Fairfax County Public Schools will provide additional compensation for select staff members, particularly bus drivers and special education teachers, and bolster its mental health services, thanks to a new round of federal COVID-19 relief.
The ESSER III (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) spending plan approved by the Fairfax County School Board on Thursday (Aug. 26) devotes $188.6 million to various expenses tied to keeping schools open and safe during the ongoing pandemic.
The funds will last for three years and came from the American Rescue Plan Act that Congress passed in March.
“We believe our ESSER 3 plan addresses key areas to support schools as they return to in-person instruction from the pandemic as well as increase our focus on serving students and staff in our school division with an equity lens,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said in a statement for the board’s meeting last week.
The school board approved the measure almost unanimously. Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin abstained, restating concerns that the spending plan doesn’t contain the level of detail she wanted to ensure adequate oversight.
The multi-year funding covers:
- Nearly $55 million for academic intervention
- $46 million to pay special education teachers more for increased workloads connected with the pandemic and individualized education plans
- $23 million for social and emotional learning needs of students
- Nearly $14 million for after-school programming and transportation
- $10 million for cafeteria, classroom, and outdoor monitors
- $9 million for cybersecurity
- $3 million to increase bus drivers’ starting pay from $19.58 per hour to $22.91
The academic and social and emotional learning categories encompass everything from tutoring support for before and after school programs to mental health materials, technical education, and transportation to school programs on Saturdays.
“Each school will receive funding allocations as well as stipends for academics and wellness,” FCPS said in a news release on Friday (Aug. 27). “The academic and wellness allocations are to be used to directly support students. The amount each school receives is based on its project enrollment and need.”
For academic and wellness-related items, which make up 82% of the allocations, elementary schools are expected to receive about $50,000 to $189,000, middle schools will get $69,000 to $298,000, and high schools can count on around $105,000 to $368,000.
Schools will get similar amounts to address social and emotional learning needs, resulting in about $37 per student.
The plan was designed to give schools flexibility in how they spend their money, while also establishing checks and balances for approving and overseeing the money, according to FCPS.
“All schools will create a plan that outlines how they will use their ESSER III funding to support students’ academics and wellness, and they will post information about their plan on the school website,” FCPS said.
The plan also calls on FCPS to fast track the addition of 10 positions for its English Language Learner programs, which already include 887 positions, 98% of which are teachers, Brabrand noted.
According to the state, $124 million was available as of April 30 for Fairfax County, and the remaining third will become available after FCPS submits a plan to the state due on Wednesday (Sept. 1).
The Commonwealth required school districts to post their plans for using the money within 90 days of receiving the funds. Districts were also required to gather public input, which FCPS did with a hearing on June 7.
The ESSER plan is separate from the year-end budget review that the school board approved during the same meeting on Thursday, which included one-time bonuses for FCPS staff.
The first day of school is always a nerve-wracking affair, but the stakes felt especially high on Monday (Aug. 23), when Fairfax County Public Schools brought back roughly 180,000 students after more than a year of mostly virtual instruction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the return to school unfolded relatively smoothly, students, staff, and parents raised a multitude of concerns as well, primarily around transportation and the lack of distancing and masks in cafeterias, Fairfax County School Board members said during a work session on Tuesday (Aug. 24).
The transportation challenges were largely expected, as FCPS advised families last week that a school bus driver shortage would lead to delays. In a presentation to the board, Superintendent Scott Brabrand reported that the district had filled 86.4% of its 1,121 bus driver positions as of Monday, leaving 152 vacancies.
Still, the advance warning didn’t make the delays less frustrating for students and their parents.
“[Parents] want to know how long is it going to take for their children to come in, and [there were] also lots of concerns with students who were left outside to wait for their buses, and they don’t know how long,” Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson said. “Is it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 45? When we have the heat we had yesterday and rain that’s going to come, because let’s be clear, this transportation issue is not going to be resolved any time soon.”
According to an FCPS spokesperson, the Langley area has been hit hardest by the shortage, though the school system was unable to provide data on exactly how many students have been affected by bus delays.
Noting that the school system has 20 “double-back” routes this year, compared to just eight last year, FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Transportation Services Jeff Platenberg told the board that delays were reduced by 40% from Monday morning to Tuesday.
Even on Tuesday morning, however, late runs to Langley High School, Spring Hill Elementary, and Longfellow Middle School were all an hour off of their schedules.
“We know everybody is anxious about it, including us,” Platenberg said. “We’re excited about this start for the school year. We have some extreme challenges with this bus driver shortage, but we are working with our communities.”
He added that kiss-and-ride lines at schools were “jammed” on Monday and Tuesday, calling it “a healthy problem to have” since the crowds indicated that parents were heeding FCPS’ advice to drive or walk their children to school if possible.
