Marijuana

A Texas Educational Aide Posted About CBD on Facebook. Someone Complained. Then the School District Fired Her.

Kerri Owens' firing from her job at Allen High School may well be a First Amendment violation.

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One Sunday night in May 2019, Kerri Owens—a special education paraprofessional who works with disabled students at a high school in Allen, Texas—posted a graphic on her Facebook page lauding the supposed health benefits of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating chemical compound derived from hemp and cannabis plants. One week later, she lost her job. She believes the CBD graphic was the reason.

"Is CBD good for you?" read the graphic. It then answers its own question. "Well your body has an endocannabinoid system. It doesn't have a Zoloft or ibuprofen system. Case closed."

At the time, Owens was suffering from severe migraines which traditional treatments had failed to alleviate.

She had heard positive things about CBD's healing potential, and thought she'd solicit feedback about its efficacy from her Facebook friends by posting the image.

When she went into work on Monday, she was called into the principal's office and told she was being placed on administrative leave. Someone had complained about her Facebook post, she says she was told, and the school was sending her home so they could conduct an investigation.

"At the time of the post I had not used the product. I had not purchased them. I had not sold any," says Owens, a fact she says she stressed repeatedly to school officials. She also insisted that the products she was looking for information on were legal and easily available at pharmacies and gas stations across the state. (At the time of her firing, CBD products were both illegal and widely available at retail outlets. More on that later.)

Her pleading proved ineffective. After a week-long investigation—during which time she was told not to contact the disabled student she had been assisting for the past three years or anyone else from the school—Owens was fired.

Owens says school officials told her in a face-to-face meeting that the Facebook post demonstrated bad judgment, and had only served to encourage CBD use among students.

In a May 17 termination letter, the school district identified two ethics code requirements Owens allegedly violated: a clause forbidding educators from engaging in illegal activity, and another requiring that employees "shall be of good moral character."

"I worked there for three years. Never had issues with my employer," Owens tells Reason. "It was really a surprise to me that they wouldn't have tried to talk to me about it or give me some other kind of disciplinary action besides just fire me."

The school district declined to speak with Reason for this story, or even confirm that Owens was fired.

However, in response to a request for records related to Owens' firing, the district did provide a copy of her termination letter along with another letter from one week prior stating Owens was being placed on administrative leave. These two documents confirm the sudden nature of Owens' termination.

Reason's records request also produced a copy of some printed materials about CBD that Owens brought to her H.R. meeting with Melissa Cobb, the official who later signed the termination letter.

Owens said she brought the printed materials into her H.R. meeting—which occurred after her suspension—with the hope of proving that the products she had been discussing on Facebook had no THC in them.

In response to a request for comment, school district spokesperson Tim Carroll said the district "does not comment on personnel matters so we are unable to provide additional information other than the fact that she was a paraprofessional at-will employee with the district."

Owens' firing rankles her. It also upsets the student she was working with.

During her three years at Allen High School, Owens had worked exclusively with a single student, Jocelyn, who is confined to a wheelchair, is non-verbal, and also has trouble writing quickly. Since 10th grade, Owens assisted her in taking notes, completing in-class assignments, and getting from class to class.

Owens was like Jocelyn's "school mom," Michelle Martinez, Jocelyn's mother, says. "They fought just like mother and daughter, but she held Jocelyn to a high accountability."

When Owens suddenly stopped showing up to work without explanation, Jocelyn was frustrated and confused, says Martinez. Normally when Owens was going to be absent, she would text Jocelyn or her mother. Despite texting and calling her, however, Martinez says she heard nothing from Owens.

Martinez also heard nothing from the school. No one bothered to tell her that Owens had been let go, and it took almost two weeks of calling the school before someone even got back to her. Even then, it was only to inform her Owens was no longer with the school district.

The sudden, unexplained absence of Owens also came right as Jocelyn, then a high school senior, was about to take her final exams before graduation.

"The way Kerri knew how to help her and the way she was let go at the last minute—it caused stress on my daughter," Martinez says. "When you're dealing with special needs kids you can't just change something and not let anyone know."

