Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our School Board Hearing Experience

This post is from Josh's Dad & Mom:

We have been so moved by the comments from all of you and are blown away by the number of people who are reading this blog. Our intent in this post is one of education - for those who have never gone through the suspension/expulsion process within Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS). It is also to share our experience with those who have or are currently going through the process as we'd like to hear what your experience has been.

Langley HS (LHS)
On March 3, 2008, the Assistant Principal (AP) was monitoring the lunch period and noticed that Josh took food from the lunch line without paying for it. Josh was taken to another AP's office at which time a search was conducted of his backpack to see if there was any other food taken. They found an oval-shaped piece of screen and a small baggie containing substance that appeared to be marijuana. The School Resource Officer (SRO) took possession of the baggie and performed a field search and confirmed it was marijuana.

We were called and told that Josh was caught with possession of marijuana on school grounds which was a serious violation of the rules of conduct which meant an immediate ten-day suspension with a recommendation to the School Board for expulsion. (As you can imagine, we were both in complete shock). We went to the school and had a meeting with the AP, Josh and SRO. At first, Josh denied that the pot was his. He then amended his statement which I have posted below. He was allowed to get his belongings from both the school and gym locker, and then we left. I (Sue) took him immediately to an Urgent Care in Herndon for a drug test. The results of this test were negative, which means that he could not have used marijuana for the past 30-40 days as this is how long the drug stays in a person's system.

"I took a sandwich and milk from the cafeteria lunch without paying because at the time I had the idea and didn't tell myself not to. I deeply regret ever doing that; it was the wrong thing to do, and all just for a couple of bucks? When no one's looking I always still need to do the right thing. The bag of pot I bought from a guy after him and I hadn't finished smoking it about two weeks ago. The metal screen I had cut of somebody's glasses case with the intent of using it on a smoking device but I have never used it. Now more than anything I wish I hadn't bought it from that guy or smoked with him at all. I've been taking all the things in my life for granted, and now that it's all taken away: lacrosse, school, my friends, I'll do anything to get it back. It was the worst feeling walking out of my school knowing I might never come back; I wished that it wasn't happening to me, that it wasn't me taking that walk, but it was. All of these series of events are my fault and I have to take responsibility for every last bit of it. That comes with changing who I am; I have to have integrity and make the right choices, and I know I can if I'm given a second chance." Joshua Anderson
We received a letter from the Hearing Officer for the Superintendent that was dated March 11th that informed us that the hearing was to take place on March 24, 2008 at the FCPS administrative building, 21 days after the incident.

In the meantime, we were shuttling homework back and forth from LHS. They allowed quizzes and tests to come home so that he could take them under our supervision. The math teacher also recommended two students who came to our home and helped Josh keep up with the math work. (These two students came to our home after finding out about his death; I was so grateful to see them).

The hearing was attended by two Hearing Officers for the Superintendent, the AP who caught Josh, and the three of us. We were told that the hearing officers really do not like it when the family brings an attorney, so we didn't do this. The "expulsion packet" was what was in front of the officers and used as a basis for their questions. This packet consisted of the following items:

- one page student information form
- letters from the principal with the recommendation for expulsion
- photographs of the baggie with marijuana and screen as well the the contents of his backpack
- detailed incident report
- report from the other AP
- two of Josh's statements (initial and amended)
- attendance record
- grade report
- standardized test results
- Student Progress Report for Teachers Disciplinary Hearings (one for each teacher)
- Signed Student Responsibilities and Rights form (SR&R). Signed at the beginning of the school year.

We would like to share what is asked on the form that is filled out by the teachers.
- Academic strength and weaknesses
- Behavior
- Work habits
- Attitude and motivation
- Peer and adult relationships
- Disciplinary and academic interventions

We would like to the School Board to answer this question: Why aren't teachers asked this additional question: "Is this student a threat to the well-being of the school community?"

For those who have never been to a hearing, it is an experience that I wish you and your child would never have to endure. The AP did not say much except to relay the facts of the incident. We were told that the hearing officers would be asking Josh many questions and if he was slow to respond, or quiet, or non-communicative, it would not go well for him. This concerned us greatly as Josh was not a verbose young man; in fact, in front of any adult, including ourselves, he really mumbles and is quite difficult to understand.