One parent who asked to not be identified described the kiss-and-ride experience at her son’s elementary school as “absolute pandemonium,” with supervising staff seemingly scrambling to figure out where students were supposed to go.
In one case, a 4-year-old girl ended up on a shuttle to an after-school program that she doesn’t attend, leading her parents to post on social media that she was missing.
“I’m not trying to disparage the teachers who are clearly out there doing the best that they can, but from a system standpoint,” the parent said on Tuesday. “Yesterday and today were very, very hot days to just sit there for 30 minutes with no shade. What if it’s a pouring rainy day? What is your system? There has to be a better way to think through this.” Read More
A group of parents submitted over 5,000 signatures yesterday (Monday) to the Fairfax County Clerk of Court in a petition to recall Fairfax County School Board member Elaine Tholen, who represents the Dranesville District, over school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Open FCPS Coalition formed in the fall to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and has been campaigning to recall Tholen and two other school board members, Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish and Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen.
“I look forward to continuing to earn my constituents’ trust and support as we prepare to welcome all students in person five days per week,” Tholen said in a statement. “As a former classroom educator and now a school board member, I have always worked for my students’ well-being and to help them reach their utmost potential. I will continue to put our students’ best interests first.”
Recall supporters have a different perspective.
The petitions that citizens signed argue that, in supporting an all-virtual start to the most recent school year, the school board was not acting in children’s best interests. The petitions also allege the school board violated state and local laws and regulations guaranteeing students with disabilities a free, appropriate education.
“Just how far behind are our students? How will these deficits be met?” Zia Tompkins, a coalition board member and former school board candidate, said, raising questions about staffing and other issues. “Parents have been left in the dark about these issues and…as such have real doubts as to whether the Fairfax County school system is even serious about opening full-time in-person for the fall.”
The group met outside the Fairfax County Courthouse before a dozen supporters and leaders went inside to deliver the signatures.
While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, its largest funding contributions have come from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.
The coalition’s largest expenditure has been for signature collection services from a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm, Blitz Canvassing LLC, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
The group hopes a judge will review the signatures as part of a trial that could ultimately lead to Tholen being removed from her position.
Open FCPS Coalition says only one school board member, Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority. But only three school board members were chosen for recall efforts because of the group’s limited resources.
Coalition board member Nellie Rhodes said Monday that work to recall Cohen and Omeish continues.
The coalition’s website says it has over two-thirds of the 4,000 signatures needed to recall Cohen, which if obtained, would represent over 10% of the total number of people who voted in her election — the threshold required for a recall to be considered in Virginia.
After shifting entirely to virtual learning on March 13, 2020, FCPS began phasing in some in-person learning in October, but the process was put on hold when COVID-19 cases started to surge around Thanksgiving.
Students began 2021 in remote settings before the school board approved the return of a hybrid model — where students could opt for two days of in-person classes or to remain all-virtual — starting on Feb. 16. FCPS expanded its in-person offerings to four days for some students in April.
Open FCPS Coalition board member and Vienna resident Hemang Nagar says he ended up taking his daughter, who is on the autism spectrum, out of school in the fall because of the distress virtual classes caused her. He said she used to love school but would cry whenever he opened the computer.
“Virtual learning was an utter disaster for her and so many like her,” he said.
His daughter, who is now 10, returned to her elementary school when in-person classes restarted in February.
“They pretend to care but never put their words into action that does any good for any students,” Nagar said of the school board members that the coalition is targeting for recalls.
Cheers and applause came after the Fairfax County Public Schools board updated its student handbook to better document harmful and suspension-worthy conduct and protect different gender identities and expressions.
The updates that the school board approved Thursday (July 15) ensure that the handbook conforms with FCPS policies supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, gender-expansive, and other students (LGBTQ+).
Cementing established protections for students from being intentionally outed or misgendered, the move comes amid intensifying discrimination against transgender people in particular across much of the U.S.
The advocacy group Human Rights Campaign said in May that state legislatures have introduced — and in some cases, adopted — “unprecendented” amount of anti-LGBTQ+ measures, including many that specifically target young people and deal with schools.
Efforts in Loudoun County to adopt a policy ensuring students will be identified by their correct names and pronouns and use bathrooms that match their gender identity led to an ongoing lawsuit and a contentious school board meeting that resulted in an arrest and an injury.
“To the gender-expansive and transgender students and their families who have witnessed these attacks on their simple human dignity, I am sorry,” Providence District Representative Karl Frisch, Fairfax County’s first openly gay school board member, said on Thursday. “You deserve much, much more.”
