Silver Chips Online

A zero-sum game of zero tolerance

After local suicide, itís time to examine discipline policy

March 10, 2011
This article was written by the Silver Chips Print Editorial Board and is intended to represent the official views of the newspaper.

Schools throughout the country base drug discipline policies on the idea that all drug-using teens are unmotivated and lazy people who consistently break rules. But this was not true for Nick Stuban, a 15-year-old student from Fairfax County who was caught buying JWH-018, a legal drug with marijuana-like effects. Before the incident, Stuban was a model student in academics, athletics and attendance. But all this changed when his school suspended him and later transferred him to a different school under their strict discipline policy. After months of emotional stress, Stuban committed suicide on Jan. 20.

Of course, no single factor is ever the sole cause of such a tragic event, so placing all blame on Fairfaxís discipline policy would be unjust and wrong. That does not mean, though, that we should not reconsider the effectiveness of zero-tolerance and other similar school discipline policies.

Zero-tolerance policies are based on the philosophy that all school rules are absolute, and any breach of them poses a threat to the success of the learning environment. In theory, this sounds rational. However, the implementation of zero-tolerance yields harmful results. Among other injustices, students are expelled for first offenses and otherwise punished with one-size-fits-all (rather than discretionary) consequences.

In light of recent events, schools all over Maryland and Virginia have already begun to reexamine their disciplinary policies. First and foremost in this reform, every school should make fair treatment of students a top priority. No matter the offense, treating students as guilty until proven innocent, as was reportedly the case during Stubanís trials, goes against Americaís most fundamental principle of justice. Zero-tolerance policies that sacrifice the rights of some students in the effort to make schools safer cannot be an option.

With zero-tolerance for illegal drugs and overly harsh punishments for other drugs, Blairís policy definitely has room for improvement. There should be penalties for possessing or using illegal drugs at school, but the problem is distinguishing between these substances and illegal drug imitations or legal over-the-counter drugs like Advil.

Currently, according to Assistant Principal Edith Verdejo-Johnson, students caught possessing or using illegal drugs on school grounds are breaking the law, and therefore the police are always called. In addition, these students receive an automatic 10-day suspension and recommendation for expulsion. But expelling a student for drugs or alcohol is, in general, not an effective punishment. A change in school environment is unlikely to affect a studentís drug habits, and labeling an already struggling student as a criminal is unlikely to prevent his desire to misbehave.

Blair also needs to distinguish more clearly between consequences for illegal and imitation illegal drugs. Possession of either should be a punishable offense, since both can disrupt the school day. Assistant Principal Tamitha Campbell said that Blair does not test whether confiscated drugs are actually illegal or are imitation drugs; they just contact the police. But once the police make this distinction, Blair must punish accordingly. Because many imitation drugs are not against the law, consequences for their use or possession should be much less severe - a couple days of suspension, as well as meaningful education on the dangers of drugs, seems appropriate.

And finally, the type of drug involved with Blairís most ridiculous discipline policy is Advil and other over-the-counter pain relievers. According to Ms. Campbell, Blair ďasksĒ that every student intending to use Advil at school get permission from a doctor. But to insist that thousands of Blazers obtain this permission and go to the nurse every time they have a headache imposes an unnecessary hassle on both students and the health department. As teenagers, we are responsible enough to drive, go out alone at night and play video games with mature content; we must be treated as responsible enough to carry over-the-counter drugs that would improve rather than disrupt the school day by focusing studentsí attention on academics instead of pain.

Since educators are pressured to have students meet incredibly difficult academic standards, the appeal of blindly eliminating any and all disruptions through zero-tolerance policies is easy to understand. The fault of such restrictive policies, though, lies in their single-mindedness. They ignore individual circumstances and are often undeservingly harsh on students. Blair must not fall into this trap. Improvement of the Blair discipline policy will only increase student well-being and behavior.