Letter to the Editor: Consider All Sides of School Discipline

Newly-approved committee charged with reviewing Fairfax County school discipline policy should research prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration, community member says.

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.

DGeorge September 26, 2012 at 02:02 PM
I have never understood Zero Tolerance. It sounded like a bad idea from the start. If someone that believes it is a good idea would explain their reasoning I would be interested. If mistakenly having a butter knife in an honor students backpack requires the same discipline as a gangbanger having a switchblade concealed in his boot then we are truly living in a Lewis Carroll novel
Joanne Walton September 26, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Don't forget bullying by teachers! Do you know of someone who could come speak to our school about "effective ways to address concerns about your child's teacher"? Desperately needed!
Michelle Carr September 26, 2012 at 04:56 PM
I have heard more stories that do NOT support Zero Tolerance policy than those that do. As parents, we want a safe school environment, not pseudo jails for our youth. Is there a way for local (as in, "in the neighborhood) parents or concerned residents to serve on review boards that consider expulsion cases?
DGeorge September 26, 2012 at 05:59 PM
And no-one wants to defend Zero Tolerance? There must be someone, as it is the law of the land in school. Please tell me why you think it is a good idea.
Local Resident September 26, 2012 at 08:39 PM
David Fallen, Zero tolerance is the only logical and objective way to apply a policy. The tone of Michele Menapace's letter makes it clear that she disagrees with zero tolerance. But, what is the solution? It sounds like Michele Menapace is advocating for a subjective disciplinary policy rather than a unifom, objective policy. What would be the result in the examples cited by Michele Menapace above with a subjective disciplinary policy? Weapons are prohibited on school grounds EXCEPT that bullied middle school boys are permitted to bring tomato knives to school. Students are prohibited from hitting other students EXCEPT elementary school girls are allowed to punch boys in the arm if they have been kicked. The examples cited clearly show that there was more than one guilty party. However, when I was in school, I was taught that two wrongs don't make a right. Is this not taught any longer? There is a life lesson for the students involved in these examples. You are responsible for your own actions regardless of how others might act. If bullied students don't have to follow the rules, how long do you think it would take before every student would say that he is the victim of bullying.
Michele Menapace September 26, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Anonymous Local Resident: I haven't seen anyone suggest that bullied students don't have to follow the rules. I didn't suggest that rules should be changed so a bullied kid can fight back. The point I made was that discipline is NOT being administered objectively--from student to student within one school, from school to school. IF zero tolerance is being practiced by FCPS--and school leaders have denied it is--then EVERY student who gets caught with drugs will be recommended for expulsion. But we know that it isn't. I heard from a student whose classmates were caught on a spring trip with drugs and alcohol in their hotel room. One student denied he used them; he was "just there." His parent was a teacher at the school. He wasn't transferred/expelled; his 3 roommates were. Objectively, that shouldn't have happened. The school board, however, does favor more subjective decision-making. Didn't they recently give principals more authority in making disciplinary referrals? Just like a judge considering mitigating factors... No students should feel that violence or drugs or self-mutilation is a way out. When schools focus on prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration processes, outcomes are better and students are safer. There's a lot of research proving zero tolerance doesn't work. Seems subjective IS better. For this review process to be honest and objective all these implications should be considered before recommendations are made.
Virginia Colin September 27, 2012 at 01:14 AM
I hope the Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights & Responsibilities will include someone from Northern Virginia Mediation Service (NVMS) or at least consult with people from NVMS. NVMS has been offering restorative justice programs in some schools and may be willing to offer a lot of expertise and guidance.
John Farrell September 27, 2012 at 05:21 AM
No seats for NAACP No seats for FCCPTA No seats for Fairfax Parternship for Youth No seats for Coalition of the Silent No seats for Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform 15 seats for Jack Dale's sycophants Wouldn't hold my breath waiting for NVMS's invite. The Gatehouse Party isn't interested. The status quo must be preserved, at all costs, in this most perfect of all school divisions in all of creation. You will be absorbed by the Gatehouse Party. Resistance is futile.
Steven Greenburg September 27, 2012 at 11:48 AM
The success of the committee will be determined by empathy, common sense, and genuine respect for all positions and stakeholders. Parents, community members, teachers, and administrators need to really care about each other's perspectives on discipline issues. As many of us are 'many categories' (for example: I am a parent, live in a community as a tax-payer, teach in FCPS, etc.), empathy can be attained if people listen and respect how important this is to all, especially our students. FCPS will have legitimate issues in logistics, legalities, and procedural aspects of the items addressed. I look forward to working with the group to achieve real solutions to help our kids, parents, and schools. Those involved must approach the work positively, and with a resolve to accomplish much. This is important work and has impact on people's lives. Our students are counting on us to do a great job. Although FCFT has an appointment as a 'teacher representative', we will care about everyone's position. To that end, please feel free to contact me at sgreenburg@aol.com at any time to share perspective.
