Zero Tolerance, Zero Consideration

24 Feb in
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By Joao Da Silva, Dignity in Schools Campaign

If you were to make an assumption about young people these days, based solely on the disciplinary policies applied in our public schools, you could easily conclude that being young has become a liability. If you take a recent New York Civil Liberties Union report under consideration and you are poor, not white, and/or have special needs - things don’t get much better.

Some might say this is nothing new, that students have always been “trouble,” that young people are complicated, fiery, and unpredictable.  It’s the same old story we’ve seen portrayed over and over again, in everything from Shakespeare plays to 1950’s Hollywood films starring James Dean or Marlon Brando.

Generations will always confront each other with opposing views on culture, morality and codes of conduct; and the relationships between students, parents, teachers, and school authorities are no different. You might also bring up the obvious: that things are a bit easier than they were before and young people can express themselves more freely than ever before. This may be true for most, but if you only looked at the policing and discipline practices in our public school system, you couldn’t help but conclude that today’s adults find young people “scary”: worthy of metal detectors, video surveillance, and a police presence keep things running smoothly and in order. If young people today dare to do (or even say) anything adults deem  a “threat” or a “distraction,” our public school system responds with a zero tolerance approach to make sure they “learn” from their mistakes and that it never happens again. In some states, this “lesson” may also involve corporal punishment.

Lessons from Virginia

We will never know what was going through Nick Stuban’s mind when he decided to take his own life on January 20, 2011. We will never fully understand nor even begin to grasp what this 15-year old high school student was dealing with. But his loved ones tell us that he was emotionally distraught after he was suspended and referred for expulsion from the Fairfax, VA high school that he considered his “second home.”

The only child of two military veterans, Steven and Sandy Stuban, Nick was born on April 7, 1995. Eight months after his birth, Susan was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS], also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Doctors said she had 18 months to live but, defying all predictions, Susan has now outlived her son.

Nick grew up watching ALS gradually debilitate his mother to the point where she lost her ability to walk and speak. Under these difficult and trying circumstances, he learned to care for her and attend to her whenever needed, sometimes trading normal childhood activities like going trick or treating on Halloween for trips to the hospital. Nevertheless, however difficult life could be at home, Nick could always count on finding friendship and support at W.T. Woodson High where he was a Boy Scout and linebacker for the football team.

According to Fairfax County School officials, Nick made an unforgivable mistake when he purchased a single capsule of a legal synthetic compound that mimics the effects of marijuana called JWH-018 . Although JWH-018 is legal, and Nick neither broke any existing laws nor was ever found to be in possession of said drug on school premises, this incident was enough to have him suspended and to initiate a disciplinary process to have him expelled. 

During his disciplinary hearing in November 2010 he showed remorse, apologized, and begged to be allowed back into his school, but the hearing board was inflexible and decided to proceed in accordance with Page 20 (Section d.)of the Student Responsibilities and Rights Handbook: “Use or possession of a controlled substance, marijuana, an imitation controlled substance, or imitation marijuana while on school property or at a school-sponsored activity shall result in a ten-day suspension from school and recommendation for expulsion.”

 According to a Feb 20, 2011 Washington Post article by Donna St. George:

Nick read a statement his mother wrote mentioning his helpfulness, saying Nick "responds to ventilator alarms, and performs tracheal suctioning, often late at night." She said he'd raised money for her disease, served as an acolyte at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and been in Boy Scouts for most of a decade.

"I implore you to consider his whole person, his willingness to learn from his mistake and his future contributions to Woodson," she wrote. "Please allow Nick to return to Woodson."

A hearing officer thanked the family for the statement.

Then, the Stubans say, the hearing became accusatory. No handwritten notes were taken to reflect this. A hearing officer declined to discuss the specifics of Nick's hearing.

According to the Stubans, Nick was asked repeatedly why he could not recall the price he paid for JWH. He had said $10 or $15 - or maybe $20 or $25.

