Dope and the 11-Year-Old (November 17, 1999)

When 11-year-old Spencer Musgrave appeared at Laytonville’s combined elementary and middle school on a recent Monday morning, the first thing he did was head for the office to get an absence slip. Spencer had been absent from school the previous Friday. The required piece of re-entry paper in hand, the boy walked to class. As Spencer entered the room, his teacher smelled marijuana. Spencer’s teacher linked the odor of devil weed with the appearance of young Mr. Musgrave, although she didn’t submit the boy to a sniff test and has said the smell didn’t seem to be coming from Spencer.

But two hours later, Spencer was called into the office for a pot interrogation by the principal, a squared-away-looking middle-aged man named John Markatos. Mr. Markatos wears a tie to work and generally presents an image of brisk efficiency. He is a new hire for Laytonville where ties at job sites are as rare as an unanimous opinion. 

So here they were, man and boy, authority and suspect. Markatos, called “Mr. Narkatos” by students, examined Spencer with what Mr. Markatos seems to believe is his infallible olfactory detector but admitted he couldn’t smell marijuana on the boy. Markatos, undeterred by the lack of evidence, was nonetheless convinced that the young man was guilty of a marijuana-related offense, whatever it was. 

Mrs. Musgrave happened to walk in the office to deliver her children’s lunches at the tail end of her 11-year-old’s grilling in the principal’s office. She demanded  to see her son. 

“I smelled him and couldn’t smell anything,” Mrs. Musgrave says. “He’s never been any kind of trouble like this before. The principal told me he felt  like my son hadn’t smoked marijuana in school, but was probably around older kids who had.”

The littlest Musgrave had sailed by the principal’s marijuana sniff test and was clearly not under the influence of a consciousness-altering substance, but was now looking at a burgeoning case of guilt by association. Mr. Markatos declared Spencer guilty of being in the presence of marijuana although there was no evidence linking Spencer to the proximity of the drug. 

The principal, Mr. Markatos, seems to have a lot of time to pursue obscure episodes of wrongdoing. If the kid were obviously under the influence or had come to school with doobies hanging from his shirt pockets, nobody would complain about the kid facing the consequences of what he knew to be wrong. But in the case of Spencer Musgrave, the boy didn’t smell like marijuana, hadn’t been smoking it, from all accounts is not disposed to smoke it, but here he was facing the serious sanctions identical to those faced by real student potheads. 

And Laytonville has a lot of pot heads. Teachers complain that children as young as ten come to school so stoned they can’t rouse themselves to do their school work. At the high school the incidence of drug use is said to infect nearly half the student body. There appears to be justifiable alarm in the community about drug use among Laytonville’s young people.

Grover Faust, the legendary Laytonville football coach, is on record as saying that one of the primary reasons he no longer coaches football is that at the end of his reign as one of the winning-est coaches in all of Northern California, more and more of his athletes seemed partially crippled by proscribed substances. Discipline had disappeared. “It’s not that I can’t coach anymore, Grover has said, “I won’t  coach in these circumstances.”

But 11-year-old Spencer Musgrave is not a stoner, or a tweaker, or a football player. He’s a sixth grader vaguely accused but specifically punished by his principal for maybe being around young people who smoke marijuana. Spencer, in the eyes of Laytonville’s school authorities, is a pot-symp, a cannabis fellow traveler.

Well before mom had entered the principal’s office to witness her son’s interrogation that fateful Monday, Markatos the Relentless had extracted from Spencer the names of Spencer’s closest friends. Markatos was going all out to crack Laytonville’s sixth-grade narco-syndicate.

“He forced my child to give him the names of any friends he had or anybody he’d been around, which my son did,” an angry Mrs. Musgrave complains.  “Spencer was coerced into giving up names of boys who also hadn’t done anything wrong.” 

Principal Markatos called Spencer’s friends into the office one at a time for customized interrogations. The principal came up empty. None of them had had anything to do with pot. 

Mrs. Musgrave says she “thought it was dropped. They had searched my son and found nothing. They had searched his locker, books, backpack. They searched him and found nothing.” 

The next day, Tuesday, Mrs. Musgrave was summoned to talk to the principal. “I told him that I didn’t want to talk to him, that I felt like I needed an attorney. I was done dealing with this man. But he told me that I had to talk to him.” 

The school secretary offered to accompany Mrs. Musgrave during her session with Mr. Markatos. The school secretary seemed to think it was important that Mrs. Musgrave have a witness with her.

It was getting heavier. First Spencer, now Mom.