The questioning started out in a reasonable way but as the meeting progressed and Josh was not showing forth the type of responses they wanted, it became more and more confrontational, which caused him to shut down even more. We did not feel good about Josh's chances after this meeting. In fact, Tim called one of the hearing officers the next day and said that he did not think they got the correct impression of Josh since he was so intimidated by the entire situation. The response back was basically that once Josh was caught on school property with marijuana, it was a done deal. So we take this to mean that it didn't matter what Josh said or did in the meeting; he was either going to another HS or he would be expelled.

On April 9th, over one month after the event, we received a letter saying that he would be allowed to attend South Lakes HS as a probationary student. There were several terms he was expected to adhere in this status, but I would like to post the paragraph that explained the extent of his relationship with LHS.

"Unless and until readmitted, Josh shall not be on the property or in the buildings of, or in the attendance of any activity (including, without limitation, social, athletic, or graduation-related), wherever located, involving Langley HS without the specific prior written permission of the Hearings Office. Any violation of this particular provision may lead to the imposition of further sanctions by the school administration or the filing of trespassing charges, or both. The proscriptions contained in this paragraph shall be applicable until such time as Josh reached 22 years of age or graduates from the high school, whichever shall last occur."

South Lakes HS (SLHS)

Josh began as a student at SLHS and was embraced by the administration and students. His football coach was particularly instrumental in ensuring that Josh was introduced to a number of teammates, which we appreciated so much at that time. He began a drug treatment program through the county and for various reasons, we made the move to a privately run program. He graduated from this program in November of 2008. He also successfully completed the SAFE program that was prescribed by the Juvenile Hearing Officer.

Unfortunately, almost a year to the date of the previous incident, Josh left school grounds with another student to have lunch at Taco Bell. They smoked a joint in the car on the way back, and were questioned by the AP while in the parking lot as to why they left school during regular hours. Upon exiting the car, the AP smelled marijuana and the SRO was called to assist. After searching their person, they conducted a search of the car and found a small container of pot, rolling paper and a piece.

Once again, we were called to get Josh as he was immediately suspended. His statement of this incident is below:

"I was found in the parking lot by the AP during lunch and because of the smell he decided to search the car and us and found weed and a piece. And I have been working hard at this, I can't believe I'm putting my parents through this now. They don't deserve this at all. I can't believe how selfish and stupid I've been. I really have been working on this I've been through the private counseling group and I've seen a psychiatrist regularly. I got extremely lazy and stupid. I've fully realized what has happened and what we are going to have to go through and I'm honestly going to try my hardest to fix this, help my parents, they haven't raised me to be like this in any way, I'm so scared for the future, this wasn't worth any of it at all. I've only recently been thinking I could make college football and I've gotten so excited about it and now everything's ruined and it wasn't worth it in any way. I've come to enjoy South Lakes. I was actually liking my teachers and classes and my coach. He helped welcoming me here at the beginning of football and made it more enjoyable. He's there so much for me and I can't believe I'm doing this to him as well. I had gotten it from someone who graduated from here last year I met one night and I'm not distributing marijuana or selling it, I was only sharing it with a friend. " Josh Anderson.
As last year, once Josh was suspended, he was grounded from everything; cell phone, car use, computer, I Pod, video games. He could only watch TV with us. We are parents who strongly believe that kids should have consequences for their behavior. We only allowed his girlfriend to visit each day.

We had decided to visit a lawyer that had experience with the County and the expulsion process. This meeting was on Monday, March 16th as the hearing was scheduled for Thursday morning, March 19th. We brought a copy of the expulsion packet that was sent to the Hearing Office by SLHS. The attorney asked Josh a few questions and basically told us that he would most likely be expelled from the County completely. If not, it would be the alternative school or the computer based learning program. She did not feel that he would be able to go back to SLHS or any other HS in the county. We then discussed other alternative for him; she suggested looking into private schools or a military school, which we just began doing. We also talked about the GED route, but in our minds, this would be only as a last resort. Another option we were pursuing but it probably would've been a dead end, was going to another county and enrolling him in school there. We did not have much hope for this as we heard that VA schools have the option and tend to uphold any suspension/expulsion decision from other VA School Boards. He rode back home with me and it was a quiet ride. He just put his seat back and looked out of the window. In hindsight, I should have told him, "no matter what, we will get through this." Why didn't I do this?

We never got to see what the County's decision would be as he took his life the day before the hearing.

This is our experience and we have many feelings about it. As mentioned in another post, the two people who are conducting the hearing had never met Josh before the first incident. The person in attendance from the school did not speak to Josh's character, overall behavior, or whether he was a threat to other students. Forgive me, but we thought this was the purpose of expulsion - to remove students that pose a real and genuine threat to the school community.

