Fairfax school board delays action on discipline policies

The Fairfax County School Board postponed action Thursday night on proposals for major change in student discipline policies, including a measure to require that parents be notified before children are questioned about serious offenses at school.

In a 7-to-5 vote that followed opposition from the school system’s middle and high school principals, the board put off all debate on proposals to adopt so-called parent notification and a diversion program for first-time marijuana offenders.

“This is not one of our more stellar evenings to my mind,” said Sandy Evans (Mason), author of one of the unsuccessful measures. She added: “I think it’s really unfortunate that we have punted on this tonight--that we’ve decided it’s just too difficult to face.”

Board members Ryan McElveen (At Large) and Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee) led the effort to postpone the decision and seek more data and opinions.

“The leaders of our schools are not yet comfortable with these changes; how can we ignore our leaders?” Kaufax said. “Let’s bring them to the table. If we do not understand the consequences, we should not forge ahead.”

McElveen urged caution, too, saying the board was considering measures “of such consequence” that it needed to “step back” and further study data “so as not to swing the pendulum so greatly that our system might be hurt in the process.”

A special committee had been created in an earlier vote to examine the code of conduct and report back by next March, when parent notification and other proposals will likely come up again.

The postponement came amid a second major rethinking of discipline policies, which have sparked concern in Fairfax since the 2011 death of 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a high school football player who committed suicide amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction.

Last June, the board adopted a wide-ranging discipline overhaul. In the fall, six new members were elected to the 12-member board. Supporters of change had hoped for a new wave of reform.

But Thursday night, after a flurry of work on proposals over several days, the ideas were not discussed at all. They were shelved.

Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) had argued that consequences on children are real, and that “a year in the life of a child can never be regained.” He had contended: “I think this board has a responsibility to consider and make those decisions... affirmative or negative.”

After the vote to postpone, board member Megan McLaughlin’s voice broke as she recalled Stuban and Josh Anderson, 17, a Fairfax student who took his life in 2009, shortly before his second disciplinary hearing.

Both teens, McLaughlin (Braddock) contended, would have benefited from approaches in Montgomery County or Arlington, where she said discipline is based on “the core value of helping a child understand they have made a mistake, have a logical consequence and give them a chance to start anew.”

The discipline issue appeared to have created, or exposed, a rift between school principals and proponents of change.

A group representing 47 Fairfax principals testified that parent notification and other proposals suggested “a lack of trust and confidence” in their leadership. The group said the proposals would “significantly compromise” the balance between school safety and student accountability.

“I think there is a sort of trust and fear gap here,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill). “Parents don’t feel trusted. Principals don’t feel trusted. And I think it’s our job as much as possible to bring everybody together on this.”

Board member Patty Reed (Providence) called for a deeper discussion. “I feel like there’s a greater dialogue that needs to be had, and we haven’t had it,” she said. She urged the board not to take another year.

“If we are doing something wrong, I don’t want to do it wrong for another year,” Reed said. “That isn’t fair to our students and families either.”

Steven Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said his 4,000-member organization backs the idea of parental notification, as long as the contacts are handled by administrators, not teachers.

“As a parent,” he added, “I would absolutely hope someone would contact me immediately and let me know there’s a situation.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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