Northern Virginia lawmakers showed bipartisan support for proposals on requiring parental notification in school disciplinary matters in a news conference in the Virginia House of Delegates on Monday.
Sen. Chap Petersen, Dels. Tim Hugo (R-40th District) and Kaye Kory (D-38th District), along with guests Steve Stuban and Fairfax County School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield), spoke to news outlets about the importance of passing state legislation that would encourage better communication between parents and administrators.
The legislators, including Sen. Dave Marsden (D-37th District) who did not attend the conference, have proposed separate bills addressing the parental notification issue.
, began the conference declaring his "unwavering support" for legislation on the matter.
"As I reflect upon the unfortunate sequence of events that preceded our son's decision, I remain haunted by the thought that there were many opportunities to steer the course to a different path, all which stem from local education authorities hiding behind the absence of legislation or legislation that placed open-ended discretionary judgment within their hands," Stuban said.
He said he understands school officials need leeway in circumstances where immediate action is necessary to ensure the safety of the school community, but parents should be notified of incidents not as time-sensitive.
"Shoring up the statewide parental notification procedure is a first step to ensuring our schools stand side by side with the parents of Virginia in a joint effort to place our children on pathways to fulfilling lives as productive citizens in our communities," he said.
Kory, who introduced legislation in the 2011 session that passed unanimously in the House of Delegates but failed on the floor of the Senate, said she learned from the argument in the Senate to adjust the language in her bill this year.
"We all have different language in our bills, and I think that's good because it creates conversation," Kory said.
The lawmakers agreed to not tout their own particular bills, but to see how committees deal with each of their proposals and work from there.
"Let's please make a commitment here, now, to pass a bill this year that will actively solve the problem," Kory said. "Not a study bill, not a reporting bill, but a bill that will make a difference in the way students enter the discipline process with their parents at their side."
Of the four legislators proposing a bill on parental notification, Marsden is the only one who voted against Kory's bill last session.
"I didn't have any problems with the intent, it's a good idea, it was just a badly configured law," Marsden said.
Marsden said his problem with last year's bill was that it required administrators to refrain from questioning students until a parent was notified. He saw an immediate problem with such a strict interpretation when certain questions need to be asked immediately simply to clarify a situation.
"If a principal pulls two kids apart, he should be able to ask, 'Who started this?'" Marsden said in a phone interview. "But then, did you just start an investigation? ... Or if an administrator finds a bag of marijuana at a kid's feet, he can pick it up and say 'Is this yours?' The principal shouldn't have to pick it up, go call the parent and bring you in for questioning. There should be allowed a certain amount questioning around the instant offense."
In writing his legislation, Marsden sought to give administrators a little more latitude to administrators and localities.
Superintendent Jack Dale said Monday night he could not comment on the legislation before the General Assembly because he has not read the proposals, but he pointed out the Fairfax County School Board's stance on the matter as written in its 2012 legislative program.
In the program, the school board states its support for "maintaining the current statutory authority of local school boards to adopt regulations permitting them to choose among alternative discipline procedures specified in the Code of Virginia for handling cases of suspension, expulsion, and exclusion."
Parental notification was part of a number of changes parent advocates, spurred by Stuban, pressured the school board for last spring. While the board adopted several of those changes, including relying less on involuntary transfers as punishment, it .
Schultz, who was elected to the board in November and took office after the school board approved the legislative program, expressed her support for legislation on parental notification.
"I'm committed to altering the relationship that the school board and the school systems in the commonwealth have for the benefit of the stakeholders," Schultz said. "We've lost perspective on what it is that our job entails and who we're supposed to serve."
Petersen believes it is within the General Assembly's authority to require parental notification because it is legislation aimed at protecting the rights of students and their parents.
"There's already language in the code about disciplinary proceedings and making sure that parents are involved. That's nothing new in the code. We already give the school board the authority to expel students," Petersen said. "My role as a state lawmaker is not just to help school boards and school officials do what they want, but also to make sure people's fundamental rights are respected. It's always about finding the balance."
Read the language of each of the proposed bills: