Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: Time to cancel zero-tolerance

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Opinion,Local Editorial

On Wednesday, after months of deliberation, the Ad Hoc Community Committee on Student Rights and Responsibilities presented 52 substantive changes in student disciplinary policy to a special session of the Fairfax County School Board. If approved in their entirety, these long-overdue recommendations will replace a rigid "zero tolerance" policy with one based on common sense and educational principles.

The 40-member ad hoc committee was chaired by Steve Stuban, whose 15-year-old son, Nick, a football player at W.T. Woodson High School, committed suicide in 2011, after being suspended from school for 11 weeks for possession of synthetic marijuana. This was two years after 17-year-old Josh Anderson, another suspended football player from South Lakes High School, killed himself the day before his disciplinary hearing.

The two teen suicides galvanized parents in Fairfax County, who demanded an end to the school system's excessively harsh and contradictory "zero tolerance" policies, which punished Nick Stuban more for purchasing a legal substance than if he had arrived at school drunk or high on cocaine. Such policies might be appropriate in a penal institution, but they are out of place and harmful in an educational setting.

The committee's excellent recommendations include a requirement that school administrators notify parents before their children are questioned about possible violations that could trigger a suspension. Many parents reported they had no idea their children were being interrogated by school officials over allegations that could result in suspension, expulsion or even criminal charges being filed. That clearly must end.

Other recommendations include a "second chance" for first-time drug or alcohol violations, more discretion for principals in referring students to the School Board's hearings office, and a standing committee on student discipline with the goal of re-engineering the school environment to prevent violations in the first place and making sure that certain groups -- such as special ed or minority students -- are not being punished disproportionately. They also call for better academic support for those students who are suspended in school or out of school to help get them back on track as quickly as possible.

The abolition of "zero tolerance" does not mean allowing students to misbehave or escape consequences when they do. But it does require educators and school administrators to be mindful that too-severe punishments that don't fit the crime -- or the child -- only undermine the school system's ultimate goal.

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