The fact that the hearing officer basically admitted that Josh's fate was sealed once he was found with marijuana in his possession begs this question: if this is the case, why the whole charade of the hearing? Why put parents and kids in this situation?

We have three older children that have successfully gone through FCPS; two are TJ graduates and one graduated from LHS. This situation was completely new to us and we were doing our best to navigate it by asking as many people as we could the same questions: what can we expect, how can we be best prepared for the hearing, what will it be like, etc. There was not one resource given to us by the county to help not only us, but our son with this process. It felt as if we had been placed on this fast moving train and we could not do anything to stop it. We felt completely helpless and at the mercy of, in our opinion, a very large, bureaucratic organization, with little or no compassion or concern for the well-being of our son.

Josh has violated the rules of conduct, we do not dispute this. However, he was treated as if he were a hard-core drug dealer. Why aren't there varying degrees of consequences for those that yes, make very poor decisions but would be clearly open to help, if given, by those in their school community?

Why isn't there an intermediate step before a child goes before the Hearing Officer for the Superintendent? As mentioned in a previous post, we would suggest that there should be a hearing with members of the school community: administrators, teachers, counselors, SRO's, etc. The child should have consequences: suspension, placed on probation, community service within the school, mandatory meetings with the counselor/school psychologist, meetings with the parents, etc. If the student had violated probation, then it would go to the School Board for consideration for transfer to another school or potential expulsion.

If a student exhibits a desire to attend college and is not a threat to the school community, we feel it is the County's responsibility not to expel the child, but to work with them and the parents so that they can succeed and have an opportunity for a future.

Now that he is gone, we write this in hopes that the Fairfax County School Board will look at their policies and consider what role their treatment of Josh may have had on his decision to take his own life.


Anonymous said...

We had a similar situation in that we had a son who had fallen foul of the school rules and was caught with something he should not have had. we were called in to the school and were told what happened. A backpack search led to a meeting. They told us that normally expulsion was the result in this kind of situation. They said to us go home and think about it and find out what happened etc. That night we spoke to our son for hours trying to get to the bottom of what happened. In the course of the night we decided to withdraw him from school as we realised once he was expelled there was no going back from that and he was only 13 at the time.

we went a letter into school and we called to tell the head of our decision. She said she could not have recommended that to us but she was hoping we would choose that rather than go through the process. Our son got a chance by someone who knew what he would be up against with an expulsion against him. She said she knew he ws a good kid and knew he had made a bad decision

Now my point is in sharing this with you and this is the sanitized version is that I have been an advocate for change with kids. I have two sons who have made decisions that led to heart breaking situations but what upsets me is the people I had to deal with and their handling of the situations. Teenagers are vulnerable volatile people, they go through some of the most dramtic physical and mental changes than at any at any other point in life, doctors may argue but they swing between being a child and being an adult and they make decisions that potentially ruin their own futures. I am not advocating lawlessness but I am an advocate of temperance compassion and patience. Each child and case needs to be handled individually. If it saves one child then schools should have councellors who monitor the actions and behavior of children who go through any sort of process such as the one Josh was going through. Who would not be afraid for their future in the situation he was in. especially when he knew some thought it was a done deal. He could see no future he had no hope he was afraid of what everyone would think of him is what I am guessing. He was not a lost cause and he did express remorse and regret in his statements.

I am writing because I think it is the handling of situations that makes the difference. From the sound of the process I would be afraid. Days of waiting guessing anguishing that is torture. Speaking as though everything is a foregone conclusion. In stilling hopelessness instead of options.

Just around the time of our sons situation he was saying things like no one around here loves me every time we got on to him about something he told me he felt like our housekeeper was his only friend. He had changed dramatically to a moody tempermental young man in such a short time. He had always been like my shadow tlking non stop about sports or football. He became sullen and moody. One night I went into his room after a confrontation we had and I found a belt tied around the grill of his window. I asked him what he intended to do, to this day he denies that he meant anything, but I have never forgotten it.

I am afraid for teenagers. I had a scary transition from childhood to adult hood. I do remember entertaining thoughts of suicide it seemed like the only way at times to escape the incredible guilt I felt. i felt I had let my parents down so badly. People need to give kids hope all the time even when they mess up no matter how many times they mess up.

