When We Ban Kids from School, the Damage Goes far Beyond Academics

It’s so depressing: Last week brought yet another outrageous tale of zero tolerance gone wild – this time from Maryland, where a high school suspended a lacrosse player for having a pen knife in his locker.

No, it’s beyond depressing. With more and more students being suspended and expelled from their schools for moderate first-time offenses, it’s time to get past the debates about fairness: whether a student should be banned from school for possessing a pen knife (he says it was to repair his stick) or a toy gun, or for dyeing her hair too red. What’s at stake here is the significant harm that we’re wreaking on many of our children.

That’s because for many students, being banned from school means more than missing math class. It means being banished from a community.

So when we read about the lacrosse player and the red-haired girl, we think about Nick Stuban – a high school student in a Washington suburb who committed suicide a few months ago after being suspended. That case is still reverberating locally, with public debates and examinations of school policy that have exposed the risk of a particularly draconian zero tolerance practice: mandatory relocation. 

Here’s the nutshell, as reported by The Washington Post. Nick was a 15-year-old football player and Boy Scout in Fairfax County, Va., a student whose records showed mostly A’s and B’s, near-perfect attendance and two disciplinary actions (for using a cell phone and copying someone’s class work). One day last fall, a student sold Nick some JWH-018, a synthetic compound with a marijuana-like effect. (Nick had gone on-line to confirm that it was legal.) Soon thereafter, school officials on the hunt for such sales found one capsule on Nick.

They suspended him. With his appeal and holidays thrown in, Nick was out of school for more than two months. Then to return, he’d have to attend another high school; he was barred from his home school for good.

Maybe you think such a punishment teaches everyone a lesson. But think also about the collateral repercussions. Think about the many things that youths do at school that go beyond class. As the Post wrote, the suspension meant for Nick “no weekly Boy Scout meetings, no sports events, no driver’s education sessions, all held on school grounds.”

For most youths, school is a core community. The “community school” movement, which the education system has embraced, makes schools a hub of neighborhood life. That’s where kids hang out after class for activities ranging from arts to sports to service projects; where they get one, two, sometimes three meals a day; where they come for evening events with their friends and parents; where they dance.

Thus Nick’s suspension, as the Post wrote, “unraveled much of what Nick held close — his life at school, his sense of identity, his connection to the second family he’d found in his football team.” At this moment, youths in communities across the country are going through the same pain.

To see how ludicrous this practice is, consider if these youths were adults. Plenty of grown-ups – such as elected officials and star athletes – commit transgressions that far exceed the possession of a pot pipe or use of a substance that was legal yet prohibited in a specific venue (a practice that helped Barry Bonds break baseball’s most coveted record). They are rarely kicked out of office or their sports, i.e., their communities. They are not banished from their home towns. I could use up my word count here listing public officials who have committed such transgressions but are still leaders in their communities.

We seem to think public figures must be forgiven for such lapses in judgment because they’re exposed to heightened temptations and operate under stress. That strangely mirrors the adage about adolescents being susceptible to errors in judgment – a belief that has been thrown out the school door in the name of zero tolerance.

Yet we have brain development research to explain why adolescents’ judgment is sometimes impaired. We have research suggesting that adolescent behavior can be modified if challenged constructively with a combination of rules, rewards and appropriate retribution. We know we can do better than just kicking kids out.

Nevertheless, schools carry out suspension and relocation policies that dump children for minor first offenses. Many of those youths will be thrown into strange new lands with no friends; no status; no membership in school-based clubs, teams or extracurricular activities; no relationships with teachers and counselors who help them decide what and how to take the next steps in their lives.

That turn of events contributed to Nick Stuban’s emotional crash, which ended in suicide in January. We can’t blame his death on the school suspension alone. And we all know that in some cases, serious offenders should be expelled or transferred.  

But school administrators who fail to consider the impact of forced relocation on a youth’s overall well-being should not be school administrators. We cannot  hold up the students who have immersed themselves in the school community as models for others, then quickly banish them when they succumb to a typical adolescent mistake.

If schools embrace the concept of themselves as communities, they need to act like communities – rather than like isolated instructional pods that jettison undesirables.

Karen Pittman is CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment; Patrick Boyle is communications director.


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