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Posted at 11:45 AM ET, 02/23/2011

The dangers of expelling kids in trouble

By Jay Mathews

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

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | 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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"The Fairfax County school officials I have spoken to say Virginia law makes it harder for them to return students to their home school."

Oh, does it really? It appears to have some wiggle room for reason in such a case as Nick's.

Virginia Board of Education 2009

(passage below found on page 13)

Expulsions for Drug-Related Offenses
A school board policy, in accordance with § 22.1-277.08. of the Code of Virginia, must provide for the mandatory expulsion for a period of not less than one year of any student determined to have brought a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or marijuana as defined in § 18.2-247. onto school property or to a school-sponsored activity.
“One year” is defined as 365 days as required in federal regulation.
A school board may establish policy and promulgate related guidelines for determining whether "special circumstances" exist that would allow for no disciplinary action or another disciplinary action, based on facts of a particular situation. A school board may, by regulation, authorize the division superintendent or his designee to conduct a preliminary review of such cases.
School board policy may permit or require students expelled for drug-related offenses to attend an alternative education program provided by the school board for the term of the expulsion.

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 23, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

It's been my experience that schools want a "one size fits all" resolution of all problems. They do not want a subjective resolution of problems. They don't care whether it hurts some kids - they just want the easy way out - whether it's Texas or Maryland or any other state! They don't want anyone to be able to question or critize their decisions. They want to point to a rule and that's that! No wonder we don't teach critical thinking skills in our high schools - there's no one there with the necessary experience!

Posted by: TexasMom3 | February 23, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

My students are routinely caught with drugs and still in school (although the school handles it with the legal system).

My guess as to why these kids had this happen: they aren't tagged as black or Hispanic. Schools are under intense pressure to have expulsion numbers that aren't disproportionately black and Hispanic, so if you're white and get in trouble, kiss it goodbye. The school can't afford to be seen as lenient, or they will be sued the first time they aren't lenient to a black or Hispanic student, even if they are multiple offenders.

If you're a white kid caught in an expulsion cycle, you've done your school a favor--you've given them an opportunity to prove that they're tough on white kids. The best thing to do is to instantly get a lawyer, do not pass go, and do not give up a thing.

I'm not complaining or criticizing the schools for this--I think it's largely inevitable. But if you're a white kid--or the parent of a white kid--you should be incredibly vigilant if your kid is sucked in for whatever minor pretext it is.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | February 23, 2011 1:09 PM | Report abuse

Jay, I think you might be putting the cart before the horse. Your line comments on expelling a troubled youth. The school did not expel a troubled youth, the expelled a student violating the rules. He became troubled AFTER being caught and expelled.

I think it is a shame the young man died at all, but just saying your pretense is not accurate, at least IMO.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 23, 2011 3:52 PM | Report abuse

How can human beings "get" such treatment of others? I asked a student once and she gave a clue: "the problem is a combination of arrogance and ignorance" -- and she was talking about the administrators, not the kids. Over the years, I realize she was right, but we still don't "get" it.

Posted by: RubyBridges | February 23, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Good posts, although you are not making me feel any better. I am changing the hed to kids in trouble, not troubled kids. jbeeler is right.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 23, 2011 5:27 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree with Jay Matthews' comments. Expulsion is not always the answer. That doesn't mean there should be no consequences for drug use. I am actually part of a parents' group at James Madison High School in Vienna that is trying to get the school to take more action on drug abuse. But in this case the student did not bring the substance to school - although he did buy it there (if you look at the letter of the law). However, there were clearly "special cirsumstances." that should have allowed the student to remain in school. This was indeed tragic. There needs to be a clarification of VA law on these issues. In a related story, the VA General Assembly just voted down a bill that would have required school officials to contact a student's parents if the student "is likely" to be suspended. Current law requires parental notification only at the time of suspension. This was believed by some legislators to place an untenable burden on school administrators "because they simply cannot predict the future." A simple change in the legislation to reqire contact with parents if the student "may be" suspended would have probably resulted in passage. Parents have the right to know if their child is in trouble before suspension occurs. We need to have common sense prevail here. Schools should take action on drug abuse, parents must be notified, and cases must be decided individually.

