High school investigates students sickened by pot brownies

— File photo by Susan Safford

Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School officials on Monday alerted parents by email that, with assistance from the Oak Bluffs Police, they are investigating the circumstances surrounding two students who last week ingested brownies laced with marijuana, while in school. One required medical treatment.

In an unrelated incident linked to food, the letter also reported that two weeks ago a female student had a severe allergic reaction to food containing peanut products that was brought into a classroom.

In response, on Monday high school officials prohibited students from eating food in the hallways or classrooms, a policy that was in effect but had been loosened for the holidays.

Oak Bluffs Police Lieutenant Tim Williamson said Wednesday that a student has admitted he brought the brownies into the school, and police are assisting the school with its internal school investigation. Any discipline will be determined by school authorities.

Police support school

Lt. Williamson said that he received a call from the high school administration on Monday morning requesting his assistance. He asked State Police Sergeant Jeff Stone, who has cross-jurisdictional authority and experience in drug investigations, to accompany him to a meeting with school officials that included principal Stephen Nixon and assistant principals Matt Malowski and Andrew Berry.

Lt. Williamson said that after discussing the matter he and Sgt. Stone agreed that the best course of action was to let the school go forward with its internal investigation.

“What we were dealing with at this point was hearsay evidence and no physical evidence,” Lieutenant Williamson said. “The rules of evidence are different for a police investigation versus a school investigation.”

Another consideration was how to to discover the facts and resolve the issue in the best interests of all concerned, he said. Police could not question students or parents without first reading them a Miranda warning or allowing them to consult a lawyer. “We thought that justice would be served in the school system,” he said.

In a follow-up meeting Tuesday, a student, accompanied by his parents, admitted to school officials that he had brought the brownies into the school, Lt. Williamson said. He is now subject to school discipline.

Lt. Williamson said it is his view that the two girls who ate the brownies knew what they were eating but were unprepared for the full effects of the marijuana. That led one of them to go to the school nurse.

“Hopefully, they learned their lesson,” Lt. Williamson said.

Safety paramount

The letter dated December 16, from principal Stephen Nixon to parents and guardians, was posted on Edline, a secure electronic portal on the school’s website accessible only by password.

“I’m writing to you concerning the issue of school safety,” Mr. Nixon wrote. “In the last two weeks, we have had two instances of students being placed in danger because of food. Two weeks ago, a student had a severe allergic reaction to food brought into the classroom by another student. Last week, two students were medically treated for ingesting brownies laced with marijuana.

“Please be aware that your child’s safety is paramount to all we do at MVRHS. I realize this is a festive season; however, due to this rash of issues, I will be instituting the following: The Oak Bluffs Police have been informed and will begin working with the school immediately. There will be no eating of food in the hallways or classrooms. We have placed the staff on heightened alert to monitor the building, especially the cafeteria. The investigation into the marijuana-related incident is in full swing. We ask that you, as parents, help us in our vigilance and remind your children of the seriousness of taking food from others while continuing to heighten their awareness of the danger of drugs. We will be holding an advisory this week to enable students and adults to thoughtfully discuss this issue.”

Very serious

“We’re looking at this as a very serious incident,” superintendent of schools James Weiss told The Times in a telephone call Tuesday. He confirmed that both the high school and police are investigating it.

“Somebody obviously brought brownies in the building that had marijuana in them,” Mr. Weiss said, when asked to describe what happened. “Whether they were sold or given away, I’m not one hundred percent sure at this time.”

One of the two students who ate the brownies had some kind of reaction and went to the nurse’s office.

“We called her parents, and she went to the hospital,” Mr. Weiss said. “She’s okay. Whether it was just an over-reaction to being high, or whether there was some other kind of reaction, we’re not one hundred percent sure, but that causes us some real concern. And actually, the week before, there was a similar situation with someone who had a peanut allergy, having nothing to do with pot.

“And you put those two together, and we’re very concerned about people giving food away and what has been happening. So that’s why the letter basically says for right now, let’s not have any eating outside of the cafeteria.”

Mr. Weiss said Mr. Nixon met with his faculty Monday, before sending the letter electronically to parents. “I contacted the school committee so they would know, and hopefully we can bring this to some conclusion and everything will be okay,” he said.

Discipline could follow

In a follow-up phone conversation with The Times Wednesday, Mr. Nixon said he could not provide specific details about how the two students acquired the brownies, or from whom, because it is the subject of an internal school investigation by two assistant principals.

“I couldn’t tell you specifically yet who the two students were that brought them in, or whether they were given them when they were here, or what towns they were from,” he said.

Mr. Nixon said it was too early to say whether the two girls who ate the brownies would be disciplined. He said that would be determined after the assistant principals have concluded their investigation, which involves talking to students and parents.

He said the paramount concern is the safety of the kids in the building.

“If based on our guidelines, something they’ve done warrants expulsion, that’s when it comes to me,” he added. “That’s when I would hear the facts, listen to the other side of the story, and rule on the basis of state guidelines. That probably won’t occur until January.”

Although the high school averages about two or three incidents a year involving marijuana, Mr. Nixon said this is the first one connected to food that he is aware of. He said there is no truth to rumors in the community that the brownies were made in the school.

Food policy

Mr. Nixon said that while some people may think it is a draconian measure to ban food in the classroom, it has always been school policy. Although teachers and administrators have been a little more lenient during the holiday season in the past, he said the recent incident that involved a student with a peanut allergy is an example of why that policy is in place.

“It’s my understanding that food was brought into the classroom that contained peanuts, and because the food was in the classroom, although the girl didn’t eat it, she had a reaction because it was airborne,” he said.

Mr. Nixon said there is a provision in the rules for students with medical issues who may need to eat outside of their regular school meal times. Those students may go to the nurse’s office or get a pass from the cafeteria supervisor, Mr. Nixon said, and get something to eat for health reasons. The nurse has food in her office specifically for those types of students, he said.

Policy prohibits drugs

According to the MVRHS Student Handbook 2013-2014, there are four distinct categories with respect to substance abuse, including possession of paraphernalia, under the influence, possession of drugs, and distribution.

The high school’s discipline procedure for a student found to be under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, which includes marijuana under state law, is to notify parents and suspend the student for 10 days. The principal may require additional testing and counseling. An appeal may be made to the principal within five days of the decision and then to the superintendent.

Possession of a controlled substance results in a suspension of up to 10 days or expulsion. Both parents and police are notified, and the principal may require additional testing and counseling. An appeal may be made to the superintendent within 10 days of the decision.