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Guns on campus: Rare but a concern, officials say

By Staff | May 15, 2010

The issue of weapons in schools, now at the forefront of public scrutiny after two guns were found at Lee County schools in the same week, continues to be a security concern for school officials and the community.
Handguns were confiscated at East Lee County High and Fort Myers High last week, but the incidents weren’t related.
A 15-year-old student in Lehigh Acres slipped past security after being turned away by a school resource officer and was found in possession of a Walther P-22 semi-automatic handgun, according to the police report. The youth told police it was given to him by a friend on the bus ramp.
Two days later, a .25 caliber Beretta handgun was found in the backpack of 15-year-old Fort Myers High student. Two other students reported that they saw the gun in the suspect’s waistband during gym class, and they claimed his intention was to “rob someone after school.”
Neither gun had been fired and both situations were handled without any violence or injuries. Joe Donzelli, spokesperson for the Lee County School District, said administrators from the two schools acted impressively in dealing with the threats.
“I can’t say how professional, immediate and appropriate the actions of the administration were,” said Donzelli.
He said the fact that both students were caught, within minutes of the police being tipped off, was proof that the procedures and practices in place work. While he couldn’t expose all of the district’s security precautions, he did say that district staff have tools at their disposal to investigate any reports of weapons on campus.
But, the two recent breaches of security beg the question if more should be done.
One idea which usually surfaces after this type of situation is the installation of metal detectors. But, Donzelli said they aren’t as effective as most people think. Large high schools in Cape Coral, for example, have close to 2,000 students and metal detectors would only take time away from the classroom by having students wait in long lines to use the devices.
The largest high school in Lee County is Ida S. Baker High, with 1,841 students, while Cape Coral High has 1,600 and Cypress Lake High has 1,550. Fort Myers High has 1,730 students.
“If you were to force 1,730 students to walk through metal detectors at one or two locations, you would increase the time it takes to get in that facility exponentially,” said Donzelli, who mentioned public schools in Chicago.
Violence became so prevalent in the Chicago Public School System that officials installed both metal detectors and video cameras on school campuses. Yet, violence continues to be at an all-time high and the shift is now turning from security measures to reaching the thousands of students who are at-risk.
Donzelli said Lee County administrators have the right to use handheld metal detectors on students if “reasonable suspicion” exists. And reasonable suspicion is more than simply an anonymous tip or rumor, he said.
According to the district’s code of conduct, there is zero-tolerance for any weapons on school property with students being expelled for up to one year and law enforcement being contacted.
The district, though, doesn’t want to turn local schools into fortified prisons, and students who want to cause trouble usually will find a way.
“Even if you have those (metal detectors), if you are someone who is bent on breaking the rules, what is going to stop you from walking on the opposite side of the campus, throwing whatever it is over the fence and later going and retrieving what you threw over fence?” he said.
Newer schools also are built differently today than they were a decade or more ago. Older campuses are wide open and more vulnerable to someone with a weapon, while new high schools like Ida S. Baker High or Island Coast High are more fortified than their counterparts. During the day there is only one way inside or outside, a fence surrounds the campus and a security guard meet anyone who enters the boundary.
The Cape Coral Police Department also assigns officers to campuses as school resource officers. In the city there are six serving in middle schools and five in high schools, said Connie Barron, city spokesperson.
Donzelli said there has been 16 incidents since August 2005 where a student in Lee County was found possessing a handgun, according to the definition created by the Florida Department of Education.
According to the state’s School Environmental Safety Incident Report, there were 129 reports of weapons found on campuses between 2006 and 2007 in Lee County, which statistically is the equivalent of 1.5 students with weapons out of 1,000. There are 80,000 students in the district.
But the definition of weapon is much larger than simply guns or knives.
The school district’s 2009-2010 Code of Conduct defines weapons as “firearms, handguns, firearms, zip guns, rifles, shotguns, flare guns, knives, brass knuckles, razor blades, Chinese stars, chains, mace, sharp objects, etc.”
The SESIR shows that weapons possessions are down for both Lee County and the state, but the county’s rate is higher than the state average — a difference of 1.5 possessions per 1,000 students to 0.99 per 1,000 students throughout the state.
For years researchers have been toiling over whether children are becoming more violent. Fist fights in past generations now turn into weapons being smuggled into schools and the issue of cyberbullying exacerbates any hostilities among students.
Dan England, director of quality management at Lee Mental Health Center, said there is no simple answer to the growing symptoms of violence among children and teens. There are theories about what may be causing teens to act more violently — such as graphic films or video games — but none of these are easily proved.
Two types of angry or upset children exist, said England. Those who externalize their emotions — the easiest to identify — and those who internalize. In considering their responses to anger, there is a large spectrum of behavior from suicide or self-injury to those who lash out at others with a weapon.
Some students may attempt to carry a weapon to school for status or protection.
“Everyone at school is carrying guns, so I better bring one too,” said England. “Sometimes it might just be a status thing, that it’s cool in the eyes of your peers to bring a weapon to school.”
According to Donzelli, a lot of students who bring a weapon to school are trying to “show-off,” but he said those with a knowledge of a weapon in school must come forward before it’s too late.
“The big issue we have is the informational piece, and that is to let people know if they are aware of a potentially dangerous situation, that they need to come forward and let us know,” he said.
Ironically, a culture among students has developed into a code of silence, where those who report to administrators are called “snitches” or “narcs,” and perhaps influence others to keep silent on potentially dangerous information.
For many students, such as in the case of the two shooters in the highly publicized act of school violence at Columbine High School in Colorado, the weapon was brought to school as retaliation against bullies.
Bullying victims used to consider their homes as a sanctuary, but now with the introduction of the Internet, those same bullies continue to torment their victims when school isn’t in session. Having online access is a wonderful tool for learning, but it can also be a fuel for violent behavior, said England.
“Now they really can’t get away from it. These kinds of things can go viral pretty quickly,” he said. “There is the ugly side of it (Internet) where they can find places to teach them hatred and pretty nasty stuff.”
England said signs of a child developing anger issues include cruelty to animals or violent acts at an early age. Under some circumstances, children with mental illness or learning disabilities are more likely to do something without thinking of the consequences of their actions.
It’s hard to say if children are more violent than ever before, but the rate of weapons possession has been the same for a decade.
The annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the National Center for Education Statistics asks students if they’ve carried a weapon in the last 30 days before the assessment. In 2005, 19 percent of teenagers in grades 9-12 had admitted to carrying a gun around outside of school and six percent specifically said they brought a gun to school. This figures haven’t changed since 1999.