Posted by: Ricky3 | February 23, 2011 5:53 PM | Report abuse

The following is well worth reading:


Organizational Principles to Guide and Define the Child Health Care System and/or Improve the Health of All Children
Committee on School Health
Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion;112/5/1206.pdf

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 23, 2011 6:36 PM | Report abuse

We are to blame for the situation we find ourselves. Schools were forced into these "zero tolerance policies" because they were being sued or blasted every time they turned around. If a school doesn't suspend/expel a student for a drug offense, then they are too soft and have no discipline. If they expel one, they have to expel all or it is instant discrimination.
Don't like the outcome? Hire a lawyer and sue. Schools are constantly under attack. Kid getting bullied? Sue the school even if the bullying is happening at home or via cell phone/computer that the parents provided. Teacher/Principal calls about bullying then he/she is "over reacting", "boys/girls will be boys", "it's not that serious/can't take a joke". When something serious happens, everyone wonders why the school didn't do anything. I'm always wondering why parents don't hold their children as accountable as they want to hold everyone else. If we want to get rid of zero tolerance policies, then we parents need to be parents and take care of the discipline so our children don't do stupid things for the fun of it at school. We have to not sue or scream discrimination at the drop of a hat. We have to work with the school and not view them as the enemy.

Posted by: hkerrie | February 23, 2011 6:42 PM | Report abuse

hkerrie has it right. If you don't want one-size-fits-all and zero tolerance disciplinary rules in public schools, then someone will have to exercise discretionary judgment on a case-by-case basis.

That person's or persons' decisions would have to be final with no recourse to court action. Otherwise it won't work.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | February 23, 2011 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Letter to the Washington Post

The Washington Post should either remove Mr. Mathews or publicly reprimand Mr. Mathews for his article "Why do great school systems fear charters?"

Mr. Mathews in this article has attempted to use his influence as a columnist with falsehoods, and distortions of the truth to reverse a decision so that private organizations will receive millions from public funds.

It is hard to find in the article a line that is not either a deliberate falsehood, or a deliberate distortion of the truth.

Mr. Mathews does not indicate that it is not $550,000 grant that he mentions, but millions of county funds that will be required for operating two schools if the decision is reversed.

Mr. Mathews uses deliberate falsehoods in his various claims of no explanations being provided in regard to the decision to not approve the applications for public funds, since Mr. Mathews is fully aware of a report that contains detailed descriptions of the concerns of the panel that did not approve the applications.

Mr. Mathews provides no substantial quotes from this report of the panel, but feels it is appropriate to claim without a shred of supporting evidence that the report of the panel is "their worries reads like a neurotic mother’s letter to her son at summer camp, bemoaning all the terrible things that might happen". This false description of the report of the panel is immediately obvious to any individual that reviews the report of the panel.

Mr. Mathews also uses a deliberate falsehood in regard to "raising the achievement of low-income children" since he is fully aware that there is only a very small minority of low-income children in the county, and that enrollment in schools in this county can not legally limited to this small minority of low-income children in the county.

Mr. Mathews is also fully aware that in Montgomery county the large majority of the public funds for public education come directly from the residents of the county. There is only limited amounts of funds from the state and the federal government. Mr. Mathews does not mention this since it would give justification to accepting the decision of the county on the use of funds for public education, since the county is providing the large majority of these funds.

Mr. Mathews is also fully aware and does not mention that in counties where residents pay the overwhelming majority of the costs of public education costs, it is normal to place on the ballot new proposals in regard to uses of millions for public education. In Montgomery county the private organizations have made no attempt to place their proposals regarding millions from the resident of the county on the local ballot.

It is one thing for a columnist to freely comment on a government decision but it quite a different thing for a columnist to use falsehoods and distortions in an attempt to reverse a decision that will result in private organizations receiving millions from public funds.

