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Zero Tolerance: Cure Can Be Harsher Than Crime

The stories are as varied and sad as they are plentiful, and they've been pouring into my in-box ever since yesterday's column first popped up on the big web site: Parents spelling out how zero tolerance policies in school systems from Fairfax to southern Maryland and throughout the region exacerbated their child's troubles--or worse.

The column about the suicide of Josh Anderson, a junior at South Lakes High School in Reston, on the eve of a Fairfax County schools disciplinary hearing that might have ended with his expulsion from the system has struck quite a nerve, and I want to give you a sense of the range of emotions and arguments that are coming in.

Some folks who believe schools and all public authorities are on a pointless vendetta against illegal drugs thought that my sympathy for Anderson meant that I'd be on their side. How can the Anderson story "not be a wake up call for all of us to pay more attention to the Draconian drug policies we embrace in this country in so many realms, not just schools?" one reader asked--one among quite a few who support drug legalization.

But to my mind, the alternative to zero tolerance rules in the schools is not legalization, not tolerance of drug abuse, but rather dedicating our education resources to finding the right blend of punishment, treatment, counseling and teaching for each kid who breaks the rules. After all, aren't the people who work in the schools supposed to get to know each child?

Here's a Charles County parent telling the story of her 10th grader, who "was caught holding a "nickel" amount of pot for someone, only to get turned in by that same person via a "tip box," where kids get paid for turning in other kids.

He received the same deal as Josh Anderson--suspension with recommendation for expulsion. We hired an attorney, fought the school board and the juvenile court, and our son was thankfully not expelled. Did he exhibit bad judgment? Yes. Hold him accountable, but let the punishment fit the crime. During his six-week suspension, he was only allowed homework during the first eight days, until his hearing. After that, he was told no homework for the remaining four weeks of the year 'as a consequence for his actions.' Let me tell you, using no homework as a punishment for a 15-year-old is not a consequence - it's a vacation. There was nothing helpful at all in their actions (except for perhaps alerting us to what he had done).

One year later, that child has not gotten into trouble again--and the parent credits that in good part to the fact that they were able to avert expulsion. "The choice offered for my son, if expelled, was to be placed in a school for violent and seriously troubled kids," the mother notes--a surefire path toward more trouble, in her view and that of many other parents.

A Fairfax reader echoes the view of many others by noting that the zero tolerance approach in high schools not only produces harsher results than we mete out for many adults caught doing the same things, but also contrasts sharply and bizarrely with the anything-goes atmosphere on many college campuses. If Josh Anderson "had been accepted at one of the ivy-covered institutes in Boston or a liberal arts schools amidst the Redwoods of California, he would have been surprised by the approach of campus security forces who recognize that the familiar scent of marijuana does not mean that students are drug dealers and dope fiends," this reader writes. "But here in Fairfax County, the very system that pushes our children to excel academically as the best in the nation appears to have pushed this young man over the edge."

I wouldn't condone either the zero tolerance philosophy or the laissez faire policies at many colleges. The point here for me is that the move from a repressive, inflexible system to one of total freedom sends all too many kids into a period of excessive behavior. At what point is moderation taught to those who did not learn it at home?

A Fairfax County school board member wrote to argue that my piece was "nonsense and facile." Board member Phillip Niedzielski-Eichner says that "As one policy-maker, responsible for helping oversee a system serving nearly 170,000 students, I am not at all naïve about the likelihood that some of our students are not being well-served. We are not perfect by any measure. I am confident, however, that the FCPS culture is one of high expectations, service, caring, and commitment to our students; and I value the ethic of continuous improvement. We make mistakes; we also work to correct them."

The board member says "There is no more demanding responsibility for public schools than maintaining a sufficiently safe and orderly environment within which learning can take place. I encourage you to spend even just a few minutes time talking with any of our school psychologists or social workers in order to - on one hand -- get exposed to the 'finger in the dike' efforts they undertake to help troubled kids and their families through difficult periods in their young lives."

I've done just that on many occasions, but don't listen to me, listen to the school social workers and counselors themselves. They wrote to me in droves over the past 24 hours, and they are massively frustrated by a system that strips local schools of the ability to handle the disciplining of kids who are caught with, say, a couple of Tylenol at school, forcing families into a pseudo-judicial process in which those who know the student best play a marginal role.

