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Posted at 1:01 PM ET, 02/20/2011

Why school zero tolerance policies make no sense

By Valerie Strauss

The discipline policy in Fairfax County public schools failed Nick Stuban.

Stuban was a 15-year-old football player at W.T. Woodson High School who committed suicide during a disciplinary process that he was forced to undergo after he purchased a capsule of a legal substance.

According to a story by my colleague Donna St. George, he was kept out of school for seven weeks and not allowed on the school grounds to attend weekly Boy Scout meetings, sports events, or driver’s education sessions. He killed himself Jan. 20.

This is not say the disciplinary system drove him to kill himself, or another boy before him in 2009. Suicide is complicated, and the reasons someone decides to take his/her own life are complex and often unknowable.

It is to say, though, that it failed to accomplish what a good disciplinary system should be aimed at: helping a student learn and move on from a mistake. The cost is too high for another such failure.

The problem is not, St. George reported, singular in the Stuban case; she found patterns in at least a dozen other Fairfax disciplinary cases in which first-time offenders were out of school for months and often forced to change schools. She quoted a lawyer who has handled scores of disciplinary cases in which parents reported feeling like they were undergoing a criminal proceeding.

Fairfax Superintendent Jack Dale has defended the policy, saying it isn’t “zero tolerance.” Some county officials say it is.

Whatever you want to call it, it needs to revisited.

Stuban was disciplined for buying a capsule of a substance known as JWH-018, a synthetic compound with a marijuana-like effect. JWH-018 was legal, but his hearing officer told St. George that the same standard is applied to all cases of possessing drugs, controlled substances or imitation substances. That includes even oregano if it is packaged to look like marijuana.

Does that make sense, especially when Stuban said that he bought the substance thinking it was legal?

It is well past time for school districts to drop no-tolerance policies in which the consequence is often far worse than the offense. There is no solid research showing any positive effect on individual behavior or overall school safety. They are also cruel and counterproductive.

Zero-tolerance policies started in the 1980s as part of a federal mandate regarding weapons at school. Local school districts then broadened the scope, including drugs, alcohol, threats and even cursing.

Some systems have backed off this approach, instead adopting other methods of affecting student behavior, including school-wide anti-bullying programs and early identification and intervention with troubled students. But zero tolerance is still the rule in many districts.

For those who think that these policies are fair because all students are subject to the same rules, consider the fact that each school district has its own definition of what will and won’t be tolerated--and its own punishments.

There are, too, some who say that kids who don’t do anything wrong don’t have anything to worry about. Not really; a youngster guilty of nothing more than defending himself could wind up suspended or expelled.

The broader issue is that consequences for wrongdoing should be aimed at helping a young person learn from the experience. No two situations are identical. Principals should have the authority to be flexible when it seems wise, combining some disciplinary action with counseling, as well as the power to be tough with students who are incorrigible.

That hardly was the case here.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 20, 2011; 1:01 PM ET
Categories:  Discipline, Fairfax County Public Schools  | Tags:  fairfax county schools, fairfax schools, fairfax suicide, football player suicide, nick stuban, teen suicide, zero tolerance, zero tolerance policy  
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Comments

I agree that zero tolerance rules tend, on average, to be onerous and inflexible. The bind schools often find themselves in, though, is that flexibility in discipline, which any parent knows is required in child-rearing, will be challenged the moment a parent gets the idea that disciplinary decisions have generated different outcomes and therefore are unfair.

There are certainly kids in my school whom I would discipline differently because I can discern regret, remorse, repentance, etc., and I know they've 'learned' just by our conversation. Other students, though, seem undaunted by even the prospect of 3-hour Friday detention after school.

For the sake of fairness (and not wanting to have to deal with the parents who'd cry foul), the easiest route is to completely even discipline--zero tolerance.

Also, though, what do you think the coverage would be like if the school had given a 'light' punishment to a student who then goes out and makes real trouble after being 'let off' by the school? Think risk-management (i.e., lawsuit avoidance).

