Elementary students in Richmond County, some as young as 5 years old, have been caught bringing weapons like pellet guns and knives to class more often than their peers in middle and high schools over the past three years, according to an analysis by The Augusta Chronicle.
The newspaper reviewed more than 1,200 incident reports involving student violations and found that authorities confiscated 116 weapons from elementary students between 2010 and 2013, compared to 71 and 87 weapons seized in middle and high schools, respectively.
School Safety and Security Chief Alfonzo Williams said the number of incidents at elementary schools might surprise some but is not reason for alarm because the vast majority are innocent and without ill intent – a common trend found nationwide.
More than 90 percent of the weapons cases reported showed these students bringing either a knife to show classmates, having a box cutter in a backpack or other similar circumstances without threatening or harming others, according to the reports. In general, experts say that’s not unusual and that younger students are more likely to carry weapons to show off without thinking of the consequences.
“It sounds crazy, but it’s mostly a show-and-tell thing,” said Todd DeMitchell, professor of education and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire. “They’ll bring in a weapon without necessarily knowing how dangerous it is, and when that occurs, it raises the issue of (weapon) safety in homes.”
According to incident and tribunal reports, elementary students either threatened or harmed a classmate with a weapon on seven occasions over the last three years compared to 12 times in middle and six in high schools.
For example, a 7-year-old Blythe Elementary student pointed a loaded pellet gun at classmates in April and a 9-year-old boy at Sue Reynolds Elementary School threatened to cut a classmate’s tongue with two knives in 2010.
Disciplinary cases involving a suspension of more than 10 days typically are referred to a tribunal panel, which hears the case and might assign the student to the alternative program. Elementary students are not typically subject to tribunals because there are no elementary grades in the alternative program. However, they can be suspended for 10 days or fewer or counseled by the administrator, which was the case with elementary incidents.
In the middle and high school weapons cases, the vast majority resulted in arrest, suspension or reassignment to the alternative program, reports show.
In 2011, 8.6 percent of Georgia students reported carrying a weapon to school and 11.7 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon, according to the most recent Centers for Disease Control data.
Chris Dorn, an analyst with Safe Havens International who perfoms safety checks for schools, said the most common type of weapon found in schools is a knife with a one- to two-inch blade. He said elementary students are more likely than their older peers to bring weapons to school because they are unaware of the rules or want to show their friends.
Still, Dorn said school campuses remain the safest places for children despite the nationwide questioning of school security after mass shootings such as at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and Columbine High School in Colorado.
“Some people think Sandy Hook is the norm when in fact Sandy Hook is such an abnormal event that it doubled the homicide rate for schools,” Dorn said. “We know schools are safest places to be for kids and have been for the past decade.”
To make Richmond County classrooms as secure as possible, changes have been made by school safety officials to better prepare staff for student-on-student violence and dangerous intruders.
In September, Williams appointed Cpl. Jeff Tilley as emergency preparedness officer to develop site-safety plans for all 57 schools and train staff on lockdown procedures in the event of a shooter.
“We don’t just want to have a plan that sits on a shelf,” Williams said of taking preparedness to the next level. “We want a well-trained staff that’s vigilant and ready whether it is an active shooter or a natural disaster.”
For the first time in Richmond County, Tilley has led an effort to do state-approved safety checks that reviews locks, cameras and ID systems county-wide to ensure they are in working order. Each school will have an 80-page safety manual that details the steps administrators, students and parents should take in the event of an emergency.
“People learn from practicing procedures, not just being told what to do,” Tilley said. “If we expose it to them ahead of time then they have something to relate it to when an emergency actually happens. It should be second nature when we’re done.”