Gibson: 'Our Students Deserve Better'
Hunter Mill School Board rep says county Board of Supervisors should stay out of zero tolerance debate.
Last week, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors waded into a controversy over the consequences our students face when they commit serious violations of Virginia law (and school rules).
Without giving so much as a “heads up” to the School Board or the Superintendent of Schools, the Board of Supervisors criticized the so-called “zero tolerance” disciplinary system, and wrongly linked the disciplinary system to the recent tragic suicide of a Fairfax County student. In my view, the Board of Supervisors exceeded its knowledge base -- not to mention its authority -- when it decided to tackle this matter in this way. Here is why:
The School Board takes seriously its duty to protect the safety and well-being of students and staff in our schools, consistent with common sense and state law. When we exercise that duty, we attempt to balance the rights of the victims of misconduct against our shared interest in allowing the student-violator a fair opportunity to continue his or her education. It is tragic that some students take their own lives. But it is cynical and downright irresponsible for some elected officials and community members to use the tragedy of suicide to advance a particular agenda.
For example, one vocal critic of the School Board recently expressed to the School Board the notion that “good kids” never commit serious offenses. Her testimony reflects a view that is astonishingly ignorant of what goes on in our schools, and the conduct that leads to serious disciplinary consequences such as expulsion. She said, "They don't have guns. They're not drug dealers. They're just average kids who screw up. Many of them do things like write on desks, things like that."
In fact, some students do bring, use, and distribute drugs at school -- not only marijuana, but also powerful and sometimes dangerous prescription medications. Some students do bring guns and knives to school, and sometimes use them to threaten, bully and harass students and teachers. Some students do belong to gangs, and engage in gang-related behavior at school. Moreover, in more than 15 years on the School Board, I have never seen any student expelled for writing on a desk. More importantly, every decision I have made reflects a judgment about the student’s conduct, and not a judgment about whether or not they are a “good kid.”
Perhaps more importantly, and overlooked in all of the heated rhetoric, nearly every time a student is expelled for committing a serious infraction, the Board has also voted to provide an education to that student, and to allow them to work their way back into a "regular" educational program, once they have successfully completed a probationary period. Contrary to the title of the Board of Supervisors resolution, this is anything but "zero-tolerance." Our approach seeks to temper justice with mercy, while obeying the mandates of state law, and taking into account the safety of our staff and the overwhelming majority of students who follow the rules.
I welcome a discussion about the value our community places on maintaining safe schools, and whether students who break the rules should face consequences that reflect the seriousness of the violation. I also welcome a discussion about how we, as a community, can provide support to families so that young people never reach the point that life is so futile that they should contemplate ending it. But we are never going to have those discussions in earnest as long as the debate is driven by inflammatory and uninformed rhetoric. Our students deserve better.
Stuart D. Gibson
School Board Member
Hunter Mill District