A teacher who admitted to selling drugs to high school students avoided prison after she told a court she was suffering from severe mental health issues when she was filmed smoking cannabis with them.
Lauren Russell faced Sutherland Local Court on Monday after pleading guilty to supplying illegal drugs to students from Lucas Heights Community School in Sydney’s south in late 2021.
The physics teacher, who was also working as the school’s Year 12 Adviser at the time, walked free on Monday, ending a five-month ordeal in court.
The 42-year-old made headlines across the country in February when footage showing her taking a hit from a homemade Gatorade-bottle bong went viral.
In the footage, the American-born mother of three is sitting on a milk crate and looking behind her before a student leans in to light the bong.
Police claimed the teacher had contacted students outside of school hours and supplied them with the drugs between 3pm and 5pm on December 15, 2021.
Russell was arrested at her Beverly Hills home on February 4 and charged with supplying a prohibited drug.
The video went viral days later, but no charges were laid in relation to the video.
DENIAL IN COURT
The teacher did not appear in court for her first appearance following her arrest, but a New South Wales Education spokeswoman confirmed she had been barred from working at the school or contacting students.
Defence lawyer Dev Bhutani appeared on Russell’s behalf via audiovisual link on March 9 and entered a plea of not guilty.
The court was told she would be seeking to have the charge dismissed under the mental health act.
SHOCK GUILTY PLEA
Despite telling the court she had planned to defend the allegations at a hearing in June, Russell entered a plea of guilty to the charge in April.
Russell was supported by her husband on April 27 when she entered the plea.
While she conceded her guilt in the matter, her lawyer told the court they still intended to have the charge thrown out on a mental health basis.
“CATCH UP FOR A SMOKE”
Documents tendered to the court revealed Russell messaged a student and asked them if they wanted to “catch up and have a smoke” on the afternoon of December 15.
She then picked up two minors in her car and drove them to an area of bushland in Menai.
The court was told Russell had “sourced” the cannabis from a 17-year-old former student.
According to court documents, the teacher supplied the two students with cannabis to smoke from their homemade bong.
The trio took turns smoking cannabis through the Gatorade-bottle bong until they were finished, the police facts state.
When Russell drove the pair to Menai Skate Park, documents reveal she told several people she’d smoked weed with the two students.
MENTAL HEALTH APPLICATION
During her mental health hearing, Bhutani told the court there was a casual link between his client’s bipolar disorder and her “out of character” behaviour, which was made worse by excessive drinking and cannabis use.
He said the lithium tablets she was receiving to treat her mental illness put her at risk of a manic episode because the dosage was so low.
“Her bipolar disorder had a hold of her life at the time,” he said.
“She was almost incapable – at these lithium levels – of making cogent, rational and capable decisions.”
Bhutani said the dosage of lithium tablets Russell was on to treat her mental illness was too low, placing her at risk of a manic episode.
He said she had already been experiencing a prolonged period of “acute mania” when she supplied cannabis to her students and acknowledged it was a “breach of trust”.
“It’s a combination of the drinking and cannabis use that exacerbated the manic episodes over the four-month period,” Bhutani said.
Bhutani noted his client’s “unblemished record” and excellent character, which magistrate Stewart said was supported by a “glowing reference” from the parent of a former student.
A police prosecutor opposed the application, emphasising the young age of the students to whom Russell admitted supplying drugs.
On Monday, Russell faced court with the support of her husband, where magistrate Stewart denied the mental health application.
However, the magistrate conceded the former teacher was experiencing a “hypomanic episode” caused by her bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed in 2009 and led to “episodes” in 2011 and 2015.
The latter episode occurred after she had smoked cannabis while overseas with her husband, the court heard.
Meanwhile, the court was told Russell fell into a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption during the Covid lockdown in 2021, and she began smoking cannabis four days prior to supplying to the students.
Stewart said Russell’s moral culpability for the crime was somewhat, but not entirely, diminished.
He told the court it was in the community’s interest not to dismiss the case.
Russell walked free from court on the condition she abstain from illicit drug use and continue to receive treatment for mental illness for at least two years.
The court also imposed an order prohibiting her from having any contact with the students involved in her offending.
Stewart said if Russell continued to abstain from drugs and high levels of alcohol consumption, it was highly unlikely she would re-offend.
“The offender has taken positive steps towards improving her mental health,” the magistrate said.
“I find that she has good prospects of rehabilitation.”
There was no conviction recorded and Russell was ordered to undergo a treatment plan, with the aid of mental health professionals on a Conditional Release Order.
Magistrate Stewart told the court Russell could undergo a court-ordered treatment plan involving ongoing appointments with a psychiatrist, abstinence from cannabis and alcohol and prescribed medication for the bipolar disorder.
While he accepted she was a “dedicated teacher”, the magistrate questioned how neither her husband nor colleagues failed to recognise the near-manic behaviour.
He told the court she was “remorseful” and was highly unlikely to offend.
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