I don't like zero tolerance, but the schools are in a tough spot either way.

http://speakingofeducation.blogspot.com/

Posted by: speakingofeducation | February 20, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Just read and posted on Donna St. George's column. I don't care what you call the discipline system, Jack Dale claimed in the article that "... discipline in Fairfax is individualized...."

Donna's article describes in depth Nick's family circumstances, the most important being the on-going dying of Nick's mother from Lou Gehrig's disease. Anyone who has ever witnessed someone dying of Lou Gehrig's disease, let alone a family member is changed; the disease is one of the most terrible and drawn-out of the awful things one can die of. For Nick to have watched and helped his mother through this disease while maintaining good grades and apparently doing well on the football team speaks volumes. It's probably amazing he didn't crack up before.

I am all for holding the line on drugs, but everyone has a breaking point, and it seems likely that Nick was reaching his. The discipline was overly punitive in Nick's case.

Don't think the discipline was 'individualized' in this case.....whatever happened to mitigating circumstances?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 20, 2011 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Some common sense in this column. These types of policies are put in place to protect the system and not students. Schools systems are mainly run for the benefit of the people who work there with the students a secondary consideration. Just look at what's happening in Wisconsin if you need proof.

Posted by: rwdavis2 | February 20, 2011 1:44 PM | Report abuse

After reading the story...and posting...the pure and ugly fact is that this boy was bullied. What those adult administrators did to him is no different than how they say kids bully other kids....well adults bully, too.

And these people should know better. Heartless. They took advantage of their power to manipulate and deprive this boy of his education and his parents of his life. The FCPS over-reacted and the consequence was something horrific....and as a parent and teacher my heart is breaking for his parents and for him.

Virginia needs to change the state code to prevent school administrators from interviewing or questioning kids in cases that could lead to a suspension, expulsion, or termination (if a teacher is being accused) without representation.

The sad part...it happens all the time...and there is no one to advocate for these kids or their families...short of hiring an attorney. Even the worst criminals have due process rights.

Posted by: ilcn | February 20, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

After reading the story...and posting...the pure and ugly fact is that this boy was bullied. What those adult administrators did to him is no different than how they say kids bully other kids....well adults bully, too.

And these people should know better. Heartless. They took advantage of their power to manipulate and deprive this boy of his education and his parents of his life. The FCPS over-reacted and the consequence was something horrific....and as a parent and teacher my heart is breaking for his parents and for him.

Virginia needs to change the state code to prevent school administrators from interviewing or questioning kids in cases that could lead to a suspension, expulsion, or termination (if a teacher is being accused) without representation.

The sad part...it happens all the time...and there is no one to advocate for these kids or their families...short of hiring an attorney. Even the worst criminals have due process rights.

Posted by: ilcn | February 20, 2011 2:23 PM | Report abuse

What a heart wrenching story! FCPS and the principal from that school have this kid's death on their conscience. It's time to stop this dangerous policy before somebody else dies.

Posted by: wmars | February 20, 2011 2:35 PM | Report abuse

The Post has been flogging this story for a while now. Remember that drug users bring drug pushers onto the grounds. With such a huge school system, Fairfax is limited in its ability to treat everyone as their own special flower.

Posted by: FishBulb | February 20, 2011 2:41 PM | Report abuse

During the 1980s, teenagers using drugs were referred to programs like "Straight" and "Kids Helping Kids" that involved intensive treatment involving them and their families. Are these or similar substance abuse treatment programs still in existence? In a case such as the one described in this article, referral for diagnosis, counseling, and treatment should have be approach that was taken. The situation provided an opportunity for an obviously depressed boy to get help; instead, he received a draconian punishment that pushed him over the edge. What a shame.

