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An exclusive Scripps News investigation found increasing numbers of guns at schools. Cases involved teens and kids as young as five.
A Scripps News investigation found hundreds of incidents in which students brought guns onto public school campuses during the first half of the school year, including a Missouri kindergartner who brought a loaded handgun in his backpack, and an Ohio teenager who bypassed a security checkpoint with an AR-15-style rifle in his bag.
"It's heartbreaking," said Taylor Lemieux, the father of the 5-year-old boy who packed his mother's handgun in his bag before attending his kindergarten class at Robertsville Elementary School, outside of St. Louis, in October.
Courtesy of Taylor Lemieux
Taylor Lemieux (right) and his family at Silver Dollar City, an amusement park in Branson, Missouri. (Photo courtesy of Taylor Lemieux)
Lemieux believes his son took the gun out of the glovebox in his mother's car.
"He easily could've ended up killing another innocent person just from having a handgun that he shouldn't have had," he said. Lemieux said his son told him he put the gun in his backpack, so his younger brother could not access it.
When a teacher found it, the 9mm weapon had a full 10-round magazine loaded. "One round was in the chamber, and the safety was in the off position," according to the statement of probable cause used to arrest and charge the boy's mother, Erica Lemieux, with child endangerment.
Franklin County Sheriff's Office
The 9mm handgun Taylor Lemieux's five-year-old son brought to Robertsville Elementary School in October of 2022. (Photo by Franklin County Sheriff's Office)
The boy was suspended from attending classes for the rest of the school year, according to Lemieux.
"If you're not responsible to keep your firearms and to keep them locked up, you shouldn't be in possession of them," said Lemieux.
Scripps News Investigation Finds Increase in Gun Incidents
A Scripps News analysis of data collected by the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research organization that tracks gun incidents based on government, commercial, and media sources, found a steady increase in cases of guns being found on school campuses over the past several school years.
Our analysis determined at least 426 students younger than 18 brought guns to campus, nationwide, during the first half of the 2022-2023 school year. During the same period in 2021, 338 children were found with guns on school properties. In the year prior to the pandemic, 2019, there were at least 217 cases.
During the pandemic year, many schools closed their buildings, so the data is not reliable.
In one of the 2022-2023 cases, an 18-year-old student with a dismantled, semi-automatic AR-15-style rifle in his backpack circumvented a security checkpoint at a Cleveland school’s main entrance in October.
Cleveland Metropolitan School District Safety and Security Department
An AR-15 style rifle found in an 18-year-old student's backpack at East Technical High School, Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Cleveland Metropolitan School District Safety and Security Department)
According to a Cleveland Metropolitan School District Safety and Security Department report, the student said he forgot about the gun. He also reported, "he was allowed by school administration to enter through the rear entrance of the school that does not have a security checkpoint."
The report said the school principal "stated [redacted name] is a special education student, and all special education CMSD bus rider students are dropped off in the rear parking lot and are allowed to use the rear entrance."
But in a later statement to Scripps News, a Cleveland Metropolitan School District spokesperson, Roseann Canfora, said the student was not part of the special needs group. Security officers noticed the teen because he entered the school with a bookbag which was "atypical for him."
"The student was spotted by officers as not being part of that group; hence, the apprehension and search of the student," said Canfora.
"Since that attempted breach, none of our special needs students are permitted to enter through any door but the main door and security check point," Canfora added.
Our Scripps News investigation focused on nearly 40 large school districts in 11 states plus a few other districts where there were publicly reported incidents of firearms on school campuses during the first half of the 2022-2023 school year.
We filed open records requests for photos, videos, and details of campus gun incidents involving students to shed light on who is bringing the guns to campus, how, and why.
Several districts we reached out to, including Loudon County Public Schools in Virginia, Cincinnati Public Schools in Ohio, Rockwood School District in Missouri, Springfield Public School District in Missouri, Reading School District in Pennsylvania, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, and Newport News Public Schools in Virginia (where a six-year-old is accused of shooting his teacher in 2023) said they discovered no firearms on their campuses during the first half of the school year.
