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Nobody Knows How Many Kids Get
Caught With Guns in School. Here’s Why.

| March 11, 2018

guns in schools

It’s not what it seems. (Hochspannungsgerät)

One day after a Florida teenager walked into his former high school and carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, at least seven other teens across the country walked into school with a gun.

The firearms were seized without harm in Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Texas, according to local news reports. Such incidents fuel the widespread fear that students often bring guns to school. But there’s no way to tell if this is true. There is no good data.

Because of lax reporting by schools and lax oversight by state and federal authorities — and despite federal law — it’s nearly impossible to say just how many students get caught taking firearms into public schools each year.

When a student is caught with a gun at school, the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act requires schools to report the incident to the school district, which is supposed to pass the information along to state education officials, who then are supposed to send it to the U.S. Department of Education. The idea behind the reporting requirement is to make it possible to detect trends and inform policymakers as they seek to address the problem.

But much of the information on the Education Department’s website is either outdated or inconsistent with state data. The department did not follow up to multiple questions and requests from Stateline for new and more comprehensive data.

In the past few years, school and state officials have not properly tracked deadly school shootings in Arizona and Colorado, and firearm-related school incidents in Maine. State education officials there say that while they collect statistics, they don’t enforce the reporting requirement.

In Maine, Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Millett said she wants to require the state’s Education Department to submit gun incident information to the Legislature each year, so lawmakers can ensure that the state is tracking the information accurately and can use it to make policy.

“We need to understand the nature of what we are facing,” she said.

‘Grossly Underestimated’

U.S. students were caught with a firearm at school at least 1,576 times during the 2015-16 school year, according to a federal database with information collected from states through the Gun-Free Schools Act.

This data is incomplete, though. The federal numbers are lower than the numbers recorded by at least five states — Iowa, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland and Washington — in recent years, according to a Stateline review.

In Iowa, 15 firearm incidents were recorded in 2015-16. Only one shows up in the federal database. Iowa education officials did not respond to a follow-up question about why the state and federal data are different.

stateline logo analysisIn Washington state, the federal data shows a decline from 162 firearm incidents in 2009-10 to 13 in 2015-16. But the state count shows 128 incidents in 2015-16, about the same as 2009-10, when there were 130 incidents. State education officials confirmed the state data is accurate.

Mike Donlin, program supervisor for the school safety center at the Washington department of education, said he wasn’t sure why the numbers were different.

Federal and state data grossly underestimate threats to schools, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based school safety consulting firm. With no nationally enforced reporting system, he said, schools’ reporting is a “goodwill effort.”

There are a few carrots and absolutely no sticks for local school districts to give data to the states, Trump said.

The best effort to track guns in schools might come at the local level, Trump said, but some school administrators might be reluctant. “There are some that believe that, ‘No data, no problem, but if there is data, we have to do something about it.’ ”

School administrators may try to keep firearm incidents under wraps, Trump said, to protect the school’s image, or their own.

“If their school comes in with numbers higher than a school on the other side of town,” he said, “those administrators may seem to be better at keeping the school safe, when in reality, they may have a less-safe school, they are just not honestly reporting.”

The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act also requires students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year in most cases, but some gun advocates say it isn’t the federal government’s place to make such judgments.

States and local school systems should be the ones to decide whether students may bring guns to school, said Michael Hammond, legislative counsel at Gun Owners of America.

“When I grew up in the 60s in an inner city high school in Kansas City, I was in ROTC,” Hammond said. “I was issued an M-1 semiautomatic rifle when I was 13 and would walk back and forth with it on the playground. No one thought I’d shoot up the school.”

“Quite Old Data”

The U.S. Department of Education used to publish much more detailed annual reports, including how many times students were caught with guns, the related punishment, and the rate at which school systems in each state recorded the information. But the agency’s most recent comprehensive report covers the 2006-7 school year.

“Unfortunately, the latest data we have is quite old,” said Jo Ann Webb, a department spokeswoman.

In Arizona, the Department of Education hasn’t felt confident about its data for years, said Stefan Swiat, a department spokesman. The agency still receives information from schools, but it’s not complete.

The last year the Arizona school system knew it was getting comprehensive information from school districts was 2009, he said. That’s because, for a few years, the state had federal funding for a school crime-tracking program that also allowed the state to require local school systems to submit the data.

