A tale of two knives, two different punishments

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::  Originally printed in the September 12, 2013 edition of The Grip. 

Two children prepared for school on Tuesday, Sept. 3 by purposefully packing knives to take with them.  Both were 12-year-old Griffin-Spalding students and were later caught with the knives, but the similarities of their situations end there.

One incident occurred at Atkinson Elementary School, the other at Rehoboth Road Middle School.  At Atkinson, a male student had brought a locked-blade pocket knife to school, while at Rehoboth, a female student took a kitchen paring knife to school in her lunch box.

Also central to the story were two different law enforcement agencies – the Griffin Police Department and the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office – with each responding to an incident.

According to officials of the Griffin Police department, which responded to Atkinson Elementary, the fifth-grade boy with the pocket knife acknowledged he had taken it to school because of a prior incident with another student.

Cpl. Stan Phillips, the responding officer, said the boy reported he took the pocket knife to school because he had been threatened by another student the previous week, and he was afraid.

“According to him [the student], the other little boy was telling him to steal some money from the teacher and when he wouldn’t do it, the other student said he was going to kill him,” Phillips said. “But kids say that kind of thing and don’t really mean it.”

Phillips said his decision to not arrest the boy was made after meeting with the student, his parents, his teacher and Aveory Allen, Atkinson Elementary’s principal.

“The teacher, the principal, no one gave me the impression he was a problem student – a ticking time bomb – nothing but the typical misbehavior,” he said. “For this child, in this situation, having talked to the parents and the little boy, I thought the 10-day suspension was adequate.”

Phillips said the law concerning school weapons incidents do not nullify officer’s discretion, which is what he exercised in the Atkinson case.

“I think there is officer discretion. I think it should be weighed case-by-case, depending on each child,” he said. “I’m not going to go with a zero tolerance policy and say all students must be charged. If it had been a gun, it would have been different.  I know a knife is a weapon, but little boys play with knives.”

However, he did say if he had received different input from the school’s staff, a different decision would have been made.

“If the principal had demanded it and said, ‘We want him charged,’ I wouldn’t have felt that I had any choice but to file charges, because the school was the victim,” he said. “But to lock them up and throw away the key? Come on.”

The discretion of a deputy sheriff resulted in an opposite outcome for the female Rehoboth Middle School student, who was arrested and charged with possession of a weapon at a public school – a felony.

Spalding County Sheriff Wendell Beam, whose office investigated that incident, said the 12-year-old sixth-grader, described as an honors student with no prior disciplinary history, gave no indication she possessed the knife for any reason other than to use it during lunch.

“It appears she had brought the knife to school to peel a peach. The investigation did not reveal that anyone was threatened or that there was any intent to threaten or harm anyone. There’s no indication whatsoever that the little girl was having any problem with any other student at school,” Beam said. “It’s unfortunate that the child brought the knife to school for that purpose, but nevertheless, she brought a weapon to school, and therefore, the charge was made.”

In earlier school weapons incidents, officials were alerted to the infraction by other concerned students. However, in this incident, the realization resulted from what could have been considered a dangerous situation.

“Another student saw the knife, grabbed it from her and began waving it around,” Beam said. “I don’t believe he threatened anyone with it; he was just playing around.”

He said school staff then intervened and the investigative process began. Beam said he was uncertain if the girl’s parent was present as the girl was questioned.

“Her parent was notified and I believe they did make contact with the school resource officer,” he said. “They discussed it with the juvenile and the then they discussed it with the juvenile’s mother at the school.”

Georgia law does not require that a parent be present when a juvenile is questioned as part of a criminal investigation.

Following the girl’s interview, she was transported to the Sheriff’s Office in a deputy’s patrol car.

“She was transported because being the offense it is, there are certain procedures that have to be done at the Sheriff’s Office,” Beam said.

He went on to explain that a student’s age and their understanding of right and wrong are factors used in determining whether charges will be brought against a student.

“In cases like this, that was taken into consideration,” he said.

He went on to say that his office does not have a set standard or policy that outlines how personnel are to address these types of incidents, but are rather viewed on a case-by-case basis, with state law being the standard.

“We just basically go by the law. I’m not saying we have an official policy, but as a standard rule, I would always expect the law to be enforced as it’s written,” Beam said.

Beam reported that the male Rehoboth Road student who had grabbed the knife and waved it around was not arrested and charged with possession of a weapon at a public school.

“The other (male) student who got the knife, I’m told he’s going to face disciplinary action in the school for that,” Beam said.

He did not have further information on why investigators in his office elected not to charge the male student with the same crime as the female student.

When asked about the disparity, Assistant Superintendent Jim Smith reiterated that law enforcement investigations are separate from school disciplinary action.

“That may be what law enforcement determined. Law enforcement is contacted and they make their determination on what they need to do,” Smith said. “The (girl’s) 10-day suspension is just the school’s part. I’m not sure how they (the Sheriff’s Office) came to that. We report to the proper agency, so I’m not sure how they came to that decision.”

Of the four weapons incidents involving five students this year, school officials have released disciplinary information on two children. They are now declining to release the same information on the remaining three students, including information pertaining to the disparity between the Rehoboth Road Middle School knife incident, as well as how it relates to the Atkinson Elementary School incident involving a student of the same age. Ω

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Comments

  1. The Griffin School System does not seem to treat each children fairly. Dr. Jones stated there is a zero tolerance for the school system. If this is true why hasn’t all the children been charged. For example one child carried a knife to cut her peach at lunch she was charged but the other child carried a knife to protect himself was not charged. To me the child who was going to protect himself should have been charged. So the School System does not use zero tolerance at all times like Dr. Jones stated and the law operates in the city and county differently.

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