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July 15, 2007

Vernonia ponders prohibition paradox

Chatter filled the hot, hazy air here Friday, from a swimming hole where wrestlers backflip off long knotted ropes to a senior center thrift shop where tutting ladies pursed their mouths, from the local credit union where tellers came to tears to the hardware and auto parts stores where regulars spoke like oracles: The fate of Aaron Miller was on the minds and lips of Vernonians.

And so was the fate of Miller's champion, Kenneth Cox. Miller is the elementary school principal who admitted smoking pot last week when a deputy questioned him at Fort Stevens State Park near Warrenton; Cox is the school superintendent who welcomed a school board decision Thursday that leaves the principal on the job.

Vernonia is the school district whose decision to randomly test athletes for drugs was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995.

It's the kind of small former logging town where summer vacation equals fresh-air boredom -- in the woods, along the reservoir, beside the creek, behind the diner. Canopies of towering fir and cedar shade fishing holes. A pioneer museum draws visitors down the main thoroughfare, which crosses one bridge midtown and another on the way out. Yes, it's called Bridge Street.

A police blotter in The Independent, the weekly newspaper, offers what you might expect in a place with a population of 2,300: 10 people stopped for riding bikes without helmets; a runaway taken to social services; two minors released to their parents after being found with liquor; a woman arrested for possession of controlled substances; drug paraphernalia found and destroyed.

"It's rural Oregon," said Jay Nesmith, behind the counter of Vernonia Hardware. "We've got that laid-back, lefty hippie lifestyle going on here."

Meaning: Drugs haunt this place.

Signs near the school campus shared by grade, middle and high school students warn it is a "Tobacco Free Zone." The local chapter of the Lions Club -- to which Miller, 41, belongs -- supports a program to educate kids about the dangers of drugs such as marijuana. Students on sports teams face random urine tests. Failure can lead to suspension, costly drug rehab classes, loss of ranking.

Miller will face undisclosed disciplinary consequences.

"I have been accused of setting a double standard in taking this action," Cox wrote in a statement posted on the district's Web site Friday. "I believe, however, that I have set a higher standard for Vernonia administrators than for other staff members. Mr. Miller will be dealt with in a fashion similar to, but more severe than, that which we deal with students. If a student is caught using drugs they face consequences -- but being summarily expelled from school is not one of them."

"They let him slide"

The decision to allow Miller to stay was met with relief at the Vernonia Country Kitchen, where Shawnna Lloyd delivered baskets of bacon burgers and grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches to a pair of patrons.

"He's a nice guy," she said, echoing many here where even childless residents keep track of teachers and coaches.

Her fifth-grade daughter, Melissa, and kindergartner, Christopher, attend Washington Grade School, where Miller is the popular principal.

Popularity aside, lifeguard John Murray wondered how students would react to what amounted to "a slap on the wrist."

"They let him slide," said Murray, 47, never taking his eyes off the river, dammed for summer, where a dozen kids paddled. "What a horrible example for them. He's supposed to be a role model. I think he should have been removed."

Irving Russell, on a bench outside the senior center, agreed.

"They raise hell about kids and drugs," said the 75-year-old retired bridge inspector, "and then when the principal comes along -- who knows better -- they exonerate him. Seems to me he and the superintendent should be brought down."

Teens shrug it off

Just out of town, high school wrestlers Tylor Owen, 16, and Zack Nutting, 15, swung from ropes at the idyllic swimming hole, an elbow in the creek where crawdads troll underfoot.

Neither had been born when the school district started mandatory drug testing of its athletes in 1989, nor two years later when a seventh-grader, James Acton, refused to take a drug test as part of a tryout for middle school football. He was banned from playing, and his parents sued the school district. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995, and in a 6-3 decision, justices upheld the district's policy.

But between splashes, the teens said they knew about the history and about current rules that test them during the wrestling season. They mentioned classmates and friends who faced discipline for dabbling in drugs. It didn't seem fair, they said.

Still, they shrugged off Miller's conduct in the state park, where Deputy Chance Moore approached the principal after sunset and smelled marijuana. When he asked whether Miller had been smoking pot, the onetime baseball coach and teacher became visibly upset and said, "I could be in a lot of trouble for this, but, yes, I have been smoking marijuana."

The Vernonia School Board called the incident a single act of "poor judgment," adding that Miller had voiced "very sincere remorse for his actions."

Owen and Nutting were also willing to let bygones be.

"I don't think he should be taken out just for this," Owen said.

Nutting chimed in, tugging the rope before swinging into the still air: "It's just pot."