Gun Problem in Schools Grows Despite Security Precautions
Tough anti-weapons policies enacted by many school districts during the past several years have failed to stop students from carrying and using guns on school grounds, officials are saying this fall.
During National Safe Schools Week, Oct. 20-26, for example:
Two students were shot in a Washington, D.C., high school in an argument over a radio. In an unrelated incident, a 7th-grade student was arrested for carrying a loaded .38-caliber handgun in his bookbag. Only one student had been found possessing a gun in the previous four years.
A 17-year old high-school senior was shot and killed on the grounds of a high school in Prince George's County, Md., near Washington.
Police arrested a 14-year-old student in Boston after finding a loaded .22-caliber pistol in a coat on a desk next to him. It was the fourth gun confiscated in Boston public schools in a three-week span--twice the number found during the entire 1984-85 school year.
Because such incidents have become in-creasingly common, most urban school districts have adopted stricter weapons policies. Many have permitted broader search procedures, increased the presence and the authority of school security guards, and made expulsion the penalty for possessing a weapon on school grounds.
But in most cases these policies have had little long-term effect, according to school officials, because the problem originates in the surrounding community and cannot be solved by schools alone.
"If someone wants to come on a school campus and kill someone, they can do it--we can't build walls high enough or strong enough to keep them out," said Peter Blauvelt, director of security for Prince George's County schools and the chairman of the board of the National Safe Schools Alliance, an organization whose membership includes the chiefs of 220 school-security forces.
Acceptance of Violence
School officials are in agreement that troubled students are more likely now than in the past to resort to violence to resolve a conflict and have less compunction about using guns. Some place part of the blame on the media's favorable portrayal of violence as a way of solving problems.
"We are sending mixed messages to kids, and schools are the stages where this conflict is played out," said Ann Kahn, president of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers.
School security officers also point to the widespread availability of handguns in many communities. Several noted that students are now carrying commercially manufactured weapons rather than the hand-made "zip" guns that were common in the past.
Although efforts to control the sale of handguns have been undertaken at all levels of government, most have been defeated. But the debate now shows signs of heating up.
The Fraternal Order of Police, abandoning a longstanding policy of not participating in the debate over gun legislation, recently announced its opposition to a Senate bill that would weaken the 1968 ban on interstate sales of some types of firearms. Other national law-enforcement organizations have taken a similar position, and opponents of handguns say they are hoping the debate on gun control will now broaden.
Climate of Fear
Education officials agree that the problem of weapons in the schools extends beyond the actual physical danger they pose.
One gun in a school is a problem, even if it is never used, because it creates a "climate of fear" among students and staff, said Richard Green, chief of school security in Los Angeles.
As Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, observed in Horace's Compromise, the first report from his study of high schools: "If anyone--student or teacher--is anxious about actual physical violence, little useful learning can take place in the schools."
School security officers acknowledge that there are more weapons violations in schools located in areas with high rates of violent crime than on other campuses in the same districts.
"Often students feel they have to carry a weapon to protect themselves on the way to and from school," said Mr. Green.
"Dealing with guns is not a school problem, it is a community problem," said Howard Simon, a lawyer for the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in a legal battle over the use of metal detectors in that city's schools.
"It is unfair to blame school officials for the excessive amount of handguns that will fall into kids' hands," he added.
The most frequent response by school systems to the growing problem of guns has been stiffer penalties for weapons violations. Most urban districts now require principals to recommend to the board of education the expulsion of a student caught with a weapon on school property. The board holds a hearing before taking action.
Yet most districts have found that, despite the threat of expulsion, the pattern of weapons violations continues virtually undiminished except for a brief period after the tougher penalties are enacted.
In Los Angeles, for example, 160 firearms were confiscated from students during the 1984-85 school year, the first year of a new mandatory-expulsion policy.
The total was 29 more than in the preceding year, when disciplinary measures were decided on a case-by-case basis.
The mandatory-expulsion policy in Prince Georges County, Md., appeared to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the schools, said Mr. Blauvelt, but the level of weapons confiscations has remained nearly constant.
According to security officers, students caught with firearms are usu-ally turned over to juvenile-justice authorities.
School officials have also tried to address the handgun situation by revising security procedures. But administrators face the problem of balancing students' right to privacy against the school's obligation to provide a safe school environment.
Unless a student actually uses a gun or lets one fall out of his pocket, school officials usually have to resort to searches to find and remove weapons from the school.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of New Jersey v. tlo that if school officials have "reasonable cause" to believe that a student has committed an infraction and that a search will yield evidence of it, then the evidence found in a search of the stu-dent's clothes or body may be admissible in court.
School officials also must limit the scope of the search in relation to the seriousness of the offense and the likelihood of discovering relevant evidence, the Justices said.
A recent poll of 46 school districts, conducted by the National Alliance for Safe Schools, found that 41 districts permit no total strip searches, 3 districts allow them when danger can be shown to exist if the search is not carried out, and 2 districts permit strip searches "as necessary."
Some districts have experimented with the use of metal detectors to search students as they enter the school. Detroit is believed to be the only city using metal detectors routinely to conduct random searches.
The Detroit chapter of the aclu has filed suit in federal court challenging the use of metal detectors as an unreasonable search and seizure, according to Mr. Simon. The group is asking the court to permit the devices only when an individual is suspected of a violation, he said.
In general, the courts have admitted evidence found in random locker searches--particularly if students are informed that school officials may enter their lockers at any time--because the lockers are school property.
The Supreme Court has never issued an opinion on what standards must be upheld in locker searches. The Justices noted in the tlo decision that they were leaving that question open.
Most districts allow administrators to search lockers if they have reason-able cause, or if a routine inspection is announced to the student body.
However, Boston school officials have instituted random locker searches to discourage students from hiding weapons or contraband in their lockers.
Guns are such a serious problem in Boston schools, according to Ian Forman, a district spokesman, that the superintendent has sent letters to parents and has required teachers to conduct classes to discuss the dangers of weapons in school.
Because schools cannot alone control the weapons problem, some feel that they should used their limited resources to build cooperation with officials who have jurisdiction over the surrounding community.
"To solve a problem, you have to give up ownership of it," Mr. Blau-velt of Prince George's County said.
Thomas J. Albrecht, coordinator of the federal pilot study "Safer Schools--Better Students,"said that once district and community officials involved in that project got used to sharing information, most of them felt better equipped to handle their own duties. (See related story on page 15.)
"Most community services share an interest in the welfare, growth, and development of their youth, but they view the problems from the unique perspective of their job," saidMr. Albrecht. "The combination of individual perspectives occurring in regular meetings helps them build a view of the whole picture of the community's problem," he added. Only then, he said, can they begin to devise ways to deal with it.