Is the high school where you send your child every day really gun free?
Schools would sure like to think so, but they also say there’s no guarantee. And that on any given day a student tucks a handgun in their waistband or backpack and strolls through the schoolhouse doors.
“I can tell you I get at least one alert every day involving a school resource officer and a student with a gun,” said Jay Farlow, a consultant for the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“As a parent, I find hearing those numbers very terrifying,” said Laura Cutilletta, the legal director for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the mother of two children.
“I’ve heard the stories of it happening in all areas, among every socioeconomic group,” said Cutilletta, whose husband is a California principal and recently dealt with a gun in school incident.
That’s no surprise to Rebeka McIntosh, a teacher in the Grandview school district and a member of the National Education Association executive board.
“Teachers are absolutely aware, every day that we come into the classroom, of the potential for disaster,” McIntosh said.
She said that “knowing that reality, teachers have to scan, watching all the time. They have to be situationally aware all the time. Unfortunately it is part of their every day.”
What teachers do, McIntosh said, is “play out in their head what would I do if,” and stay vigilant for signs something might be amiss.
Just over a month ago the school day went awry in Lee’s Summit. Gunfire rang out at Lee’s Summit North High School where a student walked into the building with a gun, went to a second-floor bathroom and shot herself.
Last Monday, police were called to Raytown High School where a student was caught with a gun.
With gun laws loosening, as more college campuses allow students to carry guns and the nation’s education secretary sides with allowing teachers and principals to pack a pistol, worry is growing about those trends filtering into high schools.
It’s putting teachers, administrators and parents on edge, and reviving a debate about whether to make students entering schools walk through metal detectors.
A Google search for guns in high schools turned up story after story since August where a student somewhere in the U.S. had been arrested for bringing a gun to school — in urban, rural and suburban districts.
In Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta, a 17-year-old student brought a fully loaded 9mm gun to South Gwinnett High School in his book bag.
In Newport News, Va., public school security confiscated a .40 caliber gun from a 17-year-old who tucked a gun in his waistband.
A high school student in northern Kentucky was arrested after an unloaded gun and ammunition were found hidden in his gym bag.
A Jacksonville district had two incidents at separate schools on the same day. In one incident the gun held 14 live rounds, and in the other the gun held five live rounds.
A student might bring a gun to school, says the National Association of School Psychologists, because of mental health issues or out of a misguided sense of needing protection, maybe from gangs or bullying.
While the mention of guns in school may conjure an image of some intruder who sprays classrooms with bullets, according to the Center for American Progress most shootings in K-12 schools did not involve a mass shooter. Rather they were committed by a student who had brought a gun to school.
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund says that almost six in 10 of school shooting incidents were done by minors. In just more than half of the cases where the source of the firearm could be determined, the student had gotten the gun at home.
A graduate student at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education, said student teachers are taught that students bringing guns to school has become part of today’s school culture.
Making some educators even more concerned about guns in high schools is that it’s difficult to track such incidents.
In Missouri and Kansas, for instance, school districts log reports of students carrying “weapons” into schools, with guns lumped into an overall category that includes knives and clubs. So states report weapons incidents without specifying how many involved guns.
In Missouri, reports of weapons being carried into schools have been trending up. In Kansas, a trend is difficult to pin down because schools don’t even have to report the actual number of weapons incidents unless they exceed 10 in a year.
Cutilletta said she’s not aware of any single national database that separates out guns found in schools.
“Yeah, no one is really tracking it,” she said, adding that the reasons are political and that “there is a concerted effort at the federal level to not look into the issue of guns in this country.”
The U.S. Department of Education last determined how many students were caught with a gun in school in 2006. The number: 795.
The latest national survey of weapons including firearms brought into school was done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015.
It showed that 4.1 percent of high school students reported carrying a weapon into school on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey.
In a school of 500 students, that means about 20 of them carried in a weapon within a month.
The Missouri trend on students disciplined for having a weapon in school shows the number of incidents went from 487 in 2001 to a peak of 976 in 2008. They declined to 618 by the 2015-2016 academic year but climbed to 680 in the 2016-2017 school year, which ended last June.
In Missouri for 2016-2017, Springfield had 93 incidents — the most in the state. That’s about one every other day in a 180-day school year. It was followed by St. Louis with 38, and Kansas City with 33.
Numbers were smaller in other local school districts but “just one gun in our schools is too many if we are talking about the safety of our children,” said Laura Guy, a former Olathe, Kan., teacher and newly elected member of the Shawnee Mission School Board. “I know every parent, teacher, administrator, student, wants it to be zero.”
The Independence district, which has 14,244 students, reported 32 incidents; North Kansas City, which has 19,604 students, had eight incident; Raytown, which has 8,868 students, had seven incidents and Lee’s Summit, which has 17,915 students, had six incidents.
