Fairfax school disciplinary policies scrutinized after apparent suicide

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 9:45 PM

The apparent suicide of a 15-year-old high school football player in Fairfax County has sparked concern about the school district's disciplinary policies, which critics say are overly punitive and often debilitating for students.

The concerns come as students at W.T. Woodson High School mourn the loss of Nick Stuban, a former sophomore running back on the junior varsity team. Football players wore their homecoming jerseys in memory of the well-liked teen Friday, and many other students wore black.

Nick's death followed a disciplinary action that some parents and school activists considered unnecessarily harsh. A school spokesman defended the district's policies as appropriate and in line with state law.

The teen was suspended and referred for expulsion last fall after an incident that his family and school officials declined to disclose. A hearing was held, and he was allowed to return to class in early January. At that point, he had been reassigned to Fairfax High School.

On Thursday morning, the teenager was found dead at his Fairfax home. Police said they were investigating the case as an apparent suicide.

The teen's father, Steve Stuban, who declined to discuss details, said he was "heartbroken" and was not seeking to assign blame. But speaking beside his wife, Sandy, he said that process following the infraction was intensely painful for the couple's only child.

"His spirit was crushed," Steve Stuban said.

Nick will be buried in his Woodson football sweat shirt, with his high school number, 45, on his back.

As the family prepared for a Monday service, parent activists and a School Board member spoke about the need to reexamine discipline policies and what some parents call a "zero tolerance" approach. Many school districts in recent years have increased penalties for violations of weapon, drug and some other policies.

"Parents need to understand this is a loss for the entire community," said Janet Otersen, a Fairfax parent and school activist. She said that although she does not know all the details of the case, it appears that "we failed this child."

Otersen went through the discipline process five years ago, when her daughter, then a sixth-grader, got into a scuffle with a boy, she said. "The way these hearings are run," she said, "it's not a nurturing environment where they lecture the kids. . . . They treat them like the Una-bomber."

Otersen also objected to requiring school transfers as a remedy. "Where's the justification for uprooting these kids from their support structure?" she said.

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