RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Sitting in the Chesterfield County Jail on Wednesday, 23-year-old Alan Ward said his criminal record started in 6th grade in a Chesterfield County school.
“I got in a fight. Nothing real serious, no blood was drawn, no bones were broke but they were like, well, we got to call law enforcement,” he said.
Ward said the assault charge that came out of that incident changed his mindset and put him on the wrong path. By the end of that school year, he said he racked up 17 more charges.
“I was like if they want me to become a criminal, I’ll become a criminal,” Ward said. “If I were to have sat down and actually been able to talk to someone and explain my situation and what was happening I feel like my life would’ve been a lot different. I wouldn’t have been in and out this jail.”
A bill now on the way to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk aims to keep students out of the criminal justice system by ending decades of “zero tolerance” policies for disciplinary infractions in Virginia schools.
“This just helps to break the school-to-prison pipeline. Virginia has led the nation in referring kids to law enforcement for behavior that shouldn’t be criminalized,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-9), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.
McClellan said principals are currently required to report even low-level offenses to law enforcement. This bill gives them a choice.
“If something is a serious incident that should be referred to law enforcement, they still have the ability to do that,” McClellan said. “They still have to report the incident to the superintendent and to parents.”
The bill has the support of the Virginia Education Association, the Virginia School Boards Association, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents, the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals, and the Legal Aid Justice Center.
In a statement, the VEA pointed out that current Virginia law doesn’t allow principals to consider a student’s age or disability status before reporting an offense.
“Virginia has no minimum age of criminal responsibility, so even very young elementary students are subject to the current mandate, with no opportunity for school officials to consider such mitigating factors,” the statement continued. “Similarly, school officials are currently not able to consider context in deciding how students with disabilities that may manifest in certain behaviors are appropriately addressed.”
The bill was widely opposed by House Republicans like Del. Jason Miyares. “I don’t think that makes our schools more safe. I think that makes them less safe,” he said.
Miyares said he’s especially concerned about scrapping mandatory reporting of sexual battery, stalking and school threats. He said law enforcement needs this information to prevent deadly school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. He said these exceptions were included in past versions of the bill.
“The original bill was a compromise the problem is they amended the bill to make it, in my opinion, infinitely worse,” Miyares said.
If Gov. Northam signs the bill into law, it will take effect in July 2020, in time for next school year.