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Fairfax superintendent proposes changes to controversial discipline policies

By Donna St. George,

Fairfax County took a major step Wednesday toward revamping school discipline policies that parents have complained are overly adversarial and harshly punitive.

The changes, if adopted, would be the most sweeping to Fairfax’s disciplinary procedures in more than a dozen years, officials said. They include recording disciplinary hearings, speeding up the process and giving school principals more leeway in how they handle cases in which students are found to be in possession of their own prescription medication in school.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale announced the array of proposals at a news conference Wednesday as the Fairfax County School Board prepares for a second session Monday on how to improve discipline practices in Virginia’s largest school system.

Dale said some of the changes may happen quickly if the School Board gives the go-ahead, and others could be in place by the start of the next school year.

For 600-plus students affected every year, he said, “this is a big change and an appropriate change.”

With most now spending an average of 20 days outside of class during the disciplinary process, he said, “we don’t think that’s appropriate. We would agree with lots of comments from the community, parents, etc., that we’re losing too much instruction time there and we want to shorten it.”

His proposals come 10 weeks after the January suicide of Nick Stuban, 15, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax who took his life amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. Another teen, Josh Anderson, 17, a South Lakes High School football player, committed suicide in March 2009, a day before he was to face his second disciplinary hearing.

Those cases fit a pattern discernable in more than two dozen others identified by The Washington Post: Students in discipline cases spend long periods out of school, often four to eight weeks. At hearings, families contend students are under fire in what they see as adversarial proceedings that veer from fact to suspicion. Punishment often includes forced school transfers that can cut off social connections and upend academics.

Reaction Wednesday was optimistic but guarded, with many parents hoping the measures would be a turning point toward substantial reform.

Steve Stuban, Nick’s father, said he was encouraged but remained “vigilant as to the details and the breadth of the reform.” He and his wife, Sandy, had asked for a moratorium for most forced transfers, which was not part of the proposal, although Dale said the transfers could be somewhat less frequent.

The Stubans and others had advocated for audio recordings of hearings, a move that was among the recommendations, and for parental notification before students are interviewed by school officials in cases that could lead to lengthy suspensions or expulsions. Dale’s plan stopped short of that, calling for a refining of guidelines for parental notification.

Stuban said Wednesday that he did not know whether any of the changes proposed would have made a difference in his son’s case, but said the topics being addressed would seem to “lessen the needlessly traumatic effect that this type of an experience would have on an adolescent.”

Dale, the district’s top leader, had not publicly embraced major reforms until now. His proposal to give principals greater discretion in how they manage prescription-drug cases is a major departure from the school system’s previous stance that state law forbids such an approach. Now, such cases can lead to a suspension with a recommendation for expulsion.

This was what happened to Hayley Russell, 14, who was ousted from Rachel Carson Middle School in May for having antibiotic capsules prescribed for her acne; she was out of classes for more than seven weeks during the disciplinary process and faced a hearing her parents contend went over the line, with questions about boyfriends and “drama.” Her case was profiled in The Post.

Mark Russell, Hayley’s father, said Wednesday that if such changes were in place, his daughter’s case would probably have had a different result because the school principal “recognized it was an innocent and honest mistake, not warranting the severity of what happened.”

Russell said the change overall “strikes me as a terrific first step. Key is the implementation of it, but it looks like Fairfax County Public Schools are being responsive to what they have been hearing and are making some changes to be a more flexible and responsive school system.”

Brad Center, vice chairman of the School Board, commended Dale for accelerating the deliberation process. “The opportunity to do this was ripe, and the superintendent seized on it, and I think the board will seize on it too,” he said. But he cautioned that the board needs to deliberate the changes fully. “It’s like the proposed budget versus the actual budget,” he said.

Dale described many other proposed shifts in practices: data collection in discipline cases, exit interviews for families who go to hearings, better explaining of rules to students and of the disciplinary process to parents. He said Fairfax would work to provide more academic support services for students ousted from school.

Dale also proposed improvements to staff and school board training. “One of the things we continually wrestle with is the balance between consistency and individual discretion,” he said.

He said he was “not trying to lessen the discipline” for students who come to school with the intent to sell or distribute drugs.

Dale noted that the district has a proactive program to promote good student behavior, which he credits for a marked drop in serious discipline cases overall.

John Farrell, a leader in the parent group FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org, glanced at his checklist of suggested improvements after Dale wrapped up his Wednesday news conference, which lasted more than an hour. Said Farrell: “Good first step, but we have lots of miles to go.”

© The Washington Post Company