A Prince William County parent describes how his son faced expulsion after being found with less that one gram of marijuana on the next to last day of the school year. The boy was not permitted to graduate and had to repeat his senior year through home schooling because the county would not permit him to attend its schools. "It seems incredibly stupid to take a child with problems and to compound those problems by removing support, and tossing him out of school," the father writes. "Prisons need inmates and what better way than to [produce them than to ostracize a student,] drop them back a grade, take kids that already are behind the eight ball, and make success that much harder. I know that sounds paranoid, but for the life of me I can't figure out how this policy does any good whatsoever. It's a political tampon meant to suck up the fears of the weak-minded."

But a Maryland father came to the opposite conclusion after his son's encounter with the system: "As the father of a child who nearly died in a Maryland high school from a drug overdose, my belief is a no-tolerance policy should just be the first step. There should be searches in all public high schools, drug dogs should be used on a random basis every month. Our high schools are large and provide students easier access to a wider variety of drugs than any inner-city street corner. There should be ways (phone, email, text) for all students to anonymously turn in students and/or dealers who bring illegal drugs, cigarettes and alcohol to school."

Finally, a Virginia woman, A.L. Swiggard, writes to remind us that "Josh Anderson is not the first. I don't know how many others, but let's go all the way back to November 18, 1956, when Robert Wayne Curry put a gun to his head and left most all who knew him in shock. He was a freshman then at Annandale High School in Fairfax County.

Bobby was caught smoking nicotine in the boy's bathroom by the assistant principal. He was berated and told he would go on automatic suspension. He blew himself away before his parents were notified.... As I remember Bobby, he was a sweet, silent, young teenager of no more than 13-14 years old. He was very shy and very nice and blushed at the slightest conversation from a member of the opposite sex.

Even though I did not know him well (just to board our school bus), I have mourned his death every time I passed his home in my old neighborhood. I always look and say a silent prayer toward the upper dormer of his former home.

I, too, was suspended one time for boarding a school bus to look at puppies (my weakness) back in those days. After horrible thoughts, I too wanted to die and took an overdose of aspirin (the whole bottle). Thankfully, that only made me extremely ill and I lost them sometime during the night and had a sour stomach for weeks afterward. There was no fear of me trying that again.

I will always remember Bobby and how I felt during my teenage years. I have dealt with my own teenagers and now my grandchildren since that time with a degree of understanding that Fairfax County has yet to comprehend. I write this in memory of Bobby and others like him not to condone, but to ask for reasonable understanding of the teenage mindset.

That seems right to me, but as we saw yesterday, opinions will vary. Yours are welcome below....

By Marc Fisher |  April 6, 2009; 9:47 AM ET
Previous: Did Zero Tolerance Rules Push Fairfax Teen To Edge? | Next: UDC: Does D.C. Really Need A 4-Year College?


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And the moment you allow educators and administrators to discriminate between the kid who screwed up once, and the habitual offender, the school system gets sued for discrimination.

Which is how we got the one size fits all policy we've got now.

Posted by: wiredog | April 6, 2009 10:47 AM

What is there to say?

As long as these administrators receive high marks for blacklisting their students, this is going to happen. And they're going to receive high marks as long as the students who haven't gotten caught yet have vocal parents who want their kids to continue to have a clean slate and to get out of school in good shape. As long as any kid who screws up could *possibly* cause their kids trouble, they are going to go nuclear anytime a troublesome kid is allowed to stay in school.

The real issue is why is FCPS so different from DCPS?

What happens in FCPS if a student assaults a teacher, which seems to be a common problem in the DCPS?

But ok there's a gradient of severity. But if you're going to have a zero-tolerance system, you have to expect that some kids are going to get screwed by it. The problem is that 99% of the parents are ok with that. They not only have a holier than thou attitude, they are perfectly happy to sacrifice 10 kids for the good of 900 kids. In the DCPS that ratio would be quite different. If you were only talking about 250,000 kids, this wouldn't be a problem. Talk about 2,500,000 kids and you've got a problem. Now you've got a sob-story a week, maybe even one a day.

Posted by: dubya19391 | April 6, 2009 11:09 AM

My son is now in the same position as Josh was, except his offense was not drug related and he is a first time offender. I have to say that all that I have read in the last two days has scared me tremendously. I truly don't know what to expect from the process, but I will be vigilant with my son and his behavior.

