Legislation to prevent students age 14 and younger from facing criminal charges for disorderly conduct at school failed Monday in the Virginia House of Delegates on a 36-60-1 vote.
The bill was pitched as a way to cut down on the number of students being referred to law enforcement for acting out at school. The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based nonprofit, found last year that Virginia led the nation in referring students to the criminal justice system.
“I’m afraid that we’re going to be putting kids into the good-guy or bad-guy category as opposed to bringing them into the schools to shape them in a way that they become good guys,” said Del. David A. LaRock, R-Loudoun, the bill’s main patron.
Though LaRock won wide support from the chamber’s Democrats, most of his Republican colleagues were unconvinced. Several argued that students should not be granted immunity based solely on where the conduct took place.
“I agree that we need to find out why this is going on. We need to put a stop to a bunch of it,” said Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. “But what this bill does is say that in no case can you ever charge a student with disorderly conduct. It is blanket immunity.”
Del. Christopher K. Peace, R-Hanover, abstained from the vote, saying he does legal work on behalf of children in truancy and suspension cases.
The bill would keep students 14 and younger from being charged with disorderly conduct for activity occurring “on school property during regular school hours or on a school bus.”
The Center for Public Integrity found last year that Virginia had nearly 16 referrals to law enforcement per 1,000 students in the 2011-12 school year, far above the national average of six referrals per 1,000 students. The study found disproportionately higher rates for African-Americans and students with disabilities.
Del. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, told several stories on the House floor of young students being charged with disorderly conduct for such behavior as refusing to follow directions, swearing at authority figures, and damaging school property.
“They’re using disorderly conduct to get the kids out of the school,” said McClellan, adding that more serious misbehavior could still bring more serious charges.
Disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500, is defined generally as disrupting an activity “with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm.”
Del. Vivian E. Watts, D-Fairfax, said that “fact pattern” should not apply to young students who may lack good judgment. She said she once allowed her son and a group of friends to toilet-paper their junior high school as a graduation prank.
“The point is that there are things that are done in good humor and jest that some people take wrong,” Watts said. “We see it all the time in this body.”
Others argued that students should live by the same laws at school that they would be subject to at a convenience store across the street.
“I think it sends the wrong message ... ” said Del. Robert D. Orrock Sr., R-Caroline. “The law is the law.”
The House gave initial approval Friday to a bill allowing students facing charges for in-school offenses to submit documentation on disabilities or behavioral issues as evidence in their defense.
Two other school-discipline reform measures were scheduled for debate Monday on the House floor, but instead were referred to the House Courts of Justice Committee. Both bills had been advanced by the House Education Committee, but are likely to face a hostile reception in the tough-on-crime Courts committee.
One bill would eliminate a requirement that school principals report potential misdemeanor offenses to police (House Bill 1132), while the other would require school leaders to exhaust all “reasonable alternatives” before referring a student for law enforcement or expulsion (House Bill 1061).
Critics said the latter bill would be “a lawyer’s dream and a school’s nightmare” by opening schools up for lawsuits by students over disciplinary matters. The bill’s patron — Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico — pressed unsuccessfully for it to be taken up on the House floor, saying he had been told it “won’t last five minutes in Courts.”
Last fall, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced a statewide initiative to tackle the disparities in school discipline through improved training programs for school resource officers.