Category: Education

Zero Tolerance Reform Still Not Enough

W.T. Woodson High School student Nick Stuban took his life in 2011 after experiencing severe disciplinary actions from the Fairfax County Public School board. Two years later, FCPS is finally reforming “Zero Tolerance Policy,” a disciplinary policy that has received extreme scrutiny from parents in recent years.

On Thursday night, a 9-2 vote passed amendments to include a drug intervention program, a new guide for parents of disabled students facing disciplinary action, and a stipulation requiring school administrators to try to contact parents before students are questioned.

These changes are a step in the right direction, but WJLA called them “sweeping” reforms. These reforms are far from sweeping. Many parents are still not satisfied. Much, much more is needed for Zero Tolerance Reform.

Blake’s Story

I’ll illustrate with a story about someone I know. Let’s call him Blake.

During the Spring of 2010, Blake, a junior at W.T. Woodson High School, was caught for attempting to sell pain killers at school. There were a number of problems with the way the situation was handled.

First, he was forced to confess before his parents were notified. His mother said,

He had written a full confession in front of a cop before [his father] was told what happened and before he reached the school. He was caught with pain killers which is a criminal offense. No Miranda rights were read.

The injustice continued to persist through his hearings. His mother recaps,

We were told that we didn’t need a lawyer but they had their lawyer there without telling us they would have one there.

But a lawyer wouldn’t matter much anyway. Blake’s parents believe the decision was made the day he was caught. The hearing was merely a formality. A formality, which by the way, forced a huge financial burden on his family. His father said,

It took an inordinate amount of time to hold the hearings, a three-month bureaucratic delay, which left us no option other than to enroll him in private school.

As a first-time offender with positive recommendations from his teachers, Blake wasn’t just expelled from Woodson, he was was expelled from all Fairfax County Public Schools.

But shortly after the decision was made, the board called Blake back for a second hearing. His parents remember wondering if the administration had reconsidered the ruling. But as it turns out, that wasn’t the reason they called the second hearing. His father says,

We had to go back a second time, because one signature was missing from the documentation, a bureaucratic SNAFU that encouraged some to believe that [Blake] might be able to go back to Woodson.

What his mother found more disturbing was the way the board treated Blake and his parents during the second hearing. His mother recalls,

Then the board member ordered [Blake] to apologize to [his father and I] even though I spoke over her trying to say it wasn’t necessary. I was told to that I wasn’t permitted to speak.

They forced him to apologize over, and over, and over until he couldn’t form the words “I’m sorry” through his tears.

After expulsion, Blake sunk into a state of self-loathing and deep depression as everything he knew–his school, his friends, his teachers, and his future–was stripped away from him. That summer, he attempted suicide.

The Problem with Zero Tolerance Policy

Blake’s father says the problem with Zero Tolerance Policy is that it takes logical decision making out of the process, which can be a dangerous thing for troubled teens:

It takes way too long a time to hold the hearings, and justice delayed is sometimes not justice at all. For the wayward student, they lose their peer support group, whoever that is, and start anew in a strange environment. Which, for the emotionally unstable, at that age, can have adverse effects.

This is precisely the problem with Zero Tolerance Policy: it is debilitating rather than rehabilitating. But the current system is run by hundreds of blind Javerts, ignorantly worshiping an immoral law.

Blake’s parents say their son has come a long way since his experience at Woodson. He’s now a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, a school many people told him he’d never get into with an expulsion on his record. But sadly, other families haven’t been as lucky, which is why Zero Tolerance reform must keep moving forward.

FCPS needs a disciplinary system that models mercy through a second chance program for first-time offenders. Mercy tempered with justice is humane and effective because it preserves the dignity of the individual and provides hope for a brighter future. A second chance will empower our children to become better people.

If the leaders of our education system can’t respect human dignity, how can we expect our students to respect the value of their own lives?