Fairfax schools are right to relax extreme discipline policies

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 6, 2011

As Fairfax County public schools finally move to relax some ridiculously draconian discipline policies, the real question is: What took them so long?

I posed the query directly to the man in charge, Superintendent Jack Dale, at a news conference last week.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“Good question, not that I have a clean answer,” Dale said. “This is part of our continuous improvement process. You have to make the change sometime.”

I was impressed that he conceded that there’d been a problem, but I still found the response unsatisfying.

Dale runs one of the highest-achieving large school districts in the country, even the world. Its parents and policymakers are generally well off and well educated. They like to think of themselves as enlightened.

So why did they tolerate a system in which a 13-year-old middle school student missed more than seven weeks of school because she had her prescription acne medication in her locker? Why did it take not one but two suicides of high school football players to trigger a review of disciplinary proceedings that sometimes are more appropriate for a criminal court than a school system?

I asked around and heard two explanations, one narrow and one broad. They cast light both on how Fairfax governs itself and how a new generation of parents wants to recalibrate rules inherited from the baby boomers.

The narrow explanation is that the school system has grown so self-satisfied with its own outstanding-ness that it brushed off complaints even as the number and intensity grew.

“They believe they know how to do things correctly and they don’t really have an obligation to listen,” said Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), who served a decade on the School Board before entering the legislature last year.

Frustrated parents and activists “who were passionate in the beginning were not listened to, were not answered, were not given any opportunity to be part of a change,” Kory said.

School officials started to yield in March, mostly because of public outrage over the tragic case of Nick Stuban, a popular linebacker at W.T. Woodson High School. He took his own life 11 weeks after being suspended for making what he acknowledged was a dumb mistake: buying at school a capsule of a synthetic compound that has a marijuana-like effect. At the time, it was legal to possess the compound, but the substance was banned from school grounds.

On Monday, acting on recommendations from Dale, the School Board tentatively endorsed reforms that would reduce the amount of time that kids miss school while their cases are being heard. The changes would also give principals more discretion to be lenient with student first-offenders who bring their prescription medications to school and fail to register them. And audio recordings would be made of initial disciplinary hearings, which should curb what activists say is the sometimes abusive, needlessly aggressive questioning of students by hearing officers.

These are all good, common-sense changes, and there’s room to move further in the same direction. The schools should notify parents more quickly when their kids are in trouble. The system should rely less on forced transfers to other schools as a punishment.

Despite shouts of disapproval from the crowd that wants law and order at any price, more-reasonable policies can be adopted while still ensuring serious consequences for serious offenses, such as having illegal drugs at school.

Such changes make sense. They undo some extreme practices adopted during the heyday of the “zero tolerance” movement, which some critics termed the criminalization of school discipline. It arose from fears about drugs, guns (accelerated by the 1999 Columbine shootings) and gangs.

Jane Strauss, who with 17 years has served more time on the Fairfax School Board than any other current member, attributes the shift in part to generational change.

“Pushing the zero tolerance hard, this originated with boomers. They said: ‘We knew what it was like having too many drugs, too much freedom. We’re going to be very strict on this,’ ” Strauss said.

Now, however, most parents are from Generation X, whose members generally have a different mentality.

“They are much more protective of their own children,” Strauss said. “You have this group of parents who care that children are being treated fairly, that the punishments are not too extreme.”

For their sake, Fairfax mustn’t let its accomplishments blind it to the need for Dale’s own goal of “continuous improvement.”

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM).

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