Under Georgia’s zero-tolerance law for weapons on school campuses, the young man was summarily arrested and charged with a felony because authorities are given no discretion by the law.
The story, first reported by this newspaper, was picked up by other news media, heightening concern over this glaring example of unintended consequences.
The injustice was clear to Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds who told the Marietta Daily Journal on Tuesday he had agreed to a request from Chitwood’s attorney, Joel Pugh, to place the teenager in a pretrial diversion program. After he completes it, the case against him will be dismissed and expunged from his record. “I agreed to make sure he would have nothing in his record where it would affect him in the future,” Reynolds said, aware that a clean record will enable Chitwood to follow through on his plan to enter college and enlist in the U.S. Air Force.
DA Reynolds also expects to make a decision very soon in a similar recent case, that of Allatoona High senior Andrew Williams, who was arrested and charged with a felony under the zero-tolerance law because he had a pocket knife in the console of his car parked on campus. There’s no indication that Williams had any sort of illegal intentions, and this is another opportunity for the district attorney to show the common sense he exhibited in the Chitwood case.
Even better for the school children of Cobb and other counties in Georgia, Reynolds (1) is not a fan of zero-tolerance laws, and (2) is working with state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) and others to remedy the rigid law that leaves no room for discretion by authorities regardless of the circumstances and threatens to ruin the lives of youngsters who unwittingly violate the law.
The DA has the vantage point of a parent. He said, “Having to raise two teenagers myself, it concerns me these kids can get jammed up on things because these laws don’t allow for any mitigating circumstances.”
Reynolds also approaches the problem with the insights of a former police officer. “You don’t check your common sense at the door when you get a badge and a gun,” he said, pointing out that police officers want to use their common sense, “but you can’t do it when you have a zero-tolerance law.”
The district attorney has already researched laws in other states and says Texas legislation provides statutory language that he believes will be more appropriate for Georgia. He wants legislators to take a hard look at the existing Georgia law “and see if they want it to stay the way it is.” Here in Cobb, the news coverage of the Chitwood and Williams cases has spurred several other lawmakers in addition to Tippins to work toward fixing the zero-tolerance law.
As Reynolds said of his collaborating with Sen. Tippins, “we’re just trying to put a little horse sense back in the law.” It will be a long-overdue reprieve for Georgia school children who, with an innocent mistake, can face the full and unjust force of zero tolerance.