Posted by: joe_banana | February 23, 2011 8:03 PM | Report abuse


While I agree with you that Zero Tolerance policies are a major problem and in my opinion, a major contributor to sad, sad stories such as this poor Woodson lad, our children are not suffering under ZT because of parental lawsuits ..... I mean, seriously? Is that what you think?

No, ZT policies became the "rage" after Clinton passed the Gun Free School Act in 1994 which required mandatory expulsion if a student brought a weapon to school. We can see how effective that legislation was when Columbine occurred in 1999. If it was ZT for weapons, of course it was ZT for drugs and alcohol as well. We all know that smoking pot leads to armed insurrection, right?

I actually put together a "term paper" of sorts on why we should get rid of ZT and shared it with my Superintendent. He did take the time to read it thoughtfully and while he said he could see reason in the argument, eh, nope, sorry, they were sticking with ZT.

ZT is a CYA for cowardly administrators who want to toss reason and common sense to the wind and impose a punishment on children for stupid, minor offenses as though they had committed murder because "they can".

The Fairfax district clearly not only over-reacted, it was remiss in not placing the boy in an alternative educational setting. The district wouldn't allow him to attend Boy Scouts .... BOY SCOUTS.... because the meetings were held on school grounds!!! How friggin stoopid ARE these so called "professional educators"??? They KILLED that kid!!!

Thank you shadwell1 for providing the actual policy.

Absolutely disgraceful. Stoopid, stoopid Fairfax and any other district which clings to a ZT blanket while ruining young lives.

How about these districts in Texas and Florida where kids are being written tickets by the police for minor infractions? What is going on? Have all public school administrators gone completely insane and turned into brainless jellyfish? And for this they should get paid $300-400,000 a year?? Wanna cut some public fat? Let's get rid of these clowns! From what I can see, there is a serious drought of critical thinking going on at the top!

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 23, 2011 8:26 PM | Report abuse

It's a fine line to walk. Teachers and a great many taxpayers are clamoring for more discipline control in schools, and some acts of improper behavior are mistaken for 'discipline problems'. Expulsion should not be off the table, but only after parents, teachers, counselors, etc have had a serious sit down talk with the kid and the kid has been given a chance to show his remorse/corrected behavior. Sympathies to the family and prayers for the rest of their life - a young life taken from them will haunt them forever.

Posted by: peonteacher | February 23, 2011 9:38 PM | Report abuse

joe banana: Don't be too surprised if the Post doesn't print your letter. You need to learn how to temper your remarks. You say, "It is hard to find in the article a line that is not either a deliberate falsehood, or a deliberate distortion of the truth." It's hard to find in your diatribe a line that is not nasty or vindictive. Lighten up.

Posted by: bigfish2 | February 23, 2011 10:10 PM | Report abuse

joe banana: Don't be too surprised if the Post doesn't print your letter. You need to learn how to temper your remarks. You say, "It is hard to find in the article a line that is not either a deliberate falsehood, or a deliberate distortion of the truth." It's hard to find in your diatribe a line that is not nasty or vindictive. Lighten up.

Posted by: bigfish2 | February 23, 2011 10:11 PM | Report abuse

I really like your comment since, in my mind at least, it gets to the heart of the problem with k-12 education in this country, particularly in our urban school districts with large poor, minority, and disabled populations. From my experience there is a horrifying over abundance of teachers and administrators with little or no common sense, much less critical thinking skills. At the high school like that that I'm the most familiar with they would suspend kids for excessive tardiness and absenteeism. In almost every case no effort was made on the part of the school to make sure the suspended students had the opportunity to keep up with the rest of the class until they were allowed back. In addition to that strange policy the school district allowed teachers to refuse to distribute textbooks to their students even when a student and/or parent begged for them. These policies were nutty enough on their own, but even nuttier when you consider that they were on a list of failing schools and was in danger of being closed down or having other actions taken against it, if it didn't reduce its dropout rate and exam scores. Fortunately the voters got fed up and voted out most of the old school board, and most of the old guard administrators are gone, and a lot of these policies have changed.
At the high school I referred to above what you described happened, but only to the poor white students, not the middle class ones. They wouldn't touch the middle class white students since they wee scared to death of any more middle class white flight to the suburbs. The city is a center for drug rehabs, half-way houses, psychiatric, support programs for the disbled etc etc. The poor white students are frequently the children in these families if the parent(s) stay in the area instead of returning to their home towns. By the time many of these kids get to high school they start having problems of their own. Many of these kids have really been kicked in the teeth by life, but instead of getting treated compassionately by the school district, the last best hope for many of these kids, they got kicked in the teeth again by the school district. The school district, particularly the high school, is also in the process of changing that type of behavior.