For the 2015-2016 school year, the Kansas Department of Education listed 580 incidents, even though state doesn’t list exact numbers unless a district had 10 or more incidents in a school year.
The largest number occurred in the state’s largest district, Wichita, which had 177 incidents. That equates to nearly once a day.
Locally, Kansas City, Kansas, schools had the highest number of incident with about 60.
With the loosening of the gun climate in the country, the question of putting metal detectors at schoolhouse doors arises. Just a small percentage of schools use them.
But while we accept metal detectors at airports, education experts say using them in schools is a different matter: Are they a necessary safety tool or a signal to students and staff they are entering a potentially violent space?
Consider the Hickman Mills School District: It had 20 incidents of weapons in schools in 2014, the same year that officials removed metal detectors. At the time 65 percent of parents wanted to keep them.
But the number of weapons turning up in school has since declined. In 2016 the district had no incidents reported to the state.
Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter, who was superintendent in Hickman Mills when metal detectors were removed, said at that time that detectors “damage...the self-esteem and self-worth of the vast majority of our students who do the right thing every single day.”
Lee’s Summit, a suburban district, has never used metal detectors. Carpenter was leading the district this fall when 17-year-old Gemesha Thomas shot herself in the Lee’s Summit North High School bathroom.
School leaders provided counselors to students and staff but there was no talk of metal detectors.
Kathy Cowan of the National Association of School Psychologists says “research shows that the use of frisking and metal detectors doesn’t make students feel safe, instead it can make them feel less safe and sends a strong signal they are entering an unsafe space.”
Schools, Cowan says, “need to balance physical and psychological safety. We can’t turn our schools into fortresses.”
Emily Kilventon a junior at Van Horn High School in Independence. said she has always felt safe at her school. “My school is like a family,” she said, adding that she’s glad her school does not use metal detectors.
“I play volleyball and when we go to schools with metal detectors and we have to walk through them, I feel uneasy, less safe,” she said. “You feel like the place isn’t safe, like something has happened there and is likely to happen there again.”
Instead of metal detectors, many school officials and resource officers put faith in maintaining trusting student-faculty relationships and a “see something, say something” school code.
D.J. Schoeff, a vice president with the National Association of School Resource officers, works in a Carmel, Ind., high school that has 5,000 students and four resource officers.
“But the best police officers in that school are those 5,000 students,” Schoeff said. It’s up to a school community — administrators, teachers, counselors and community police — working together to determine whether metal detectors should be added.
Park Hill School District officials said that at one point they considered metal detectors at a high school. Instead, the district focused on protections against intruders, such as upgraded security cameras, access controls on doors, renovated safety entrances to force visitors to enter through the office, improved radio communication system and staff training.
Lee’s Summit, which has more than 17,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, had five weapon incidents last year. The district, like most others in the area, does targeted locker and vehicle searches.
“In general, lockers are only searched when school administration have a reasonable suspicion that something may be stored in the locker that violated school policy,” said Janice Phalen, district spokeswoman.
Rosilyn Temple, founder of Mothers In Charge Kansas City, sees the situation differently. Temple, whose adult son was murdered in his apartment the night before Thanksgiving in 2011, has a granddaughter at Paseo Academy, which has metal detectors.
“We need those metal detectors in our schools because these kids are packing guns in our schools. I’m talking about in the city and the suburbs. People are in denial,” Temple said.
“As a parent you should feel your kid is safe in school, you should be able to go to work and not worry. And if metal detectors make the kids feel like the are walking in to an unsafe space, oh well.”
Teaching kids to tell when they see something is good, Temple said, “but by that time the gun is already in the school.”
In most states schools by law are gun-free zones. The Gun-Free School Zones Act was enacted with bipartisan support more than 20 years ago. Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, it prohibits any person from knowingly possessing a firearm in a school zone.
But that may be changing in some states. This month the Michigan Senate passed legislation that would OK concealed firearms in schools. In July the Pennsylvania Senate did the same.
But in the absence of metal detectors, unless educators or students spot a weapon or hear that one is hidden, “we might never know it’s there,” said Drew Holcomb, who teaches elementary school in Grandview.
Kelly Wachel, spokeswoman in the Center School District, said, “We are very clear at Center that school is a safe haven and the students really do feel like school is a safe space.”
But “there just really is no fail-safe tool to monitor student safety.”
Once a day
The Trace, a news organization focused on expanding coverage of guns in the United States, said that in the 2015-2016 school year, “there were at least 269 incidents in which elementary, middle, and high school students were caught with guns on school grounds.”
“No matter how much security you build in, it comes down to good communication between students and school adults and our families,” she said. “If families have weapons at home they have to keep them secure.”
— NEA executive Rebeka McIntosh