Two teenage students, one at Lassiter High in east Cobb and one at Allatoona High in Acworth, were arrested in September and charged with felonies after school officials had their cars searched and found pocket knives and fishing knives.
Both teens, Cody Chitwood, 17, of Marietta and a student at Lassiter, and Andrew Williams, 18, of Acworth and a student at Allatoona, had their cases dismissed more than a month later by District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
If it hadn’t been for Reynolds using his discretion, both students would have had a felony weapons charge on their records, basically making them unemployable for the rest of their lives. Violating Georgia’s zero-tolerance law for weapons on school campuses can lead to two to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 if convicted.
The laws apply to parents as well as students and the law applies to all public schools, including college and university campuses.
While Reynolds dismissed the cases, the families of the boys had to hire attorneys and deal with school suspensions, not to mention the public embarrassment of being arrested, the lawyer for one student said.
Police officers and school staff say they have no discretion in enforcing the laws. If a knife with a blade of more than 2 inches is found on a student or in his car anywhere on school grounds, they must be turned over to police and charged. A baseball bat is also considered contraband.
In Williams’ case, an assistant principal at Allatoona ordered a search of the teen’s car after a student made an anonymous complaint that they had seen smoke rising from Williams’ vehicle in the school parking lot.
While no drugs were found, the assistant principal did find a pocket knife in the center console of Williams’ car and he was arrested by the school resource officer.
Chitwood’s car was searched after a random K-9 sniff. The dog smelled black powder coming from Chitwood’s car trunk, which turned out to be firecrackers left over from the July Fourth holiday. But the search of the car also turned up a fishing tackle box, which contained fishing knives. Like Williams, Chitwood was promptly arrested and booked into the county jail.
“His lawyer contacted me end of last week,” Reynolds said in reference to the Chitwood case in October. “The case against him will be dismissed and expunged from his record. He will have a clean record. I agreed, to make sure he would have nothing on his record where it would affect him in the future. He was concerned about that. I was concerned about that.”
Making national news
The story about the student arrests, first reported by the Marietta Daily Journal, was picked up by other newspapers, radio and TV stations, including an online article by Fox News commentator and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Williams said he had been in a serious car wreck earlier in the year and had the pocket knife in his car so he could cut off his seatbelt in the event of another car crash.
Chitwood, whose passion is fishing, said he had simply forgot his fishing tackle in the trunk of his car, as well as one knife in the driver’s side storage pocket.
“My client had no intent to do anything wrong. He’s a good kid. It was simply a mistake,” said Chitwood’s Marietta attorney, Joel Pugh. “He’s an avid fisherman and he forgot he had those knives in the car, and had absolutely no intent to harm anyone or break any school rules whatsoever.”
Pugh said his client has “just been embarrassed by this whole thing. His jail book-in photo has been on the local news, and national news, and he’s a 17-year-old kid.”
Working to rid Georgia of ‘zero tolerance’
Reynolds said he is working with state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) and others to change Georgia’s heavy-handed zero-tolerance law.
“In all candor these cases, it’s more of a policy call and the legislators are going to have to look real hard at that law and see if they want it to stay the way it is,” Reynolds said. “But I’m not a real fan of zero-tolerance laws.”
Besides Tippins in the Senate, Reps. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) and Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) in the state House have also expressed interest in working with Reynolds to, as Golick said, prevent “the death of common sense” in Georgia’s schools.
Reynolds said he will work with anyone in the General Assembly on this cause. He’s looked at other states’ laws with regard to weapons on school campuses and said Texas may offer some guidance.
“The state of Texas has some statutory language that we think will be a little more appropriate for our state,” he said. “Having been a former police officer myself you don’t check your common sense at the door when you get a badge and a gun; they want to be able to use theirs, but you can’t do it when you have a zero-tolerance law.”