It wasn't until after Owens' firing that the two were able to speak. Martinez says she was shocked to hear about the reason for Owens' termination.

"I didn't know what CBD oil was. Never even heard of it," says Martinez. "As I started doing research and looking it up and seeing it on every corner it just blows my mind that that is the reason they say I guess they let her go."

Martinez says that in general the school district has been very supportive and accommodating of her daughter over the years, but when it came to Owens' firing, she thinks they dropped the ball.

Owens, too, is angered by the fact that she was seemingly let go just for asking about products she says are totally legal.

The actual legal details are more complicated. At the time of her firing in May, CBD was illegal in Texas. But Owens' confusion about CBD's legality is understandable. Thanks to changes in federal law in 2014 and 2018, CBD derived from hemp that contains less than .3 percent THC—the compound in cannabis that gives it its intoxicating effects—was legalized at the federal level.

This led to the proliferation of CBD-infused products across Texas even though state law still technically prohibited them. In June, about a month after Owens was let go, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill bringing state law into conformity with federal regulations, officially legalizing CBD.

Whether or not CBD was legal, however, is irrelevant to the school's decision to fire Owens over a Facebook post about the chemical, says Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Volokh notes that the free speech protections of the First Amendment should generally prohibit government employees from being terminated for private social media posts. (Reason hosts Volokh's legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy.)

"There are three elements to the test for First Amendment protection for government employees speaking and wanting to be protected from retaliation from their employer," says Volokh.

The first is whether the speech happened on the job or not. School boards can generally dictate what teachers say in the classroom, but not in their private lives.

The second element to consider is whether the speech being made relates to a matter of public concern. Speech about pressing debates about politics and science—say about whether CBD should be legal or whether it has health benefits—are afforded greater protections than would commentary about one's private life or activities, says Volokh.

The final thing to consider is whether a public school employee's speech creates serious problems in the classroom. A government worker, Volokh notes, could still hypothetically be punished for their off-the-clock speech about an issue of public concern if that speech could be shown to be disruptive in the workplace.

"If all three elements are satisfied—if this is speech that is not part of the person's job, it's speech on a matter of public concern, and it's speech that the value of which is not outweighed by its disruptiveness—then, in that case, an employee cannot be fired for this or otherwise disciplined for this," he says.

The version of events that Owens describes, Volokh says, suggests that the Allen Independent School District violated the First Amendment in firing her.

The Facebook post is clearly private, off-the-job speech that is also "relevant to this debate about whether or not to legalize" CBD, says Volokh, adding that "I'm inclined to say that it would be hard to show for the school any real disruption from this."

Indeed, the only disruption, in this case, appears to have come not from Owens' Facebook post, but the firing that followed.

Owens says that she has retained a pre-litigation attorney and wants compensation for what she considers an unjust termination. (Owens' attorney declined Reason's request for comment.) The school district has so far been willing to offer her a positive letter of recommendation—but only if she agrees not to sue, Owens says.

She says that doesn't seem like enough, given the circumstances of her firing. Owens is considering getting her full teaching certificate and worries her termination might affect that. She is also upset that the termination prevented her from helping Jocelyn right as she was finishing school.

"I got really close to her, working with her for three years," says Owens. "She was getting ready to take her finals and graduate and I was unable to help her participate in any of that…It just seems crazy to everybody I've talked to about it."

NEXT: My Contribution to the Inquiry Symposium on Jason Brennan's Book "Against Democracy"

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  1. a special education paraprofessional who works with disabled students

    A make-work job pretending to teach students with a made-up diagnosis concocted to get their sweet share of SSI benefits.

    She shouldn’t be fired because of posting on Facebook, but her job shouldn’t exist in the first place.

    1. So you think the kid is using a wheelchair and won’t talk just to get some meager state benefits? I hope you get help with your case of brain worms.

    2. Someone didn’t read the full article. Either that or you’re just a very simple person.

    3. Asshole. It takes a special kind of person to work with disabled kids. You can’t do it and I can’t do it. We should respect and applaud people that can.

