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School leaders welcome zero-tolerance leeway
Principals now can apply judgment when students are found with weapons
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Principals now have more say in how they discipline students who bring weapons on school grounds, and Gainesville and Hall County administrators are happy about the change.

For Susan Culbreth, principal of Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, the flexibility really helps in elementary school, when children may accidentally bring fingernail clippers or a small knife to school.

“I’ve had cases where kindergarten boys bring a pocket knife they got from Paw-Paw and want to carry it around,” she said. “This is a much better way to look at what is really dangerous and gives us a much better place to be a decision-maker instead of following an absolute.”

Gov. Sonny Perdue signed Senate Bill 299 on Tuesday, which amends the state’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons in schools and gives principals more discretion in individual cases. Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, drafted the legislation after hearing the story of Eli Mohone, who was arrested and kicked out of school after turning himself in for accidentally bringing a fishing knife to school.

“The rigidity of the former legislation put principals and other administrators in the position of not being able to use common sense or work through the issues with parents to make a decision based on the best interest of the child,” Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said. “Of our seven schools, six have new principals within the past two years, and we’ve talked about a child bringing in a toy gun or plastic knife from home. They’ve asked ‘What do I do when my common sense tells me one thing and the law says another?’”

For many principals, the change doesn’t make much of a difference. Joe Gheesling of North Hall High School said he will maintain his attitude about zero tolerance, especially with high schoolers who “have the maturity to understand the hazards and potential for disaster.”

“I’ll treat each case individually, but some toys are so realistic looking, they could be dangerous to bring on campus if perceived to be a real weapon. I don’t see any reason why there should be anything close to a weapon on campus,” he said. “The students are very aware of that and over the years have expressed that to me. It’s one thing they don’t tolerate, either.”

 

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