After State Question 780 was approved in the November election, superintendents are starting to join forces with state representatives who are asking for the passage of House Bill 1482 to re-instate drug-free school zone measures.
OKLAHOMA CITY— After State Question 780 was approved in the November election, superintendents are starting to join forces with state representatives are asking for the passage of House Bill 1482 to re-instate drug-free school zone measures.
HB1482, also cited as the "Keep Oklahoma Children Safe from Illegal Drugs Act of 2017,” would restore protections for children and the places where they gather, such as schools, daycares and parks.
The bill preserves the portion of state law that makes it a felony to possess drugs within 1,000 feet of a public or private school, public park or within the presence of a child under the age of 12. This crime could still be charged as a misdemeanor, by discretion, and the options for drug court and deferred or suspended sentences could still be utilized.
State Rep. Scott Biggs authored, and State Rep. Tim Downing co-authored HB1482, which passed the House Judiciary – Criminal Justice & Corrections Committee with a vote of 11-1 last week and is expected to be heard on the House floor this week.
“The bill also leaves the totality of SQ780 fully intact in every single square inch of Oklahoma, outside the presence of children and locations where children are targeted,” said Downing.
State Question 780 reclassified certain offenses like simple drug possession and property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. The reclassification of the drug possession offense is intended to be applied to persons who use the drugs, not to those who are selling or manufacturing the drugs.
However, Downing says superintendents were largely unaware that SQ780 repealed drug-free school zones and that the language of children and schools was deliberately kept from voters.
SQ780 and the removal of drug-free school zones is slated to become effective July 1, 2017.
Commerce Superintendent Jim Haynes is in support of HB1482 and opposed SQ780.
“I'm for the bill because I think it would put things back in place that shouldn't have been taken it out with the adoption of the state question,” Haynes said. “I don't think any kind of drug at school is appropriate.”
Haynes said Commerce Public Schools has policies in place where a student could be suspended up to the remainder of that semester and the next semester if caught with drugs on campus.
“A lot of times, if it's just a possession-type situation, some of the stipulations will be if they go through a rehabilitation program and successfully complete it, then whenever they have proof of that, we will end the suspension and they can come back,” Haynes said. “Now, if it's a case where they are selling drugs, that's a different matter.”
David Sergeant, School Resource Officer for Afton, Fairland and Turkey Ford Schools, believes the state question is more harmful than it is good.
“Before, it was a felony,” Sergeant said. “Now, what it does at the school level, instead of being a deterrent, punishment is going to be real light. Pretty much, we write them a ticket and send them on their way. It's a slap on the wrist, so to speak, which is why a lot of judges and a lot of people don't like it. They feel like the sentence is a lot lighter, and people will do it more.
“We're not in the business for punishment, but we're in the business of deterrence,” he added. “To deter people from doing things, they have to know there's a big consequence to their actions. Well, right now, it shows that there's not a big consequence to their actions. They can keep everything to a misdemeanor level and keep doing it.”
The goal of SQ780 Is to reduce the volume of the state's prison population and the amount of funds being spent on prisons. The measure proposes to change Oklahoma statutes, not the Constitution.
Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics also show Oklahoma had the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation in 2014, at 700 inmates per 100,000 population.
In Aug. 2016, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections stated that the prison system had 27,097 inmates being held, which was 104 percent of its capacity. Drug offenders comprised of 26.3 percent of inmates with an additional 23.3 percent of inmates imprisoned for other nonviolent crimes.
Downing explained that the U.S. and all 50 states have laws for drug-free school zones.
“These laws are critical to deter the presence of drugs on and around our schools and students, by increasing the penalty for those offenders,” he said. “Prior to State Question 780, drug-free school zones enhanced the penalty to a felony for possession of drugs on or within 1,000 feet of schools.
"The distance is approximately 2.5 small city blocks, a standard safety zone, and typical distance a student may walk or ride a bicycle to school," he added. "The drug-free zone law provided a strong deterrent to tell potential offenders if they come near our schools or children their punishment can be increased.”
Mike Martin, superintendent of Pauls Valley Public Schools, said he finds this unconscionable and is asking other superintendents to examine the issue and support HB1482.
“In my 20th year as an educator and 11th as a school superintendent in Oklahoma, safety of our students is my top priority,” Martin said. “This year alone we have had to lockdown our Early Childhood Center due to drug bust in that neighborhood. Drug dealers know schools are off -limits and carry greater penalties. Without this provision, drug dealers could set up shop and openly recruit our most vulnerable, our children.
“We must protect the children entrusted to our care,” he added. “We must keep our schools drug free.”