Family of Fairfax teen suicide victim wants changes in school disciplinary policies

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.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 10:14 PM

The family of a Fairfax teenager who took his life as he struggled with the fallout of a high school suspension called for changes in the county's disciplinary policies, in a letter sent Monday to school and county officials.

The six-page letter, which came a month after the suicide of Nick Stuban, 15, a football player from W.T. Woodson High School, asked for an end to punitive school transfers, a more compassionate hearing process and punishments that are "proportionate to the nature of the alleged infractions."

It was e-mailed to Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale, copied to members of the School Board and Board of Supervisors and sent by the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that is representing the Stuban family.

The letter called Fairfax's hearing process harsh and "unconscionable" and lacking in due-process protections.

Dale responded to the letter with an e-mail that cited efforts to review the school system's Student Responsibilities and Rights handbook. "I want to assure you that we do annually review our discipline policies," Dale wrote, noting that another review would be held in the spring.

Much of Dale's e-mail referred to state law, however. "The state code seems to have 'zero tolerance' for certain infractions," he wrote. "The due process requirements are also in the state code, and perhaps should be reviewed as well."

Monday's exchange follows a growing debate in Fairfax about disciplinary policies, which the Stuban family believes were a contributing factor in their son's suicide.

Nick Stuban was a sophomore at Woodson until last November, when he was suspended for buying a single capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects. The substance was legal; the teen had checked it out online. School officials suspended him with a recommendation for expulsion.

Nick was out of class for two months. He expressed remorse at his disciplinary hearing for what he said was "a really stupid decision," but his parents said the hearing was adversarial and accusatory. The teen was transferred to a different high school and away from his friends, teachers and football team - attachments his parents say were especially important to him as an only child in a family grappling with a medical crisis. His mother suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Dale's reply did not specifically address the Rutherford letter's 10 suggested improvements, its criticism of the hearing process or the particulars of the Stuban case. The letter had also mentioned the March 2009 suicide of Josh Anderson, who was 17 when he took his life the day before a second disciplinary hearing in Fairfax.

John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, said he would continue to press the issue. "What he [Dale] basically said is whatever law is out there, he will follow," Whitehead noted. "What we're saying is, 'Go beyond the law.'รข??"

Whitehead said the legal process falls short of basics - including an impartial judge and a transcription of the hearing. The Stuban family could have hired a lawyer, but Steve Stuban has said he was told that an attorney would create a more confrontational climate at the hearing. They regretted not having an attorney, Stuban said.

"Obviously, the policies are having an adverse impact on at least some students," Whitehead said. "The stakes are high for the kids," he added. "You're not dealing with fully developed adults. That really increases the need for procedural due process."

Several elected officials voiced support for an in-depth review of disciplinary practices.

School Board member Sandra S. Evans (Mason) said that among her concerns are disciplinary school transfers, which send a student in trouble to another county school. "I would like to know if this has been effective as a disciplinary tactic, if this is something that works as far as keeping that student from repeating that behavior . . . and whether this is necessary for the safety of our schools," she said.

Board member Martina A. Hone (At Large) said the Rutherford letter contained "suggestions worth considering, but there are other suggestions we should be considering, too." She added, "I just hope what we're moving toward is a bona fide, comprehensive review and not just editing the SR&R [the student handbook]."

Steve Stuban said Monday that the family considered a letter the best approach to resolve the problems that became evident in Nick's case. People on all sides, he said, "should be able to look at the facts and look at the discipline policies to see if they are the most appropriate approach."

Stuban and his wife, Sandy, "are not looking for a pound of flesh," he said. "It doesn't get us anything." His voice broke. "Nick is still not going to be with us."

Their goal, he said, is policy change so other families do not "have to endure an abusive system" or face similar tragedy.

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