Forcing students from school: Fair or foul?

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Feb. 24 editorial "A second look in Fairfax" asserted that "Virginia law doesn't give local officials a free hand in these matters. Critics should acknowledge as much and drop their overblown rhetoric about zero tolerance." This missed the mark.

Virginia law does give local officials a free hand. Federal and state laws require that principals recommend expulsion in cases involving firearms or drugs, but school boards and administrators have discretion to consider special circumstances and to decide whether another action - or even no action - is appropriate. When considering suspensions or expulsions, boards always have the option to look at specific circumstances and keep students in school. In fact, the Virginia Department of Education encourages schools to "evaluate proposed disciplinary action carefully and reasonably with all facts considered."

In the 2009-10 school year, Virginia schools reported 706 expulsions, 5,936 long-term suspensions or modified expulsions, and 160,697 short-term suspensions. That is a rate of 930 suspensions or expulsions a day. Excluding students from classrooms exacts a high toll. Data suggest that out-of-school suspension is predictive of higher rates of future disciplinary problems, and today's suspended and expelled youth may become tomorrow's dropouts.

The negative effects of harsh discipline should be of concern to the entire state. It is not only Fairfax that should reexamine its policies.

Crystal Shin, Charlottesville

The writer is an attorney with JustChildren, the child advocacy program of the Legal Aid Justice Center.

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In his attempt to defend Fairfax County's school disciplinary procedures, teacher David Campbell reveals the flaw in them [letters, Feb. 24]. He equates "frequent fliers" - students who habitually cause trouble - with "a good kid who made a dumb mistake." A disciplinary system that is too rigid to distinguish between the two types of students will inevitably yield unfair or even tragic results.

A school's disciplinary system must balance the consequences to the offender against the need to maintain order - no easy task. But that can be accomplished only with flexibility, appropriate compassion and common sense. I pray that teachers and administrators recognize this.

Michael N. Wilcove, Rockville


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