Virginia Legislation To Stop Criminalizing Student Behavior Fails This Session

Last year, a group of Virginia lawmakers prohibited schools from suspending kids in preschool through third grade for more than three days in most cases.

This year, they tried to stop schools from criminalizing student behavior in the classroom. That legislation failed this year.

When students misbehave badly enough, schools can charge them with “disorderly conduct,” which is a misdemeanor. That can come with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

Tom Smith with the Virginia Association of School Superintendents says it’s a tool that schools need when everything else fails.

If you’ve worked in other ways, and a child is not cooperating, it’s just another way of approaching a difficult problem,” Smith said.

But Democratic Delegate Jeff Bourne disagrees. He carried one of the bills that would’ve removed the disorderly conduct option for schools entirely.

“I think if they need criminalizing behavior as a tool then they really ought to find a better line of work to be in,” Bourne said.

Bourne’s bill died in a House subcommittee meeting on a party-line vote. A similar bill introduced by Democratic Senator Jennifer McClellan sailed through the Senate.

The Virginia Legal Aid Society supports legislation de-criminalizing student behavior. The group’s JustChildren Legal Director Rachael Deane says how “disorderly conduct” is enforced is subjective, and often disproportionately affects racial minorities.

“It’s kind of hard to tell what, you know, what is defiance? What is disorderly in a school? What does that mean? What is disrupting the classroom mean?” Deane said. “It can be anything from, you know, refusing to sit in your seat to yelling or throwing something.”