It’s crucial for the state to have comprehensive data so it can identify trends and have smart policy discussions, said Arizona state Rep. Daniel Hernandez, a Democrat.

Hernandez, who is also a board member at his local school district in Tucson, said his school district tracks firearms seized at schools, but that other districts track it differently.

Unlike other states, in Washington, state officials are fairly confident they are accurately tracking how many times students bring guns to school, said Donlin, with the state’s school safety center. State officials comb through the statistics looking for trends and spikes, such as when copycats come out after school shootings. They then work with school communities and law enforcement to mitigate future events.

‘Watch Me Be Cool Today’

High school students clearly are bringing guns to schools at a much higher rate than is characterized by the federal data, a national survey shows. About 4 percent of high school students say they brought a weapon to school at least once in the past month.

Many times, school resource officers, sworn officers who work in schools, are the first to hear about guns on school grounds, said Mac Hardy, director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Students hear about rumors and social media posts and report it to the officers, Hardy said. Many times, students will bring a gun to school if they are being bullied, to appear tough to their tormentor. Most of the time, the gun is not loaded, or it’s a replica gun, such as an airsoft gun, he said, but it still creates a dangerous situation.

In Washington state, Donlin said sometimes students bring firearms to school for innocent reasons; perhaps they went hunting and forgot to take the gun out of the car. But there has been a recent uptick in students bringing guns for more troublesome reasons.

“Sometimes it’s real,” he said of the threats. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Watch me be cool today,’ or ‘I have a test tomorrow, it’s a good time to pull out my gun trick.’ ”

School communities need to act on these incidents, he said.

“ ‘See something say something’ is a simple thing to say, but it can be really effective,” Donlin said. “And the next step is: Do something — don’t just let it slip by.” 

–Jen Fifield, with Matt Vasilogambros, Stateline

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17 Responses for “Nobody Knows How Many Kids Get
Caught With Guns in School. Here’s Why.”

  1. south florida says:

    they should make parents accountable.

  2. Geezer says:

    Minors are subject to the headship of their parents.
    I fully agree with @south florida.

    I’ve been away for a while from Florida and can’t recall
    if metal detectors were being utilized in schools.

    Are they?

  3. Mark says:

    This is obviously not a country of laws. We sure don’t do much enforcing when we don’t give a hoot. I wonder what causes that?

  4. Pogo says:

    @Help is on the way

    Just kidding. Thanks to Republican lawmakers – there’s an oxymoron – this IS reality:

    Here’s how cops actually trace a gun
    By Jeanne Marie Laskas

    “…The National Tracing Center is not allowed to have centralized computer data.

    “That’s the big no-no,” says Charlie.

    That’s been a federal law, thanks to the NRA, since 1986: No searchable database of America’s gun owners…”

    Full Article

    So that’s just one example of how Republicans have a knife in the back of law enforcement and the courts – perfect – huh? They’re doing everything possible – right? We just need to enforce the laws we already have in place – sound familiar?

    Don’t quit now – it can get worse – thanks to NRepublicansA working 24/7, 365:

    Lost and Stolen Guns from Gun Dealers
    By Arkadi Gerney and Chelsea Parsons

    “…Despite the common-sense appeal of requiring gun dealers to conduct a periodic inventory reconciliation, the law prevents ATF from doing so. In 2004, citing the burdens that inventory inspections might impose on gun dealers, the NRA and others in the gun lobby shut down efforts to rein in the problem of gun dealers failing to maintain control of their inventories by adding a rider to the annual appropriations bill—one of the so-called Tiahrt Amendments—that specifically prohibits ATF from requiring dealers to conduct an annual inventory.

    This ban on mandatory inventory reconciliation by gun dealers is unique among retailers of potentially dangerous consumer products. ATF requires explosives dealers, for example, to take a physical inventory at least once a year and keep a record of the inventory on file and available for inspection. Likewise, retail pharmacies are required under federal law to take an inventory of controlled substances every two years. Yet in the context of one of the most dangerous consumer products, the federal government is prohibited from requiring this common-sense business practice…”

    Full Article

  5. Anonymous says:

    Parents aren’t allowed to discipline their kids yet some think they should hold parents accountable—BS! The kids need to be held accountable….just like they will be in the real world. We may not know how many guns are in schools, but we also don’t know how many teachers and administrators are taking advantage of kids either. Some kids may feel they have to carry to keep a teacher who they should trust from taking advantage of them. This country is getting so bad and people are getting to be so untrustworthy that everyone person is going to have to start carrying a gun to survive and protect them selves from being a victim. Even our law enforcement officers are on the news regularly being arrested…who do you trust? If you don’t protect yourself, who will protect you?