"I don't remember the cost. I don't remember," his father remembers Nick saying. He says Nick, who rarely shed a tear, sobbed.

The Stubans recall a hearing officer then saying, "You haven't really given us a good reason why you did this, and we suspect you were really looking to buy something else."

To Steve Stuban, the proceeding was now harassing and unfair, based on suspicion instead of evidence.”

Given Nick’s history as a student with good grades, a nearly perfect attendance record, no previous offenses, and a very difficult situation at home, one would expect the hearing board to have considered what the Handbook states 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.” Yet, it seems Nick’s case wasn’t worthy of being considered a “Special Circumstance” by the board.

The process, which took over two months, meant that Nick was not allowed to set foot on school grounds, excluding him from attending his Boy Scout meetings and all sports activities, further alienating him from classmates, teammates, and friends. His family claims that he became depressed and withdrawn. During the hearings, Nick was forced to transfer to Fairfax High School, a few days later he took his own life.

Did Nick endanger his life or the lives of other classmates, school personnel or himself when he made the alleged “purchase”? Where would Nick be now if instead of applying zero tolerance and having him expelled school authorities had recommended, for example, that he see a youth counselor or a therapist and given him one more chance?

It’s important to note that Nick Stuban is not the first student to commit suicide during a disciplinary process in Fairfax County. On March 19, 2009, Josh Anderson a 17-year-old football player at South Lakes High took his own life on the night before the hearing that would have likely meant his expulsion.  His crime? He and a classmate had been caught in possession of marijuana on school grounds.

In his letter to the hearing officers, Josh wrote, "I really have been working hard on this. I can't believe I'm putting my parents through this now. I can't believe how selfish and stupid I've been… I'm honestly going to try my hardest to fix this."

Two young lives were lost, and probably many more have and will be damaged forever simply because we as adults can sometimes tend to overreact and adopt unreasonable measures to make examples of others, or because we think we are doing “what’s best..

 The Origins of Zero Tolerance

 “Zero tolerance” as a policy was first proposed in 1994 as part of Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, it was signed into law as part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a measure called the “Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994” to set a “zero tolerance” policy to keep guns out America’s schools. The goal was to remove firearms from all public schools by requiring districts that receive federal funds to adopt a gun-free school policy and expel (for one year) students who carry a gun to school. But, over the years, more and more school districts began using the law to enact strict zero tolerance policies not just for guns but also for everything from possession of a lethal weapon, to cub scout camping utensils , laser pointers, Tylenol, and even oregano if it is packaged in a manner that it were to resemble marihuana.

According to Zero Tolerance and Alternative Strategies: A Fact Sheet for Educators and Policymakers issued by the National Association of School Psychologists,

 “Some teachers and administrators favor zero tolerance policies because they remove difficult students from school; administrators perceive zero tolerance policies as fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable in the school.

“However, research indicates that, as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices. Proven discipline strategies that provide more effective alternatives to broad zero tolerance policies should be implemented to ensure that all students have access to an appropriate education in a safe environment.”

 
The practice of zero tolerance policies in our schools reflect poorly on us as human beings. It means we are afraid of each other, and that we don’t believe in remorse, reconciliation, or redemption. It drives our youth away from schools and communities. It creates a sense of physical and emotional displacement, and at times leads to desperation.

Most importantly the manner in which zero tolerance policies are applied do not work to prevent the very things they are meant to prevent, and they end up hurting good people.

Thankfully, the disciplinary process, to which Nick Stuban and Josh Anderson were submitted, is now under scrutiny from concerned parents and students in the Fairfax, VA school district.

 If you’d like to learn more about what parents are doing in Fairfax, Va, please visit http://fairfaxzerotolerancereform.org/

If you’d like to learn more about Zero Tolerance policies in schools, please visit - http://www.dignityinschools.org/content/zero-tolerance
 

(Photo by Bill O'Leary / Washington Post)