For the first time ever, as an extension of the school board’s nondiscrimination policy, FCPS regulations, and Virginia code, this document specifically identifies several rights of particular interest to gender-expansive and transgender students. Among them are the right to use facilities that align with their gender identity, the right to be called by their chosen name and pronoun, the right to nondisclosure of their gender identity or sexual orientation, and the right to receive supports that ensure equitable access.
Other updates include a more detailed definition of hate speech, more specific language around the role of school resource officers, and an alignment of the school system’s policies on marijuana with its alcohol policies after Virginia legalized small amounts of the drug for adults 21 and older, effective July 1.
The Fairfax County School Board adopted a regulation stating that students should be called by their chosen name and pronouns, can use locker rooms and restrooms consistent with their gender identity, and can wear any clothing as long as it complies with the dress code in October.
The regulation also banned deadnaming, which has now been prohibited in the SR&R handbook, along with malicious misgendering.
The school board previously approved a regulation addressing many of these issues in July 2016, but FCPS decided to wait on officially implementing it to see the outcome of various court cases and legal issues. Read More
Virginia PTA Official Resigns after Fairfax County Rally — Virginia Parent Teacher Association Vice President of Training Michelle Leete resigned Saturday (July 17) after drawing heat for her speech at a rally in support of transgender students before the Fairfax County School Board’s meeting on July 15. Leete is also a leader of the Fairfax County NAACP, which said in a statement yesterday (Sunday) that it stands “firmly” by her and that her remarks have been taken out of context. [The Washington Post]
Man Arrested for Reston Town Center Carjacking — Last Wednesday (July 14), Fairfax County patrol officers found a stolen car in the parking lot of Kohl’s in Herndon and arrested the man inside, charging him with grand larceny, possession of stolen items, and two drug-related charges. Police believe he was also responsible for a carjacking that occurred in Reston Town Center on June 12. [FCPD]
Gerry Connolly Trail Partially Closes Starting Today — “The Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail will be closed between mile markers 3.2 and 3.8 in the Difficult Run Stream Valley Park from Monday, July 19 through Friday, Aug. 6, 2021…The closure of this section of trail north of Route 7 (Leesburg Pike) will allow crews to perform maintenance on the Potomac Interceptor sanitary sewer.” [Fairfax County Park Authority]
Reston Kindergartener Awarded Grant — The Reston Accessibility Committee awarded a grant through its Financial Aid Outreach Program to a Reston kindergarten student with special needs. The grant will help the student’s family purchase sensory toys for a home-based therapeutic program. It’s the third grant that RAC has distributed as part of the program. [RAC]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
The Fairfax County School Board approved a framework yesterday (Thursday) to seek federal COVID-19 money, with the stipulation that it gets increased oversight and input on how the money will be spent.
The roughly $189 million plan would start with the upcoming school year and extend to June 2024. It is intended to help Fairfax County Public Schools respond to issues stemming from the pandemic.
“While we did have a public hearing about where people would like us to target our monies, we have not had the opportunity to get the greater details from the superintendent and his team,” Braddock District Representative Megan McLaughlin said.
The school board thanked district administrators for developing the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) framework after learning about the incoming funds in May, but several board officials questioned whether the proposal was sufficiently detailed and provided enough accountability.
“The ESSER funds are unlike other funding by the federal government in that it has a requirement to have extensive community input and outreach,” Mount Vernon District Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said.
The ESSER III money will support school operations, cover increased workloads for Individualized Education Program (IEP) staff, aid academic interventions, address students’ social and emotional needs, help with translation services for students, and more.
The largest costs, as identified by district staff so far, would involve:
- $54.9 million for academic intervention
- $46.2 million for special education teacher contracts
- $23.3 million for social and emotional learning needs
- Nearly $20.2 million for summer 2022 learning
- Nearly $14 million for afterschool programming and transportation
According to an FCPS presentation about the program, the ESSER money should address the impacts of the pandemic especially for students who have been disproportionately affected, and at least 20% must be used to address learning loss, among other rules.
The money will come through the Virginia Department of Education from the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law in March.
Corbett-Sanders said FCPS faces an Aug. 1 deadline for submitting a general framework to the state before giving a more specific plan for how it will spend the funds by Sept. 1.
“Rather than just greenlighting, ‘They’re giving us $188.6 million, we’re going to put it in a line item list,’ we felt that it was important to have a little bit more comprehensive planning around the ESSER funds grant,” Corbett-Sanders said.
With the board’s initial approval, Superintendent Scott Brabrand will present an official ESSER III plan prior to the board’s Aug. 26 business meeting. He will present more detailed information, including targeted goals, operational timelines, and accountability metrics in a September work session.
The board’s motion also stipulated that state-filed amendments to the plan that reach $100,000 or more must be authorized by the board.
Fairfax County will hold more summer classes for students with disabilities later this month after staffing issues put the program in jeopardy.
