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Fairfax schools' discipline policies up for review; parents seek more leniency

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 10:30 AM

There was alarm about middle-schoolers being questioned "for hours" without parents being notified. There were tears about high school years that might be derailed by a first disciplinary infraction. There was debate about what state law requires.

The Fairfax County school system heard from parents Saturday at its first meeting to gather public comment on discipline-related issues since the suicide of 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a well-liked football player at W.T. Woodson High School.

The suicide Jan. 20 set off a wave of concern about disciplinary practices in the state's largest school system. With a comprehensive review of discipline practices underway, two elected officials called the meeting at Falls Church High School, which was attended by about 50 parents, activists and elected officials.

The discussion filled the allotted couple of hours and grew charged and emotional at times.

Joyce Miller talked about her daughter's upcoming disciplinary hearing - and her worry that she would be ousted from Annandale High School and her social supports. "The fate of my daughter, while she made a very stupid mistake, is in the hands of these two people [hearing officers], potentially," she said.

Karen Curtin, a Parent Teacher Association president from Alexandria, said discipline issues hit home with parents in her middle school, where a recent incident led to 12-year-olds being questioned at length without their parents ever knowing there was a problem.

"This is very, very disturbing to me and others that I have spoken to," said Curtin, of Oliver Wendell Holmes Middle School, where she said families have started to advise children not to consent to interviews until their parents are with them.

Policy changes debated

The meeting Saturday was convened by School Board member Sandra Evans (Mason District) and County Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason).

Gross said she hoped county programs could be better used to help students in trouble, and Evans said she wanted community input as the School Board probes policy changes. That effort, which was launched Monday, is taking place at school board "work sessions" that do not allow public comment.

At the meeting Steve Stuban, whose son killed himself after being suspended, wiped tears from his eyes as he talked about how many days his only child was kept out of the classroom and how difficult and isolating the process was.

"You don't think about these things until you're captured in it," he said.

Nick's troubles started when he bought a capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects that was legal at the time but not allowed in school. His suspension, initially described as 10 days, went on for two months, and Nick was involuntarily transferred to another high school.

His suicide was the second in two years by a student struggling with the consequences of a disciplinary infraction in Fairfax. In March 2009, 17-year-old Josh Anderson, a football player at South Lakes High School, took his life the day before he was to face a second disciplinary hearing.

At Saturday's meeting, passions flared at times.

Chris Antoniou, Nick Stuban's uncle, stood up and confronted Barbara M. Hunter, an assistant superintendent who was there, expressing outrage at the way the system works and at Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who has defended the school district's discipline policies.

He also complained that a School Board member had asked for "evidence" that families were mistreated at hearings. "Most the time, people will not get this personal," he said after an intense critique, "but this is personal."

At other junctures, parents questioned how the discipline process works.

School Board member Martina Hone (At-Large) noted that some of Fairfax's practices - such as frequent involuntary school transfers - did not derive from policy as much as "habit."

There also was talk about what state law mandates.

As the meeting ended, Del. Kaye Kory (D-Fairfax), who has worked on discipline issues at the state level, urged the crowd to get active. "Now, now, now," she said. "Don't wait for the bureaucracy. Don't wait for the election. Find some interim measures that can be put in place now to stop the bleeding."

Tim Anderson, the father of Josh Anderson, seated in Saturday's audience, said he hoped it all would lead to change. "It's obviously gaining traction," he said. "If it can save a family from going through what we went through, it's a good thing."

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