RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia General Assembly passed a law that will allow principals to report certain student misdemeanors to law enforcement, overriding parts of a previous law.
Lawmakers, parents and advocates fear the legislation will lead to over-reporting of minor offenses to law enforcement instead of leaving reports to the discretion of school officials.
Symone Walker is a mother of two children, one of whom is enrolled in Arlington Public Schools. She is also co-chair of the NAACP Arlington Education Committee and vice-chair of the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee.
Walker worries that Virginia isn’t working fast enough to close the school-to-jail pipeline, known as harsh disciplinary action, which data shows pushes primarily black and Latino students out of schools and into jails and jails.
“The General Assembly has made progress in overturning some really punitive laws that were contributing to the school-to-jail pipeline,” Walker said.
Previous legislation to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline
Virginia made headlines with reports that it led the nation in referring students to law enforcement and prompted legislative action.
State lawmakers passed a law in 2020 that school officials did not have to report minor infractions to law enforcement such as disruptive behavior, disorderly conduct and trespassing. They still had to report the crimes.
Lawmakers also passed a bill in 2020 that exempted students from being charged under state law with disorderly conduct — defenders of the phrase say it is loosely interpreted in the process of dismissal – if it happened on school grounds, on a school bus, or at a school event.
A Senate committee on Friday blocked a Republican-backed measure that would have reintroduced the vague disorderly conduct charge.
Walker worries that Senate Bill 36, introduced by Sen. Thomas Norment, R-Williamsburg, along with other bills, could set back that progress. The measure is identical to an internal bill. The General Assembly recently passed both measures with bipartisan support in both houses.
Norment told a Senate committee hearing that his bill was designed only to add better structure to what was a bipartisan bill when it passed in 2020. He pushed back against the committee’s efforts Senate to adopt it indefinitely.
Senator Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, opposed the bill.
“I care about the school-to-prison pipeline and what it does is open it up again,” Locke said. “Those who are going to be reported are mostly black and brown children.”
A substitute was adopted and then advanced.
Norment, however, celebrated the legislative victory in a constituent bulletin on Friday by saying principals will be required to report misdemeanors.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who introduced the 2020 bill easing reporting requirements, released a statement to Capital News Service that Virginia is in better shape than it was seven years ago, “and that we must continue our progress in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.
“It’s disappointing to see the legislature vote to reverse some of that progress by making it mandatory to report certain incidents that are technically crimes to law enforcement, deciding whether or not to report parents of children involved in the incident,” McClellan said.
Principals will be required to report to law enforcement certain offenses such as stalking, written and oral threats and other offenses that were eliminated in 2020.
The amended version allows a school board to create an alternative disciplinary process for students involved in assaults without bodily harm. If there is acceptable mediation between the parties, the incident should not be reported to the police.
This alternative process is an option for school boards to implement, not a requirement.
According to the bill, school officials can choose to report written threats made by students with Individual Education Plans, the term used to refer to the placement of students with disabilities who need special education. . Several lawmakers had expressed concern that the bill could disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
Walker said it’s unfortunate that black and Latino students and students with disabilities come into contact with law enforcement more often.
“Arlington is a microcosm of the state as a whole — where you have a disproportionate number of black and brown students who end up being disciplined at a higher rate than their white counterparts,” Walker said.
A referral to law enforcement includes all contact students have with officers, including arrests, citations, tickets and referrals to court, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Black and Latino students at Arlington Public Schools accounted for nearly 70% of referrals to law enforcement, though white students make up nearly half of enrollment, according to Arlington Public Schools.
School Resource Officers
Walker is also concerned about the desire to have more school resource officers in schools across the state.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin pledged during his campaign to send police to every school, a decision currently being made by local school districts.
The House passed House Bill 873, introduced by Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, plus a party line vote. The bill originally required school districts to place a school resource officer — law enforcement officers stationed in public schools — in each elementary and secondary school. If a district did not comply with the legislation, it would not receive a state grant, according to the tax filing.
The Senate Finance Committee reported an alternate version removing the requirement to have a resource officer in each school. Instead, a designated enforcement officer will be trained and serve as a liaison for the school administrator in schools without a resource officer.
The Democratic-led Senate rejected a similar bill, proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach.
Virginia’s high student recommendation rate
Ethan Lynne, a student at Patrick Henry High School in Hanover and a member of the Virginia Teen Democrats, said he was nervous for his peers who might not be favored by the administration. He fears the bill could contribute to reported racial disparities in schools.
“It can easily change the rest of their lives forever,” Lynne said.
Students were referred to law enforcement nearly three times the national average, with a referral rate of 16 per 1,000 students, according to a 2015 Center for Public Integrity report. Inequality Survey and analyzed US Department of Education data for its report.
The benchmark rate has fallen to 14 per 1,000 students, but Virginia maintains the highest benchmark rate in the nation, according to a Center report using data from the 2017-18 school year.
LaSontra Anderson said she spends her days caring for patients, her husband and three daughters. two of them still attend public schools in Virginia. Her daughter Michel has cerebral palsy. Anderson said she had to stay on top of things or Michel would fall into the “pipeline.”
“If we’re not his advocates, no one else will be,” Anderson said.
Anderson worries that black students and students with disabilities are still being disproportionately referred to administrators and law enforcement. Some educators and administrators aren’t knowledgeable about disabilities, according to Anderson.
Students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at more than twice the rate of all Virginia students, or about 30 out of 1,000 students. Black students were referred twice as many as all students, or about 25 students out of 1,000, according to the Center’s report.
“You strip them of everything that is looking forward to their future,” the mother said.
Angela Dews is a special education teacher at Armstrong High School in Richmond and past president of the Richmond Education Association.
The administration should have support, not mandates on how to manage students, Dews said of the measure requiring more reporting. Dews is concerned that administrators at Armstrong High School may be obligated to report incidents to police that could be handled within the school’s policies and codes of conduct.
“School is meant to be a safe haven for our kids and you want kids to come to school and feel safe and not feel like they are in their neighborhood,” Dews said. “Children need to know that they are safe with us and that the principals, the administrations run this school, and that we are there for them and manage their discipline.”
By Tarazha Jenkins
Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a program of the Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.