A teacher who admitted to selling drugs to high school students told a court that she suffered from serious mental health problems when she was filmed drinking cannabis with them.
Lauren Russell faces Sutherland Local Court on Monday after pleading guilty to supplying illegal drugs to students at Lucas Heights Community School south of Sydney in late 2021.
The physics teacher, who was then also serving as the school’s Year 12 advisor, was set free on Monday, ending his five-month examination in court.
The 42-year-old made headlines across the country in February when footage of her taking a hit with a homemade Gatorade-bottle bong went viral.
In the footage, the US-born mother of three is sitting on a milk crate and looking behind a student before lighting up the bong as she leans in.
The police claimed that the teacher had approached the students outside school hours and supplied them with drugs between 3 pm and 5 pm on December 15, 2021.
Russell was arrested on February 4 from his Beverly Hills home and charged with supplying a banned drug.
The video went viral a few days later, but no allegations were made regarding the video.
denial in court
The teacher did not appear in court for her first appearance since her arrest, but a New South Wales Education spokesperson confirmed that she was barred from working at the school or contacting students.
Defense lawyer Dev Bhutani appeared on behalf of Russell via audiovisual link on March 9 and filed a plea of not guilty.
The court was told that it would seek quashing of the charge under the Mental Health Act.
shock guilty plea
Despite telling the court that he planned to defend the charges at a hearing in June, Russell pleaded guilty to the charge in April.
Russell was supported by her husband when she filed the petition on April 27.
While he admitted his guilt in the case, his lawyer told the court that he still intended to drop the charge on grounds of mental health.
“Catch up for a smoke”
Documents submitted to the court showed that Russell messaged a student asking them if they wanted to “catch up and smoke” on the afternoon of December 15.
She then picked up the two minors in her car and took them to an area of bushland in Mainai.
The court was told that Russell had “sourced” the cannabis from a 17-year-old former student.
According to court documents, the teacher supplied cannabis to two students to smoke from their homemade bongs.
According to police facts, the trio smoked cannabis through Gatorade-bottle bongs until they were exhausted.
When Russell took the pair to Menai Skate Park, documents show that he told several people that he smoked weed with two students.
mental health application
During his mental health hearing, Bhutani told the court that there was a casual link between his client’s bipolar disorder and his “out of character” behavior, which was made worse by excessive drinking and cannabis use.
He said he was receiving lithium pills to treat his mental illness, which put him at risk of manic because the dose was so low.
“Her bipolar disorder had taken hold of her life at the time,” he said.
“She was almost incapable – at these lithium levels – of making sound, rational and competent decisions.”
Bhutani said the dose of lithium tablets used to treat Russell’s mental illness was too low, which put him at risk of becoming manic.
She said she was already experiencing a long period of “acute mania” when she supplied cannabis to her students and admitted it was a “breach of trust”.
“It is a combination of drinking and cannabis use that has exacerbated manic episodes over a four-month period,” Bhutani said.
Bhutani noted his client’s “immaculate record” and outstanding character, which Magistrate Stewart said was supported by a “glaring reference” from a former student’s parents.
A police prosecutor opposed the application, stressing the young age of the students to whom Russell admitted to supplying drugs.
On Monday, Russell, with the support of her husband, faced court, where Magistrate Stewart denied the mental health application.
However, the magistrate held that the former teacher was experiencing “hypomanic episodes” because of her bipolar disorder, which was diagnosed in 2009 and caused “episodes” in 2011 and 2015.
The latter incident happened after she had consumed cannabis with her husband abroad, the court heard.
Meanwhile, the court was told that in 2021 during the Covid lockdown, Russell fell into a pattern of excessive alcohol consumption, and began drinking cannabis four days before it was supplied to the students.
Stewart said Russell’s moral responsibility for the crime was somewhat less, but not wholly, less.
He told the court that it was in the interest of the community not to dismiss the case.
Russell cleared the court on condition that she abstain from illicit drug use and continue treatment for mental illness for at least two years.
The court also imposed an order barring him from having any contact with the students involved in his humiliation.
Stewart said that if Russell continues to abstain from drugs and high levels of alcohol consumption, it is highly unlikely that she will commit a crime again.
“The offender has taken positive steps towards improving his mental health,” the magistrate said.
“I think he has good prospects for rehabilitation.”
There was no conviction and Russell was ordered on a conditional release order to undergo a treatment plan with the assistance of mental health professionals.
Magistrate Stewart told the court that Russell could undergo a court-ordered treatment plan that included an ongoing appointment with a psychiatrist, abstinence from cannabis and alcohol, and prescribed medication for bipolar disorder.
While she admitted that she was a “dedicated teacher”, the magistrate questioned how neither her husband nor colleagues failed to recognize the nearly manic behavior.
She told the court that she was “repentant” and was very unlikely to be offended.