Saturday, February 26, 2011

Where There's Smoke There's Fire

On the eve of making our big decision to move back to the Northern Virginia area I read a story in the Washington Post by Donna St. George on the controversy over the disciplinary action taken by the Fairfax County school system against a student at W.T. Woodson High School. (School Superintendent Jack D. Dale Defended Fairfax County’s Discipline Policies, 11 Feb 2011) This was of particular interest to me because W.T. Woodson is one of the high schools my wife and I have been discussing as a potential for our daughter to attend if we decide to relocate. Of course I was horrified to discover the reason for the controversy stems from the connection drawn between the Fairfax County disciplinary policies and the suicide of a student from W.T. Woodson. Tragically 15 year old Nick Stuban took his own life on Jan 20, 2011. This connection was made by two school board supervisors. However, the School Superintendent, Jack D. Dale, disagreed and is quoted as having said the link is, “…unconscionable and a blow to those who have already suffered great pain" and “that it would be most constructive to focus on the incidence of depression among youths in Fairfax County”.

Aside from snapping me completely out of my self-centered focus on events in my own life I was shattered by the news of this teen suicide. A well regarded student with a bright future caught up in a horribly unforgiving bureaucracy who believed ending his life was his only recourse. I read further and discovered that this is actually the second suicide of a student linked to a perceived “zero tolerance” policy in the Fairfax County School System disciplinary process. The first was in March 2009, less than two years previously. Tragically Josh Anderson, a 17 year old student at South Lakes High School, took his own life on March 18, 2009.

Teen depression and teen suicide are vastly complex subjects and Superintendent Dale is partially correct when he says it would be constructive to focus, “…on the incidence of depression among youths…” This is always a good thing. So why not address some of the causes of depression. That would be just as good as any other area to focus on. Yet the man in charge immediately jumped on the defensive and said that the link is “unconscionable” and “a blow to those who have already suffered”. Turns out the two families involved, who have suffered the most, are standing with the board members as they make this indictment of the “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies. You can read more at the blog, “Remembering Josh”, posted by one of the families. They made this link in 2009.

Of course it’s not even clear that the mental illness known as “depression” played any role in these two incidents. Superintendent Dale is making an incredibly superficial judgment of causation. It is more likely that “Anxiety Disorders” stemming from the disciplinary circumstances have played a much larger role in these two cases. These of course would be coupled with other factors in the student’s environment. With any suicide there is rarely a single cause. But we shouldn’t ignore any cause when our children’s lives are at stake. A school suicide affects every student, profoundly, and for the rest of their lives. A single incident is one too many and well worth the cost of investigation.

Last Thursday, Donna St. George again reported in the Washington Post that, “The Maryland Board of Education asked for a review of policies in the state's 24 school systems, expressing concern about any existing "zero tolerance" practices and a need for support services for suspended students.” What does it hurt to review the policies? I applaud Maryland for taking this prompt action. Of course, as it turns out Jack D. Dale was the Superintendent of Frederick County Maryland Public Schools before taking his high paying job in Fairfax County back in 2004.

In other recent news, Superintendent Dale has been quoted as saying, ““Schools can’t be expected to solve all of society’s problems,” this while he lobbied against legislation to require Physical Education classes in Fairfax County elementary and middle schools to be increased to 150 minutes a week.

And also in recent news, Fairfax County schools will no longer charge students to take Advanced Placement exams. The Virginia Attorney General ruled that these fees were, in fact, illegal. It turns out Superintendent Dale announced last year that Fairfax would charge students $75 each, as a cost-saving measure during difficult financial times. Not to pile on but since taking this high paying job in Virginia where he signed on for $237,000 per year his salary has been increased to $292,469 during these “difficult financial times”. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

Since we are currently living well away from all this turmoil but might, before summer’s end, join the fray, I am now aware of these mounting concerns with regard to Superintendent Dale and the Fairfax, County School disciplinary policies. I am glad I have been awakened to this controversy. My heart goes out to the families of Josh and Nick and I stand-by your belief that there is something wrong with the system. If Superintendent Dale isn’t willing to make a change, or at least investigate, it’s time for Fairfax to make a change.