Suicide turns attention to Fairfax discipline procedures

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011

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.

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