(WAXHAW, NC) — The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of an eighth-grade public school student who was suspended for allegedly playing a joke on a fellow student by giving him a bag of the Italian herb oregano. As a result of his prank, the 13-year-old Cuthbertson Middle School student was initially suspended for 10 days and charged with being in possession of and having the intent to distribute an “illegal drug, counterfeit or synthetic drug.” School officials with Union County Public Schools have since suspended the boy for an additional 45 days with attendance in an alternative school program. In addition to the suspension being a gross overreaction to a childish prank, Institute attorneys point out that oregano cannot properly be considered a “counterfeit or synthetic drug” under the school’s Code of Conduct or the North Carolina statute pertaining to counterfeit drugs.
“Zero-tolerance discipline cases are becoming increasingly absurd,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “Rather than responding with reason, proportionality, and compassion to childish indiscretions, schools are subjecting young people to treatment far worse than is meted out to adult defendants in the criminal justice system. It doesn’t make any sense.”
On January 20, 2012, the eighth grader in question, whose family has asked that he not be identified publicly (referred to hereafter as “B”), brought a bag containing oregano to Cuthbertson Middle School. “B” played a joke on a fellow student who had spoken to him about marijuana—the students having discussed it in health class—by giving his classmate a bag of oregano. Claiming they didn’t want other children to be in danger, school officials charged “B” with having the intent to distribute an “illegal drug, counterfeit or synthetic drug,” and initially suspended him for 10 days, later extending it to an additional 45 days. Insisting that her son had merely engaged in a schoolboy prank with no intention to harm anyone, “B’s” mother turned to The Rutherford Institute for help.
In a letter to officials with the Union County Public Schools, John W. Whitehead warned that the school’s unwarranted overreaction to the incident could be construed as a violation of “B’s” constitutional rights. Moreover, in light of the fact that oregano is not defined as a “counterfeit or synthetic drug” in accordance with the school’s Student Code of Conduct, nor does it meet the statutory definition of “counterfeit drug” as set forth in North Carolina General Stat. Ann. §106-121(4a), Institute attorneys argue that “B” cannot be subjected to long-term suspension. Pointing out that North Carolina law not only confers upon school officials the authority to issue long-term suspensions only when a student’s conduct demonstrates a willful violation of school policies, but also discourages such punishments except for serious violations that either threaten the safety of students, staff or school visitors or threaten to substantially disrupt the educational environment, Whitehead has asked that the long-term suspension be revoked immediately in favor of a reasonable response that takes “B’s” best interests into account and avoids unnecessary interference with his education.