Pubdate: Sat, 28 Mar 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company


In Zealously Punishing an 11-Year-Old, Officials Exhibit Clouded Judgment.

THE NEWS is full of instances in which deficits in common sense 
produce bad outcomes. But rarely is the deficit so clear, or the 
outcome so wretched, as in the case of a sixth-grade boy in Bedford 
County, Va., who received a year-long suspension from school for 
possessing a single leaf of marijuana - which, on closer inspection, 
turned out not to be marijuana at all.

The pupil, who is 11, was enrolled in a gifted-and-talented program 
not far from Roanoke when an assistant principal found the leaf in 
his backpack in September. Leave aside the possibility - hardly 
remote in middle school - that the leaf may have been planted as a 
prank, which the boy's parents suspect is the case; the leaf was not 
in dried, smokable form, and there is no suggestion that the boy 
smoked, sold or purchased this particular leaf - or any other.

Seized by official zero-tolerance fervor, the boy was, in short 
order, suspended for 364 days and charged in juvenile court with 
possession of marijuana. That's how things stood for more than two 
months until, at a court hearing in November, prosecutors dropped the 
charge when it turned out that repeated testing proved the leaf was 
not marijuana.

End of story? If only. The school didn't budge. Instead, officials 
took refuge behind the school system's policy, which prohibits not 
only controlled substances but also imitations. (Similar policies are 
in place throughout Virginia, including in Fairfax County, as well as 
in other states.)

We get why schools frown on imitation drugs: No one wants kids on 
school property peddling bags of oregano or passing off cornstarch as 
cocaine. But in this case we're talking about an 11-year-old, a 
single leaf of what may have been Japanese maple or some other 
marijuana doppelganger and no known attempt at trafficking. Did the 
boy's offense really merit a year's suspension?

His parents, both teachers, are furious. They sued the school system 
as well as the county sheriff 's office, which filed the erroneous 
charges against the boy. In the meantime, the school system ordered 
that the boy be evaluated for substance-abuse problems, which it 
turns out he doesn't have.

"But by then," wrote Dan Casey, who broke the story in the Roanoke 
Times, "the boy had other problems." His parents says he now suffers 
from depression and panic attacks and fears being in public. Hardly 
surprising if you remember that this is an 11-year-old.

The school system, after trying to channel the boy into a program for 
troubled kids, finally allowed him to return this month to a regular 
school, though not his old one. But he remains on strict probation, 
meaning even a minor slip-up could result in expulsion.

Whatever damage that single leaf could have done, even if it had been 
marijuana, cannot possibly compare to the harm that has resulted from 
the school system's policies and actions. The real question is: Why 
couldn't anyone in Bedford County figure that out?
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