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The Fairfax County School Board approved an overhaul of the public school system’s disciplinary polices early Friday morning, building on reforms that began in 2011.

The changes to the Student Rights and Responsibilities are aimed at making the student discipline process more individualized and more focused on behavioral changes than automatic suspensions and expulsions.

“We do want to get students on the right track,” said board member Kathy Smith (Sully).

Changes include differentiating punishments for elementary school students versus secondary, reducing the number of infractions that merit automatic suspension, and providing alternatives to expulsion and suspension. Alternatives could include drug or alcohol counseling or reassignment to a different program.

Other changes included additional procedures for students with disabilities who are involved in disciplinary infractions, guidelines for when parents should be notified that their child is being questioned by administrators and the clarification that written student statements are voluntary.

The School Board began examining its disciplinary policies after two student suicides were linked to their participation in the disciplinary process. They made some changes in 2011 and convened a committee to make additional recommendations.

Two board members, Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield) and Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), voted against the revision because they believe the School Board did not go far enough in changing policies around parental notification and protections for students with disabilities.

Schultz said the board only accepted a fraction of the 52 recommendations that the committee made.

“And we butchered those that we did put in,” she said. “If we don’t change the language, I don’t know how we’re going to expect the outcome to be any different.”

She is particularly concerned about the disproportionate number of students with disabilities who are suspended or expelled. Schultz and McLaughlin proposed a series of amendments that would have mandated additional protections for students with disabilities.

The majority of board members instead preferred language that encouraged those practices but did not mandate them.

The board took a similar approach to the other top area of discussion, when principals must notify parents that their child is being questioned about a serious infraction that could lead to suspension or expulsion.

Some board members, including Schultz and McLaughlin, favored earlier, mandatory parental notification.

“These are minors. Why aren’t we again involving parents,” McLaughlin said.

The board agreed that parents should be notified before the child is asked to write or sign a statement about the offense, as well as prior to a criminal act being referred to the school resource officer. However, the latter does not mandate that the parents be present before the referral could go forward, only that administrators must make “reasonable effort” to notify them.

School principals had expressed concerns about the stricter language, saying it could hamper the disciplinary process.

“When principals say this language is going to be hard for me to implement in the school, we need to take that seriously,” said board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill).

Board members said they will continue to monitor the impact of the changes moving forward.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com