School Board discusses equity audit policy

School Board discusses equity audit policy
Dec. 2 School Board meeting

By Olivia Anderson |

The Alexandria School Board discussed an equity audit policy revision overview at its Dec. 2 meeting, which related specifically to student discipline and conduct.

According to staff, the proposed revisions have been created with the goal of focusing on marginalized populations and working to dismantle current systems that are barriers to student success.

“This has been a Herculean effort, and it’s only the start of a very large effort to really go through systematically all our policies with an equity lens and do super critical work that we’ve needed to do for some time,” School Board and equity audit team member Christopher Suarez said.

The rotating School Board committee currently consists of Suarez and board members Jacinta Greene and Heather Thornton but will change as staff considers the next tier of policies.

During the presentation, staff shared community feedback with the School Board that was gained through various focus groups. According to Terrence Wilson, Intercultural Development Research Association regional policy and community engagement director, many parents felt that the school disciplinary policies were fair but the application of those policies was uneven.

Wilson said that many of the conversations with parents revolved around communication and yielded varied responses, with some arguing that there wasn’t enough communication with the school and others arguing the opposite. 

Another theme Wilson said cropped up at the meetings included school resource officers and alternatives to having them in buildings. SROs have been a contentious issue in the city over the past year. City Council initially voted to remove them from school premises, then temporarily reversed the decision in October.

“It wasn’t necessarily asking for resource officers to come back, but it was wanting to understand what we should do in terms of supporting students and having better relationships with students to address certain kinds of behavior,” Wilson said of the conversations that occurred at the meetings.

Staff reached out to students for feedback, which yielded conversations around dress code, particularly a perceived double standard between male and female students, and the importance of teacher support, especially when it comes to de-escalating incidents in classrooms.

Staff also conducted an administrator focus group, which board member Michelle Rief asked for clarification on during the question and answer period of the meeting. 

“We had a really content-rich conversation,” Jennifer Abbruzzese, director of board policy and initiatives, said. “There was lots of anecdotal evidence as well; people were talking about their personal experiences of how these policies are being lived in the buildings.”

Many draft policy revisions came as a result of the focus groups ACPS organized. These consist of changes to student conduct; teacher removal of students from class; sportsmanship, ethics and integrity; gang activity or association; alcohol and other drugs in schools; tobacco-free schools for staff and students; search and seizure, which previously allowed strip searches; suspension and expulsion and disciplining students with disabilities.

Many of the revisions include expanding or clarifying definitions, such as “sportsmanship” or “gang,” updating terms and gender-neutral pronouns, prioritizing data collection and using a multitiered system of support or restorative practices instead of punitive action whenever possible.

When it came to suspension and expulsion, for example, Thornton said staff spent a considerable amount of time drafting revisions in order to make it clear that the intention is a holistic approach.

“We do not want to consistently go to a punitive outcome right at the forefront, and we realized that a lot of our policies just kind of listed the punishment first,” Thornton said. “That is not what we wanted to do.”

The suspension and expulsion revision includes first listing the goals for student behavior, which include a variety of preventative measures such as a multitiered system of support, social-emotional learning supports, peer mediation and counseling.

This checklist approach, rather than the previous general and vague description, Thornton said, will allow administrators to make sure they are thinking through student behavior in a “full, well-rounded way” before resorting to suspension and expulsion.

Thornton also emphasized that many of the draft revisions focus on communication with parents, should a student receive disciplinary action. These consist of notifying parents or guardians and students in their preferred language of the disciplinary processes and appeal process, as well as their procedural rights, from legal counsel to availability of pro bono legal resources.  

In light of recent hate speech incidents at Fairfax County sporting events, Suarez said staff discussed refining the policy surrounding sportsmanship, ethics and integrity, including whether the word “sportsmanship” is too narrow.

“We had a lot of talk about making sure that we don’t just do this for sports, that this covers all extracurricular activities,” Suarez said. “ … The fact that this policy is called ‘sportsmanship’ – is that too limiting? Is that making it seem that it’s just about sports when this is really about a broader notion of being not just a good sport but a good citizen?”

Proposed changes included adding the prohibition of the use of hate speech or ethnically or racially insensitive expressions in extracurricular activities. The policy would extend beyond athletes to students, opponents, officials, administrators, coaches and spectators involved in any extracurricular activity.

It would also align with the new Virginia School Boards Association rules to disqualify a participant who uses such speech from competition until educational or restorative interventions are completed.

Because equity is the overarching goal, staff said that data aggregation and manifestation hearings will be integral, specifically when it comes to students with disabilities.

“Manifestation hearings are essentially meetings that are had to see whether a student with disabilities’ behavior is a result of their disability or some other factor. Those hearings are a very critical component to how students with disabilities are disciplined,” Thornton said. 

The School Board will vote on the discipline and conduct policy revisions at its Dec. 16 meeting.