Zero tolerance does not equal standard disciplinary measures

SHEILA A. MATHEWS ::: Originally printed in the Sept. 12 edition of The Grip

In light of the recent rash of weapons brought to school by students, many in the Griffin-Spalding community are wondering what the phrase “zero tolerance” actually means in terms of policy and procedure within the school system.

Student handbooks define zero tolerance in the student code of conduct section of student handbooks.  The definition states: “Zero Tolerance: There will be consequences for serious drug, weapon, and youth gang/hate group offenses on school property or at a school activity, function or event. The school system will be proactive. Each individual case will be reviewed.”

Local school officials say they view the term zero tolerance not as a carved-in-stone policy, but rather a concept.

“I think it comes from years ago, but it’s not a formal policy,” said Griffin-Spalding County School System Superintendent Dr. Curtis Jones.    “We have a policy for weapons; we have a policy for drugs, but we don’t’ have a policy entitled zero tolerance. It’s a concept.”

He said the concept is based on the system’s commitment to formally respond to each and every incident in which a student is in possession of a weapon on school grounds.

“Zero tolerance is correct as far as it’s going to be addressed; it’s not within the principals’ discretion to decide not to do anything,” he said. “We have zero tolerance – we’re going to follow through with what our discipline handbook says.”

However, he said there is no policy outlining specific disciplinary measures that must be meted out for such infractions.

“We have a disciplinary matrix with progressive discipline,” Jones said, describing it as an incremental approach. “For us, zero tolerance means we’re going to look to our disciplinary matrix and determine if a policy has been violated, and move forward.”

The GSCSS discipline matrix ranges from Level  I, which covers minor acts of misconduct to Level IV – the most serious acts of misconduct. Possession of a weapon on school grounds is considered a Level IV offense.

As the policy now stands, the policy gives no consideration for why a student has an object that is classified as a weapon on school grounds, and the student’s intended use is inconsequential.

“It really doesn’t matter what kind of knife it is. The law says you cannot bring a knife to school. We’ll provide what you need at school, so I don’t really get into what kind of knife it is,” he said before further elaborating on the system’s policy. “Whether it’s a Boy Scout knife, a pocket knife, a butter knife, a water gun or a broken water gun, it doesn’t matter. All of those are illegal and are not to be brought to school. It brings discredit to that student and their family.”

According to the Disciplinary Handbook, a weapon is specifically considered to be “a knife, machete, razor, ice pick, explosive, loaded cane, sword cane, or firearms, including pistol, rifle, shotgun, pellet gun, BB gun or other objects that reasonably can be considered a weapon including but not limited to objects that appear to be weapons and may be possessed, handled, distributed, or transmitted in a manner indicating that they are in fact weapons.”

Although the weapons policy applies to students of all grade levels, not all disciplinary measures are used throughout the system, as elementary students, regardless of age, face lesser degrees of potential punishment that do students of secondary schools, as expulsion is at this time, not an option.

“I think you know that Georgia law currently requires we have an alternative school setting for students in grades 6 through 12,” Jones said. “The law has no requirement for an alternative school setting for elementary students.”

He explained that at one time, the GSCSS did have a program called C&C, which was something like an alternative school for the earliest grade levels.   However, that has not been functioning for a number of years. With no program of that nature in place, students may not be expelled from the school system.

Asked if they believe it may be necessary to reconsider the disciplinary matrix as it applies to the elementary grades due to an increasing number of children who are perpetrating infractions at younger ages than in years past, Jones referenced the former C&C program when he said, “The board may decide that’s something we need to look at and I may decide that’s something we need to consider, but I try to remember from the lessons we’ve learned.” Ω

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