Science project yields penalties 3 seniors barred from graduation day after marijuana found

June 06, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Three seniors at a Harford County high school were barred from their graduation ceremony after school officials discovered marijuana growing in a science class project -- a decision that has triggered parent protests.

Cory Christy and Michael Smith, both 18, were suspended after an environmental science teacher at Havre de Grace High School found two marijuana plants growing among other plants in a terrarium, their parents said yesterday.

Principal James J. Bennett gave the students a five-day suspension, to which School Superintendent Ray R. Keech added four days and barred them from participating in last week's graduation, the parents said.

Citing regulations against discussing student records, school officials declined to release the third student's name and would not confirm the suspension of Christy and Smith. The two students were vacationing in Ocean City and could not be reached for comment, their parents said.

It has not been determined when the students will receive their diplomas. Suzanne Christy, Cory's mother, said the nine-day suspension was unfair because administrators based their decision on information provided by other students.

"The school system is correct to suspend students found to be in possession of a controlled substance, but neither Cory nor the other two students were in possession of the substance," said Ms. Christy, whose son is an honor student who plans to attend the University of Maryland College Park in the fall. "They were convicted on hearsay."

The principal said that in mid-May a science teacher alerted him to what he believed was marijuana growing in a terrarium -- one of several used for a project and lined against a classroom window.

"There was a single plant in a pot, secreted away among some other plants, that couldn't be seen from inside," Bennett said. "A group was outside planting bamboo, and the teacher spotted the plant inside the terrarium through an outside window."

Bennett said he and the teacher went through the group of terrariums and discovered another plant. Police were called to investigate, he said.

Havre de Grace police spokesman Lt. John Van Gilder said officers conducted field tests and determined that the 1- to 2-inch-tall plants were marijuana. The plants were confiscated, but no arrests were made because police could not determine whose possession they were in, Van Gilder said.

But school officials decided to conduct their own investigation.

Bennett said that he spent three days questioning students individually and that several provided corroborating information about who was growing the plants.

"It became obvious that many of the students were saying the same thing," said Bennett, who added that he believes other students might also have been involved. "At that point we pulled the three students in and advised them of the information we had."

At least one of the students confessed to being in possession of the marijuana, the principal said. Parents were notified that their children would be suspended for five days and that the suspensions would be referred to the superintendent's office for possible extension or expulsion.

But the Christys and Smiths say they were notified by their sons about the suspension, not the school.

The Christys asked a Circuit Court judge for an injunction allowing Cory to graduate with his class, but the request was denied May 29, the day of the ceremony.

Charles Smith said he worries that the incident will stain his son's school record and make it difficult for him to get into college or the military.

"I'm not saying my kid is perfect, and he has gotten in trouble before at school for minor things. But the way they went about this is wrong," he said.

Schools spokesman Don Morrison said any student found to be in possession, using or distributing a controlled substance receives an automatic five-day suspension from the principal and can receive an extension of that suspension from the superintendent. Suspensions of 10 days or more are eligible for appeal before the school board, he said.

Pub Date: 6/06/96

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