However, our investigation uncovered dozens of incidents across the country in which students brought weapons – some of them loaded - into school buildings.
In Wake County, North Carolina, a twelve-year-old fired a gun inside a Fuquay-Varina Middle School classroom, damaging a building window, in December. However, an investigation found the student did not appear to be threatening any students or staff when he fired the gun.
Fuquay-Varina Police Department
A 12-year-old student fired a gun inside, hitting a classroom window at Fuquay-Varina Middle School in North Carolina. (Photo by Fuquay-Varina Police Department)
In Fresno, California, administrators said a sixth grader was carrying a gun in his backpack at Norseman Elementary School in August, so they expelled him. A ninth grader had a pistol in his pocket in September and was also expelled.
In the Houston Independent School District, officials documented 12 cases of children with guns at school, including incidents at two middle schools.
In the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, the district recorded one incident in October. According to a report the district provided, the campus administrator "found a backpack with a gun in a locked stall in the girls' restroom." Three children, ages 15, 16, and 17 were expelled.
In Kansas City, Missouri, district officials at North Kansas City Schools reported two incidents, including one involving an 11th grader who had a loaded firearm in his waistband.
In another case, an 8th grader from Antioch Middle School flashed a gun at a high school football stadium. He told authorities "he got the gun from his dad's safe."
Columbus City Schools in Ohio reported 13 incidents involving firearms being found at various schools in the district during the first half of the school year, including a September case at Westgate Elementary School in which administrators found a loaded gun with "one bullet in the chamber and full loaded magazine."
And in Tampa, Florida, the Hillsborough County Public Schools reported at least six incidents, including one at Hillsborough High School in which a female student was carrying her boyfriend's loaded gun in her backpack and one at Thonotosassa Elementary school in which a student "brought an unloaded gun to the school inside a backpack," and an observant classmate spotted the gun and reported it to a bus driver.
Several districts are still compiling data or have yet to provide it.
For context, fewer than seven percent of schools that receive federal funding reported having a firearm incident on campus in recent years, according to data collected by the Department of Education as part of the Gun Free Schools Act.
The most recent data are from the 2019-2020 school year, collected at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, but the Department of Education said the data are "not comparable to prior school years of reporting, because of widespread school closures that occurred nationally."
Only 6.6 percent of schools said they experienced firearm incidents during the school year prior to the pandemic in 2018-2019. In all, they reported 2,894 students possessed a firearm or brought one on to school campus.
A firearm may include "any destructive, device, such as an explosive, incendiary device, or poison gas," as well as "any firearm muffler or firearm silencer," according to the Department of Education's State Report on the Implementation of the Gun Free Schools Act, published in March 2022.
"A lot of times, when kids do bring firearms to school, it's because those firearms are available at homes and in families. Parents have not secured those devices," said Dr. Odis Johnson Jr., a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University who serves as the Executive Director of the university's Center for Safe and Healthy Schools.
According to a January report from the RAND Corporation, there is supportive evidence that Child Access Prevention laws with specific language requiring gun owners to safely store their firearms, reduce firearm injuries among young people, including youth firearm suicide, homicide and assaults.
A Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence study published in 2004 also concluded "there is evidence that Child Access Prevention laws are associated with a modest reduction in suicide rates among youth aged 14 to 17 years."
"Often times kids are from backgrounds where they feel a gun is needed, whether it's the type of neighborhood they're in, the type of school that they go to, or even their social media lives could, at times, provoke a feeling of threat and the need for a firearm, and that's unfortunate because there are ways to make kids feel safe at school," said Johnson.
At Mergenthaler Vocational Technical School in Baltimore, where a student was shot to death in a school parking lot this past fall, Principal Tricia Lawrence is especially sensitive to what students might carry with them on their way to and from school.
Zach Cusson / Scripps News
Principal Tricia Lawrence greets students as they arrive at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical School in Baltimore. (Photo by Zach Cusson / Scripps News)
She helped disarm a student with a knife last year.
Districtwide, Baltimore City Public Schools reported confiscating ten guns from students this school year, including three at Lawrence's school.
