Va. Board Members Rue Time Spent on Discipline Hearings

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School board members in two suburban Virginia districts are spending so much time doling out punishments at expulsion hearings that they have asked the state legislature for relief.

Their complaints about the rising caseload prompted by mandatory-expulsion laws and a rise in student misbehavior have spurred a few state lawmakers to action.

Legislators from Fairfax and Prince William counties have introduced bills that would allow the superintendent or a committee of the school board to approve certain penalties. Under current state law, a majority of the school board must rule on expulsion recommendations.

"These are folks who work for a living and have other jobs, and they ought to be spending more time with policy than with disciplining kids," said Delegate Robert Marshall, a Republican from Prince William County.

Virginia isn't the only state to see a rise in discipline and expulsion hearings, and school boards nationwide have been forced to devote steadily more time to the issue.

"There's no question that zero-tolerance policies and the pressures that boards have been under by parents and communities to deal with discipline have created more of a burden for school boards," said Jay Butler, a spokesman for the National School Boards Association. But, he said, direct appeals to the legislature for help are unusual.

Education observers say that the 1993 federal law that required states to pass legislation calling for the expulsion of students who bring weapons to school is partly responsible for the flood of cases in recent years.

In Wisconsin, for example, the number of suspensions and expulsions has doubled since stricter student discipline codes were enacted four years ago, according to a report released this month by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Heavy Time Demands

Mr. Marshall has sponsored a bill in the Virginia House that would allow school boards to create a three-member panel to hear expulsion cases. The measure would bar parents from appealing a decision if the committee's ruling was unanimous.

Another bill, based on a request from the Fairfax County board, would allow a superintendent or his proxy to have the final say on lesser penalties, such as suspensions of less than 10 days. Currently, even short-term penalties can be appealed to the full board.

Both bills are expected to reach the House floor later this month.

Lucy Beauchamp, the chairman of the Prince William County school board, said the demands on board members' time have become unmanageable. She said boards must maintain strict oversight of discipline, but they also need time for curriculum, administration, and personnel matters.

"We are tying up a great deal of board time doing this," said Ms. Beauchamp, who schedules three extra meetings each month to handle the cases. The number of disciplinary hearings in the 49,000-student district has quadrupled in five years, she said. "It wears you out."

Judith Singleton, the director of government relations for the 146,000-student Fairfax County schools, said the board is so inundated with discipline cases that it often looks more like a juvenile court.

In 1995-96, the board heard the cases of 129 students involving violations related to weapons, drugs, or assaults, more than three times the 37 cases the board handled in 1991-92. "The system is not holding up," Ms. Singleton said.

Due Process at Risk?

The Virginia boards' campaign for bureaucratic relief has not been met with enthusiasm by civil liberties groups in the state, however. A truncated hearing process strips students of their right to due process, said Kent Willis, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

"If we are going to make a decision that is going to affect a student's life, they should be given every opportunity to have a fair hearing," Mr. Willis said.

But Ms. Beauchamp argued last week that failure to streamline the hearing process would be more of a disservice to students. Because of the huge number of cases, she said, students who are temporarily suspended may wait several months before they can plead their case before the board.

"A student needs to know the results quickly," she said, "so he or she can be back in school and learning."

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