The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that will allow school principals to report some misdemeanor offenses of students to law enforcement, reversing parts of a previous law.
Lawmakers, parents and advocates are concerned the legislation will prompt the overreporting of minor offenses to law enforcement, versus leaving reporting to the discretion of school officials.
Symone Walker is the mother of two children, one enrolled in Arlington Public Schools. She is also the co-chair of the Arlington NAACP Education Committee and vice chair of the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee.
Walker worries that Virginia isn’t working fast enough to close up the school-to-prison pipeline, known as harsh disciplinary actions that data show primarily push Black and Latino students out of schools and into jails and prisons.
“The General Assembly had made some progress in rolling back some really punitive laws that were contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline,” Walker said.
Previous legislation to undo school-to-prison pipeline
Virginia made headlines with reports that it led the nation in referring students to law enforcement, and it prompted legislative action.
State legislators passed a law in 2020 that school officials did not have to report minor offenses to law enforcement such as disruptive behavior, disorderly conduct and trespassing. They still had to report felonies.
Lawmakers also passed a bill in 2020 that exempted students from being charged under state law with disorderly conduct — a phrase advocates say is loosely interpreted in the referral process — if it happened on school grounds, on a school bus, or at a school event.
A Senate committee blocked a Republican-backed measure Friday that would have reintroduced the vague disorderly conduct charge.
Walker is concerned that Senate Bill 36, introduced by Sen. Thomas Norment, R- Williamsburg, along with other bills, could stunt that progress. The measure is identical to a House bill. The General Assembly recently passed both measures with bipartisan support in both chambers.
Norment said during a Senate committee hearing that his bill was designed just to add better structure to what was a bipartisan bill when passed in 2020. He pushed back against the Senate committee effort to pass it by indefinitely.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, objected to the bill.
“I care about the school-to-prison pipeline and what this does is open that back up again,” Locke said. “Those who are going to be reported are Black and Brown children, primarily.”
A substitute was adopted and then advanced.
Norment, however, celebrated the legislative victory in a constituent newsletter Friday by stating that school principals will be required to report misdemeanor offenses.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who introduced the 2020 bill loosening reporting requirements, released a statement to Capital News Service that said Virginia is in better shape than seven years ago, “and that we must continue our progress to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“It is disappointing to see the legislature vote to undo part of that progress by mandating reporting of some incidents that are technically misdemeanors to law enforcement, taking the decision on whether to report away from the parents of the children involved in the incident,” McClellan stated.
Principals will be required to report to law enforcement certain misdemeanors such as stalking, written and oral threats, and other offenses which were eliminated in 2020.
The amended version allows a school board to create an alternative disciplinary process for students involved in assaults without bodily injury. If there is agreeable mediation between parties, the incident does not have to be reported to police.
That alternative process is an option for school boards to implement, not a requirement.
School officials may choose to report written threats made by students with individualized education plans, the term used for placement of students with disabilities who need special education, according to the bill. Several lawmakers had expressed concern that the bill could disproportionately affect students with disabilities.
Walker said it is unfortunate that Black and Latino students, and students with disabilities, are more often put on a path of contact with law enforcement.
“Arlington is a microcosm of the state as a whole – where you have a disproportionate amount of Black and Brown students that end up 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 court referrals, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Black and Latino students at Arlington Public Schools made up nearly 70% of referrals to law enforcement, despite white students being nearly half of the enrollment, according to Arlington Public Schools.
School resource officers
Walker is also concerned about the push to get more school resource officers into schools across the state.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin pledged during his campaign to station police officers in every school, a decision currently made by local school districts.
The House passed House Bill 873, introduced by Del. Karen Greenhalgh, R-Virginia Beach, along a party line vote. The bill originally required school districts to place a school resource officer — law enforcement officers stationed in public schools — in every elementary and secondary school. If a district failed to comply with the legislation, they would not receive state grant funding, according to the fiscal statement.
The Senate finance committee reported a substitute version, removing the requirement to have a resource officer in every school. Instead, a designated law enforcement officer will be trained and serve as a liaison for the school administrator in schools without a resource officer.
The Democrat-led Senate denied a similar bill, proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R- Virginia Beach.
Virginia high rate of student referral
Ethan Lynne, a student at Patrick Henry High School in Hanover and member of the Virginia Teen Democrats, said he is nervous for his peers who may not be favored by administration. He fears the bill will contribute to the racial disparities reported in schools.
“This 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 rate of 16 referrals out of 1,000 students, according to a 2015 Center for Public Integrity report. The organization is focused on investigative reporting of inequality and analyzed U.S. Department of Education data for its report.
The referral rate dropped to 14 per 1,000 students, but Virginia maintains the highest referral rate in the nation, according to a report by the Center using data from the 2017-18 school year.
LaSontra Anderson said she spends her days taking care of patients, her husband, and three daughters; two who still attend Virginia’s public schools. Her daughter Michel has Cerebral palsy. Anderson said she must stay on top of things or Michel will fall into the “pipeline.”
“If we are not her advocates, no one else will be,” Anderson said.
Anderson fears Black students and students with disabilities will still be disproportionately referred to administrators and law enforcement. Some educators and administration are not thoroughly educated on disabilities, according to Anderson.
Students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement over two times the rate of all students in Virginia, or roughly 30 out of 1,000 students. Black students were referred at twice the rate of all students, or around 25 out of 1,000 students, according to the Center report.
“You’re stripping them of everything that’s looking forward to their future,” the mother said.
Angela Dews is a special education teacher at Armstrong High School in Richmond and former president of the Richmond Education Association.
Administration should have support, not mandates on how to handle students, Dews said of the measure to require more reporting. Dews worries Armstrong High School administrators will have to report incidents to police that could be handled within school policies and codes of conduct.
“School is supposed to be a safe haven for our children, and you want kids to come to school and feel safe, and not feel like they are in the same situations as they are in their neighborhoods,” Dews said. “The kids need to know that they are safe with us and that the principals, administrations run this school, and that we are there for them and handle their discipline.”
Written by Tarazha Jenkins, Capital News Service. Top Photo: “Prison Bars Jail Cell” by JobsForFelonsHub, licensed with CC BY 2.0.