Gwinnett County commissioners are discussing the possibility of using a county ordinance to reduce the punishment someone could face for possessing small amounts of marijuana, including eliminating jail time.
These are the top stories from the past week.
Gwinnett commissioners discussing decriminalizing possession of small amount of marijuana
Gwinnett County commissioners are discussing the possibility of using a county ordinance to reduce the punishment someone could face for possessing small amounts of marijuana, including eliminating jail time.
Commissioner Kirkland Carden pitched the idea of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana to his colleagues on Tuesday. It doesn’t make marijuana legal, but rather the idea is to target possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, allowing police to issue a citation rather than arresting the person and taking them to jail, which can take the officer off the streets for several hours.
“This came from a conversation I had with (County Administration Glenn Stephens) when we were talking about the monetary and personnel burdens that are put on our law enforcement officers by having, let’s say someone is caught with a joint, to process (the arrested person),” Carden told the other commissioners. “They’ve got to drive down 316 in rush hour, they sit maybe two or three hours in booking to go through that whole process when other municipalities in Georgia, and across the country, have moved to just giving somebody a ticket and keeping it moving.”
The proposed ordinance resolution, which Carden said he had already discussed with fellow Commissioner Ben Ku, would give law enforcement the option to issue a citation that carries a $150 fine or require up to one year of community service.
The proposed ordinance will be sent to the newly created Police Citizens Advisory Board for review before the commission takes it up for a vote.
County Attorney Mike Ludwickzak said the county’s ordinance on marijuana currently states a person has to spend a year in jail or face a fine of up to $1,000 — or possibly both — if they are convicted.
It would not supersede state law, which carries a stiffer punishment, however.
“There is a state law they can be charged under as well,” the county attorney said. “If you reduce these penalties, and say somebody is involved in a serious accident, or there’s other crimes associated with it, they can still be charged under state law as opposed to this.
“This would really just be a standalone charge.”
Ludwickzak also said state law would not necessarily supersede the county ordinance.
“We have the option right now to charge under state law or charge under our county ordinance,” he said.
Commissioner Jasper Watkins expressed concerns about the fairness of implementing the ordinance since it would not apply to someone who recently began serving a sentence on marijuana possession. Since they are already convicted and sentenced, their existing sentence could not be altered by a change in local ordinance.
“That’s a hard bill,” Watkins said. “You have person that’s in there and that met the standard and now you’re telling them they’re in their third month ... and they have to stay.”
Man wanted on child exploitation charges in Villa Rica arrested in Duluth
A man wanted by Villa Rica police on 20 counts of sexual exploitation of children was arrested in Duluth on Friday.
Police in the west Georgia city said they were told on Feb. 3 that Villa Rica resident Eric Rashard Harris, 38, allegedly molested a young girl whose age was only listed as being “under the age of 6.” He was arrested on child molestation and cruelty to children in the first degree on Feb. 4.
“On (Feb. 13), Detective Matt Weingarten came into possession of electronics belonging to Harris,” Villa Rica said in a statement on Facebok. “After securing a search warrant, the electronics were searched and numerous videos of child pornography were discovered. It was also discovered that Harris had bonded out of jail on the previous charges.”
Villa Rica police said there is an ongoing investigation into the case and that additional charges may be pending.
Details of Harris’ arrest were not immediately available in the Gwinnett County jail log on Saturday.
GCPS telling students and staff they must quarantine after international travel as county's case numbers continue to drop
Gwinnett County Public Schools students and employees are going to have to stay home from school for at least a week if they head out of the country for a vacation.
The school system recently announced it will follow CDC guidance on dealing with international travelers. The federal agency’s guidelines stipulate a person who travels overseas must get tested for COVID-19 three to five days after they return to the U.S. and stay in quarantine.
Even if the person tests negative, they still have to quarantine themselves after their return.
“In another words, students and staff who travel outside the U.S. will not be able to return to school or work for at least seven days after their return to the U.S.,” district officials said in a flyer on the school system’s website.
The reason why district officials are saying students and employees must quarantine for “at least” seven days is because that is just the time period for people who test negative.