After families were informed that a teacher deficit was delaying the Extended School Year program, the school district adjusted it into two blocks, the first of which is already underway, to allow it to keep class sizes low but do more with less staff.
“We’re in a special education crisis,” Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Brabrand said Tuesday (July 13) during a work session with the school board.
He noted around half of the 400 job openings that the district currently has involve special education, but according to the school district, a second Extended School Year block is “almost fully staffed.”
“There is a full commitment that we will have a fully staffed second session of the ESY,” Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Karen Corbett-Sanders said, adding that FCPS notified families and provided a timeline for transportation, food services, and more.
Earlier this month, FCPS apologized for communications that suggested the “administration was faulting teachers for failures of the system to supply optimum programming.”
“Our staff members have gone far beyond ordinary expectations and we are grateful for their professional dedication,” the district said on social media.
While officials praised teachers and administrators for making services work this summer, FCPS is looking to build within its own ranks to help address long-term faculty shortages.
School officials are working to apply for COVID-19 relief from an ESSER III fund (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief). The money comes from the $1.9 trillion stimulus in the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in March.
Previous federal COVID-19 relief plans included ESSER funds administered by state education departments, though local school districts had to apply to obtain the funds.
The school board was slated to vote on a plan for how to spend the roughly $189 million that FCPS is seeking when it meets tomorrow (Thursday).
The money would cover a three-year span, starting with the upcoming school year through June 2024. Intended to help schools safely open after a challenging year due to the pandemic, the funds can be used to support school operations and address students’ social and emotional needs.
The proposed plan would allocate $46.2 million to special education staff, which amounts to a 7% salary increase to cover the extra 30 minutes needed each day to file Individualized Education Program paperwork due to the pandemic, according to FCPS.
The funding sought would also involve around $2.5 million for professional development. According to Tuesday’s presentation to the school board, that effort would involve two new employees each year. It isn’t immediately clear if that’s all for salaries or if other expenses are involved.
Other requests include $54 million for academic interventions, $2 million for cybersecurity, $15.9 million for after school programming and transportation at high schools, and $20.1 million for a summer 2022 learning program.
Board members pressed FCPS officials for more accountability and strategic planning in its plans for the federal funds. Community members previously weighed in through focus groups in May and June, online feedback, and a June 7 public hearing.
Wilda Smith Ferguson, a parent of a child with special needs in the district, said during the June meeting that the school system’s decisions regarding protocols haven’t taken children like hers into consideration.
“She is totally dependent on her teachers and the support staff at the high school that she attends,” Ferguson said. “I would like to see some of the money in the grant go to, basically, instead of ‘trickle down,’ trickle up. Figure out what is best for the most vulnerable and work up.”
The deadline for FCPS to apply for ESSER funds is Sept. 1.
(Updated 4:30 p.m.) A contentious meeting over acceptance of transgender students in Loudoun County Public Schools has Fairfax County officials eyeing their own policy and pushing for more equitable regulations to support transgender and gender non-conforming students.
The Loudoun meeting, which discussed a new policy that requires trans students be treated respectfully and allowed to use restrooms and play in sports that align with their gender, comes months after Fairfax County Public Schools adopted similar new regulations in October.
A spokesperson for FCPS said the regulations adopted in October are still undergoing review to ensure they align with state guidelines. An FCPS spokesperson said all regulations are reviewed annually to ensure they are in compliance with new state legislation.
The new regulations grant transgender students access to various facilities consistent with their gender identity and effectively prohibit dead-naming students — using pronouns or names in records that don’t reflect the student’s gender identity.
“They’ve been mulling about it for a few months,” said Robert Rigby, a Latin language teacher at West Potomac High School and co-president of FCPS Pride. “Many students were thrilled. There was a blast of happy messages with multiple exclamation points. They were ecstatic after years of being dead-named in online platforms and in grading and by substitutes. Suddenly, they could just talk to their counselor and get it changed.”
Rigby said there was an “enormous relief” among students. Staff training started in March to prepare and educate teachers about the new regulations.
FCPS had previously added gender identity to the school system’s non-discrimination policy in 2015. Rigby said several factors over the last year helped push FCPS into codifying protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students, crediting:
- Gavin Grimm’s recent victory when the Supreme Court rejected a Gloucester County school district appeal of a lower court decision that found the schools had violated Grimm’s rights
- State legislation requiring local school districts to have policies adhering to how individuals identify their gender and requiring access to bathrooms and locker rooms associated with their gender
- The election of the first openly gay school board member Karl Frisch
“These protections are long overdue,” said Frisch. “If we are truly committed to fostering a caring and inclusive culture, gender-expansive and transgender students must be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else. They must be made to feel safe and accepted.”
Others in Fairfax County leadership, including Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay, rebuked the comments made during the Loudoun school board meeting.
