Saturday, March 5, 2011

School Board Update

Save the Date: Town Hall Meeting 1-3 pm, Sat. March 19, Falls Church High School (details below) 

Dear Friends,

The topic of student discipline has been highlighted in news reports lately after the tragic death of a teen student by suicide as he was going through the FCPS student discipline process.  

This is a heartbreaking story, as is any death of one of our young people, and depression and suicide are complex issues involving many factors. But the case highlighted in the news is not the only one parents are bringing to me with concern.

As I talk with people and read emails,  I hear the pain, frustration and fear that many are feeling. As parents, we know we can only control so much as we try to keep our children safe and secure and on the right path. The idea that one slip-up can radically change a youngster's future is on the minds of many right now.

As one School Board member, I strongly support a review and reevaluation of our discipline policies and practices. The critical questions: Are they fair? Are they effective?

Some of us on the Board have advocated for this review for some time. And finally we will be addressing this in a systematic way over the next few months. Last week, the Board decided at our Forum (an informal discussion we have before every regular School Board meeting) to do a comprehensive evaluation of our discipline policies. The first Work Session on the topic will be from 9-11 am Monday, March 14, at Gatehouse Administration Center, 8115 Gatehouse Rd., Falls Church. This is open to the public but is not televised.

Over the past year that I have served as your Mason District School Board member, I have had these concerns in particular:
  • When a student is suspended from school, what sort of support is there so he/she isn't just wasting time alone at home or in the neighborhood?
  • Do student reassignments to other schools for infractions actually work? That is, are they effective in putting students on a better path, such as keeping them away from drug use? Or does it just move students to an unfamiliar environment that harms their sense of connectedness
  • Are school reassignments helping keep our schools safer? Are there better ways?
  • What is the path for a reassigned student to redeem himself and return to his base school?
  • Does the punishment fit the crime, when everything is taken into account?
  • When a student gets in trouble, when and how are parents notified?
  • What rights do students and parents have when a student is in serious trouble? Are students aware that they, along with everyone in this country, have a right to remain silent and not self-incriminate when accused? Are they always allowed to call their parents?
There's been a lot of discussion about "Zero Tolerance" and whether or not Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) has a zero-tolerance system. Frankly, I don't want us to get side-tracked on semantics. Whatever we call it, the key issues are fairness and effectiveness.

A number of leaders are supportive of a reevaluation of how we deal with teens who get in trouble. Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross cosponsored an initiative, passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors, encouraging such a review and proposing a partnership between the county and school system to help troubled teens and their families. I welcome such a partnership, particularly in the area of teen depression, a long-time concern of mine. Del. Kaye Kory (38th District) is organizing a task force to examine the Virginia State Code regarding discipline processes. Kory also sponsored a parent notification bill in the Virginia Assembly which passed the House but unfortunately failed in the Senate. The Washington Post in a thoughtful Feb. 24 editorial supported reexamining discipline policies. 

I welcome all of these leaders in working on this effort. But most importantly, we need to engage the community in this conversation. Parents and students, whether or not they have experienced our disciplinary process or the juvenile justice system, are key to this discussion as we move forward, as are teachers and administrators.

Working together, we will keep our schools safe. Schools need to be able to effectively handle any dangerous situation and keep gangs, drugs and violence out of our schools. But we also need to be sure we find the right balance for our students to learn from their mistakes and receive the help they need. After all, we are here to educate our young people and create good citizens.

Town Hall Meeting: To hear more from the Mason District community on how to help troubled teens and on student discipline issues, I will be holding a joint Town Hall Meeting with Supervisor Gross from 1-3 pm Saturday, March 19 at Falls Church High School, 7521 Jaguar Trail, Falls Church, in the Little Theater.

Special invited guests include School Board Member Tina Hone (at-large), who has led the effort on the School Board to review discipline policies; Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (Hunter Mill), who cosponsored the Board of Supervisors initiative; and Del. Kaye Kory.

All the Best,