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Update: Teacher Under Fire For Hemp Presentation

Thursday, 11 July 1996

Donna Cockrel, the fifth grade school teacher who brought Hollywood actor and hemp businessman Woody Harrelson to her class to discuss industrial hemp approximately one month ago, is under fire from both parents and school officials who have voiced strong opposition to her actions. Recently, the award-winning teacher was informed by the Simpsonville Elementary School Board that she is being investigated because of complaints that followed Harrelson's visit.

Audrey Yeager, the DARE officer for the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, was one of Cockrel's most outspoken critics. "Everybody says hemp and marijuana are not the same thing, but they are; they're both illegal and it was being promoted to 10 and 11-year-old kids," she told camera crews from the television show "American Journal." "I am terribly against it."

Despite the criticism, Cockrel adamantly defended her actions and maintained that Harrelson's presentation related directly to her curriculum. "I still believe what I did in the classroom was positive," said Cockrel who participates in a state program known as Environment in the Classroom. She said that industrial hemp, as well as kenaf, soybeans and other alternatives to growing tobacco are frequently discussed in her class. "I believe in myself. My students believe in me. If I'm not allowed to teach the truth to students, I'd rather quit teaching."

Cockrel further added that she believed Harrelson -- who was adorned in hemp clothing for the occasion -- was just "showing what a product could be, not promoting it." Shelby County School Superintendent Leon Mooneyhand acknowledged that Cockrel is being investigated, but failed to indicate how long the investigation may take. "I am looking into the matter as I would follow up on any matter that got this level of concern by staff, parents, and community." Mooneyhand was reluctant to speculate about what sanctions, if any, may be taken against Cockrel, but said that her job was not in jeopardy.

In the past, Cockrel has been recognized and awarded for enthusiasm in the classroom. In a 1992 magazine article, The New York Times called her "a dynamo [with] ... boundless energy who's geared toward change."

Harrelson, who is an ardent proponent of industrial hemp and is part owner of a California company that specializes in hemp-based clothing, was in town to speak at an international conference on industrial hemp in Lexington. He was arrested in Kentucky two days after speaking to Cockrel's class for planting four seeds of industrial hemp in an orchestrated protest to bring attention to the differences between hemp and marijuana.

For more information, please contact the office of Simon Halls at (212) 957-0707 or the Colorado Hemp Initiative Project (CO-HIP) at (303) 784-5632. Press releases regarding Harrelson's arrest are available on the Internet at The Hempstead Company website. Their website may be linked from the Hemp Industries Association homepage at: http://thehia.org/". "American Journal" featured a segment on the Simpsonville controversy on July 10, 1996.