Some House Dems now back bill requiring school principals to report misdemeanor crimes

‘Voters made it very clear that the Democrats had gone way too far’

By: - January 26, 2022 7:46 pm

The floor of the Virginia House of Delegates. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Democrats on the House Education Committee gave broad support to a bill that would once again require school principals to report many misdemeanor-level offenses to law enforcement.

The legislation, which passed the committee Wednesday on a 16-5 vote, would roll back a 2020 law that passed under Democratic control that made it optional for principals and superintendents to report certain incidents committed on school property. As passed, the law still required principals to report felony-level offenses, but gave administrators discretion on whether to report a range of lower-level incidents, from assault and battery to stalking to threats against school employees. 

Virginia gained national attention in 2015 as the worst state in the nation when it came to student referrals to law enforcement. The 2020 legislation, aimed at reducing what many advocacy groups call the “school-to-prison pipeline” passed the Senate with bipartisan support after an amendment from Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, that gave school administrators even more leeway in deciding what to report.

House Democrats also nearly unanimously supported the amended version of the 2020 bill, which passed the House 46-44. But it was widely decried by Republicans, with now-House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, describing it as “a policy that will make our students, teachers, and school personnel significantly less safe.”

The legislation was signed into law by former Gov. Ralph Northam but became a political flashpoint during the 2021 race between newly sworn-in Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin, whose campaign harnessed parental anger over issues like school equity initiatives and COVID-19 protocols, jumped on a controversial sexual assault case in Loudoun County as more evidence that Virginia schools weren’t being held accountable to parents. 

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin takes the stage at an election-night rally at the Westfields Marriott Washington Dulles on November 02, 2021 in Chantilly, Virginia. Virginians went to the polls Tuesday to vote in the gubernatorial race that pitted Youngkin against Democratic gubernatorial candidate, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The governor specifically mentioned the 2020 law in a campaign ad featuring the case, according to reporting from Politico. Republican leaders also claimed the law made it easier for the school district to cover up the incidents.

“We believe children are less safe if that accountability doesn’t exist, if school officials are left with that discretion that they can abuse or misunderstand,” Gilbert told WRIC in October. “Schools shouldn’t be a bubble for discretion to be exercised about what is and isn’t a crime.”

House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, looks out over the chamber from the dais. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In reality, the district referred the first assault to local law enforcement on the same day it occurred — a fact confirmed by the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Loudoun Times-Mirror. The second assault, committed by the same student, was also reported to the office, which publicly announced the incident the next day. As a potentially felony crime, the assaults would still have fallen under the law’s mandatory reporting requirements.

Garren Shipley, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said the Loudoun County case underscored potential pitfalls of the 2020 law even if the case wasn’t a “one-for-one match.” He also cited the November election as the reason why multiple Democrats who voted for the law — including Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, Del. Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William and Del. Shelly Simonds, D-Newport News — supported legislation that would roll back many of its provisions.

“This was a big issue for us in the campaign and the voters made it very clear that the Democrats had gone way too far,” Shipley said. “Voters recognized that changes needed to be made and needed to be made quickly.”

Since the bill was first introduced, Republicans have made changes to narrow the types of incidents required to be reported. The current bill is similar to an early version of the 2020 legislation — before it was amended in the Senate — that requires administrators to report incidents involving drugs and alcohol only if they reach felony-level offenses.

“Any drug that’s scheduled as a felony they’d be required to report,” said Nicole Wittmann, a former prosecutor who now serves as a deputy attorney general. “If there was a situation involving marijuana, specifically, if there was a felony amount — there was a distribution, attempted distribution, something along those lines — those would be reportable. But just simple possession, a joint in someone’s pocket, would not be.”

Simonds, who co-sponsored the 2020 legislation, said that exemption would allow her to support the bill. Multiple misdemeanor-level offenses would revert back to mandatory reporting status, including threats against school employees, illegally carrying a gun and assault and battery that resulted in an injury.

“I think the key is that they involve violence,” Shipley said. “They’re things that, even if they’re not felonies, everyone can agree are exceedingly bad.”

To become law, the legislation still needs to pass the full House and Senate and be signed by Gov. Youngkin, who supports the bill. It’s not clear how the bill will fare in the Senate, which is still under Democratic control.

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Some House Democrats also had concerns over the proposed rollback. There are currently no exemptions for students with disabilities, even in cases of minor offenses such as verbal threats. Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, also worried it could take away autonomy from the victims of incidents on school property. 

“I think this bill, with the requirement to immediately report these things to law enforcement, really hampers and restricts the victim and perhaps their parents from really controlling what happens in one of those really unfortunate situations,” he said.

“Oftentimes, in these school situations, the victim and the perpetrator might know each other,” Bourne continued. “So we’re putting the victims, their families, their caregivers in a really precarious position by taking some of that power about how to move forward, what the timing is, away from them.”

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

An award-winning reporter, Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. While at the News-Post, she won first place in feature writing and breaking news from the Maryland-Delaware-DC Press Association, and Best in Show for her coverage of the local opioid epidemic. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md.

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