Last Sunday’s Washington Post story (February 20, 2011) about a local high school student who recently committed suicide has set off a tsunami of protest in the community directed at Fairfax County Public Schools “zero-tolerance” system of school discipline. I am not surprised. As a former member of the Fairfax County School Board (FCPS) from 1999 – 2009, I served on three school board member panels for literally hundreds of appeals from families of students who had been recommended by the administration for expulsion and transferred out of their home schools.
I learned of the case in the Post story from education advocates across the County who are involved in an ongoing campaign for reform of the FCPS discipline process. They call themselves “The Zero Tolerance Coalition.” I have been working with this group on a bill I submitted to this session of the legislature. My bill (HB 1548) would have required every school system in the Commonwealth to inform parents when entries are made to a student’s formal academic file for actions or behaviors that could in the future result in their suspension or expulsion.
A fair question at this point is: “Why is Richmond involved in such a detailed administrative requirement?” The answer is -as I have written in this space before-Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, which means that local government has only powers expressly granted by the state. This is the reason why local school board discipline processes that can result in suspension or expulsion are included in the Virginia code.
As I write this column, I have just learned that my bill was defeated in the Senate on a vote of (28-12), even though almost every Senator from Northern Virginia voted for the bill. The Senate action was modestly surprising, given that my bill passed the House of Delegates unanimously! I should point out that the Virginia School Board Association argued vehemently against it. The FCPS representative in Richmond also opposed this measure. The three arguments I heard in the Senate against the bill were 1) that it would be too hard, an administrative nightmare; 2) that it requires a discretionary or subjective judgment and 3) the bill is unnecessary “because we do it anyway!” If you are scratching your head, I don’t blame you.
The suicide of any young person is tragic, but the Post story was particularly disquieting because the death reportedly followed a protracted disciplinary proceeding in the Fairfax County Public Schools. Fairfax County Superintendent of Schools, Jack Dale was quoted in the article “The connection between teenage suicide and discipline policies is erroneous.”
Perhaps. FCPS is a large, enormously talented organization, one which I admire and support. But, like all large organizations, it is inevitably bureaucratic. It defers to its own experts and outsiders often feel they have difficulty influencing its agenda. A zero tolerance policy may be mandated by code, as Dr. Dale believes, but it is also an efficient way to avoid making difficult distinctions among hundreds of cases each year. I know: as a school board member I was a part of that process. It created circumstances under which it was difficult and uncomfortable to operate – because, of course, there are distinctions between cases and the failure to make them can have unforeseen and unwelcome consequences.
My bill was an attempt to codify what good schools already do: through early warnings to head off behaviors that put students in to the discipline process. I know, without doubt, that what the bill requires happens regularly in communities across the state. It happens in many FCPS schools, as well. But, in too many cases, school administrators do not feel they have the time, the resources or the responsibility to reach out to parents, proactively. They do what is required by law, no more.
In a follow-up item in the Post yesterday, Dr. Dale is quoted as suggesting that the state code on student discipline may have to be reviewed. I agree and intend to pursue this idea with my colleagues in the legislature over the summer.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at DelKKory@house.virginia.gov.