Ethical Educator

Weed Control
School Administrator, December 2019

Scenario: The assistant principal of a suburban school in a state where marijuana is medicinally and recreationally legal is offered a small amount of marijuana by a couple who are enormously grateful to the administrator for her support of their special needs child during the school year now concluding. Parents sometimes provide gifts of modest value to teachers and staff in a district that has no guidelines on gift acceptance. Would the assistant principal be wrong to accept the offer?

Shelley Berman: 
Although marijuana use may be legal in this state, accepting the parents’ well-intentioned gift would reflect poor judgment on the part of the assistant principal.

Educators strive to prevent students from using drugs and alcohol and to teach them about the ill effects of substance abuse. While it may seem harmless to accept a small amount of legal marijuana or even a token bottle of wine, such action would contradict the school’s health education efforts and send a mixed message to students and families. 

If the gift is offered on school grounds, its very presence likely violates rules in the school’s student and staff handbooks, district policies, and, in some states, laws forbidding the presence of drugs and alcohol on school grounds. Such a violation could result in disciplinary action against the administrator if he accepts the gift.

The assistant principal should thank the parents for their offer and express appreciation for the trust they placed in the school’s ability to support their child, then politely decline their gift. If the parents appear dismayed, he could suggest an alternate gift, such as a donation to the school’s student library to purchase books promoting the acceptance and valuing of children with special needs.
Maggie Lopez:
The assistant principal should decline this gift and remind the parents that drugs of any kind, regardless of legality, are never an appropriate gift for any school staff including himself. He can thank them for being well-intentioned (and clearly misled) but needs to be clear on the inappropriateness of their actions. 

Following his discussion with the couple, the assistant principal should inform his principal and the school resource officer of the gift offer. Schools are drug-free zones and clearly these parents have crossed the line. Their actions may entail further action between the SRO and law enforcement or the SRO and the parents. It may even require a call to social services if there is concern on the part of staff for the couple’s child. All these variables should be considered.

Even though marijuana is legalized in some states, and legislation in places like Colorado allows for students who have a specific medical need to use marijuana as a medicinal treatment at school, there are clear and precise policies that school districts must follow in compliance. Marijuana may be legal in many states, but in schools it is still not legal to distribute to others whether as a gift or otherwise.

This couple’s poor judgment regarding this gift, intended to show their appreciation for the assistant principal, has placed this leader in a bizarre, awkward and complex situation. Perhaps a book certificate though not unique, would have been a less complicated gift!
Max McGee:
In the absence of gift guidelines or policy, the assistant principal would not be wrong to accept the offer. Given the legality of the gift, it is no different than receiving a bottle of wine, a really nice cigar or $20 worth of lottery tickets. That said, the assistant principal should be advised to decline any gifts related to drugs, alcohol, tobacco or gambling because of the example it sets for the gift givers’ children and other students.

Because none of these items represent healthy choices, parents should not use them as currency for expressing appreciation, but if  offered, the educator should take a high road and politely say no thanks with a suggestion that the greatest gift would be for the student to have continued success in the future. If the parents insisted on giving something to express their gratitude, the assistant principal  should recommend a donation in his name to the district’s education foundation or some other appropriate charity.

Meira Levinson:

Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, the assistant principal is well advised to refuse the gift from the parents. Once marijuana is de-listed as a controlled substance by the federal government, then school personnel who live in states in which it is recreationally legal should feel free to treat a gift of pot the same as they would treat a gift of a bottle of wine or spirits.

Some districts that permit gift acceptance nonetheless ban gifts of alcohol or tobacco. Such bans would be reasonably extended to marijuana. Other districts permit employees to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch, and presumably this permission also extends to pot once it is fully legal at the federal and state levels. But until then, it is advisable that school personnel refuse any offer of marijuana as it puts them into legal jeopardy as well as risk of backlash from others in the district.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.