Fairfax considers changes to school discipline policies

Students facing disciplinary action in Fairfax County schools could receive lighter punishments and shorter suspensions next year if the school board approves newly proposed discipline procedures.

The proposals would mark a significant change in the county’s discipline policies and could cut most suspensions in half. Under the proposed guidelines, most serious student infractions would result in a suspension of not more than five days.

Less than a year after taking office, Superintendent Karen Garza’s plans fulfill a promise to continue the discipline overhaul process that started last year. The new proposals emphasize keeping students in class by reducing and shortening suspensions, and they promote alternative forms of discipline that aim to help students learn from their mistakes instead of focusing on punishment. The proposed guidelines also would give principals more leeway when deciding how to address each student’s case.

“We can’t minimize how important these are,” Garza said at a school board work session late Monday. “We must reduce the time our students spend out of school. We are an educational organization, and we need to mitigate how many days out of school kids are missing.”

The proposed changes to the school system’s Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook come after significant revisions were approved by the school board last July. Those revisions were the result of a year-long review of the school administration’s discipline policies and a contentious public debate that centered on when principals should call a student’s parents if they are suspected of having committed serious offenses.

Although the policies were altered to allow for earlier parental notification, some advocates for overhaul and school board members said the changes did not go far enough.

Under the new proposals, most serious discipline cases would result in a suspension up to five days long, instead of the current maximum of 10 days. In many cases, students could spend the duration of a shorter suspension in school.

Garza is calling for the creation of a position in all high schools to handle discipline cases involving in-school suspensions. The new positions would cost $1.8 million next year, and the employees who work with students would receive training on behavior management and relationship building.

Deputy Superintendent Dan Parris said that more revisions to the school system’s discipline policies could come in the future.

“This is an important process and something we need to look at every year,” he said.

The softened punishments would apply to most offenses. Under current guidelines, students who engage in cheating, possess fireworks or distribute non-prescription drugs could receive 10-day suspensions, a punishment that would be cut in half.

The proposals also call for softer disciplinary actions for students who are caught using marijuana for the first time, as long as it occurred off school property. The change would extend part of the “second chance” policy for marijuana offenses that went into effect this year. Students who come to school under the influence of marijuana or other illegal drugs, such as ecstasy or cocaine, could be suspended from class for up to five days and be suspended from school activities such as athletics teams for up to 30 days.

But stiffer punishments would remain for the most serious infractions, including sexual assault, possession of a machete or knife with a blade exceeding three inches and use of any weapon on school property.

The school board is expected to review the proposals in coming weeks and could vote soon, which would allow new policies to take effect when students return to school in the fall.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
Continue reading
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local