"Their travel from home to here is a gray area, and it's the reason for why they might feel the necessity to arm themselves with even just the smallest thing," she said, explaining that parents sometimes empower their children to carry weapons, including mace, for protection on their way to school.
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Students at Lawrence's high school are required to go through a metal detector when they arrive to campus, but soon, the school will participate in a pilot program that will test a more advanced weapons detection system, made by Evolv Technology.
Evolv Express is "an advanced weapons detection system that uses AI and sensor technology to pinpoint threats and distinguish between everyday objects and weapons (or components of weapons) while people move through security screening at the pace of life without having to remove items such as cell phones or keys," according to Alexandra Smith Ozerkis, a spokesperson for the company.
The technology will not collect biometric data and will not use facial recognition, said Sherry Christian, a spokesperson for Baltimore City Public Schools. "The detectors will be programmed to look for characteristics that match items, not people, to determine if an object is a potential threat," she said.
"It is a double-edged sword because you are disarming a student before they enter," said Lawrence, "but I have to sleep at night that when you're in this (school) environment, I was not a part of the decision to where you do carry a weapon, and now you're going to use it based on your emotional state, and that is what I tell parents. I get it, when you're traveling back and forth, but I can’t condone it when you're in this (school) community. This is not the streets."
The current school security checkpoint gives students like Mark Cloude, a junior, mixed feelings.
He said the metal detectors aren't that effective because they often detect things that are not weapons, but he does often worry about what students may be carrying with them.
Mark Cloude, a junior at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical School in Baltimore, has concerns about classmates bringing weapons to school. (Photo by Zach Cusson / Scripps News)
"It's like, most kids in (the school) are all fired up, like they got something to prove, like they don't want to take nothing from nobody, like how they try to be all tough and stuff, so you bump into the wrong person…they can just do anything to you, and you wouldn't know what to do or what he has or anything."
Cloude said he thinks the school should have more thorough bag checks.
"I would rather be late to my first period class and have them check every part of everybody's bag than me to be on time and then somebody could sneak like a knife or something in school," said Cloude.
Nehemiah Grogan, a senior, said the security process can be "quite annoying" and an invasion of privacy. "Some kids are really good kids," he said. "They just want to come to school, just learn, and get an education and try to move forward in life."
Lawrence also said the current security checkpoint system is not the most efficient.
It often beeps when students have cell phones or laptops and when they are wearing jewelry, and airpods. Sometimes students are waiting in a security line for several minutes.
"When you come to a school, you're coming to learn, you're not coming to go through a whole 15, 10, or even five minutes of a security screening," she said. “This new machine is really, for me, it's about detecting the right item as well as allowing more students to come through so that the efficiency of time is of the essence to get them into class."
Beyond the physical security measures, Lawrence said her staff has worked to create relationships with her students, so they feel comfortable to come forward if they see something inappropriate on campus.
"We're about learning, and we're also about having an enriched experience. Having a security scanner is just a part of the process to get to the rich experience because we are buffering what is on the streets, and once they come through, we're good."
"It is about the relationship building. It is about making sure, which is the truth, that our schools are safer than being outside, that kids come in, they feel emotionally safe, they feel academically safe, and they feel physically safe," said John Davis, the chief of schools at Baltimore City Public Schools.
Davis said he is hopeful the advanced detection system will make the screening process more streamlined for students.
"We're doing a pilot because we want to hear from (the students) and make sure that they like what their experience is," he said.
Johnson encouraged mental health supports and social media monitoring as effective solutions for preventing children from carrying weapons, and he cautioned against creating a school environment that is too "heavily fortified."
"We've been trying to understand at what point in a school security plan does (physical security) become excessive? Of course, some of these features are absolutely necessary. I just don’t think we know within research and policy implementation what that threshold is," he said.
His own research, published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in 2022, shows schools practicing eight or more simultaneous security surveillance measures, like metal detectors, clear backpacks, and sniffing dogs, are linked to students with lower math scores, an increase in discipline, and fewer kids going to college when compared to schools with fewer security measures.
"The most important security aspect of a school is its climate. Its ability to make kids feel welcome, to feel invested, to have peers that affirm them and teachers that meet their aspirations," he said.
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