CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Pointing to yet another instance of zero tolerance policies being misapplied, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have criticized school officials at Hickory Middle School for grossly overreacting when they suspended a seventh grade honors student over allegations that he was in possession of the Italian herb oregano. Insisting that Adam Grass, a candidate for the National Junior Honors Society, was little more than an innocent bystander to a schoolboy prank, Institute attorneys have asked school officials to reverse the 10-day suspension, rescind the recommendation for expulsion for “possession of an imitation controlled substance,” and expunge the incident from Grass’ academic record.
“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.”
According to Rachel Grass, Adam’s mother, one of Adam’s classmates brought a plastic baggy containing oregano to school and displayed it to fellow students during their lunch period, saying, “Haha, it looks like pot.” Adam immediately backed away. However, another student took possession of the oregano. Encountering Adam in the bathroom later, that student asked him to return the oregano to the classmate who had brought it to school in the first place. Adam initially agreed, only belatedly realizing that the owner was not in his next class. Adam then gave the oregano to someone who did have class with the owner. At no time, did Adam treat the so-called “substance” as anything other than oregano or intend to deceive anyone about it. Moreover, when school officials intervened and questioned Adam about the matter, he related exactly what happened, which was corroborated by the other students interviewed by administrators and school officers.
Despite the fact that Adam was an unwitting accomplice to what Institute attorneys describe as nothing more than a schoolboy prank, he was shown “zero tolerance” by school officials. As a result, Adam and two other students were given 10-day suspensions pending expulsion for possession and distribution of an imitation controlled substance. Institute attorneys point out that school officials may be misapplying state law in this matter, in addition to violating Adam’s constitutional rights. Specifically, Institute attorneys argue that oregano does not meet the statutory definition of “imitation controlled substance” under Virginia law and Adam did not possess the requisite intent to “give, sell, or distribute” an imitation controlled substance as defined by the Chesapeake School Board in Article XIII of its “Expectation of Conduct and Sanctions for Violation.” Moreover, “Adam had no intent to violate school policy,” Whitehead wrote in his letter. “His intent was merely to convey a harmless bag of oregano back to its rightful owner.”
Nisha N. Mohammed is the press contact for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit legal and educational civil liberties organization which provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated.