Suicide turns attention to Fairfax discipline procedures

Nick Stuban was all about football, a quick-footed linebacker at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County who did well in the classroom, too: four As, two Bs and a C for first quarter. His history teacher described the 15-year-old as a “model student,” and his German teacher was impressed by his enthusiasm for language. His attendance record was nearly perfect.

That changed Nov. 3, when Nick was suspended from school for buying a capsule of a substance known as JWH-018, a synthetic compound with a marijuana-like effect. JWH-018 was legal — Nick had checked it out first on Google — but he soon discovered that he had made a mistake with consequences far beyond anything he expected.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” his father recalls Nick saying.

Over the next 11 weeks, his mistake unraveled much of what Nick held close — his life at school, his sense of identity, his connection to the second family he’d found in his football team. Nick’s emotional descent was steeper than anyone imagined, and its painful finality brought light to a discipline system that many Fairfax families call too lengthy, too rigid and too hostile.

Nick took his life Jan. 20, the second student in two years to die of a suicide amid the fallout of a disciplinary infraction in Fairfax. In March 2009, Josh Anderson, 17, a football player at South Lakes High School, committed suicide the day before his second disciplinary hearing.

Suicides are never associated with a single cause, experts say. But Nick’s difficulties — based on interviews with family, friends, experts and school officials, and more than 100 pages of case documents — allow a close look at how consequences intended to help a student correct course instead can fuel a growing despair.

His story follows patterns described by parents in at least a dozen other Fairfax cases with similar disciplinary consequences. Even first-time offenders are out of school for long periods — a month, two months, longer if an appeal is filed. When they return, more than half are not returned to their original schools and can face difficult transitions — new teachers, new friends and new classes.

Superintendent Jack D. Dale vigorously defends his discipline system, saying that school transfers show the system’s balanced approach by offering students the chance to attend a new school rather than be expelled. He said that discipline in Fairfax is individualized and that protracted periods out of school are usually because families have scheduling delays.

Dale would not discuss the Stuban case but said: “The connection between teenage suicide and discipline policies is erroneous.”

Fairfax parents tell stories of going into the process without an attorney and finding their children under fire at adversarial hearings. These families contend there is no impartial judge but instead a presumption of guilt. They say there is little discussion of a student’s well-being, psychological state or the cause of the misconduct.

“The parents feel very often that they are in the middle of criminal prosecution — that there is no balance or context and the facts are skewed to the negative,” said Bill Reichhardt, a Fairfax lawyer whose firm has handled more than 100 school discipline hearings in Virginia.

Dana Scanlan, lead hearing officer for the superintendent, said the goal is fact-finding. “We want to put the situation into its proper context,” she said, in order to determine the consequences. Hearings can be emotional, she said, but “I don’t believe our hearings are adversarial or confrontational.”

The typical time out of school is 20 school days, Scanlan said, and some parents call to say the hearing process helped students turn a corner. “We are all educators, and we care about these kids,” she said.

In Nick’s case, the suspension dragged on for seven weeks, and then it was winter break. He was banned from Woodson and other school system property during that period — no weekly Boy Scout meetings, no sports events, no driver’s education sessions, all held on school grounds.

He felt stigmatized and grew isolated, his parents say, as the teen rumor mill produced exaggerated versions of why he’d been suspended. Some friendships slipped away. His sense of accumulating unfairness rose.

At home, there also were the cruelties his mother faced, living on a ventilator with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which left her mind intact but claimed nearly every muscle in her body. Sandy Stuban was an inspiration to many — with her ability to communicate by using remaining facial muscles to interact with a keyboard and voice synthesizer — but her illness shaped their family life, with nurses on duty all day and her husband, Steve, taking over at night.

When ALS claimed Sandy Stuban’s ability to speak, Nick understood her words longer than anyone. His mother often said she chose to extend her life by using a ventilator because she wanted to see her only child graduate from high school and college.

On Nov. 3, Steve Stuban picked up the phone at work to hear an assistant principal at Woodson ask him to come to the school. Nick had committed a disciplinary infraction, the assistant principal said, and would be suspended for 10 days with a recommendation for expulsion.

Stuban was a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army — the same rank his wife held before being medically retired — and the longtime military couple shared a strong regard for rules and protocols. Nick, meanwhile, was considered a likable athlete. He worked hard at football — drank a gallon of milk a day — and had grown up with classic pursuits of childhood: sports and Boy Scouts and visits with cousins.

When Steve Stuban arrived at Woodson that November day, he was told that Nick had confessed in writing to buying JWH-018. As was common in such cases, Nick had signed the admission before school officials had alerted his parents of the trouble.

“What’s JWH-018?” asked the 52-year-old father, now a government project manager, who was dumbfounded and disappointed by the idea that Nick had bought the substance.

Steve Stuban learned that a week earlier, the hallways at Woodson had been abuzz with rumors of drugs. At first, the talk was about DMT, a hallucinogen. None was ever found, but that gossip led school officials to students selling JWH-018 and to Nick, who had bought it.

