On Thursday night, as the Fairfax County School Board considers the system’s most sweeping changes to discipline policies in more than a dozen years, “involuntary transfers” might get a belated public airing.
It is common among school systems to reassign students to alternative schools for disciplinary reasons, but Fairfax stands out in the Washington area for the frequency of its transfers from one regular school to another.
Some in Fairfax say such transfers are key to safe, orderly schools. Others say they disrupt academics and cut students off from friends, teachers and extracurricular activities. A parents group has called for a moratorium on transfers between regular schools.
“The School Board should have been debating this a long time ago,” said Fairfax lawyer Bill Reichhardt, who has represented students in discipline cases for 27 years. “I think it developed over the years as an internal practice, and it became almost routine, even for first offenders.”
The reexamination was touched off by community concerns after 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, took his life Jan. 20 amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. It was the second suicide in as many years of a student involved in Fairfax’s disciplinary system.
In late March, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale issued proposals to revamp discipline: Hearings would be recorded for more transparency. Rulings would be made faster so students would not miss as much school. Support services would be added. School principals would have more say in cases involving students’ own prescription drugs.
Dale’s proposals, pending before the board, did not mention school transfers. At the time, he said that transfers could become somewhat less frequent.
Barbara M. Hunter, an assistant superintendent, said this week that Dale supports using data on disciplinary outcomes to guide any changes to transfer practices. “That being said, we will also be sensitive to this issue while we’re in the process of collecting the data next school year and carefully evaluate each individual case,” Hunter wrote in an e-mail.
Some say change should start now.
“This is not a formal School Board policy that we ought to be doing great analysis on before we change. It is a habit that needs to be broken,” said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), who says that transfers need to be the exception, not the rule, in discipline. “It has become the default position over time.”
Hone, who will propose a policy to consider other options before involuntary transfers, contends that the practice is at the heart of community backlash against what critics call a stance of zero tolerance. “When we say we’re not zero tolerance, and the community says we are, I think this is what they mean,” she said. To many parents, “it seems like a really harsh punishment to take a teenager out of their base school and away from their friends and classes.”