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Discipline Policy Changes Stop Short of Parental Notification

School board approves special committee to launch study of issue and others, present recommendations next year

The Fairfax County School Board made several adjustments Thursday night to its Students Rights and Responsibilities handbook, adding synthetic marijuana to the list of substances that result in a five-day suspension and mandating principals immediately notify police after alcohol, assault, firearm, bomb threat and certain drug violations.

But a discussion around whether administrators are required to notify parents at the beginning of a process that could result in a student's suspension or recommendation for expulsion — one of the driving issues behind a push for reform a year-and-a-half ago — was put on hold, a decision praised by some who wanted to "take a step back" for a broader discussion about the board's values but criticized by others who say the discussion has gone on long enough.

"At the most basic level this is about trust and partnership between parents and schools. There’s a very simple question before you," said Coalition of The Silence representative Tina Hone, a former school board member. "There are many things left to be studied on discipline; parental notification is not one of them."

The board was scheduled to debate amendments from school board members that could have allowed a principal to permit a student in the appeals process to remain in school, offered more options to first-time possessors of marijuana or related substances, and required principals to notify parents earlier in the disciplinary process — in some proposals, before they are questioned or asked to sign a written statement.

But board members voted 7-5 to follow a motion from Ryan McElveen (At-large) to postpone those changes until it receives recommendations from a special committee, also created Thursday night, tasked with reviewing the manual and best practices in other school districts.

"This doesn’t mean we were for or against anything on the table — it means we want an open and rich dialogue and nothing more,” said Tamara Derenak Kaufax (Lee), who voted for the motion along with Chairman Janie Strauss (Dranesville), Kathy Smith (Sully), Illryong Moon (At-large), Ted Velkoff (At-Large) and Patty Reed (Providence).

"What we chose to do was not because it was inconvenient for us to make a decision tonight but because it was the responsible and right thing to do — to stop this divisiveness and to say we need to look at these things and we need to have a dialogue and we're going to do it together," Kaufax said.

The recommendations are expected to be completed in March 2013.

"I think it's really unfortunate that we have punted on this tonight; that we have decided it's just too difficult to face," said Sandy Evans (Mason), who offered a parental notification amendment both this year and in 2011, when it, .

Though the board voted 9-3 to pass other — among them, inclusion of peer mediation and restorative justice as methods of resolving disputes and addressing student behavior; expanding the section on bullying to include electronic communication; and allowing cell phone and use of other electronics for class purposes if registered with the school — parental notification was what drew nearly all speakers to the meeting Thursday night.

It pitted the county's middle and high school principal associations, who said a parental notification requirement indicated a lack of trust in school-based administrators to do their jobs, against COTS, Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform and teachers union representatives, who argued parents are partners, not enemies, of the school system and should be treated as such when a disciplinary issue arises.

"There’s a trust and fear gap here, somehow. Parents don't feel trusted, principals don't feel trust and I think it's our job to figure out … how to bring everybody together on this," Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said.

Bruce Butler, the retiring prinicipal from South Lakes High School speaking on behalf of administrators from 47 county middle and high schools, said there's an element of trust in school communities that allow school-based administrators to hold them accountable for their behavior and "a vote in favor of the proposed changes will significantly compromise that balance that we’ve worked so hard to maintain."

"This is not about supplanting your role as principals, this is not about supplanting the confidence we have in you … it is about saying to parents, 'We trust that you have a place in the partnership in the discipline process of your own children and that everything works better if the parents and the administrators are in this together,'" Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) told Butler.

Board members on both sides of the debate said insinuations about the intentions of school administrators, parents and the school board concerned them, particularly in the way they've set a negative tone for already emotional and divisive conversations.

"Frankly, a lot of us don't feel respected," McElveen said. "We need to put forward an image of respect.”

Steve Stuban, whose became a lightning rod for said he was discouraged by the board’s "reluctance to make hard decisions." While he supported the idea of a committee, he wasn't confident the board would act on its recommendations.