    4. trolling success!

    5. Sorry, but the fictional character from whom you borrow your screen name sort’a gives away what you are.

  2. Why do people feel a need to post things on social media, proclaiming their attitude for or against something? Once it’s there, it is like an email, it is no longer “yours” [I personally learned that lesson the hard way] and can and often will be utilized by others for their personal reasons. And sometimes to your detriment. I’ve been involved in too many employee terminations that were direct results from seemingly innocuous ramblings that, once brought to attention of their employer, had to be addressed as it then it believed to reflect on them. You are just giving some dip-shit an opportunity to do what dip-shits do, and this is shit on you.

    1. Seems like in this case, she posted it because she wanted to know what other people thought about it.

      1. Well no one is forced to read people post so just block them. The world does not revolve what your little pet peeves you have. Grow up and stop being so darn critical over things you have no control or cannot change. This allows you to do something productive then just bitch and whine. This women should sue their ashes and so should the parent of the student. This make as much sense as calling you blank neighbors because they are having a barbecue and you whine because you dont like the smell and meanwhile you White neighbors does and fixes the same
        Stuff. This is what happens when peoplerespond about that they have no clue what they are talking about and report it. The problem today is the adminstration is suppose to not cater to one parent but react without thinking. The fact that they will write her a recommendation if she does not sue really shows how district really how they have no clue. It sad when a teacher post something for her information knowledge and then act dump people act like she trying to sell to her students or whatever crap they came up to justify this. I wonder what would happen if she was wanting to learn about addiction and heroin. She probably would have been arrested. TX schools are a joke anyway. We moved from MN to Texas just before my senior year. We where in the best school district in the state. It was like going back to Jr high. I was not a great student but I went from C’ss student to A’s with doing no studying because I learn everything 2 to 3 year before. I

    2. Why do people feel a need to post comments proclaiming their attitude about people that post things on social media?

      1. Because people who feel the need to share every facet of their lives with everyone in the world are giant nitwits.

      2. Why do you feel a need to post on me posting about someone who posted?

        Now say that three or more times as fast as you can.

  3. She should rat out the school administrators to the feds for abuse of the disabled. Not providing Jocelyn with an explanation for Owens going away, not allowing a transition period to a new worker, and not allowing her to keep Owens at least through the finals are jointly and severally abuse of a defenseless disabled person.

  4. Owens’ firing rankles her. It also upsets the student she was working with.

    Theory: Anyone who has had any dealings with a school district will know that they’re usually run as a jobs program. The fact that children are there is incidental (except that school administrations have to deal with the supreme inconvenience that are parents). Either the district did not want to continue paying this non-union worker or someone had another person in mind for the job.

  5. Just as vaping must be punished because it looks like smoking, regardless of if the vape liquid has nicotine in it or not, CBD must be punished because it sounds like cannabis, regardless of if it contains THC or not.

    1. “…CBD must be punished …”

      Sad to say, there are HUGE numbers of power-pig voters, politicians, and immature people in general, out there. The more punishment, the better!!! The more punishment, the more justice will be had!!! China does something we don’t like? PUNISH them with more tariffs! My next-door neighbor has a bad hairdo? PUNISH her by anonymously reporting her for being a “bad mom”! And on and on…

      WHEN will more people start asking, “What is the COST of all this punishment?”

  6. I am not surprised that a public school in Texas is staffed with a bunch of morons. Allen High School administrators are probably just a bunch of petty tyrants that get off on hurting people, including its own disabled students.

    1. >>>petty tyrants that get off on hurting people

      if your football stadium costs $60mil you need petty tyrants on that wall.

  7. “Is CBD good for you?” read the graphic. It then answers its own question. “Well your body has an endocannabinoid system. It doesn’t have a Zoloft or ibuprofen system. Case closed.”

    This is a very narrow, silly, and in some cases dangerous approach to deciding what is and isn’t good for you. My body doesn’t have an endo-kale system either, but it does have an endo-opioid system. I’m pretty sure kale is better for me than opioids though

    1. Not if you’re in pain.

      1. pain is less harmful than opiods.

