious violations of the rules and they won’t admit it, it is up to us and the administration to get to the bottom of what happened – and that is not always pretty.”
At-Large member Tina Hone said she believes there is still a sense of denial among FCPS officials about the hearings process. “Dr. Dale you have said our hearings are not adversarial – and that is implausible. There is stuff that happens. I appreciate your honesty Stu (Gibson) – because you are right – they do get adversarial,” Hone said.
Hone also said the core issue is a flawed hearings process that is particularly disastrous for kids who have no previous record, “I believe, that in the hearing office’s point of view, they believe they are showing mercy when they are reassigning a student (to another school). They think that is mercy. The community is hearing the kid made one mistake and asking why are they even expelled. We need to figure out if we can get the hearings office out of that habit.”
The School Board brainstormed a list of their priorities that will be discussed at additional work sessions in April and May. (These priorities are listed below.)
Superintendent Dale told me that his challenge is to get the School Board to narrow down the priorities discussed today and gain a consensus on the top 3 to 5 issues. I replied it is key that the School Board’s priorities mesh with the community’s priorities.
Based on all the press coverage of this issue, it seems the community’s immediate priorities are quite clear: reform the process for first time offenders and introduce parental notification requirements. The fear permeating through our public schools right now is, “Could my kid be next? Could my kid be accused of a first-time infraction and kicked out of school for something like bringing an aspirin to school?”
Tackle the fear first school board. The rest of the discussion will fall into the place. You have to remove the fear first because, sadly, the fear is all too real for FCPS families.
These are among the priorities discussed today by the School Board- NOT IN ORDER OF RANK:
- Clarify state mandates about discipline
- Address the treatment of first time offenders
- Obtain a better collection of data on the zero tolerance issue
- Ensure the discipline consequence is commensurate with the infraction
- Parent notification when a student is accused of a violation
- Maintain a safe and secure environment for all students
- Hearings process timeline – make it as short as possible
- Consequences of student behavior
- Teenager suspended from Fairfax County school over acne drug(washingtonpost.com)
- Suicide Turns Attention to Fairfax Discipline Procedures
- Stephen Colbert 2009 Story on FCPS Student Busted for Birth Control
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