Chairwoman Kathleen Angelucci and board member David Morgan were absent.
House Bills 826 and 60, signed in that order by Gov. Nathan Deal earlier this year, outline conflicting definitions for what the law considers a weapon, said Clem Doyle, attorney for the school board.
The overlap created confusion for district officials attempting to nail down how the school district will implement the new policies.
“It’s very accurate to say the legislative attempts to change this protocol did not quite succeed because of these conflicts,” Doyle said.
Common sense for weapons in school
H.B. 826 tweaked the “zero-tolerance policy” that has long dictated the way schools deal with weapons on campus so a student who accidentally leaves a fishing knife in his car, for example, isn’t automatically arrested and expelled. One of the ways it did so was to pare down the long list of items legally considered a weapon under the previous law, which had included “any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, or other knife having a blade of two or more inches … any bat, club, or other bludgeon-type weapon.” Those are no longer included in H.B. 826.
Yet H.B. 60, nicknamed “the guns everywhere” law, kept the previous law’s lengthy definition for what constitutes a weapon.
The seemingly contradictory definition of weapons found in the two laws means the protocol for dealing with students who have weapons won’t change in the way H.B. 826 intended it to, said Ron Storey, head of school district’s public safety department.
Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R- west Cobb), helped bring H.B. 826 through the state Senate.
“Most of the time, a zero-tolerance bill quite often becomes a zero-common sense bill,” Tippins said. “You tremendously limit the discretion that administrators have.”
Tippins, chairman of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, said the mere possession of items on campus that appeared on the zero-tolerance list could lead to a student being charged with a felony.
The new policy aimed to narrow the scope of “true deadly weapons” and allow administrators to factor intent into whether they contacted police regarding students who brought such items to school.
“It really did not limit the options as far as punishments,” Tippins said.
Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) agreed H.B. 826 was intended to allow “common sense” to guide the way schools deal with weapons on campus.
While H.B. 826 was intended to give school officials discretion in cases such as the student with the forgotten fishing knife, Wilkerson said he thought the law didn’t soften gun policies when he cast his vote in the House’s unanimous approval of the bill.
“That’s not the understanding we had in committee,” he said. “There was no intent whatsoever to change any rules and laws as they pertain to firearms on school grounds.”
It was only after the bill had cleared the Legislature that some people began to interpret the law as lifting the prohibition on firearms, Wilkerson said.
H.B. 60, the “guns everywhere” law, allows licensed gun holders to carry weapons inside bars, government buildings, places of worship and school board meetings.
Doyle said H.B. 60, which takes precedence over H.B. 826 as the most recent bill to be signed, kept the old, broader definition of weapons found in the zero-tolerance policy.
“The major change that H.B. 60 brings is about how we deal with central office buildings, because nothing is really changing in schools as far as H.B. 60 is concerned,” said Chris Ragsdale, interim superintendent for Cobb schools.
One of the places Safe Carry Protection Act allows licensed gun owners to bring their firearms is a school board meeting.
The law does give the school board discretion in permitting firearms in a board room, allowing the board to ban guns if they post “appropriate signage” and have officers present for meetings, said Ragsdale.
He said school officials have met with the district attorney’s office and the county solicitor general’s office to ensure “everybody is on the same page when it comes to enforcing the law.”
“At a practical level at the local school, really nothing has changed,” said John Adams, the county’s chief human resources officer.
Officials emphasized that all firearms are still banned from schools.
David Banks, who represents the area that includes Lassiter and Pope high schools, expressed his concern that parents are in the dark about what the new laws entail.
“I think we’ve all had emails from parents who are concerned with what effect H.B. 826 and H.B. 60 will have on schools,” he said.
Banks recommended the board draft a statement clarifying its “stance on safety” and post it to every school’s website.
“One clarification I would like to make is that the word ‘stance’ implies that we have a choice in how we look at this,” Ragsdale said, adding he did not want to give the public the impression that the district had any alternatives to implementing the state law.
On days when the school board plans to meet, signage will be posted in the school district’s headquarters off Glover Street in Marietta to inform the public of the no-gun policy school officials hope to establish for meetings, Ragsdale said.
He said discussions with the district attorney and the solicitor general helped him develop the language of the planned signs and the overall board meeting policy on firearms.
Two police officers — one inside and one outside the board room — will serve as “screening” for those entering the meeting area.
“We’re certainly not searching people (or) patting them down,” Ragsdale said of the police presence.
Wilkerson said he did not agree with the school board’s approach.
“As far as the school board meeting, I think there is some confusion,” he said.
“Putting up signage is not sufficient according to H.B. 60.”
According to Wilkerson, licensed gun owners can carry their firearm into any government building as long as there is not a metal detector or an officer asking them to turn out their pockets and empty their bags under the new law.
“If they don’t do that type of search, then license carriers are allowed to carry (firearms) into that room,” Wilkerson said of H.B. 60.
In a statement released July 1 — the same day the law went into effect — Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said every city government facility in Atlanta where security guards screen entrances will continue to ban firearms.
Reed responded to passage of the new law by saying “there is no place for firearms in a city facility.”
Ragsdale said another major issue the school district must address is how to regulate firearms in its central offices, especially past the entry point of a “restricted access area.”
“Because we’re utilizing access control badges to enter into the office area, we are able to say we are not going to allow firearms into those office areas,” he said.
Doyle encouraged the board members to talk to their legislators to see how the state plans to address its “legislative snafu” when it reconvenes in January.