Bills winding through the General Assembly aim to encourage discretion in school discipline.
Some juvenile justice advocates see the effort as a rollback of zero-tolerance laws, while others says it’s partly a clarification of current law.
Taken together, the bills are a “strong signal from the General Assembly that the era of the failed zero-tolerance model is over and that they want school boards to exercise common sense and keep students in schools,” said Angela Ciolfi of Just Children, a juvenile law center that has worked for several years to address zero-tolerance policies.
The federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 led states to enact laws and, in turn, school boards to enact policies, that as a default expelled students who took a weapon to school.
Virginia’s law regulating firearm and drug violations provides that school boards can administer a different punishment based on the facts of a particular case — language that is now essentially being strengthened.
The bills have been amended to basically make two changes: to allow school administrators discretion in drug-violation discipline as they currently have with firearm infractions, and to clarify that for both weapon and drug violations, school boards have flexibility in doling out discipline.
Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, chairman of the Education Committee, introduced a bill seeking more flexibility. It is headed to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“A lot of school boards with the zero tolerance have started to interpret that to mean that they can’t use a little common sense,” Landes said, or they don’t believe legally, or through advice from their attorneys, that they have that flexibility in some cases.
His legislation still defaults to the zero tolerance — expulsion — for firearm or controlled substance violations but was amended to include a sentence that reads: “Nothing in this section shall be construed to require a student’s expulsion regardless of the facts of the particular situation.”
The sentence was recommended by the Virginia School Boards Association “to make it clear that there is no absolute zero tolerance and that decisions regarding firearms and decisions regarding drugs can and should be made based upon the facts of a given case,” said the association’s Pat Lacy.
The same sentence was tacked onto similar legislation by Del. Thomas Davis Rust, R-Fairfax. He introduced several bills stemming from a Loudoun County School Board task force set up in response to concerns from the community about discipline policy and practices there.
Ned Waterhouse, deputy superintendent for the Loudoun schools, said the policy allows for exceptions. “We feel as if this is reinforcing the practices that we have in place,” he said.