My older son messed up a lot and even friends in church told me I should learn to let go, my response was and still is that I will never let go even if they make a fool out of me, I will be a fool a thousands time rather than give up.

what is my point? my point is yes there are rules but rules are guidelines which should allow for flexibility. Compassion even if you have to give bad news can it be done with diginity. Banning kids from a community permanently that is wrong because it does not allow for change or improvemnet which will happen with kids over time. It sounds like Josh was bullied in one meeting. He was afraid and he felt guilty so how could he defend himself?

I think from the sound of it the handling of Josh's situation there should have been objective meaning outside observers maybe neutral adults with experience in these situations present at every meeting to help and guide the family. Something like a family advocate because it is a big deal Should not be handled like a court of law especially if the child or family is not allowed an representation.

I would like to communicate directly with josh's mom if I could sometime. We are ok now but it has been in many instaces a long hard battle that I have fought for my kids against people who work with teens but act as though they haven't got a clue as to how their comments or actions effect these kids. I have feared what Josh's parent are now going through. I have been afraid many times.

Anonymous said...

Wow.. Thank you for sharing all that..I can tell you this.. I have a friend who is going through a similar situation with her daughter who is very involved on her high school Cheerleading squad.
Her daughter has violated some of the school policys and is about to have a hearing.
I shared with her mother Josh's story and alot of what you( josh's mum) have shared with us.
My friend and her husband were so inspired by all you have shared and all you are trying to do in trying to prevent this to be the outcome for any other family. They are really taking careful steps and also making sure that no matter how heavy the consequence could be... they keep the light at the end of the tunnel obvious for their daughter.
I love you soo much and am praying for you and your family everyday!!
Tami Wilder

Nadine said...

I went to a meeting at my son's school and I shared with the director, headteacher, teachers, and counsellor about what happened to Josh. They reassured the parents that every child would be given a second chance.
Everyone was very saddened by what happened.
Even as far away as India your situation and its sad outcome is having an impact.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised that the school (LHS) can dump their problem on another school (SLHS). This kid needed help, not explusion. It's a wrong and ill-conceived policy.

Anonymous said...

I have been deeply moved by this site. I know no one here and found the link on a facebook profile of a friend. Before I share my feelings on how schools handle these situations, I wanted to extend my heartfelt sympathy to this wonderful family and their supportive friends who loved this young man very much. My heart breaks for you and you are in my prayers...acquaintenance not required for empathy....I feel your pain and you're not alone in dealing with that pain. I say that, but speaking as a mother, no one loves you like your mother and a mother loves her own, like no other. You're so in my heart dear mother.

My son's best friend decided one day, that it was a good idea to take his mothers medication and sell it at school. He sold it to a boy who took it and freaked out after taking the meds and ratted his friend out who he bought it from (my son's friend). It's a private school and I know the policies are very different in a private system....they have zero tolerance policy if you're selling drugs. I agree with that policy...there are no hearings, it's simply done. Over...nothing to talk about. You're out. The school is at risk and kids are at risk when it comes to selling drugs. When it comes to finding drugs on a kid in school, it should be handled differently. These kids are dealing with so many issues and are exposed to so many things. School should be their safe place. They should be allowed to make mistakes to a degree and learn from them. Where did rationale go in the schools? Public schools need to get a grip on reality and parents need to support and direct their efforts. They're mandated in the system with procedures that don't work and try to maintain control. They have people who get off on the power they attain through those "all inclusive" procedures. We're dealing with people, young adults, futures, families, and dreams. Where is the logic? This is a challenge for every parent to get involved with. You have the opportunity to take this situation to great levels that could extend nationally to improve our public school system!! This young man was intimidated in my opinion and the emotional waiting game was too much and definitely unwarranted.

So the story I briefly shared above has an ending. My son's friend, cried for weeks on my couch thinking his life was over. He didn't get a lot of constructive support from his home but he did from his friends and their families. His life wasn't over, it only took a different course. He got his GED, he started college and is now in culinary school...his dream. He's working, very happy and those emotions of what happened gave him strength.

The boy who he sold son had an encounter with him. He betrayed my son's best friend...these young adults do have a code to live by. It wasn't a terrible encounter, but after learning more about this boy from my son, and I knew his parents...I called them. The father was quick to defend his son and all his efforts to drug test him and he's clean. He pulled his son from the school in fear of how the other kids took the situation and was concerned about my son's anger toward his. He went on and on and on about what his son said and what my son said and yadda yadda yadda....I simply said...I understand my son's anger due to his friends pain...I understand your fear in this situation...My main concern here is simply this....we have one boy who decided it was a good idea to steal his mother's meds and sell them. We have another boy who thought it was a good idea to buy the meds...that is my only concern here...what are we going to do about that?? response. Within a year, his son was killed in a tragic car accident. He owed a coke dealer, he drove wrecklessly into a tree with another in his car. He was the nicest, funniest, always smiling kid you would ever meet.
My heart still aches and I feel sad in knowing my last conversation with his father. It wasn't his father's was an unfortunate turn in life.