Nick wrote in a statement Nov. 3 that another student had approached him with an offer to buy DMT but that he declined. When that same student later offered JWH-018, which he had described as “a legal spice, like nutmeg,” Nick checked it out online at home and decided to make the purchase.

“All the research I did showed it was legal and had no negative long-term effects,” he wrote.

The capsule he got was “filled less than halfway with the JWH,” he wrote. “I was sort of surprised because it did not look like a spice, but I said ok and took it home. I tried smoking it out of a pretzel and eating it with lettuce.” He felt lightheaded and threw away the rest of the capsule, he told school officials.

Nick’s previous Fairfax disciplinary history, according to school records, included two infractions: using a cellphone and copying a friend’s work in class once.

For buying JWH-018, Woodson officials recommended Nick for expulsion, but Steve Stuban felt sure it would make a difference that Nick was a first-time offender. Nick would be punished fairly, he thought, and would learn from the incident.

Soon after, Nick approached Trey Taylor, his football coach, with visible regret. “It wasn’t, ‘Poor me, I can’t dress for the last game,’ ” Taylor recalls. “It was, ‘I feel like l let you down. I feel like I let the team down.’  ”

Nick was “always doing the right thing,” Taylor said. “I would never believe in a million years that he would have been in this position.”

In the past three years, Fairfax’s cases of recommended expulsion have declined, which Dale attributes to a program that encourages positive behavior in schools.

The district’s most recent figures show 683 cases of suspension with recommendation for expulsion, which led to 370 school transfers. Fewer than 60 students returned to their school. Fairfax officials say recommendations of expulsion are required for certain offenses under state law.

School board member Jane K. Strauss (Dranesville) said transferring students sends a message that teens can’t “just get away with it and come back.” Transferred students also get the opportunity to “start over again,” she said. “Sometimes a change of peer group, a change of environment helps.”

Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) contends that the transfers ignore the impact on students and families. “This comes out of the same era as corporal punishment,” she said. “It was not to rehabilitate the child. It was to punish.”

In the Washington area, few systems use school transfers as often as Fairfax does. D.C. schools have moved away from involuntary transfers. In Montgomery County, a majority of students go back to their home schools, said Wayne Whigham, who oversees disciplinary processes. “You want to put the kid back in the community where they feel comfortable, where they have friends, where they have the best chance for success because they are familiar with the surroundings.”

There is not extensive research on mandatory transfers, said Dewey Cornell, a University of Virginia education professor who studies school discipline. But research shows that even suspensions, which are temporary, tend to increase academic problems and lead to further behavior problems and higher dropout rates.

Richard Lieberman, a suicide expert at Loyola Marymount University, said that a discipline crisis can be the spark that combines with underlying issues such as depression to develop into suicidal thoughts.

In Fairfax, signs of depression were reported by 29 percent of high school sophomores in 2009 and suicide had been contemplated by 15 percent, according to a county survey.

School officials described Nick’s infraction as possession of “an imitation controlled substance” and behavior “incompatible with a k-12 educational environment.”

Substance abuse is common among high schoolers. There are no statistics available for the use of JWH-018, but the county survey found that 38 percent had tried marijuana by 12th grade.

The Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook says that a first offender under the influence of cocaine or Ecstasy at school would get five to 10 days of suspension — which would mean no expulsion threat, no hearing process, no school transfer. The same goes for students who possessed alcohol or were drunk.

But Nick Stuban’s infraction, even though it involved a legal substance, fell into a more serious disciplinary category.

“It didn’t make sense,” said Steve Stuban, who said school officials told him they also had not heard of JWH-018. “You have an infraction, you don’t know what the substance is and you arbitrarily apply the harshest standard to it.”

Scanlan, the hearing officer, said that the same standard is applied to all cases of possessing drugs, controlled substances or imitation substances. That includes even oregano if it is packaged to look like marijuana. Being under the influence is different, she said, because “that student hasn’t brought anything on school grounds” that endangers others.

On Nov. 16, Nick pushed his mother’s ventilator-equipped wheelchair into the hearing room, accompanied by his father and his mother’s nurse. They had requested the file on Nick’s case and read through it. But they had not talked to a lawyer, following the advice of a Woodson administrator who Steve Stuban said cautioned against bringing in one because it might create a confrontational climate.

According to 13 pages of handwritten notes taken by a district employee, a Woodson assistant principal described the infraction and said Nick seemed remorseful. His locker, backpack and person were searched. No drugs were found and the case rested on “words from providers.”

Mostly Nick answered questions: Who sold it? How? When? What did it look like? Who watched? Where did it happen? How many times? Where did he get the money? What would your coach think? Are Advil or Tylenol allowed at school?

“I understand what I did was wrong, but not at the time,” Nick said, according to the notes.

Nick told hearing officers that he aspired to be a doctor and that he hoped to play football in college. He talked about how much he liked Woodson — his friends, teachers, coaches. How he had been keeping up with his studies.

“Not worth this,” the note-taker quoted Nick as saying.

Nick read a statement his mother wrote mentioning his helpfulness, saying Nick “responds to ventilator alarms, and performs tracheal suctioning, often late at night.” She said he’d raised money for her disease, served as an acolyte at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and been in Boy Scouts for most of a decade.