“The principal told me,” the astonished Mrs. Musgrave exclaims, “that he believed my son had a seven-minute time-frame to smoke marijuana in, and that he would be suspended for five days if I didn’t have him drug-tested. If I did have him drug tested, he would be suspended for five days plus a school board hearing if the test came back dirty. If the test came back clean, well, sorry for the inconvenience.”

Seven-minute time-frame? Is this guy a homicide detective or a school principal?

The problem with the seven-minute time-frame during which the Markatos is convinced his cunning 11-year-old adversary either fired up a joint himself or played rubbsies with someone who had is that there was no seven-minute time-frame. There wasn’t even a minute’s window of criminal opportunity to commit evil on the ground’s of the Laytonville middle school. Spencer got out of his mother’s car, walked to the office, and walked from the office to his first classroom. Each of Spencer’s exits and entrances had been witnessed by other persons, adult and juvenile, none of whom saw the 11-year-old do anything untoward, let alone criminal.

Even though he hadn’t done anything to warrant it, Spencer himself demanded he be tested for the presence of marijuana in his precious bodily fluids.

Mom is not happy. “We live in a very small town. And when people find out a kid has been drug-tested, well, it’s embarrassing.” Mrs. Musgrave’s voice trails off, sad and exasperated before she rouses herself for another volley of complaints.

“If Mr. Markatos had any kind of evidence — a roach, matches, anything; if I could have smelled marijuana on my son. But there was nothing on him! I know it wasn’t there! I know what marijuana smells like.” 

Mom ticked off the injustices: “And he coerced my son into snitching off the other kids. That was his goal, to make these kids snitch on each other. They didn’t because there was nothing to tell. But he wasn’t happy with that.” 

And then the drug test on the basis of no incriminating evidence whatsoever.

Among our more romantic and wistful citizens, there is almost a tangible nostalgia for a time in America when it was inconceivable that an 11-year-old could even be suspected of smoking marijuana let alone do it often enough and in such numbers that a tiny rural school would be on perpetual red alert for ten-year-old tokers. The principal, Mr. Markatos, it becomes clear, yearns for yesteryear. He has definite ideas of what constitutes an 11-year-old. Spencer seems to offend Markatos in many ways. His appearance, for instance. 

“My son is an artist,” Mrs. Musgrave explains, “and he’s one of those kids who lives the way he wants to live. When he was in the third grade he dyed his hair blue. In fourth grade he dyed his hair black and shaved his eyebrows off. It’s gone on for a while — this looks-ism thing toward my child. He went skating last Friday night and he came out of his bedroom wearing these elephant bell-bottom pants, which shredded all the way up to the knees so tassels would go flying behind him as he skated. We dig it. We think it’s the coolest thing that our kid is so expressive. Other people hate it.”

Evidently. Principal Markatos primary among them. No purple-haired, shaved eyebrowed, tassel-flying kid for him. Markatos is a strict constructionist when it comes to what he apparently sees as age-appropriate dress. Principals wear ties, little kids don’t shave their eyebrows off. 

Spencer got the bounce. The heave-ho. He was out of school until his drug test results came in. Spencer was guilty until proved innocent, but without his eyebrows and a tie Spencer seems destined to be forever guilty in the exacting eyes of Mr. Markatos.

Mrs. Musgrave, however, is determined to bounce Mr. Markatos. She took her son straight to the Garberville law offices of Les Scher and Eric Kirk where the case of Spencer Musgrave temporarily rests.

“My son begged to be drug tested,” Mrs. Musgrave says. “He said, please, drug test me. I want to be drug-tested. I did have him drug-tested and it came back absolutely negative. But ever since my son has been down, depressed… I couldn’t believe that they could treat my child like a criminal without me even being present and then find him guilty without any evidence and punish him by kicking him out of school.” 

The superintendent of the Laytonville schools, Bob Larkins, fresh off a fifteen thousand dollar raise, called the Musgraves to pile on another load of bureaucratic flim-flam. He asked Mrs. Musgrave if she could “prove” her son had been suspended from school.

“ I was shocked!” Mom says, the shock still fully audible in her voice. “I told the superintendent that I was told that my son would be suspended for five days if he didn’t have a drug test because the principal believed he had smoked pot.” 

One way or the other, Spencer was outta there. The superintendent would seem to be splitting hairs.

“Last Friday,” Mrs. Musgrave says, “my son comes out of the gas station, gets into the car, and turns to me with tears in his eyes, and he says, ‘Do you think those people in the gas station think that I might be doing drugs?’

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