Fairfax County School Board to consider discipline changes

As a year-long study of Fairfax County school discipline policies nears its end, some School Board members and parents are questioning whether any substantial changes will come out of it.

The board plans to consider revised regulations relating to student rights and responsibilities at a meeting Thursday, with a final vote scheduled to come in two weeks. Notable proposed changes focus on how parents are notified when their child is under investigation for possible discipline, and they would soften punishments for first-time marijuana possession.

The parental notification part of the review, concerning disciplinary actions against their children that could result in a suspension of two weeks or possible expulsion, has been hotly debated among parents and school officials.

Current policy requires principals to “make a reasonable effort to notify parents at the earliest opportunity regarding student disciplinary actions.” The new policy would require principals to “make reasonable efforts to notify the student’s parents as soon as possible as part of the ongoing process . . . [and] School administrators shall document parent notification.”

Although a committee of parents, teachers, principals and other administrators have reviewed the discipline policies the past year, some school community members argue that the revised policy does not change current practices enough. School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said the new policy is a rewording of the old one and is not substantively different.

“If this is what we’re left with in terms of parental notification, I will be grossly disappointed that the entire efforts of all the individuals on the committee were not taken seriously by staff,” Schultz said. “We’re exactly where we were a year ago, and for what?”

During the review, parents lobbied to be notified earlier than under current rules, especially if an investigation involves a serious infraction.

At a work session last week, Steve Stuban, whose 15-year-old son, Nick, committed suicide in 2011 after he was suspended for a drug violation, said that parents deserve to be notified before any disciplinary action occurs.

“Parents are stunned, shocked that that is not the situation,” said Stuban, who led the discipline review committee. “They expect it to be so, and they have a preference for parental notification in every circumstance.”

Stuban said that when a child is injured at school, parents are contacted immediately. But if a student is being investigated for a discipline issue, parents might not be contacted until the end of the school day.

Under Virginia law, school administrators are required to notify parents in a written letter if a student could be suspended for 10 days or more.

David Alexander, a professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Education and co-author of “American Public School Law,” said that Fairfax’s old policy language is sufficient.

“The new policy might make me as a parent feel better, but the old policy . . . I think is appropriate,” Alexander said. “I am not sure what the new policy adds.”

Alexander said that parents who want to be involved in the discipline cases of their child can do so during the appeals process.

Westfield High School Principal Tim Thomas said he would not support any policy that takes away his authority to talk freely to students during a discipline investigation.

“In truth, it handcuffs us a little bit and removes our authority and our discretion to talk to kids and gather facts,” Thomas said.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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