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The Fairfax County school system reduced punishments and cut the length of most suspensions in half with the goal of keeping students in class.

The School Board voted unanimously last Thursday to approve the changes to the student discipline policies, which place an increased focus on intervention versus punishment.

“We need to hold students accountable, but we can do that in a way that still supports our educational mission,” Superintendent Karen Garza said. “We want to help students get back on the right path.”

The new policies limit suspensions for many disciplinary infractions to a maximum of five days. For example, students who are caught cheating on assignments or distributing non-prescription drugs will now receive a suspension of up to five days, instead of the former maximum of 10 days for these offenses.

Under the new rules, students in many cases could serve a shorter suspension in school. Reducing the time students spend out of school will help students stay on track, said School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock).

“When you pull children out of their school building, when you pull them even out of the classroom, they fall further and further behind,” McLaughlin said.

To support the new policies, the school system is creating new position in all high schools to handle in-school suspensions. The 2015 budget included $1.9 million to fund these positions.

Serving suspensions in school allows teachers to continue to provide students with coursework and tests, and also provides students with on-site behavioral support and intervention.

“We want kids in the building and receiving our support,” said Chief Academic Officer Kim Dockery. “We have a large commitment from the principals, who are saying, ‘We want to keep all the kids that we can in our buildings.’”

The policies also reduce the number of infractions that require mandatory consequences, giving principals more discretion in disciplining students.

“Principals are not draconian,” said School Board member Janie Strauss (Dranesville).”This represents the best of what is going on in our schools today. Now we just have to make sure it goes on this way in all of our schools.”

Students who commit the most serious offenses would still receive tougher punishments, including possible suspensions of up to 10 days and required referral to the superintendent. These offenses include sexual assault and the use of any weapon on school property.

“The real focus is that we have safe schools, and we want to maintain that,” said School Board member Kathy Smith. “But with this change, we can still keep students in school as much as we can to educate them.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com