Fairfax Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech pledged yesterday to organize workshops to teach minority parents how to navigate the district's disciplinary system, which in past years has suspended disproportionately high numbers of black and Hispanic students.
Domenech's commitment followed a meeting yesterday with minority parents and community leaders concerned that nonwhite students are kicked out of Fairfax schools far more frequently than white students.
The group also urged Domenech to focus more on raising minority student achievement levels in Fairfax and asked him to explain his guidelines for hiring high-level administrators, according to several people who attended the meeting in the superintendent's office.
Domenech and the community leaders called the meeting positive.
"This is a work in progress," said George H. Lambert Jr., chief executive of the Northern Virginia Urban League. "There are lots of areas where we are definitely on the same page."
Lambert and other activists said they want assurances from Domenech that he is committed to ensuring the success of all county children regardless of race.
"We think that if this system works well for white students, it should also work well for nonwhite students," Lambert said. "That is something that is not happening now."
Lambert and members of the recently formed Citizens Concerned for Children's Education are particularly concerned about the number of black and Hispanic students being suspended and expelled.
A school system oversight committee report last year found that although black students make up 11 percent of the school population, they accounted for 44 precent of suspensions at elementary schools, 27 percent of suspensions at middle schools and 20 percent of suspensions at high schools during the 1996-97 school year. The report also found that Hispanic students were overrepresented in suspension figures, although not by as much as black students.
White and Asian students were underrepresented.
Domenech told the group yesterday that the district has succeeded in reducing overall minority suspensions by 20 percent but that challenges remain.
"You're talking about changing the overall culture of a system," Domenech said. "We also need to provide alternatives to suspension and establish the mind-set that having our students out of school is not as productive as having them in school."
Only broad outlines for the proposed parent workshops emerged yesterday. Workshops on the disciplinary system would be held in the Fort Belvoir area, Domenech said, and would provide parents with information on student rights as well as responsibilities.
Some community activists have complained that minority parents often don't have the resources or knowledge to help them navigate the district's disciplinary system.
"I see parents getting a bum deal," said Catherine Jones, a member of Citizens Concerned for Children's Education who attended yesterday's session with the superintendent. Jones said parents often show up at disciplinary hearings without legal counsel and without a clear understanding of how the system works, putting their children at a disadvantage.
Lambert said he believes that Domenech is sincere in his desire to cut suspensions and improve minority student achievement. He pledged the group's support in helping him meet his goals.
"Our meeting today is putting others on notice that we support where the superintendent is going and that we want the School Board and others to get behind him and give him the support he needs," Lambert said.