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.
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.
"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
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
- 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.