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Suicide turns attention to Fairfax discipline procedures

Nick Stuban was a football player at W.T. Woodson High School whose story brought to light a discipline system that many Fairfax families call too lengthy, too rigid and too hostile.

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According to 13 pages of handwritten notes taken by a district employee, a Woodson assistant principal described the infraction and said Nick seemed remorseful. His locker, backpack and person were searched. No drugs were found and the case rested on "words from providers."

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Mostly Nick answered questions: Who sold it? How? When? What did it look like? Who watched? Where did it happen? How many times? Where did he get the money? What would your coach think? Are Advil or Tylenol allowed at school?

"I understand what I did was wrong, but not at the time," Nick said, according to the notes.

Nick told hearing officers that he aspired to be a doctor and that he hoped to play football in college. He talked about how much he liked Woodson - his friends, teachers, coaches. How he had been keeping up with his studies.

"Not worth this," the note-taker quoted Nick as saying.

Nick read a statement his mother wrote mentioning his helpfulness, saying Nick "responds to ventilator alarms, and performs tracheal suctioning, often late at night." She said he'd raised money for her disease, served as an acolyte at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and been in Boy Scouts for most of a decade.

"I implore you to consider his whole person, his willingness to learn from his mistake and his future contributions to Woodson," she wrote. "Please allow Nick to return to Woodson."

A hearing officer thanked the family for the statement.

Then, the Stubans say, the hearing became accusatory. No handwritten notes were taken to reflect this. A hearing officer declined to discuss the specifics of Nick's hearing.

According to the Stubans, Nick was asked repeatedly why he could not recall the price he paid for JWH. He had said $10 or $15 - or maybe $20 or $25.

"I don't remember the cost. I don't remember," his father remembers Nick saying. He says Nick, who rarely shed a tear, sobbed.

The Stubans recall a hearing officer then saying, "You haven't really given us a good reason why you did this, and we suspect you were really looking to buy something else."

To Steve Stuban, the proceeding was now harassing and unfair, based on suspicion instead of evidence.

Steve Stuban felt his own eyes fill with tears.

Sandy Stuban cried. Her caregiver cried.

The assistant principal pushed a box of tissues across the table.

"Why don't you believe me?" Steve Stuban recalls his son asking.

As they left, Nick looked at his mother. She remembers his words: "Should I have lied?"

November passed without Nick seeing a classroom.

During the day, he often sat at a small desk in the family room, using his computer as his mother sat in a recliner a few feet away. He wrote an essay on the French Revolution. He did assignments for Honors Algebra 2. He missed chemistry labs.

Nick checked the mailbox. His father checked the mailbox.

Nothing.

Sandy Stuban began to notice that Nick was quieter at home, more angry and moody. His father took Nick for a drug test Dec. 6, a requirement for being reinstated in school. Nick passed, he said, and the counselors reported that Nick showed no signs of a substance abuse problem.

But returning to Woodson would not be an option. When Stuban got the ruling the second week of December - 14 school days after the hearing - Nick was reassigned to Falls Church High School. The decision cited Nick's good record and sincere remorse in not expelling him.

"It seemed like they made their decision before they ever met Nick," Sandy Stuban said.

The family hired a lawyer, who said that the chances of winning an appeal were slim - and that Nick could not attend school during the lengthy process.

"Nick, we appeal this and win - and you lose," his father said. "We appeal this and lose - and you lose. There's no way to win."

Nick was unconvinced.

"I'd rather repeat my sophomore year than transfer," his father recalls Nick saying.

When the Stubans discovered that Falls Church High School did not offer German, which Nick had been studying at Woodson, they asked for a new assignment and won a small victory. Nick could start at Fairfax High School, which taught the language, after winter break, exactly two months after his suspension.

By then, Nick's descent had begun. His father recalls he was "quiet, head down" when he went to see his new high school. He was no longer a football player with a busy sports life, engaging teachers and lots of friends. The suspension from Woodson banned him from even visiting his old school, making it even harder to keep in touch with friends.

On Dec. 30, Steve Stuban walked into Nick's bedroom before work and saw a tiny plastic bag of marijuana. He confronted Nick and asked how long he had been using the drug. Nick said a couple of weeks. His father seized it. The incident convinced his parents that Nick's disciplinary experience had inadvertently encouraged the behavior it was designed to discourage.

"Now Nick was looking to pot to ease his pain," said Sandy Stuban.

That night, as Nick watched "Toy Story 3" with a football friend and his family, he texted another teen to say he wanted to take his life. Word soon got back to the Stubans, and after a tense night when he wandered off and police searched for him, his family took him to a mental health clinic. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital that day.

When Steve Stuban later reflected on Nick's decline, he recalled a sign of suicidal thoughts before that day - a text message that had created alarm back in September. Nick had denied sending it. Steve Stuban sat down with Nick. Was he serious? Was he depressed?

"Why would I do that?" Nick had said at the time. "It would hurt my mom."

At the psychiatric hospital, the doctors diagnosed depression. But when he was released Jan. 8, they told the Stubans they didn't think Nick would harm himself. They said he needed to get into counseling, which he started three days later. They prescribed an antidepressant, which he took.

But on what would have been his sixth day at his new high school, Nick took his life at home. He left a final note for his parents, speaking of his immense pain and life's unfairness.

At the memorial service Jan. 24, Nick's old football team wore jerseys over their dress shirts, joining Boy Scouts in uniform and hundreds of others in Bethlehem Lutheran Church.

They listened to the pastor, shared memories and watched a video that included Nick running a touchdown for Woodson in ninth grade, in the only game his freshman team won. They cried.

On Feb. 10, Steve and Sandy Stuban buried their son in Arlington National Cemetery - an honor to which he was entitled because of his parents' military service.

They put him to rest in his Woodson football hoodie, with his number, 45, on the back. They placed his new Boy Scout rank of Star in his coffin and tucked inside a jersey signed by his Woodson teammates in indelible marker. "Love you bro, #45 for life" was scrawled across the front. "Family Forever."

stgeorged@washpost.com

Staff writers Jenna Johnson and Tom Jackman contributed to this report.


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