Independence High students walk out in protest of student suspension - with VIDEO

Mar. 17—A student-led walkout at Independence High School in support of a terminally ill student allegedly banned from campus has garnered support from students and parents across Raleigh County.

Roughly 100 students walked out of Independence High School Friday morning to show support and express outrage for the treatment of fellow student and junior Nathan Rhodes.

Independence students told The Register-Herald that Rhodes has battled cancer for the past three years and recently received news that his cancer is terminal.

Eleventh-grader Caelyb Nichols, who helped organize the walk, said Rhodes was recently suspended from Independence High after being found with a vape pen containing cannabis, which Rhodes was using for pain management and to treat symptoms caused by his cancer.

"I've grown up with Nate and I feel like if he don't deserve to be here, I don't either," Nichols said. "He deserves to be here more than anybody."

Nichols said Rhodes attempted to attend school earlier in the week but was informed he was not allowed on campus as a result of a disciplinary matter.

This is the second day students at Independence have walked out to protest Rhodes' suspension.

"When he walks inside, we walk inside," Nichols said, indicating that the walkouts will continue until Rhodes is allowed back on campus.

During the Friday morning walkout, Independence students were joined by other students from Raleigh County Schools as well as parents who told The Register-Herald they signed out their child from Independence so they could participate in the walkout.

The Register-Herald was unable to confirm whether there were any repercussions for students who participated in the walkout.

After walking out, students and parents gathered outside the front doors of the school while chanting "Let Nate in" and holding signs that read "We Stand With Nate."

They then walked toward the school's entrance on Independence Road where they lined one side of the road and continued their chants.

Some students also drove up and down Independence Road in front of the school while revving their engines, doing burnouts with their wheels and honking their horns.

"The burnouts and stuff, the revving your vehicles — (Nate) loves that," Nichols said. "It's a show of, you know, we care for him. We're gonna do what we can do. .. We're not here just to raise hell. We're here to show our support for (Nate)."

Several members of Rhodes' family also attended the walkout including his mother, Emily Price.

"I just want him to be able to come back, that's all," Price said while taking video of the students protesting on behalf of her son.

Raleigh County Schools Superintendent David Price said he was aware of the walkout but could not comment on any disciplinary actions involving students.

"It's an unfortunate situation, and when I say unfortunate, I just can't imagine — I mean just, my heart breaks for him and the family, our students. I understand the compassion and care that they have, it's heartbreaking, it really is," Price said.

"He's in our prayers; he and his family both are in our thoughts and prayers," Price said. "There's a lot of things that we can't say and won't due to confidentiality and everything."

Within the past month Price said Rhodes was permitted to attend school for a day after a request was made by Rhodes' parents.

"The parents had requested that he come to school for a day to be able to see his friends and teachers under the circumstances," Price said. "They explained the circumstances and we granted permission for him to come to school for a day."

Price said the request was submitted to and approved by himself and the Office of Pupil Services.

As to whether Rhodes was suspended, expelled or received any type of punishment as a result of allegedly possessing cannabis on school grounds, Price said he was unable to confirm or comment on anything due to confidentiality.

The district has a policy out for 30-day review regarding the possession and use of medical cannabis on campus by students.

According to the policy, students are not allowed to possess medical cannabis on school grounds. Instead, if they have a valid prescription, a registered caregiver can bring the medical cannabis to school for a student to use but that caregiver must then take the drug with them when they leave.

The policy also states the medical cannabis cannot be administered in dry leaf or plant form, which means smokable medical cannabis is not allowed.

The use of medical cannabis was approved in West Virginia as part of the state's Medical Cannabis Act. As part of the state law, patients under age 18 can obtain a state medical cannabis card if they register with a caregiver who is their parent or legal guardian.

To obtain a medical cannabis card, patients must be diagnosed with a serious medical condition that would qualify them to obtain medical cannabis including cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), epilepsy, terminal illness, chronic or intractable pain and other diagnoses outlined in state code.

While the local policy has yet to be put to a vote by the Raleigh County Board of Education, Price said a state policy is already in place which forbids controlled substances on campus and outlines the punishment should that policy be broken.

These rules are outlined in the West Virginia Manual for Expected Behavior in Safe and Supportive Schools, also known as Policy 4373.

According to this policy, "the principal shall suspend a student from school or from transportation for possession of a controlled substance governed by the Uniform Controlled Substance Act."

Marijuana, which is also referred to as cannabis, is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I substances are defined as "drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's website.

Some students who spoke to The Register-Herald on Friday claimed that the district has been inconsistent with its punishment when it relates to students possessing cannabis on campus.

"We were caught with the same thing (Nate) was caught with and we have not been expelled — I've never been to alternative (school)," said an 11th-grader participating in the walkout.

"What I got was ISS (in school suspension) for four days and a $180 fine," another student said, adding that he was using a cannabis vape pen for recreation while Rhodes, his classmate and friend, was using a cannabis vape to relieve cancer symptoms.

Jazmine Sturgill, a senior from Liberty High School, said she decided to drive to Independence on Friday for the walkout to show support and solidarity.

"I grew up with Nate, I grew up in Midway with him and it's sad because we lost so many of our friends at such a young age and for Miss Hawkins to say he's a distraction, it's heartbreaking," Sturgill said. "He has a few weeks left, and he just wants to live his last few weeks as a normal teenager and she's taken that from him."

Shawn Hawkins is the principal at Independence High. Many students expressed frustration toward Hawkins during the walkout and say she is one of the people preventing Rhodes from returning to school.

The Register-Herald called the school Friday and left a message requesting to speak with Hawkins, but that call was not returned as of press time.

The Register-Herald also reached out to several Raleigh School board members.

Board President Larry Ford responded to a request for comment by sending a text that said, "I am out of town and only learned about the situation from your phone message. I am not able to talk (about) students. Sorry."

Prior to the walkout, several deputies with the Raleigh County Sheriff's Office could be seen stationed outside the front doors of the school.

Lt. Randy White, who works for the sheriff's office as well as the Sophia Police, said he was there to ensure the safety of students after receiving some reports that students were driving recklessly in front of the school.

"I'm not gonna say if I'm for or against (the protest) because that's not my position. I can't do that especially while I'm in uniform, but it's their right to protest," White said. "That's awesome that they're doing this and standing up for what they believe in, but you can't drive reckless because you're gonna kill somebody."