Letter to the Editor: Consider All Sides of School Discipline

Newly-approved committee charged with reviewing Fairfax County school discipline policy should research prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration, community member says.

To the Editor:

The Fairfax County School Board recently voted to create a 40-member Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights & Responsibilities (SR&R).  The group will be comprised of principals, teachers, counselors, and psychologists chosen by their various professional organizations; a representative selected by the county government; an employee from the FCPS hearings office which administers student appeals of expulsion recommendations; and 24 individuals appointed by the school board members from within their magisterial districts.

I watched the various discussions and debates over this issue with great interest.

I heard several comments about school board members feeling bullied, intimidated and/or threatened by community members desirous of discipline reform. Ryan McElveen (At Large) expressed concern that the board, if it allowed certain advocacy groups a seat at the table, would send a message to the school system that bullies and people who harass get their way. I am deeply concerned over the idea that anyone may have been physically or verbally threatened by anyone. I don’t know the specifics of the incidents being relayed, so I can’t attest to the characterizations made. But our community needs to appreciate the message that is being sent to thousands of our children every year under the current discipline policies and practices. Namely, that bullies are getting their way. Consider these true stories:

  • The timid middle school boy is bullied relentlessly until the day his tormentors tell him they will kill when he gets off the bus the next day.  He believes the threat and brings a tomato knife to school. It’s seen in his locker, reported and he is transferred to another school. No other punishments are doled out.  The bullies won.
  • Two elementary school girls are kicked under their desks by a classmate over a period of time.  The girls, frustrated that their requests result in continued kicking, finally have enough and punch the boy in the arm.  They are required to write up their story (without a parent being informed, by the way) and the report is rejected by the administrator because it includes a reference to the boy’s actions. Evidently, that had nothing to do with the girls’ punching the boy. The girls are punished. The bully won.
  • A middle school boy gets a number of after-school detentions.  His family reminds him that he must accept the punishment for his misbehavior.  They don’t know what is causing his acting out until an early spring day when he comes home in tears.  Turns out he’s been teased and called names all year by a classmate with a disability.  For a month his family seeks intervention by school administrators and counselors to prevent any backlash by their son. No intervention. Teasing & name-calling continues.  Boy tells tormentor that she is disabled. She cries. He’s suspended.  Restorative Justice intervention is rejected by the administrator, never offered to the students and their families. Do you think this boy and his family believe the bully won?  Do you think further incidents with these two students will be avoided through current practices?
  • A young man was transferred to an alternative school for a year.  FCPS recommends he return to high school.  On the first day of school he was approached by an administrator, reminded of his past misdeeds, and told he’s ‘still on probation.’  Is someone being bullied here?  Is this really the second chance the school board is trying to give students to turn their lives around?

Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform (FZTR) has pointed out research that repeatedly shows bullies are often victims themselves.  At this point, we can only HOPE the proposed committee structure will address this during the SR&R review.

Students and experiences like these must be part of a serious, honest review of discipline process and policy in FCPS.  I’m sure staff won’t share them due to student privacy concerns. Groups who have served students on suspension, such as the Fairfax Partnership for Youth, can give voice to the impacts the process has. Organizations like FZTR can contribute personal experiences as well as knowledge of existing research and best practices in student discipline.  Groups like the Coalition of the Silence, Fairfax County Council of PTAs, and NAACP guarantee a voice to those groups who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the existing discipline process.

Most of us parents have nothing to complain about regarding student discipline for the simple reason that our children have not been through it.  And until that occurs, parents don’t know what they don’t know. Until I began working with FZTR I had no idea that a child of any age in our schools could be questioned and compelled to write an admission of guilt without a parent’s knowledge or consent.  (I won’t get into the psychology of false confessions here.)  I didn’t know that administrators could compel a student to change a written statement like the girl described above.  Had it not been for my work with the FCCPTA and the reports (7 years apart) from their Special Education Committee, I would not have known that special education students represent 13% of the student population and 44% of the students suspended or recommended for expulsion.  I didn’t know until last year’s FCPS discipline report that students who go through a suspension or transfer lose about one point on their GPAs.  Only now am I beginning to know how much I didn't, and still don't, know about school discipline.

I know the school board wants the community to have faith and confidence in the integrity of the review process. Every untold story of how discipline practices harm, rather than help, students and schools reduces that possibility.  To give our school community the best product possible, the committee must understand ALL the implications of discipline policy--on the school as a whole; on safety and security; on the health, wellbeing and academic success of our children.

