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Commentary: Respecting Parents’ Roles

Parental notice is key to school discipline reform.

— Most Fairfax County parents assume that they will be called before their child is questioned for something that could ruin their academic career, just as they are when their kid is sick or injured. That is not the case.

On June 6, at its 7 p.m. meeting, the school board is taking up several measures that would improve the school system’s disciplinary process, among them an amendment that would require school administrators to contact parents before their child is interrogated or told to make or sign statements for behavior that could lead to a suspension or expulsion. There are clear exceptions for cases of immediate danger and schools would remain safe and secure.

Parental primacy — our right to determine the fate of our own children — is on the docket and it is up to us to claim it.

Today, children across the county are pulled into administrator’s offices or school police offices and questioned, sometimes for hours, for incidents they’re implicated in or witness to. Large authority figures loom over them, they report, and they are told things will go better for them if they cooperate, especially if they spill the beans on schoolmates. They are supposed to know they can leave or refuse to answer, but all their lives, they’ve been told if they leave the school building without permission they will be punished. All their lives they’ve been told to trust these school authority figures. Children comply. They say what they feel they must just to get out of that intimidating situation, sometimes providing false confessions, as history shows.

One year ago, after years of community advocacy and two student suicides, the school board addressed appeals to reform our discipline process to be less punitive and more humane and effective. It formed a special community committee of 40 members, about half FCPS staff, and many others with expertise in child behavior and development. The board thus acknowledged that discipline and its effects on our kids and their families was of keen interest to their constituents.

The committee met weekly for five months beginning last October, held five community forums, and sought input from experts, spending hundreds of hours of work. In March, it delivered 52 solid recommendations for change, agreed to unanimously or by large majorities. The final report and recommendation are located here: http://www.fcps.edu/dss/ips/srr/committee/index.shtml.

The code of student behavior (Student Rights and Responsibilities) only requires that “the principal will make a reasonable effort to notify parents or guardians at the earliest opportunity regarding student disciplinary actions.” Too often, this happens only after school officials have gathered enough so-called evidence to “convict” students of incidents as minor as classroom disruption or “defiance.” Meantime, there is nobody there to advocate for the child, tell her she has a right to remain silent, or otherwise have her back. Worse, a shamefully disproportionate number of black, Latino, poor, and disabled students are suspended or recommended for expulsion.

A critical committee recommendation asks the board to make it policy that parents be notified before questioning to make sure they are part of the process from the very start. While schools act “in loco parentis,” this only applies when parents are not there. By delaying notification, administrators deliberately interfere with parents’ rights to raise and protect their own children.

Principals are the main opponents of parent notification. For the last year, many have told their staff and PTAs that schools would become imperiled if parents were notified. They claim parents would make their children lie. That stolen property would never be recovered if they didn’t jump on the kids to confess. That children would collude on false stories.

They claim “justice” would be delayed because we give them bad contact information, but the school nurse typically is able to reach parents using information from the emergency contact form we carefully fill out each fall. A form like this can be used for discipline issues.

They argue parents should just trust principals to have their kids’ best interests at heart. Where, in all this, do principals trust parents?

The cases keep rolling into us: Kids who witnessed a fight now being charged with involvement and suspended for as many as 10 days. Kids caught under the influence of marijuana now being recommended for expulsion and out of school for months. Children as young as 10 being charged with sexual assault for saying something about underwear. Children with Down Syndrome being coerced into signing things they don’t understand.

After the committee presented its recommendations to the board at a March 20 work session, staff delivered their version. Many items were similar, but key ones were omitted or opposed, like parent notification. Many principals then fanned out to their schools arguing against it. They also lobbied against a recommendation to institute a proven intervention program called Second Chance for first-time drug users like the successful one in Arlington County. (The majority of discipline hearings cases that keep kids out of school for weeks are for first-time pot use.) The board is officially taking up the staff recommendations at the June 6 meeting.

School Board members Sandy Evans (Mason) and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) have amendments supporting the committee’s parent notification recommendations. If we care about being partners with schools, we must make sure they get our support.

We must contact all our elected school board members (at the www.FCPS.edu website) or show up on June 6 to remind them just for whom they works. Us. Parents and guardians. Not principals. Us. The people most important to the lives of our own children.