Two weeks after a community committee detailed 52 recommendations to overhaul discipline practices systemwide, Fairfax County Public Schools staff has presented its own proposal for policy changes. But the plan leaves out two programs some see as key to a years-long push for reform — sparking a debate Monday on what role both groups would play in how the system moves forward.
Staff leaders backed many of the ideas put forward by including initiatives to make the discipline handbook easier to understand, keep students in school as they appeal a suspension and give principals tiered, age-specific approaches to a range of offenses.
But staff members said they could not fully endorse second chance programs for first-time drug and alcohol offenders or policies requiring schools to notify parents before questioning students who may have violated school policies.
Both issues have driven conversations around discipline since 2011, when Nick Stuban, then a 15-year-old Woodson High School student, committed suicide after idling for weeks in the county's disciplinary hearing process.
Staff said Monday it had yet to find a way to implement policies that are fair and consistent and also resonate with all stakeholders, namely, principals and some parents.
Some school board and committee members, including chair Steve Stuban, Nick's father, said after Monday's meeting the solutions were already on the table; staff had chosen not to take them.
"It wasn't a majority of parents, or a majority of teachers, it was a majority of 'everybody.' Every group was represented," Stuban said of the recommendations from the committee, which included parents, students, teachers, staff and law enforcement officials, among other experts. "It's somewhat troubling [to a number of us] that it seems like a second filter was applied before the school board would consider the recommendations we had made."
Any policy changes for the coming school year must be in place by June, a timeline staff said it used to prioritize its recommendations.
"The document is 187 pages ... There has to be another work session to discuss it," said Kim Dockery, assistant superintendent for special services. "It isn't that we don't want to do [other things]. It's that in a finite amount of time, what do we need to start with? And that's the priority of opening school with this document."
But doing so puts the board in the same place it was two years ago, some members argued.
"For us to say we simply can't do it and that our schools won't be safe ... that is not the collaboration that we wanted," School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) said.
“Not always do we agree and that’s okay,” Superintendent Jack Dale said. “But we're still collaborating"
The community committee supports a policy that would require principals to make "reasonable efforts" to contact parents once they’ve determined a student could be recommended for suspension or expulsion, except for cases in which evidence might be destroyed or there is imminent danger.
In its analysis Monday, staff said principals should notify parents “at the earliest opportunity,” though it did recommend creating a standard form for collecting student statements which would indicate to students they are not obligated to respond.
Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) wondered how staff would define “reasonable efforts” and “earliest opportunity,” something officials said they were still working to develop.
The proposal didn’t go far enough for some board members, who felt the issue has widespread support but no traction.
"We do have a disconnect and I ask all of you to think very carefully what kind of precedent we're setting,” Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said.
Staff also hesitated to offer first time marijuana or imitation marijuana offenders a five-day intervention program in lieu of an automatic recommendation for suspension.
It instead proposed allowing principals and the hearing office the option of considering an intervention program as part of the 10-day suspension for first time offenses.
The system needs to have a more concrete decision-making protocol to ensure consistency across the system, Dockery said, one that doesn’t treat those with drug violations differently than those who commit other offenses, like fighting or vandalism.
The board charged chair Ilryong Moon to work with staff and Dale over the next week in an effort to incorporate some degree of parental notification and second chance programs in their report.
It’s not clear whether the community committee will be involved in that process, Stuban said.
Board members will revisit the issue in early May and have an opportunity to offer amendments before policy changes are put to a vote in June.