By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2011; 7:59 PM
Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale defended his school system's discipline policies Friday after an elected leader in Fairfax County linked two teen suicides to what she called a "zero tolerance" policy toward infractions.
Dale said that the Fairfax school district does not believe in zero-tolerance and never has. "We operate on the principle that students are given ample opportunity to correct their behaviors before serious consequences are applied," he wrote in a statement sent to members of the Fairfax County School Board and the Board of Supervisors. Dale was reacting to a board matter introduced jointly Tuesday by Supervisors Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) and Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason).
The measure cited "zero tolerance" policies and discussed the student suicides and the needs of students and families. It asked staff members to look into ways the county and school system could "partner in addressing the disciplinary process." It also raised the question of whether school personnel are missing signs of student problems.
The discussion came nearly three weeks after Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old football player at W.T. Woodson High School, took his life at his Fairfax home. His family has said that, in Nick's experience with the disciplinary process, "his spirit was crushed." His death came 22 months after Josh Anderson, 17, who played football at South Lakes High School, committed suicide on the day before a second disciplinary hearing.
Hudgins wrote that "many parents and students are asking whether the Zero Tolerance disciplinary policy of [the school system] lacks the ability to recognize the emotional difficulties students experience and intervene with appropriate support."
In an interview, Hudgins said families had come to her with concerns. "What is stated to me often is that it feels like zero tolerance," she said. Her measure asked that parents and community groups contribute to talks on improving the disciplinary system.
Dale said it was "unconscionable and a blow to those who have already suffered great pain" for Hudgins to associate disciplinary actions with the teen deaths "for the purpose of furthering a falsehood." Dale said it would be most constructive to focus on the incidence of depression among youths in Fairfax County.