Advocates were similarly discouraged, saying many school board members had campaigned on a commitment to notify parents earlier in the discipline process.

"I saw a bunch of cowards up there tonight," FZTR's Caroline Hemenway said.

Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) said his intention behind proposing the newly-created committee was not to delay action but to ensure a formal ongoing discussion about the document.

"This is a better product than the last one but I was truly hoping we could move it forward," Storck said.

For all of the approved changes to the SR+R, click here.

Schultz, Evans and Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) voted against the final document.

Curmudgeon June 12, 2012 at 11:20 AM
From Article 3: "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." If you're using the Northwest Ordinance as evidence that Jefferson founded public education, you should also be of the opinion that he founded a church, based on the wording of the document. Setting aside land in a limitless territory (seemingly, at the time, anyway) for one activity or another does not mean anything in practical terms, as it cost nothing to do so.
FFX County Resident June 12, 2012 at 12:01 PM
Alrighty then, I see the issue of zero tolerance has crossed into the drug realm. Drugs and weapons are truly the root of this policy. But for those who are not a "helicopter parent(s)," and spend more time at the gym than you do with your kids, I dare you to tell me the difference between an aspirin tablet and an ecstacy or oxycontin (sp) pill. They come in all makes and colors. Lead in.....Kids are abusing more pharmacuticals than ever and doing any means by necessary to go unnoticed. Placing "x" in bayer bottles and then trying to pass it off as such. How do I know, I have seen it first hand. So what is a school administrator to do if kids aren't honest about a headache? Half the time, the police can't arrest the guys or gals for having "real" drugs, because it so similar to other prescription drugs. And God forbid, they happen to place someone in confinement and get it wrong, based on bad information; can someone say "lawsuit" galor? Agree, common sense plays a part, but so does parenting 101---- teaching, instilling, and displaying values that exemplifies right vs. wrong. If kids, especially highschoolers understand those values and judgements, they should have no problem with understanding "zero tolerance" and defending themselves. They sign the document every year prior to starting school. Read it with them.
Beth June 12, 2012 at 12:12 PM
OK, Curmugeon, I now see there's more need to explain. Thanks for looking up Section III of the NW Ordinance of 1787, but keep digging deeper into history for further understanding. The Ordinance of 1785 established section 16 for public education. In the case of the NW Ordinance, these were indeed public lands owned by the United States that could be sold, so it was an opportunity cost for the US gov't to devote the land to public education rather than be sold for any purpose just to earn money. Instead, they planned and Jefferson’s proposal was much more orderly. He advocated the creation of a rectangular or rectilinear system of land survey. The basic unit of ownership was to be the township — a six-mile square or 36 square miles. (Jefferson had actually favored townships of 10-mile squares, but Congress believed those plots would be too large and difficult to sell.) Each township was to be divided into 36 sections, each a one-mile square or 640 acres. Borrowing from a New England practice, the Ordinance also provided that Section 16 in each township was to be reserved for the benefit of public education. All other sections were to be made available to the public at auction. So there you go.
Curmudgeon June 12, 2012 at 12:21 PM
Jefferson wrote this about public schools: But if it is believed that these elementary schools will be better managed by the Governor and Council, the commissioners of the literary fund, or any other general authority of the government, than by the parents within each ward, it is a belief against all experience. Try the principle one step further and amend the bill so as to commit to the Governor and Council the management of all our farms, our mills, and merchants' stores. (Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Cabell, Feb. 2, 1816, reprinted in Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1955), page 98 and The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Memorial Edition 1904), volume 14, pages 420-21.) This doesn't look like a ringing endorsement of our current brand of schooling.
Beth June 12, 2012 at 12:36 PM
Ah, now you change the subject, Curmudgeon! You asked about TJ's support for the establishment of public schools, which I answered. If you want to delve into the current Virginia governor's role in public education, look no further than the firing of UVa's current president by the new board -- half of which the new governor appointed. The state of Virginia is systematically defunding higher education to the students' peril.

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