Posted by: amity5 | April 6, 2009 11:22 AM

Taking dope to school and possessing it and dealing on HS campus is just moronic when as a student you realize you have very little rights at school. Dogs can be used to sniff out drugs in lockers and on your person as it should be. FCPS and others need to explain zero tolerance on the first day of school every year to everyone. Show the kids the dogs running the halls etc.

If you are smoking dope at school you are addicted. Sorry I dont care what the excuse mongers say. Pot is running your life.

But the problem is the parents with their heads buried somewhere! Get real search your kids and then rooms etc. A students sue drugs too.

Stupid liberals!

Posted by: sheepherder | April 6, 2009 11:32 AM

Why won't the FCPS Board member identify himself? And why, Marc, do you give him a platform to promote his views with the authority of his position without the respsonsiblity of his identity?

Posted by: washpost4 | April 6, 2009 12:07 PM

Zero tolerance policies are for those who have too little intelligence to exercise judgment. We should have people running schools who have at least some intelligence. To those who say that you get lawsuits when you exercise judgment, what do you think we have now? We have parents who have to sue to get the school system to fight absurd results. Then, the kids with the most financial resources get treated fairly, but the poor ones don't. That's discrimination.

Posted by: rosepetals64 | April 6, 2009 12:31 PM

Randy "This is True" Cassingham has an excellent archive of insane Zero Tolerance stories on his website, as well as various writings about them.

I personally do not understand expulsion as a punishment. How is crippling the kid's academic performance and learning helping anyone? An otherwise high achiever could be seriously harmed for years by losing out on scholarships and academic opportunities, possibly over a single lapse in judgment. A kid who is a "screw-up" just has more time on his or her hands to cause more trouble.

Schools so often seem to not understand the old saying "not all movement is progress," and not all reactions are solutions.

Posted by: DonWhiteside | April 6, 2009 1:52 PM

If you google FCPS SB member Phil Niedzielski-Eichner you will stumble on one of his more brilliant quotes regarding our minority students. In his attempts to stand-down NCLB, he said "Some of these kids are predisposed to fail". This is our motivator and leader. Stating that our minority kids are bound to fail.

Given that, I have to chuckle at his "we make mistakes" comment. Mistakes are when FCPS redistricted too many kids to SOCO causing overcrowding. Mistakes are when the FCPS SB published the morality gap report concluding that minority 3rd graders who don't complete their homework are less moral than their White counterparts.

Causing the death of a student who never harmed another person is immoral. Phil knows that the hearings office is run by a bunch of vindictive, bullying thugs-he just chooses to ignore it.

maybe Josh was predisposed to die, heh Phil?

You, sir, are an embarrassment to our school district.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 2:17 PM

takebackourschools: Do I know you from Fairfax Underground? Your comment that "the hearings office is run by a bunch of vindictive, bullying thugs" sounds very familiar. I guess that you, too have been wronged by these people.

Honestly, I don't necessarily like ZT, but the alternative of treating every incident as a shade of gray leaves too much room for shenanigans and variable implementation across FCPS. The SR&R lays out a clear path of right and wrong and everyone signs it. Don't like it, enroll your child in a private school or try home schooling. Should a student taking an Advil be treated the same as someone possessing pot? No, but until the rule is changed that is the rule. The SR&R has been around for years and I never hear anyone organizing a group to protest. Why is that? Is it because most people agree that standards of conduct are important? FCPS is notorious for parent groups challenging the SB to affect change...we saw it recently with both Fairgrade and SLEEP...why don't we see something similar for the Hearing Office and the SR&R?

Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 2:44 PM


Why the heck should I have to pay for private school when I pay taxes for the public schools? I have every right to demand that they be run fairly and without prejudice.

Shenanigans and variable implementation, you say? I suggest you look over the per school data on the VA DOE regarding suspensions and reported violation-definitely good bedtime reading. If you are going to possess drugs or alsohol or pound on a classmate be sure you do it at McLean HS and not MT Vernon.

Do your homework first before you engage in apologizing for FCPS's discriminatory practices. AS far as due process goes-ha ha. The words do not exist in FCPS my dear. You are prohibited from recording the hearings so you have no official record of the proceedings should you want to appeal a decision. But you many not want to bother with that appeal since it is just a kangaroo court anyways. Every principal recommendation for expulsion is upheld by the hearing officer. Yes sir-100% out of over 1000 cases each year. Is that what you call an impartial ajudicator?

