One Strike, They're Out

One Strike, They're Out

Some families call the school system’s polices on marijuana punitive and ineffective.


South Lakes Junior Josh Anderson died of suicide the night before he faced expulsion from the school system in 2009. His death has raised questions about the way Fairfax County Public Schools handles disciplinary matters.

— Under different circumstances, Josh Anderson would have been headed to college this fall, likely joining a college football team.

His parents, Tim and Sue Anderson, had been looking forward to this time in their lives. Josh was the youngest of their four children, leaving Tim and Sue Anderson as empty nesters.

Instead of planning trips to watch Josh play his first season of college football, the Andersons are left with sadness and despair.

One morning in March 2009, Sue Anderson went to rouse her son from bed and found him dead in their Vienna home. Josh, then a junior at South Lakes High School, died of suicide the day before he was to face expulsion from the Fairfax County school system at a disciplinary hearing.

EARLIER THAT MONTH, Josh and his friend smoked marijuana on a car ride back to school from lunch at Taco Bell. A South Lakes assistant principal smelled marijuana on the students when they arrived back on campus and Josh was immediately placed on home suspension.

This was Josh’s second violation. In 2008, he had been kicked out of Langley High School when a school official found a small amount of marijuana in his bag.

Given that this he was a repeat offender, a lawyer told Josh and his mother that it was unlikely Fairfax County Public Schools would allow him to return to South Lakes or another general education program.

His best hope was to be offered a program at one of the county’s alternative high schools. Otherwise, his parents would have to consider moving, sending him to a military academy or enrolling him in another type of private school, said Sue Anderson.

In a statement written immediately after the incident, Josh wrote:

“I’m honestly going to try my hardest to fix this, help my parents, they haven’t raised me to be like this in any way. I’m so scared for the future, this wasn’t worth any of it at all. I’ve only recently been thinking I could make college football and I’ve gotten so excited about it and now everything is ruined.”

IN ADDITION TO being suspended, Tim and Sue Anderson prohibited Josh from using his computer, iPod, cell phone, car or video games.

They took Josh’s first marijuana offense seriously as a mental health matter. After the incident at Langley, he also enrolled in drug counseling and attended regular appointments with a therapist and psychiatrist.

The Andersons agreed with the school system on some levels. What Josh did was wrong. His actions should have had consequences.

But Josh’s parents also thought the severity of their son’s likely punishment – removal from attending Fairfax County Public Schools -- far outweighed the offense.

Josh may have used marijuana, but he was not accused of trying to sell or distribute it to other students. Yet the Andersons’ son was treated as if he was a dangerous criminal, they said.

The South Lakes athletic director had to request special permission from the school system for Josh to play an away game with the South Lakes football team on Langley’s field. Otherwise, Josh was barred from attending any event – including prom, a school play or graduation – held on Langley’s campus.

“The school system doesn’t distinguish between a bad kid and dumb kid when it comes to these types of cases. Josh was a dumb kid making a dumb mistake,” said Tim Anderson, who thought obligatory community service, perhaps cleaning the cafeteria at school for awhile, would have been a more appropriate punishment.

Several school administrators considered Josh an asset, not a threat, to the school community, said the Andersons.

For example, the South Lakes assistant principal who reported Josh for smelling like marijuana had also nominated the teenager to be named the “coolest junior” in the school the month. Among his staunchest advocates was the South Lakes guidance counselor, who had worked with Josh regularly.

“The guidance counselor and the football coach, even the guy who caught him, were totally devastated,” said Tim Anderson.

SCHOOL OFFICIALS can rarely comment on an individual student's record or a specific disciplinary matter. But Josh was among 154 students who faced expulsion from Fairfax County Public Schools for marijuana during the 2008-09 school year alone.

Possession of marijuana was, by far, the most common reason students faced expulsion. The second most frequent offense — an umbrella category called "prohibited conduct" that includes fighting, causing a disruption and defying staff — resulted in 84 recommendations for expulsion during 2008-09.

