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No Link between Suicides, Suspensions, Dale Says

Jack Dale criticizes concerns linking teen suicides to suspensions.

— In the last 22 months, two Fairfax County students have died of suicide while coping with their removal from their local high school for disciplinary matters.

When the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Feb. 8 to “make outreach efforts” to the local school system about student disciplinary tactics,” members hoped to begin a friendly and ongoing discussion about possible reforms to the schools' current system.

“I want us to come together and ask 'Can we find a better way to do this?'” said Supervisor Cathy Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), one of two sponsors of the county measure.

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Jack Dale, Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent

Hudgins is concerned that the school's current disciplinary process may have caused these students to feel more isolated and could have contributed to their deaths.

“Many parents and students are asking whether the Zero Tolerance disciplinary policy of FCPS lacks the ability to recognize the emotional difficulties students experience,” she said in a written statement.

Supervisors plan to invite the Fairfax Partnership for Youth and parent groups to put together a forum about student discipline, including how expulsions and suspensions are handled, for both county and school system officials.

THREE DAYS LATER, Fairfax County Superintendent Jack Dale made it clear he had no intention of discussing the disciplinary system with the county. Dale said in a statement that Hudgins' resolution demonstrated a “serious misunderstanding” of the school system's current disciplinary policies.

Instead, he suggested a broader approach of tackling teen depression in general.

“I believe our efforts would be far more productive if we focused on the incidence of depression among our county youth and how our agencies can work together to tackle this problem,” wrote Dale in his statement.

Dale said Fairfax County schools do not have a “zero tolerance” approach to discipline and consider every proposal for expulsion or suspension on an individual basis.

“I strongly recommend that all members of the Board of Supervisors learn more about FCPS' practices and policies before making public statements that are misinformed and damaging to our students, families and community,” wrote Dale.

DALE ALSO objected in strong language to Hudgins' link of two teenage suicides to the school disciplinary process.

“For Supervisor Hudgins to link the two tragic student deaths to their disciplinary processes for the purpose of furthering a falsehood is unconscionable and a blow to those who have already suffered great pain and loss,” wrote Dale.

Dale and Hudgins did not speak to each other directly; each issued public statements.

Last month, sophomore Nick Stuban died a few weeks after he had been forced to leave Woodson High School for Fairfax High School because of an infraction. In 2009, South Lakes High School junior Josh Anderson took his life a few hours before he expected to be expelled from the entire Fairfax County school system at disciplinary hearing.

According to last year's Fairfax County Youth Survey, 14 percent of local students had considered suicide and 3.6 percent had attempted suicide at least once. The youth survey shows that students who report abusing substances also tend to report considering suicide and attempting suicide at a higher rate, according to Dale.

“There is no link between the tragic suicides that we have had and the disciplinary process. … I have knowledge of both cases that I can't share with you and there is zero evidence to support that. None,” said Dale in an interview.

JOSH'S PARENTS disagree with Dale's assessment.

“Honestly, the superintendent's response was very mystifying to me,” said. Tim Anderson, Josh's father. “To say there is nothing that connects the suicide and depression to the disciplinary procedure, we believe it is unconscionable to say that.”

Tim Anderson said his family and other people close to Josh believe the emotional strain of the disciplinary hearing and facing expulsion from Fairfax schools contributed to the teenager's death.

“Obviously it happened on the eve of his second hearing. Whether it was the number one cause or the number five cause, I don't know. But it got him closer than he needed to be to that place. I don't think it is by coincidence that it happened the day before his second hearing,” said Tim Anderson in an interview Feb. 15.

The Andersons wonder how Dale might have acquired enough “knowledge” about their son to make any conclusion about the impact of the disciplinary process on Josh's suicide.

“No one from Fairfax County [schools] has ever talked to us about Josh's death. No one from the superintendent's office has ever discussed it with us. If you are really concerned about kids and families in Fairfax County, wouldn't it be the right thing to at least send a condolence card in these cases?” said Tim Anderson.

He added that Dale appears to be more concerned with protecting the school system from liability or a class action lawsuit than addressing the shortfalls of the disciplinary process.

The Andersons’ limited contact with the county board on this issue has been a much more positive experience. Hudgins contacted the family before she made her proposal to the county board, asking for input on the issue from Tim Anderson and to make sure he was comfortable with a reference to Josh's death in her written statement.

“Cathy Hudgins — I really appreciate all the things she said. I don't appreciate the approach that Jack Dale took,” said Tim Anderson.

SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER Tina Hone (At-large) started pushing for a detailed examination of the process last October.

Hone said it is difficult for her to even deduce what problems might exist in the current system because the administration has never provided her with comprehensive data related to student suspensions and expulsions.

“We need to see the data. …. But what I have gotten is stonewalling and stalling on this [from school staff],” said Hone.

Hone first started focusing on disciplinary polices and procedures when a parent contacted her to say that her son had been removed from his base school and placed on “long-term suspension” at an alternative high school for over 400 days.

“That student wasn't suspended. He was reassigned to a new school. He received the exact same penalty he would have gotten if he had been expelled from his base school. …I had hoped to achieve an agreement that no child would be reassigned to one of our alternative high schools for more than 365 days unless he had been expelled from his base school,” said Hone.

Among the data that Hone requested was a count how many students receive five-day suspensions, 10-day suspensions, and longer-term suspensions. She also wanted to know what, if any, the suspensions had on students' academic achievement when they returned to class.

Hone also wants evidence that transferring a student from one general education high school to another, which is done often for minor drug offenses, has any positive effects.

“Kids get shuffled a lot and we have no idea what it does for them. We don't know what it does for their base school. It might even be better to have the student come back. We don't know,” said Hone.

Hone would also like to videotape or otherwise monitor disciplinary hearings, which are conducted by special hearing officers. A few families have complained to Hone and others about hearing officers badgering students.

The Andersons said their son was traumatized during his first hearing and extremely upset about having to go through the process a second time. They have talked to other parents whose children were also emotionally beaten down by aggressive questioning and lectures from the school system's staff. One student they know sobbed for hours after the hearing concluded, said Tim Anderson.

Hone said she has personally witnessed disciplinary officers engaging in unbecoming behavior.

“I have impeded on hearing officers in front of kids. … Once [a hearing officer] was just banging into a kid's head what a rotten person he was,” said Hone.