The Washington Post

Discipline reformer inspired by family, grief

Steve Stuban, center, is shown with Diane Blais, left, and Sheree Brown-Kaplan at Virginia’s Chantilly High School on Nov. 8, 2011. (Gerald Martineau/For The Washington Post)

Steve Stuban visits his wife and son at Arlington National Cemetery about once a week. They are buried there together, in Section 64, grave plot 2301.

He lost his son in 2011, when the 15-year-old committed suicide amid the fallout of a serious discipline infraction that upended the teenager’s life at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County.

He lost his wife almost a year ago, after she succumbed to the grief of their only son’s death. Stuban said the tragedy crushed his wife’s will to battle amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative neurological ailment also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Sandy had that will to survive, to see her son grow up and graduate,” Stuban said. “A lot of that will to live was removed after Nick took his life.”

Stuban, 54, a former career Army officer, has become a central figure in discipline reform in Fairfax County schools. He led a 40-member committee that reviewed the district’s discipline process, a yearlong process that might soon result in significant changes to the way students are punished in the school system. This week, the school board is scheduled to vote on proposed revisions to discipline policies, including those Stuban has championed.

“I get great satisfaction working to make this a better school system,” Stuban said. “Any way that you can contribute to the community and help make it better is very rewarding.”

Stuban’s personal role in advocating for changes to the discipline process began Jan. 20, 2011, when Nick Stuban, a star sophomore linebacker on the Woodson Cavaliers’ junior varsity football team, committed suicide after he was suspended from school. Earlier in the school year, he had been caught at school purchasing a drug known as JWH-018, which mimics the effects of marijuana.

Stuban said that he and his wife decided after his son’s death to push for changes to what they believe are overly harsh punishments.

“We focused on, how do you make something good come out of this?” Stuban said. “We thought that the repercussions from these serious infractions are so severe that parents need to be involved right there from the very start to ensure students don’t get steamrolled.”

Next weekend, Stuban said, he will walk to the corner of the cemetery where his wife and son are buried to share a few quiet moments with his family.

“We have come a very long way,” Stuban said. “It’s about awareness in the community, knowing how dire the consequences can be from some arbitrary actions on the part of the school system.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.

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