Fairfax County principals will soon be required to make every effort to notify parents before a student is asked to write or sign a statement about an offense that could result in a long suspension or expulsion
The decision came as part of another round of changes in a years-long push for Fairfax discipline reform — the first that acted on parental notification instead of delaying action on the issue.
“We all want a safe environment, we all want students to take responsibility for their actions. That is not mutually exclusive with parents being brought into the process,” said board member Sandy Evans (Mason).
Discussions around how to reform the school system's disciplinary procedures have been ongoing 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.
The overhaul of the system’ Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook approved in a 9-2 vote Thursday gives principals tiered, age-specific approaches to a range of offenses, reducing the number of situations that carry an automatic recommendation for expulsion or suspension in favor of offering enrollment in alcohol and other drug (AOD) intervention seminars or reassignment to an alternative program.
It also allows allows principals to authorize students in the hearing process to return to class while they await a decision.
Guidelines for 'Reasonable Efforts to Notify' Parents In Place
The conversation around discipline Thursday night stretched into the early hours of Friday morning. As the hours wore on, the discussion turned to the issue of trust between schools and parents and the community as a whole.
The system's discipline code, starting next year, will instruct principals to to make “reasonable efforts to notify the student’s parents as soon as practicable” before students are asked to write or sign a statement and prior to referring a student to a School Resource Officer, unless unless there’s a threat of danger or loss of evidence, or the offense requires immediate reporting by law.
A uniform questionnaire will be used to collect student statements during an investigation, with a clear disclaimer letting kids know they aren't obligated to provide information
A 40-member community committee the board directed to study the issue last fall initially recommended parental permission before questioning a student; principals worried about the effect the proposal would have on their investigation and the safety of the school.
“[The changes] send a clear message to the community that they should not trust the judgement of school staff,” said Karen Kenna, speaking on behalf of the FCPS principals associations. “Trust is hard earned ... it’s important for students to know they can come to us for help. We expect you to trust we contact parents once we have enough information to start a conversation.”
But Tina Hone, a former school board member and founder of Coalition of the Silence, an advocacy group for minority students and those with disabilities, said the board shouldn’t protect the right of principals over those of parents.
“Their views are no more legitimate or valuable than the community that elected you,” Hone said.
Some Parents Still Not Satisfied
While many board members noted the progress the system has made since discussions began more than two years ago, not all were satisfied the changes honor the 52 recommendations put forward by the commnity committee. The proposal considered Thursday night, crafted by staff after three work sessions on the issue, did not reflect the work of the committee as much well as it could, some members said.
That left some community members, including Nick’s father Steve Stuban, the community committee’s chair, feeling their work wasn’t valued, he said.
“This was the most diverse group of stakeholders we could bring together. Honor their work,” said Megan McLaughlin (Braddock) said.
Some community conversation, meanwhile, has “demonized” principals, school board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) said.
“I think we need to be very careful about that because it is an undertone of the language being implemented in the SR+R,” said acting superintendent Richard Moniuszko.
Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said there were a number of issues that still needed to be worked out over the course of the next year, including more administrator training and the possible creation of a standing discipline advisory committee.
Better addressing disparities in the number of minority students and students with disabilities who are pulled into the process are also issues the board will address moving forward.
“We’re not ever finished with this,” she said.
- Fairfax School Board Debates When To Notify Parents of Student Offenses
- Board Names Members to Discipline Committee