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 news conference that outlined the caucus’s 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 officials and school resource officers.
Nearly two in three complaints from school officials or SROs 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 would 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 SROs, 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 SROs.
“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 SROs, according to state data.
A bill from Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, would require schools with resource officers to have a memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement to define what exactly the officers are supposed to do.
In a statement Saturday, the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association said it’s concerned with the proposed disorderly conduct changes.
“Many sheriffs give several warnings before making formal charges,” it said. “We question how the bill would impact public safety in the school setting by removing an option that would prevent an assault.”
The role of SROs has come under scrutiny after the deadly school shooting in Florida in February prompted widespread reviews of school safety nationwide.
A special committee of House of Delegates members signed off on a series of recommendations, including increasing the number of SROs and requiring agreements like the ones Locke’s bill would require.
Researchers at Virginia Tech found in 2017 that black students account for 23 percent of Virginia’s student enrollment, but half the referrals to juvenile courts from schools.
“That’s an unacceptable outcome,” Mullin said of the disproportionate number of black students referred to police.
A variation of the proposed changes failed in the House in 2016. A bill from Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, would have prevented students who were 14 and younger from facing criminal charges for disorderly conduct at school. It was killed by the full chamber.
Bourne’s and Mullin’s bills have been referred to the House Committee for Courts of Justice, headed by Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. Bell, who voted against the 2016 bill, did not return a request for comment.