“I implore you to consider his whole person, his willingness to learn from his mistake and his future contributions to Woodson,” she wrote. “Please allow Nick to return to Woodson.”

A hearing officer thanked the family for the statement.

Then, the Stubans say, the hearing became accusatory. No handwritten notes were taken to reflect this. A hearing officer declined to discuss the specifics of Nick’s hearing.

According to the Stubans, Nick was asked repeatedly why he could not recall the price he paid for JWH. He had said $10 or $15 — or maybe $20 or $25.

“I don’t remember the cost. I don’t remember,” his father remembers Nick saying. He says Nick, who rarely shed a tear, sobbed.

The Stubans recall a hearing officer then saying, “You haven’t really given us a good reason why you did this, and we suspect you were really looking to buy something else.”

To Steve Stuban, the proceeding was now harassing and unfair, based on suspicion instead of evidence.

Steve Stuban felt his own eyes fill with tears.

Sandy Stuban cried. Her caregiver cried.

The assistant principal pushed a box of tissues across the table.

“Why don’t you believe me?” Steve Stuban recalls his son asking.

As they left, Nick looked at his mother. She remembers his words: “Should I have lied?”

November passed without Nick seeing a classroom.

During the day, he often sat at a small desk in the family room, using his computer as his mother sat in a recliner a few feet away. He wrote an essay on the French Revolution. He did assignments for Honors Algebra 2. He missed chemistry labs.

Nick checked the mailbox. His father checked the mailbox.

Nothing.

Sandy Stuban began to notice that Nick was quieter at home, more angry and moody. His father took Nick for a drug test Dec. 6, a requirement for being reinstated in school. Nick passed, he said, and the counselors reported that Nick showed no signs of a substance abuse problem.

But returning to Woodson would not be an option. When Stuban got the ruling the second week of December — 14 school days after the hearing — Nick was reassigned to Falls Church High School. The decision cited Nick’s good record and sincere remorse in not expelling him.

“It seemed like they made their decision before they ever met Nick,” Sandy Stuban said.

The family hired a lawyer, who said that the chances of winning an appeal were slim — and that Nick could not attend school during the lengthy process.

“Nick, we appeal this and win — and you lose,” his father said. “We appeal this and lose — and you lose. There’s no way to win.”

Nick was unconvinced.

“I’d rather repeat my sophomore year than transfer,” his father recalls Nick saying.

When the Stubans discovered that Falls Church High School did not offer German, which Nick had been studying at Woodson, they asked for a new assignment and won a small victory. Nick could start at Fairfax High School, which taught the language, after winter break, exactly two months after his suspension.

By then, Nick’s descent had begun. His father recalls he was “quiet, head down” when he went to see his new high school. He was no longer a football player with a busy sports life, engaging teachers and lots of friends. The suspension from Woodson banned him from even visiting his old school, making it even harder to keep in touch with friends.

On Dec. 30, Steve Stuban walked into Nick’s bedroom before work and saw a tiny plastic bag of marijuana. He confronted Nick and asked how long he had been using the drug. Nick said a couple of weeks. His father seized it. The incident convinced his parents that Nick’s disciplinary experience had inadvertently encouraged the behavior it was designed to discourage.

“Now Nick was looking to pot to ease his pain,” said Sandy Stuban.

That night, as Nick watched “Toy Story 3” with a football friend and his family, he texted another teen to say he wanted to take his life. Word soon got back to the Stubans, and after a tense night when he wandered off and police searched for him, his family took him to a mental health clinic. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital that day.

When Steve Stuban later reflected on Nick’s decline, he recalled a sign of suicidal thoughts before that day — a text message that had created alarm back in September. Nick had denied sending it. Steve Stuban sat down with Nick. Was he serious? Was he depressed?

“Why would I do that?” Nick had said at the time. “It would hurt my mom.”

At the psychiatric hospital, the doctors diagnosed depression. But when he was released Jan. 8, they told the Stubans they didn’t think Nick would harm himself. They said he needed to get into counseling, which he started three days later. They prescribed an antidepressant, which he took.

But on what would have been his sixth day at his new high school, Nick took his life at home. He left a final note for his parents, speaking of his immense pain and life’s unfairness.

At the memorial service Jan. 24, Nick’s old football team wore jerseys over their dress shirts, joining Boy Scouts in uniform and hundreds of others in Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

They listened to the pastor, shared memories and watched a video that included Nick running a touchdown for Woodson in ninth grade, in the only game his freshman team won. They cried.

On Feb. 10, Steve and Sandy Stuban buried their son in Arlington National Cemetery — an honor to which he was entitled because of his parents’ military service.

They put him to rest in his Woodson football hoodie, with his number, 45, on the back. They placed his new Boy Scout rank of Star in his coffin and tucked inside a jersey signed by his Woodson teammates in indelible marker. “Love you bro, #45 for life” was scrawled across the front. “Family Forever.”

stgeorged@washpost.com

Staff writers Jenna Johnson and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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