Meet Senator Jennifer McClellan
Jennifer McClellan's legislation is signed into law
Jennifer McClellan at the General Assembly
Senator McClellan Meets with constituents
Jennifer McClellan accepting the VEA Legislative Champion Award

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The General Assembly adjourned sine die last week after passing more than 800 bills that now await action from the governor. Several of the bills passed address the 21st century generational and technological changes that have led to one of the most dramatic transformations in the American economy in decades — the “on-demand”, “sharing,” or “gig” economy.

Rapid changes in technology have given rise to new business models, such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb that do not fit Virginia’s regulatory structure and disrupt “legacy” industries. As a result, the General Assembly has had to update laws governing everything from zoning, consumer protection, insurance, and taxes to allow these new models to grow while providing consumer protections and avoiding the creation of an unlevel playing field for legacy industries competing with these new businesses.


Jenn McClellan is always on the cusp of something — and the hectic pace that’s become her default setting is not always on purpose, the Virginia lawmaker admitted to OZY in a recent interview. “I volunteer and, next thing I know, I’m officer,” she says, laughing. “Once I’m interested in something, I just throw myself into it.”

Her latest role? A brand-new state senator, following a special election last month. As the state representative for Virginia’s political core, Richmond, for more than a decade, McClellan has led on issues of criminal justice and education reform, with a particular interest in ending the catchphrase “school-to-prison pipeline.” For example: She’s pushed for laws limiting school suspension lengths and restricting the ability of teachers to call the police on schoolchildren, who in the past could be handcuffed for behaviors like interrupting in class or truancy. Along the way, the Democrat earned a reputation for garnering bipartisan support — and upon leaving the lower chamber, the wonky African-American received a standing ovation from her colleagues, who raved about her accountability and “level of goodwill and decorum,” as one Republican told reporters.


With the establishment of the first public institution dedicated to the mentally ill in Williamsburg in the 1776, mental health services have been a core responsibility of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Since then, Virginia’s mental health system has evolved from one focused primarily on institutionalization towards a single, integrated system of care, with increased emphasis on the establishment of community services and more effective and efficient use of state facilities.

 Today, Virginia’s “public mental health, intellectual disability and substance abuse services system” is comprised of 16 state facilities and 40 locally run community services boards (CSBs) that “serve children and adults who have or are at risk of mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, intellectual disabilities, or substance abuse disorders.” State facilities are only one of several resources in an overall continuum of care that also include the CSBs, local psychiatric hospitals, hospital emergency departments, law enforcement, and the court system.

Jennifer McClellan

Last year, JustChildren released a report entitled “Suspended Progress” presenting an analysis of disciplinary outcome data reported by local school divisions to the Virginia Department of Education for the 2014-2015 school year. The results were startling.

Virginia public schools issued over 125,000 suspensions to over 70,000 students.
After trending downward for at least four years, the suspension rate increased from the 2013-2014 school year.
Over 20 percent of suspensions were issued to elementary school students, including nearly 16,000 suspensions to students in pre-K through third grade.

Over 10 percent of ninth-grade students were suspended at least once.
Most suspensions were issued for nonviolent, relatively minor misbehavior. Half of all out-of-school suspensions were for cell phones, disruption, defiance, insubordination, disrespect, and attendance. In fact, 670 suspensions were issued for “attendance.” Yes, students were sent home for skipping class or not coming to school, even though the General Assembly outlawed suspension for truancy in 2009.
Suspensions were disproportionately issued to male students, African American students, and students with disabilities.
African American students were 23 percent of the total student population. But they accounted for 53 percent of all suspended students (58 percent of short-term suspensions, 60 percent of long-term suspensions), 55 percent of expulsions, and 40 percent of students referred to law enforcement. They were 3.6 times more likely than white students to be suspended. They were 67 percent more likely to be suspended for being disruptive or disrespectful than white students.

Students with disabilities were 12 percent of the total student population, but account for 25 percent of all suspended students (27.6 percent of short-term suspensions, 22 percent of long-term suspensions), 21 percent of all expulsions, and 28 percent of students referred to law enforcement. They were 2.4 times more likely than students without disabilities to be suspended.

At least 25 school divisions suspended between 25 percent and 40 percent of their African American male students with disabilities.

Suspensions and expulsions are counterproductive, as the root cause of the behavior leading to the suspension or expulsion is rarely, if ever addressed simply by putting a student out of school. Instead, suspension and expulsion accelerate a downward spiral of academic failure.
Research shows that suspended youth are more likely to further misbehave, experience academic failure, drop out, suffer mental health issues, engage in substance abuse, or end up involved in the criminal justice system. This is especially true in school divisions that do not provide access to schoolwork or any form of instruction during suspensions. When students are put out of school, they are too often unsupervised, accelerating these negative outcomes.


The General Assembly has been grappling with this issue for several years now. This year, I am co-sponsoring several bills to address this problem.

SB 995 (Stanley) and HB 1534 (D. Bell) changes the cap for long-term suspension from a 364 days to a 90 days. Currently, students can be suspended a full calendar year, resulting in that student failing two school years. Under these bills, a student cannot be suspended longer than a single semester.

SB 997 (Stanley) and HB 1536 (D. Bell) prohibits the long-term suspension or expulsion of students in grades pre-K through third grade except in the very rare instances when weapons, drugs, or serious criminal offenses occur. Pre-K through third grade students can be suspended for up to five days. This is the age when symptoms of many disabilities begin to appear, which often manifest through behavior.

For example, in central Virginia, an autistic kindergartener was suspended multiple times for flapping his hands when he got excited or similar behaviors associated with his autism. Rather than putting these kids out of school, we should be assessing and addressing the underlying reasons for the behavior and continuing to educate them. This is particularly important since extended absences from school have a greater impact on the educational, social, and developmental growth than for older kids.

Over the years, accountability in schools has come to mean punishment. School discipline should proportionately address and correct negative behavior without derailing a student’s learning process. Simply putting students out of school for over a semester or expelling them is counterproductive. They may be out of sight, but they are still a part of our community and have the same right under the Virginia Constitution to a free, high-quality public education as “well-behaved” kids.

If we do not address this serious issue now, we risk losing an entire generation of kids, most of them African American or with disabilities, who will never be prepared to be productive members of society.

Jennifer McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, represents the 9th District in the Virginia Senate. Contact her at

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The General Assembly reconvened on April 15th for Veto Session, at which time we addressed the Governor's vetoes of and amendments to legislation passed during the 2015 Session.  You can read a summary of the Governor's vetoes and amendments here

The General Assembly will reconvene of Wednesday,  April 15th  for Veto Session, at which time we will address the Governor's amendments to and vetoes of legislation. 

The 2015 General Assembly Session adjourned  Sine Die  on Friday, February 27th , one day early.  We were able to accomplish a number of things, including the budget, ethics reform, education reform bills (summarized in my most recent Op-Ed in the  Richmond Times-Dispatch ), and bills addressing sexual assault on college campuses, which I highlighted in my Op-Ed two weeks ago.