Virginia lawmakers want to limit criminal charges for student misbehavior in school

While the General Assembly took steps last year to change the way students are disciplined, several Virginia lawmakers want to go even further.

Bills filed in both the House of Delegates and Senate would prohibit students from being found guilty of disorderly conduct for actions in school - where nearly two in five disorderly conduct complaints against children originate, according to state data.

“Nobody is saying disruption in the classroom is acceptable but it could be handled with a suspension or a letter to a parent,” said Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, a former prosecutor. “It doesn’t have to lead to incarceration.”

 

The bills - filed by Mullin; Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond; and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond - would exempt students from a disorderly conduct charge if they misbehave at school or on a school bus.

Disorderly conduct is a misdemeanor in Virginia with a potential punishment of up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. It’s defined generally as disrupting an activity “with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.”

“Our students cannot learn if they’re being put out of school because of behavioral issues,” McClellan said Wednesday at a Legislative Black Caucus press conference that outlined the caucus’ legislative priorities for the session, including student discipline reform.

Said Bourne: “This is really the next step in trying to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Between 2013-14 and 2017-18, there were more than 7,000 disorderly conduct complaints made against Virginia children, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice. Three in five complaints came from police, with others coming from school resource officers and school officials.

Nearly two in three complaints from school officials or school resource officers were filed against black students - far greater than the percentage of black students in Virginia schools. The total number of complaints - not just disorderly conduct - made from school officials rose 7 percent between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, according to DJJ.

“We’ve seen a criminalization of conduct that really should have been corrected,” Bourne said.

Legislators were successful last year in changing part of the state’s student discipline system.

A bill from Bourne cut the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days, while another bill from Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, barred school districts from suspending students in pre-K through third grade for more than three days in most cases.

While those two bills passed last year and took effect this school year, legislators said they’d return to the issue of school discipline this session.

“This is another piece of the policy puzzle but the other side to the coin is we have to have more resources to support our teachers and correct the behavior on an ongoing basis,” Bourne said.

The former Richmond School Board chairman credited the number of complaints to having more school resource officers, whose presence he said allows teachers to take “an easy approach” and send disruptive students their way.

Amy Woolard, the policy coordinator at the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Justice Center, attributed the large number of police referrals in part to a lack of understanding of the role of school resource officers.

“Charges like disorderly are stemming from a confusion of the role of school resource officers in our school buildings,” she said. “Disorderly conduct is really taking an issue that is for schools to handle and suddenly putting it under the purview of law enforcement and our courts.”

Disorderly conduct complaints made up 13 percent of all complaints from school resource officers, according to state data.