    2. Yeah, the school administrators aren’t the only stupid people in this situation. They’re just more stupid than the employee they fired in this particular instance.

    3. First, she shouldn’t be fired for this for exactly the reasons Volokh point out. Second, this is indeed a silly way to decide what is good for you.
      1) Zoloft is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter. So in a way, we do have a “Zoloft” system.
      2) We don’t have an “endocannabinoid” system (nor an “endo-opioid”) system because are bodies were made to enjoy these drugs. It just so happens that we have certain neuro-receptors in our bodies that cannabinoids and opioids will bind to that cause certain effects (pain relief, euphoria, etc.). Having discovered this, we named these “opioid receptors”. This is not “good” or “bad”.
      3) To paraphrase Hippocrates, all medicine is poison. ANYTHING that can be taken in moderate doses which cause more positive than negative effects, can be overdone. If you break your arm, and the doctor gives you a few Vicodin, that will help you suffer a little less while it heals. Take 400 morphine equivalents of fentanyl at one time just to get high, you will probably die.

      Now go live your life.

      1. Well said! Similar argument: “Are cigarettes good for me? Well, my body has a nicotinic neural system. Case closed!”

    4. It’s called the endogenous opoid system just because opium based products bind to or otherwise interact with the receptors, peptides, and whatnot that are part of that system. Same goes for the endogenous cannabinoid system. Zoloft mimics a neurotransmitter and binds to seratonin transporter proteins to prevent seratonin from leaving the synapse. So, maybe you don’t necessarily have an endo-Zoloft system, maybe you could say you have an endo-antidepressant system.

      1. Great minds think alike!

        1. Some do it sooner than others.

    5. Not if you’re on coumadin.

  8. Now this is a well-written, thorough article. This firing appears to be totally unjustified and she may have a lawsuit here.

    This article is miles away from “thrown in jail for 20 years for stealing $50”.

    1. But she wrote the post while holding a knife.

    2. They said she was an “at-will employee” which leads me to think that she did not have a contract. I would think it would be hard to sue.

  9. the fact that she was a paraprofessional at-will employee

    If this is true then their reason doesn’t really matter.

  10. “”Is CBD good for you?” read the graphic. It then answers its own question. “Well your body has an endocannabinoid system. It doesn’t have a Zoloft or ibuprofen system. Case closed.””

    Merely a fluke of naming. Ibuprofen is a shortened name of the full chemical name (isobutylphenylpropionic acid), and the principal receptor at which it works is COX2 (cyclooxygenase). But the COX receptor was discovered decades before ibuprofen, so no name linkage, but could it have been the ibuprofenoid receptor if things were discovered in the reverse order? Sure.

    Opiates at the opiate receptors, but we have drugs that are not opiates that also act at the opiate receptors, catechols at the catechol receptors, but again there are non-chatechol drugs that act at the catechol receptor, and the list of seeming coincidences goes on and on. There is even a receptor system for Botox, but it is called the acetylcholine receptor.
    It is complete fallacy to assume that similarity of name cannabis/cannabinoid receptor, is anything but a coincidence. Naming in physiology and pharmacology does not propose a naturalness of biologic link between drug and receptor.

    1. Yes but don’t tell her that.

      She is probably getting a placebo effect from the CBD which is a good thing and I wouldn’t mess that up for her.

    2. Oh and thanks for the post. Very informative.

  11. So the claim is that either she is participating in illegal activity, or she has a bad moral character.

    Given the above, it seems to me that the claim is libel on its face. And sovereign immunity be damned.

  12. It appears that the solution to all of this BS is to just delete all social media. You don’t need it. It really serves no benefit at this point.

  13. Since when did the liberal fascists in the American public school system believe in free speech?

  14. It’s funny that these sorts of things are fireable, but actual incompetence is not.

  15. It’s hard for me to feel sorry for this person when I think of how many millions of dollars will be won in the lawsuit.

  16. Apparently, old drug warriors never fade away, they just hassle folks for vaping and CBD now.

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