Civil Liberties

This Kid Was Expelled and Charged for Bringing Pot to School, Even Though He Didn't

Zero tolerance: Virginia school officials stand by their wrongful expulsion of an 11-year-old boy.


jhandersen / Dreamstime

Administrators at a middle school in central Virginia suspended a sixth-grader last September for one-year after discovering a marijuana leaf and a lighter in his backpack. The sheriff's department became involved as well and filed drug possession charges against the 11-year-old boy.

Months later, prosecutors had to drop the charge. Why? The leaf had thrice been tested for marijuana and come back negative.

The boy, unnamed in this excellent story in The Roanoke Times, returned to school this week. But officials have been loathe to admit that any mistakes were made—they now maintain that since "lookalike" drugs are also prohibited, the boy may still have violated district policy.

His parents, Bruce and Linda Bays, are suing the school and the county for due process abridgement and malicious prosecution. I'll summarize the alleged details:

  • Officials at the school, Bedford Middle School, have changed their story with regard to how the leaf was discovered. They maintained that other students saw the leaf and tipped off the school, though it's not clear whether that happened on the bus, in the bathroom, or in a classroom.
  • The leaf was immediately impounded into evidence: The Bays were never allowed to inspect it for themselves. They believe another student put it in their son's bag to play a prank on him.
  • The Bays' lawsuit claims that a sheriff's deputy swore before a magistrate that the substance was marijuana, even though field testing contradicted that assessment.
  • The boy was supposed to enroll in an alternative education program at a school for troubled youngsters, where he would be searched for drugs twice a day. Instead, he opted to take online classes, but the psychological trauma of the ordeal caused him to quickly fall behind.
  • He was also forced to talk to a psychiatrist about substance abuse problems. He wasn't abusing any substances, but thanks to the school's absurd anti-drug zealotry, he now has lots of real problems. He suffers from depression, worries that his life is over, and is concerned he will never get into college. (Remember: He's 11.)
  • When asked about the appropriateness of their actions—given that the leaf was not actually marijuana—the sheriff's attorney pointed out that it hardly matters: "It's the same punishment and exactly the same result," regardless of whether the drug paraphernalia is real or fake.

Allegedly, those are the facts. It could be the case that the Bays' account is biased, but the sheriff's perspective doesn't substantially refute any of their key contentions.

A few things. First, I labelled this an expulsion, even though The Times story used the less harsh word suspension. I despise this practice. A one-year ejection from middle school (with no guarantee of return) is not a slap on the wrist, it's the end of a young person's normal social life as he knows it. Such punishments should be reserved for serious menaces, not perpetrators of trivial slights. Let's call them what they are.

Second, the punishment seems much more severe than the alleged crime, even if the crime had turned out to be real. The boy has probably suffered worse consequences as a result of the expulsion than he would have suffered from consuming a single leaf of marijuana. And no 11-year-old boy should fret about whether he has been rendered ineligible for college.

Third, imagine the time, money, and effort expended by grown adults whose "jobs" apparently require them to work studiously to ruin a little boy's life. Is this a defensible use of public resources?

Fourth, there's nothing mysterious or ambiguous about the quality of justice one receives when the rules bear the label "zero tolerance." It's right there in the name.

I know I would want tolerance—and lots of it—if it were my kids.

Hat tip: Top The News