Disciplining Alexandria students continues to be a challenge for school administrators, and an alternative approach has emerged on the School Board. At the first board meeting of the upcoming school year on Sept. 8, board members will vote on a plan to create a new Discipline Committee. According to the proposal, the new committee would be charged with developing goals to change antisocial behavior and identifying training programs to implement new programs.
"Alexandria is changing and we need to step up to the challenge before we have gang activity and other serious problems," said School Board member Gwendolyn Lewis, who offered the proposal. "If we wait it will be too late to try and go back to where we can make a difference."
An existing Discipline Committee meets occasionally to hear appeals from students who have been expelled. Last year, the three-member committee heard only one appeal. The plan that Lewis has proposed would drastically change the scope of the existing committee, essentially creating a new standing committee to investigate problems in discipline and suggest strategies to combat them. The new committee would incorporate the work of an ad hoc discipline committee that Lewis chaired last year to look at discipline problems.
"I believe the prevailing perception of the board is if it ain't broke don't fix it," Lewis said. "Much work needs to be done to prevent more serious problems from a growing diverse ethnic and racial population of children looking for a sense of belonging, caring and respect."
At last month's annual School Board retreat, other board members gave the plan a chilly reception. School Board member Melissa Luby said that Lewis' goals were already being accomplished by the central administration, so creating new goals for the Discipline Committee would be superfluous. Other members thought that making Lewis' ad hoc committee a standing committee would be a mistake.
"Adding a standing committee would run the risk of dividing the board into small fiefdoms," said School Board Vice Chairwoman Sally Ann Baynard.
"We're not a fiefdom," Lewis responded, defending her ad hoc committee. "We need to look at positive ways of changing behavior."
THE AD HOC COMMITTEE was established last year to take a look at data that had been presented at the annual retreat. This data examined expulsions and suspension for the past few years. The numbers indicated a dramatic rise in short-term suspensions, with 779 in 2002, 1,054 in 2003 and 1,389 in 2004.
School Board members Lewis, Mollie Danforth and Ken Foran were appointed to the ad hoc committee to look at the data, but instead focused their attention on revising the student guidelines for conduct.
"The committee has done extensive data gathering of its own but did not obtain the assistance of its own ACPS Monitoring and Evaluation Department," said Lewis. "Because of this, the committee was unable to obtain a real picture of what policies and procedures needed further attention."
"We seemed to keep getting sidetracked," said Danforth. "Our charge was to look at the data, not revise the guidelines."
Nevertheless, the ad hoc committee decided that the existing student guidelines were too confusing and legalistic. After looking at conduct guidelines in other jurisdictions, the committee modeled a new set of guidelines based on Henrico County.
THE GUIDELINES WERE reorganized to group discipline infractions into related categories and include an expanded set of definitions. The new definitions cover a variety of topics: conducting strip searches and random searches, seizing property, detaining students and collecting restitution of up to $2,500 from parents of students who damage school property.
"The guidelines were revised but more work needs to be done to make it more reader friendly and usable to both the parents and the students," Lewis said. "As a result of the committee interviews with school officials, the committee needs to work with the administration to fund professional training for all guidance counselors and teachers in character education, peer mediation, diversity and cultural awareness and teacher proficiency in using their computers, specifically for accurate and consistent student attendance record keeping."
For Lewis, the importance of training has socioeconomic and racial goals that she hopes will contribute to a more even administration of justice for students in Alexandria.
"I believe a large proportion of our discipline issues are symptomatic of the school officials' lack of awareness and understanding of the cultural, racial and socioeconomic diversity of the children they have responsibility to educate," Lewis said. "The ignorance of whites and the miseducation of blacks and other ethnic groups in these positions require adequate training to provide the necessary understanding and sensitivity needed to manage student behavior especially in an urban environment."
BEFORE THE SUMMER recess, the ad hoc discipline committee recommended to the School Board that it continue to work as a standing committee — essentially adding a new arm to the board. But some of the board members oppose the idea, saying that the duties outlines by Lewis are under the purview of the administration. The turf war will culminate at the Sept. 8 meeting of the board.
"I voted against the recommendation in the ad hoc committee," Danforth said, adding that the data from last year's retreat still needs to be examined. "I'm calling for that to be done at the board level."