The Washington Post story published Friday about John Benjamin Haywood, a 10-year-old Florida boy with autism, whose arrest video was filmed by his mother and went viral, really hit me hard.
In 1999, my then 14-year-old older son with bipolar disorder was attending one of Fairfax County's high schools for emotionally disabled students. He got into a fight with another student over Pokémon cards. A male counselor stepped in to separate them. As my son was reaching for the other student, he hit the counselor. When I was reached by phone by school staff, I was informed not only that my son was being suspended from school for five school days, the school was filing assault charges against him for hitting the counselor.
My son's therapist and I met with school officials and the resource officer. We were unable to convince them to drop the assault charge. My husband and I now had to find a lawyer to defend our son in Juvenile Court. Fortunately, we found one who specialized in educational issues. Our lawyer also put us in contact with an educational consultant who became another strong advocate for our son's educational rights as a disabled student for the next three years. He pled guilty and received 12 months probation. His probation officer, thankfully, had many years experience dealing with emotionally disabled kids.
Virginia leads the nation in school based referrals to law enforcement. It is three times the national average. According to the Virginia Education Association, in 2014-2015, public schools issued 123,107 short term suspensions and 388 expulsions to approximately 70,000 students. Over one-fifth of suspended students were in pre-K through 5th grade. Male students, African-American students and students with disabilities made 51.5 percent, 23 percent and 12.3 percent respectively of the total school population, but they received 72.9 percent, 57.5 percent, and 27.4 percent of suspensions and expulsions, respectively.
This has got to stop!
Voices for Virginia's Children posted on their website in late February that two bills crafted by the JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center did not pass this session. SB995 would have redefined long term suspension from 11-365 school days to 11-60 school days and exceptions for certain school-based offenses. It was defeated in the House on a 39-56 vote. SB997 would have allowed for suspension up to 10 school days for children pre-K to 3rd grade and granted exemptions to suspend longer for 260g offenses defined in the Code of Virginia. This bill was defeated in the House on a 46-50 vote. Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) who currently holds the 30th District seat, voted no on both bills.
Del. Freitas wants to keep things the way they are. I'm running for the House of Delegates in the 30th District to work with state officials, educators, parents and their children to come up with common sense solutions to help these kids succeed in school and not be labeled as troublemakers. We need to end Virginia's school to prison pipeline now.
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