Did Zero Tolerance Rules Push Fairfax Teen To Edge?

Josh Anderson had just finished four homework assignments. He did his laundry. He watched TV with his mother — “House,” which he had Tivo’d for viewing that night. He played with the dogs. Then, at his mom’s urging, he went up to bed. It was 12:30, and the next day, March 19, was a big one: Josh was scheduled for a hearing that probably would end with his expulsion from the Fairfax County school system.

The Andersons weren’t blind to what got Josh into this pickle. He had been caught leaving campus, going to Taco Bell with a friend. When the boys returned to South Lakes High in Reston, an assistant principal confronted them in the parking lot, smelled marijuana and had the car searched. This was the second time in two years that Josh, a junior, had been found with pot.

“I really have been working hard on this,” Josh wrote to the hearing officers. “I can’t believe I’m putting my parents through this now. I can’t believe how selfish and stupid I’ve been. . . . I’m honestly going to try my hardest to fix this.”

The Andersons were told that Josh would be barred from any regular Fairfax high school and might be tossed out of the system entirely. His parents were looking into private schools or moving.

But there would be no hearing, no new school, no more visits from college football coaches asking about Josh’s talents.

When Sue Anderson went into her son’s room the next morning, he was dead. Without a word to his girlfriend, parents, psychologist, coach or teachers, Josh Anderson, 17, had killed himself.

He left a note, just two lines. “Why does it have to be like this?” And, to his girlfriend, “I love you.”

There is little anger in Tim and Sue Anderson’s voices now. Waves of grief strike at random intervals. Their eyes water when they look up the stairs toward Josh’s room in their house in Vienna. They don’t want to sue anyone. They praise coaches and teachers at South Lakes who did what they could to help their boy. But they have come to believe that the system did Josh a terrible wrong, that the zero-tolerance mentality contradicts the goal of educating or helping an immature adolescent.

“No one can ever answer whether Fairfax County was responsible for what Josh did,” says Tim Anderson. “But they pushed him closer to the edge than he needed to be.” The parents know their son’s often-silent manner masked emotional troubles, but he had been in counseling, both through the school system and privately, and no one saw this coming. The trauma of facing expulsion, the Andersons believe, was just too much for their son.

In Fairfax, possession of marijuana on school grounds means automatic suspension and a recommendation of expulsion. “There’s no discretion at the school level,” says Paul Regnier, spokesman for the system. “Virginia law requires that if there’s possession of marijuana on school grounds, the student must be expelled unless there are special circumstances.”

The Andersons’ living room is a makeshift shrine to a boy everyone half expects to be there the next morning. Josh’s football helmets frame the coffee table, which is crowded with his photos. A friend collected dozens of Facebook tributes and made a book for his parents. More than a thousand people — many of them kids from South Lakes and Langley, which Josh attended before he was caught with pot the first time — attended the funeral. The kids still come by, some just to sit in Josh’s room. Some ask if they can take something to remember him by.

It can seem like mere chance that those kids are here and Josh is a collection of memories. (Sue is recording those at http://rememberingjosh.blogspot.com). “If they searched every backpack and car at Langley and South Lakes, what portion of the students would be suspended and sent to other schools?” Sue asks.

The county’s survey of students from eighth to 12th grades suggests that the number would be large: 22 percent said they have used marijuana, 10 percent within the past 30 days.

Tim and Sue “don’t in any way condone what Josh did,” the father says. “It was totally boneheaded, and he should have been punished.” But Fairfax’s rules make no distinction between a kid who is using drugs and one who is dealing. The Andersons say a system that immediately escalates a case to the county level strips families and schools of the chance to work together to help a teen.

State law requires drug cases to be handled at the central hearing office, says Fairfax School Board member Jane Strauss. “The zero-tolerance structure is a response to the choices voters have made and to the huge outcry for dealing with drugs on school grounds. The tighter expectations used to be in the private schools. But starting in the early 1980s, there were much tougher rules in the public schools. Now, the toughest rules are in public schools, while there’s more give in the private schools.”

The goal, Strauss says, “is to save souls, to help kids get through adolescence.” In Josh’s case, which Strauss would not discuss, his parents say the counseling programs he was assigned to were helpful. But Strauss concedes that “I cannot say there are the very best therapeutic situations available for all children” in the system. “We try, but there are unfortunate tragic situations.”

That, of course, is not good enough. Parents of kids who do wrong will always argue that schools should be at least as flexible and understanding of adolescents as we are of adults who commit similar offenses. And parents of other kids at those schools will always contend that those who bring drugs to school need to be dealt with in clear, strong terms.

The system’s job is both to punish and to educate. Zero-tolerance rules make life easier for bureaucrats and lawyers, but they make no sense in the jumbled world of teenagers. Some kids are poisonous to their peers and need to be removed for the good of all. Others need an individualized blend of punishment, counseling and connection with the people who know them best — in some cases, at their own school.

“I’m sure I’ll ask myself what I could have done until the day I die,” Sue Anderson says. “Maybe we could have done more, but the policies right now are one-size-fits-all, designed to get rid of hard-core drug dealers. It’s too late for us, frankly, but are we treating these kids as we would like to be treated?”

– Article from The Washington Post on April 5, 2009.