Fairfax County should reconsider its zero-tolerance school discipline

Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 8:28 PM

WELL BEFORE the suicide of a 15-year-boy who had gotten into trouble at his school in Fairfax County, there were worries about the fairness and effectiveness of the system's discipline policy. Indeed, so worried were six School Board members last fall that they pressed, unsuccessfully, for a comprehensive review of school practices. No one can know whether the tragedy of this young man's death was tied, in any way, to these policies, but surely there are enough questions to prompt a review.

The School Board is set to meet Thursday night amid an uproar over the death of Nick Stuban, a student who had been suspended and reassigned from W.T. Woodson High School for buying a marijuana-mimicking substance that, while legal, violated the school's code of conduct. Nick killed himself on Jan. 20, and the heartbreaking story of his troubles, as detailed by The Post's Donna St. George, has brought new scrutiny to Fairfax discipline practices. The Fairfax Board of Supervisors, in a rare incursion into educational issues, voted unanimously to commence a dialogue with school officials on the issue, and Nick's distraught parents called for an overhaul of the policies.

It is wrong, in the interest of advancing a particular agenda, to blame this boy's death on school policies. School officials are constrained from discussing details, and - as experts will attest - suicides are not associated with a single event or factor. But there are several issues involved in this case that bolster the earlier calls for a review of school policies. Fairfax's practice of involuntary transfers, in which students are reassigned to new schools and barred from attending their home schools, is intended to allow for a fresh start. But officials in other school systems, Loudoun and Montgomery for example, told us they rarely (only when the issue is physical safety) use the practice because they aim to get students back to a regular routine as soon as possible. Fairfax officials also would do well to see whether there is more they can do to support students while they are suspended and to ensure that hearings are more constructive than punitive.

Virginia law doesn't give local officials a free hand in these matters. Critics should acknowledge as much and drop their overblown rhetoric about zero tolerance; Fairfax may need to make adjustments, but school data show discretion is being used in individual cases. School board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), who pushed for a review in October and plans to try again Thursday, has it right. "It's like having a great car for five or 10 years," she told us, "and how it's gotten out of alignment from being driven and bumped down roads . . . you just need a little bit of adjusting . . . to get in back in balance."

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