Posted by: mwohiovoter | February 20, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

I look at the connection between zero-tolerance thinking and the flawed education reform debate here (and note George Carlin's excellent commentary on zero tolerance): http://dailycensored.com/2011/02/16/the-great-accountability-and-world-class-workforce-scam/

Posted by: plthomas3 | February 20, 2011 3:02 PM | Report abuse

Even the weapons zero-tolerance policies are overly vague. I remember reading Montgomery County's when I started middle school, and realizing that, as written, I could be expelled for bringing a metal butter knife to school to eat my lunch with.

Posted by: theGelf | February 20, 2011 4:12 PM | Report abuse

Important topic Valerie.

The underlying foolishness here is also reflected in the Tiger Mom approach to child rearing.

There is great evidence that "tough love" is a very effective approach in working with kids across all social classes and cultures. There is also lots of evidence that placing the largest, or total, emphasis on the "tough" part almost always has the unintended side effect of creating hostility and ultimately fostering aggression.

Zero tolerance reflects a military mentality, often with not even the dimmest psychological awareness.

Mark

Posted by: markpsf | February 20, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Valerie

II consider Jack Dale to be a friend and a good educator but in this case I agree with your comments.

I am reminded of a much less significant but telling statement from a high school caught up in "zero tolerance" hall sweeps at a school I was studying. Through clinched teeth the young lady asked "What do you sweep? Garbage that's what."

We need disciplinary processes that treat kids with respect -- not like garbage.

Posted by: clarkd1 | February 20, 2011 7:41 PM | Report abuse

As much as I detest the approach being used within FCPS, I shudder to think that the task of determining the appropriate discipline would be a subjective determination of a school's principal. If you think there is no transparency now, just wait until principals like Dan Meier at Robinson are given free reign to excuse his favorites...IB students and All-Met athletes, for example...from possessing Ecstasy while seeking to expel the great unwashed masses who take a piece of fruit from the cafeteria. Having principals exercise subjective judgment on this would be an unmitigated disaster.

Posted by: bobdog4 | February 20, 2011 7:51 PM | Report abuse

Nick Stuban's suicide is incredibly tragic.

But I agree with the Fairfax School Superintendent:

"Dale said it was "unconscionable and a blow to those who have already suffered great pain" for Hudgins to associate disciplinary actions with the teen deaths "for the purpose of furthering a falsehood." Dale said it would be most constructive to focus on the incidence of depression among youths in Fairfax County."

The Fairfax school policy is crystal clear regarding imitation marijuana (as well as other legal & illegal substances); a policy that helps create a safe school environment and protects all students.

Here's policy:

"Marijuana, Imitation Marijuana, Any Controlled Substance, Including Prescription Drugs, Imitation Controlled Substances (collectively, Illegal Drugs), or Drug Paraphernalia

The following violations shall result in disciplinary action and shall require mandatory sanctions:

1. The first violation for arriving on school property, or coming to a school sponsored activity, under the influence of marijuana or of any illegal controlled
substance (including “Ecstasy,” cocaine, or any prescription drug not prescribed
to the student), or for the illegal use of prescription drugs, or for possession of
drug paraphernalia shall result in suspension from school for a minimum of
five days and a maximum of ten days and suspension for 30 calendar days
from all student activities, including teams, clubs, and all other schoolsponsored activities. All illegal drug violations shall be reported to the
police.

The days of absence from school shall be excused, and makeup work shall be provided by the school during the period of suspension if the student and the parent or guardian agree to, and in a timely fashion subsequently participate satisfactorily in, appropriate substance abuse prevention intervention activities designated by the school principal."

From Student Responsibilities and Rights
Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Use by Students:
http://www.boarddocs.com/vsba/fairfax/Board.nsf/files/86XL2N53D57A/$file/R2150.pdf

Posted by: frankb1 | February 20, 2011 7:58 PM | Report abuse

Zero-tolerance policies are the refuge of intellectually lazy bureaucrats who don't want to have to weigh evidence, think and make judgments. School administrators don't want to be questioned and have to logically defend their decisions. Zero-tolerance policies make that approach possible.

