Stu­dent death stirs up Fair­fax

Sui­cide sus­pected af­ter sus­pen­sion and trans­fer

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DONNA ST. GE­ORGE

The ap­par­ent sui­cide of a 15year-old high school foot­ball player in Fair­fax County has sparked con­cern about the school district’s dis­ci­plinary poli­cies, which crit­ics say are overly puni­tive and of­ten de­bil­i­tat­ing for stu­dents.

The con­cerns come as stu­dents at W.T. Wood­son High School mourn the loss of Nick Stuban, a for­mer sopho­more run­ning back on the ju­nior var­sity team. Foot­ball play­ers wore their home­com­ing jer­seys in me­mory of the well-liked teen Fri­day, and many other stu­dents wore black.

Nick’s death fol­lowed a dis­ci­plinary ac­tion that some par­ents and school ac­tivists con­sid­ered un­nec­es­sar­ily harsh. A school spokesman de­fended the district’s poli­cies as ap­pro­pri­ate and in line with state law.

The teen was sus­pended and re­ferred for ex­pul­sion last fall af­ter an in­ci­dent that his fam­ily and school of­fi­cials de­clined to dis­close. A hear­ing was held, and he was al­lowed to re­turn to class in early Jan­uary. At that point, he had been re­as­signed to Fair­fax High School.

On Thurs­day morn­ing, the teenager was found dead at his Fair­fax home. Po­lice said they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the case as an ap­par­ent sui­cide.

The teen’s fa­ther, Steve Stuban, who de­clined to dis­cuss de­tails, said he was “ heart­bro­ken” and was not seek­ing to as­sign blame. But speak­ing be­side his wife, Sandy, he said that process fol­low­ing the in­frac­tion was in­tensely painful for the cou­ple’s only child.

“His spirit was crushed,” Steve Stuban said.

Nick will be buried in his Wood­son foot­ball sweat shirt, with his high school num­ber, 45, on his back.

As the fam­ily pre­pared for a Mon­day ser­vice, par­ent ac­tivists and a School Board mem­ber spoke about the need to re­ex­am­ine dis­ci­pline poli­cies and what some par­ents call a “zero tol­er­ance” ap­proach. Many school dis­tricts in re­cent years have in­creased penal­ties for vi­o­la­tions of

weapon, drug and some other poli­cies.

“Par­ents need to un­der­stand this is a loss for the en­tire com­mu­nity,” said Janet Otersen, a Fair­fax par­ent and school ac­tivist. She said that al­though she does not know all the de­tails of the case, it ap­pears that “we failed this child.”

Otersen went through the dis­ci­pline process five years ago, when her daugh­ter, then a six­th­grader, got into a scuf­fle with a boy, she said. “ The way these hear­ings are run,” she said, “it’s not a nur­tur­ing en­vi­ron­ment where they lec­ture the kids. ... They treat them like the Un­abomber.”

Otersen also ob­jected to re­quir­ing school trans­fers as a rem­edy. “Where’s the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for up­root­ing these kids from their sup­port struc­ture?” she said.

School sys­tem spokesman Paul Reg­nier did not speak about the par­tic­u­lars of the Stuban case. But he dis­puted par­ents’ con­tentions that dis­ci­pline poli­cies amount to a zero-tol­er­ance ap­proach, say­ing that not ev­ery stu­dent rec­om­mended for ex­pul­sion is ex­pelled. He also said state law re­quires that ex­pul­sion be rec­om­mended for cer­tain of­fenses. Even so, he said, in Fair­fax, “it’s done on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

No re­view of dis­ci­pline pro­ce­dures is un­der­way, Reg­nier said, but “you are ob­vi­ously al­ways open to changes that can be help­ful.”

The Stuban fam­ily did not want to dis­cuss the teenager’s in­frac­tion — say­ing this was a time to re­mem­ber Nick’s life — but his fa­ther said it did not in­volve a vi­o­la­tion of the law.

School Board mem­ber Martina A. Hone (At Large) said that al­though she thinks Fair­fax is prob­a­bly do­ing “as good a job as any” school district, she also thinks “we are a bit too puni­tive in the tone of our dis­ci­pline process.” Hone said she has sought to get board mem­bers and staff in­ter­ested in re­assess­ing the process.

Caro­line He­men­way, a par­ent who founded Fair­fax Zero Tol­er­ance Re­form. af­ter her teen got in trou­ble for mar­i­juana pos­ses­sion five years ago, said she has re­ceived a steady stream of calls and e-mails from par­ents since Nick’s death.

She con­tends that the district has no data to show that dis­ci­plinary trans­fers from one school to an­other are ef­fec­tive for the stu­dents in­volved or their schools.

Dante Verme, 17, a Wood­son stu­dent and de­fen­sive tackle who had the foot­ball locker be­side Nick’s, de­scribed the teen as “a quiet kid, but he was al­ways happy, al­ways jok­ing around.”

Verme said he un­der­stood the dif­fi­cul­ties of the dis­ci­pline process, hav­ing been trans­ferred to Wood­son af­ter a van­dal­ism of­fense. “ Trans­fer­ring is, I think, one of the worst things ever,” he said. At the hear­ing, he added, “ they treat you like a crim­i­nal. I re­mem­ber my sit­u­a­tion. It was so de­grad­ing.”

His mother, So­nia Mey-Sch­midt, said that she hes­i­tated to speak out when her son got in trou­ble but that she feels com­pelled to get in­volved.

Not­ing the 2009 death of Josh An­der­son, 17, who com­mit­ted sui­cide as he awaited a hear­ing on a sec­ond mar­i­juana of­fense, she said she thought: “One death was enough. Not a sec­ond one.”

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