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Despite a recent report showing the impact of changes to the school system’s student disciplinary policies, parents and community members say they still are concerned about parents’ notification rights.

Several changes to the school system’s response to disciplinary infractions were put into place just before the school year began. The changes included offering alternatives to school-to-school transfers and suspension; adding supports for students during suspensions; re-evaluating penalties for student prescription medication violations; shortening the time between an incident and a disciplinary decision; and gathering greater data on student outcomes after a disciplinary infraction and punishment.

Despite the changes, parents insist there still is a need for greater transparency during the process, including earlier parental notification after a child is caught at or suspected of a disciplinary violation. During last year’s discipline debate, parents said students were interrogated by school officials and, in some cases, pushed to self-incrimination before a parent was notified their child was in trouble.

As a result, parents wanted school officials to notify them before questioning a child on a disciplinary issue. School officials, however, argued when other students’ safety is a concern immediate questioning of a student can be necessary.

“There is certainly optimism in the community. … But, there is still a desire for parents to be engaged in the process before that process [of questioning a student] begins,” said parent-advocate Michele Menapace.

Menapace is a member of Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform, a parent-led group founded seven years ago with the goal of curbing the automatic school-to-school transfer of expelled students.

“The number of transfers being down is good and we’re hopeful about things,” Menapace said.

According to the school system, the number of students transferred from one school to another after being expelled went from 81 during the 2010-11 school year to 27 during the current academic year. This data includes only those transfers that occurred from the beginning of the school year to March, offering an apples-to-apples comparison.

“This is the most complete report I have ever seen on student discipline since my time on the School Board … but there’s still a way to go,” said Del. Kaye Kory (D-Dist. 38) of Falls Church, who proposed student disciplinary reforms during the 2012 General Assembly session.

“I think it’s inevitable that student discipline issues will come up again,” she said of the 2013 General Assembly session, which will begin next winter.

This year, Kory’s House Bill 656, which would have standardized the way parents are notified their child is facing discipline troubles at school, failed to make it out of committee.

Similarly, Del. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Dist. 71) of Richmond proposed H.B. 365, which would have required superintendents to ensure continued education for students suspended or expelled. That legislation was continued to the 2013 General Assembly session.

Parent-advocates on this issue have said more data on student outcomes after disciplinary depositions would aid school systems in remediation and prevention.

“You have to look at it in the overall context,” Menapace said. “If you’re looking at prevention and intervention, you need to look at everything… The biggest [take away from the report] was the on-track graduation and [grade point average] information. Because that clearly said that children who are disciplined are getting off track. That was abysmal.”

Students receiving short-term suspension or recommended expulsion during the 2008-09 school year averaged GPAs slightly below 2.0, according to the school system’s report. GPAs hovered around 2.0 in the year that followed.

To track the impact of different disciplinary consequences, the school system looked at the percentages of students who were on track for graduation during the school year before the incident and the year of the incident.

According to the school system’s data, 57 percent of students who received short-term suspensions were on track to graduate before the incident. Graduation rates for those students dropped to 15 percent in the year following the incident.

Similarly, 65 percent of students recommended for expulsion were on track to graduate the year before the disciplinary incident. These students’ on track graduation rate dropped to 12 percent the year following the incident.

School Board member Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) said the numbers do not show an improvement overall in student disciplinary outcomes and issues.

“Whatever they did last summer as far as mitigating the numbers is not working,” said Schultz, who took office this winter.

“I think we’re on the right path now… Whether it’s in a month, two months, three months, this issue is not going to go away.”

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com