DGeorge September 27, 2012 at 12:12 PM
Anonymous Local Resident you say; " Zero tolerance is the only logical and objective way to apply a policy. The tone of Michele Menapace's letter makes it clear that she disagrees with zero tolerance. But, what is the solution? " I don't know if you are a parent, I am. Is Zero Tolerance the policy you had in your home in raising your children? If not, why not if it makes so much sense. If you are attacked on school grounds by a bully should you not have the right to defend yourself? When I was growing up it was considered laudable to stand up to bullies. How much literature has been written about the poor skinny kid that, at the urging of his mother or father, finally stands up to his tormentors. Today the student who does is judged to be just as guilty as the attacker. If our judicial system worked that way a homeowner that defends him/herself from a burglar would spend as much time in prison as the criminal. Does that sound fair? If in fact as an educator you cannot tell the difference between an honor student mistakenly bringing a butter knife to school and a gangbanger with a switchblade in his boot then I suggest you find another profession as your ability to think is seriously impaired.
Kathy Keith September 27, 2012 at 12:30 PM
All the comments on this issue have substance. As far as the make-up of the committee, does it really matter unless the Board will take its advice? If the Board is still the decision maker, will it listen to the committee-or is the committee being formed to reflect what the Board wants to do? The purpose of Zero Tolerance is to put "objectivity" into the process to keep our kids safe. Sadly, these are children that we are dealing with--not objects. It is not the rules themselves that are the problem, it is the lack of empathy and flexibility in the enforcement of them. My understanding is that there are caveats which allow for exceptions. However, if the Stuban child was not a prime example of a child needing an exception, I don't know what is. Even judges have some flexibility. Could we not come up with "Zero Tolerance with a dash of Common Sense?" That is what I would like to see.
janet otersen September 27, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Let's catch up with Maryland and what they are doing in the discipline reform area. Here is language from their State BOE Report: We begin with the principle that successful students, safe schools, and a fair and equitable discipline process are not mutually exclusive concepts. Indeed, they are interdependent. We trust that our education partners will endeavor to use out-of-school suspensions judiciously and appropriately as the punishment of last resort for serious offenses.Knowing the negative consequences, particularly of long-term exclusion from school, it is our view, that out-of-school suspensions, particularly those over 10 days, should be reserved for only violent and dangerous conduct. As we have shown in this Report, the effects of separation from school are devastating to the student and the community. Our goal as educators should be a rehabilitative one - - to improve the student, not to disadvantage those students who may be most in need of our help. Indeed, we must keep our eye on the prize – eliminating the achievement gap and graduating college and career ready students – even in the heat of the school discipline process. Making insignificant, cosmetic changes to our SR&R would be a complete waste of time---let's hope these indivuals act in the best interests of our students.
Michele Menapace September 27, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Ms. Colin, perhaps you'd offer this suggestion to the school board members as soon as possible...before they finalize their appointments?
KH September 27, 2012 at 04:30 PM
I am not overly optimistic about a 40 person panel after trying to see 12 School Board members try to make decisions. I liked the idea of eliminating the Gatehouse hearing office and giving the principals more discretion about punishments. To think children will not make a mistake is ludicrous. Some are bigger than others but people learn from mistakes. To not learn that this system needs changing after two student suicides tied into this is appalling. It would be helpful to keep a child in their familiar surroundings where teachers who know them can keep a watchful eye on them. Should it be an instance where there has been a physical threat, then it would make sense to remove the bully/threatening child. Each case is not black and white so therefore the rules can't be either. I was saddened to see the principals make a last second stance on parental notification last spring. If the principals don't have the guts to make tough calls on discipline, they shouldn't be a principal. It is they who know these students best and can get their teachers and other students input on each infraction/scenario.
Debbie Wilson September 28, 2012 at 01:18 AM
Suspensions, expulsions, and involuntary transfers for misbehavior by students are simply the easier choice, made by administrators who are unwilling or unable to promote positive behaviors in their students through teaching and modeling. Unacceptable behavior is the result of a child's being asked to deal with something that he or she is unable to solve with acceptable actions or words. Behavior is a communication of unmet needs. Why are so many school officials indifferent to the needs of challenging students? Hopefully it's a knowledge deficit that can be corrected with training. Sadly, more often it seems to come from a desire on the part of the adult to tyrannically maintain control of everyone and everything. Other students learn that school personnel are unable to improve behavior, so they just remove the offender. Children can detect that need for power and they grow to resent it. Bullying, cheating and disrespectful treatment start at the top. Debbie Wilson
crazyblondenva September 29, 2012 at 12:34 AM
I have been through the Zero Tolerance Discipline process and it is horrific. Thank God another FFX School helped our family. If I told you what happened to my son you would never believe it and the school he now attends was truly disgusted at what happened. Even at principals discretion it still was not just. One of the biggest problems I see is that rules in the school itself are not consistent. a great number of adults working in the system do not understand their is a fine line to walk in their relationships with students. Teenagers still need boundaries and consistency. But there also needs to be compassion, common sense and yes restorative justice. Expulsion serves no purpose other than to protect when a student is truly a threat. As far as drug use goes, it probably wouldn't be so bad if many of the parents didn't use themselves. I hope the process is changed. I am raising my last child and never had any trouble with my others. This was the worst experience I have ever been through.
