Fairfax School Board changes discipline process

A contentious, year-long review of the Fairfax County school system’s discipline process came to an end Friday with board members voting to soften punishments for possessing marijuana and new policies regarding parental notification.

The School Board voted 9 to 2 early Friday to approve the new and substantially revised handbook on student rights and responsibilities.

“We really have come a long way,” said Sandy Evans (Mason). “While we have done a lot of work tonight, this isn’t the end of the process.”

Next year, students caught for the first time with a small amount of marijuana at school might receive a lighter punishment than before. The so-called “second chance” policy will also give students the opportunity to attend an alcohol and drug seminar during part of a suspension period.

The vote came about a year after the board decided to delay revising discipline policies to gather community input. The board formed a 40-member committee that spent more than five months reviewing discipline policies. The committee then made 52 recommendations to improve the way the school system applies punishments and how the disproportional amount of cases that involve students with disabilities and minorities are addressed.

But discipline reform advocates said the new policies largely do not reflect the work of the community committee.

Avis Catchings, a founding member of the minority student advocacy group Coalition of the Silence who also served on the ad hoc committee, told School Board members that she was almost “disappointed beyond words.”

Catchings had asked the board to consider the committee’s efforts to prove she didn’t waste “five months of my life committed to an effort that was supposed to make meaningful changes to our current discipline policies, only to feel tonight like it was all for show.”

During the meeting that began Thursday evening, the most heated discussion involved school principals and administrators and when they should call parents if a student is suspected of committing a serious infraction. Such cases can result in a 10-day suspension and possibly expulsion.

Under the new policies, principals may question students to determine whether they were involved in a serious infraction. Once that determination is made, the administrator will have to contact parents before students are asked to write a statement describing their side of events.

Caroline Hemenway, co-founder and director of Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform, said the new policies do not go far enough.

“It’s pretty much more of the same,” said Hemenway, who also served on the ad hoc committee. “It’s baloney. They watered down, skewered and sabotaged many of our recommendations.”

She said that the new policies give principals too much leeway and do not recognize parents’ role in the discipline process.

“It shows how untrusting of parents so many School Board members are,” Hemenway said. “If you’re going to put us to work for five months and then dismiss us, then no wonder parents don’t speak up more. The hypocrisy last night was disgusting.”

Karen Kenna, principal at Cardinal Forest Elementary, spoke to the board on behalf of principals countywide by stating that the new policies will help administrators keep schools safe and maintain positive relationships with students.

She said it was crucial that parents and children know they can “trust the judgment of school staff.”

Deputy Superintendent Richard Moniuszko said Fairfax principals had been “demonized” by some parent advocates.

“It’s really unfortunate,” Moniuszko said. “We have made some substantial changes to our parental notification process . . . . [The principals] do their darnedest. They are a very caring group of people who want what’s best for the kids.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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