Bills pro­pose fur­ther changes in Va. stu­dent dis­ci­pline sys­tem

Law­mak­ers want to limit charges for school mis­be­hav­ior

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - FRONT PAGE - BY JUSTIN MATTINGLY

While the Gen­eral As­sem­bly took steps last year to change the way stu­dents are dis­ci­plined, sev­eral Vir­ginia law­mak­ers want to go even fur­ther. Bills filed in both the House of Del­e­gates and Se­nate would pro­hibit stu­dents from be­ing found guilty of dis­or­derly con­duct for ac­tions in school — where nearly two in five dis­or­derly con­duct com­plaints against chil­dren orig­i­nate, ac­cord­ing to state data.

“No­body is say­ing dis­rup­tion in the class­room is ac­cept­able, but it could be han­dled with a sus­pen­sion or a let­ter to a par­ent,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-New­port News, a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor. “It doesn’t have to lead to in­car­cer­a­tion.”

The bills — filed by Mullin; Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Rich­mond; and Sen. Jennifer McClel­lan, D-Rich­mond — would ex­empt stu­dents from a dis­or­derly con­duct charge if they mis­be­have at school or on a school bus.

Dis­or­derly con­duct is a mis­de­meanor in Vir­ginia with a po­ten­tial pun­ish­ment of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. It’s de­fined gen­er­ally as dis­rupt­ing an ac­tiv­ity “with the in­tent to cause pub­lic in­con­ve­nience, an­noy­ance or alarm.”

“Our stu­dents can­not learn if they’re be­ing put out of school be­cause of be­hav­ioral is­sues,” McClel­lan said Wed­nes­day at a Leg­isla­tive Black Cau­cus news con­fer­ence that out­lined the cau­cus’s leg­isla­tive pri­or­i­ties for the ses­sion, in­clud­ing stu­dent dis­ci­pline re­form.

Said Bourne: “This is re­ally the next step in try­ing to dis­rupt the school-to-prison pipe­line.”

Be­tween 2013-14 and 2017-18, there were more than 7,000 dis­or­derly con­duct com­plaints made against Vir­ginia chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Ju­ve­nile Jus­tice. Three in five com­plaints came from po­lice, with oth­ers com­ing from school of­fi­cials and school re­source of­fi­cers.

Nearly two in three com­plaints from school of­fi­cials or SROs were filed against black stu­dents — far greater than the per­cent­age of black stu­dents in Vir­ginia schools. The to­tal num­ber of com­plaints — not just dis­or­derly con­duct — made from school of­fi­cials rose 7 per­cent be­tween the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, ac­cord­ing to DJJ.

“We’ve seen a crim­i­nal­iza­tion of con­duct that re­ally should have been cor­rected,” Bourne said.

Leg­is­la­tors were suc­cess­ful last year in chang­ing part of the state’s stu­dent dis­ci­pline sys­tem.

A bill from Bourne cut the max­i­mum length of a long-term sus­pen­sion from 364 cal­en­dar days to 45 school days, while an­other bill from Sen. Bill Stan­ley, R-Franklin County, barred school dis­tricts from sus­pend­ing stu­dents in pre-K through third grade for more than three days in most cases. While those two bills passed last year and took ef­fect this school year, leg­is­la­tors said they would re­turn to the is­sue of school dis­ci­pline this ses­sion.

“This is an­other piece of the pol­icy puzzle, but the other side to the coin is we have to have more re­sources to sup­port our teach­ers and cor­rect the be­hav­ior on an on­go­ing ba­sis,” Bourne said. The for­mer Rich­mond School Board chair­man cred­ited the num­ber of com­plaints to hav­ing more SROs, whose pres­ence he said al­lows teach­ers to take “an easy ap­proach” and send dis­rup­tive stu­dents their way.

Amy Woolard, the pol­icy co­or­di­na­tor at the Char­lottesville-based Le­gal Aid Jus­tice Cen­ter, at­trib­uted the large num­ber of po­lice re­fer­rals in part to a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the role of SROs.

“Charges like dis­or­derly are stem­ming from a con­fu­sion of the role of school re­source of­fi­cers in our school build­ings,” she said. “Dis­or­derly con­duct is re­ally tak­ing an is­sue that is for schools to han­dle and sud­denly putting it un­der the purview of law en­force­ment and our courts.”

Dis­or­derly con­duct com­plaints made up 13 per­cent of all com­plaints from SROs, ac­cord­ing to state data.

A bill from Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hamp­ton, would re­quire schools with re­source of­fi­cers to have a memorandum of un­der­stand­ing with lo­cal law en­force­ment to de­fine what ex­actly the of­fi­cers are sup­posed to do.

In a state­ment Satur­day, the Vir­ginia Sher­iffs’ As­so­ci­a­tion said it’s con­cerned with the pro­posed dis­or­derly con­duct changes.

“Many sher­iffs give sev­eral warn­ings be­fore mak­ing for­mal charges,” it said. “We ques­tion how the bill would im­pact pub­lic safety in the school set­ting by re­mov­ing an op­tion that would pre­vent an as­sault.”

The role of SROs has come un­der scru­tiny af­ter the deadly school shoot­ing in Florida in Fe­bru­ary prompted wide­spread re­views of school safety na­tion­wide.

A spe­cial com­mit­tee of House of Del­e­gates mem­bers signed off on a se­ries of rec­om­men­da­tions, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing the num­ber of SROs and re­quir­ing agree­ments like the ones Locke’s bill

would re­quire.

Re­searchers at Vir­ginia Tech found in 2017 that black stu­dents ac­count for 23 per­cent of Vir­ginia’s stu­dent en­roll­ment, but half the re­fer­rals to ju­ve­nile courts from schools.

“That’s an un­ac­cept­able out­come,” Mullin said of the dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of black stu­dents re­ferred to po­lice.

A vari­a­tion of the pro­posed changes failed in the House in 2016. A bill from Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, would have pre­vented stu­dents who were 14 and younger from fac­ing crim­i­nal charges for dis­or­derly con­duct at school. It was killed by the full cham­ber.

Bourne’s and Mullin’s bills have been re­ferred to the House Com­mit­tee for Courts of Jus­tice, headed by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albe­marle. Bell, who voted against the 2016 bill, did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.


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