Fairfax school disciplinary policies scrutinized after apparent suicide

By Donna St. George
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.

School system spokesman Paul Regnier did not speak about the particulars of the Stuban case. But he disputed parents' contentions that discipline policies amount to a zero-tolerance approach, saying that not every student recommended for expulsion is expelled. He also said state law requires that expulsion be recommended for certain offenses. Even so, he said, in Fairfax, "it's done on a case-by-case basis."

No review of discipline procedures is underway, Regnier said, but "you are obviously always open to changes that can be helpful."

The Stuban family did not want to discuss the teenager's infraction - saying this was a time to remember Nick's life - but his father said it did not involve a violation of the law.

School Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) said that although she thinks Fairfax is probably doing "as good a job as any" school district, she also thinks "we are a bit too punitive in the tone of our discipline process." Hone said she has sought to get board members and staff interested in reassessing the process.

Caroline Hemenway, a parent who founded FairfaxZeroToleranceReform.org after her teen got in trouble for marijuana possession five years ago, said she has received a steady stream of calls and e-mails from parents since Nick's death.

She contends that the district has no data to show that disciplinary transfers from one school to another are effective for the students involved or their schools.

Dante Verme, 17, a Woodson student and defensive tackle who had the football locker beside Nick's, described the teen as "a quiet kid, but he was always happy, always joking around."

Verme said he understood the difficulties of the discipline process, having been transferred to Woodson after a vandalism offense. "Transferring is, I think, one of the worst things ever," he said. At the hearing, he added, "they treat you like a criminal. I remember my situation. It was so degrading."

His mother, Sonia Mey-Schmidt, said that she hesitated to speak out when her son got in trouble but that she feels compelled to get involved.

Noting the 2009 death of Josh Anderson, 17, who committed suicide as he awaited a hearing on a second marijuana offense, she said she thought: "One death was enough. Not a second one."

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