Katina Cottrell was at work when administrators at Northmont High School in Dayton, Ohio, called to inform her that they’d just pulled her son Jordan out of first period class for allegedly smelling like cannabis.
A registered nurse, Cottrell headed to the school immediately. She brought with her a saliva-based drug test that she routinely administers to patients as part of her job.
When Cottrell arrived at the school, Northmont Principal Theresa Dillon explained that a student had claimed to detect the aroma of cannabis in the classroom, prompting a teacher to single out Jordan, smell him at close range, and then call in the principal and the school’s resource officer.
With no due process or legal representation, Jordan’s clothes and locker were thoroughly searched, but nothing was found.
Two drug tests, zero marijuana
“They claimed Jordan smelled so fragrant that it filled up the classroom,” Cottrell told Leafly. “But when I came to the school all I smelled was cologne and lotion, which he puts on every morning. I asked if they had any training to learn what marijuana smells like, and they said no.”
On the spot, and in front of the principal, Cottrell administered the drug test she’d brought with her. It came back negative. Less than an hour later, she took Jordan to the nearest Urgent Care and had him take a urine test. Those results were also negative.
She expected the school would apologize to her son. Instead they began the process of expelling him.
‘Marijuana on breath or person’
At the time of the incident (January 22), Northmont High’s official Code of Conduct decreed that any student with “marijuana on breath or person” faced a 10-day suspension and a recommended expulsion.
Cottrell says after her initial meeting at the school, several other parents of black students reached out, saying their children had also been targeted for allegedly smelling like cannabis—including one of her son’s classmates who’d already been expelled.
Cottrell also heard from a white woman who said her son had been caught with a cannabis vape pen in his locker (after a drug sniffing dog alerted on it), but he only got a 10-day suspension, later reduced to three days.
Other parents with similar incidents
“I’m not someone who likes to drop the race card,” said Cottrell, “so in the past when I heard certain stories I always tried to give the school the benefit of the doubt. But now I do see a pattern of racial injustice.”
“In fact,” she added, “what made me want to fight this was not just the fact that my son is innocent, but also that other parents started reaching out with similar stories, and they were all black or brown kids. And then I learned of the situation with the Caucasian woman, only because she came to me personally and said she thought it was very unfair how my son was being treated.”
Ultimately, Cottrell decided to go to the media, resulting in a special report from a local Fox affiliate. As part of that broadcast, the station noted that in 2018 the school district had “hired a diversity coach to teach staff about cultural awareness with a focus on black male students.”
A program that was supposed to help
According to the Dayton Daily News, those funds came out of a $500,000 grant from the national non-profit StriveTogether, as part of its mission to help “close achievement gaps linked to race, gender, and culture.”
The grant was earmarked to place four “equity fellows” at the school, including three teachers, one administrator, and one member of the community—all charged with “identifying practices and policies that impede under-represented students.”
And yet nobody from the school administration, faculty, or any of these privately funded programs have to date contacted Katina Cottrell to discuss this matter. Cottrell says that not one person involved in the disciplinary actions against Jordan, including his teacher, the school’s resources officer, the principal, or the superintendent, is a person of color.
‘They’re not trying to help me’
At the student’s ensuing expulsion hearing, Principal Dillon argued that despite the two negative drug tests and the lack of any corroborating evidence, Jordan Cottrell should be summarily expelled from the school.
Ultimately the district superintendent’s office decided on a 10-day suspension instead. Katina Cottrell said the more lenient sentence visibly angered the principal. Cottrell said she believes the lesser punishment was likely granted to her son only because of the negative publicity the school received once the story went public.
An appeal gone awry
She challenged the suspension, but the school did not move quickly to hear her appeal. Jordan served his entire 10-day suspension.
“And then the day before he was set to return to school,” his mother said, “they finally held a suspension hearing. But that ended up being rescheduled when I brought another parent into the room who is still fighting the school because the same thing happened to his son. The superintendent immediately stopped the hearing and said he couldn’t be there. The rules stated that anyone could come into the hearing either to represent me or for support, but they said having him there was against their policy. Even though they could not produce any such policy.”
Now both parents are working together with a local attorney to sue the school district, in hopes of clearing these incidents from their children’s permanent records.
“It’s going to be a long struggle,” Cottrell said, “because they’re not trying to help me. But I just don’t understand how a child can be suspended if they’re innocent.”
Contacted for comment by Leafly, Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Tony Thompson responded: “Student confidentiality laws prevent me from discussing this matter with you. However, I can tell you that the Northmont School District has adopted restorative practices for our students.”
Cottrell says that since the day of the incident, Thompson has refused to have any substantive discussion with her, including failing to respond to a letter she wrote him directly.
‘He feels like everyone is judging him’
Jordan is now back at school, but the negative effects of the incident have not gone away, according to his mother.
“He’s scared that the teacher or the school is going to continue to mistreat him or profile him all over again,” she said. “He’s scared that everything he does is going to be placed under the microscope. He no longer has an active social life because he feels like everyone is looking at him or judging him, and that anything he says or does could be turned against him.”
Dayton: wide disparities in arrest rate, suspension rate
There is no hard data on the number of school-aged children punished for “smelling like cannabis,” or the racial disparity in those incidents. But it’s worth noting that nationally, despite consuming cannabis at roughly the same rate, Black people are on average 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people. In Ohio specifically, that number rises to 4.1 times more likely.
According to a 2018 Dayton Daily News report, the Black student population in Dayton Public Schools was 2.6 times the size of the white population. But Black students received 7.8 times as many out-of-school suspensions as white students.
And there’s certainly no reason to doubt a similar or worse level of bias exists when it comes to cannabis enforcement at school, particularly when the bar for instigating disciplinary action is so low that a suspicious smell can get a student expelled.