The Fairfax County school board voted Thursday night to scale back the practice of forced school transfers for students in disciplinary trouble, as board members considered the most sweeping changes in more than a dozen years to the county’s discipline policies.
Under a policy unanimously adopted by the school board, Fairfax officials will consider other disciplinary consequences — such as community service, Saturday school and a loss of privileges — before choosing to make a so-called “involuntary transfer” to another school.
In recent years in Fairfax, hundreds of suspended students have been transferred to different schools, in a practice that a number of parents and elected leaders complained had become a punitive, automatic sanction.
“I believe it should be a decision of last resort,” board member Martina Hone (At Large) said of the transfers. Hone sponsored the measure, which she said would not ban forced transfers but would stress other alternatives.
The decision came as a major change of direction after nearly five months of debate on discipline issues.
A vote on a package of overall changes had not been taken at 9:30 p.m. But there appeared to be wide support for the set of discipline proposals put forth by Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, including measures to bring more transparency to disciplinary proceedings, to add services for suspended students and to reduce long waits for case rulings.
Dale’s proposals also included changes for cases involving students who break the rules by having their own prescription drugs. In the past, such cases meant a 10-day suspension and recommendation for expulsion. Students, such as middle schooler Hayley Russell, who had her own prescription acne medication, were out of school for weeks.
The first change the board approved — unanimously— was described as marking the change in tone in discipline: It was to rename the 40-plus page code of conduct. Now it will be the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook. Previously, the order of the words was reversed, and responsibilities got first billing.
“It is symbolic in a major way,” said board member Sandra S. Evans (Mason).
The evening started with a rally that opponents of Fairfax’s zero-tolerance policies had organized outside the school board meeting. Parents and students, about 35 in all, met up in the evening heat and waved placards.
“One Size Does Not Fit All,” read the poster carried by Kelly Haynes, 15, a sophomore and volleyball player, who said she was concerned about the effect of school transfers on students.
Her mother, Kristin, pointed to her own sign, which read “Our Kids Deserve Second Chances.”