Students’ bulging backpacks had better not be concealing a weapon

With school back in session, pupils are being warned to leave their weapons at home, as students in districts across the country are beginning the academic year not only with new homework assignments, but in many cases with stern warnings that weapons will not be tolerated in schools.

Many school districts have adopted strict policies addressing the problem, which appears to be growing. Michigan officials reported recently that 396 expulsions have occurred since 1995, when a zero-tolerance law aimed at keeping weapons out of public schools was enacted. Critics point out, however, that it is hard to gauge the effect because the law doesn’t require school to report offenses.

In August, the school board in Warren Township, Ind., approved a tough policy on guns and drugs that permits authorities to use drug-sniffing dogs and order lock-downs of school buildings when a firearm or deadly weapon in suspected on the premises. The policy, which also includes the use of metal-detectors, provides uniformed security guards during lunch and other key times of the school day and allows random use of dogs for locker and automobile searches.

The strict rules stem from an incident last October when an eighth-grade girl was threatened with a gun by another student. No gun was found, but the boy was sentenced to a juvenile facility.

Meanwhile, in New York, an intermediate appeals court reversed the 1992 suspension of a New York City high school student who was caught with a loaded gun at school, holding that the search of the student that turned up the weapon was illegal and violated his rights. The 4-0 ruling by the state Appellate Division was derided by outraged officials as yet another example of “junk justice.”

“We cannot send out the message that a kid caught with a loaded gun in school can’t even be suspended. It’s lunacy,” said Gov. George Pataki, who ordered his staff to draw up a bill giving schools the right to impose suspensions on weapons-toting students that could not be challenged in court.

New York City Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew said the Board of Education will appeal the ruling to the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, and warned students that they face expulsion if they’re caught bringing a weapon to school.

“The message ought to be that if you bring a weapon to a school in the City of New York, you’re out of here!” he said, announcing a rule that provides expulsion for any student over 17 caught with a weapon. The rule, which must be approved by the Board of Education, would apply to only older students because the city is required by law to provide education to anyone under the age of 17.

Currently, pupils found with guns can be suspended for up to a year and placed in a program for incorrigible students. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said he supports Crew’s rule, which the Mayor said should be applied to any student caught with a weapon.

The appellate ruling, which was handed down Sept. 17, overturned the suspension of a Bronx high school student identified in court papers as Juan C. In December 1992, a security guard found the loaded weapon after he saw what he thought was the handle of a gun inside the student’s jacket. The guard grabbed at the bulge and called for backup. Another officer handcuffed the student and took him before school officials, who suspended him and called police.

The student challenged the punishment on the basis that the search was illegal, and the appellate panel agreed. “No matter how serious the public safety concerns, if the critical evidence was illegally obtained, it cannot be used,” wrote Justice Joseph P. Sullivan.

Meanwhile, Giuliani said he will continue his effort to have the school security system placed under the jurisdiction of the Police Department, despite figures that showed serious crime dropped 11 percent in New York City schools last year. Crew said there were 1,200 fewer reports of rape, assault, drug use, menacing and other serious incidents during the 1995-1996 school year compared to the previous year. But overall, reported criminal incidents rose 16 percent.

In other areas, police officers have become a familiar site on school campuses, where they patrol for trouble but also forge positive relationships with students. According to the Florida-based National Association of School Resource Officers, which offers training to about 1,000 SROs each year in everything from adolescent psychology to methods of detecting child abuse and neglect, at least 10 percent of all school districts have full-time police officers assigned to work in schools.


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Published in Law Enforcement News
Nov. 15, 1996.
© 1996, LEN Inc.