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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kory's Report from Richmond: Student discipline reforms needed

By Kaye Kory

This past Monday, the Washington Post’s editorial page weighed in on the topic of Miranda rights for children in schools. The editorial addressed the recent Supreme Court decision that requires police officers questioning students about potential criminal violations in a school setting to advise them that they do not have to answer and, if they do, the information may be used to prosecute them.

Unfortunately, these circumstances, while relatively infrequent in the Commonwealth, happen often enough that it will require changes in behavior on the part of many law enforcement personnel who interview students, particularly school resource officers (SROs).

This new requirement should be reflected in policy changes throughout Virginia. However, the Miranda policy addresses only a small, but important, element of a wide range of changes I believe are needed in school discipline policies in Northern Virginia and across the Commonwealth.

Over the past year, widespread anger erupted in Northern Virginia against “zero tolerance” student discipline policies and practices. The catalyst for the public outcry was the suicide of Nick Stuban, a promising and well-liked student athlete at Woodson High School, following a lengthy suspension and mandatory school transfer. This was the second discipline-related suicide in two years.

Media reports of the circumstances surrounding the Stuban tragedy triggered numerous complaints from parents. Many criticized the FCPS discipline process, charging that it is often conducted without parent notification, it is slow and drawn out, highly adversarial, unresponsive to individual circumstances, and frequently counterproductive for the student involved. In Fairfax the discipline process often culminates in a perfunctory, quasi-judicial final review by the school board. The board has failed to reverse administrative staff decisions even once in the past 4,000-plus cases.

I have been concerned about certain elements of the FCPS discipline process since my days on the school board. The lack of early parental involvement and the rigid requirements of zero tolerance have always seemed to me to be wrong-headed, but I was routinely referred to the Commonwealth Code as the rationale for notification processes and zero tolerance.

In Virginia, a Dillon Rule state, the Commonwealth Code governs much of the school disciplinary process. It seems to me that one of the most important characteristics of an equitable and effective student discipline process is coordination and, if possible, collaboration between the schools and families.

As a result, before the 2011 General Assembly session started in January 2011, I filed H.B. 1548, requiring the school principal or designee to notify parents of a student who violates school board policy when such violations are likely to result in the student’s suspension or expulsion.

This measure passed the house unanimously. But, to my surprise, it was vehemently opposed by Virginia’s professional education lobbyists, including school boards, principals, and superintendents and was soundly defeated in the Senate.

This defeat attracted significant attention among active parents and organizations interested in school discipline reform. Over the summer, I convened a statewide task force to examine the Virginia Code and identify changes in the code that would help to transform school discipline policies from inflexible and punitive to supportive and constructive. Organizations represented include Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform; the Advancement Project, Voices for Children, the Family Foundation, Just Children, the Rutherford Institute, and the ACLU.

It is my hope that the Supreme Court ruling on Miranda rights for children will provide additional impetus for the comprehensive code review and revisions that are clearly needed.

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