Today’s Top Opinion: Intent in Henrico

Richmond Times-Dispatch

Three years ago, the nation learned that nearly six in 10 students in public schools are suspended or expelled at least once. Now comes another report, a door-stopping 460-page tome from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The report suggests schools should strive to address discipline problems before they happen, and that once they do happen schools should not automatically suspend the offender. These seem like sensible enough guidelines, but they come to a public school sector that has largely forsaken common sense in favor of a cookie-cutter approach.

A cookie-cutter, auto-pilot approach might be useful in staving off lawsuits from aggrieved parents over disparate treatment. But it makes little sense and often leads to absurd results — such as the suspension of Virginia Beach sixth-grader Adrionna Harris, whose “offense” was to take a razor away from a troubled student who was cutting himself and throw it in the trash. She reported the incident to school officials — who punished her because she had the razor in her possession for the briefest of moments. This, they held, violated the school’s zero-tolerance policy.

Henrico has no zero-tolerance policy per se. But it does have a student code of conduct administrators consider too rigid. The county has been considering how it can revise the policy to allow for mitigating circumstances and other considerations without abandoning proper standards for student behavior.

As the Council of State Governments report indicates, Henrico has lots of company. Many other localities have been reviewing their discipline policies to make them more deliberative and — dare we say it — judicious. A similar phenomenon has been at work in the nation’s criminal justice system. Judges have spoken out against inflexible mandatory minimum sentences and other policies that have swollen the nation’s prison population, at a high cost not necessarily proportional to the reduction in crime.

The profusion of inflexible rules has not been limited to the legal realm. In his new book, “The Rule of Nobody,” Philip K. Howard explores how the multiplication of laws and regulations has deprived civil servants of the chance to exercise good judgment and rendered the assignment of responsibility to an actual human agent far more difficult. It’s refreshing to see institutions — including public school systems, including Henrico’s — push back against that trend and strive to be more intentional.