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.