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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize you were conducting social commentary. I will read with interest from now on.
Schumacher

Ariane said...

This story left me sad and angry too. I have been following it up here. It's super scary. This boy already carried a huge burden on his shoulders and I believe that he probaly did not want to further burden his parents with these feelings. The shame he must have felt for thinking that he was responsible for putting his already stressed parents through this. As you know this hits close to home. High achieving E with high expectations for himself became overwhelmed the beginning of junior year and didn't let on as we were immersed in D's brain surgery. He didn't want to burden us. Mom noticed he was "off" when she was living here that week while we were gone and alerted us. Besides getting him immediate private help I reached out to his school. And what a battle to get what was basically a safty net under him as he slowly recovered. If it wasn't for his guidance counselor who went the extra mile and my knowledge of the system and knowing who to call and what strings to pull...it's just scary. Kids are under incredible pressure and high achievers are like slow cookers. The zero tolerance policies in place now are insane. As I was saying...Nick was most likely already depressed, but the multiple consequences he endured for one infraction was all that was needed to push him over the edge. Common sense has to have some place in the system. This boy was treated worse than an adult arrested for breaking the law. That adult would at the very least have a court appointed attorney. Loudoun is already looking at their policies. Teenagers are still children and need support and guidance when they make mistakes...not have the book thrown at them. A friend of E/K took his own life the day before E when to GMU. He was a high achiever by all accounts and a great kid who had gone on mission trips to Africa, had plans to join the army. Teenage depression is deadly. For Fairfax to know this boy had depression issues in the past and then choose to take the most extreme measures to "punish" him is beyond my understanding.

Ariane said...

http://rememberingjosh.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Mooch, No doubt these are horrific tragedies. Many of us have been deeply affected by suicides of family members and close friends. My heart and prayers also go out to these families. Before we indict S. Dale, however, we ought to compare the suicide rates in his schools to nationwide statistics. As I mentioned on the phone, I witnessed far more growing up in rural NY than here--especially at Cornell where the school never reported what happened on the days we woke up and saw the flashing lights at the bridge on Stewart Ave. Perhaps there's a stronger connection between the pressure, as Ariane mentions, and the tragedy than there is with disciplinary policies. Maybe the rate here is higher than anywhere else; maybe it isn't. I don't know, but I'd like to investigate further before throwing one man under the bus. Is there smoke in his kitchen? Yeah, but there's also smoke coming from a lot of other homes where parents are driving their kids to finish two years of college AP credit in high school with straight As in the hope that the gods at UVA or VT will deign to accept their sacrifice. Perhaps there are ways to live that don't involve worshipping at the alter of educational achievement. In case anyone is wondering who I'm talking about, let me be clear: me. --Scratch

Ogre said...

Mooch,

And we see this terror through a dark smoke. Wow - talk about a complicated challenge. Dare we peer into the mind? The emotion? The soul? Our children - our precious charges. Psycho-social dynamics that are far beyond our limited abilities.

But school systems are large bureaucracies which students and parents (and school adinstrators and teachers) must navigate.

Anyway - as 14 year veterans of the fcps system, Cindy and I are available to give you our perspective as you transition back.

Tedd

Ogre said...

Mooch,

And we see this terror through a dark smoke. Wow - talk about a complicated challenge. Dare we peer into the mind? The emotion? The soul? Our children - our precious charges. Psycho-social dynamics that are far beyond our limited abilities.

But school systems are large bureaucracies which students and parents (and school adinstrators and teachers) must navigate.

Anyway - as 14 year veterans of the fcps system, Cindy and I are available to give you our perspective as you transition back.

Tedd

eric said...

Perhaps there are ways to live that don't involve worshipping at the alter of educational achievement.

Well said. If this is the vessel one pours all of their hopes, dreams and energy into, their life falls apart if and when it is removed. These are tragic circumstances. But they are the result of terribly mistaken world-views. As a former expelled student myself (from college, not HS), I know deeply the depression and aimlessness that is so tempting to give into. Nonetheless there was something deeper, underneath it all that my parents had instilled in me - that there is a God, and that our actions matter. It was another decade before this truth manifested itself in a recognizable faith. It is painful and horrifying to see the logical conclusion of "No God but X" (where X is whatever transient thing you pick - money, education, adoration of others, stuff).