A Teachable Moment for Schools

April 06, 2011

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Jerry Reed

You may not know the name Nick Stuban. Nick, a 15-year-old student in Fairfax County, Virginia, died by suicide in January.

Nick was suspended from school and referred for expulsion after buying a capsule of a synthetic compound that produces a marijuana-like effect. While his case was active, he could not attend classes or participate in school extracurricular activities. Nick was a linebacker on his high school football team and participated in the scouting program. Academics, activities and sports were all important to him.

According to news reports, his 10-day suspension lasted for many weeks. It has been reported that he grew increasingly depressed over this period of suspension. After many weeks, the resolution of his case was that he was forced to transfer to a different high school in the county to continue his education.  Tragically, he took his life after this decision was rendered. 

I will never know all the details of this case, but what struck me as I read and watched news reports was how this zero-tolerance disciplinary policy removed many of the protective factors in this young man’s life.

His friends, classmates, teammates and the environment of social support that is essential for the healthy development of adolescents – attendance at school – were all removed from the equation.  He was disconnected from support when he most needed support.  

When I learned about Nick’s story, I was left feeling that the disciplinary policies schools implement should, at a minimum, be examined through a public health lens.  When designing and implementing a policy, schools should take the important step of examining the “what ifs” and exploring potential unintended consequences.

From what I read, Nick was a good kid who made a mistake.  I was left feeling that the punishment, or better said, the disciplinary process, did not fit the infraction. While I don’t object to his being held accountable for his error in judgment, I do object to him being subjected to a policy that removed the very social support net that is vital to healthy adolescent development. This tragedy is indeed a teachable moment for us all working to prevent suicide. While we continue to examine the role of risk factors in suicide prevention, we must pay attention to protective factors as well.