When 8-year-old Andrew Berry discovered he had accidentally brought his unloaded pellet gun to Newton County Theme School at Ficquett on Monday, he immediately notified his teacher.
He “did the right thing” by turning in the weapon, discreetly, said his mother, Kristy Berry, whose husband serves as a combat flight medic in Afghanistan. “The principal told me [Andrew] handled it the right way,” she said. “So did the police.”
But she said a school resource officer also told her son that he had broken the law. The third-grader was suspended for no less than 10 days for what everyone agrees was an innocent mistake. Andrew is scheduled to appear before a school tribunal on Oct. 31, day seven of his suspension, according to his mother.
“He absolutely did the right thing by reporting it immediately. But a rule was still broken: A gun was brought to school. And there are mandatory consequences for that,” said Newton County schools spokeswoman Sherri Davis-Viniard. “The child was disciplined according to the rules listed very clearly in the student handbook.”
Notifying law enforcement officers after the discovery of a weapon — even a pellet gun — is required under state law, she said.
The boy is not facing any court appearance, his mother said.
Davis-Viniard said the tribunal could also decide to reduce Andrew’s suspension.
Berry said the pellet gun was inadvertently left in her son’s backpack after he had spent the weekend at his grandfather’s house.
“I was fit to be tied,” said her father, Stevie Holt. He said he arrived at his grandson’s school to find that Andrew had already been interrogated, but the school resource officer denied that. “I understand protocol. I believe in zero-tolerance laws, or at least I did,” Holt said.
Andrew is not the first Georgia student victimized by the unintended consequences of zero-tolerance laws designed to combat safety concerns in the nation’s schools.
In January, a Gwinnett County middle-schooler was suspended four days after turning in a pocket knife he found in a backpack that had been given to him as a Christmas present. The seventh-grader, like Andrew Berry, didn’t know he had brought a weapon to school and, when he discovered it, informed his teacher.
Zero-tolerance policies require punishment for violating school rules no matter the extenuating circumstances. They have led to other Georgia students being suspended for everything from kissing a girl on the forehead to bringing a French teacher a gift-wrapped bottle of wine.
State legislators sought to impose some flexibility in school zero-tolerance policies in 2010 with passage of Senate Bill 299, which changed Georgia’s juvenile criminal code to make a first offense a “delinquent act” instead of a felony. The law also gives juvenile court judges more discretion in choosing whether to prosecute minors like Andrew Berry.
Former ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Gerry Weber, who represented a Gwinnett sixth-grader suspended for 10 days because the chain on her Tweety bird wallet violated the school district’s no-weapon policy, said students may be less inclined to do the right thing, as Andrew did, when they see the type of punishment he received.
“The message it sends is dangerous,” Weber said.”The next time, a student who finds a gun may be more likely to just stay silent.”
Meanwhile, Kristy Berry said she wants her son’s record scrubbed clean.
“All we’re asking for is a little common sense,” she said.