Waco Independent School District Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said he is remorseful for his marijuana possession arrest but plans to ask the school board Tuesday for the chance to "redeem" himself.
He said he can use his mistake as an opportunity to warn children about the danger of drugs and “making poor choices,” the superintendent said in an hourlong interview Sunday with the Tribune-Herald.
If the school board allows him to stay, Nelson said he would like to remain in the superintendent position for the rest of his career.
Nelson acknowledged that he was returning from an interview with the Houston ISD school board on March 6, when he was pulled over in Robertson County and arrested on the Class B misdemeanor charge.
He talked behind closed doors with the board about the vacant superintendent position in the state’s largest school district. He said the conversation with the Houston trustees went well, but he informed them he wished to stay in Waco.
A state trooper stopped Nelson that evening on U.S. Highway 190 outside of Hearne, about 55 miles southwest of Waco, for driving in the passing lane.
The trooper smelled marijuana, which gave him cause to search Nelson’s vehicle, and he found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in the passenger seat, according to an arrest affidavit. Nelson said the trooper asked him if he had anything illegal in the car, and Nelson told the trooper he had a small amount of marijuana in the car, enough for about two small joints.
Nelson was booked into the Robertson County Jail in Franklin and released the next day on his own recognizance. He signed a plea agreement with the Robertson County District Attorney’s Office on Friday and paid $500 to enter a 90-day pretrial diversion program. If Nelson goes 90 days without any problems, the charge will be dismissed.
Before he left Houston, Nelson said he stopped at the house of an old friend, and in the course of a conversation he mentioned that he had chronic back pain.
“He asked me if I’d ever tried cannabis,” he said, “and I said that I had not considered that as a remedy.”
Nelson said the friend took out “a small sample” of marijuana, which he smoked at the house. He said he took two small marijuana cigarettes home with him. He said it was “hours later” when he was pulled over, and he was not under the influence at the time.
“I was not doing anything wrong in the vehicle,” he said. “My father is a 38-year retired police officer, and he taught me to always tell the truth.”
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Nelson said he does not defend his decision to try marijuana.
“All forms of marijuana are illegal in Texas,” he said. “I know there’s a debate out there, but as school superintendent, I believe students should have nothing to do with illegal drugs, and I believe staff should not be under the influence while at work.”
Nelson sees an opportunity in his recent arrest to speak with children about the dangers of drugs, poor choices and the friends they choose and how those choices can jeopardize careers and reputations, he said.
“I believe there is a message there,” he said. “I believe the stronger message is that one mistake doesn’t define you. You can move forward if you can accept responsibility for your actions and be honest with yourself about what led to that.”
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Nelson said he had first tried marijuana in college, but it had been years since he smoked it. He said he has never used any other illegal drugs.
“If I was a member of the board, I would be so hurt that our superintendent made this mistake,” he said, “so irritated and disappointed in his poor judgment in putting us as a board in this situation, in this embarrassment. I would also consider how difficult it is to find a quality superintendent.”
Nelson said he does not know of other examples of superintendents who have been given the kind of second chance he is seeking, but he believes good could come out of it.
“It would end up being a story of learning,” he said. “It would be a prime example of how the community supported one its members.”
Nelson started as Waco ISD superintendent in 2017 after serving as superintendent of Laredo ISD.
Meanwhile, the Houston ISD school board has been looking for a new superintendent since September, the Houston Chronicle reported. The board established an April 30 deadline for selecting a new superintendent after former superintendent Richard Carranza left in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City public schools.
The agenda for the March 6 Houston special school board meeting includes an item to interview candidates for the superintendent position. It does not list any specific candidates.
While he was not a formal applicant for the Houston superintendent position, Nelson said the Houston school board was interested in his record at Waco ISD, including the five “transformation zone” schools that were pioneered under his watch, per House Bill 1882 legislation.
Nelson said he indicated to Houston ISD officials that he would pass up the Houston opportunity, and after the interview, his commitment to Waco was “even stronger.” He said if the Waco ISD board allows, he would be happy to spend the rest of his career in his current position.
“I learned from being with another board that something unique is happening in Waco,” he said. “My interest right now is regaining the trust of the Waco ISD community in doing whatever I can do to redeem myself. I want to use this as an opportunity to teach our kids about the dangers of illicit drugs. I own this. I made a mistake, and I need to be held accountable for this mistake and accept the consequences.
“It was a small mistake,” he said, his voice breaking. Nelson paused to gather himself, stifling tears.
“I have to have the chance to make this right,” he said, his voice stronger. “I have to. There’s too much good work that’s been done. My team has supported me through this. And this is not an issue. It would not be an issue coming going forward. I understand I have to be held to a higher standard. I understand there is an expectation of the superintendent of schools, but when you consider the total circumstances here, I should be afforded an opportunity to make it right, with severe consequences.”
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Nelson said he has tremendous pride in being the first black superintendent in Waco, and he wants to continue that legacy. He said he has been studying his family tree, tracing it back to slavery.
“I know how my ancestors got to Texas. I know what they did when they earned their freedom, and I am so humiliated to attach this mistake with my culture,” he said. “Many times my culture feels like we’re being held to a higher standard, that often it’s unfair. I’ve never really played that card, but I can assure you it hurts me to bring this kind of embarrassment to my family, to my culture.”
The conversation Nelson had with his family, particularly with his 14-year-old son, about his arrest presented a difficult challenge for the superintendent. Nelson said he had never been incarcerated before March 6.
“I have a 14-year-old son I want to never interact with illegal drug use,” he said. “That’s why I say going to our kids is going to be a hard conversation. “
Nelson said he believes once people hear the whole story and see his contrition that they will be able to move forward and learn from his mistake, just as his own son found a way to forgive his father. He plans to demonstrate how “contrite and committed” he is to ensuring this never happens again.
The Tribune-Herald on Sunday reported the case of a former teacher’s aide who was asked to resign after she was arrested on a Class B misdemeanor marijuana possession charge, similar to Nelson’s case. Like him, she is also completing a pretrial diversion program, which is expected to result in no jail time and a clear record.
Nelson said that case was different from his in that the teacher’s aide did not have an employment contract. He said if he had reviewed the case he might have given the aide another chance. Nelson said he would encourage the human resources department to review each case individually if he is allowed to remain superintendent.
“What I’m asking for is not special treatment,” he said. “This is what I think should be the practice for people who have no criminal record, people who are cooperative with the police and people who are able to get their prosecution deferred and their case dismissed. Anyone who came to me with the circumstances that I have I would not move so quickly to have them resign or terminated.”
Nelson said he is not concerned about losing his superintendent certification. He said officials with the Texas Education Agency expressed to him they are no longer considering sanctions since he entered the pretrial diversion program.
For now, Nelson must wait for the board of trustees to decide his future. He only has to wait until Tuesday.
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