Local legislators are saying it’s time to take another look at the state’s “zero tolerance” law on weapons at schools after a Cobb County high school student was arrested last month for having fishing knives in his car.
While Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds dropped the felony charges against Lassiter High senior Cody Chitwood last week, the case was the latest of many in Georgia to spotlight how inflexible some say the law can be, especially for school officials.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jesse Hambrick, who is in charge of the School Resource Officer program, said that as many as 99 percent of weapons found on school grounds result in an arrest.
Still, Hambrick said there is always that 1 percent of cases where a student might accidentally bring a pocket knife to school, realize the mistake and then voluntarily turn it in. In those instances, Hambrick said the law allows the SRO to confiscate the knife, contact the parents and send the student on his or her way.
“In cases where it’s glaringly obvious there’s no criminal intent to commit a crime, we wouldn’t make an arrest,” Hambrick said.
But Douglas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Gordon Pritz said that same student who did the right thing, turned the knife in and wasn’t charged criminally would automatically face disciplinary action by the school system because schools are bound by the state’s “zero tolerance” law.
“Where we struggle as school officials is the law is stated as such that it requires us to take certain actions when certain things happen,” said Pritz. “So it removes our ability sometimes to use some judgment. And when that happens, it can come across as being inflexible.”
District 67 Rep. Micah Gravley (R-Douglasville) said he’s already offered his support to Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), one of the Cobb County legislators working on changing the “zero tolerance” law.
“What we have to do as a Legislature is go in and correct this,” Gravley said.
District 68 Rep. Dusty Highower (R-Carrollton) said he’s heard lots of instances where the “zero tolerance” law and its consequences, be believes, defy common sense.
“Under the “zero tolerance” policy we have heard the story of a young girl getting in trouble for bringing a plastic knife to school to cut a cake she had brought for a classroom party,” said Hightower. “We have heard of the boy who forgot his hunting rifle behind the seat of his truck after a weekend of hunting with his family getting in trouble.
“Zero tolerance” is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but in practice it often makes me wonder why people cannot just use a little judgment and common sense when evaluating a situation.”
District 30 Sen. Mike Dugan (R-Carrollton) also sounded the common sense theme.
“I am generally against ‘zero tolerance’ directives because they tend to take common sense out of the equation,” Dugan said. “Far too often we see a story published where we ask ourselves, ‘What were they thinking?’ Often the action taken was one that was required based off of some inflexible directive. We need to have more discretion to weigh each case on its own merits and decide the appropriate actions from there.”
District 62 Rep. LaDawn Blackett Jones (D-Atlanta) said the “zero tolerance” law “definitely needs to be addressed.” She said lawmakers often only get involved when the impact of “zero tolerance” is felt in their home communities.
“As lawmakers we need to evaluate the effects of these laws when applied to the whole state and act as quickly when it negatively hurts any community not just our own,” said Jones. “I feel confident that the teachers and administrators can make better case-by-case decisions than we as legislators can by making sweeping rules.”
District 66 Rep. Kimberly Alexander (D-Douglasville) said she’s concerned “zero tolerance” is being enforced inconsistently.
“Not only should it be modified, but educators and law enforcement should be held accountable when they utilize the policy to treat one child and not another child,” Alexander said. “For example, some children are being disciplined while other children that violate this policy are not. It must be consistent. If the school is implementing the zero (tolerance) policy on one child, they should do it on all children. If not then, they should be reprimanded and called on the carpet, as in this case in Cobb.
“On the other hand, there are so many policies in school now that are hurting the children rather than helping them such as the zero tolerance law, dress codes and arresting a parent if the child is out more than 10 days and locking students up on campus ... Educators should concentrate on increasing the graduation rate instead of their disciplinary reports.”