  6. Jenn says:

    @geezer now there is not one to metal detector in any of the schools here in Florida. Even if there were I don’t believe it would pick up on a BB gun but don’t hold me to that because I’m not sure. And I agree where are the parents of all these children who think it’s cool to go to school with a gun. Hold these parents accountable. They need to be better role models for their children.

  7. Fredrick says:

    Why is it that when I grew up (Oh God I sound like my parents), we all brought guns to school, rifles, shot guns, and hand guns. They stayed in our vehicles hanging from racks unless we were doing some sort of modification to them in shop class, custom grips or decorative stock…. and not one of those guns killed anyone. Not once, a gun never even threatened anyone. … Why is that?

  8. GrGrMommy says:

    Remembering my children when they were young. Close your eyes, it will go away.

    If you don’t report it, you don’t have a problem.

    Makes sense to me.

  9. Anonymous says:

    That picture is a squirt gun.

    When 7y/o kids are suspended from school because they chew their food into a gun shaped object, maybe the problem isn’t the guns, maybe it’s the hysteria the 24 hour news cycle manufactures.

  10. Richard says:

    Parents are not allowed to punish, scold or reprimand their children any longer otherwise THEY end up in jail for child abuse so how are the parents responsible? School teachers are no longer allowed to punish, scold or reprimand students for fear of losing their jobs and going to jail for child abuse so how are they supposed to deal with the situation when their hands are tied behind their backs. When I was growing up and going to school none of this BULLSHIT was happening at the home or at school. When I go back to my home town of Rochester NY and drive by the high school which I attended it now has a 6 foot fence enclosing the entire school with bars on all of the windows. It looks like a prison now instead of a place to learn. All I have to say is people have lost their way in this world and just maybe the times are getting nearer to a civil war once again. But this time it will NOT be the North fighting the South but rather the Everything Free Libbies who have NO respect for any laws against the Right Wing Conservatives who want the existing laws upheld. If people continue to ignore the laws already on the books all HELL will break out in this country.

  11. Ken Dodge says:

    @Mark, this IS a country of laws; what this country is NOT is a country of law ENFORCEMENT. Enacting law is cheap, enforcing the law is expensive.

  12. Randy Jones says:

    Why are there guns in our school facilities? Aren’t school facilities, according to the Florida Statutes, “gun free zones”?
    Secure Our Schools
    … – – – …
    S O S

  13. Freddy says:

    The xray picture shows a glue gun, they can’t use them for projects in school anymore?

  14. mark101 says:

    Holy smokes, guns are now shooting all by themselves , First we took out religion out of school, then no support for our flag in schools, then we take parenting or discipline away from parents , ( remember the term, dial 1-800 child abuse, the hot line numbers the kids were sent home with and then you can add the drugs, gangs and violent video games, living in a broken family the pressure to perform for your peers can cause kids to snap.

  15. Pogo says:

    @To any young people wondering what planet they’re on

    The way we never were

  16. Randy Jones says:

    Hey Pogo – here’s how it actually works; the serial number of a “recovered” gun is submitted to the manufacturer who identifies the wholesaler/retailer to whom they sold the gun. That leads the cops to the FFL (Federal Firearms License) that transferred the gun to an individual. Be aware that FFLs are required to maintain records of ALL transactions. So if I buy a gun through a FFL, the cops can associate that gun to me and they WILL find me. EVERY gun sold through the federally controlled background check system can be traced to the last legal purchaser and the NRA has NO control over that fact. But you could argue, “AH HA – the last last legal purchaser!!! A reasonable person could respond to your argument by saying that RESPONSIBLE gun owners, when they sell a firearm “on the street”, will use a common bill of sale that requires the purchaser to affirm everything that they must affirm on ATF Form 4473 and include their driver license number AND their concealed weapons permit number. NRA members have children in our schools and they care about their safety. Any argument to the contrary would be unreasonable.
    … – – – …
    S O S

  17. Jenn says:

    It’s about raising your children the right way is that is done then you won’t have to reprimand your children they will already know the difference between right and wrong you should start trying it

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