If a student or staff member returns from an international trip, but refuses to get tested, then they must quarantine for 10 days. They must also be on the look out for symptoms and get tested immediately if COVID symptoms do begin to appear.
If a student or staff member does take a test and the results come back positive, then they must follow current health guidelines for current cases of the disease, according to district officials.
The CDC’s full guidance for international travelers can be found at bit.ly/2NL1Rv0.
Gwinnett County Public Schools reported on Friday that there were 232 new COVID-19 cases reported to the school system on Thursday. That includes 188 students and 44 staff members.
The district reported it had a total of 199 active positive COVID-19 cases, 156 active suspected cases and 1,345 close contacts as of Friday.
Gwinnett County, which is Georgia’s second most populous county, continues to lead the state in overall two-week new case numbers with 3,224 reported on Friday, but its two-week incidence rate continues to fall.
The county’s two-week incidence rate was 332 cases for every 100,000 residents as of Friday.
The county has seen a total of 78,774 cases, 857 confirmed deaths, 58 probable deaths and 4,906 hospitalizations because of COVID-19 since March 2020.
Statewide, Georgia had a two-week total of 34,864 new cases, with a two-week incidence rate of 322 cases for every 100,000 residents.
Georgia has now reported 800,959 COVID-19 cases since March, with an incidence rate of 7,393 cases for every 100,000 residents. There have been 14,530 confirmed deaths and 2,080 probable deaths from the disease. There have also been 54,434 hospitalizations and 8,898 ICU admissions in the state because of COVID-19.
GCPS: Gateway test requirements will be waived this spring
Gwinnett County high school students won’t have to worry about their gateway tests this spring.
The test Gwinnett County students take to show their mastery of some of the subjects taught through the Academic Knowledge and Skills, or AKS, curriculum is being waived this spring as the district continues to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The requirement for seniors to pass the test to receive their high school diploma is also being waived.
“As we look at the work that we’re trying to do to provide safety for our students in the schools, we try to figure out how to get students in and out effectively without the possibility of challenges with COVID,” said Clay Hunter, GCPS’ associate superintendent of curriculum and instructional support, during a presentation to the board Thursday afternoon.
“But the challenges are far greater than we can sort of deal with at (this) time and so I wanted to make you aware of the need that we have to suspend gateway for this year (not only) for our sophomores and juniors, but (also) for our seniors.”
The school board gave district officials a waiver on rules regarding gateway tests in spring 2020 to let the system waive the test while all students learned from home in the early days of the pandemic.
“You may be aware that last year, this board actually provided the opportunity for a waiver because of the safety concerns that we have in the administration of gateway,” Hunter said.
That move also allowed the district to waive the test again later on in the pandemic without getting board approval, if needed.
“(The board) voted to waive a whole group of policies that were impacted by COVID and one of those was the one dealing with gateway,” district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said.
The tests, which have been used in GCPS for about two decades, is a writing test in the areas of social students and science that is normally given to sophomores and juniors in March.
Sophomores take the science test while juniors take the social studies test. They must take the test to receive their high school diploma.
In addition to waiving gateway tests for this year, the district is also looking back to students who struggled with the tests before the pandemic. The waiver also affects students who would have graduated in previous school years but still haven’t passed the test.
These students received a certificate of attendance rather than a high school diploma at the end of their senior years. They were still waiting for an opportunity to take the gateway.
“We have multiple opportunities each year for people to take it,” Roach said.
But, COVID-related issues have prohibited students, who were unable to pass the tests in the past, from taking advantage of the normal testing opportunities.
Hence this spring’s waiver applying to them as well.
“So we’re looking to make sure we also waive the gateway for those students as well,” Hunter said. “In other words, students who have graduated in the past, we were unable to provide that support (so) these students will now be eligible in order to get a high school diploma from Gwinnett County Public Schools.”
Al Taylor picked to be GCPS' interim associate superintendent of school improvement and operations
A longtime veteran of Gwinnett county schools has been chosen to take over the school system’s school improvement and operations efforts on at least an interim basis.
Al Taylor will replace Steve Flynt, who will leave later this spring to become the superintendent of Columbia County Schools, in the key district-level role of interim associate superintendent of school improvement and operations. Taylor is currently one of the district’s assistant superintendents for middle schools.
