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Student defends teacher caught with pot

In a random Thousand Oaks search, a dog alerted police to a small amount of marijuana in the high school instructor's car; he was suspended for a week. His defender testifies to his inspiring teaching.

January 16, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • In a newspaper column, Dashiell Young-Saver, pictured, urged Conejo Valley Unified School District officials to show restraint in punishing teacher Courtney Stockton.
In a newspaper column, Dashiell Young-Saver, pictured, urged Conejo Valley… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

When the police were leaving a Thousand Oaks high school campus after a routine search of student lockers for contraband, one of their drug-sniffing dogs paused at a vehicle in the staff parking lot.

The car belonged to a special education teacher, and police said the marijuana found inside the vehicle did too.

Since Courtney Stockton was placed on leave from his teaching duties at Westlake High School, one of his former students — a 17-year-old academic standout who took a summer school health class from the teacher — has come to his defense. Loudly.

In a column published in the town's community newspaper, Dashiell Young-Saver urged district officials to show restraint in punishing Stockton, saying he had a rare ability to turn what should have been a mundane yawner of a health course into something inspirational.

"His teaching methods were as ordinary as his first name is masculine," wrote the senior, who is sifting through college offers that include Harvard. "He talked, just talked, for whole class periods about the nature of life, as if it was a course in philosophy.

"His lectures may have started off with health-related topics like the negative effects of drugs, but he eventually would find a tangent and run with it. The class never got bored."

Stockton told stories as he taught, Young-Saver wrote in the Dec. 22 commentary published in the Thousand Oaks Acorn, capturing students' attention with philosophical flights of fancy like a modern Socrates.

Young-Saver, who is also editor of the school's student newspaper, said he felt compelled to rally to his former teacher's defense because "drug hysteria" in the Conejo Valley might put an early end to the career of a skilled, if unorthodox, instructor.

"He did one thing that was stupid,'' the lanky track runner said from his parent's airy living room in Thousand Oaks. "I hope the district doesn't take rash action and fire him."

Stockton's troubles began Dec. 8 when one of the drug-sniffing dogs randomly searching the campus hit on Stockton's vehicle as they were preparing to leave, said Ventura County Sheriff's Capt. Bill Ayub. Police recovered less than an ounce of marijuana that the teacher had hidden out of sight, Ayub said.

Officials found no indication that Stockton was selling or supplying pot to students, but possession of any illegal drugs or alcohol on school campuses is forbidden under state and federal laws, he said. Stockton didn't have a medical marijuana card, Ayub said.

Ayub said he couldn't recall another teacher being nabbed for possession during the random searches that have been carried out in the district for decades. The dogs walk around student lockers and in student parking lots, sniffing out banned substances, he said.

"We are normally not searching teachers' property. But the dogs were returning to their vehicle and one of them just alerted to this car,'' he said. "It was just happenstance."

The 35-year-old instructor, who teaches special education students during the regular academic year, was issued a misdemeanor citation that could bring a fine of up to $500 or 10 days in jail. District officials placed him on a one-week suspension and said other disciplinary action could follow.

Stockton could not be reached for comment.

Conejo Valley Unified School District Supt. Jeff Baarstad said he couldn't discuss Stockton's case specifically but that any employee caught with marijuana would face suspension for a first offense and possible termination if it happened again.

"We want to set an example for kids. We believe that teachers and support services employees and superintendents should set an example,'' he said. "This isn't a good example."

Thousand Oaks and its surrounding communities have been shaken by the growing abuse of prescription drugs and heroin by teenagers and young adults. In October, Griffen Kramer, 18, a quarterback on the Thousand Oaks High School football team and son of former NFL player Erik Kramer, died of a heroin overdose after a night of partying with friends.

Young-Saver says he's aware of the problem — at the school newspaper he has overseen coverage of drug abuse. But in the case of Stockton, he said, administrators would be making a mistake if they fired him. And missing out on a rare teaching moment.

"His alleged drug possession has led to his suspension, a true testament to his health lessons of how drug use will hurt someone in the long run," Stockton's sharp-quilled defender wrote.

"And I'm sure he will use this story of his suspension to teach kids in the future before moving on to some memorable tangent in his lectures."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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