My statement regarding hateful rhetoric against members of northern Virginia’s LGBTQIA+ community. pic.twitter.com/8sX7Uc7Ujz
— Jeff McKay (@JeffreyCMcKay) June 25, 2021
Rigby, who has taught at West Potomac High School since 1999, said faculty and parents, along with some students who felt welcome, have helped advocate for the changes, but student advocacy can be sometimes hindered by concerns about subjecting students to humiliations like those on display at the Loudoun meeting.
“Students advocate to us, but quite frankly it’s not incredibly safe and can be very alarming for young LGBTQIA to speak openly at School Board meetings,” Rigby said. “There have been dreadful things said and doxxing, so we caution children and their parents: when you speak publicly, this might happen.”
Rigby said the Loudoun was one of the worst he’s seen.
“We’ve had some dreadful meetings in Fairfax over the years, the worst being May 7, 2015 when they updated the non-discrimination policy,” Rigby said. “It also happened in 2002 when we were talking about a harassment policy. We’ve seen this happen in our county, but Loudoun was worse than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Still, Rigby said overall there’s been remarkable progress in the attitudes of many in the school system over his last two-decades of advocacy.
“I’ve seen attitudes in teachers, parents, and students take a big change,” Rigby said. “It’s changed dramatically. It’s a change beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s relieving and frustrating. I was discussing with a friend last night, another advocate who is a school psychologist, just how far we’ve come and how wonderful it is. It’s taken a long time. There’s an awful lot of work left to do.”
Rigby said FCPS Pride and other organizations are trying to focus now on offering more rounded care for students who may not receive support at home.
“We’re turning our eyes now to children who are housing-vulnerable, who aren’t welcome in families,” Rigby said. “Fairfax is definitely setting up structures to help families and children come to agreement… The school system is putting together these structures to help kids at school and at home.”
Photo via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
The Fairfax County School Board is providing expanded support for adult education programs and services, particularly in Herndon and Reston.
The board provided consent for a lease renewal and expansion of Fairfax County Adult High School as well as the consolidation of Fairfax County Public Schools instructional and services programming in the Herndon and Reston area during a regular meeting yesterday (Thursday).
The consent follows the staff recommendation to continue and expand the existing lease at the Herndon Centre III shopping complex on Elden Street or another financially and functionally feasible location to consolidate other programs.
The programs considered for consolidation specifically include the Transition Support Resource Center, Adult and Community Education (ACE), ACE-English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and the Community Welcome Center, which would have student registration, ESOL assessments, and community liaison services.
“There is an increased demand for Fairfax County Adult High School services,” FCPS spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said in a statement to Reston Now.
“Currently these programs are operating in undersized spaces and at various locations in the Herndon/Reston area that unintentionally cap enrollment and create inequity of service delivery of these programs with like programs offered in other parts of Fairfax County.”
The effort to consolidate the spaces used by the programs is meant to allow FCPS to provide an appropriate classroom learning and training environment, according to Caldwell.
The consent item on the school board’s agenda also stated that there is an opportunity for the board to “capitalize on favorable lease rates available in the commercial real estate market today that ‘stretch’ buying power and permit the rental of additional space at a much reduced per square foot cost.”
A new lease would also allow the re-use or removal of three ACE trailers at Herndon Middle School.
A new lease could also provide a one-stop opportunity for students and families with a shared location for a welcome center with instructional programming that would allow easier access to ESOL assessments, student registration, and other community services.
The consent item stated that neither FCPS nor Fairfax County facilities are available to meet the needs of these programs, which could require as much as 30,000 square feet of space.
Police Investigate Offensive KKK Flyers — Bigotry-filled flyers aimed at the Fairfax County School Board were found earlier this week in the Springfield and Sully Districts, apparently distributed by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. School board members and local leaders, including Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jeff McKay and the president of the county’s NAACP chapter, denounced the flyers, which are under investigation by county police and the FBI. [Patch]
Carjacking Reported in Reston Town Center — A man with a gun told a person in the passenger seat of a 2004 Toyota Corolla to get out and drove away in the car. The incident occurred at 5:25 a.m. on June 12 in the 1800 block of Presidents Street. The victim was not injured, police say. [FCPD]
A History of Slavery in Herndon — Ahead of Juneteenth, which commemorates the abolition of slavery in the U.S., Herndon Historical Society member Barbara Glakas delves into the lives of some past Herndon residents known to have held slaves. She notes that information about individual enslaved people is difficult to find due to the limited availability of written records. [Patch]
Reston Station Releases Showcase Video — Reston Station released a video yesterday (Thursday) showcasing the vision for the mixed-use development by the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station. The video breaks the area up into the Metro Plaza District, the Reston Row District that will be anchored by a JW Marriott hotel, the health-oriented West District, and the office-heavy Commerce District. [Reston Station/Facebook]
D.C. Area Sees More Hunger During Pandemic — “More families in Virginia and Maryland, and significantly more Latino families, were pushed into food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report on hunger in the D.C. area, which a nonprofit official called a ‘dramatic shift in the face of hunger.'” [WTOP]
Photo via vantagehill/Flickr
A former Oakton High School student will get another day in court after a three-judge panel ordered a new trial in her lawsuit against the Fairfax County School Board over school officials’ handling of a sexual assault report in 2017.
