The Fairfax County Public School Board decided unanimously Thursday night to review of the schools' disciplinary process, which could result in changes to what critics argue is a zero-tolerance policy against student misconduct. The school boar'd decisions came in the wake of a public outcry following the Jan. 20 suicide of 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a W.T. Woodson High School student who had been suspended from school.
The review was announced during a public forum, which also addressed less controversial issues such as the smoking policy on school property and a facilities planning advisory council, prior to a regularly scheduled school board meeting. Dozens of concerned parents, including Stuban's father, were in attendance, but had no ability to ask questions or make comments in that forum.
The issue of a disciplinary policy review was added to the agenda after the publication of a front-page story in Sunday’s Washington Post detailing what many felt was an overly harsh response to Stuban’s offense of purchasing a legal, synthetic compound called JWH-0118, which is banned in Fairfax County Public Schools.
After the meeting, board members expressed optimism they’d taken the first step in initiating a comprehensive review of FCPS disciplinary procedures. But many of the parents who attended the meeting were disappointed that they weren’t able to express their opinions, and were concerned that their voices wouldn’t be heard as the review process moves forward.
“We accomplished exactly what we set out to do, which was to define how we’re going to go forward in addressing the discipline issues that frankly I’ve thought have needed to be addressed for a long time,” said Daniel Storck, a board member who represents the Mount Vernon District.
The first step in the review process is for the issue to be raised at a previously scheduled work session March 14.
“The key thing is that we are going to move forward to the next step and have the thoughtful conversation where we can really examine our values as a board, and as a community, and how we expect the discipline process to work,” said Martina Hone, a board member at large who has long been a vocal advocate for a review of the county’s disciplinary process. “I think the momentum has shifted. When I used to bring up issues regarding discipline, the board members were scratching their heads, saying, ‘Why is this an issue?’ but it’s reached a state now where the vast majority of the board thinks it’s worth taking a look.”
After the March 14 work session, the board will meet again for its annual review of the Student Rights and Responsibilities policies, which lay out the disciplinary process. In May, the board expects to vote on any proposed changes to the staus quo. During the meeting, no board member uttered the words Nick Stuban, though it was clear to everyone that his suicide and the ensuing media coverage was what had precipitated the calls for a review of existing disciplinary policies.
Hone cautioned against “politicizing the tragedy” but both she and Storck acknowledged the case had touched the hearts of many in the community.
“The pain of any student is powerful and we all felt that pain … we’re all looking at this with 20/20 hindsight, and the best that we can do is what we are elected to do, which is make sure the system works for kids,” Storck said.
Although the voices of the parents were not heard at the forum, many sought out members of the media after the event to press the case for reform of the present disciplinary system, which they claimed lacks due process for accused students.
Stuban’s story hit home particularly hard for Patty Vindal of Fairfax, because she lost her husband to Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, and Stuban’s mother also suffered from the condition. Vindal was disappointed she didn’t have an opportunity to voice her opinion at the forum, but felt the strong turnout sent a message to the board that the public wants change.
“It’s a great thing that so many of us are interested in this issue now. The system needs reform, and these people need to listen to us,” she said.
The mother of a seventh-grader at Frost Middle School in Fairfax, who did not want to be identified by name, said the board shouldn’t need any more incentive to act now.
“A child just killed himself because of this experience, and this is the second time that this has happened in our community, and if that is not a resounding enough message to them that this process is punitive and excessive, then I think we have a real crisis here in Fairfax County,” she said.
Several parents were eager to tell their own stories of how their children were allegedly mistreated or given what they believed were excessive punishments for minor incidents of misconduct.
One woman’s son was reportedly suspended for three days for running across a football field during a timeout; another received the same penalty for using a cell phone in the hallway.
Caroline Hemenway founded the group Zero Tolerance Reform after her son, who is now on the dean’s list at James Madison University, was expelled from South Lakes High School five years ago for using marijuana on a band trip. She has mixed feelings about the forum.
“It’s an excellent start to addressing a very serious problem,” she said. “I’m happy they’re discussing it, I’m sick that it took two deaths for them to do it though. There is momentum for reform, but I did not hear a request for public engagement and that is absolutely critical to this process, the board cannot go forward in a vacuum all by themselves.”
Tim Taccadri, a resident of Herndon who pulled his children out of Herndon High School over concern regarding its disciplinary procedures, is not convinced a review will necessarily make the process fairer for the accused.
“In previous reviews, they’ve strengthened the rights of the school board, not the student,” he said.
Time will tell whether Nick Stuban’s suicide will result in dramatic changes to the FCPS disciplinary process, but clearly his story has already served to galvanize public interest in the issue.