The vast majority of students recommended for expulsion are not kicked out of the school system entirely, though those charged with violations related to drugs almost always face stiff consequences.

Violators frequently are removed from their base school, subjected to random drug tests and required to attend counseling, said School Board members familiar with the process. A few parents believe that punishment, particularly for those students who are caught with marijuana for personal use and not intending to sell it, is too harsh and more consideration should be given to the student's overall conduct and community support.

What Happens If a Child Is Caught?

SOURCE: Fairfax County Public Schools website.

If school administrators catch a child engaging in behavior that warrants a disciplinary hearing, they contact Superintendent Jack Dale's office. The school principal then forwards a packet of information, including details about the incident concerning your child and the student's overall disciplinary record, to the hearing office.

If a child has been recommended for expulsion from the school system, he or she will have to serve an automatic 10-day suspension in the days leading up to the disciplinary hearing. During this time, the school will provide the child's family with classroom work so that the student does not fall behind in his or her courses. It is the family's responsibility to pick up and drop off their child's work while they are out of school because of a disciplinary matter.

CHARACTER REFERENCES, personal accomplishments and endorsements from the community appear to have little bearing on the outcome of disciplinary hearings, particularly in matters related to drugs, according to the Andersons and some other families who have encountered the process.

The cases of students facing serious consequences, like a long-term suspension or expulsion, are typically reviewed during a disciplinary hearing, when members of the school system’s central administration staff recommend a punishment for the student. The School Board also reviews and votes on all expulsions individually.

But some parents complain the recommendation for the student’s punishment is predetermined before his or her disciplinary hearing takes place. They said the hearing officers largely ignore the testimony of the student and his or her supporters.

When Josh first faced removal from Langley High School, the Andersons worried their son had given a bad impression at his hearing because he had “shut down” when officials asked him questions. Josh, who was taciturn and prone to shyness, had been intimidated by the situation, they said.

Tim Anderson called a school official the next day to express concern that the panel may not have gotten the correct impression of his son. “We had the hearing and we felt like Josh hadn’t been heard,” he said. The official told him not to worry about the impression Josh made on the officers because it was essentially a “done deal” once a student was caught on school grounds with drugs.

“His fate was determined before the hearing,” said Tim Anderson.

SCHOOL BOARD members denied that the outcome of student disciplinary cases are predetermined and that individual circumstances are not considered.

“In my experience as a School Board member, every case has been decided on the individual facts of that case,” said Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), who has presided over 1,000 different disciplinary proceedings.

“What happens in each case is unique to each case,” he said.

But Gibson and other School Board members said they also try to be consistent when it comes to consequences for student violations. They make an effort to dole out the same punishment to students who commit similar offenses.

“I cannot remember a situation where a kid was caught with drugs at school when they were not sent to another school,” said School Board member Dan Storck (Mount Vernon).

FAIRFAX COUNTY Public Schools used to take a more lenient approach to some drug violations. Until 10 or 12 years ago, students caught with a small amount of marijuana at school were only subjected to a five-day suspension and then allowed to return to their base school, said Gibson.

Then, Virginia enacted a new law that required schools to automatically expel students for a variety of offenses, including the possession of marijuana. While waiting for the disciplinary hearing to take place, he or she is also subjected to a mandatory out-of-school suspension for at least 10 days.

The local School Board does have leeway when it comes to drug offenses and expulsion. There are special circumstances School Board members can use to justify a “modified expulsion,” where the student is allowed to stay in the school system with a less severe punishment.

In fact, the Fairfax County School Board rarely expels students outright for drug offenses according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education. From 2004 to 2009, 905 Fairfax County students caught with drugs at school for personal use received “modified expulsions.” Only nine students were expelled from the school system entirely.

“I can count on one or two hands the number of times we voted for a student not to receive services. The vast majority of students stay in the system,” said Storck.

IN SEVERAL CASES, both the accused student and administrators agree on the facts of a case and the violator admits to having had drugs at school. The difference of opinion often occurs over what consequences are appropriate, said Gibson.

