VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Zero tolerance: two words put in place to protect your children in school. But three separate discipline cases have cast a shadow on Virginia Beach schools’s discipline policy, embarrassing the school system.
A seventh grader was suspended for sexual harassment after giving a teacher a compliment. A 12-year-old was suspended for shooting an airsoft gun in his own front yard after the school said it was too close to a bus stop. A sixth grader was suspended for taking a razor blade from a classmate who was cutting himself.
All three cases brought unwanted attention to Virginia Beach City Public Schools because each one presents the same unanswered question – is there a point when common sense should replace zero tolerance?
In an exclusive interview, 10 On Your Side sat down with Superintendent Dr. Sheila Magula and School Board Chairman Dan Edwards to talk about the school system’s discipline policy. It took 30 seconds before Magula said, “I hope you understand Virginia Beach does not have a zero tolerance policy.” Another five minutes, and she said, “We, as a school division, do not have a zero tolerance policy.”
While Magula claims Virginia Beach’s discipline policy can’t be characterized by the phrase “zero tolerance,” there are plenty of people who disagree. It’s definitely news to Attorney Kevin Martingayle, who represents students before the Virginia Beach School Board for disciplinary incidents.
“It is a welcome change, because my review of the Code of Student Conduct finds there are several areas where there is a zero tolerance policy,” Martingayle said.
Virginia Beach may not call it zero tolerance, but in its own Code of Student Conduct and the School Board’s published regulations, there are several offenses that call for mandatory expulsion. In those cases, students are “automatically recommended by the principal to the superintendent for expulsion”
Those offenses are listed below:
- Arson or attempted arson
- Assault and battery on an employee or student
- Possession, use or sale of a firearm or dangerous weapon
- Use, possession, being under the influence of, selling, bringing, giving, distributing or passing to another individual or possessing with intent to sell, give, or distribute alcohol, marijuana, controlled substances or imitation controlled substances, and inhalants
- Extortion, attempted extortion, robbery, burglary, motor vehicle theft, and/or larceny
- Sex Offenses: sexual battery, inappropriate sexual behavior, obscene phone calls, and sexual assault
- Hazing: initiation of another student through abuse and humiliation so as to cause bodily injury
- Kidnapping or other serious criminal violations
- Possession, use, distribution, sale, lighting or discharge of explosive devices
- Malicious wounding of an employee or student
- And other good and just causes as determined by the superintendent
In March, WAVY.com reported on Adrionna Harris, who was suspended with a recommendation for expulsion for possessing a razor blade on school property.
“He lifted up his sleeve and showed his bloody cuts,” Harris said.
Harris held the blade for a split second before throwing it away in a trash can. That was after taking it from a fellow classmate who was cutting his arm. She may have saved his life. Then she reported the incident to school administrators the next day, and that’s when she got suspended.
Adrionna’s mother, Rachael Harris, complained to the principal: “She said, ‘it’s policy. It’s out of her hands.’ They obviously don’t trust their principals to make common sense decisions.”
10 On Your Side asked School Board Chairman Dan Edwards about the zero tolerance/mandatory expulsion case. He insists, “the policy did not require the actions that were taken by the principal.”
However, zero tolerance was apparently the interpretation of the policy by the principal. Rachel Harris insists the message to her by the principal was policy: “They said ‘you have to take it up at the hearing with the school board. It’s out of our hands.’ Everything they told me was policy, policy, policy.”
Edwards insists that is wrong.
“The interpretation by the principal, in terms of the facts of the case, drove that, and it was not a mandatory requirement,” he said.
But under the Mandatory Expulsion section of the school division’s Code of Student Conduct, item number three is: “Possession … of … dangerous weapon.” And the razor blade was considered by the school’s administration to be a dangerous weapon.
WAVY.com asked Dr. Magula if possession of a razor on school property means automatic suspension.
“The principal has a range of options, and that’s how our discipline guidelines are set up,” she said.
However, in the Mandatory Expulsion section of the Code of Student Conduct, those options come after suspension, not before.
In the end, Adrionna was immediately readmitted to school, and the incident stricken from her record. But that after she was suspended and after 10 On Your Side’s report about the case.
Martingayle said it is cruel to the student to suspend first and ask questions later.
“It throws the school into a tailspin when a kid is yanked out and suspended and everybody knows it’s a really weak set of facts,” he said. “It puts everybody on pins and needles, and wondering ‘am I the next person who is going to be the victim of a set of rules that are not being enforced in an intelligent way?’”
An interesting development following our investigation of these cases since September. Virginia Beach Discipline policies are now under review.
“The board will hear recommendations from the administration whether or not we should adjust or clarify anything in those policies,” Edwards said.
And that is definite movement towards removing the embarrassment factor from some discipline cases, opening the possibility to discuss before suspension.
Also to the Virginia Beach School System’s credit, Dr. Magula pointed out there are 86 schools and nearly 70,000 students, leaving plenty of room for mistakes.
“The principals do an excellent job navigating discipline cases … but there is always the possibility of human error,” Magula said.
Chairman Edwards made a startling statement: “A student’s discipline record never goes with them. Their student discipline record vaporizes as they walk across the stage and graduate.”
While Edwards claims Virginia Beach apparently doesn’t share disciplinary records with colleges, Martingayle doesn’t put much stock in that.
“Teachers who make the recommendations know the records … they know who has been in trouble,” he said.
Still, Martingayle is encouraged with the statements made by Magula and Edwards during the interview with 10 On Your Side.
“The silver lining through this whole discussion, it sounds like the superintendent, and the chairman of the school board, and their attorney all recognize anything called ‘zero tolerance’ or anything ‘automatic’ are bad things, and not good things,” he said. “Maybe through your reporting there has been a big lesson learned by the powers that be in the school system.”