Superintendent to administrators: Apply upper level of discipline matrix to weapons infractions

zero tolerance

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::  Originally printed in the September 26, 2013 edition of The Grip.

Following the submission of Open Records requests to the Griffin-Spalding County School System and the Spalding County Sheriff’s Office, additional information is now available regarding the Sept. 3 Rehoboth Middle School incident in which two students were allegedly in possession of a knife on campus.

According to Spalding County Sheriff Wendell Beam, whose office was notified of the incident as is required by state law, the 12-year-old female student brought the paring knife with a four-inch blade to school in her lunch box. The second student involved was a male, whose age has not been released. His involvement consisted of going into the female student’s lunchbox and retrieving the knife, which he then played with, swinging it around, Beam said.

Superintendent Dr. Curtis Jones has referenced the school system’s policy as one of zero tolerance for weapons on school grounds, but emphasized that the policy does not equate to identical disciplinary measures for similar incidents, or even different students involved in the same incident.

That practice was evidenced in the Rehoboth Road Middle School incident, as the two students received disparate disciplinary measures.

The Grip has learned that the male student who voluntarily took possession of the knife in the lunchroom received a three-day in-school suspension, while the female student received an immediate ten-day suspension pending a disciplinary hearing or tribunal that policy required officials to conduct within ten school days. The outcome of that hearing was an additional ten-day out of school suspension, for a total of 20 days.

In a summary of the girl’s disciplinary hearing, Tom Ison, the hearing officer, explained the basis of his decision.

He acknowledged she has “an excellent academic and behavioral record,” and that the school administrator and school resource officer testified that she “does not represent a danger to others at school.” However, he stated the girl committed an offense that could have harmed others at school, which was also a violation of the law.

Ison reported that she had previously received a copy of the Parent/Student Handbook that was reviewed in class before being sent home for parental signature.

“It is difficult to believe that with all the publicity from different news media and the student’s interaction with the student’s peers that the student did not know that having this knife at school was prohibited by the school and by the law,” Ison wrote in his findings.

In a subsequent interview, Jones said the different levels of punishment were reasonable under the circumstances.

“What I will tell you is that the other student , the male student as you called him, did not come to a tribunal, so I’m sure his punishment is less that this (the female student’s). So, I don’t know the details, but I’m not at this point convinced that the other student who did not go to a tribunal, I don’t know that the accusation that he used the knife to threaten another student is valid,” Jones said. “If they took it out and handled it, they need to be held accountable for their actions, but one student did bring it to school for whatever reason, and if that had not happened, we would not be having this conversation. In my mind, the student who took it out of the lunch box and picked it up is not the same as making a conscious decision to bring it to school.”

He said there is precedence for the different levels of punishment meted out in the Rehoboth Road Middle School incident.

“I will tell you we’ve had that situation in the past, where a student had a knife of the bus and it was passed around. The student who brought it to school received a different punishment than the others who handled it,” he said. “There’s a difference in bringing a weapon to school and handling it, but we don’t want either.”

In his report, Ison also referenced the fact that the female student did not voluntarily turn the knife over to school personnel, but it remains uncertain if that would have altered the outcome.

“Times change, and based upon the circumstances, we’re going to evaluate each incident carefully. Prior to the recent rash (of weapons incidents), the teacher would have been required to report it to law enforcement, but the administrator may have determined not to exercise disciplinary measures, or to administer on the low end of the disciplinary matrix,” Jones said. “The latest guidance I’ve given to administrators is that after this rash of weapons violations, we’re not only going to report it to law enforcement, but we’re going to be on the upper end of the disciplinary matrix, at least for the immediate future.”

When asked if he views the male student’s three-day in-school suspension as being on the upper end of the disciplinary matrix, Jones said, “No, I would not. That’s not the upper end of it in this situation. So, the rule was broken. The question then becomes what was the motivation? Until you understand what the student was doing and why, and that’s what the administration is to determine.”

Jones was then informed of Beam’s statement that said his office’s investigation revealed the female student had no motivation for bringing the knife to school other than to utilize it to peel and slice her peach, and that the girl did not equate the paring knife with a weapon.

“Her motivation was to bring a weapon to school. Her motivation was to bring a knife to school,” Jones replied. “There was a decision made to put it inside her lunch box and a decision made to bring it to school. To me, the decision to cut a peach was secondary. It could have been sliced at home.”

As a further example to illustrate his point regarding student motivation, he said, “You may not equate a toy gun with a real gun, but you can’t bring that toy gun to school. You don’t know how other people are going to react and what other actions may result.”

Jones then said he supports Ison’s decision, as well as that of Rehoboth Road Middle School principal Lindy Scott in opting to administer a lesser punishment to the male student.

“I thought the decision of the hearing officer was a good one, and the message we want other students to get is that we aren’t going to tolerate weapons at school,” he said. “And I’m okay with the decision of the other student not going to a tribunal. What they were doing with it, and how, becomes a part of it, and I trust administrators to look into that. On this one, I thought the school did okay.”

The situation also resulted in different legal determinations, as the female student was removed from the school and transported to the Sheriff’s Office in a patrol car, where she was fingerprinted and charged with a single felony count of possession of a weapon on public school property. The male student was not criminally charged.

Beam said the decision to charge the female student was made in accordance with Georgia law, and he stands behind Deputy Catherine Lewis – the school resource officer’s – actions. As for the male student, the sheriff said he could have been charged under the same criminal code, but that Lewis did not receive a full account of the incident on the day it occurred.

“She (Lewis) was not made aware of the fact that the little boy had the knife until later, and she was told it had already been handled within the school,” Beam said. “If we had known it at the time, we would have charged him also.”

Beam said he is uncertain of the exact timeline, but it may have been the day following the incident when Lewis learned of the male student’s involvement.

“When we learned he had the knife, it was later, but the deputy – the school resource officer – was not made aware that the male student had the knife until the female student had already been processed. I think attention was directed towards the student who brought the knife to school. It was information that wasn’t provided until later, and that’s based on information I received from Deputy Lewis,” he said. “At that time, we felt that since he was not charged immediately, we didn’t know how it would be perceived to go back and charge him later.”

Beam said he is aware that public perception may oppose the decision not to charge the male student when his actions became known, but that his office strives to enforce the law fairly across the board.

“I know people are going to have opinions both ways. I realize people are going to second guess us, but that was the decision we made. I have explained to the deputy that in the future, any student who has a weapon at school, even if someone else brought it, can still be charged with the same offense.”

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