MARIETTA, Ga. -- The top prosecutor in Cobb County says it's time for Georgia to put an end to the no-excuses, "zero tolerance" weapons ban in public schools.
District Attorney Vic Reynolds believes state law should be changed in order to give students a break when, for example, they forget they have something like a pocket knife in their backpack, or maybe a hunting knife locked in their car in the parking lot.
As it is, just about every school year, there are students across Georgia who are suspended or expelled and convicted of felonies because of innocent mistakes like that, not because they were trying to harm anyone.
Reynolds is going to ask the state legislature to re-write the zero tolerance weapons ban, to give police and school administrators more control over which violations should be dismissed, and which ones should be handled within the school system -- on a case by case basis -- instead of having to throw the book at every student, with handcuffs and suspension/expulsion and jail and felony records, for even the smallest violation.
"There has to be some discretion, some wiggle room built into these laws," Reynolds said Thursday, "to where an administrator, if he or she knows the kid, knows he's a good kid, does well in school, hasn't been in trouble, [and the kid] comes to an administrator, says, 'Oh by the way, I inadvertently left this small knife in my backpack from camping trips,' or whatever, they have some room to do something besides saying, 'Lock him up.'"
But school administrators have always been the biggest supporters of "zero tolerance." They say, for example, a bad kid could grab the knife that a good kid accidentally brings to school, and stab somebody. So they are eager to send the message that even a tiny mistake will be punished like a big crime. No excuses and never any exceptions.
In a Gwinnett County case in 2012, a 13-year-old student had just been given a backpack by his aunt; she had bought it at a yard sale. While the boy was at school he discovered there was a one-and-a-half inch pocket knife in one of the backpack's pockets. He immediately gave the knife to his teacher. He was punished for possessing a weapon at school, receiving a four-day, in-school suspension.
The school system's spokesman, Jorge Quintana, said then that that is not an example of "zero tolerance." Quintana said administrators took into consideration the circumstances and gave the boy a lighter punishment than he might have received.
That sends a message to the rest of the student body, he said in 2012.
"That is telling other students that we're trying to keep their school safe and that we're trying to keep them safe at school."
Quintana said Friday that Gwinnet County does not have a policy of "zero tolerance," but administrators evaluate each violation on its merits and come up with a punishment that is appropriate to the violation.
Reynolds said that over the next several weeks he is going to work with some legislators from Cobb County to draft some proposed changes in the law, and then try to put the revisions to a vote in the legislature early next year.
"Certainly, based on what we've seen around campuses, the horrific incidents of violence, nobody wants even the remote chance of that happening," Reynolds said. "All we're trying to do is to make sure that, in the end, as with any law, there's some level of common sense exhibited."
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