It was an emotional day yesterday, but a good and productive day - I think...I hope....I pray. In advance of last night's School Board meeting, where they were going to vote on changes to the current harsh, punitive and draconian disciplinary policies that caught our Josh in its net and pushed him to a point of no return, Peggy Fox from Channel 9 News came to our home for our first TV interview since his death.
She was very nice and easy to talk to - genuinely empathetic. For she has children and had spent time reading this blog - in tears. It sometimes surprises me that mothers who do not know us get emotional, but it shouldn't. For even if a mother has not lost a child, she can put herself in my shoes and feel my pain.
So the interview was hard. It was hard to re-live the circumstances around Josh's death, over 2 years ago. It was hard to recount that when Josh was transferred to South Lakes HS, he was not allowed to step foot at Langley HS for a year, and that we had to get special permission for him to play in a football game between the two schools and that if he were to continue to be a referee at youth basketball games, it could only be if Tim were with him. It was hard to think back to the horrible School Board hearing when our son was treated like a criminal instead of with compassionate understanding that he was a good kid who made a very bad mistake. It was hard to be asked the question: "If the FCPS policies were different, would Josh still be alive?"
Did Josh do something wrong? Yes.
Should he have been punished? Absolutely, but as a non-violent, first time offender. Josh was not a threat to his school community and did not need to be transferred to another school. And anyone who came to his funeral and witnessed the over 1,000 students pay their respects and say "good-bye" would know this to be true.
We went to the rally before the meeting where parents wore red, held signs up and spoke passionately about the need for change. We attended the meeting which was also hard. It was difficult to hear that in Montgomery County, according to research done by a School Board member, involuntary transfers are used as a last resort. So does this mean that if we lived in Maryland, our beloved Josh would still be alive? This is too painful to contemplate.
It was hard to hear some School Board members, despite two deaths and the numerous examples of negatively impacted students, still say things like "this policy has only affected 1% of the student population." What does that have to do with anything? Isn't each child important? And that "these policies are in place to provide a safe environment for students and teachers." No one is saying a safe environment should be compromised. What we are saying is that these policies are flawed because they prosecute students who are NOT a threat to their school community as if they were.
It was clear to us who on the Board has listened to the community, read the stories, talked to parents and understood the obvious - that good kids make stupid mistakes. They act before they think. Their immature brains provide faulty justification for dumb teenage actions. That we are talking about kids, with their whole lives in front of them. These board members stepped up and proposed amendments to the Students Rights and Responsibilities that outline FCPS's discipline policies. Several amendments passed and I am hopeful that this will help. But I am disappointed that a critical amendment, one that addressed parent notification and presence before a child is interrogated or asked to provide a confession/statement did not pass. Thus, what happened last night is only the first step. More changes need to occur.
Note to all FCPS parents - because this amendment did not pass, YOU will need to protect the rights of your children by making it clear through written communication that if your child is caught for an infraction that starts the discipline process, school officials must wait until you are present before questioning your child.
As I sat there and watched the proceedings, I kept thinking the same thing over and over, Why wasn't this addressed when Josh died? And let's be brutally honest, the only reason it is being addressed now is because of Nick's tragic death and the courageous advocacy of his family. And the in-depth reporting by Donna St. George of the Washington Post. And the pressure from the grass-roots parent advocacy group. And the continued spotlight by the local news channels which has now garnered national attention. It is NOT because of the leadership shown from the Superintendent or the School Board.
So I repeat the question - why wasn't this addressed when Josh had died? Why didn't someone stand up in March 2009 and say "A student has committed suicide and it is believed to be tied to our disciplinary policies. We need to investigate this and if there is even the smallest connection, we need to make changes for no other child will end his or her life on my watch." If Superintendent Jack Dale or the School Board had done this, Nick would be alive. Shame on Dale. Shame on the School Board. They are being shamed into action, which on top of our son's death, is tragic.
Links on the broadcasts from yesterday:
Channel 9 News at 5:00pm: "Parents of Son Who Committed Suicide Rally for Change" by Peggy Fox
Channel 9 News at 11:00pm: "Disciplinary Policy Changes Coming to Fairfax County Schools"
Channel 4 News at 11:00pm: "Fairfax Schools Zero Tolerance Policy Nixed" by Darcy Spencer