I think not.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 3:36 PM

Parents are too scared to protest. Protest and your child is targeted. Even is you "win" a hearing your child loses because now they are a target. Try supporting another kid who has been torched by the system,and your kid is torched.

The school does not even have to provide physical evidence - they can say they smelled marijuana or alcohol on your child, and even if your child passes a drug test, they can still be expelled. They can suspend/expel based on the word of anyone. You are not even allowed to submit evidence that could prove innocence or record a hearing. There is no due process.

Alternatives such as online education and home based teachers are a joke. If your kid cannot qualify to get a GED or you cannot afford private school, a whole year of education is down the tubes. Most of the kids caught in this trap are not hardened enough criminals to survive the Alternative Schools or if they do,they soon become hardened criminals. Suspensions and Expulsions should be banned until this situation is rectified.

Posted by: monniefournier | April 6, 2009 3:42 PM

What's othen over looked in the drug war is alternative drugs. Instead of smoking pot, kids today inhale spray paint propelent or anything they can find under the kitchen sink. If you don't believe me, try buying a can of spray paint from Home Depot's self checkout.

Posted by: samwright2 | April 6, 2009 3:50 PM

"Parents are too scared to protest."

That sounds rather pathetic if you ask me. What lesson are you teaching your children with that type of response? Fairgrade and SLEEP started as a handful of concerned the SB going to enact, capricious, vindictive punishment on 1000 or more families? Acquiescence equals acceptance.

Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 4:29 PM

Home school.

Posted by: grunk | April 6, 2009 4:43 PM

When 100% of the expulsions are upheld, how do you gather the parents to complain/organize? They have scattered to private,alternative,home schools or GED prep.There is no PTA for kids who are expelled.You and your child will not be allowed on school property to even attend a PTA meeting or an event to gather support. Hearings are "private" and not recorded, so you have no proof of your attempts to rectify the situation.It is like an Amish shunning or being Jewish in Nazi Germany.Good luck gathering supporters amongst those who are frightened it will happen to them next.Presumption of Guilt and fear rules in FCPS.

Posted by: Nellie5 | April 6, 2009 5:53 PM

That Maryland father came to a totally different conclusion alright - to a totally different problem.

If you can't see that there's a difference between smoking pot and OD'ing on heroin, you need to open your eyes and look around.

Posted by: reiflame1 | April 6, 2009 6:12 PM

If the situation with the Hearings Office is as dire as you claim this is an issue that affects EVERY FCPS family, not just those who have been expelled. Develop a grassroots PR program, educate the public, start an online petition and take a stand. Did the SB take away your rights under the 1st amendment when you signed the SR&R? Of course not!

Where is the Rosa Parks against this injustice? FCPS parents are well-educated and can easily pull together the resources, financial and otherwise, to address this issue. Right now you are acting like victims without free will or the ability to effect change. There has to be someone on the SB (Tina Hone?) who will champion your cause.

Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 6:34 PM

I can't really see Tina Hone helping a group uncover massive due process violations and discriminatory practices-I am sure the SB attorney would put a stop to that.

There will definitely be a group forming over this. We all have a moral obligation to see that there are no other deaths like Josh. I choose my worhs carefully and have no hesitation in saying that FCPS played a role in driving this kid to take his life. It is tragic and it was avoidable.

For some reason FCPS employs the hardest most sadistic people in the hearings office. They are hateful and cruel to these kids and their parents. I doubt one of them has the appropriate training in the adolescent mental health area. Kids get in trouble. Kids make mistakes. They are growing up!! This practice of throwing them out of school like a bag of garbage is barbaric.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 6, 2009 7:10 PM

The difference between Josh and 100s like him is that he got caught, twice, and was not very smart about how he and his parents went about defending themselves against this tyranny. Every year there are 100s of FXCO teenagers just like him...entitled, from homes with plenty of $, little to no moral compass, too much free time and no consequences ever for their misdeeds who get caught doing stupid things in violation of the SR&R...possession, organized cheating on IB exams, theft of school property, improper use of computer resources to change attendance records...and nothing happens because they are "good" kids. They may be a star athlete, SGA officer, whatever and they get a pass. Eventually, however, someone is made an example of and maybe this time it was Josh. What I know is that when parents set limits and enforce rules of conduct and standards of behavior this type of thing does not happen.

