Continuing to focus on education and school safety, Virginia GOP eyes repeal of discretionary misdemeanor reporting law

Virginia

In this Aug. 28, 2020, file photo, a sign that reads “Social Distance Maintain 6 ft” is posted on student lockers at a school in Baldwin, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – In the run-up to the Nov. 2 elections, state Republicans vowed to roll back laws the Democrat-controlled Virginia General Assembly passed over the last two years.

Two GOP lawmakers have already set their sights on a law giving school principals discretion on reporting misdemeanors to law enforcement.

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Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland) announced Wednesday he would be introducing a measure for the 2022 General Assembly session that would repeal the law and reinstate the policy requiring principals to report misdemeanor offenses that occur on school property.

“As a father of five, I find it disturbing and downright evil that anyone would support a law that allows school administrators to refrain from notifying police when crimes such as sexual battery or stalking have occurred,” McGuire said in a statement.

McGuire was beaten to the punch by Sen. John Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), who proposed a similar bill Monday to become the first Republican to file legislation for the upcoming legislative session. Cosgrove did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview.

These moves signal that Republicans plan to continue focusing on education and school safety issues when the party takes over the House of Delegates and Virginia’s three statewide offices in January. But a change to the law would need to get through the state Senate, where Democrats still hold a 21-19 majority.

Democrat lawmakers who advocated for the law argue the old policy helped fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, citing reports showing Virginia topping the nation in referring students to law enforcement. The change, Democrats contend, was meant to prevent students from getting criminal records for low-level offenses that could be resolved through the school’s disciplinary process.

“I obviously oppose it and will fight against it,” Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond), who sponsored the Senate’s version of the bill during the 2020 session, said of the bill Cosgrove filed.

In an interview Wednesday, McClellan spoke about reports from the Center for Public Integrity using data from the U.S. Department of Education before the new law was implemented showing Virginia leading the nation in referring students to law enforcement. According to one report, the commonwealth reported students to the authorities at three times the national rate in the 2017-18 school year.

McClellan shared concerns over data showing the referrals disproportionately affecting Black students and those with disabilities. She added that the old law “overcriminalized childhood behavior,” pointing to an example of a student diagnosed with autism who was charged with disorderly conduct for kicking a trash can at a middle school in Lynchburg.

Under the current law, principals have discretion when referring students to law enforcement for conduct that could be a misdemeanor in Virginia. House Bill 257 was narrowly approved in the Virginia House of Delegates, but the state Senate passed it with bipartisan support and without much debate. 

Republicans expressed outrage over the law on the campaign trail, many pointing to a case in Loudoun County where a high student was charged with sexually assaulting another student in a bathroom but then was transferred to another school within the district. The student was convicted for the bathroom assault but not before being charged with sexual battery and abduction after an investigation into an incident at the other school.

School officials reported the crimes to the authorities, according to reports, backing arguments from McClellan that the Loudoun County case did not concern Virginia’s crime-reporting law. McClellan noted that the sexual assault case involved a felony, which a principal must report to law enforcement.

While sexual battery is a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia, McClellan says the current law also requires school administrators to share any conduct that could be considered a misdemeanor with the parents of the students involved in the incident.

“I think they [Republicans] used fear and anger and misinformation to score political points and they are doing that now with this bill,” McClellan said. The state senator said she rejects the premise that the law makes students less safe and that she believes it “strikes the right balance.”

The current House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who was nominated House Speaker for the upcoming session, said Republicans would need “to right some wrongs” when speaking out against the law during a press conference outlining his caucus’s agenda days after the election.

Gilbert added that the law was a focus for Republicans on the campaign trail, and that it provided the base for the closing narrative of Glenn Youngkin’s campaign. Youngkin proposed having law enforcement officers at every school campus in Virginia amid the uproar over the Loudoun County case, threatening to strip state funding from schools if they don’t comply.

Cosgrove’s bill will first have to get approved by the Senate Education and Health committee, a panel with nine Democrats and five Republicans, before reaching the Senate floor. Cosgrove sits on the committee but so does Republicans who voted to approve the current law, including Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico).

Dunnavant’s legislative aide did not respond to 8News’ request for an interview Wednesday.

Another one of the committee members, Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax City), has been seen as a potential wild card for the upcoming special session due to his history of breaking from Democrats on certain measures — most notably the marijuana legalization bill passed in February.

Peterson said Wednesday he doesn’t believe principals should be required to report certain crimes on school grounds, such as minor theft and vandalism, to the police but serious crimes involving assault allegations, even if it’s considered a misdemeanor, should be reported.

“You want to know your kids are safe from serious and substantial threats,” Peterson said when asked if he would support changes to the current law. “You need to be notified and the police should be notified. I don’t know how do we thread that needle, maybe we need to figure that out.”

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