In aftermath of student's suicide, Fairfax board examines discipline practices

By Donna St. George
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 3:59 AM

They questioned whether the punishments for first offenders in Fairfax County public schools fit the infraction. They wondered about the length of the disciplinary process and whether suspended students need more academic and mental health support.

Their ideas and inquiries came one after another, dozens in all, as the Fairfax County School Board on Monday started a comprehensive review of student discipline policies in the aftermath of the suicide of a 15-year-old football player from W.T. Woodson High School.

The review is expected to continue in the weeks ahead, as information is collected and debate begins on how to balance the larger cause of school safety with individual student needs and systemic fairness.

Monday's two-hour session was meant to get issues on the table - and it did, with an outpouring of topics raised by board members: time spent out of classes, requirements of state law, data on effectiveness, the role of principals, the use of discretion, the importance of consequences and consistency..

"That was huge progress," said board member Martina A. Hone (At Large), an advocate for reexamining the policies. "That was us publicly stating there's a lot to review."

There was no public comment in the session, but the meeting room was filled to its capacity of 102 people, with a crowd that included parents, activists and school staff. Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who has defended the system's handing of discipline cases, steered clear of opinions and instead guided the discussion.

The public examination came as discipline cases have made headlines, including one involving Hayley Russell, a middle school student who had prescription acne medication in her locker. She was suspended last May and out of class for more than seven weeks.

Nick Stuban, a Woodson linebacker, was suspended in November for buying one capsule of JWH-O18, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects that was legal at the time.

Nick was out of school two months. His family faced a disciplinary hearing they considered highly adversarial, and Nick was transferred to a new school, away from his friends and Woodson teammates. His family does not blame the discipline process for causing his suicide in January, but they contend it was a contributing factor.

Nick's father, Steve Stuban, sat with relatives and his pastor as he observed the session.

Nick's case was not mentioned by name but board Patty Reed (Providence) made an oblique reference. "I am haunted by a few of the decisions made by this board and this school system," said Reed , who later said her thoughts included the Stuban family.

For the most part, board members talked more generally.

Board Chairman Kathy L. Smith (Sully) cited the timetable of the often-lengthy process. Board member Elizabeth T. Bradsher (Springfield) suggested comparing Fairfax practices to those of other school systems of similar size, as well as to those nearby.

Board Vice Chairman Brad Center (Lee) said he wanted to ensure that "the discipline penalty is commensurate with the infraction." Board member Daniel G. Storck (Mount Vernon) talked about getting parents involved. Board member Ilryong Moon (At Large) stressed due process and the need to "provide a sense of fairness and justice."

Hone asked for a look at the pros and cons of bringing a neutral reviewer into disciplinary hearings and having proceedings officially recorded or transcribed.

She also said the 174,000-student system should acknowledge questions about "zero tolerance," noting that some parents view the current policy as one-size-fits-all because first offenders are so often removed from their schools. But schools officials see it very differently, Hone said, because transfers are a lesser punishment than expulsions.

"Instead of dancing around it, I think we need to confront it," she said.

The audience broke into applause.

Board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) talked about staying aware of the messages conveyed by disciplinary actions. "You don't want the pendulum to go too far in one direction, or too far in the other," Gibson said.

A handful of principals offered board members brief glimpses from the trenches. None cited major problems. There was talk of the importance of consequences and written guidelines- - and inevitable cross-currents.

"Everyone wants me to run a tight ship - until it comes to their child," said Robinson Secondary School Principal Dan Meier. Then, he said, "They want some leniency."

Afterward, Steve Stuban said he was grateful that a first step was taken but wished that board members would halt the practice of mandatory school transfers during this period of deliberation. He also said he had hoped the board would immediately approve taping or fully transcribing disciplinary hearings.

"I'm just concerned about the kids who are still going through the process Nick went through," he said.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company