Fairfax School Board votes to postpone discipline debate

Fairfax County principals became a potent voice of opposition to proposed discipline reforms this week, objecting to measures that would have required notifying parents before their children are questioned about serious offenses at school.

In an outcome that surprised many community leaders and elected officials, the Fairfax County School Board voted 7 to 5 late Thursday to postpone action on policy changes that focused on parental notification, marijuana offenses and the appeals process. The vote effectively put off the debate until next year.

The issue appeared to have created, or exposed, a rift between principals and proponents of change in the region’s largest school system.

A group representing 47 Fairfax middle and high school principals testified that the proposals would “significantly compromise” the delicate balance of campus safety and student accountability. It said the proposals suggested “a lack of trust and confidence.”

Board members Ryan McElveen (At Large) and Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee), voting in the majority, argued that more data analysis and community participation were needed. Others pointed out that parent notification in particular had been considered since last year.

“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 said the board needed to “step back” before acting “so as not to swing the pendulum so greatly that our system might be hurt in the process.”

Others said the board missed a chance to act.

“This is not one of our more stellar evenings,” said Sandy Evans (Mason), author of one of the unsuccessful proposals. 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.”

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 shelved. A special committee was created to examine the code of conduct and report back by March.

The five members who opposed the delay were Evans, Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield).

After the vote, 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, she contended, would have benefited from approaches in Montgomery County or Arlington County, where she said discipline is based in core values that include “a logical consequence” and “a chance to start anew.”

Board member Patty Reed (Providence) called for a deeper discussion of the issue but urged that it be timely. “If we are doing something wrong, I don’t want to do it wrong for another year,” she said.

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.”

Outside of Fairfax, several lawyers and educators were surprised.

“I thought this was going to be the world’s easiest vote,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who noted that schools call home when children are tardy or need aspirin. Discipline is far more serious — and could lead to arrest or police referral, he said.

“The simple requirement of informing parents would have protected core rights of both the students and the parents,” he said.

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