Live 5 Investigates: Weapons in schools

Live 5 Investigates: Weapons in schools
Published: Mar. 1, 2018 at 3:16 AM EST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2018 at 10:16 AM EST
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Chart of weapons
Chart of weapons

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - As the national conversation around gun violence and school safety continues following the deadly Valentine's Day school shooting in Florida, we analyzed state data regarding weapons in schools.

From 2012 to 2017, South Carolina schools reported a total or 4,131 weapons offenses that led to suspension or expulsion.

8.7% (363) of those involved firearms.

"It's crazy that there are guns in schools. Period," Rep. Mark Sanford said."I fall on the side of no 'hand slaps.' When kids are walking into a classroom to show a Snapchat picture of themselves with a gun, that's a far cry from the academic experiment that I think first to twelfth grade really ought to be about."

He's not exaggerating.

Last September, a Stall High School student was arrested for posing in a school bathroom with a handgun.

In 2015, a 15-year-old student was found with a loaded Ruger in his book bag at Stratford High School.

Multiple schools have responded to threats and rumors of violence in the two weeks since the Florida school shooting.

"It's heart-wrenching," said Nexton Elementary School teacher Nichole Elliott.

She and other Berkeley County teachers spent a recent workday undergoing active shooter training and gunfire recognition training.

Officers fired blanks from four different types of guns from different parts of the school to help teachers learn how to identify the sound of gunfire.

Elliott was thinking of her 24 second-grade students the whole time.

"It became very real," she said."You get that twinge of pain in your gut. This is what people felt."

Charleston County Schools Director of Security Michael Reidenbach has been discussing metal detector options with the school board for several months.

They are considering a range of potential expenses.

"It's an incredible responsibility that we have," said Reidenbach. "I would say the only thing above education is school safety."

For five years, Charleston County Schools has reported the highest number of total weapons offenses leading to suspension and expulsion in the state.

When compared to overall enrollment, CCSD's reports were higher than other districts.

The numbers were consistent, with 60 to 70 weapons reported per school year, until last year when it nearly doubled from 70 to 132.

CCSD said the jump is partly because of their new Progressive Discipline Plan which changed how they code discipline problems like weapons.

The PDP was created in response to reporting inconsistencies noted in a March 2016 review of disciplinary practices.

"We understand the increase seems alarming, however, we believe the current numbers are more accurate than what has been previously reported," said Jennifer Coker, the executive director of Alternative Programs and Services.

Reidenbach added, "The handgun numbers take up a very, very small piece of those total numbers."

About 5% of those 132 CCSD weapons incidents last year involved firearms.

The rest are labeled by the S.C. Department of Education as "other weapons."

Spokesperson Ryan Brown explained those include knives, razor blades, ice picks, Chinese stars, chains, brass knuckles, billy clubs, stun guns, mace, tear gas, hatchets, tasers and pepper spray.

"Four to five percent of kids bring a weapon into school the last 30 days," said MUSC Psychiatrist Dr. Lee Lewis.

He said there's no reason to assume kids in one school district or another are bringing more weapons to schools; it's more likely that some districts are just better at detecting and reporting it.

When asked why students bring weapons to school, Lewis said the reasons are similar to why adults arm themselves.

"First and foremost- number one- children report carrying weapons for their own safety," Lewis said."They feel unsafe and having a weapon makes them feel safer."

Lee said other motivations include a kid thinking a weapon is cool or fun.

"It can make them feel powerful or simply be a way to show off," Lee said.

Furthermore, he said there are factors that make a student more likely to arm himself.

"If you perceive yourself as someone who's being bullied at school, that's an increased risk factor of bringing a weapon to school," Lee said.

He explained that if a bullied student has been the victim of aggression at school, missed school because they felt unsafe, or has a history of fighting at school, the risk increases.

"Those three conditions increase the likelihood that someone being bullied would bring a weapon to school from six or seven percent all the way up to almost 50 percent," Lee said.

Local school districts use random searches and some metal detectors to deter weapons.

Reidenbach said CCSD has active shooter drills annually.

He says they've sent flyers to parents, made presentations to schools, and met with student focus groups to create an awareness video that explains the consequences of weapons.

Berkeley County Schools' weapons numbers have also been one of the highest in the state the last three years.

"Not all those weapons are real weapons or real firearms. A lot of times it's a toy gun. A lot of the times it's accidental. They're coming from work- they forgot something was in their bookbag," said Tim Knight, BCSD Safety and Security coordinator.

DD2 Security Coordinator Mike Turner attributes their low weapons numbers to the students buying in to their own responsibility for safety in school.

"Many of them will go against the no-snitching mindset," Turner said."They understand an adult is the appropriate person to tell."

Turner certainly worries about social problems outside of school that tempt students to arm themselves in school.

"It is not acceptable and it takes a combination of the school and the parents and guardians to make sure these students don't let those outside experiences affect the school day," he said.

Each security director said their best weapons are the students themselves.

"The students do a great job of almost policing themselves," said Knight.

Lewis said it can be hard for parents to forget the images of national school shootings.

He suggests remembering the following: "The two safest places for kids by far are home and school. Because they have more people around them who care about them, who care about their wellbeing, care about their future. That's when they're going to be the safest."

Note: Some districts including DD4 reported zero weapons found for several years. We've asked them to double check those numbers.

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