FCPS is investing thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on staffing and programs designed to prevent the imposition of "consequences" for unacceptable behaviors.  At the same time, our tax dollars are paying for thousands of manhours of staffing, special facilities, and extra services designed to impose these punishments.  Saving just a little on the punishment end to invest in prevention, intervention, rehabilitation and restoration is money better spent.
Schools can be safe and secure without thousands of suspensions, involuntary transfers and recommended expulsions each year.  Research proves it.  I urge the SR&R review committee to study this research and considers all sides of school discipline, including those of the children who’ve survived it in Fairfax County.

- Michele Menapace

Michele Menapace is a parent of two teens, one an FCPS student.  She handles communications for Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform and the Fairfax Education Coalition, and is the past president of the Fairfax County Counil of PTAs.  The views expressed here are her own.

David Schryber October 02, 2012 at 11:20 PM
What is more important: A)The students B)The system C)The educators I am a student, 1 year removed form High School. I have seen school discipline carried out correctly, and in proportion to the offense. I have also seen it carried out both too strongly and too weakly. The last two usually occured IN the classrooms. The funny thing is we keep coming back to this: "producing well-rounded citizens ready to enter the workforce." I don't see how destroying a kid's psychological well-being and/or perpetuating negative behavior does that. Let me put it differently: kid A bullies kid B. Kid A gets suspended when the bullying turns physical, and is sent home for 3 days. Having been rewarded for his bullying, kid A continues his bullying when he returns, and starts getting others to do the same. As Ms. Menapace aptly stated, the bully won. Let me ask you a question: How many adults do you know in your life today who were actively bullied in grade school? How many leaders of ANYTHING? This leads to another question: Can you identify bullying? Can the TEACHERS identify bullying? To another: Does anyone have the power to stop bullying? Clearly, "I" messages do NOT work. (Seriously? "I dont feel good when you do that"?) To another: Are the negative effects of the punishment greater than the benefit? If a kid "tattles" on a bully, and the bully finds out, what do you think will happen? Refer back to kids A and B. Lastly: What are you going to do?
Teresa November 24, 2012 at 05:12 PM
I agree with you. Raising my last child was more challenging than my older children. My son was suspended for 1week for having beer before a football game. All of his friends did also they just didn't get caught. Since,it was his first offense, I think he should have been given an option to do community service after school at the school cleaning up or be suspended for a week. I am sure he would have made the choice of community service. An entire week is very difficult to make up all of the school work and contributes to low self esteem. He had a personal sadness because he just broke up with his girlfriend and his friends encouraged him to drink. A 17 year old boy can take a breakup pretty hard. Honestly, I was watching him for suicide. Of course they mentioned it on his transcripts that he was suspended. He is a lovely boy, kind, thoughtful and I am very proud of him. No thanks to FCPS.
Barbara Glakas November 25, 2012 at 01:32 AM
To the “objectivity” argument….. Parents: Do all of your children at home have the exact same personality, and all respond to you in the same way, and all react to your disciplinary measures in the same way? Now imagine yourself a principal who has 2,000 children to deal with.
Trinity Fields February 01, 2013 at 06:07 PM
Michele Menapace I would like to co-sign your statement. As a prank, a FCPS teacher's child brought tree leaves in a sandwich baggie to school and asked my child if he wanted some weed. To blend, my child took the baggie thinking it was weed and threw it away afterwards. A kid who saw the transaction told the principal. My child was recommended to be home schooled the rest of that school year, transferred out of district for next school year and not allowed back in that school until age 22. The teacher's child was sent to a regular school out of district and allowed back for next school year. My child's question to me was, "I thought teachers and schools were for all kids?" He has not been on A/B honor roll since that incident.
Michele Menapace June 07, 2013 at 11:05 AM
Ms. Keith, did you realize how inciteful (and prescient) your questions were a year ago? The school board voted last night to accept the SR&R policy language recommended by staff which does not include parent notification prior to questioning of students and which INCREASES the penalties for first-time possession of illicit substances (including those nefarious look-alikes referenced by Trinity Fields). Both were changes recommended by the committee. The board even voted down an amendment by Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) that would prohibit written statements by students under 10. Watching the debate on that was mind-boggling. Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said written statements from 5-year-olds are important so they don't forget things. I suppose these same children are expected to remember the SR&R rules given them at the beginning of the school year. And Ted Velkoff (At Large) suggested such a rule would be too cumbersome because administrators would have to check birth dates before asking for a statement. Parents need to be informed. School administrators can STILL question your child, make notes on everything he/she says, and use those statements as "evidence" in disciplinary procedings WITHOUT INFORMING YOU. It was a sad display last evening, night and into the morning, with the exception of votes & comments from Sandy Evans (Mason), Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), and fellow hero of parents & students, Elizabeth Schultz.


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