- By Curt Yeomans email@example.com
“The Division of School Improvement and Operations provides leadership and support to local schools by ensuring the divisional operations and processes are followed to maximize student achievement, striving to keep schools safe and secure, advising schools in disciplinary interventions, and providing a direct line of communication between the school and district office,” GCPS officials said in a statement. “In addition, this division coordinates the Local School Plan of Improvement (LSPI) process and directs federal and special programs (Title I).”
Taylor joined GCPS in 2002 as a teacher at Sweetwater Middle School and later served as an assistant principal at Meadowcreek High School from 2006 until 2011. He went on to be the principal at Radloff Middle School from 2011 until 2013 and then served as the principal at Berkmar High School from 2013 until 2019, when he became an assistant principal of middle schools.
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern University in business education and his master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia State University in educational leadership.
He is also an adjunct professor at Piedmont College and graduated from GCPS’ Quality-Plus Leader Academy Aspiring Principal Program’s Cohort 4 in 2010.
Dranita Morrow returning to Kanoheda Elementary School as its new principal
Kanoheda Elementary School got a new principal Thursday night.
The Gwinnett County Board of Education approved the appointment of Dranita Morrow, who is currently an assistant principal at Ferguson Elementary School, to be Kanoheda’s new principal. She will replace Nicole White, who was appointed last month to serve as Gwinnett County Public Schools’ executive director of special education.
Morrow has been with GCPS for nearly 20 years, coming to the district in 2001 as a teacher at Shiloh Elementary School and staying at that school until 2012.
But, she is not a new face to the Kanoheda community. She was an assistant principal at the school from 2012 until 2016, when she moved over to Ferguson Elementary School to be an assistant principal at that school.
Morrow received a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Southern University in early childhood education, as well as a master’s degree from Walden University in elementary education and her doctoral degree from Clark Atlanta University in educational leadership.
She taught in Screven County Schools prior to joining GCPS.
She also graduated from the Quality-Plus Leader Academy Aspiring Leader Program as part of Cohort 3 in 2012. She was a member of Quality-Plus Leader Academy Aspiring Principal Program’s Cohort 14 in 2020 as well.
GCPS asking Gwinnett Board of Education to put limits on public comment at its meetings
Gwinnett County Public Schools administrators are asking the county’s school board to make a change to its public comment policy that will limit the number of people who can speak at board meetings.
The proposed change to the public participation in board meetings policy, known as policy BCBI, was introduced to the board members by staff at a work session on Thursday afternoon. Under the proposal, only 15 people would be able to speak during monthly business meetings of the school board, with the public comment period limited to 30 minutes.
Anyone who speaks to the board during public comment periods at two consecutive meetings would then be prohibited from addressing the school board for two months.
“I am asking that you vote to put these recommendations on the table,” said Jorge Gomez, Gwinnett County Public Schools’ executive director of administration and policy, during his presentation to the board. “Remember that gives you as a board and it gives our constituency base 30 days to provide input back to us. We’ll bring input back to you and we can adjust that if so needed.”
- By Curt Yeomans firstname.lastname@example.org
The school board voted Thursday to put the proposed policy change, along with two other changes to the district’s sexual harassment and student complaints and grievances policies on the table for one month. Residents have until the March board meeting to weigh in on the proposal and offer feedback to district officials and board members.
The district’s current policy allows for two opportunities for public comment on the evening of school board meetings. One is during a 30-minute period from 6:15 until 6:45 p.m., before the meeting. The second is during the meeting, when an unlimited number of people can address the board for three to five minutes.
In recent months, that has resulted in public comment periods that have lasted for multiple hours. In January, for example, it lasted for about two and a half hours. On Thursday night, 60 people were signed up to address the school board.
“It’s no doubt that public input is important,” said Gomez, who held up the fact that GCPS has allowed public comment at board meetings since the 1980s as part of his argument that the district does value public input.
“As important as public input is, it is also important that you run an effective and orderly meeting,” he said.
The 30-minute public comment period held before meetings would remain in place and be unaffected by the change. It is just the public comment period during the actual meeting that would be affected by the change.
“That would allow a total of one hour of public comment” between the two time periods, Gomez said.
