Handgun presence varies little in state's schools

State report shows other weapons are appearing less often

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Earlier this year, The Columbian produced an interactive database and analysis from the data the state used for its annual report on violence in schools. We found, for example, that bullying and fights are most common at local middle schools, and that guns in local schools are rare — three violations were reported last year, and nobody was threatened.

The story is online at http://columbian.com/news/2012/feb/18/school-safety-trouble-in-middle-school.

To find out about situations at individual schools, use our interactive database at http://columbian.com/datacenter.

SEATTLE -- Students were expelled or suspended from a Washington public school 45 times last year for bringing a handgun to class, according to new statewide data on weapons in school.

The guns were found in large and small districts, and rural and urban areas. The problem is nothing new for the state, according to the “Weapons In School Report: 2010-11 School Year.”

While statistics on other weapons -- from knives to shotguns -- show a downward trend over the past decade, the numbers of handgun incidents have remained steady -- 45 to 47.

School safety experts warn, however, that these statistics, and recent incidents including the accidental shooting of a Bremerton student, give just a glimpse of a bigger problem.

Thirteen years after the deadly rampage at Columbine High School, guns are still a danger in Washington classrooms, although most are brought to school by children who have no plans to use them, experts say.

“We’ve had incidents of young children bringing them for show-and-tell for years,” said Ron Stephens, whose Westlake Village, Calif., organization, National School Safety Center, helps school districts across the nation create safety plans, do bullying prevention and train staff.

Children who are caught with any weapon in school are either expelled or suspended, depending on the particular circumstances of the situation.

A 9-year-old who brought a gun in his backpack to a Bremerton elementary school in February had no plans to use it or show it to his friends. But the gun accidentally discharged and seriously wounded another student. The boy said he found the gun at his mother’s home and took it for protection because he was planning to run away.

The Kitsap County prosecutor has charged the boy’s mother and her boyfriend with felony assault, saying they negligently allowed the boy access to the gun. They have pleaded not guilty.

The incident was a stark reminder for Washington parents and school officials.

“When one accidentally goes off, that’s a vivid reminder that there are likely others,” Stephens said.

Federal statistics show gun violence in schools has decreased over the past few decades.

Seventeen youths were killed at school during 2009-2010, the most recent year for which nationwide data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number is significantly lower than the 34 deaths reported in the 1992-1993 school year.

A Seattle teacher believes the problem of school violence is more complex than just an issue with weapons in schools.

“Most adults think that it’s all about trying to impress others. Part of it is,” said Quinn Rose, a special education teacher at Nova, a small alternative high school.

But Rose believes violence in schools is more about fear and teens feeling they are trapped in school with little control over their lives or their environment.

His previous experience at a large urban high school taught him that schools can be dangerous with or without guns.

“In the years that I’ve been teaching, the incidents that have made me most afraid for my safety and my students’ safety … guns were not involved,” Rose said. “Because of something happening in the moment, the student improvised and someone’s life was at stake.”