Parents, community members, educators and others gathered Thursday to discuss Fairfax County Public Schools' disciplinary procedures, "second chance" programs and parental notification. Those are among the modifications the system could look to make as it continues its years-long process of reforming its Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook.
But many of the few dozen people at the meeting, which was moderated by the Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities (SRR), said they couldn’t understand the SR&R guide itself, complaining it resembled a legal document. It is too long and too hard to understand, they said.
Parents recommended the SR&R handbook be simplified or at least made more easily searchable online. They agreed a special parents' night at local schools, during which the school’s principal goes over the SR&R, would also be beneficial.
Steve Greenburg, a committee member, FCPS teacher and president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said the night’s discussion made a good case for a more clear, concise document.
“It’s obvious that [some people] didn’t know where things were in the book,” Greenburg said. “I think we’re going to be have to really clear and very user-friendly.”
Committee chair Steve Stuban, said he and the committee would be working hard to make substantial recommendations in the coming weeks.
“We’re not manufacturing widgets,” he said. “We’re talking about people with different levels of maturity and confidence and ability. We have to somehow come up with a system that can account for all of that while also presenting itself as consistent with how it considers every situation.”
The meeting was one of several planned this month to get feedback on the system's disciplinary practices ahead of the recommendations it will make to the school board in March or April.
During the two-hour meeting Thursday at McLean High School, the committee—formed by the school board this fall—took suggestions from members of the community on how to reform disciplinary actions related to drug and alcohol offenses, parental notification, students with disabilities and more.
Attendees were asked whether they would support a “second-chance program,” in which attending an approved program would waive suspension for students who are caught possessing drugs and alcohol for the first time.
Currently, first-time possession of marijuana or alcohol results in a suspension for a minimum of five days and a maximum of 10, according to the SR&R. Distribution of either substance gets a student a 10-day suspension with a recommendation for expulsion from school.
“Everybody deserves a second chance, but distribution does not,” said one parent who attended the meeting. “Possession, maybe. Distribution, no way.”
But other parents thought that a second chance program would do a disservice to the process and only lead to more infractions.
“I find that sends the wrong message to our population in general and opens it up for more abuse,” said another attendee.
Fairfax County Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR), a group dedicated to reforming policies it claims focus on punishment over education, supports a second chance policy.
“I am hopeful that we’re going to see something positive come out of this,” FZTR founder Caroline Hemenway said.
Attendees also discussed parental notification, a main focus of the ongoing push to reform FCPS disciplinary proceedings.
Parents discussed whether a principal should contact a student’s parent or guardian before investigating an offense or if they should wait to question the student with a parent or guardian present.
The county's school board stopped short of adding parental notification to the disciplinary process in a package of reforms last May; bills in the Virginia General Assembly seeking to make it a part of all schools' standard procedures ultimately failed in last year's session.
Some parents said they wanted to be notified immediately if their student was suspected of wrongdoing, but another attendee said it depended on the severity of the offense.
A principal could talk to a student alone following a fight or confrontation with another student, but parents said they wanted to be present if drugs or alcohol were involved.
Still, other parents wondered how a principal could continue to be effective if every student had to be questioned with an adult present.
If a parent has to be notified for every discretion, it’s going to affect school safety, said one attendee.
The committee also discussed disproportionate discipline and the punishment of students with disabilities and disadvantaged students, including minorties.
“It’s a huge part of the discipline issue, but because it’s complex, it’s kind of swept off to the side,” said Sheree Brown Kaplan, of the Fairfax Alliance for Appropriate Public Education. “Those kids are really being impacted. They are tending to make wrong choices because of a number of factors that effect their impulsivity,” among other things, she said.
Attendees suggested schools look into student liaisons who have training in helping both students and families facing such issues. They also agreed parents should be notified and present when a student with a disability is being questioned. With the proper guidance, those students can stay out of the disciplinary process, they said.
The committee will hold one last community meeting on the issue from 1 to 3 p.m. Feb. 23 at Falls Church High School.
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