By state law, only the school board can change policies for the district. So while district officials can ask for the change, it is ultimately up to the board members to decide whether to do it.
Among the changes being proposed, Gomez told the board it can pair down comments to weed out repetitive statements.
“The board has the right to do three things,” Gomez said. “No. 1 is limit number of speakers, you have the right to limit those that use repetitive comments and if there are groups for and against — there’s 50 people to paint the buildings pink and there’s 50 people to paint the building blue — you do have the authority to ask those groups to coalesce to one voice so you can run that effective, orderly meeting that we are talking about.”
One of the hot topics during public comment in recent months has centered around whether to close schools during the COVID-19 pandemic or continue offering an in-person option for families who choose it
If the proposed policy change on public comment is approved, there may be a situation where each side of the debate is asked to pick just one person to address the board during the 7 p.m. meeting.
Craig Lownes, whose kids graduated from GCPS, said he disagreed with the proposed change and while he said he was uncertain whether it was coming from the district or the board, he said he felt it was a knee jerk reaction to the large numbers of people speaking at board meetings in recent months.
Lownes estimated he has addressed the school board about 50 times during public comment periods at meetings over the last 18 years.
“It is good that so many people are impassioned about the importance of the school system and I believe that the changes outlined this afternoon will stifle the discussion and debate around the operations and improvement of the Gwinnett County school system,” Lownes said. “Limiting how often and the number of presenters is not an effective method to take the pulse of your constituents.”
But, while board members did not publicly protest the proposal during the presentation, some of them did have questions about how they would receive feedback from the community.
Board Vice-Chairwoman Karen Watkins inquired how the district would ensure parents and other community stakeholders could provide input to the board if public comment is limited.
“Is there opportunities where you all could look at so maybe it could stream through the school or something where we could help ensure that these parents who may not be able to get to board meetings, or may not have the electronic access to see things virtually, do have other opportunities?” Watkins asked. “Maybe it’s not email, but maybe they could leverage the school. I don’t know. I don’t know what it would be, but something where we have an opportunity so that they can get things back to the board so that we can hear what is going on in our community.”
Board member Tarece Johnson asked how non-English speaking residents would be engaged since the public comment sign up process is currently done in English. Gomez said residents can sign up for interpretive services to help those people during board meetings.
Johnson also asked how the district would ensure equity to make sure people who can’t make it to board meetings would be able to provide public input.
“Is it a remote option?” she asked. “What can we do to make sure that all of these voices are heard in a way that really just represents the community.”
In response, Gomez said, “Can we do remote? Can we do all of those things? And I get concerned when we use the word ‘all.’ I know what you mean by that. I know ‘all’ means we want to hear from a plethora of (the) community, but if we really listen to all members, we’ll be here two weeks in a row without sleep.
“So remember the thing I started out with, we have to balance the community input, which we’ve been receiving since 1980 and we no doubt think is important, with running an effective and orderly meeting. So, when you do that and do not create a priority or a way to manage that, we will continue to be here for four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 hours to listen to all.”
Gwinnett police SWAT K-9 Blue, police officers win chamber's Gold Medal of Valor Award
On Sept. 10, a Gwinnett Police SWAT K-9 was sent into a wooded area off Willow Trail Parkway in unincorporated Norcross to search for a suspect who had fled a stolen car as police were investigating gang activity area.
K-9 Blue found the suspect and officers heard a single shot. They quickly found the suspect and exchange of gunfire occurred. The officers then made a tragic discovery: K-9 Blue had been shot. He was taken to a vet, but died from his injuries. The suspect was also shot and died from his injuries.
K-9 Blue’s sacrifice was recognized by the Gwinnett Chamber on Wednesday as it held its annual Medal of Valor Awards ceremony at the Infinite Energy Forum in Duluth.
K-9 Blue, as well his handler, Cpl. William B. Webb, and fellow Gwinnett Police Cpls. Richard J. Lacey, Joshua V. Daunhauer, Caleb G. Jefferson, David S. Duren jointly received the Gold Medal of Valor Award, which is the highest award handed out at the ceremony.
