It’s Time to Rewrite StaffCo Schools’ Code of Conduct

We’ve addressed the #BananaMan incident in great length. We’ve also raised serious questions on the process followed by Stafford County Public Schools in recruiting, vetting and hiring administrators (see Dr. Karen Spillman). Of course, we strongly believe that the Board of Supervisors chainsaw approach to the school’s operational budget didn’t help matters.

But, what we haven’t discussed are the tools of the trade—the poorly conceived and onerous rules put in place for our public school children to follow. The same rules that allowed Dr. Spillman the latitude to respond to BananaMan as if he committed high-treason on school property.

It would be a safe to say that most parents haven’t read the Stafford County Schools Code of Conduct, a voluminous set of easily breakable rules and regulations put in place to assure “zero tolerance.” Surely, parents want their children to learn in a safe and secure environment, free of drug-dealing, bullying, and other things.

But a casual reading of Stafford County Schools Code of Conduct may cause a lot of parents’ jaws to drop for many of the punishable offenses seem harmless. To prove our point, we’ve come up with our very own Top Ten list of suspension-worthy offenses:

  1. Playing Yahtzee [10 to 180 day suspension]
  2. Selling Raffle Tickets [10 to 180 day suspension]
  3. Sharing a newspaper with friends [10 days or less suspension]
  4. Buying an apple from the cafeteria and sticking it in your backpack to eat later [10 days or less suspension or warning]
  5. Running in the halls [180 days or less suspension or warning]
  6. Failure to return tray in cafeteria [3 days or less suspension or warning]
  7. Farting [expulsion, suspension or warning]
  8. Sleeping in class [10 days or less suspension or warning]
  9. Drinking non-dairy (Hemp) milk (lactose intolerant students) [expulsion, suspension or warning]
  10. Eating bananas in support of BananMan (disruption of school) [expulsion, suspension or warning]

Zero-tolerance policies became prevalent in the 90s in response to drugs, gun violence and other violent acts; however, “over time, zero tolerance has come to refer to school or district-wide policies that mandate predetermined, typically harsh consequences or punishments (such as a suspension and expulsion) for a wide degree of rule violation,” says the National Association of School Psychologists.

They go on to note the following problems associated with broad zero tolerance policies:

Zero tolerance policies are complex, costly and generally ineffective. Suspension and expulsion may set individuals who already display antisocial behavior on an accelerated course to delinquency by putting them in a situation in which there is a lack of parental supervision and a greater opportunity to socialize with other deviant peers. Further, expulsion results in the denial of educational services, presenting specific legal as well as ethical dilemmas for students with disabilities. Finally, there is no evidence that removing students from school makes a positive contribution to school safety.

A recent published report in the Journal of School Psychology also suggests, “little correlation exists between zero-tolerance discipline policies and well-behaved students.

Not to mention that these policies are often applied in a disproportional manner towards minorities and more negatively impact students with disabilities.

Our schools are becoming “school to prison pipelines,” which is the direct result of these broad-based zero tolerance policies. The broad-based implementation of these policies by school districts are essentially taking the ability out of the hands of school officials to resolve minor offenses. This is helping to push more children into the juvenile justice system.

Every day these policies remain in place, children are being denied educational opportunities and are instead beset with juvenile criminal records.

Stafford County Schools, Virginia and the country need to find a better balance on these zero tolerance policies. Clearly, serious offenses need to have serious consequences; however, minor offenses can be better dealt with using alternative strategies (such as counseling, family involvement, early intervention strategies, etc…).

Reforms to “zero tolerance” policies in Fairfax are at the forefront of School Board races there and the focus of a group of concerned citizens who are determined to reform the disciplinary process (FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org).

You all may recall, in March 2009, a 17-year-old football player in Fairfax County committed suicide – facing possible expulsion from Fairfax County Schools over carrying marijuana on school property (he wasn’t selling it or using it). Per FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org, “[he] committed suicide just one day before a second hearing that very likely would have kicked him out of any Fairfax – and therefore any Virginia – public school. He was an extraordinarily well-liked young man, a good student, involved in his community. He had already experienced initiation into the disciplinary process and a hearing that shredded him and his family by using tactics like humiliation and false accusations to get him to acquiesce, and to get his family to keep silent about it.”

The National Association of School Psychologists have rightfully concluded that “although zero tolerance policies were developed to assure consistent and firm consequences for dangerous behaviors, broad application of these policies have resulted in a range of negative outcomes with few if any benefits to students or the community…more effective alternative strategies are available. Systemic school-wide violence prevention programs, social curricula and positive behavioral supports lead to improved learning for all students and safer school communities.”

Ultimately, rules cannot replace common sense. It’s clear to me (and should be to everyone) that Stafford County Schools “zero tolerance” policy needs a dose of common sense.

We believe there is a causal relationship between the Stafford County Board of Supervisors tightening school budgets and zero-tolerance policies. The School Board is pressured by the BOS to produce more with less, and in turn the School Board imposes on its principals the requirement to maximize instructional time and make it free of distraction. Surely, it is not a bad thing to try to get the most out of instructional time.

But kids are not perfect, and adolescents can sometimes be impulsive or forgetful. And…THEY FART A LOT IN CLASS!

As we know from politics, the Law of Unintended Consequences looms large. A zero-tolerance policy starts off being a good thing, helping to protect kids from drugs or bullying or gangs. But sometimes the policy grows in size and scope to become a tool for administrative overreach—and for an authority-craving principal to use as a battering ram to instill fear and lay down the law.

Fear, as a result of a zero-tolerance policy, is an interesting motivator. But, in the end it doesn’t command lasting respect.

Luckily, not all Stafford County Schools principals take the low road. In fact, most try first to mitigate behavioral problems [or pranks] before they turn into full-fledged crises.

It’s time for all of us to read the Stafford County Schools Code of Conduct, and to make sure School Board candidates promise to dial back the many draconian punishments in it.

Posted in 2011 Election, Education, Local Politics, Stafford County, Stafford County Board of Supervisors, Stafford County Schools Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,