By Logan Nardo
Despite having one of Virginia’s lowest suspension and expulsion rates, parents and students in Rockbridge County public schools say the state’s disciplinary policies lead students to drop out of school.
JustChildren, a program of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, issued a report to the Virginia Board of Education last month criticizing the commonwealth’s disciplinary practices. The board has not responded to the program’s report.
In the 2010-11 school year, 90,500 students were suspended or expelled in the state, seven percent of all public school students. JustChildren believes suspension or expulsion, what the report calls “educational exclusion,” promotes bad behavior rather than rehabilitation.
Eileen Hinks, a mother of several students in Rockbridge County and frequent visitor to the school, says the suspension policies in Rockbridge are “like the prison system in the U.S.” She says the administration at the school is “ok with you as long as you’re squeaky-clean, top of the class kind of person in high school … They don’t know how to deal with [other kids].”
Despite some complaints with the administration, Rockbridge County suspended 114 students last school year, four percent of the student body–well under the state average.
The superintendent of Rockbridge Public Schools, John Reynolds, is not surprised that the county is so far below average.
“To bring about behavior change, it has to be consequences that involve things that students want … [Educational exclusion] doesn’t change behavior in my opinion,” he said.
Reynolds said when students do not want to be at school and continually act up, the easiest action is to send them home. Hinks said she believes this is what happens sometimes in Rockbridge County.
“Instead of dealing with [misbehavior] on a level that’s a teaching thing, they just suspend the kids,” said Hinks.
One Rockbridge County high school student, who was suspended earlier this year, says, “[suspensions] act as a catalyst for [students] to further their misbehavior.”
Over 70 percent of the suspensions in the state last year were for “minor” infractions, according to the JustChildren report. They included obscenities, disrespect and disruption. Around 20 percent resulted from violence or illegal activities on school grounds such as tobacco, alcohol or drug use. The report was issued Nov. 17.
Hinks said there are better solutions than suspensions, “something that is a more valuable thing that they can do with their time rather than 10 days away from school.” She would rather see a discipline system “where [students] learn how to act” as a response to “minor” infractions of school conduct.
Rockbridge County High School Principal Scott Jeffries handles much of the discipline at the school. He says that a code of conduct is issued to the students and families at the beginning of the year and provides the administrators a guidebook of action to be taken for each offense.
The JustChildren report claims that suspensions mainly hurt kids because it increases their chances of dropping out, an idea shared by all parties in Rockbridge.
One student in Rockbridge was suspended after drug dogs came to the school and found marijuana in his car. Before the incident, he had always been an upstanding student with grades near the top of the class. He said, “it was definitely a setback when I got suspended … it hurt my grades a lot.”
The report says that for some students, making up the work is not worth it and they just drop out.
“Somehow [some students] don’t see the importance of being in school with something down the road,” the superintendent said. “That’s when the whole idea of dropping out comes into the equation.”
Rockbridge County has had a problem with dropouts in recent years. From 2005-09, 109 students dropped out while 887 graduated – about 12.3 percent. About 2.5 percent student body drops out each year.
Despite current dropout rates in the county, Jeffries, a new principal this school year, is staying positive.
“Once you enter the doors of this building,” he said, “we like our chances for you to walk across the stage in four years with a diploma.”