D.C. skyline

Confronting School Disciplinary Officials

Jamison KoehlerCurrent Events

Nick Stuban was 15-years-old when he committed suicide last month.  Once a “model student” and “quick-footed linebacker” for the football team at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax County, Stuban had been suspended from school for 10 days after he was caught buying a capsule of JWH-018, a synthetic compound that produces a marijuana-like effect.

Ten days turned into seven weeks as the school’s disciplinary process worked itself out.  It was finally decided that he would be transferred to another school.  Adolescents don’t have the same long-term perspective as adults, and it may well have seemed to Stuban as if his life was irretrievably broken. Separated from his friends, football team, school activities, and everything else that mattered to him, he grew increasingly isolated and depressed. And then he killed himself.

Our criminal justice system often accords special treatment to first-time offenders of such minor offenses as possession of a controlled substance. It recognizes that good people do stupid things. It understands that people can learn from these mistakes and, with a little guidance, find their way back onto the right track.  Our system also accords people many constitutional protections.  One such protection is the right to counsel.

But Stuban never made it into the criminal justice system.  Instead, caught up in a school system with a zero tolerance policy, he found himself facing school disciplinary officials with the zeal of an Arlington pre-school parent on a field trip.  He had signed a full confession before his parents were even notified.  His parents were told that things would work out much better for Stuban if they didn’t bring in a lawyer to represent him.  Otherwise, things might become too confrontational.

Sometimes a little confrontation is a good thing.  Even when it makes things uncomfortable – even when it complicates things – for petty bureaucrats.

Last year I represented a graduate student at a university here in D.C. who had been charged with simple assault. Although the incident had taken place off school property, the complaining witness was another student in the same program, and the client had already been disciplined by the university long before the criminal charges came into play:  He had been suspended for two years and he had lost his scholarship. Because the school’s disciplinary process worked much faster than the criminal system, he had also made some damaging admissions that would have greatly complicated things had we wanted to challenge the charges at trial.

He too was told that he shouldn’t hire a lawyer to look out for his interests.  Because, after all, lawyers can be so damn disagreeable.

The admonition against hiring a lawyer sounds remarkably similar to something a police officer might say to a suspect:  Come on.  What are you hiding?  Let’s just work together on this thing so that we can put the whole sorry mess behind us and all go home.  Help us to help you.