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When Zero Tolerance Becomes 'Zero Common Sense'

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By guest blogger Doris Nhan.

Two separate zero-tolerance cases in Georgia have prompted some police officers, prosecutors, and judges to question the legislation's fairness, bolstering a growing argument by critics that such rules leave little room for much-needed interpretation.

The legislation has mandated felony charges for both students: a 17-year-old and avid fisherman from Lassiter High School in Marietta with filet knives in his car's trunk, and an 18-year-old at Allatoona High School in Acworth with a medical rescue knife in his car. Both schools are in the Cobb County school district.

"There's no criminal intent here. It doesn't make sense. This is example of what I call 'zero tolerance is zero intelligence'," said Clayton County's Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske, as reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In Georgia, where outdoor sports like fishing and hunting are commonplace, citizens and lawmakers—including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee—say to be punished for a filet knife, like the one found in Cody Chitwood's tackle box in the trunk of his car, defies logic.

"Zero tolerance shouldn't mean zero common sense," Huckabee wrote in an email sent to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The controversy over the state's zero-tolerance law is the latest in a nationwide argument over school discipline and ensuring student safety. The issue encompasses a variety of zero-tolerance laws, not just limited to weapons at school.

Earlier this week, fellow Education Week blogger Bryan Toporek reported on a Massachusetts school's suspension of a 17-year-old whose crime was trying to drive a drunk friend home after a party. The teen driver was sober and did not actually attend the party.

In San Francisco, a 17-year-old was suspended after writing a poem that implied she identified with the Sandy Hook killer, Adam Lanza. The girl maintained her poem was an expression of how she felt and not a statement of intent.

Earlier this year in Florida, a 16-year-old was initially suspended and arrested after a school resource officer learned of her science experiment that included combining bathroom cleaner with aluminum foil to create a chemical reaction. No one was hurt in the experiment. The charges against the girl were eventually dropped. The list of instances of harsh punishment for supposedly minor infractions goes on.

Cobb County's district attorney says both Georgia cases will likely be dropped, and the students' records expunged. Several school officials say there is plenty of room in the state laws to give local districts the discretion needed to handling discipline. But others at these schools maintain the law gives little room for interpretation.

Regardless of your side on the matter, the issue represents another notch in a larger dilemma: What defines the difference between unfair prosecution of kids and trying to prevent another Columbine, Newtown, or drunk-driving-related death and injury

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