October 17 2013
Patrice J. Lee
Zero tolerance may sound like a good idea.
Recent cases, however, are prompting officials to reconsider rigid rules that hit unwitting student offenders.
Ever so often new cases capture national attention because the unwitting actions of a youngster place his or her future at risk when school zero-tolerance policies against weapons, alcohol, fighting and more are violated, accidentally or on purpose.
In the latest case, a Georgia teen nearly became a convicted felon after he forgot he left fishing knives in his car when he parked it at his school.
Here’s what happened:
Common sense has come to the rescue of Lassiter High (Cobb County) senior Cody Chitwood who made the mistake of forgetting he had some fishing knives in his car when he parked it at school last month.
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 the Cherokee Tribune’s sister paper, 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.
In another public case, a star athlete lost her position on the team and was suspended for being a good Samaritan:
In the case of a teen recently punished by her school for trying to drive a drunk friend home, I find myself firmly siding with the girl and her parents -- and wondering what on Earth the school administrators were thinking.
Two weeks ago, Erin Cox, an honors high school student who lives near Boston, got a call from a friend at a party who was too drunk to drive. Cox went to the party to get her friend, and shortly after she got there, police arrived and arrested a dozen kids for underage drinking, warning 15 others, including Cox, they would get a summons for drinking, according to the Boston Herald.
Even though Cox wasn't drinking and a police officer vouched for her sobriety in a written statement, according to the Herald, her school, North Andover High, charged that she violated its zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol and drug use.
Her punishment? She was demoted from her position as captain of her volleyball team and told she would be suspended for five games.
In both instances because of thorough investigations and common sense on the part of adults (other than school administrators) both students were cleared of wrong doing.
However, this prompts me to question why schools create zero-tolerance policies and their effectiveness.
Zero tolerance policies impose automatic punishments when people violate stated rules. They are meant to deter certain harmful, illegal or inappropriate behavior with no consideration for extenuating circumstances, the individual’s role or other factors. They create hard-line rules that are not subject to the whims, politics or discretion of those in authority. However, too often innocent individuals unwittingly get caught up in their drag nets.
Perhaps it’s time for schools to reconsider these policies. Apparently, there is no credible evidence that they actually deter the behavior they aim to stop. And they become a source of embarrassment for schools when their decisions garner media attention.
In Georgia the DA who dismissed the case is working with a state legislator and others to remedy the rigid law that leaves no room for authorities to use discretion to deal with 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.”
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.
Other states and school districts should take a page from this Georgia DA. Common sense and rules should not be mutually exclusive. A school can be tough on harmful or dangerous behavior but use discretion on deciding how to apply judgments.