Sunday, February 26, 2012 12:15 am | Whether a student is expelled for smoking marijuana depends a lot on where they’re caught, how many times they’ve been caught and if they give or sell the illegal drug to others.
Even first-time offenders can be kicked out of school.
The severity of the penalty varies from district to district, depending on school officials’ interpretation of California education code.
Only the “big five” offenses, outlined in education code 48915 (c), require no interpretation. Students who possess a firearm or explosive, brandish a knife, sell a controlled substance, or commit or attempt to commit a sexual assault or battery are automatically expelled.
Each school board determines policy for individual districts — some have zero-tolerance policies while others have three-strikes rules — and carries out those policies, according to Wendy Shelton, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Office of Education.
Last week, a high school senior was expelled from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School District after she was caught smoking marijuana in the school parking lot with another student. Hannah Burchardi, a first-time offender, first served a five-day off-campus suspension and was supervised in a classroom by herself for a month after she was caught with less than an ounce of marijuana and tobacco products Jan. 5. She also provided the drug to another student.
The district created a special four-person panel to make a
recommendation to the board of trustees, who made the final expulsion decision, per education code.
Santa Ynez officials consistently recommend first-time offenders for expulsion — four of eight students who were expelled for offering or selling drugs to other students since 2007 were first-time offenders — while other districts consider the action a last resort for students who cannot be helped through intervention programs or who are a danger to others.
Santa Maria Joint Union High School District officials have implemented more on-site interventions and programs to meet students’ needs, according to Tina Christen, director of special education and student services.
For years, the district has had a four-person panel of administrators to hear and make recommendations in expulsion cases. The number of expulsions is down from 93 in 2009-10 to 28 in 2010-11.
Other districts, including Guadalupe Union and Orcutt Union, do not have panels. Principals investigate incidents and make recommendations to the board of trustees for final decision.
Officials agree that students caught with marijuana on campus get an automatic suspension, typically off campus.
Expelling a first-time offender is not common in the Lompoc Unified School District, where a student most likely would be suspended and referred to counseling unless they sold drugs or had a large amount, said Art Diaz, director of student services.
Last year, eight of 53 expulsions were drug-related, Diaz said, and three students have been expelled for drug offenses so far this year.
“There’s a range,” he said. “It generally is not an expellable offense, unless it involves sale. There are instances where there are multiple charges, and we have to pick the most egregious of the charges. There wouldn’t be any students that would be recommended for expulsion based on first offense. Each case is different.”
Andrea Lee, coordinator of student welfare and attendance in the Lucia Mar Unified School District, cautions against comparing different school district policies.
Marijuana possession can be an expellable offense or involve suspension and rehabilitation, Lee said. She couldn’t generalize about Lucia Mar’s expulsions — there were 91 for violence or drugs in 2009-10 — but said expulsion depends on one case’s evidence.
“We all look at things differently,” she said. “We follow the due process law. We do have high standards for our students.”
Students are typically expelled for a year or less, per education code, working toward degrees in a district-recommended alternative program or a continuation school in the meantime.
While most area marijuana offenses occur at the high school level, drug use is not unprecedented for elementary or junior high students, said Mark Muller, Santa Maria-Bonita School District director of pupil services.
As for the best punishment, Muller reiterated the individuality of each case at any level.
“It’s kind of hard to take them out of context,” he said. “You try to do what's in the best interest of the child.”