Fairfax County debates student discipline after committee offers 52 proposals

Two years after a high school football player’s suicide heightened public concern about discipline practices in Fairfax County’s schools, a new round of debate is underway about how students in trouble should be questioned and punished.

The Fairfax County School Board on Monday will continue what could be an extended discussion of a set of 52 recommendations from a special discipline committee that started meeting in the fall.

The proposals include a second-chance effort for marijuana offenders and a procedure for notifying parents before students are questioned in serious cases that could mean a suspension or expulsion.

Both ideas were controversial last June, when the School Board prepared for a vote but then shelved members’ proposals amid strong objections from a group of 47 middle and high school principals.

The committee was created instead. It ultimately included 40 members — principals, teachers, advocates, students, counselors and parents — who gathered over a period of six months in meetings that often lasted three or four hours.

What emerged was a 187-page report with wide-ranging suggestions on improving how student discipline works in the region’s largest school system.

One proposal would allow a tiered range of consequences for student misconduct. Another would speed up School Board decisions in discipline cases. Several others were designed to improve the disciplinary process for students with disabilities.

Overall, the handbook of Student Rights and Responsibilities would be simplified, with a more positive tone and tailored to different age groups.

“It’s been a long road, and I’m hopeful that since this process is reflective of every stakeholder . . . that many of these improvements will be implemented,” said Steve Stuban, the committee’s chairman, who presented the report to the board March 20.

The School Board asked district staff to look into how the recommendations might be pursued. A set of staff proposals was posted online Friday evening. But they drew concern from some on the committee, who said they fell short. Still, Stuban and others said they remained hopeful that the school administration proposals are a starting point.

The committee’s recommendations come two years after Fairfax first began working to reform discipline practices after the death of Stuban’s 15-year-old son, Nick, a high school sophomore who took his life amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. The teenager had admitted to buying one capsule of a legal drug with marijuana-like effects; he was suspended in a process that went on for seven weeks and included his transfer to another school.

In a Friday interview, two of Fairfax’s top school leaders said they supported some of the ideas but could not fully embrace the committee’s approach to such issues as parental notification and second-chance programs that may offer intervention in lieu of suspension for first-time marijuana offenders.

Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services, said that eliminating suspensions for drug-related offenses created a “conundrum” and that it would not be fair to suspend first-time offenders involved in, say, fighting and give lesser penalties to first-time violators who brought illegal substances to school.

“It’s a serious offense to bring drugs to school,” said Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko. “When keeping our schools safe and drug-free, we need serious consequences.”

Fairfax school staff did not go along with the committee’s idea but proposed that first-time marijuana violators be allowed to attend a five-day substance abuse seminar as part of a 10-day suspension. Students may be returned to their original school rather than being reassigned to a new school as part of their punishment, a common practice in the past.

The school leaders did not incorporate a recommendation that would have required that parents be notified before students are interviewed in cases that might lead to suspension or expulsion, unless safety is an issue.

But Moniuszko said that under new guidelines, the school system will ensure that students know that they are invited to provide a written statement but that it is not required.

Several School Board members said the committee’s work would make a difference. “I look forward to being able to operationalize many of the recommendations,” board member Ryan McElveen (At Large) said.

Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said the committee recommendations go a long way toward changing the spirit — and effect — of discipline.

“Part of educating the whole child is helping them learn from their mistakes,” she said, “and these recommendations move us in that direction. There are consequences, but they are reasonable consequences.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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