In an opinion released yesterday (Wednesday), Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judges James Wynn Jr. and Stephanie Thacker reversed a judgment rendered by a jury in 2019 and sent the case back to the U.S. District Court for a new trial, stating that the lower court incorrectly defined the legal standard to determine whether officials knew about the reported assault.
“We hold that a school’s receipt of a report that can objectively be taken to allege sexual harassment is sufficient to establish actual notice or knowledge under Title IX — regardless of whether school officials subjectively understood the report to allege sexual harassment or whether they believed the alleged harassment actually occurred,” Wynn wrote in the majority opinion.
A third judge on the panel, Judge Paul Niemeyer, wrote a dissenting opinion that Fairfax County Public Schools is not liable under Title IX — the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education — because its conduct was not so indifferent that it caused or amounted to discrimination.
Identified in court documents as Jane Doe, the plaintiff argued in a complaint filed against the school board in 2018 that FCPS administrators and employees did not meaningfully and appropriately respond to her report that a fellow student sexually assaulted her during a school band trip.
A junior at the time, Doe said she “struggled academically, emotionally, and physically” as a result of the experience, alleging that school officials suggested she might be disciplined for the incident and did not inform her parents about her report or the result of the subsequent investigation, according to Public Justice, the nonprofit representing her.
A jury in Alexandria determined in August 2019 that Doe had been assaulted and that the experience affected her education, but they found that the school board could not be held liable because it didn’t have “actual knowledge” of the assault, a term some jury members later said they found confusing.
That confusion became the basis for Doe’s appeal of the ruling, which came before the appeals court for oral arguments in January.
“I’m so grateful that the Fourth Circuit is sending my case back for a new trial, and recognized that Fairfax’s legal arguments would lead to ‘absurd results’ for student survivors like me,” Doe said in a statement provided by Public Justice. “It means a lot to me that the appeals court’s strong opinion will protect other survivors. Every student deserves to feel safe in school.”
An FCPS spokesperson said yesterday that the school system “respects the court’s decision” and was in the process of reviewing the opinions.
Public Justice attorney Alexandra Brodsky, who delivered the plaintiff’s arguments before the Fourth Circuit, said in a statement that the appeals court’s ruling makes clear “ignorance is no defense to violating students’ rights.”
“FCPS’s behavior — dismissing a student’s report of sexual assault out of hand — is too common among school districts across the country,” Brodsky said. “The Fourth Circuit’s ruling in Jane Doe’s case should serve as a warning that all schools must train staff to recognize and address sexual harassment.”
Parents who have spent the last year calling for a five-day return to school for Fairfax County Public Schools students are circulating petitions to remove three Fairfax County School Board members.
“Our petitions are all about the board ignoring science, dismissing the wishes of parents to have kids in school, and putting politics (unions) before our children,” the Open FCPS Coalition group told Reston Now. “We have people of all walks of life — young and old, with kids and without kids signing. People were afraid to sign at first because they didn’t want to get involved. But as more time passed, and people got disappointed about the school board lying to us, they started signing.”
They admitted that the campaign faces long odds. According to Ballotpedia, Virginia has seen just one successful recall campaign in at least the past decade, with the majority of efforts — including one against former Mason District School Board representative Sandy Evans — failing to reach a circuit court.
This parent coalition has been around since November and started distributing petition templates to other counties around that time. But the momentum did not pick up until mid-February, members said.
“December and January, people still weren’t getting out much and if they were, it wasn’t to come and sign a petition,” the group said. “Many people who sign now sign because of other things that they are frustrated with, but we are just glad people are recognizing our efforts.”
The Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a bipartisan organization.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, donor records show that its largest gifts have come from former Republican governor candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America Inc., a conservative group that has been vocal in school reopenings. Its largest expenditure has been for signature collection services, an expense that went to a center-right door-to-door voter contact firm with ties to N2 America.
“Anyone who wants to donate is welcome to…If the Dem party wants to donate we surely will take it,” the group said. “But it seems that though many Dems have signed and silently support, some are afraid to stand up for open schools. Thankfully we have Dems in our group who are bold and brave and know that nothing about the recall is personal or about politics. It is about what is moral.”
