SUFFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — As part of an investigation into school discipline policies, 10 On Your Side talked to Suffolk’s School Board Chairman, who said zero tolerance didn’t work for the district, and they changed the policy.
On Monday, WAVY.com told you about Virginia Beach City Public Schools and its mandatory expulsion-suspension policies.We reported on three middle school students who were suspended amid much controversy. In each case, those students ended up back in school, and the superintendent agreed the principals don’t always make the right decisions.
In Suffolk, administrators changed a “zero tolerance” policy to be more flexible, to give absolute control to principals, to do away with mandatory expulsions — even suspensions — until there’s a discussion. Virginia Beach has a suspend-now-ask-later policy. Suffolk found that is not the way to go.
The end of Suffolk’s “zero tolerance” policy came at the end of Christopher Marshall’s pencil machine gun, and the pretend sounds of a shooting gun that got him suspended. 10 On Your Side asked Suffolk School Board Chairman Dr. Michael Debranski what he sees when watching the video of Marshall shooting the toy gun.
“I cringe. That’s what I do, cringe,” Debranski said. “That is what started our conversation about zero tolerance.”
Debranski dealt with the national embarrassment of suspending a 7-year-old second grader in the name of zero tolerance: “I don’t think anybody understood that. There needed to be a common sense approach to that case.”
Two months later in July 2013, Suffolk changed the policy, giving principals or the principal designee direct, explicit authority to use common sense instead of mandatory expulsion for weapons in school. The policy now reads: “The building principal or principal designee … may based on the facts … determine that special circumstance exist and that another disciplinary action … is appropriate which may include … parent conference, notice of warning.”
“Instead of it being a carte blanche that you’re expelled for whatever, a look alike gun or look alike paper clip, the principal has the first priority to decide if it was meant in a hostile manner,” Debranski said.
Suffolk no longer has mandatory expulsion without discussion. A new part of the school system’s discipline policy reads: “The following factors shall be considered in determining the most appropriate disciplinary action or term of expulsion … the student’s intent to inflict physical harm or injury.”
That kind of statement is missing from Virginia Beach’s discipline policy, and that’s exactly why Adrionna Harris was suspended for possessing a razor she took from a friend who was cutting his arm on school property.Her intent was to help, not hurt, but Virginia Beach did not consider that before suspending her.
“I would hope our principal would look at that case as one of her intervening in a situation, trying to help the situation not hurt it,” Debranski said.
Suffolk’s new policy also considers whether a student has an object that would cause “a reasonable person to believe it was in fact a weapon.” A reasonable person would not believe Christopher Marshall’s pencil machine gun was indeed a weapon.
Debranski sums the whole lesson learned in one sentence: “They need to use their common sense to decide whether it is a weapon and whether it is dangerous.”