School Board at-large candidate Charisse Espy protests outside Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church. (Xiaomei Chen/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Few in Fairfax County seem able to recall exactly when the school system began the practice of forced school transfers for students in disciplinary trouble. The idea did not come to a vote, officials say, and it was not written into formal policy.

But in recent years, punishment by transfer has become common in Virginia’s largest school system. Hundreds of students a year have been moved, both to regular and alternative schools. The cost: $718,000 for transportation last school year.

On Thursday night, as the Fairfax County School Board considers the system’s most sweeping changes to discipline policies in more than a dozen years, “involuntary transfers” might get a belated public airing.

It is common among school systems to reassign students to alternative schools for disciplinary reasons, but Fairfax stands out in the Washington area for the frequency of its transfers from one regular school to another.

Some in Fairfax say such transfers are key to safe, orderly schools. Others say they disrupt academics and cut students off from friends, teachers and extracurricular activities. A parents group has called for a moratorium on transfers between regular schools.

“The School Board should have been debating this a long time ago,” said Fairfax lawyer Bill Reichhardt, who has represented students in discipline cases for 27 years. “I think it developed over the years as an internal practice, and it became almost routine, even for first offenders.”

The reexamination was touched off by community concerns after 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, took his life Jan. 20 amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction. It was the second suicide in as many years of a student involved in Fairfax’s disciplinary system.

In late March, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale issued proposals to revamp discipline: Hearings would be recorded for more transparency. Rulings would be made faster so students would not miss as much school. Support services would be added. School principals would have more say in cases involving students’ own prescription drugs.

Dale’s proposals, pending before the board, did not mention school transfers. At the time, he said that transfers could become somewhat less frequent.

Sensitivity assured

Barbara M. Hunter, an assistant superintendent, said this week that Dale supports using data on disciplinary outcomes to guide any changes to transfer practices. “That being said, we will also be sensitive to this issue while we’re in the process of collecting the data next school year and carefully evaluate each individual case,” Hunter wrote in an e-mail.

Some say change should start now.

“This is not a formal School Board policy that we ought to be doing great analysis on before we change. It is a habit that needs to be broken,” said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), who says that transfers need to be the exception, not the rule, in discipline. “It has become the default position over time.”

Hone, who will propose a policy to consider other options before involuntary transfers, contends that the practice is at the heart of community backlash against what critics call a stance of zero tolerance. “When we say we’re not zero tolerance, and the community says we are, I think this is what they mean,” she said. To many parents, “it seems like a really harsh punishment to take a teenager out of their base school and away from their friends and classes.”

Fairfax officials previously have said that disciplinary transfers help students by allowing those who might otherwise be expelled to continue in school. Students often may reapply to their base school after one or two semesters, officials say, although some choose to stay at the new school.

Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said transfers have helped send a message that it’s “not appropriate to bring or use drugs at school.” When students return to school too quickly after being suspended, the community “gets the impression we don’t take it seriously,” he said.

In May, the board of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs voted to discourage regular-school transfers and ask Fairfax leaders to look for new approaches to discipline.

“Those transfers have become more of an automatic reaction, the easy way out,” said Michele Menapace, past president of the council, who cited a lack of evidence to show transfers work.

Last school year in Fairfax, 440 discipline cases that went to the hearings office ended in school transfers: 139 to regular schools and 301 to alternative schools. The previous year, there were 370 school transfers: 150 to regular schools and 220 to alternative schools.

Fairfax officials said they had no data for other years.

Policy not widely studied

Experts say there is little research on the effects of discipline-related transfer policies.

Dewey Cornell, an education professor at the University of Virginia who studies school safety, said transfers generally tend to be stressful, putting students at a higher risk of academic disengagement and social difficulties.

“There are certainly situations where a student has had difficulties in school that make transfer a reasonable option, but these would be exceptions,” he said.

Federal education data from 2007-08 show that 35 percent of schools allowed regular-school transfers as a disciplinary consequence. Said Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle: “We are acquainted with this practice, but it’s not something that’s particularly widespread.”

In the Washington region, school officials from Loudoun, Montgomery, Prince William, Prince George’s, Howard and Calvert counties and the District said they seldom make discipline-related transfers from one regular school to another.

Seven Fairfax School Board members from the 1990s said the practice goes back at least to that decade. None could say when it started.

Kristen J. Amundson, a board member from 1991 to 2000, said school transfers were viewed as a way to comply with strict state laws but still offer a second chance.

“The fact that you could suspend them from Edison and send them to Lee was seen as a compassionate alternative,” she said. “Clearly, times have changed.”