To the Editor:
The Fairfax County School Board recently voted to create a 40-member Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights & Responsibilities (SR&R). The group will be comprised of principals, teachers, counselors, and psychologists chosen by their various professional organizations; a representative selected by the county government; an employee from the FCPS hearings office which administers student appeals of expulsion recommendations; and 24 individuals appointed by the school board members from within their magisterial districts.
I watched the various discussions and debates over this issue with great interest.
I heard several comments about school board members feeling bullied, intimidated and/or threatened by community members desirous of discipline reform. Ryan McElveen (At Large) expressed concern that the board, if it allowed certain advocacy groups a seat at the table, would send a message to the school system that bullies and people who harass get their way. I am deeply concerned over the idea that anyone may have been physically or verbally threatened by anyone. I don’t know the specifics of the incidents being relayed, so I can’t attest to the characterizations made. But our community needs to appreciate the message that is being sent to thousands of our children every year under the current discipline policies and practices. Namely, that bullies are getting their way. Consider these true stories:
- The timid middle school boy is bullied relentlessly until the day his tormentors tell him they will kill when he gets off the bus the next day. He believes the threat and brings a tomato knife to school. It’s seen in his locker, reported and he is transferred to another school. No other punishments are doled out. The bullies won.
- Two elementary school girls are kicked under their desks by a classmate over a period of time. The girls, frustrated that their requests result in continued kicking, finally have enough and punch the boy in the arm. They are required to write up their story (without a parent being informed, by the way) and the report is rejected by the administrator because it includes a reference to the boy’s actions. Evidently, that had nothing to do with the girls’ punching the boy. The girls are punished. The bully won.
- A middle school boy gets a number of after-school detentions. His family reminds him that he must accept the punishment for his misbehavior. They don’t know what is causing his acting out until an early spring day when he comes home in tears. Turns out he’s been teased and called names all year by a classmate with a disability. For a month his family seeks intervention by school administrators and counselors to prevent any backlash by their son. No intervention. Teasing & name-calling continues. Boy tells tormentor that she is disabled. She cries. He’s suspended. Restorative Justice intervention is rejected by the administrator, never offered to the students and their families. Do you think this boy and his family believe the bully won? Do you think further incidents with these two students will be avoided through current practices?
- A young man was transferred to an alternative school for a year. FCPS recommends he return to high school. On the first day of school he was approached by an administrator, reminded of his past misdeeds, and told he’s ‘still on probation.’ Is someone being bullied here? Is this really the second chance the school board is trying to give students to turn their lives around?
Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR) has pointed out research that repeatedly shows bullies are often victims themselves. At this point, we can only HOPE the proposed committee structure will address this during the SR&R review.
Students and experiences like these must be part of a serious, honest review of discipline process and policy in FCPS. I’m sure staff won’t share them due to student privacy concerns. Groups who have served students on suspension, such as the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, can give voice to the impacts the process has. Organizations like FZTR can contribute personal experiences as well as knowledge of existing research and best practices in student discipline. Groups like the Coalition of the Silence, Fairfax County Council of PTAs, and NAACP guarantee a voice to those groups who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the existing discipline process.
Most of us parents have nothing to complain about regarding student discipline for the simple reason that our children have not been through it. And until that occurs, parents don’t know what they don’t know. Until I began working with FZTR I had no idea that a child of any age in our schools could be questioned and compelled to write an admission of guilt without a parent’s knowledge or consent. (I won’t get into the psychology of false confessions here.) I didn’t know that administrators could compel a student to change a written statement like the girl described above. Had it not been for my work with the FCCPTA and the reports (7 years apart) from their Special Education Committee, I would not have known that special education students represent 13% of the student population and 44% of the students suspended or recommended for expulsion. I didn’t know until last year’s FCPS discipline report that students who go through a suspension or transfer lose about one point on their GPAs. Only now am I beginning to know how much I didn't, and still don't, know about school discipline.
I know the school board wants the community to have faith and confidence in the integrity of the review process. Every untold story of how discipline practices harm, rather than help, students and schools reduces that possibility. To give our school community the best product possible, the committee must understand ALL the implications of discipline policy--on the school as a whole; on safety and security; on the health, wellbeing and academic success of our children.
FCPS is investing thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on staffing and programs designed to prevent the imposition of "consequences" for unacceptable behaviors. At the same time, our tax dollars are paying for thousands of manhours of staffing, special facilities, and extra services designed to impose these punishments. Saving just a little on the punishment end to invest in prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration is money better spent.
Schools can be safe and secure without thousands of suspensions, involuntary transfers and recommended expulsions each year. Research proves it. I urge the SR&R review committee to study this research and considers all sides of school discipline, including those of the children who’ve survived it in Fairfax County.
- Michele Menapace
Michele Menapace is a parent of two teens, one an FCPS student. She handles communications for Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform and the Fairfax Education Coalition, and is the past president of the Fairfax County Counil of PTAs. The views expressed here are her own.