Virginia refers more school students to law enforcement than any other state. For every 1,000 students, Virginia schools send nearly 16 to authorities. It's a rate almost three times the national average with the highest referral rates being for middle school students.
Parents, community leaders and Virginia lawmakers want answers to how we can better help our students, while diminishing these referrals in what some refer to as the "school-to-prison pipeline." They reason that the flow of students to courtrooms needs to be more of a trickle.
Suspensions, expulsions have long-term effects
To do just that, a series of legislative bills have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly in hopes of no longer seeing scenarios such as a Virginia middle school student being cited for a misdemeanor over a 65-cent carton of milk, or an autistic middle schooler cited for disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can.
The repercussions from a school suspension or expulsion can have long-lasting effects and be counterproductive, according to some educators and lawmakers. That's why some hope Virginia can follow the lead of other states in a move away from harsh disciplinary measures. They want to give second chances to students.
Lawmakers pondering bills
For example, a bill introduced by Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy would raise the grand larceny threshold to $1,000 from $200. Virginia's threshold remains one of the lowest in the country and hasn't changed since 1980. Currently, a person who steals a leather jacket, smart phone, digital camera or a bicycle could be charged with a felony.
Another bill that Foy has introduced eliminates the requirement that school principals report certain misdemeanor incidents to police. Meanwhile, a different lawmaker has introduced a bill prohibiting the suspension or expelling of students in preschool through third grade, except for drug offenses, firearms or certain criminal acts.
Virginia lawmakers say the punishment should fit the crime in school disciplinary matters. They reason that too often suspensions and expulsions lead to students dropping out of school and not graduating. This can affect their future in profound ways.