By Elizabeth Wong, Associate Director
As summer begins, localities around Virginia are closing the books on another school year.  But before they do, school administrators should take this opportunity to reflect on some recent headlining incidents that call our attention to disciplinary policies.
First there’s Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old student at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County.  Described as a “model student” who played on the school’s football team, he committed suicide in January after falling into depression following suspension and involuntary transfer to another school.  His offense?  He brought to school a capsule of JWH-018, a legal compound with marijuana-like effects.  Stuban’s disciplinary record showed that he had two other infractions: using a cellphone and copying a friend’s work in class.
Then there’s Adam Grass, a seventh-grader from Hickory Middle School in Chesapeake.  Like Stuban, Grass received a punishment of 10 days suspension and a recommendation for expulsion. His offense was passing around to fellow students a plastic baggie of oregano so that it resembled marijuana.  Grass didn’t even bring the baggie to school.
And finally there’s Andrew Mikel, Jr., a 14-year-old at Spotsylvania High School, who is described in news reports as an honor student and ROTC standout.  In December 2010, Mikel shot spitballs at other students through a pen tube.  Because the school classified his contraption as a weapon, he was suspended for the rest of the school year and criminal charges were filed against him.
No one is saying that these young men are innocent of any wrongdoing or that their offenses are not deserving of some sort of punishment.  Students should not bring drugs—real or imitation—to school, and they should not pelt others with spitballs.  But do the punishments really fit the crimes in these instances?  I think not.
These headline cases illustrate the very problem with zero-tolerance policies in public schools—a loss of commonsense.  By not taking into account the individuals and specific cases at issue, these blanket policies force otherwise good students to have their records and reputations marred by disciplinary infractions.  In today’s highly competitive environment for college entrance, a student’s entire future may be jeopardized simply because on one occasion he or she acted like a foolish teenager.
While school disciplinary policies should certainly punish students when they do something wrong, the goal should be to use the incident as a learning experience, not a life-changing stain on their records.
Besides, there is no evidence to suggest that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or improve student behavior.  In fact, “studies show that a child who has been suspended is more likely to be retained in his or her grade, to drop out, to commit a crime, and to be incarcerated as an adult” (page 3).
In the wake of Stuban’s suicide, which served as a startling wake-up call to the entire community about disciplinary policies, the parents in Fairfax County rallied for change.  Earlier this month, Fairfax school officials voted to scale back involuntary transfers to other schools and said they would consider alternative disciplinary measures.
Communities around Virginia should not wait for a tragedy like Stuban to strike.  Parents, educators, and concerned residents alike should contact their school boards, tell officials that zero-tolerance make zero sense, and urge them to reform their draconian disciplinary policies so that high school students can act like high school students and still have a future.