Red Apple Mom

May 16, 2011

Missing the Mark on School Discipline Reform?

I very much appreciate Fairfax County Public Schools’ attention to the discipline reform issue.  However, I join others in expressing serious concern that school officials are missing the mark on this issue– big time. 

On Friday, a FCPS press release said Superintendent Dale will present specific measures “to implement his 10 recommendations for changes” to the student discipline process at the School Board work session on May 16th.

Huh?  To “implement his 10 recommendations”?   Remember, this is a Superintendent who originally denied that FCPS has a “zero tolerance” policy.  Now he’s the one deciding the list of recommendations and we’ve leap-frogged to “implementation” already?

The FCPS press release says the school district “listened to input from the School Board, principals and members of the community.”   Really?  Which members of the community?  I never received an FCPS Keep-in-Touch message asking for input.  I never saw announcements from any of my schools asking for input.  The main parent advocacy group pushing for change – Fairfax for Zero Tolerance Reform – tells me they were never asked to consult about the Superintendent’s recommendations.

A more troubling component is the Superintendent’s recommendations are “back-end” heavy.  Dale’s proposals mainly  focus on AFTER a student has been accused and interrogated. 

As one parent advocate working closely on this issue told me, “Why is Dale NOT reforming the punishment practice itself?  THAT is the problem. THAT is what damages kids. THAT is what is unfair.  That is what is costing the community too much.  THAT is what parents want.”

It’s true there is no mention of a parental notification requirement in Dale’s 10 recommendations. If your child is accused of an infraction, he or she may be interrogated at length by school officials without you present.

Are you comfortable having your child interrogated alone?

When you were a kid, would you have been comfortable being questioned by authorities without your parents there?

FCPS is so averse to parental notification that their lobbyists helped kill a bill in Richmond that would have required schools to call you before your child could be questioned.

Fairfax County parents want to be notified.  They made that clear to the House of Delegates which is why a bill appeared in the first place.  They’ve also made it clear to the Board of Supervisors and to School Board members.

And still, this very critical component doesn’t appear on Dale’s list of 10 recommendations.

Another omission from Dale’s list – the involuntary transfers of students.  Based upon Title 22.1 of the Code of Virginia, Virginia schools have no legal right to involuntarily transfer students to another regular school program solely for discipline purposes.

Dale maintains that it is a “privilege” for students to attend their home-base school.  But school attendance is not a privilege.  It is a legal right.  And if a student does not pose a danger to others, why is FCPS spending hundreds of thousands of dollars transferring kids – and their problems – to another school?

Bottom line, Superintendent Dale’s recommendations need more “Front-End” proposals that deal with the punishment process itself.  It was the punishment process that led to the tragic suicides of two FCPS students.

The Superintendent still doesn’t get that.  Here’s hoping enough School Board members do get it and that real reform will hit the mark and  reflect informed community input.

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March 23, 2011

Political Jiu Jitsu for 2011 School Board Elections

It’s not even April yet, and some School Board members are already trying to frame the November elections for School Board.

That tells me one thing – they’re running scared about being replaced by voters.

Their apparent strategy, as outlined in a recent Fairfax Times article, is to falsely depict all challengers as “one-issue” candidates who won’t serve the “whole” community.

Their strategy is also to make “student achievement” the sole focus of any campaign.

Here’s the problem for sitting school board members – the public is generally motivated to vote because of hot-button issues.  And FCPS has served up plenty of hot-button issues the past four years.  (See several outlined below.)

School Board Member Liz Bradsher told the Fairfax Times, “It’s important for whoever runs for the School Board not to be a one-issue candidate because that’s bad for the school system.”

Hmmmm…actually what’s bad for the school system is School Board meetings that violate Virginia’s Open Meetings Law and the Freedom of Information Act – violations that have recently led to expensive court action over the Clifton ES closure.

What’s also bad for the school system is School Board members who are out of touch and fail to be ahead of the curve on issues like FAIRGRADE, discipline reform and administrative spending priorities.

The current crop of School Board challengers aren’t one-issue candidates.  They have proven to be effective parent advocates who use data and evidence to validate their positions.  They use the law (like FOIA), to substantiate their concerns.  They advocate for accountability and transparent decision-making.  Most importantly, the issues they advocate for have all been directly or indirectly related to ‘student achievement.” 

My favorite part of this article is at the end when At-Large School Board member Jim Raney states that having new people on the board with new views can also be a good thing. I’ll second that statement!

Too many School Board members want this job for life. Ilyrong Moon has been on the board since 1995.  Jane Strauss is going on her second DECADE of service.  We need school board members who have kids currently attending our public schools – board members who “get it” and can relate to today’s parents and taxpayers!

