Tragically, as superintendent of Zion-Benton Township High School, I have sat through over 75 very painful school board disciplinary/expulsion hearings during the past eight years because of students under the influence of or possessing marijuana during the school day or at a school sponsored activity. Eight years ago our Board of Education decided that every student involved with marijuana would have a Board of Education disciplinary hearing. There are no exceptions, or second chances. The hearings are held in closed session and involve the student, parents, other family members, school officials, and the Board of Education. Here is what we have learned:
- The pain and emotion of students and family members faced with an expulsion hearing in front of elected members of the Board of Education, who are also parents, cannot be described in words
- Following lengthy questioning of the student by Board members, most parents are amazed at the extent of marijuana use by their son or daughter. In almost every case, parents thought that their student only used occasionally. Almost always, student use of marijuana was much greater than parents thought or were willing to admit.
- When students are caught under the influence of or possessing marijuana at school, it has never been the first time. In every case, initial use of marijuana occurred outside of school, at times at home, and always while students were unsupervised.
- During the hearing the Board of Education reviews a profile of the student that covers the previous three or four years. Without exception, students were doing relatively well with their grades in junior high school. Often the ninth grade year went well. But, a definite pattern emerges. Once students started using marijuana, grades declined rapidly, school attendance became a problem, most dropped out of extracurricular activities, problems with police were common, and conflict within the family was almost always admitted. In other words, the use of marijuana caused a rapid deterioration in so many of the positive qualities that parents and teachers want for our youth.
- Almost none of the parents understood much about the most active ingredient in marijuana, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). At almost every hearing, we explained that THC is fat-soluble and imbeds in the brain, reproductive organs, and other fatty tissues in the body. We also informed parents and students that heavy users of marijuana have an extensive buildup of THC in their bodies that can take months to be eliminated.
- Over and over again we observed students who use marijuana exhibiting one primary characteristic – apathy. They care very little about anything except where their next joint will come from. The use of marijuana has become in so many ways the focus of their lives.
- From a school perspective, the THC impact on the brain is tragic. It definitely impairs short-term memory, the most important school skill that all students must possess. Students who frequently use marijuana have a difficult time remembering what was taught the previous day, week, or month. As a result, their learning ability is handicapped.
There is so much more that could be shared from these very school board disciplinary hearings. As administrators and board members, we have cried with many students and families. Yet, we cannot tolerate students attending school and possessing or being under the influence of marijuana. To assist students and families, we have implemented an extremely successful Student Assistance Program (SAP), a cooperative drug-testing venture with our local hospital and other programs to help struggling students with the use of this very dangerous drug. Yes, we all know that high school students in the late 1970s and during the 1980s used a great deal of marijuana. However, it may have had the same name, but it was a much different drug back then. The THC content was 1-3%. Much of the marijuana being used today has a THC level of 8-12%, and possibly as high as 30%. IT IS NOT THE SAME DRUG. The dangers are much greater than ever. Lives are being destroyed by marijuana. Together, families and educators, we have an obligation to help all of our teenagers understand the dangers of marijuana and to do everything possible to help them avoid the temptation.
As an epilogue to the 75 board hearings noted above, every student was expelled by the Board of Education. However, the Board of Zion-Benton Township High School has a very enlightened expulsion abeyance contract policy. Students are not put on the street. When a student is remorseful, and at least one parent is cooperative, the student is placed on an expulsion abeyance contract. Only 5-10 days of the expulsion are actually implemented. The student must then fulfill the terms of the contract, which include frequent drug testing at parent expense with the results released to the principal, enrollment and successful participation in the Student Assistance Program, a commitment to perform school service after regular school hours, and a contractual commitment to improve attendance, grades, and behavior. If the student does not fulfill the expulsion abeyance contract, he/she is then allowed to attend the Regional Office of Education Alternative High School for Lake County.
Although more than half of the students do not satisfactorily complete their expulsion abeyance contract, and do enroll in the alternative high school, the impact of this policy and approach by the Board of Education has had dramatic impacts on the entire student body of Zion-Benton Township High School (2,200 students). Seldom is there even any odor of marijuana use during the school day or at school sponsored activities. Student surveys and anecdotal comments from many, many students indicate that the use of marijuana has diminished greatly in recent years. Through a strong educational program, a very effective board policy, and an extensive helping component, the Student Assistance Program, much hope is being demonstrated.Return to Stories