Revamp of Fairfax school discipline rules continues

The Fairfax County school system would seek to cut in half the number of days that students are out of school awaiting decisions in their discipline cases, according to an expanded proposal to revamp policies that was presented to the School Board on Monday.

The new standard, presented by Superintendent Jack D. Dale at the board’s second session on discipline issues, would reduce waits from an average of 20 school days to 10 or fewer for initial decisions.

The current 20-day waits are “too long,” Dale said.

The board agreed that Dale should further develop changes to policies and practices that he first announced last week. If adopted, the changes would be the most sweeping in Fairfax in more than a dozen years. They include shortening the disciplinary process, making audio recordings of hearings and giving principals more leeway in cases involving students who fail to follow policies for using prescription drugs.

The board also asked Dale to report back on issues it raised, including possible limits on the use of forced school transfers as punishments and the speed of parental notification when students are questioned in serious discipline cases.

Monday’s session, attended by more than 60 parents and activists, came as debate has intensified about discipline policies in Fairfax, where 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, committed suicide Jan. 20. The teen’s death was the second in two years amid fallout from a discipline infraction, following the 2009 suicide of Josh Anderson, 17.

The School Board appeared largely receptive to Dale’s proposals, which included automatic referral to a “child study team” for students suspended more than five days. Such a process would assess whether a student needs counseling or other help.

“Quite often, when kids misbehave, it is because there is something behind it,” Dale said.

During three hours of discussion, board members said that many questions were still to be hashed out. The next such session is set for May 16.

Member Ilryong Moon (At Large) asked whether Fairfax is harsher than other school systems and wondered why students are not allowed back in class while their disciplinary rulings are pending.

Vice Chairman Brad Center (Lee) said he hoped for further development of how Fairfax would ensure its punishments fit infractions.

Left open was the issue of how much discretion principals would get in making decisions about discipline cases in their schools. A principal’s judgment could be used for students found with their own prescription drugs, but what about with other infractions?

“The question is how broad the board wants to go on that,” Dale said.

The discussion flared near the end, when board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) suggested that some members want to go easy on students accused of marijuana possession for the first time.

“Are we going to a full-tolerance system?” Gibson asked, alluding to the “zero-tolerance” approach that critics say Fairfax has used.

Martina A. Hone (At Large) said the board has had no shortage of “law and order” practices and policies. “I think it’s time for this pendulum to swing a bit,” she said.

Board member Sandra S. Evans (Mason) also objected, saying that she had not heard any member call for a no-consequences approach to marijuana use.

In the audience, lawyer Bill Reichhardt, whose firm handles many discipline cases, said he did not hear as much as he would have liked about getting parents involved in the process at the school level, he said.

Steve Stuban, Nick’s father, had hoped for more immediate change. “I continue to be encouraged by their progress in conducting this reform,” he said, “but disappointed that this has become a protracted process.”

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