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Study: Virginia School Discipline Too Harsh

Not making schools safer

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An advocacy group based in Charlottesville, Virginia says discipline policies in the state's public schools are often too harsh, and fail to make schools safer.

Harsh discipline hinders schools

Angela Ciolfi is the legal director of the JustChildren program -- a part of the non-profit Legal Aid Justice Center -- the group that released the study. She says their research revealed that across the state, students with special needs and African-American students are disproportionately impacted by what JustChildren calls "harsh discipline" practices.

"Last year, Virginia students with disabilities received short-term suspensions at a rate 2.4 times as high as non-disabled students, and black students were four times as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students," says Ciolfi.

JustChildren also says many school districts are not providing education for students while they're being suspended.

Fairfax County School board member Dan Storck says Fairfax does a better job with this than most counties -- by offering options like alternative schools for all ages and computer-based instruction for children not allowed to be around other students.

"We do a lot of things, but we still have some holes in our system and one of those holes is with respect to suspensions -- students who are suspended should not be sent home, that's my personal belief," says Storck.

Pressure from parents after the suicide of a Fairfax teen in January caught up in the disciplinary process forced the board to revamp the way it handles students with behavior problems earlier this year -- the new policy includes keeping audio recordings of all discipline hearings, and allowing principals more leeway to decide punishments themselves.

Individualized discipline encouraged

Janet Otersen's experience with the Fairfax County Public School's discipline process isn't something she'd like to repeat. She says her daughter got into a playful fight with a boy in her class, and the school suspended her.

"They suspended her for ten days and threatened an expulsion," she says. Between her suspension and the disciplinary fallout, Oterson's daughter was out of the classroom for two months.

The non-profit advocacy group JustChildren has released a study that argues more school districts should adopt the state-approved, individualized discipline philosophy called "Effective Schoolwide Discipline."

JustChildren's legal director Angela Ciolfi says since it was developed in 2007, districts that have used it have seen dramatic decreases in out-of-school suspensions. Despite the impressive results of Effective School Wide Discipline, it's in only 12 percent of Virginia's over 1800 schools.

In the northern part of the state, only Prince William, Fauquier, and Culpeper Counties currently utilize ESD.

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