The dangers of expelling kids in trouble
My colleague Donna St. George wrote a deep and moving piece for Sunday's paper about a good high school student who got into trouble, was not allowed back into his own school, had an emotional crisis and committed suicide.
I don't blame the suicide on the Fairfax County school system. I think efforts to blame suicides on anyone are usually a waste of time, since the person who knows the real reason can't tell us what it was. But St. George's piece does raise an issue about high school discipline that I think has much wider application, not just for emotionally fragile students but many others who break the rules and whose parents and teachers want to do what's best for them.
The student in the story, W.T. Woodson High School sophomore Nick Stuban, was suspended Nov. 3 for buying a capsule of a substance known as JWH-018, a synthetic compound with a marijuana-like effect that was legal at the time. He was contrite. He apologized for letting down the football team, the center of this school life. He did well in his courses, and hoped to return to the school after being suitably punished.
That didn't happen. He was told he had to transfer to another school, cutting himself off from his friends and his favorite activities. He became moody. His father found real marijuana in his room. He killed himself Jan. 20.
My thought after reading the piece was: why did they not let him go back to his school? He was not a danger to anyone there. The offense was minor. He appeared to be sincerely sorry. He had been a good student. Why are forced transfers to other schools so common in Fairfax and other large districts?
I have not gotten a good answer yet. St. George reported that Fairfax County's "most recent figures show 683 cases of suspension with recommendation for expulsion, which led to 370 school transfers. Fewer than 60 students returned to their school." She said that in the Maryland suburb of Montgomery County, like Fairfax a very large, affluent and high-performing school district in the Washington area, "a majority of students go back to their home schools" after suspensions.
She quoted Wayne Whigham, who oversees disciplinary processes for Montgomery County, as saying: "You want to put the kid back in the community where they feel comfortable, where they have friends, where they have the best chance for success because they are familiar with the surroundings."
The Fairfax County school officials I have spoken to say Virginia law makes it harder for them to return students to their home school. I asked if the district had tried to change that law, but haven't gotten an answer yet. It is not clear that Fairfax has addressed this issue in any serious way, but I expect they will now.
I understand why some students in trouble should not be returned to their home schools. If they disrupted the school, if they fell in with a crowd that encouraged their worst instincts, if they embarrassed themselves in a way that would inspire teasing and bullying, a transfer is a good idea. But Nick Stuban was not in any of those categories, and I suspect many others forced to transfer would similarly be better off in their old school.
I don't get it. If anyone has an explanation, please post a comment here or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
| February 23, 2011; 11:45 AM ET
Categories: Jay on the Web | Tags: Fairfax County schools, Montgomery County schools, Nick Stuban, Wayne Whigham, forced transfers, student commits suicides after being told he cannot return to his high school
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