Va. teen's suicide prompts Md. review of 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
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 11:05 PM

Maryland officials will ask school systems across the state to examine their disciplinary policies in the aftermath of the suicide of a Northern Virginia football player who took his life as he grappled with the fallout of being suspended from his high school.

The Maryland Board of Education asked for a review of policies in the state's 24 school systems, expressing concern about any existing "zero tolerance" practices and a need for support services for suspended students.

"I want to get some assurance that this never happens in our districts," said Kate Walsh, a member of Maryland's State Board of Education who became concerned about the issue after reading an article in Sunday's Washington Post about Nick Stuban, 15, of Fairfax County. "Every aspect of what happened to that boy in Fairfax County is an abuse of school authority."

Stuban was out of school for two months - then transferred away from his friends, team and teachers at W.T. Woodson High School - after admitting that he bought one capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound with marijuana-like effects. The substance was legal at the time but not allowed at school.

The teen later described his actions as a "really stupid decision." His parents said that his disciplinary hearing was confrontational and devastating to him and that it lacked due-process protections. As the Stubans have grieved, they have called for policy reforms.

In Virginia, state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax), brought the issue to the floor of the Senate in a speech Tuesday. In a later interview, he said the Fairfax system needs more transparency and parental involvement as well as a greater emphasis on "the best interests of the child."

Fairfax officials have said on several occasions that the system does not use a "zero-tolerance" approach to discipline and considers each case individually.

Said Petersen: "I respectfully disagree. I think there tends to be a zero-tolerance mentality that threatens the reputation of the school system."

Petersen, a lawyer, said he has been to several school disciplinary hearings in recent years.

The process, he said, is "a kind of prosecutorial system without any of the safeguards you would expect from that kind of system."

Some Fairfax parents and activists said they planned to bring their concerns to a School Board forum that will consider discipline policies and other issues. It is set for 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church.

In Maryland, the board asked State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick at a meeting Tuesday to discuss the case with local superintendents at their next monthly meeting to ensure that "they all do soul-searching on this front to make sure this couldn't be repeated," as Walsh put it.

Of concern, she said, was Stuban's transfer to another high school and what she called an "overreaction . . .. a lack of common sense." She took issue with lengthy periods out of school. "The time out of school only aggravates the situation, and in the case of this boy, it created a whole new range of problems," she said.

Barbara M. Hunter, assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach in Fairfax, said the district was not aware of Maryland's action and could not comment.

The Virginia Board of Education has not discussed the matter and generally leaves the implementation of disciplinary policies up to local school districts, board Vice President David M. Foster said.

Foster said state law requires zero tolerance for having such items as firearms and controlled and imitation controlled substances on school grounds, but he said that "precise disciplinary action taken is left largely to the local boards," as are the procedures used by any district. Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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