SCRUTINY OF INNOVATIVE TEACHER COMES AT AN ODD TIME
Published: Friday, July 5, 1996
Last month, fifth-graders at Simpsonville Elementary got a visit from a celebrity, a lesson in agriculture and a look at the legal process, all rolled into one.
Their teacher, Donna Cockrel, invited actor Woody Harrelson to come and talk about industrial hemp, and why he thinks it should be legal to grow it in Kentucky. Harrelson pointed out that unlike marijuana, hemp doesn't create a high when smoked - but federal and state laws still don't distinguish between the two.
Later, Harrelson was arrested for planting hemp seeds in protest of the law.
Cockrel deserves a commendation for putting an exciting twist on a timely topic. Instead, the visit earned her a Shelby County School Board investigation over "some complaints and concerns ... regarding [her] performance as a teacher," according to Linda Armstrong, an attorney for the school board.
What's the school board smoking?
Fifth-graders are old enough to debate issues such as the difference between marijuana and hemp, which can be used to make cloth, fiber and rope. In fact, each year Cockrel's classes discuss hemp, kenaf, soybeans and other alternatives to growing tobacco. It's a good thing Simpsonville has a teacher with the nerve to tackle the issue in a structured environment.
Parents were right to be concerned about a classroom visitor advocating a change in the law. But fifth grade is about the time when kids ought to learn how the legal system can be challenged. Leave that issue out, and lessons on the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have to go, too.
Cockrel is an award-winning teacher who brought her students a lesson they'll never forget. The only thing worth investigating is Shelby County's failure to realize it.