Coalition members aimed to collect enough signatures to recall at least one school board member by the end of this school year, which concluded on Friday (June 11).
The coalition chose Cohen, Tholen and Omeish after watching school board meetings and determining only one member had a record of voting and speaking that prioritized reopening over other issues: Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, according to the group’s website.
So, members narrowed down their targets to the two members who were elected with the fewest number of votes — Cohen and Tholen.
“Based on this discovery, the voters in their districts would likely provide the most support for the removal effort,” according to the website.
When reached for comment, Tholen said she centers all her work and decision-making on what is best for students.
“I am busy at this point fulfilling my job as a school board member,” she said. “I am closing out this school year, celebrating our class of 2021, planning for summer programs and preparing for fall when we will welcome all students in person five days per week.”
Cohen, meanwhile, said that her “focus is, has been, and always will be ensuring our students have the best opportunity to be successful in our schools.” Read More
(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Abrar Omeish doesn’t regret taking a stand on the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but if she could go back, she might have expressed her opinion a little differently.
The at-large Fairfax County School Board member sparked a heated local debate about one of the most contentious subjects in global politics last month when she recognized Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that concludes a month of fasting, with a tweet decrying Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “apartheid and colonization.”
As the board’s only Muslim member and the first Muslim woman elected to a school board anywhere in Virginia, Omeish says she felt a responsibility to speak up about the escalating violence that, at that time, had killed 10 people in Israel, including two children, and 192 people in Gaza, including 58 children.
Her May 13 tweet was part of the larger #EidwithPalestine hashtag that went emerged after Israeli security forces stormed the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem amid tensions over Palestinians being evicted from the city’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
“The idea was [Muslims] celebrate [Eid], but it’s bittersweet because we can celebrate while mourning and knowing that our Holy Land is being disrespected and people are being killed in their efforts to defend it,” Omeish told Reston Now. “…Being, like you said, the only Muslim voice, I felt tremendous pressure, and it’s not like I didn’t anticipate backlash.”
That backlash came from expected sources, given the school board’s decidedly Democratic makeup, as the Fairfax County Republican Committee chair called for Omeish’s resignation or removal and endorsed a parent-led campaign to recall her and other school board members that originally stemmed from frustrations with pandemic-related school closures in the fall.
However, the tweet also drew some criticism from colleagues and allies.
Hunter Mill District School Board Representative Melanie Meren said in a tweet on May 14 that she was “aghast” and “appalled,” calling Omeish’s sentiments alienating to members of the community, including herself, and a setback to Fairfax County Public Schools’ equity-related efforts.
“Rebuilding of relationships will need to happen,” Meren said.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington nixed plans to honor Omeish for supporting the recognition of additional religious holidays in the FCPS calendar. Four other school board members were still honored at the advocacy group’s annual membership meeting on May 20.
“The language Ms. Omeish used in this Tweet is deeply offensive and inflammatory to all who support Israel,” JCRC President Ronald Paul and Executive Director Ron Halber said in a joint statement on the decision. “…It is irresponsible of her to use her public platform to publicly advance controversial political views that target and marginalize Jewish students and their families and divide our community.”
The letter went on to say that conversations about why JCRC found Omeish’s comment offensive were unproductive as she “continued to stoke the flames of division and acrimony” by not removing the tweet or taking “affirmative steps to try to stem the vitriolic, hateful rhetoric on social media triggered by her remarks.”
For her part, Omeish says JCRC’s statement was “a complete mischaracterization” of how she approached their interactions, saying that she “got yelled at on the phone aggressively” and has “been threatened by JCRC multiple times” about her stance on Israel.
“They told me, if you don’t take this down, we will post a statement about you and it’s not going to be pretty,” she said. “They would say things like that to me, and for me, I’m like, look, I respectfully reject the threat. I’m not going to change my position because you’re scaring me.”
Halber and JCRC Associate Director Guila Franklin Siegel disputed Omeish’s characterization of their interactions in a statement to Reston Now:
“We took no pleasure in having to rescind Ms. Omeish’s award. But there is no place for the divisive and offensive language she used in her May 13th Tweet or for her insulting insinuations about the JCRC. We never have and never would threaten anyone. Ms. Omeish stands out among the thousands of elected officials and interfaith leaders from every background who have successfully partnered with the JCRC in nearly a century of community-building. We hope Ms. Omeish undertakes the hard work necessary to understand how her hurtful language impacted members of the Jewish community, including our children in FCPS schools. For the benefit of the entire FCPS community, we hope to be able to work with Ms. Omeish in the future to pursue unity, equity, and mutual respect in Fairfax County.”
Following the county government’s lead, Fairfax County Public Schools will soon prohibit voluntary cooperation between staff and Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the school board voted unanimously on Tuesday (May 5) to create a “School Trust Policy.”
