In late 2014, officials at Bedford Middle School in Virginia came down hard on an 11-year-old student in its gifted-and-talented program. The sixth-grade honor student reportedly had a leaf—likely from a Japanese maple tree (see image below)—that he claimed was a cannabis leaf, though his parents (schoolteachers Bruce and Linda Bays) believe their son’s claim that another student put the leaf in his backpack as a prank. Regardless, the assistant principal found the not-pot leaf in the backpack, and simply because it looked like a cannabis leaf, the school suspended the kid for an entire year. The assistant principal pushed for full expulsion.
The move forced the student into homeschooling and an alternative education program, and the assistant principal told the school resource officer—a sheriff deputy—to charge the 11-year-old with cannabis possession in juvenile court. As a result of all this emotional trauma, the young boy with the bright future started suffering from depression and panic attacks, and his college dreams were replaced with social withdrawal and pediatric psychiatry sessions.
Remarkably, the story gets worse. The Bays family was led to believe the leaf was cannabis for months after three tests confirmed it was not. Despite onsite testing at the school that confirmed this, the officials misled the parents about the results, the deputy arrested the student and both the charges and the school suspension claimed “possession of marijuana” even though they definitively knew otherwise. When the court hearing came three months later, the sheriff’s office said the leaf still needed testing. Only after the parents denied a continuance did the truth come out, and only then did the school system backpedal and mention its policy about “imitation” drugs.
The juvenile court has laws to follow, and with three separate tests confirming that it was not a cannabis leaf, it had to drop its “possession of marijuana” charges. The school officials, however, did not care since their zero-tolerance policy includes what they call imitation drugs. Sure, use of the word “imitation” is a way to include undefined substances that create intoxicating effects, not Pixy Stix that an official might call imitation cocaine. Backed into a corner like rabid ferrets, the school officials said imitation actually means “looks like,” so the possession of a tomato plant leaf, oregano, sugar packet or protein powder would also justify arresting and suspending a child even if it might have lifelong repercussions on his or her education, career and mental health.
A few weeks ago, the student returned to Bedford Middle School, but as a condition of his return, he faces a very strict probation. Being separated from friends and classmates for a year is difficult enough, but he must also undergo mandatory drug searches at the start and finish of each school day. The time frame for these twice-daily searches could last the entire year, so clearly he needs to leave the bubble gum at home lest dipshit administrators mistake it for black tar hash and call in the SWAT team.
This entire ordeal cost the family dearly, including financially, and the Bays filed a lawsuit against Bedford County Schools and the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office. With their son back in school, the lawsuit now encompasses only the three main participants: school operations chief Fred “Mac” Duis, assistant principal Brian Wilson and sheriff deputy M.M. Calohan. The lawsuit alleges that the school violated the due process rights of R.M.B. (the son’s initials) and that the deputy engaged in “malicious prosecution” filing drug charges for a substance he knew not to be a drug. The lawyer for the administrators and sheriff attempted to dismiss the suit saying the school provided a “due process” hearing, but the U.S. District Court Judge delivered a smackdown saying “a sham or a pretense” does not count as a formal hearing.
The case is currently in the discovery process, which could continue into early next year. If the family wins the lawsuit, hopefully it will make imitation assistant principals, sheriff deputies and school operation chiefs like these show a little more judgment and class.