“There’s no greater love than a man who lays down his life for his friends and there’s nothing better a K-9 can do than what he did,” Webb said. “He took a round that was meant for me so that’s the epitome of a K-9s valor right there. He took a bullet so none of us had to.”
The award was bittersweet for Webb, because K-9 Blue was his law enforcement partner and, as such, had become a member of his family. At the same time, he shared the award with his fellow officers who responded to the scene and participated in the search on the day K-9 Blue died.
“It’s hard again remembering the loss of such a great dog, but as I look at the men I serve with and they’re with their families safe, then it makes it easier,” Webb said. “It brings me comfort to know they went home because of what he sacrificed.”
Webb has stayed involved with police K-9s since Blue’s death, although he is not current partnered with a new dog. Not long as his four-legged partner died, Webb participated in a K-9 training activity at Lake Lanier, playing the role of a decoy suspect that the participating K-9 officers had to confront.
He said getting to be around the other K-9s has helped him deal with Blue’s death.
“I’ve been (getting) support from the fellow K-9 guys so, while I don’t personally have a dog right now, I love this job and I love being around dogs so I still get to play with all of the dogs, which makes it easier,” Webb said. “It’s a tight-knit community and ... it really just helps to be around dogs.”
Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office says recently retired deputy has died from COVID-19
Sgt. Stanley Wilson had just begun his retirement from the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office.
He’d been with the office for 25 years, starting in 1996 and ending with his retirement in January. He was 70 when he retired, but he didn’t get to enjoy retirement for long.
The Sheriffs Office confirmed that Wilson died on Monday from COVID-19-related complications.
“We send our deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues as we all mourn his passing,” the office said in a statement. “We extend our utmost gratitude to Stanley for his 25 years of outstanding service, and his commitment to the community.”
Sheriff’s Office officials said Wilson is survived by his daughters Teresa, Stephanie and Amanda.
Subdivision with 263 homes proposed on Settles Bridge Road in city of Suwanee
A luxury home builder is planning to develop a subdivision with more than 250 detached homes in Suwanee, according to documents submitted to the city. Residential community developer Toll Brothers filed an application with Suwanee’s planning and zoning department on Jan. 29 to have 132.3 acres rezoned from an R-140 residential single family district to an R-75 infill residential district means to be a located between existing residential and non-residential areas. Their plan is to build a 263-home subdivision called Larkabit Farms on the site of a former horse farm. “The property is surrounded by other residential subdivisions and it no longer has a reasonable economic use as a horse farm,” said Mitch Peevy, the developer’s representative, in documents filed with the city. The addresses for lots that will make up the neighborhood are 4796, 4835 and 5040 Settles Bridge Road and 649 and 659 Night Lark Court. House sizes proposed for the neighborhood range from 2,000 to 4,700 square feet with the subdivision having a density of 1.99 units per acre. A site plan submitted to the city appears to show amenities such as tennis courts and a pool. Toll Brothers has several neighborhoods inside the Interstate 285 perimeter, as well as in north Fulton and Forsyth counties, listed on its website, but it does not have any neighborhoods listed in Gwinnett County.
A luxury home builder is planning to develop a subdivision with more than 250 detached homes in Suwanee, according to documents submitted to the city.
Residential community developer Toll Brothers filed an application with Suwanee’s planning and zoning department on Jan. 29 to have 132.3 acres rezoned from an R-140 residential single family district to an R-75 infill residential district means to be a located between existing residential and non-residential areas.
Their plan is to build a 263-home subdivision called Larkabit Farms on the site of a former horse farm.
“The property is surrounded by other residential subdivisions and it no longer has a reasonable economic use as a horse farm,” said Mitch Peevy, the developer’s representative, in documents filed with the city.
The addresses for lots that will make up the neighborhood are 4796, 4835 and 5040 Settles Bridge Road and 649 and 659 Night Lark Court.
House sizes proposed for the neighborhood range from 2,000 to 4,700 square feet with the subdivision having a density of 1.99 units per acre. A site plan submitted to the city appears to show amenities such as tennis courts and a pool.
Toll Brothers has several neighborhoods inside the Interstate 285 perimeter, as well as in north Fulton and Forsyth counties, listed on its website, but it does not have any neighborhoods listed in Gwinnett County.
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