“There are people who think students are being punished far more severely than the offense merits,” he said.

But Gibson said allowing a student to return to their classes after he or she has been caught with drugs on campus could send the wrong message to other teenagers and children.

“I don’t think there is any question about whether learning can go on in an environment that is infused with drugs,” he said.

Some parents think community support and opinion about whether a student poses a threat to others should be given more weight.

Last year, a student from a public school in McLean who admitted to smoking marijuana on a school trip garnered support from teachers, coaches and other students’ parents.

According to the student’s family, many members of their school community did not think the teenager should be forced to transfer schools for a first-time offense.

Several people wrote letters of support on behalf of the student to the hearing officers presiding over his case but the school system still removed the student from his base school. According to the student’s family, the hearing officers appeared to ignore or disregard public opinion about their son.

Unhappy families who appeal to the School Board and hope the members will depart from the decision of the hearing officers are typically out of luck. It is rare for a School Board panel to reject a recommendation on a disciplinary matter forwarded from staff.

“Over 90 percent of the time, we accept what the hearing officer has sent us,” said Storck.

The strong correlation between the hearing office recommendation and School Board decision is just another indication that the process disenfranchises students and parents, said Caroline Hemenway, founder of Fairfax Zero Tolerance Reform, a community group that advocates for changes to Fairfax’s approach to disciplinary matters.

“The hearings themselves are a kangaroo court. Principals call the hearing officer and make a recommendation for expulsion or suspension way before the hearing. Right from the beginning, the students don’t get the same opportunity to present their case. Then, almost 100 percent of appeals are denied since the school board never reverses a hearing office recommendation,” said Hemenway.

HEMENWAY SAID there are few positive outcomes that appear to derive from having harsh consequences for marijuana use in particular.

Students in the school system don’t appear to be particularly deterred from using drugs as a result of the strict policies.

In 2008, approximately 38 percent of 12th graders responding to the Fairfax County Youth Survey reported that they had used marijuana at least once. Seventeen percent said they used it at least once in the last 30 days.

“You cannot claim that a child caught smoking a joint is a danger to the community when something like 40 percent of seniors have used it,” she said.

For the most part, the harsh consequences for marijuana use only traumatize students who happen to get caught, said Hemenway. Recently, the Andersons heard from the family of a lacrosse player in Chantilly who was emotionally devastated, said Tim Anderson.

Though Josh, a good-looking and athletic boy, had a positive experience when he was forced to move from Langley to South Lakes in the middle of his high school career, other students are not so lucky, said Hemenway.

Removing a child from their friends and support network and sending them to a school in a different part of the county is not going to help those children who might have turned to drugs because of depression, low self-esteem or other mental health issues, she said.

The process also places a tremendous burden on parents and other family members.

It fell on Hemenway to shuttle school assignments and monitor her son’s classwork at home when the teenager, who is now a physics major at James Madison University, was caught using marijuana and removed from South Lakes High School for several months one spring.

When her son was allowed to attend a regular school again, the family also had to get him to and from their home in Oak Hill to Marshall High School in Falls Church every day. The school system does not provide transportation for students who have been removed from their base school for disciplinary reasons.

For a family with less flexibility and fewer financial means, Hemenway worries that keeping up with a child’s schoolwork while on suspension and transferring to another school would be impossible.

“I lost thousands of dollars in personal business because of this,” she said.

STUDENTS CAUGHT with marijuana also appeared to make up a disproportionate number of those who face expulsion.

According to Storck, students caught with alcohol at school are just as likely to be removed and sent to another campus as those caught with marijuana.

But during the 2005-06 school year, the Fairfax County hearing office considered 154 students for expulsion related to the possession of marijuana and just one student for the possession of alcohol, despite the fact that far more Fairfax County students report using alcohol than marijuana. Approximately 72 percent of 12th graders who answered the 2008 Fairfax County youth survey reported using alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Twice as many 12th graders (43 percent) said they had used alcohol over the past month when compared to 12th graders who said they used marijuana during the same time period.