Nobody Knows How Many Kids Get Caught With Guns In School. Here’s Why.
One day after a Florida teenager walked into his former high school and carried out one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, at least seven other teens across the country walked into school with a gun.
The firearms were seized without harm in Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and Texas, according to local news reports. Such incidents fuel the widespread fear that students often bring guns to school. But there’s no way to tell if this is true. There is no good data.
Because of lax reporting by schools and lax oversight by state and federal authorities — and despite federal law — it’s nearly impossible to say just how many students get caught taking firearms into public schools each year.
When a student is caught with a gun at school, the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act requires schools to report the incident to the school district, which is supposed to pass the information along to state education officials, who then are supposed to send it to the U.S. Department of Education. The idea behind the reporting requirement is to make it possible to detect trends and inform policymakers as they seek to address the problem.
But much of the information on the Education Department’s website is either outdated or inconsistent with state data. The department did not follow up to multiple questions and requests from Stateline for new and more comprehensive data.
In the past few years, school and state officials have not properly tracked deadly school shootings in Arizona and Colorado, and firearm-related school incidents in Maine. State education officials there say that while they collect statistics, they don’t enforce the reporting requirement.
In Maine, Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Millett said she wants to require the state’s Education Department to submit gun incident information to the Legislature each year, so lawmakers can ensure that the state is tracking the information accurately and can use it to make policy.
“We need to understand the nature of what we are facing,” she said.
U.S. students were caught with a firearm at school at least 1,576 times during the 2015-16 school year, according to a federal database with information collected from states through the Gun-Free Schools Act.
This data is incomplete, though. The federal numbers are lower than the numbers recorded by at least five states — Iowa, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland and Washington — in recent years, according to a Stateline review.
In Iowa, 15 firearm incidents were recorded in 2015-16. Only one shows up in the federal database. Iowa education officials did not respond to a follow-up question about why the state and federal data are different.
In Washington state, the federal data shows a decline from 162 firearm incidents in 2009-10 to 13 in 2015-16. But the state count shows 128 incidents in 2015-16, about the same as 2009-10, when there were 130 incidents. State education officials confirmed the state data is accurate.
Mike Donlin, program supervisor for the school safety center at the Washington department of education, said he wasn’t sure why the numbers were different.
Federal and state data grossly underestimate threats to schools, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based school safety consulting firm. With no nationally enforced reporting system, he said, schools’ reporting is a “goodwill effort.”
There are a few carrots and absolutely no sticks for local school districts to give data to the states, Trump said.
The best effort to track guns in schools might come at the local level, Trump said, but some school administrators might be reluctant. “There are some that believe that, ‘No data, no problem, but if there is data, we have to do something about it.’ ”
School administrators may try to keep firearm incidents under wraps, Trump said, to protect the school’s image, or their own.
“If their school comes in with numbers higher than a school on the other side of town,” he said, “those administrators may seem to be better at keeping the school safe, when in reality, they may have a less-safe school, they are just not honestly reporting.”
The 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act also requires students who bring guns to school be expelled for at least a year in most cases, but some gun advocates say it isn’t the federal government’s place to make such judgments.