By Kirby Farineau
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus was joined Monday by a bipartisan group of state legislators supporting bills to combat the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Expulsion and suspension policies are the targets of several pieces of legislation, including a bill by Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond. HB 1600 caps long-term suspension at 45 days instead of the current 364.
“We cannot keep using access, or lack thereof, to education as a punishment and continue to expect positive results,” said Bourne, a former Richmond School Board chairman.
Bourne also endorsed legislation by Sen. William Stanley, R-Franklin, whose SB 170 prohibits expulsion and suspension for students between pre-kindergarten and third grade. Stanley said the reforms sought were a “human issue,” and not partisan.
The Black Caucus said it wanted to highlight how legislators are crossing party lines on the issues. The process of separating students from their environment and ultimately sending them into the criminal justice system has come to be known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” A 2015 Study from the Center for Public Integrity said that on average, Virginia refers more students to law enforcement than any other state.
First-year Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Woodbridge, described the problem as “the No. 1 civil rights issue of our modern time.” She has introduced HB 445, which would allow school systems to discipline students who commit certain misdemeanors instead of being required to report those crimes to police.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said she has proposed budget amendments to support school programs for at-risk students, and also to set aside almost $700 million to end a cap on state-funded school support positions.
“If we don’t put our money where our mouth is we will lose an entire generation of students to the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “Policy is only one side of the coin.”
Standing beside these legislators was Stacey Doss, a mother of two boys in Lynchburg’s public school system. Her older son, who is autistic, drew national attention and the focus of the Center for Public Integrity after being charged with a felony in 2014 as an 11-year-old.
He had struggled with a school resource officer who had grabbed him after he had left class with other students. The same officer had earlier accused him of a misdemeanor for kicking a trash can. The charges were dropped after an outcry over the case.
Doss said her 5-year-old has speech problems, and both sons have been ostracized and suspended. The younger boy was currently under suspension for disorderly behavior, she said.
“He asked me, ‘Why can’t I go to school? I really want to go to school. I miss my friends,’” Doss said. “He doesn’t understand what is happening, but he does know that he is being kept away from something he enjoys.”