Posted by: david_r_fry | February 24, 2011 2:29 AM | Report abuse

Excerpt from the American Academy of Pediatrics statement regarding school suspension and expulsion that I noted in an earlier comment:

"Despite high rates of depression and numerous life stresses that are associated with school-based problem behaviors, students are not routinely referred to
a medical or mental health provider on expulsion or suspension."...."Suicidal ideation and behavior may be expected to occur more often at these times of isolation among susceptible youth. The lack of professional assistance at the time of exclusion from school, a time when a student most ..." (p. 1207)

In a recent news video, Supt. Dale reveals his ignorance regarding the associated risks to students in such situations:

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 24, 2011 8:17 AM | Report abuse

Accidently left off the last two words,

"Suicidal ideation and behavior may be expected to occur more often at these times of isolation among susceptible youth. The lack of professional assistance at the time of exclusion from school, a time when a student most needs it..."

Posted by: shadwell1 | February 24, 2011 8:20 AM | Report abuse

joe_banana also needs to check his facts. Thirty one percent of students in the Montgomery County schools are poor enough to qualify for federal lunch subsidies, the standard measure of what portion of students are low income. That is not a "very small minority."

Posted by: Jay Mathews | February 24, 2011 10:54 AM | Report abuse

"I don't blame the suicide on the Fairfax County school system."

Why not? The FCPS administration (NOT THE TEACHERS) has absolutely no interest in the welfare of kids. In fact, they are openly distainful of parents and students. "Zero-tolerance" is really "Zero-intellegnce" and "Zero-common sense," but it's a great shield for ignorant school adminstrators, which we seem to have in abundance in the DC area.

"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."

Because their motto is "We don't care, we don't have to."

Posted by: mcstowy | February 24, 2011 11:10 AM | Report abuse

First of all, "one size fits all" isn't just in the area of discipline--what do you think standardized tests and the penalties for low scores are? What do you think the government did when it began closing mental health facilities and dumping the mentally ill on the streets?

Second, schools aren't being sued because parents think their kids can do no wrong. (Well, ok, some parents take that attitude.) All too many parents came up through school systems that decreed the student with the top grades couldn't be valedictorian because she had earned those grades in a hospital bed after a serious accident instead of sitting in class. Or they remember the school in Ohio in the 1960s that expelled a student without a hearing; when the parents went to court, the school explained that the local paper had used a picture of her attending a peaceful political demonstration at another location on a Saturday; the school was afraid that the student body would be disrupted by knowing one of their members was committed to that cause. A school in Washington suspended a student for her behavior on the Metro; my father tells me it was common for his principal in the 1920s to single out students who had been seen jay-walking or roughhousing on the street, even if the offense had not been witnessed on a school day. One teacher I know of used to go down the line of students sniffing and would send a note home to smoking parents that she had detected their cigarette smoke on their children's clothes and they should ask Jesus to help them break that immoral habit. Other schools were definitely reserving harsher discipline for minority students until forced by court cases to stop.

Some parents don't want their students disciplined at all. But others have learned through experience that teachers and administrators are not better or worse than the rest of us.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 24, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

The school board is composed of a bunch of power hungry robots. Fire them all

Posted by: door1 | February 27, 2011 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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