Madison, Thoreau Principals Open Dialogue on School Discipline
Parent feedback, plus county PTA recommendations released today, will be presented to the school board May 16 with Superintendent recommendations
The county schools' current drug, alcohol and safety policies are too rigid and give little rights to students throughout the discipline process, parents said Monday night at a community dialogue with local school administrators.
“These are not adults," one parent said. "They will make mistakes and we need them to learn from them without breaking them.”
More than 50 parents and student council representatives gathered Monday night in Madison High School's library for a community dialogue about Fairfax County Public Schools' discipline policies and procedures with Madison Principal Mark Merrell and Mark Greenfelder, principal of Thoreau Middle School.
Discipline issues in Fairfax County Public Schools made headlines this winter after the Jan. 20 suicide of Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old Woodson High student. The incident prompted families who have gone through the system to step forward with their own stories and call for reform, many of them through the group Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform.
At a Feb. 24 forum, the School Board agreed to explore the disciplinary issues and held a March 14 work session to brainstorm possible changes to the disciplinary process. On March 30, Superintendent Jack Dale presented 10 recommendations at a press conference, which included parent notification at the earliest opportunity after any incident that might result in suspension or expulsion; a shorter timeline between the discipline incident and decision on disciplinary action; and permission for principals to conduct a preliminary review of individuals found to be in possession of his or her own prescription medication.
Dale directed every middle and high school principal in the county to hold dialogues, like the one at Madison on Monday night, in advance of the board's work session on May 16, when it will consider the feedback Dale has compiled along with his own 10 recommendations.
The Fairfax County Council of PTAs today sent Dale and school board members their recommendations, which include a mandatory process for statutory violations. They also "oppose the practice of reflexive or automatic involuntary transfers in addition to suspensions for the sole purpose of a greater punishment of statutory violations of drugs and weapons," they wrote in a letter to the group.
Merrell and Greenfelder kicked off Monday's meeting reviewing disciplinary vocabulary and outlining current discipline procedures. While many of the controversial disciplinary experiences brought up in county and local discussions involved use or possession of illegal drugs or alcohol, Merrell and Greenfelder did not specifically address those violations during the discussion.
They used the example of a student bringing an 8-inch knife blade to school, which warrants an automatic recommendation for expulsion according to the county's current policies. At the school level, they said, they consider this zero tolerance. But from there, the county hearing office and the school board can choose from a continuum of punishments that includes expulsion, but also moving students from their base school to another school in the county.
Merrell said students recommended for expulsion at Madison are usually transferred to Oakton, Marshall or South Lakes High Schools. Those students can ask to be reassigned to their base school in a new year, but Merrell said less than 2 percent request to return.
“We work hard with our reassigned students and most do quite well," he said.
Merrell said when it comes to discipline policy, “the most misunderstood document by parents” is the county's extracurricular agreement. Students participating on sports teams and in other extracurricular clubs and programs sign a form in addition to the FCPS Student Responsibilities and Rights contract. The form bars them from using drugs or alcohol or participating in other risky behaviors while in season. Some Madison parents think school officials should do more about monitoring those students during off hours, Merrell said, but there are limits to what a school should have to reasonably enforce, he said.
“I’m not going to put on my sheriff’s hat to attend Saturday night high school parties,” he says. “I have no jurisdiction in your basement.”
If police contact Merrell with a report that a student violated the law, they face consequences in their extracurricular activities, but it would not impact academics, he said.
Merrell said principals have shared concerns with Dale about students and their ability to handle their own prescription medication. Currently, any student in possession of prescription medication would face the same consequences as a student who possess a weapon or illegal substance. He said there is a difference between students "walking their Ritalin to the clinic and selling it."
“Let’s have common sense prevail,” he said.
Both Merrell and Greenfelder said becomes involved in the disciplinary process, they call parents on that day, and if they are not reached, leave a message. Letters also go out the same day alerting parents to the situation.
When a parent protested that process, arguing that students should have a right to wait for their parents before they are questioned, Greenfelder said “the safety and well being of the students and faculty is paramount.”
After the principals' presentation, parents and students broke into small groups to answer questions facilitated and recorded by Madison administrators.
Parents offered as many questions as they did answers.
“Who are the hearing officers?” asked one parent.
“If the teachers are the first line of defense, are they enforcing the rules fairly?” asked another.
One parent spoke emotionally about how powerless students can be when they are victims in school disciplinary cases -- in this case, the target of bullying. There is no way to find out what punishment was served to the disciplined students, what options they had for follow up, or protection against future incidents.
"Victims have no rights," she said.
At the end of the evening, parents said they were happy that the forum was held, but wanted more opportunities for input.
“We need a variety of forums, not just one dialogue," Thoreau PTSA President Gay Campbell said.
Heather Barber, the incoming president of the Vienna Madison Community, said “it’s great that Dr. Dale opened the dialogue, but the next task is to really listen to the messages from the parents and the principals."