Changes seen in disciplinary action at Fairfax schools

Fairfax County public schools are forcing fewer students to transfer to new schools when they get into trouble and are keeping them out of class fewer days as they wait for disciplinary rulings.

Those are two of the most visible signs of an overhaul in student discipline that began nearly a year ago in the Washington region’s largest school system.

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Now, a School Board with six new members is pushing for further change. Some members want to require schools to notify parents before their children are questioned about infractions that could lead to expulsion.

“I remain very troubled by the fact that we have students sitting down and writing statements about what they have done before they have a parent there,” Sandy Evans (Mason) said Monday at a School Board review of discipline policies.

Other board members proposed considering whether some students should be able to remain in school while their disciplinary cases are considered — to minimize lost instructional time — and whether first-time marijuana offenders might be handled through a diversion program, similar to one used in Arlington County.

Board member Ted Velkoff (At Large) asked others to rethink the basics of discipline. “Why do we suspend?” he asked. “I’m leaving an open-ended question for all of us to think about.”

Advocates of change applauded signs of momentum.

“Overall, it’s night and day from last year,” said activist Caroline Hemenway, co-founder of a group called FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org. Discipline reform, she said, has stronger political support. “It’s not a question of whether, but how.”

Data released before the meeting gave the first numerical picture of changes since last summer — and a glimpse of how disciplined students fare in the long run. It showed, for example, that just 12 percent of students who went to disciplinary hearings in 2009-10 were on track for graduation a year later. Sixty-five percent of those students had been on track the year before they got into trouble.

The data also showed changes in the practice of involuntary school transfers, which were a driving concern last year amid questions about how the practice was used in the disciplinary case of a 15-year-old Fairfax football player, Nick Stuban, who committed suicide.

The data showed that Stuban and 80 other students last school year were punished with a transfer to another regular school. Supporters of the practice say it gives students a fresh start, but critics contend it uproots students and upends their academics and ties to friends and teachers. Over a similar period this school year, 27 students faced such transfers.

That dramatic drop was somewhat offset by an increase in students sent to “an alternative setting” after their disciplinary hearings. Overall, the proportion of students returned to their base school after a hearing increased to 26 percent, from 13 percent.

The nearly 90 students this school year allowed to return to their base schools became a focus for several board members. Such cases were said to involve no victim and no substantial school disruption.

Board member Ilryong Moon (At Large) wanted to look for ways to reduce missed class time and at one point said, “Why not keep the students in school until the final disposition?”

Last year, Fairfax officials estimated the average time out of class for students sent to a disciplinary hearing was 20 school days. They set a goal of reducing to 10 or fewer the number of days students spend in limbo. New data show that students awaiting a ruling spend an average of 14.5 school days out of class. For many, the average wait is about 12 school days.

In the Stuban case, the teen was out of class for seven weeks after he admitted buying one capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic drug with marijuana-like effects that was legal at the time.

In data presented Monday, the school system’s hearings office noted that disciplinary proceedings are now audio recorded and that families are given exit surveys. Fourteen percent of families answered the surveys this school year, with nearly all saying they felt fairly treated, according to the Fairfax data.

Fairfax officials also reported on new policies involving students found with their own prescription drugs on campus. There have been 33 such cases this school year. But in 14 of them, officials found no misconduct — and that meant, under the new policies, that students did not face potential expulsion. Previously in such cases, expulsion referrals were typical.

For educators, one concern is how to provide support for suspended students. Fairfax data show that 67 of 160 suspended students who were granted permission to attend in-person tutoring and test-taking did so. Officials spoke of expanding these efforts. They also have begun training educators in “restorative justice” approaches to discipline, which include making amends to the victim in an offense.

 
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