February 21, 2011

If you're wondering whether zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are good for our schools and good for our kids, take a few minutes to listen to some of the parental buzz on a Fairfax County online forum:

"Request a copy of your son's record asap," urges one poster on Fairfax Underground. "You have the right. Take that to an attorney."

"All appeals are denied," warns another. "Don't waste your time."

"Good luck - you are in for one of the worse experiences of you life - dealing with FFX County School Board."

"How horrible a system we have that we as parents need to train our kids not to speak to teachers, cops, or administrations. I've told my kids they have one thing to say - I want to speak to my parents, and to not write or sign anything."

The way the much-vaunted Fairfax County school system treats kids who make mistakes has become Topic A in the wake of the Jan. 20 suicide of Nick Stuban, 15, whose story was recounted in heartbreaking detail Sunday by Post reporter Donna St. George.

By most accounts, Nick was a really good kid.

He was a die-hard on the W.T. Woodson High School football team, did well in his classes, was active in church and was even a Boy Scout, literally.

Then last fall, he made a single stupid mistake, the kind lots of teenagers make. In Nick's case, someone told a school administrator that he had purchased one capsule of a synthetic compound that mimics the effects of pot - JWH-018. It's not even an illegal substance.

Nick admitted it, apologized and was sincere and remorseful when he and his parents attended his disciplinary hearing in November. It was the only offense of that kind he'd ever had.

Nick was the only child of military veterans Steve and Sandy Stuban, and he was struggling long before he walked into that hearing room.

His life at home was defined by illness, an excruciating childhood spent watching Lou Gehrig's disease take his mother, muscle by muscle. He knew how to respond to her ventilator alarms and how to perform tracheal suctioning on her. She came to his hearing in a wheelchair with her nurse.

Nick made it clear that Woodson was his second family. This was a school where he'd found inspiration, support, friendship and succor. He begged to go back.

But the hearing board showed the Stubans no compassion and no understanding. It stuck to Page 20 of the school system's disciplinary manifesto - the Student Responsibilities and Rights Handbook - that parents and students are required to sign each year.

On that page is explicit detail about Stuban's offense, saying that it "shall result in a ten-day suspension from school and recommendation for expulsion."

Fine. But why in the world didn't the hearing board disciplinarians consider something in the spirit of Page 23 from the same handbook: "Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions, the School Board may determine, based on the facts of a particular situation, that special circumstances exist and that no disciplinary action or another disciplinary action or term of expulsion is appropriate."

When you look at this family's situation and the student himself, Page 23 seems a much more reasonable place to begin.

If Page 23 doesn't exist for someone like Nick Stuban, than who can it possibly be for?

And yet, the hearing board stuck to Page 20, kicking a good kid out of school, a kid who needed the embrace of his school community more than anything else.

The whole ugly process went on for almost two months. During that time, Nick wasn't allowed to go to class or to his Boy Scout meetings or to sports activities. He became withdrawn and increasingly depressed. He'd been at his new school, Fairfax High School, for just a few days when he killed himself.

Stuban is the second Fairfax County student in two years to kill himself during the disciplinary process. Josh Anderson, a 17-year-old football player at South Lakes High School, did the same thing in 2009.

An entire organization dedicated to the school system's disciplinary policies and parents' experiences with it has sprung up: Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform.

The people who want change aren't saying that kids shouldn't be disciplined when they do something dopey. But they argue that most don't deserve to be treated like criminals, either.

Here's what the zero-tolerance policy has taught folks in Fairfax: When kids get in trouble for a minor offense, they need to clam up while their parents lawyer up. Families who treat a kid's screw-up head-on, with honesty, integrity and sincerity, as the Stubans did, will pay a price - sometimes a terrible price.

Expelling kids for shooting plastic pellets out of a pen case, strip-searching them in a hunt for Ibuprofen or writing a 6-year-old up for sexual harassment after a playground booty smack is not education. It's an over-lawyered response that flies in the face of common sense.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale said that zero tolerance was not a factor in the Stuban case and that the disciplinary process wasn't a factor in Nick's suicide. He called that conclusion "erroneous."

Here's the word I'd use to describe all of it: cruel.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.