Janet October 02, 2012 at 10:13 PM
"What the FCPS School Board does right is protecting what it does wrong."
David Schryber October 02, 2012 at 11:20 PM
What is more important: A)The students B)The system C)The educators I am a student, 1 year removed form High School. I have seen school discipline carried out correctly, and in proportion to the offense. I have also seen it carried out both too strongly and too weakly. The last two usually occured IN the classrooms. The funny thing is we keep coming back to this: "producing well-rounded citizens ready to enter the workforce." I don't see how destroying a kid's psychological well-being and/or perpetuating negative behavior does that. Let me put it differently: kid A bullies kid B. Kid A gets suspended when the bullying turns physical, and is sent home for 3 days. Having been rewarded for his bullying, kid A continues his bullying when he returns, and starts getting others to do the same. As Ms. Menapace aptly stated, the bully won. Let me ask you a question: How many adults do you know in your life today who were actively bullied in grade school? How many leaders of ANYTHING? This leads to another question: Can you identify bullying? Can the TEACHERS identify bullying? To another: Does anyone have the power to stop bullying? Clearly, "I" messages do NOT work. (Seriously? "I dont feel good when you do that"?) To another: Are the negative effects of the punishment greater than the benefit? If a kid "tattles" on a bully, and the bully finds out, what do you think will happen? Refer back to kids A and B. Lastly: What are you going to do?
Teresa November 24, 2012 at 05:12 PM
I agree with you. Raising my last child was more challenging than my older children. My son was suspended for 1week for having beer before a football game. All of his friends did also they just didn't get caught. Since,it was his first offense, I think he should have been given an option to do community service after school at the school cleaning up or be suspended for a week. I am sure he would have made the choice of community service. An entire week is very difficult to make up all of the school work and contributes to low self esteem. He had a personal sadness because he just broke up with his girlfriend and his friends encouraged him to drink. A 17 year old boy can take a breakup pretty hard. Honestly, I was watching him for suicide. Of course they mentioned it on his transcripts that he was suspended. He is a lovely boy, kind, thoughtful and I am very proud of him. No thanks to FCPS.
Barbara Glakas November 25, 2012 at 01:32 AM
To the “objectivity” argument….. Parents: Do all of your children at home have the exact same personality, and all respond to you in the same way, and all react to your disciplinary measures in the same way? Now imagine yourself a principal who has 2,000 children to deal with.
Trinity Fields February 01, 2013 at 06:07 PM
Michele Menapace I would like to co-sign your statement. As a prank, a FCPS teacher's child brought tree leaves in a sandwich baggie to school and asked my child if he wanted some weed. To blend, my child took the baggie thinking it was weed and threw it away afterwards. A kid who saw the transaction told the principal. My child was recommended to be home schooled the rest of that school year, transferred out of district for next school year and not allowed back in that school until age 22. The teacher's child was sent to a regular school out of district and allowed back for next school year. My child's question to me was, "I thought teachers and schools were for all kids?" He has not been on A/B honor roll since that incident.
Michele Menapace June 07, 2013 at 11:05 AM
Ms. Keith, did you realize how inciteful (and prescient) your questions were a year ago? The school board voted last night to accept the SR&R policy language recommended by staff which does not include parent notification prior to questioning of students and which INCREASES the penalties for first-time possession of illicit substances (including those nefarious look-alikes referenced by Trinity Fields). Both were changes recommended by the committee. The board even voted down an amendment by Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) that would prohibit written statements by students under 10. Watching the debate on that was mind-boggling. Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said written statements from 5-year-olds are important so they don't forget things. I suppose these same children are expected to remember the SR&R rules given them at the beginning of the school year. And Ted Velkoff (At Large) suggested such a rule would be too cumbersome because administrators would have to check birth dates before asking for a statement. Parents need to be informed. School administrators can STILL question your child, make notes on everything he/she says, and use those statements as "evidence" in disciplinary procedings WITHOUT INFORMING YOU. It was a sad display last evening, night and into the morning, with the exception of votes & comments from Sandy Evans (Mason), Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), and fellow hero of parents & students, Elizabeth Schultz.


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