Posted by: stuck_in_Lodi | February 20, 2011 10:02 PM | Report abuse

rwdavis2 said:
"Some common sense in this column. These types of policies are put in place to protect the system and not students. Schools systems are mainly run for the benefit of the people who work there with the students a secondary consideration. Just look at what's happening in Wisconsin if you need proof."

What in the world does this have to do with Wisconsin? If you read the WaPo article, the teachers were coming to the defense of this student. Teachers in Fairfax County, and in Wisconsin, are fighting for their students.

Posted by: maryanne5 | February 20, 2011 10:40 PM | Report abuse

While I have lots of problems with the policy minimum tolerance policy (I won't call it zero tolerance because under a true zero tolerance policy Nick Stuban would have been expelled and not have been allowed to transfer to Fairfax), it is unfortunately state law in the Commonwealth. Since under the laws of the Commonwealth school boards and other local government entities are forbidden to do anything that is not explicitly allowed by law, there is really no way to change this at the local level. We tend to make comparisons in Fairfax County to the way they do things in Montgomery County. Unfortunately different states have different laws. It would have been much more helpful to do a comparison among Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties since each of those systems is bound by the same laws. In other words, is this situation truly a unique situation to Fairfax or is it happening in other school systems in the Commonwealth that need to follow the same state laws.

Posted by: Rob63 | February 20, 2011 11:39 PM | Report abuse

I have four words that are missing from this tragic story. "Where were his parents?"

Posted by: jbeeler | February 21, 2011 5:55 AM | Report abuse

JBEELIER-What part of the article did you not read - his mother has been dying of ALS for years. She is living on a ventilator. She is unable to talk or breathe without assistance. You obviously don't understand the 24-hour care that the disease involves. You take the easy way out and try to blame it on the parents. That won't work for you in this situation.

Posted by: mf23416 | February 21, 2011 11:40 AM | Report abuse

For special education students there's the idea and practice of "least restrictive" program. Why not the parallel for code enforcement in schools: Find systems in which least punitive policies seem to deliver good results, and without much in the way of additional costs.

Particularly chilling to me in the original story was the Schools' interest in the transgressor's intent. Because: So what if he had intended to buy a another, more expensive drug? Unconditional punishment for intent, absent execution? Ostracism and severance for common teen behavior?

Posted by: incredulous | February 21, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

"He thought it was legal?" If it isn't sold through a drugstore, health-food store, or a reputable Internet site connected with one of these, then it isn't legal, probably isn't what you think you're buying, and could very well kill you. Except, of course, for the drugs known as alcohol and tobacco, which are used to alter mood and are as addictive or more so than the "illegal" drugs.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 21, 2011 3:10 PM | Report abuse

Although the capsule this student had is still legal, the school treats it as a look alike drug, as it should!! It has the same effects, if not worse, than marijuana. Students in any school cannot bring this stuff to school. What if they sell it to YOUR child??
It was absolutely right for the school to put the student up for expulsion! This is serious.
Many students who get put up for expulsion as a disciplinary measure have issues at home, or issues they are themselves trying to cope with. Having issues in life does not give anyone the right to not obey the rules or the law.
This young man obviously had other issues and the discipline in school surely added to that. The expulsion hearing however, was not the only reason this young man committed suicide.
The school system is not only mandated by law to expel a student that brings drugs or a look alike to school, it cannot make exceptions for students with issues. All students must abide by all the rules in the SR&R book, which is there for all our kids' protection. If someone wants to make their own rules, maybe they should be home schooled!

