Fewer students expelled after Fairfax County ends zero-tolerance policy

WASHINGTON — Fewer students have been expelled in Fairfax County this school year than last after a series of changes to end so-called “zero-tolerance policies” that parents of one student blamed at least in part for his 2011 suicide.

Fairfax County Public Schools say average suspensions for students pending completion of the disciplinary process have dropped from 11.84 days in the first semester of the 2013-14 school year to 7.01 days in the first semester of this school year. 

The school board adopted a number of changes last year that had been suggested by a committee in 2013. The committee was formed after 15-year-old Woodson High School student Nick Stuban died in 2011. He had been recommended for expulsion for what has been characterized as a minor drug infraction, but his parents were never informed.

Now, the school system says two-thirds of students eligible for an expedited review after a first-time marijuana offense during the first semester of this school year were allowed to go back to class after a five-day, in-school suspension.

Overall, recommendations for expulsion from the school system’s Hearings Office are down 92 percent from over a year earlier, and out-of-school suspensions from high schools are down 24 percent.

The school system is also trying to use more “restorative justice conferences,” in which those affected by a violation of the disciplinary code talk with the violator in an attempt to resolve the situation without more serious disciplinary actions.

On Thursday, the school board will vote to make further tweaks to the disciplinary code, known as the Students Rights and Responsibilities Regulation, that are focused on other areas.

The changes the board is scheduled to adopt include new definitions of discriminatory harassment and sexual harassment.

If adopted, sexual harassment would be defined as including “unwelcome sexual advances, regardless of sexual orientation; requests for sexual favors; and other inappropriate verbal, electronic, or physical conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”

Discriminatory harassment would be classified as verbal, electronic or physical harassment based on a person’s race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability, personal or physical attributes or matters pertaining to sexuality, including sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Students who are found to have violated either policy could be suspended for up to five days by their principal, or up to 10 days after a referral to a division superintendent.

The board will also vote on a change to the excused absence policy. It would define an unexcused absence as an absence “for which the student does not have a legitimate reason in the opinion of the principal.” It’s currently defined as “one for which the parent does not have prior knowledge, consent and/or legitimate reason.”

The board is scheduled to take up a separate matter Thursday that would incorporate gender identity into Fairfax County Public Schools’ nondiscrimination policy.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued an opinion in March that school boards can include sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-discrimination policies. That overturned a 2002 advisory opinion by then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a Republican.

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