Autism advocacy groups oppose Virginia bill changing what schools are required to report to police

Virginia General Assembly
Posted at 1:33 PM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 18:22:07-05

RICHMOND, Va. – On February 15, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would change the type of incidents that schools are required to report to law enforcement.

Senate Bill 36 would “require that school principals report to law enforcement certain enumerated acts that may constitute a misdemeanor offense and report to the parents of any minor student who is the specific object of such act that the incident has been reported to law enforcement." Currently, principals are required to make reports only for acts that could constitute a felony offense.

The bill still has to go through committees. In the meantime, some autism and disabilities advocacy groups are fighting the bill.

Brian Kelmar is the executive director of a non-profit organization in Richmond called Legal Reform for Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled (LRIDD). He is also the parent of an autistic son.

Kelmar says that while this legislation may sound reasonable, children with disabilities can act out and could later be arrested, resulting in further distress. He feels minor behaviors like a tantrum in which a child hits a person should not be criminalized. Rather, it should be handled by specially-trained staff at the schools.

“You’re going to get people with these types of disabilities getting caught up in the criminal justice system for acts that are specifically related to their disability,” Kelmar said.

He described one possible scenario: “You could have a 6-year-old child basically having a temper tantrum or a meltdown, and if they are having their hands flailing all over the place and they hit somebody, it’s required now that it has to be reported to police. Once it’s reported to the police, the police are showing up; they’re required to make an arrest."

He added, “When the police officer shows up and there’s a call that there’s been an assault, they’re not there to negotiate. They’re not there to be the judge and jury.”

On February 15, the bill passed 26 – 14 in the Virginia Senate. In the bill, it does state that “a principal is not required to but may report to the local law enforcement agency any incident... committed by a student who has an individualized education plan."

While that may be helpful for students with IEPs, Kelmar worries about those who have yet to be diagnosed, especially elementary-aged children.

Kelmar says he understands lawmakers being tough on crime, but feels this bill is too broad and ultimately would hurt those with disabilities as well as their families.

“Should they really enter the criminal justice system? Or should we handle them as children or developmentally disabled people, and handle them the way they should be handled and addressed in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, in a fair and equal manner and taking that into account," he said.

Kelmar encourages the public to learn more and consider writing their state leaders.