Posted by: avavillanova | February 22, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

AVAVILLANOVA-
If you look closely at the SR&R, you will see on page 23 "Notwithstanding the foregoing provisions, the School Board may determine, based on the facts of a particular situation that special circumstances exist and that no disciplinary action or another disciplinary action or term of expulsion is appropriate." So it is not so black and white as you portray. The school system was not mandated by law to expel Nick, and it can make exception for students with issues. Why else would we have page 23 in the manual? And, if page 23 did not apply in this situation, can you give a situation that it would be appropriate? Obviously, you didn't have to wake up every day of your childhood wondering if this was going to be the day that your mother would die, or get up in the night to suction her to keep her alive or you would have some compassion - or maybe not. Hopefully, you will get judged with the same zero tolerance that you believe others should live by.

Posted by: mf23416 | February 22, 2011 1:42 PM | Report abuse

My son was one of the first to fall victim to Anne Arundel County's Zero Tolerance Policy in it's first year. A new aquaintance whom he did not know very well, stole a knife from my son's knife collection. The knife was a new gift from his father he had not seen in 8 years. The knife was stolen out of his bedside table as he had not had a chance to put it into his special locked boxed which housed his knife collection -- which included Planters Peanuts knives,hors d'oeuvres pickle tiny sword knives, pocket knives and others given to him by members of his family who obtained them when on vacation. The stolen knife was a mechanic's knife. His Dad was a mechanic and I think it was a Snap On Tool knife which was appx. 1/10th" or so beyond the legal limit. My son did not know the knife had been stolen. It changed hands two times at school. The thief gave the knife to my son's friend and the friend gave it to my son who put it in his pocket. It was 7th grade.The boy who stole the knife told the teacher my son had a knife - but not the whole story. My son was called to principle's off. and police called. He was expelled from school...it was a nightmare. He had to attend Silvan Learning Center... and was transferred to a school in Columbia, MD where he had to live with friends to comply with residency laws. I hired a very good lawyer. Teachers came forward to say it was wrong and what a good boy he was. A local newspaper did a story then turned it around that I believed in zero tolerance but not when it came to MY child. The AACounty School Board would not reconsider their actions... until six months later on the day when this was going to go before a school board "trial"... and my attorney had press coverage ready at the event to document it... the Board backed down and agreed it would be expunged from his record... more than 6 months and $15K later! My son, my entire famiy were devastated. My wonderful son is now 28 years old and I thank God every day he made it thru the ordeal. The school boards have all the lawyers and money... and will fight to win their case... even if it's wrong... AND at the expense of an innocent child. To top it off, when my son entered high school this was supposed to have been expunged from his record. Well expunged or not the teachers knew about it and before long he was accused of smoking (which he was NOT doing). After all he had been thru already I knew he wasn't smoking... In tears he said to me that night "Mom, are you going to have to spend another $15K to fight this." I looked at him, kissed him and said "son, if you weren't smoking then you weren't smoking and if I have to mortgage my home and all I own, I will." Fortunately, the principle was a wonderful man and after discussing it with him, the situation was corrected and the teacher who made the false accusation was spoken to. These are OUR CHILDREN. They are learning. We cannot treat them like adult common criminals. Thank You.

Posted by: joannsutton | February 25, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

First off: its is a PARENT's responsibility to make sure their child is phsycially, mentally and emotionally healthy. IF you child is living in a circumstance you dont think he can cope with, like say keeping his mother alive, you get help. There is TONS of it.

Secondly, @joannsutton , perhaps the whole thing could have been avoided if you child didnt collect knives. Just a thought. How is that an appropriate hobby?

Thirdly, what about all the kid who manage to get through thier educational careers without discipline problems. All those kids who have issues at home, single mothers, poverty, abuse, and can STILL FOLLOW THE RULES?

I raised three kids in the FCPS and while the public school system as a whole is failing all of our kids educationally, litigation about the rules you and your child agreed in writing to follow is not helping. Its taking money and time from the kids who ARENT causing problems. Like the three I raised after their mother committed suicide.

Parent first, blame last.

Posted by: queensuchnsuch | February 27, 2011 7:47 PM | Report abuse

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