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Cover Story

Preventing School Weapons Assaults

The nuts and bolts of stopping the violence before it happens.

May 01, 2001  |  by Michael Dorn

A basic form of weapons screening involves the manner in which tips involving weapons are handled. As with any other form of screening, an armed officer should always be present when any form of search for a weapon is conducted. Too many educators have been stabbed, shot and taken hostage while trying to search students for weapons.

Contrary to widely held belief, SROs can often legally search students in the same manner as school officials when certain basic guidelines are followed. If you have been told that SROs must always have probable cause to search students, review a copy of the manual Safety, Order and Discipline in American Schools published by Law Advisory Group. It is tragic that at least one mass school shooting occurred when school officials missed an opportunity for law enforcement to recover a gun from the shooter prior to the assault.

It is important to thoroughly investigate tips involving guns. If a report is received that a student has a firearm, be sure to consider alternate locations. The gun may have been moved to a locker, car, passed to another student, or may have been left at home that day. If a student is found with handgun ammunition, he or she often has a weapon hidden somewhere. As with other types of searches, whenever one weapon is found, officers should begin looking for additional weapons. The gun you do not find today may be the one that is used in a school shooting tomorrow.

The home search technique has probably prevented more planned school shootings and bombings than any other single tactic. This procedure is used to recover firearms and explosives before they can be used at school. Whether through consent or the use of a search warrant, it is an important technique to remember for certain situations (see insert).

Gun detection dogs can be very effective in locating firearms in student vehicles, lockers and public areas.  Dogs are also a very powerful deterrent to potential violators when they realize the animals can locate guns.

Some Other Ideas

For schools located in high crime areas, intensive traffic enforcement with an emphasis on gun and drug interdiction has proven to be extremely effective. In Macon, Ga., six gang-related shootings occurred on city streets adjacent to schools in 90 days. After school district police were authorized to write traffic tickets off-campus, they began an intensive effort in a number of problem areas. Three months later, more than 2,000 moving citations had been issued and 300 arrests had been made. The shooting incidents stopped abruptly.

Carefully designed and thoughtfully implemented random surprise weapons screenings have helped many districts dramatically reduce student weapons violations. Careful legal review is required before random metal detection or random locker inspections are implemented. If properly conducted, this type of screening is actually less intrusive and inconvenient for students than entry point screening. The demeanor of officers and school staff who conduct the screening is critical. As with entry point metal detection, screening done without a conscious effort to treat students with the utmost respect and politeness will alienate them.

Entry point metal detection is often useful at smaller specialized facilities such as alternative schools. This type of screening is only as reliable as the weakest point in the system. If students are able to find a flaw, they can beat the system. This can be as simple as putting a gun on a window ledge and retrieving it after getting into the building. If entry point detection is found to be necessary, it should be supplemented by periodic random screening. Further enhancement can be achieved through periodic double screening. This technique entails having students screened at two screening stations, often with handheld metal detectors at the second station. Entry point detection is often practical for special events and athletic events. Whenever entry point screening is used, protection should be provided if large groups of people waiting to be screened begin to back up. This can create a very vulnerable target group for a planned shooting situation.

Working as a Team

Alert and dedicated law enforcement officers have worked closely with school officials and mental health professionals to prevent dozens of planned school shootings and bombings. For every major incident that has been reported in the news, several others did not happen due to officers' alertness. If peace officers have ever been needed to make a difference it is now and it is in our nation's schools. Our children need your skills and your perseverance. Your efforts can mean the difference between life and death for our children and those who educate them.

Home Search Technique

Law enforcement officers should work closely with school officials and mental health professionals to recover firearms and explosive devices before they are used at school. A home search may be appropriate when:

1. A student is caught with a gun, explosive device or components to make an explosive device at school. A "gun warrant" for the student's bedroom can normally be obtained when a student is found with a gun on school property.

2. A student is found to possess handgun ammunition at school or reliable information is received that the student has been carrying a gun in the community.

3. A student makes threats to commit a shooting or a bombing at school and a multidisciplinary team assessment considers the student to be a viable threat.

4. Any other time when officers believe the student has illegal firearms or explosives hidden at home.

In instances where a search warrant cannot be obtained, an attempt should be made to conduct a search with consent. A number of agencies have had good results in having school officials and/or mental health professionals assist them in the search (once it is determined it is safe to bring them into the residence). These civilians have frequently noticed significant items that might not be recognized as important by officers.

When appropriate, be sure to look for written documents that contain plans to commit acts of violence or threats. This type of information may be found on the student's computer.

In cases where a gun has been recovered at school, be sure to look for ammunition or gun accessories that relate to the weapon. It may be helpful to have evidence in court in case the violator later tries to deny knowledge that the gun was in his or her vehicle, book bag or locker.

Michael S. Dorn is the School Safety Specialist for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency - Office of the Governor. The author can be contacted at [email protected]

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Tags: School Shootings, Campus Safety


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