More than three years ago, then-Gov. Sonny Perdue signed Senate Bill 299 that was supposed to curb abuse of zero tolerance discipline policies. Perdue said, “This is common sense legislation that gives local systems discretion in disciplining students. No child should be kicked out of school for accidentally bringing a fishing knife and upon discovering it, reporting it promptly to school officials.”
State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur), sponsor of SB 299, asserted, “This legislation brings common sense to the all-or-nothing approach that school officials use to discipline kids under zero tolerance policies.” Jones pushed for the law after public outrage over a 14-year-old Morgan County student’s arrest for voluntarily turning in a fishing knife to his principal in 2009.
When SB 299 was signed in 2010, the state Senate news release said it would make “allowances for students who commit infractions without any intent to harm others. The legislation changes Georgia’s juvenile criminal code to make a first offense equal to a delinquent act, rather than a designated felony. Now, when a student commits an infraction, juvenile court judges can take the circumstances into account before automatically prosecuting them, giving the judges more discretion.”
Unfortunately, the “common sense” legislation missed the mark insofar as affecting actions by school administrators. Two years after the law was enacted, an 8-year-old Newton County student accidentally took his unloaded pellet gun to school and immediately, voluntarily told his teacher. The principal and the police said he handled it right — but he was suspended for no less than 10 days. No common sense showed up in that case.
In the past two weeks, two Cobb high school students have been arrested and charged with felony offenses because knives were found in their parked cars on school grounds. Cody Chitwood, 17, a Lassiter High senior, made the mistake of leaving fishing tackle and knives in his car. Now he’s charged with carrying a weapon in a school safety zone. It’s the same story for Allatoona High student Andrew Williams, 18, who had a pocket knife in the console of his car. He was arrested, charged with a felony, suspended and faces possible expulsion from school.
If there is any common sense anywhere in these actions, will someone please enlighten me? These teens did not attack anyone or threaten anyone. They did not have any weapon on their persons. Their violation of the zero tolerance law apparently was unintentional, the very kind of situation SB 299 supposedly would fix.
It makes no sense for these young men to be branded with felony charges and criminal records, and for their families to have to hire lawyers to seek justice and hope for the best in court.
Georgia’s law must be amended to allow school authorities discretion to avoid automatic over-the-top, excessive punishment in cases of unintentional violations. That’s common sense. Blind zero tolerance is not.