No one I speak to wants more super-sized classes, administrators buying plush new buildings for themselves and senseless policies that lead to low teacher and student morale.

New views are good and needed.  That means electing new talent that will help reform-minded board members like Patty Reed.  Running a campaign for School Board is a demanding and expensive commitment.  At the very least, all challenger candidates deserve fair consideration.  If you like what they stand for and what they have accomplished, please give them your help and your vote.  With your support, the public may finally get the School Board we deserve in Fairfax County!

GATEHOUSE II:  In 2007, the School Board voted for a second, new administration building that would have cost $130 million.  Known as the “Gatehouse II” debacle, parent advocates got the project killed by demonstrating the huge holes in FCPS’ business case.

FAIRGRADE:  In 2009, thousands of parents engaged in a year long campaign to convince Dr. Dale and the School Board that previous grading policies were harming college-bound graduates.  The leaders of FAIRGRADE devoted thousands of volunteer hours compiling the research and organizing the effort that finally led to an overhaul of the grading policy – despite the many obstacles thrown out by FCPS officials.

INCREASED CLASS SIZE:  In 2010, the School Board voted to increase class size.  Red Apple Mom readers know class size is a particular sore point for me as my son’s fifth grade class at Spring Hill ES now has 35 students (one student recently went home to Korea), and we have a third grade class with 33 students!   It’s unfair to the kids and the teachers!

INCREASED FEES: Public school became increasingly more expensive in 2010 with new athletic fees, higher parking fees and AP/IB testing fees (now rescinded due to a ruling  by Virginia’s attorney general.) 

PUNITIVE DISCIPLINARY POLICIES: We learned that FCPS’ discipline policies recently contributed to the suicide of a Woodson HS student. The public also learned just how excessively harsh these policies are –“involuntary school transfers”, lack of due process, lack of parent notification and a draconian and aggressive FCPS hearings process that treats Tylenol-takers the same as a drug dealer.  Thanks to the parent advocacy group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR) these policies may finally get reformed.

FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN: Until FDK advocates forced the School Board to address the inequity at 37 of FCPS elementary schools, this issue wasn’t even on FCPS’ agenda this year.

TEACHER CONCERNS: From compensation issues to working conditions, FCPS’ teacher workforce has had it.  The ever-increasing demands of assessments and standardized tests and professional development requirements have taken a big toll.  FCPS’ teacher workforce is demoralized with many teachers saying they don’t have time to teach.

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© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

March 14, 2011

The “Fear Factor” in FCPS School Discipline

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.

Work Session Audience

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.

Tina Hone & Patty Reed (photo left to right)

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:

  1. Clarify state mandates about discipline
  2. Address the treatment of first time offenders
  3. Obtain a better collection of data on the zero tolerance issue
  4. Ensure the discipline consequence is commensurate with the infraction
  5. Parent notification when a student is accused of a violation
  6. Maintain a safe and secure environment for all students
  7. Hearings process timeline – make it as short as possible
  8. Consequences of student behavior

Dr. Dale, staff & School Board Review List of Priorities & Discussion Points

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© Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom, 2001. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Catherine Lorenze and Red Apple Mom with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

February 11, 2011

Sparks Fly Between Superintendent Jack Dale & the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors

Sparks flew today between Superintendent Jack Dale and his main benefactor – the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (BOS) over the issue of Fairfax County Public Schools’ Zero Tolerance Policy.

Earlier this week, the BOS took the unusual action of unanimously passing a resolution directly aimed at FCPS’ disciplinary process.  The BOS resolution, titled “FCPS Zero Tolerance Policy,” directs county agencies to share resources and expertise in family services to assist troubled FCPS youth.  The resolution also invites all FCPS stakeholders to report back to the BOS with “options and alternatives to the current policy” –  the Zero Tolerance Policy.

Encouraging community engagement and a partnership between our schools, the BOS and the public sounds like a great idea.  It’s not sitting well with Superintendent Dale though.  In a bold statement to the BOS today, he chastised the Board’s use of the words “Zero Tolerance Policy” saying it “perpetuates the falsehood that FCPS has a zero tolerance policy.”

Dr. Dale seems a day late and a dollar short on that call.  Perception is reality and the BOS and the public has long known FCPS’ policy by the name  “Zero Tolerance.”  In fact one of the co-founding members of the Fairfax Education Coalition (of which I am a member) is the group “Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform.”    If this term was “incorrect,” the word police in FCPS’ $2 million communications department could have and should have corrected the public’s perception on that one a long time ago.

