More than two years after parent advocates rallied for widespread reform to Fairfax County Public Schools' disciplinary procedures, a community committee has made more than 50 recommendations to overhaul the system's practices.
Among them: creating a "second chance program" for first-time drug and alcohol offenders, requiring schools in most instances to notify parents before students are questioned and establishing a standing committee to oversee reform.
Committee members told the school board Wednesday the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook should also include a separate section for students with disabilities — who make up about 14 percent of the system's population but comprise about 40 percent of suspension and expulsion cases — and reduce the disproportionate numbers of other groups, specifically, Black and Hispanic students, caught up in the disciplinary process, the committee said.
Since the Fairfax County School Board appointed the Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities in September, the 40-member group has met 17 times, and in February, on how to improve the system.
The recommendations, which the school board will formally discuss April 8, are going to require "an overhaul of the whole code," said Caroline Hemenway, a member of the committee who has advocated for discipline reform for years through Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform.
"That's not going to happen right away," she noted — Wednesday's report was just the beginning.
"This has been a contentious, concerning issue for some time — not just for months, for years. We all recognize that the process was not what we wanted it to be," school board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon) told the committee.
How many recommendations will be implemented, and when, remains to be seen — an unknown touched on by both the committee and the school board Wednesday night.
A 'Range of Responses'
Many recommendations — compiled in a nearly 200 page report — focused on creating tiers of consequences and responses to behavior, instead of a system that quickly jumps to suspension or expulsion as a first step.
A "second chance" program is a large part of that effort, said chair Steve Stuban, whose son's suicide sparked a county-wide call for reform two years ago
"Particularly in a public education setting, we want to give them a chance to learn from their mistakes and a chance to change their ways," he said.
For instance, consequences for distributing alcohol or drug paraphernalia should be less severe, the report said. First time offenders should be placed in an Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) seminar program, and subsequent offenders should be suspended from school, instead of automatically being recommended for expulsion.
The board also revived a call for parental notification, which would require schools to inform parents of offenses before students are questioned by principals or law enforcement.
The school board stopped short of adding parental notification to the disciplinary process in a package of reforms last May.
This latest call for parental notification suggests exceptions for cases in which evidence might be destroyed or there is imminent danger — two concerns cited by school principals who have said the measure could interfere with handling situations quickly and effectively.
More School-Based Decisions
Principals should have more discretion in deciding whether to send students through the central hearing office or pursue alternative consequences instead, the committee said.
The board should also give students better academic support during suspensions or other consequences "that remove them from the school for longer than one day," the report says, and allow principals to keep students appealing or awaiting a hearing in class.
Oversight and Moving Forward
The committee asked the board to create a standing Citizen Advisory Discipline Committee to oversee and review how the recommendations are implemented now and in the future.
"You really need somebody to study [this] diligently on your behalf over the extended period of time,” Stuban said. “Don't deprive yourself of the excellent expertise that exists in the community — let them help you."
Stuban said he had faith the recommendations would be put in practice.
"This work was too important, too thoughtful and bore too much fruit to just go after the low hanging fruit here," board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) told other board members.
The board will discuss the recommendations at its April 8 work session.