The bill failed on a 13-8 vote, which means public schools will continue to use their own discretion.
“You cannot allow students to strike back. If you do, you’re going to have a melee,” said bill opponent Bob Hall, legislative chairman for the Virginia School Boards Association. The bill sought to exempt students from suspension or expulsion who act “in defense of himself or others, to prevent harm to property, or in response to provocation.”
Delegates L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-31st, and John S. Reid, R-72nd, argued that self-defense is a fundamental right for which students should not be punished.
“I don’t think any parent who sends their child to school wants them to be a punching bag,” Reid said. “Muhammad Ali did the rope-a-dope effectively, but I don’t know how well that works in the stall of the bathroom when some guy wants to kick your fanny just to show off.”
Reid, a former high school principal, said some schools automatically discipline all students involved in a fight no matter the reason, instead of spending the time to find out the circumstances.
A state official testified to the contrary. Schools must investigate the cause of the fight under the state’s special circumstances law — a zero-tolerance policy is against the law in Virginia, he said.
Prince William County Schools Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said the county follows that policy.
“We try to get to the heart of it we don’t automatically suspend anybody or everybody,” he said. Disciplinary steps depend on the severity of the fight, he said.
Plastic eating utensils are allowed for eating in the county, as well, he said. No student in Prince William County schools has ever been suspended for having a plastic knife.
Isolated cases of severe discipline are proof that limitations are needed, the bill’s sponsor, Bradley P. Marrs, R-68th, argued. In Chesterfield County, a student brought a birthday cake in for class but was suspended for two days because of the plastic knife he brought with it, he said.
“If you are using the plastic eating utensils in [some] schools, you can still be punished,” he said.
Delegate Gary A. Reese, R-67th, of Fairfax, a former school board member, said some of these so-called isolated incidents are justified, but the details were not publicized, leaving School Boards to appear to be in the wrong.
Hall and other school board lobbyists said the limitation would add another barrier to school officials who are charged with keeping schools safe — schools that, according to polls, students say they feel more safe in than their homes or the mall. That sense of safety is not artificial, said Dick Pulley, chief lobbyist for the Virginia School Boards Association.
A series of studies led to the Virginia General Assembly enacting 13 pieces of legislation that specify discipline procedures and rules.
“Schools are safer today because of those laws that you passed,” he said. He said sometimes officials go too far, but the school boards must be trusted.
Marrs’ bill also exempted students from disciplinary action for using or possessing nonprescription drugs; it never made it out of committee.
“I can guarantee you any number of teen-age girls are walking around in school with a tablet of Midol in their purse,” he said.
But the committee said this issue was argued heavily and settled by the General Assembly years ago. Current legislation requires nurse oversight.
That policy is in effect in Prince William, where students can take nonprescription drugs distributed by the school nurse with permission by a parent, Kelly said.
In other action on schools:
* Lingamfelter’s bill to establish a Web site for teachers to submit suggestions on the Standards of Learning tests received preliminary approval from the House on Wednesday. He said it would be modeled after the Web site already offered for the math SOLs but be for all subjects.
* Students who repeatedly skips school could find their driver’s licenses suspended for a year under a bill sponsored by Lingamfelter. The bill was approved by the House Education Committee on Wednesday. When he met with juvenile domestic court judges last year, Lingamfelter said he “was surprised that the No. 1 item on their docket was truancy.” This bill would add teeth to the system, he said, for second-time offenders and could delay the awarding of a license. Suspension could last a year or until the student reaches 18.
Staff writer Chris Newman can be reached in Richmond at (804) 649-8710.