Violence and Weapons

AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Two major issues are central to the school safety debate—Fourth Amendment rights in search and seizure and the extent of a school's authority in controlling the school environment and its occupants. Although all states impose minimal guidelines, each school and school district is responsible for its own governing policies. Setting the standard for all states is the 1994 Improving America's Schools Act passed which amended the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title IV of the Improving Schools Act, called Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities, outlines legislation and initiatives to make schools safe. For example, one of the goals of national education was to have drug-free and weapons-free school campuses by the year 2000 and, further, to offer students "a disciplined environment that is conducive to learning."

Violence in school has received much public attention during the past several years because incidents of school violence in which students and/or teachers have died of gunshot wounds have occurred across the United States from Springfield, Oregon to Edinboro, Pennsylvania. However, according to various sources, the number of violent crimes committed on school grounds has been declining for several years, following decreases in other violent crime (see Agnew, 2000; Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), 1999; U. S. Department of Education (USEd), 1999). In fact, students are three times more likely to be victims of a non-fatal violent crime outside of school than they are at school (Agnew, 2000). The one type of violent crime committed on school grounds that has increased is the number of multiple victim homicides (OJJDP, 1999; USEd, 1999), but the odds of a student being a victim of such a homicide are about one in three million (Brezina & Wright, 2000).

The school setting is unique in that it forces large groups of people together for extended periods of time in small areas. Many state legislatures have recognized that certain acts committed under these circumstances have potentially greater harmful effects to the health and safety of people and have implemented legislation accordingly.

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Weapons at School

Violence at school often involves the use of weapons. Traditionally, weapons prohibited on school grounds referred to firearms and explosives, but recently, many states have widened these guidelines. For example, in Kansas, weapons include firearms, explosive devices, bludgeons, metal knuckles, throwing stars, electronic stun guns, specific types of knives (such as switchblades and butterfly knives), and any weapon that "expels a projectile by the action of an explosive" (e.g., gunpowder). Other states have gone much further than these specifications. Georgia defines weapons in its school laws as items complying with these descriptions:

any pistol, revolver, or any weapon designed or intended to propel a missile of any kind, or any dirk, bowie knife, switchblade knife, ballistic knife, any other knife having a blade of three or more inches, straight-edge razor, razor blade, spring stick, metal knuckles, blackjack, any bat, club, or other bludgeon-type weapon, or any flailing instrument consisting of two or more rigid parts connected in such a manner as to allow them to swing freely, which may be known as a nun chahka, nun chuck, nunchaku, shuriken, or fighting chain, or any disc, of whatever configuration, having at least two points or pointed blades which is designed to be thrown or propelled and which may be known as a throwing star or oriental dart, or any weapon of like kind, and any stun gun or taser (Code 1-33).

The only instances in which all states allow weapons and firearms on school property are when individuals are authorized to do so; for example, school police officers may be armed and teachers having instructional purposes. Many people wonder how many youth have access to weapons. Recent data indicate that about 30 percent of young individuals own a firearm (Brezina & Wright, 2000). Further, a national study conducted by the Center for Disease Control revealed that in 1997 about one-fifth of high school students reported carrying a weapon to school.

Ramifications of Possessing Weapons on School Grounds

In nearly all states, possession of a firearm on school property is a class C or class D felony. In addition to having the right to file criminal charges, all school districts have an automatic expulsion policy for students caught with any type of weapon on school property which action can be appealed on a case-by-case basis. Such policies are mandated by the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. Special Education students are protected from automatic expulsion under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A special education student who is found to be possessing a weapon on school grounds is subject to removal from the school to an interim setting for a period of up to 45 days. During this time, the incident is studied, and if the possession of the weapon was not due to the student's disability, that student can be punished in the same way as...

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