It's time for the public school system to have a major overhaul. For parents to be involved in developing guidelines for these types of issues resolve. It's out of control, out of date and why I chose to send my sons to private schools. It gave me great comfort knowing that my values and rules of conduct are being reinforced in the school. Is it perfect, absolutely not! Every school should be in a situation where every student and parent knows that their attendance is a priviledge not an entitlement. I see this situation as a good kid who got intimated by a system designed to handle in an "all inclusive" fashion. And unfortunately designed for those who have little parental support and have been using the school system as daycare for years!

We have so many wonderful teachers out there who would go above and beyond for their students. Seems like the older the kids get, involvement dwindles on the part of parents. I went through a bad divorce and my oldest had to switch schools. After we were into the year and I was uncertain about the school and life....I contacted every one of his teachers. I brought in pizza for them during lunch and I shared important information on my son. Who he was, what kind of learner he was, what he was dealing with personally...and asked for their help. If anything changed in his behavior, if he wasn't doing the work, if he wasn't participating...and if you saw him slacking his drawers, they had my permission to smack him gently on the head and inform him to pull them up because his mother has eyes watching!!

So I'm babbling at this point and maybe making little sense but I thought it important to share my feelings, to share my sadness to a family I'll never plant a seed in change. One I think is most important....schools need our help for change!

Anonymous said...

What needs to be remembered is the impact every single decision has on the student, his community, and his family. So many times, the student is treated as just another statistic, just another number on the chart, and just another one to be expelled. I have never in my life experienced a loss like this and it is helping me to realize that with change, there must be a loss... there must be some silence to make sound. It is absolutely inspirational to see that change is coming to the school system, and it gives me hope that Josh really didn't die in vain. I will forever remember Josh, and I will forever remember his situation, but when I remember him, I will also remember what he represents.
I will remember every family, every student, every girlfriend, every teammate who has had to experience anything like this. And in remembering that I will do whatever it takes to ensure change in the system. I will try my absolute hardest to bring hope to those who need it, and those who don't need it.. and most of all I will remember to treat every single person with the individual attention that they deserve.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that you are sharing this kind of information. Its very useful to those in the same situation, and even those who are just curious. It is sad that it takes a death for people to realize the way the school-board handles things are insane. In my opinion, the reason for josh's expulsions are not right. He's only a teenager. They make mistakes. And he had a bright future too. Everybody loved Josh. My prayers are with you.

Caroline said...

Sue and Tim: You are not alone. Josh could have been our son, who started at SLHS and ended at Marshall. Our experience is nearly identical to yours. There is a group of us who have been organizing to fight zero tolerance laws. We've left it alone for awhile (fearing retribution against our kids still in FCPS), but it's time to speak out and act up. FCPS, the staff and school board, must NOT be allowed to hide behind privacy laws, dividing and conquering us. We have loads of data (some garnered from FOIA requests) and other information useful in this fight. We will be in touch. Our hearts, minds, souls, and tears are with you. You are not alone.

Anonymous said...

First, let me extend my sincerest of condolences to you and your family. Please know that Josh's life has touched people he never met, a testament to the wonderful young man he was. So many people are praying that you may find comfort.

I thought this might be of interest to you:

It is a couple of years old but lists that one of the researchers is at UVA.

Anonymous said...

My name is Carl Kingsbury. I have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for more than 40 years. I have watched the deterioration of our public schools in middle Tennessee. Basically what you see hear is a lack of continuity of services for children who find themselves in trouble with the school system. The school systems accross the country have not seen fit to hire specially trained people to help with problems that take the best of profesional qualificaions. The zero tolerence law is practiced in school settings are far more severe than in most other adult situations. We expect children to respond like adults and they are not adults.

I am so sorry for what happened to your son. I was fortunate enough to get my grandchildren in private schools.

God Bless You and your family. I pray that you will succeed in striking down Zero Tolerence. Each case needs to be handled by proffessionals with the purpose of helping the child and the family.