As the Fairfax County School Board prepares to vote on another round of changes in a years-long push for reform of its discipline policies, board members are struggling to find common ground on when parents should be notified if their child could be suspended or expelled.
Fairfax County Public Schools staff returned to the school board Monday with a number of proposed changes to the Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook, some of them based on a list of 52 recommendations to overhaul discipline practices systemwide a community committee put forth earlier this spring.
But parental notification — an issue on which there has been little agreement since the push for reform began following the suicide of two Fairfax students two years ago— continued to be a sticking point Monday for staff, principals and community committee and board members.
The act of notifying parents isn't the problem, Westfield High School Principal Tim Thomas said Monday: It's a question of when in the process principals stop an investigation and loop parents in.
The 40-member Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities suggested earlier this year principals inform parents of offenses before students are questioned by principals or law enforcement, except for cases in which evidence might be destroyed or there is imminent danger.
Under the staff proposal, principals starting next year would use a uniform questionnaire to collect student statements during an investigation, with a clear disclaimer letting kids know they aren't obligated to provide information.
But while it holds principals to "reasonable efforts" to notify the student’s parents "as soon as possible as part of the on-going process," and asks them to document those attempts, principals would still be permitted to question students before making a call or sending an email home.
School board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), among others, worried about the ambiguity around when principals would notify parents and how the system would ensure consistency school to school.
Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) wondered how the new language would prompt principals to act any differently than they already are.
Thomas and other school staff said the goal is always to make parents part of the process. But especially in cases in which multiple students are involved, or, accusations may be false, it takes some time to determine whether a student has actually committed an offense or identify victims versus offenders. Stopping that investigation to notify parents could hurt the final outcome, he said.
Thomas said the new language wouldn't change much about what principals are doing now.
While Kathy Smith (Sully) said she appreciated the work of the committee, "they do not represent the community," Smith said. "We have no way to know what the majority of citizens ... in the community believe."
Committee chair Steve Stuban said members from a broad range of expertise and backgrounds were appointed to the committee with the task of representing community views on the issue; no recommendations were put forward that didn't receive majority support.
Sandy Evans (Mason), whose amendment on parental notification was postponed* at the board table last May, said she was frustrated the board was still seeing a disconnect on the issue.
"I hoped by now we wouldn't still be talking [about this]," she said.
Officials also discussed a second chance program, which would allow principals to consider circumstances and give students caught with marijuana or synthetic marijuana up to a 10-day suspension — including a five-day alcohol and drug seminar and a 30-day suspension from activities — instead of an automatic recommendation for expulsion.
The board voted 6-5 on Monday to add another work session on the issue bfore its June 6 vote. A final date has not been set.
"It is progress but I think we can do more," Schultz said.
Other proposals being considered ahead of the vote:
- Clarify that FCPS administrators take the lead in investigating most violations, and that when they take the lead, no police (School Resource Officers) are present in the room, except in the case of imminent risk of harm, felonies and violent misdemeanors or incidents requiring immediate report to the police.
- Include a section with state and federal guidelines for students with disabilities and students protected under section 504
- Board Names Members to Discipline Committee
*Evans' amendment was postponed until the community committee's report.