Fairfax schools consider recording student disciplinary hearings

A growing number of Fairfax school officials support the idea of creating audio recordings of student disciplinary proceedings as the district seeks to respond to parent complaints about fairness and tone in the hearing room.

The hearings, which have become a flash point in a debate over how students in trouble get punished in Fairfax, have been criticized by parents for being highly adversarial and straying from fact to suspicion.

Assistant Superintendent Barbara M. Hunter said Friday that both she and the hearings office support the concept of recording what happens during the system’s 600-plus such proceedings a year. Hunter said she could envision parents being given a tape or CD shortly after each hearing. Now, notes are taken during proceedings but are not intended as a transcript.

“We are listening very carefully to what the community is saying,” Hunter said. “One of the ideas that has emerged is this notion of recording the hearings, and we would welcome that. We think the idea is very workable.”

Hunter stopped short of saying whether Superintendent Jack D. Dale shared her view, but she said that Dale would this week issue a set of recommendations, which the school board will consider at its next session on discipline, set for April 4.

Several school board members embraced the idea, too. Board Vice Chairman Brad Center said he considered it “a fairly easy ‘do.’ ” If there’s a perception of a problem, if there’s a potential concern the hearings are not fair, then let’s record the hearings. It’s pretty simple. ”

Support for the idea comes at a time of community upset.

In January, 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, committed suicide amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. His death followed the 2009 suicide of Josh Anderson, 17, a football player at South Lakes High School, who took his life a day before a second disciplinary hearing.

The deaths touched off a wave of concern about how discipline cases are handled in Virginia’s largest school system. Parents and activists asked for an array of changes, including fewer forced school transfers, fewer days out of the classroom, and more transparency during hearings.

Many have asked for audio recordings of hearings conducted when students are facing lengthy suspensions or expulsions. Such sessions are recorded in Loudoun and Prince William counties.

“It’s a logical, common-sense step,” said Steve Stuban, Nick’s father, who said that an “accurate capturing” of the proceedings would benefit not just families but hearings office staff and, in cases of appeal, the school board.

Stuban has recalled Nick’s hearing as a “brutal” experience. Nick had already admitted to his offense but was “interrogated,” his father said, with a harshness that left the teen and his parents in tears.

Hearings officials have said their proceedings are not adversarial or confrontational, and that as educators they are interested in students’ well-being. Hunter said Friday the hearings staff is “very open to recording hearings. It’s not like they have something to hide.”

Fairfax currently uses a court reporter for a verbatim record of school board appeals in discipline cases. But there is no transcript at the first-stage hearing level, where more cases are considered.

The School Board launched a comprehensive review of its discipline policies Mar. 14. Parents spoke out at a community meeting Mar. 19, and again three days later in McLean when Dale, the superintendent, appeared on a panel addressing discipline policies.

Helen Russell, whose daughter, Hayley, then 13, was suspended more than seven weeks for storing prescription acne medication in her locker, said she was heartened by the possibility of change. Fairfax rules require that prescription medication be checked into the school clinic.

“I think it’s good news, and it makes me feel slightly optimistic that it’s going to move the way we think it ought to — with greater transparency and the potential for more balanced and fair outcomes, since it’ll be completely on the record,” Russell said.

In Hayley’s case, the Russells contend their hearing last May went over the line, with questions about boyfriends and teen “drama.” They had wanted to record it themselves, but Fairfax’s rules do not allow it. Instead the family was later able to request and review notes that covered some, but not all, aspects of the hearing.

Had it been recorded, it may have gone differently, Russell said, because there would have been an awareness that it “could have been played back to anyone.”

“I think that recording leads to greater accountability for everyone in the process — the student, the family and the hearings officer,” she said. “That way, there can’t be a he-said, she-said kind of thing.”

Caroline Hemenway, director of FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org, said the support for recorded hearings is a promising start. “I think that’s a very, very significant turn of events,” she said. Still, she added, “we need to make sure only the most egregious cases get to the hearings office . . . and we need to make sure the outcomes are commensurate with the infractions.”

Bill Reichhardt, a Fairfax lawyer whose firm handles discipline cases, said the change, if approved, would “ensure a professional and civil proceeding” and allow reviews of both fact and subjective determinations, such as whether a student showed remorse. “I think it’s the right thing to do — long overdue,” he said. “I think it absolutely serves the process.”

Not all school systems record first-stage disciplinary hearings. In Montgomery, for example, spokesman Dana Tofig said written notes are taken and that the narratives created from those notes are sent to families along with their decision letters.

In Loudoun County, schools spokesman Wayde Byard says his system has made a practice of recording its hearings “for clarity, so we have a record. If there’s ever a need to review them, they are always on hand and ready to go.”

The growing support for recording hearings in Fairfax comes as the school system three weeks ago stopped its practice of assigning assistant hearing officers to take handwritten notes during hearings — a move that surprised some parents and lawyers.

Hunter, the assistant superintendent, said it was done for workload reasons and that notes are still being taken by the two hearing officers overseeing the proceedings. “The quality has not changed,” she said of the notes, and parents can still request copies, she said.

Hunter said such hearing notes are not intended as “a transcription for parents,” but rather to help as hearing officers review a case, make decisions and write rulings.

School Board member Patricia S. Reed (Providence District) said she and Board member Sandra S. Evans (Mason District) recently met with the Stubans, who have become vocal proponents of change. Reed said she has heard other stories about harsh tactics in the hearing room. If true, “that’s so inappropriate,” she said, “but we have no way to confirm that.”

Recording hearings would help clear up conflict, she said. “We’ll be able to know whether the process is fair and consistent and whether the tone is appropriate.”

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