A public middle school in Bedford County, Virginia, handed down a one-year suspension to an 11-year-old student for possession of marijuana that turned out not to be weed at all, but merely a "similar looking leaf."
According to the Roanoke Times, the student, known only by the initials R.M.B., was allegedly showing the faux leaf to other students either on the bus or somewhere on school property. Responding to a tip, school officials removed him from gym class and searched his backpack, where the offending leaf was discovered.
The student, a sixth-grader who had been in the school's "gifted and talented" program, was suspended for a year with a formal letter in which the school cited "possession of marijuana." Two months later at a juvenile court hearing in November 2014, prosecutors dropped all criminal charges after the leaf had field-tested negative on three separate occasions.
When the student's furious parents raised the issue with the middle school, school officials reportedly told them that, "The court system and the school system were two different entities," according to the Roanoke Times. The newspaper reported the school cited policies forbidding "imitation" drugs to continue to justify the draconian punishment.
After months of home schooling, panic attacks, depression and psychiatric treatment, R.M.B was finally allowed to return to a different county middle school Monday. He will, however, remain on probation until September.
In a message to Mic, Ryan Edwards, a spokesman for Bedford County Public Schools, said that during "pending litigation," he was "prohibited from discussing matters of individual student discipline."
Zero tolerance, zero sense: Imitation or not, the decision from the district flies in the face of a sea of change in U.S. public opinion regarding marijuana laws. A majority of Americans believe that possession of small amounts of weed should be legal, with support gaining ground relatively consistently since 1990.
Several states, like Colorado, Oregon and Washington have legalized recreational weed. Many others have experimented with medical marijuana or decriminalization. In 2016, Nevada voters will decide the issue in their state; California and Arizona may not be far behind. At least one report predicted that 18 states would be jumping on the reefer train by 2020.
The fallout from the Virginia middle school's zero-tolerance policy is the latest in a string of comically over-the-top incidents from around the country. In 2013, 7-year-old John Welch of Baltimore was suspended for eating his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun. A year later, 10-year-old Nathan Entingh from Ohio faced the same fate for making a gun gesture with his finger.
"I think it's absolutely devastating," Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst for Virginia for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Mic. "The school's actions have potentially ruined this young, gifted and talented student's life."
Yeung openly derided the school's rationale: "I can't imagine how a leaf that might have gotten into someone's backpack can now be considered 'imitation drugs.'"
Bedford County schools superintendent Doug Schuch did not respond to Mic's repeated inquiries made to his office, while school board attorney Jim Guynn also told Mic that he couldn't discuss the specifics of the case.