Fairfax County School Board members say the new policy will align with the Trust Policy that the county adopted in January, which prohibits employees from giving federal immigration authorities information about a person’s immigration or citizenship status unless required by law or court order.
With the vote, some board members will start working with FCPS staff to develop the policy for full adoption in the near future. According to the school board, the new policy will be designed to help build confidence with immigrant families.
“Even with our school system’s existing commitment to privacy protection, the need for a policy that rebuilds trust with immigrant families remains urgent,” Providence District School Board Representative Karl Frisch, who co-sponsored the measure, said. “Fairfax County took the necessary first step. Our school division will now join them by developing a policy that helps rebuild trust in our schools and keep families together — that is exactly what the School Trust Policy will do.”
Student information, including immigration status, is confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, typically known by its acronym, FERPA. But advocates say ICE can easily access names, addresses, and birth dates to locate undocumented students and their parents.
“Because ICE takes advantage of privacy law deficiencies through data-mining of multiple public and quasi-public databases, the policies limit disclosure to other outside entities whose records could be accessed for immigration enforcement,” the immigrant rights group ACLU People Power Fairfax said. “Sensitive contact information may still be shared, but only when required to accomplish the agency’s mission.”
A recent survey from CASA, the largest immigrant advocacy group in the mid-Atlantic region, showed that Fairfax County has struggled to gain the immigrant community’s trust because members fear any contact with the police can lead to their deportation, Frisch says.
This fear keeps some families from accessing FCPS resources, such as meals, mental health services, parent workshops, and academic opportunities, according to School Board Chair and Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson, who joined Frisch in proposing the Trust Policy.
“To regain their confidence, we must demonstrate in all that we do that we are in the business of education and nothing more,” she said.
But the magnitude of the problem in FCPS is not easy to measure, as the Virginia Department of Education does not track immigration status.
What the school division does know is that, during the 2019-20 school year, nearly 27% of all students last fall were English Learners, and Frisch says that in 2018, a former FCPS student who was undocumented told the board that he did not report incidents of bullying and assaults because he feared being reported to ICE.
The forthcoming School Trust Policy will be essential to immigrant students’ educational success and general well-being, ACLU People Power Fairfax Lead Advocate Diane Burkley Alejandro says.
“Although federal privacy law provides protection for student information, there are numerous exceptions that put immigrant families at risk,” she said. “We applaud the School Board for recognizing that more must be done.”
More than 20 schools have expressed interest in learning more about a statewide pilot to conduct on-site COVID-19 screening and testing for students and staff, Fairfax County Public Schools officials reported yesterday (Tuesday).
FCPS Department of Special Services Assistant Superintendent Michelle Boyd told the school board during a work session that administrators will meet with staff at 21 schools on Thursday (April 22) to share more details about the Virginia Department of Health programs and determine which schools will ultimately participate.
In response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance for kindergarten through 12th grade schools, VDH is working with the Virginia Department of Education to launch two pilot programs this month: one will provide schools with free antigen testing supplies that can return results within 15 minutes, and the other will support regular screenings to identify potential infections.
According to VDH, the diagnostic testing pilot is primarily intended to diagnose COVID-19 in teachers, staff, and students who are participating in-person instruction or are close contacts with someone who has been diagnosed and begin exhibiting symptoms.
The screening testing pilot, on the other hand, involves regularly screening a broad group of individuals to detect an infection before it spreads or become symptomatic. FCPS says it would conduct this pilot just with students, since staff have been able to get vaccinated.
Schools have the option to participate in one of the pilot programs, both of them, or neither. The pilots will launch this month and conclude on June 30.
“Our purpose for implementing these pilots this year is to gain information about what would be needed to stand it up next year, so this is really to get us prepared,” Boyd said.
In addition to participating in the pilot programs, FCPS is “actively pursuing” partners in the hopes of setting up targeted COVID-19 vaccine clinics for students that would be similar to the ones arranged with Inova for teachers and staff.
Since Fairfax County entered Phase 2 on Sunday (April 18), students 16 and older can now register for the vaccine, and FCPS is encouraging everyone who is eligible to find an appointment, according to a presentation that Superintendent Scott Brabrand delivered to the school board.
“We know that’s going to be critically important to returning to five days of instruction,” Boyd said of students getting vaccinated.
According to a report prepared for the school board, there were 470 reported COVID-19 cases among FCPS students and staff currently participating in in-person learning between Jan. 26 and April 13, but only 29 of those cases involved transmission within schools.
Four of the five outbreaks in that time period stemmed from athletic activities. Since school sports restarted in December, FCPS has documented 270 COVID-19 cases, including 61 cases likely spread through schools, and 16 outbreaks across 12 schools, all in basketball, wrestling, and football programs.