Georgia’s Zero Tolerance law on weapons at school is missing a key component, some lawmakers, prosecutors and judges say: common sense.
The one-size-fits-all remedy appears to give local school districts and police little discretion in cases that don’t always reflect criminal behavior, legal and public safety experts say.
The limitations of the law have prompted some to call for changes after two recent cases involving high school students.
Last month, two Cobb County students were arrested within weeks of each other after police found knives in their cars parked on school grounds. The law mandates that both students be charged with felonies but Cobb prosecutors say the cases were harmless.
In one case, 17-year-old Cody Chitwood, an avid fisherman and senior at Lassiter High School, had filet knives in his fishing tackle box in the trunk of his car.
Allatoona High School senior Andrew Williams, 18, was found to have a three-inch Emergency Medical Technician rescue knife in his car that he’d bought earlier this year after surviving a wreck.
Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said Chitwood’s charges would be dropped and his record expunged once he completed a pretrial diversion program the teen’s attorney agreed to.
“I wanted to make sure this kid had a chance to not only dismiss this case, but to make it go away,” Reynolds said, noting that Williams likely will see a similar outcome. “This should end favorably for the young man.”
Cobb County Public Schools officials did not return repeated calls for comment for this story.
Still critics of the law are speaking out.
“There’s no criminal intent here. It doesn’t make sense. This is example of what I call ‘zero tolerance is zero intelligence’,” said Clayton County’s Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske who has testified before Congress and written numerous articles on the subject. “
National radio talk-show host and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee turned Chitwood’s case into a national cause celebre once it drew the ire of outdoor enthusiasts and caught his attention.
“Zero tolerance shouldn’t mean zero common sense,” Huckabee said in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “He had it locked in a tackle box in a car.”
Sen. Fran Millar, a member of Georgia’s senate education committee, said state laws give local school districts plenty of discretion when it comes to handling situations like this.
“If it’s not a gun, the locals have the flexibility as to what the punish should be,” Millar said. “I wouldn’t think a kid would have to go to jail for it.”
The zero tolerance policy emerged in 1994 in accordance with the federal Gun-Free School Act after several school shootings and was created to thwart potential threats. But in a state like Georgia where hunting and fishing define southern culture, the law is, as one district attorney calls it “absurd.”
While Cobb schools appear to follow the letter of the law, other counties have assumed more control over how they handle students who appear to have unknowingly crossed the line.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter says zero-tolerance statutes “create injustices because they don’t give administrators, prosecutors or police any discretion in determining where the threat to the schools starts and ends,” Porter said. “You can do that with consequences. But once you bring the criminal system into the situation that changes.”
Porter said Gwinnett’s school district “claims to have a zero tolerance policy, but I can show you case after case where kids that have been found with weapons haven’t been prosecuted. They were handled within the schools.”
Such was the case when school police found a machete inside a locked tool box in a car belonging to a student who ran a landscaping business, he said.
In Clayton County, school and police officials work with the juvenile justice system “to reduce school arrests on things like this,” Teske said.
Clayton schools spokesman Charles White said the district still adheres to the zero-tolerance law but the Referral Reduction Protocol gives the district more discretion.
“While we do take action, how we respond is tempered by our desire to keep the children in school and continue their learning process,” White said.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippens (R- West Cobb), who chairs the Senate Education and Youth committee, said he once inadvertently sent his own daughter to school with a vehicle carrying a shotgun and pistol soon after the law was enacted, Tippins said he understands full well what’s at stake.
“She said they needed something to pull a float in a parade and I told her to just take my truck,” the avid hunter said of his now-adult daughter. “It was bird hunting season. She didn’t even know the guns were in the truck, but she could’ve been charged with a felony.”
Tippins said he quickly took her another truck. But as he reflects on that episode and recent ones, he said lawmakers must revisit the statute.
“You’re going to have to look at the definition of a weapon (in the law), and the level of threat involved,” he said. “If it’s a knife in the car versus a knife in a kid’s hand that he’s putting to someone’s throat, those are a two very different circumstances.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com