Teenager suspended from Fairfax County school over acne drug

Hayley Russell, 14, plays basketball outside her home in Herndon. The teenager, who was suspended from school for having acne pills in her locker, wrote in a statement, "
Hayley Russell, 14, plays basketball outside her home in Herndon. The teenager, who was suspended from school for having acne pills in her locker, wrote in a statement, " (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2011

Hayley Russell was 13 and worried about another acne flare-up when she brought an orange prescription bottle to Rachel Carson Middle School in Fairfax County. She placed the medication on the top shelf of her locker so she could retrieve an antibiotic pill to take at lunch.

"I just didn't think about it at the time," she says.

Hayley violated Fairfax rules that prescription medication must be signed in at the school clinic by a parent and kept there. The pills sat in her locker for months. When an administrator confronted her about them last May, acting on a tip from other girls, Hayley quickly acknowledged her mistake. But it triggered a disciplinary process that kept her out of class for more than seven weeks and banned her from even visiting Carson without official permission.

For Hayley, the episode added a new layer of anguish to the social upheavals of middle school. Rumors churned wildly, with false accusations and painful insults about what she did to get into so much trouble. "Preggo," a classmate wrote on her Facebook wall. "Druggie," texted another.

Hayley's experience - as reflected in interviews and school records provided by her family - follows a pattern reported by parents in at least 18 other cases in Fairfax: Students get ousted from school for a month, two months, or longer if an appeal is filed. They go to disciplinary hearings expecting impartial reviews and find instead what they consider an adversarial process. For many, consequences include school transfers that cut off social connections and upend academics.

The Fairfax discipline system is under increasing scrutiny after Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old football player, committed suicide on Jan. 20 amid the fallout of an infraction at W.T. Woodson High School. The school board will begin a review of discipline policies Monday.

In Hayley's case, the drug infraction involved erythromycin, a common antibiotic that a doctor prescribed for her skin. "It was outrageous," said her father, Mark Russell, 52. "The intended and unintended consequences for Hayley were so severe."

Fairfax schools spokesman Paul Regnier said the school system interprets state law as requiring Hayley to be suspended and recommended for expulsion because she possessed a controlled substance, which includes prescription medication.

Several experts say that's a reasonable starting point, although perhaps not a universal practice in Virginia. The larger issue is flexibility in discipline, said lawyer David M. Foster, vice president of the Virginia Board of Education. "The key is that one wants to have at the end of the day an appropriate discipline action," he said.

In Fairfax, Hayley's case went to a hearing and her suspension was prolonged because it occurred near the end of a school year, when the small staff in the hearing office is particularly busy. "The punishment was exactly what her parents had asked for in the hearing," Regnier said, noting that the Russells had requested a transfer.

Hayley's parents say they did so because of the vitriol that followed her suspension and because they were told by an assistant principal and their attorney that a transfer was inevitable. Their best hope, the attorney said, was to seek placement in their second-choice school.

"What I really wanted was for the school system to have processes in place . . . not to blow the whole thing totally out of proportion," said her mother, Helen Russell, 49.

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