The chairs in the Little Theatre at Falls Church High School were arranged in neat rows, but seating was about the only thing neat in the discussion that followed.
The Saturday meeting to discuss school discipline issues was co-hosted by Mason District School Board member Sandy Evans and me. The catalyst for the meeting was the Board Matter introduced by Hunter Mill District Supervisor Cathy Hudgins and me last month, which advocated for county and schools to partner in addressing the disciplinary process. The town meeting was the first opportunity for community members to voice their views publicly. Community input is critical to the decisions being made, and several parents shared their personal frustrations, even outrage, about their student’s experiences.
At-Large School Board member Tina Hone said the existing process is a labyrinth. Navigating the maze is nearly impossible for most families, she added, and asked “Do we have to choose between a safe school system and a just school system?” Answering her own question, Ms. Hone said, “We have a safe system; we need a fair and just discipline system.”
Mason District resident Steve Klass, a retired teacher active with the Fairfax Partnership for Youth (FPY), noted several areas of concern identified by FPY. He said that, ethically, the school should call the parent immediately at the first sign of trouble. Second, the process needs to be documented, and resources outlined. Third, the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook, which has grown from a brochure to a 60-page document, should be reviewed and revised. His suggestion for a reality video about discipline, geared to youth, met with a lot of support from the attendees. Since alternatives to suspension often become financial issues for families, he said, administrators need to have flexibility in their recommendations. Finally, he suggested that CASA (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) or another non-profit organization might be able to provide coordination of the multiple services available to troubled kids. Linda Eatmon-Jones, executive director of CrisisLink, told the group that more kids are calling that hotline between midnight and 6 a.m., a 169 percent increase in calls.
Several speakers commented that discipline issues often are the result of kids just making bad decisions. A Mason District pastor recently told me that all teens can be “temporarily stupid” at some point in their young lives. One PTA member said that “telling our kids not to say anything to authorities” is disturbing, but that is exactly what some parents tell their children now. Schools should educate, not punish, and students need to learn lessons that are appropriate to the error. The fathers of Nick Stuban and Josh Anderson, both Fairfax students who committed suicide, attended the meeting, in testament to the painful memories of their sons’ sad journeys through the discipline labyrinth.
By the end of the meeting, attendees urged that the discipline system must change now. One parent said she’d rather have brain surgery again than have one more student face what she and her son did. “Stop what they’re doing to our children; stop hurting our kids” were just a few of the appeals from parents. The final speaker read a lengthy email from a teenager who had gotten caught up in drug use and was moved from his base school and social supports. “I need your help because no one will listen to me,” he wrote anonymously. Are we listening?
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]