Troubled students might see a shorter and friendlier disciplinary process in the next school year.
Superintendent Jack Dale presented 10 recommendations meant to support students and parents throughout Fairfax County Public Schools' disciplinary process at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. Among them he included more school principal discretion in cases where students are caught with prescription medications.
Yet the recommendations did not address : the abuse of involuntary transfers and reliance on zero tolerance rules.
Dale's recommendations included:
- Refining notification rules and helping parents prepare for the disciplinary process.
Though Dale said he 's certain that FCPS staff follows current notification guidelines, he recommended making sure "our principals do proper notification as appropriate."
- Helping students and parents understand their rights and responsibilities.
FCPS' Student Responsibilties & Rights handbook is 60-plus pages of legalese. The same version is given to students in K-12 grades.
- Recording all disciplinary hearings (audio).
This would apply to hearing office sessions. School board hearings are already recorded, according to Dale.
- Shortening the disciplinary process.
While the bulk of discipline cases are quickly handled in-school by principals, more severe incidents can require the input of two disciplinary bodies (hearing office and school board) with an average of 20 days of no instruction, said Dale. Reformists argue that's too long to be out of school.
- Providing instructional and intervention support for students in limbo.
Right now students awaiting their punishment only get homework and access to their teachers through Blackboard, a tool where teachers and students can discuss classwork online. Dale recommends additional educational support and drug/alcohol help via already existing county programs.
- Giving more power to principals.
Principals get the final say in over 90 percent of discipline cases in their schools. Dale would like to extend that power to include cases in which a child is caught with prescription medication.
- Collecting data on existing and any new disciplinary processes.
Dale recommends expanding FCPS' data collection to include academic success, recidivism and on-time graduation.
- Urging parents to fill out exit surveys after hearings and school board rulings.
These exit surveys could later be released to the public as part of a district-wide study.
- Training and retraining staff on disciplinary guidelines.
"We need to keep a balance between consistency and individual discretion," said Dale. "Every child is different and needs to be treated so, but every infraction should be treated consistently." This recommendation would allow for a continual dialog and debriefing between the hearing officers and school board members.
- Continuing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program across all schools.
Out of 69,430 total disciplinary infractions in the 2009-2010 school year, 636 incidents moved on to the county's hearing office with a recommendation for expulsion. Of those, 109 involved assault, 115 for long-term unacceptable behavior, 275 for drug and alcohol violations, 85 weapon violations, and 52 for other incidents including gang activity, vandalism, court charges and theft.
Nardos King, principal of Mount Vernon High School, and Bruce Butler, principal of South Lakes High School, agreed that they struggled with recommending expulsion for students who were caught with prescription drugs. Dale's recommendations would allow principals to use discretion in deciding the fates of those students.
As stated in FCPS' Student Rights & Responsibilities Handbook, a drug offense in Fairfax County schools will result in at least a mandatory suspension.
Dale pointed to "restrictive" state laws when asked why he didn't recommend similar discretion in dealing with first-time student offenders, particularly those facing drug and alcohol violations.
Virginia Code tells schools to recommend expulsion for drug offenses, but also offers the ability to use discretion when faced with special circumstances. State laws permit the school board to decide what those special circumstances are and how to address them.
Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR), a group of teachers and parents who advocate for more student rights and fairer punishments, warns that "zero tolerance" rules can have unfair and disasterous affects on those students going through the disciplinary process.
killed himself after going through FCPS' disciplinary process for an first-time imitation drug charge. He was out of school for two months with a recommendation for expulsion. Stuban was eventually transferred to Fairfax High School.
139 students were reassigned to another Fairfax County school in 2009-2010.
"We have the authority to assign kids to schools," Dale said. "The real question is if it's in the best interest for the child." He pointed out that data collection could help the community understand the pros and cons of transfers.
"Common sense is the most important thing," said John Farrell, member of FZTR and father of four FCPS graduates. "Restoration, education and therapeutic results should be the hallmark of progress."
Farrell supported the superintendent's motion for data collection and hoped new recording policies would make disciplinary hearings less "antagonistic." He was concerned, however, in the superintendent's translation of state laws and hoped to see more recommended changes in the coming months.
Dale attributed the discipline review to FCPS' routine, annual SR&R discussion.
"I don't believe we should change policy based on a single incident," he said.
School board members will discuss the superintendent's recommendations at their Monday work session. Check back for more coverage.