Richmond School Board overturned 92% of principal recommendations to expel students last year

Posted at 6:17 PM, Feb 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-06 18:28:48-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond School Board reversed discipline recommendations from principals and the district administration during an overwhelming majority of last year's discipline hearings, according to public records that were recently made available.

When Richmond Public Schools students commit the most serious violations of the district's Student Code of Responsible Ethics, such as weapons offenses or assaults, those students are required to be recommended for expulsion from RPS, per state law and School Board policies.

“This isn’t kids' play. This is bad stuff," said 4th District School Board member Jonathan Young. “We're talking about guns. We're talking about knives. We're talking about students that bring drugs in and brownies."

After investigating student infractions that may constitute expulsion, Young said school principals and administration leaders will make a recommendation to the School Board's Disciplinary Committee. The committee, typically made up of three board members who attend hearings on rotation, has the final say in the student's outcome.

Students and parents will oftentimes appeal the expulsion recommendation. Public meeting records revealed that the committee agreed to grant the appeal for 92% of the cases heard between January and December of 2022.

Young, who voted in the minority during the meetings he attended last year, said the board's decisions were causing a concerning trend.

“It's really distressing that a group of nine politicians would think it's appropriate to veto educators’ decisions," he said. “Our principals and assistant principals are very frustrated.”

Last year, the committee heard 46 cases. Board members voted to uphold the administration's recommendation to expel a student for four of those cases.

During the other 42 cases, the board overturned the recommendation and opted to suspend students. Many of those students were then reassigned to the Richmond Alternative School. Some students were assigned to a different comprehensive school, and other students were allowed to return to their zoned school.

Young believed those continued actions are cultivating a climate of unsafe schools.

According to data from the Virginia Department of Education, there were nearly 16,000 student behavior incidents reported in RPS during the 2021-2022 school year including:

  • 6,625 behaviors related to school operations
  • 3,916 behaviors that led to a safety concern
  • 2,246 behaviors that impeded academic progress
  • 1,639 relationship behaviors
  • 1,439 behaviors that endangered students
  • 9 behaviors to determine persistently dangerous schools

“The adults have lost control of the building," Young said.

But other board members have a different take. 3rd District Representative Kenya Gibson said, since her tenure on the board which began in 2017, board members have routinely voted against expulsion.

“Typically, we are looking for ways to avoid expelling students. The school-to-prison pipeline is a very real thing," Gibson said.

The American Civil Liberties Union defines the school-to-prison pipeline as a national trend that funnels children out of public schools and into criminal justice systems. The ACLU said many of the students involved in the trend have histories of abuse, neglect, and learning disabilities and would benefit from counseling services rather than punishment.

Gibson said instead of extreme punishment, she aims to provide support to students through behavioral resources. However, she admitted RPS "simply does not have enough" of those resources.

“Every student, there’s a story in why they’ve come. There are circumstances at home, and so when there are social services available, we’re looking for ways to make those connections," Gibson said.

School Board Vice Chair Cheryl Burke, who represents the city's East End schools, said some of the in-school resources the district provides include behavioral health specialists, psychologists, and social workers.

According to a recent presentation by the administration on safety and security, Richmond high schools have anywhere from one to six counselors on site. Additionally, high schools have zero to two social workers on site, and none of them have one full-time psychologist on site.

Burke said she'd like to prioritize those resources in the budget but added state and federal entities need to chip in.

"We're talking about children, and for children to act out in such a manner that is not acceptable, it's a reason for that, be at school, be at home," Burke said. "So to have the resources to be not reactive but the resources to be proactive."

Gibson agreed, adding that other school districts across the country have found success in addressing student behavior through holistic health approaches.

“By teaching kids yoga, by teaching kids breathing exercises," Gibson said. "I think learning coping skills, whatever they are, it's really critical for both the kids and the adults, and then how can you resolve conflict?”

CBS 6 reached out to the RPS administration with questions about the discipline data and its approach to discipline and is still awaiting a response. But according to a presentation on safety and security, the administration is committed to transitioning from "punitive to restorative practices."

Along with some school resource officers, RPS has 68 care and safety associates assigned to schools. Their roles are to "build relationships with students, families, and staff centered around safety and support."

"A restorative approach does not mean students are not held accountable for their actions. It simply means that the emphasis is on building relationships to prevent incidents in the first place, and on restoring broken relationships after incidents occur. Appropriate punishment is a part of a restorative approach," the administration wrote in its presentation.

Gibson said every disciplinary case is different and comes with varying circumstances but that safety always remains a priority in the decision-making process.

"We weigh all those things, and so when there are significant issues with student safety, then certainly, that's a huge factor in what we decide to do," Gibson said.

However, Young pointed to surveys published in October 2022 that revealed more than half of students at a dozen schools reported feeling unsafe at their school including Thomas Jefferson High School, River City Middle School, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, and George Wythe High School.

Additionally, a small percentage of teachers at several schools reported feeling safe including just 21% of teachers at Carver Elementary and 14% of teachers at Wythe High School.

"It is consistent to tolerate even the most intolerable, and the reality is that we have a lot of circumstances that could have been avoided," Young said.



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