I did not know Josh personally, but I see his type every day. While tragic, maybe his death will serve as an object lesson to others. Seriously, life does not end when you are expelled if you have a strong family and good sense of self. You deal with it, pick yourself up and move on a better person for the experience.

Posted by: skipper7 | April 6, 2009 8:07 PM

I returned from Ga about a year ago. My little brother(16) has been arrested 3 times for robbery, 1 for car jacking and shop lifting...... Zero Tolerance is needed, i'm all with helping those who want it, but some just need to be locked away........

Posted by: xrendellx | April 7, 2009 3:53 PM

Where does one go on the va doe website to see these stats? If there is 100% expulsion rate for those recommended, what is the difference between McLean HS and Mt. Vernon? I am in the process of gathering information for my son who was suspended recently and will be having a hearing soon. I don't know whether to have a lawyer with us or what.

Posted by: amity5 | April 7, 2009 9:41 PM


An attorney is a waste of money-the outcome is predetermined. The hearing office will consult with the principal and does not want to contradict their recommended punishment. You are prohibited from recording the hearing-take good notes, and demand the notes from FCPS if they have someone in there taking notes. Ude FERPA to get all the info you can-emails, statements, etc. Document all due process violations. You will be shocked at how you are treated-they will act like your kid is an axe murderer and will positively rude and hateful to you. FCPS controls the hearing and they will blab on endlessly about how your child is a menance to society and a danger to others and you have to sit quietly thru the whole meeting. At the very end of the meeting, you will be given about 10-15 minutes to plead your case which of course will fall on deaf ears. In our hearing, we were about halfway thru presenting our case, and the hearing officer, Scanlon, cut us off, and said we are out of time.

You will feel like you are in a Communist country when you walk out of there.

Posted by: takebackourschools | April 8, 2009 9:43 AM

I find it interesting that an adult gets a couple hundred dollar fine for being caught with marijuana while CHILDREN are getting expelled from school. Doesn't science prove time and time again that adolescents rarely fully understand the consequences of their actions? We need a system that treats these young offenders strictly but fairly, and does not ruin their futures by eliminating their chances of getting into good colleges or even getting high school diplomas!

Posted by: yorkm | April 8, 2009 2:42 PM

Wiredog is right. As soon as you let those in power use their discression, some parent who thinks that his/her poor child has been abused will hire an attorney and fight it. And Yorkm? While I'm not an expert in adolescent development, I would think that black/white rules are EXACTLY what is needed for children. Knowing that punishment will be swift and sure is a great motivator for doing the right thing, and keeping away from fellow students who may lead you astray. Oh, and for all you screaming conservative who think that the liberals are letting their kids run wild?I'm a screaming liberal who makes her kids follow the rules. I'm sorry that that child thought that suicide was the answer. It never is. I'm sorry for kids who get in trouble in school for breaking the rules. I still think that the rules should be enforced. Your child doesn't get into Harvard because he/she broke rules? Well, the local community colleges offer fine educations.

Posted by: IrishRose | April 8, 2009 5:24 PM

I am appalled by some of the comments here that label Josh Anderson and assume they know things about his life and situation that they do not. Please remember that those that loved Josh Anderson very much are likely reading these comments, and it is unspeakable that you would subject them to such judgement without ever having met them and would expose them to your harsh opinions at a time when they are dealing with so much grief. Absolutely horrible.

Posted by: thinkpeople | April 8, 2009 9:38 PM

Some of you have written in to say you were frustrated you couldn't get your comments on the Anderson story onto the comment board where the original column appears--those board apparently close after a certain number of days. But you can continue the conversation here on the blog....

Posted by: Marc Fisher | April 9, 2009 10:08 AM

It is certainly true that in and of itself "zero tolerance" is a useless and stupid disciplinary policy. But the problems run much deeper than that. The individual FCPS administrators, especially the Hearing Officers, are among the most needlessly cruel and sadistic people humanity has to offer. The Appeal Hearings themsleves can be properly described as a cross between the Stalinist Soviet Show Trials and Torquemada's Spanish Inquistion.

Posted by: Coriolanus | April 10, 2009 4:55 PM

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