Dale’s letter concludes saying, “I strongly recommend that all members of the Board of Supervisors learn more about FCPS’ practices and policies before making public statements that are misinformed…” Ouch!   Is FCPS so used to talking down to taxpaying parents and teachers that they don’t mind doing it to their “elders” – the Board of Supervisors too?!

It’s surprising that Dr. Dale chose to chastise the BOS in public and not behind closed doors.  Just last week, he and the School Board requested an extra $48 million budget transfer on top of the $1.7 billion the BOS already gives our schools.  I wonder how generous they’ll feel now that their petulant son, Dr. Dale, has called them “misinformed.”

I suspect what’s really going on here is the beginning of a turf war.  As an unelected official, Dr. Dale controls 53% of all county revenues.  He’s appointed by the School Board and they basically do whatever they want without any oversight from the BOS – until now.  The BOS is dipping their toes into FCPS territory and that has to make the Superintendent uneasy.   After all, today’s partnership with the BOS on disciplinary review could become tomorrow’s independent audit of how FCPS really spends their $2.2-$2.5 BILLION budget.

Yes, I suspect this very public letter Dr. Dale sent actually has very little to do with FCPS’ Zero Tolerance Policy.  Oops –   we’re not supposed to call it that.  So let’s just say that “policy we can’t call Zero Tolerance” needs reform.  Since the public funds the county budget and our schools, this partnership makes terrific sense.  So kudos to the Board of Supervisors for proposing a solution that includes the public and values their input.  It would be a welcome turn of events  if the Superintendent felt that way too.

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January 23, 2011

Zero Tolerance for Jeff Spicolli & Ferris Beuller?

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Cover via Amazon

February 20, 2011:  I have updated this blog entry to include an article from the Washington Post that provides details about the situation that may have led to this young man’s tragic suicide.  The link to today’s article is at the bottom of this blog post.

The Washington Post ran a very sad story today about a high school student suicide – with many in the community asking if their school district’s “Zero Tolerance” policy for even non-criminal offenses is to blame.

Why do schools have “Zero Tolerance” policies anyway?  Are such policies fair and warranted?  Can’t we just have “Low Tolerance” policies  for non-criminal infractions that give administrators, kids and lawyers some room to find better solutions that keep a student in their home base school and provide an opportunity for the child to learn from their mistake?  Does every offense have to be worthy of school expulsion?

I remember when my brother was in high school in the 1970’s.  The school environment was very much like the film “Dazed and Confused” which depicted high school life in 1976.  If “Zero Tolerance” policies were in existence then, the student expulsion rate would have been through the roof!  I wonder how many of those graduates from the 70’s are now running our schools.  Why were “low tolerance” policies for non-criminal offenses okay then but not today?

Even in the 80’s when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” drug campaign was the major focus at every American high school, kids could still screw-up without the threat of expulsion.  Remember, it was also the era of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.”  My middle-class, suburban  high school had plenty of “Jeff Spicolli” characters smoking it up in the bathrooms and courtyards.  Back then, we were even allowed to bring cough drops to school and even Midol – yes Midol and Tylenol.  And here comes the shocker –  we even shared our Midol and Tylenol.  Guess what?  We all survived.  We learned from the Spicolli’s at our school and from the Ferris Beuller-type characters who frequently skipped class.  Through observation of these in-house “characters,” other students learned what to avoid.  We also learned how to take some risk, have fun and enjoy being teenagers.

‘The Breakfast Club”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and ‘Dazed and Confused” were all major motion picture successes because they reflected reality.  This stuff happened in our schools in the 70’s and 80’s and they are still happening today.  Kids make stupid choices – sometimes really stupid choices.  But kids are stupid sometimes because – not surprisingly – they are still kids.  Can’t we give them some latitude when offenses are not criminal?  Film director John Hughes celebrated teenage immaturity and stupidity.  He also showed, with great humor, that these same stupid kids were capable of learning from their screw-ups and maturing in the process.  Can’t schools give kids the same latitude today?

At the very least, isn’t it time to have a serious review and public dialogue about “Zero Tolerance” policies?  None of us want our kids experimenting with drugs or alcohol but teen surveys demonstrate that they are likely to do so at some point.  Punishments for such offenses shouldn’t make the situation even worse.  These can be teachable moments if the offense wasn’t criminal.

If you are interested in advocating for this issue in your school district, bring it up to your school board.  Research what type of policies neighboring school districts and neighboring colleges and universities have implemented.  Here are two resources which offer guidance on what other parents are doing about disciplinary policies in the schools:   http://www.fairfaxzerotolerancereform.org, http://www.rutherford.org/Issues/ZeroTolerance.asp

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/22/AR2011012203855.html?hpid=newswell

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