Pamela Ononiwu just wants to talk about the issues.
The Fairfax County School Board candidate has worked as an education support specialist for George Mason University’s Volgenau School of Engineering and wrote a children’s book with her daughter about an interracial friendship, an endeavor that earned her a profile from GMU’s student newspaper Fourth Estate.
However, she demurred from discussing her past work experience during an interview with the Fairfax County Times.
Instead, Ononiwu focused on the hopes and struggles of the parents and children affected by the underreporting of Fairfax County Public Schools’ use of restraint and seclusion measures to discipline students, the people who inspired her campaign to become the school board’s Mount Vernon District representative.
“You have parents who have been…fighting on the inside, and nobody’s listening. Nobody’s defending them,” Ononiwu said. “I felt like I had to step up, because being on that board gives them a voice, gives them a seat at the table.”
Fairfax County Public Schools guidelines dictate that restraint and seclusion should be used only as a last resort in situations where a student may be a danger to themselves or others.
After conducting a review of the district’s disciplinary practices, training, and data collection and reporting procedures, FCPS officials told the school board in April that 203 students had been isolated or physically restrained in 1,679 incidents during the 2017-2018 academic year.
FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand initiated the evaluation of the public school system’s use of restraint and seclusion on Mar. 15, two days after WAMU published an investigation showing that the practices were employed regularly, sometimes almost 100 times a year for a single child, even though, in many years, no cases had been reported to the U.S. Department of Education.
The Education Department broadly defines restraint as measures that restrict a student’s ability to freely move their torso, arms, legs, or head. Seclusion involves the involuntary confinement of a student alone in a room or area that they are physically prevented from leaving.
Noting that restraint and seclusion disproportionately affect boys and students with disabilities, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found in a report released on Feb. 27 and updated on June 18 that incidents of restraint and seclusion are underreported nationwide with 70 percent of the country’s 17,000-plus school districts reporting no cases in the 2015-2016 school year.
For Ononiwu, Fairfax County Public Schools’ use and underreporting of restraint and seclusion is about more than numbers: she has two children who attend a special education school run by Fairfax County, and both of them have been subjected to restraint and seclusion.
“As a parent, it makes me, honestly, so sad,” Ononiwu told WAMU in June. “…I think the experience has just been, for lack of a better word, traumatic. Especially my son – he’s a kindergartener, so that was his first sort of introduction to school, is being restrained.”
If elected to the Fairfax County School Board, Ononiwu says she would prioritize accountability and transparency with particular scrutiny of the school district’s reporting practices, citing concerns about the handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations along with the restraint and seclusion issues.
She also wants to devote more of the school system’s budget to psychologists and other mental health services that follow a “trauma-informed” approach that creates a welcoming environment for students and ensures parents are included in the process.
“That gets the administrators and the parents to collaboratively work together proactively, as opposed to coming in when, all of a sudden, the house is on fire,” Ononiwu said. “We’d both be aware of certain issues, and we come to the table, and we discuss, and they say this is what we're going to do.”
In order to implement those measures, Ononiwu first needs to get elected by beating incumbent Mount Vernon School Board Representative Karen Corbett Sanders, who currently serves as the board’s chair, and fellow first-time candidate Steven Mosley.
Though school board candidates all run as independents, Corbett Sanders received the Fairfax County Democratic Committee’s endorsement in May, while the Fairfax County Republican Committee has thrown its support behind Mosley.
Ononiwu, however, believes she can bring a fresh, vital perspective to the Fairfax County School Board that distinguishes her from her opponents.
A single mother with three children currently in Fairfax County schools, Ononiwu is also an alumna of the FCPS system. She graduated Robinson Secondary School, where she participated in the debate club and DECA chapter for aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders.
As a student, Ononiwu says she was definitely conscious of differences in how students of color were treated compared to their white peers, especially when it came to discipline and academic support.
When she returned to FCPS as a parent, she saw that little had changed, as disparities in student discipline and academic achievement persist.
FCPS’s Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee found in its annual report released on June 27 that the gaps in the passing rates on Standards of Learning reading and math tests between black and Hispanic students and their Asian and white peers has not decreased since 2005.
During the 2016-2017 school year, black students constituted only 10 percent of FCPS’s total enrollment but 30 percent of all suspensions issued, and Hispanic students were suspended at a higher number in all disciplinary categories than any other racial or ethnic group.
In its 2019 annual report, MSAOC states that an underrepresentation of black and Hispanic students in advanced academic programs has been a concern for more than 27 years.
Despite a commitment from FCPS to increase its identification of underrepresented students by 10 percent annually between 2016 and 2021, the 2018-2019 AAP Level IV applicant pool was 7.4 percent black, 10.1 percent Hispanic, 31.4 percent Asian, and 43 percent white, even though a review of the screening process determined that approximately 50 percent or more of each group was eligible for the program.
This is another issue that has directly affected Ononiwu, who says she had to advocate for her daughter to get into her school’s advanced academic program. By contrast, a Caucasian friend simply received a letter notifying her that her son had been placed in AAP.
“If I wasn’t on top of it and saying, I know she can do it, she’s shown that she can do it, I’m not sure that, you know, they were really looking out for her,” Ononiwu said.
Noting that her daughter’s school still does not have any minority teachers in a main classroom, Ononiwu believes a more diverse faculty could help Fairfax County close its achievement gap by giving students of color mentors who can better understand their needs and experiences.
According to the MSAOC 2019 annual report, 26 of FCPS’s 198 schools and centers have no full-time black teachers, and just as many have no full-time Hispanic teachers. 13 have no full-time Asian teachers, and seven have no full-time black or Hispanic teachers, including Louise Archer Elementary School, which originated as the county’s first elementary school for black children.
“It’s great to say we recognize these issues, and we want to change it, but we also need to do the follow-up and make sure that that happens,” Ononiwu said. “…I think it takes brave leadership to have these tough conversations.”