Twice in recent weeks students at Cobb high schools have fallen afoul of the system’s heavy-handed enforcement of the state’s “zero-tolerance” law. Both now face severe punishment for apparent violations of that law that don’t meet “the laugh test.”
Unfortunately, there’s nothing funny about either case.
The first involved Allatoona High School student Andrew Williams, 18, arrested on a felony weapons charge for having a pocket knife in the console of his car while it was parked on campus. It was not an ordinary knife, but an EMT rescue knife he kept with his parents’ permission in case he ever got in a wreck and needed to cut off his seatbelt. In fact Williams had been in a serious wreck in February and had helped to pull his friends from a vehicle he thought was about to explode.
If found guilty of carrying a weapon in a school safety zone, he could face two to 10 years behind bars and a fine of up to $10,000. He could also face expulsion, he says.
The second case involves Lassiter High senior Cody Chitwood, 17, an avid fisherman who still had his fishing poles and tackle box in his car from a fishing outing a few days before. Lassiter officials ordered a random K-9 search of the student parking lot Sept. 17 and the dog apparently picked up the scent of black powder from Chitwood’s car, which still had some leftover July Fourth fireworks in the trunk. The full-car search of his vehicle that followed found four knives, all of them fishing-related, he said. Chitwood is also facing two to 10 plus the fine, and was suspended 10 days from school.
Both boys’ families have hired attorneys to fight the charges — and who can blame them?
GEORGIA passed its zero-tolerance law against weapons on school campuses in the 1990s and has updated and strengthened it since then. It bans knives in addition to guns — and baseball bats as well.
The passage of “zero tolerance” laws made for great headlines for politicians, but their effect has been to create a one-size-fits-all approach to punishing violations of that law. Someone who inadvertently leaves a small knife or tool in his car at school at least theoretically faces the same punishment as the person who brings a loaded AK-47 with extra clips.
Whatever happened to the concept that the punishment should fit the crime? Or that a suspect must have criminal intent to be guilty of a crime?
And whatever happened to good-old common sense? Students are sometimes going to trip up and accidentally violate school policies. That is to be expected. What’s also expected — and what also used to be the case — was that school officials and school boards would sort through such cases and weed out the “accidents” from those motivated by malicious intent, and then mete out punishment accordingly.
But thanks to the zero-tolerance approach, such administrators and boards effectively have their hands tied — or claim to. Such laws too often offer a way for those decision-makers to duck from having to make tough decisions and “judgment calls.” Yet that is supposedly why we elect and appoint people to these well-paid administrative offices — to make those judgments. Otherwise, why bother?
In the case of the two Cobb teens in question, the potential punishment far outweighs the seriousness of their alleged offenses.
Common sense tells us that the Cobb school board should go easy on both of them. As a recent story noted in the MDJ, illegal gang activity is endemic in every one of the county’s public high schools. Yet the school board is poised to throw the book at two teens guilty of doing nothing worse than what nearly every boy used to do a generation or so ago — carry a pocketknife. And yes, to school.
Moreover, if the school system is determined to press these cases to the letter of the law, does it also plan to apply it to parents dropping their children off and picking them up each day? Are their cars going to be searched as well? If Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa, Board Chairman Randy Scamihorn and the rest of the school board are going to be consistent in their application of the law, they have no other choice.
The state Legislature obviously needs to re-examine this law in the coming session. Cobb legislators should take the lead in this effort, considering that two high-profile cases have recently happened here. And the Cobb school system needs to do what it hasn’t done so far in these cases — that is, apply some common sense.