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Fairfax scales back discipline policy

By Donna St. George,

Fairfax school leaders voted Thursday night to scale back the practice of forced school transfers for students in disciplinary trouble as they considered the most sweeping changes in more than a dozen years to the county’s discipline policies.

Under a policy unanimously adopted by the School Board, Fairfax officials will consider other disciplinary consequences — including community service, Saturday school and a loss of privileges — before choosing to order an “involuntary transfer” to another school.

In recent years in Fairfax, hundreds of suspended students have been transferred to different schools in a practice that a number of parents and elected leaders complained had become a punitive, seemingly automatic sanction.

“I believe it should be a decision of last resort,” School Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) said of the transfers. Hone sponsored the measure, which she said would not ban forced transfers but would stress other alternatives.

The changes approved Thursday came as a major shift in direction after nearly five months of debate on discipline issues.

A wave of community concern started in January, when 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, committed suicide as he struggled with the fallout of a disciplinary infraction.

Hone’s proposal came on top of a widely supported, 10-point plan offered by Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale. Among his recommendations, Dale sought to bring more transparency to disciplinary proceedings, add services for suspended students and reduce long waits for case rulings.

On Thursday night, many board members spoke of the need for flexibility on transfers. “Nothing should be automatic,” said Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville), a longtime board member.

Board member Patricia S. Reed (Providence) said she had been touched by personal stories, including Stuban’s, which “makes me realize we have to change some things.” The idea is not to excuse chronic offenders, she said, but to “change the rules for human beings who happen to make a mistake.”

But some cautioned about the downside of more flexibility. “More discretion is the antithesis of consistency,” said board member Tessie Wilson (Braddock).

Hone said the new policy will give hearing officers “another tool in their toolbox” and that, as the school system collects details on decisions and analyzes outcomes, “data is going to be the guard against abuse of discretion.”

One point of contention was the issue of when parents should be notified that their children are being questioned by school officials in connection with a serious offense, such as a drug violation.

Board members Sandra S. Evans (Mason) and Ilryong Moon (At Large) wanted to require administrators to notify parents before questioning in cases when they believe a report to law enforcement is required and there is no immediate danger to others.

Board member Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) offered support, saying, “I want to engage that parent early and often, and with something this serious I want to engage them as early as possible.”

Others worried about the burden for school principals. The proposal failed narrowly.

Dale’s proposals also included changes for cases involving students who break the rules by having their own prescription drugs. In the past, such cases meant a 10-day suspension and recommendation for expulsion. Students, such as middle-schooler Hayley Russell, who had her own prescription acne medication, were out of school for weeks.

The first change the board approved — unanimously — was described as marking the change in tone in discipline: It was to rename the 40-plus page code of conduct. Now it will be the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook. Previously, the order of the words was reversed, and responsibilities got first billing.

“It is symbolic in a major way,” Evans said.

Several parents and activists spoke at the meeting, including Stuban’s father. Steve Stuban said too many of Fairfax’s discipline policies had been crafted for “the most egregious offenses,” rather than average circumstances. “How much louder does the public’s concern and outcry have to be before reason prevails?”

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