One Newton County parent is incensed that her 8-year-old son has been suspended pending a tribunal for accidentally bringing a BB gun to school and turning it over to administrators when he realized his mistake, but according to zero tolerance policy and law, how the situation is handled is largely out of the hands of Newton County school officials.
A Newton County Theme School third grader was suspended last Monday for accidentally bringing an unloaded pellet gun to school. Kristy Berry, the child's mother spoke to the Atlanta Journal Constitution telling them that her son did the right thing by turning in his weapon when he realized he had left it in his book bag after a weekend stay with his grandfather. The boy was suspended for no less than 10 days and is scheduled to appear before a tribunal on Oct. 31. Though it may seem an extreme punishment for what Berry said as even the school principal referred to as an accident, Newton County has a zero-tolerance policy, no matter the circumstances.
"The student was disciplined according to the rules listed in the handbook," said public relations director Sherri Davis-Viniard in an email Friday. "Those rules are very clearly stated and are covered by Georgia law. Any weapon that propels - meaning any sort of gun, to include a BB gun - must be reported to law enforcement. The school administrators did exactly as they were required to do."
According to county policy, the principal is required to immediately report the incident and the child's name to the superintendent and to the proper authorities; to not do so would be considered a misdemeanor crime.
Although the weapon in question is not an actual firearm, the definition of a weapon reads as follows in Georgia code: "any pistol, revolver, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind." In the Newton County School Board's policy, a weapon is defined as "...any pistol, signal pistol, starter pistol, revolver, rifle, shotgun, stun-gun, laser gun, pellet or BB gun, look-alike firearms, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind, whether loaded or unloaded."
All students, whether intentionally bringing a weapon onto school property or not, is referred to a disciplinary hearing. In Newton County, that hearing is conducted by two hearing officers, according to Newton County School Superintendent Gary Mathews. If they determine that a student did possess a gun on school grounds, that student can be suspended for not less than a year. They may also impose a more lengthy suspension or allow the student to allow to alternative school. However according to policy: "As the law permits, the superintendent or designee may modify the mandatory minimum one year suspension in cases where a weapon was not knowingly or willfully brought on the campus or to a school function or in other appropriate circumstances."
Many have found fault with the federal zero tolerance law in the past, saying it was too stringent and did not allow much room for different circumstances where weapons were brought without knowledge to school.
A 10-year-old Colorado girl was expelled from school because her mother had packed a small knife in her lunch to cut an apple. When she realized the knife might violate the zero tolerance policy, she turned it in but was expelled anyway.
A second-grader from Louisiana was suspended for bringing her grandfather's pocket watch which had a tiny knife attached to it; an 18-year-old National Merit scholar in Florida was charged with a felony and banned from graduation after a police officer saw a kitchen knife in the passenger seat of her car. She had left it accidentally after using it that weekend to open boxes; two New Jersey 8-year-olds were arrested after playing with paper guns in class; and an 8-year-old Canadian boy was suspended after pointing a chicken finger at his classmate and shouting, "Bang!"
While many call the laws too harsh, including the Newton County mother, each of the county's schools have the same rules, which are in each student handbook, available at the start of school and online per school at newtoncountyschools.org/publications/school-handbooks.aspx.