CON: Good Intentions Gone Wrong

by Holland McCabe ’11

There is little argument that bomb threats, firearms, drugs and violent attacks have no place in a school for the safety of students. So to combat these threats, many school systems employ policies that automatically attach harsh consequences to dangerous infractions. Beyond the safety considerations, zero tolerance policies were put in place to objectively punish students. All students receive the same punishment. This is meant to eliminate claims of unfair treatment or inconsistent punishment.

MCPS, however, claims it does not enact a “zero tolerance” policy because while students who commit serious infractions receive mandatory punishment, they have the opportunity to appeal their case before the school administration and have their punishment overturned. However, the fact that an arbitrary punishment is required by school policy is nearly the definition of a “zero tolerance” policy. And recent incidents show that these policies of mandatory punishment, regardless of disciplinary history, simple ignorance and all other extenuating circumstances, too often catch students who have no intent of doing any harm.

In February, Spotsylvania County freshman Andrew Mikel was suspended for the rest of the school year and charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault because of that county’s policy on “weapons.” What was the weapon he terrorized the school with? A pen tube he used to spit a few plastic pellets at other students during a lunch period. Mikel was on the Honor Roll at his school and an active member of JROTC. He will now have a criminal record following him when he searches for a job.

A much more serious consequence resulted from zero tolerance flaws in January, when a Fairfax student, sophomore Nick Stuban, committed suicide due in a large part to his expulsion over possession of a legal, synthetic marijuana-substitute (known collectively as “Spice”). He was tempted to try a small amount of Spice that another student had offered him. After a small taste, he decided he disliked the drug’s sensation and he threw the rest into the trash. Stuban was a dedicated football player, Boy Scout and “model student” according to his history teacher. His only prior disciplinary record was cellphone use and copying from a friend in class once. But after voluntarily confessing his wrongdoing to the administration, he was suspended and recommended for expulsion. The stress of expulsion, moving to a new school, the appeals to clear his record and the exaggerated rumors that followed him eventually led in part to Stuban’s suicide.

Did these students do something wrong? Yes. But did they deserve suspension, expulsion, loss of friends or even death? Of course not. A murderer has more rights in court than a student does under these policies. Students are assumed guilty until proven innocent, and the damage is already done even if one’s name is eventually cleared in a lengthy appeals process. The rumors and negative stigma that will follow a student are likely to be more harmful to a student’s life than any punishment a school board could hand down.

Students are still children, and children make stupid mistakes because they do not think of the consequences of their actions. So, the school system should not punish all students harshly for juvenile mistakes; it should teach them a meaningful lesson. Administrators and the school board need to look at the incident in context before handing out punishments.