When weapons end up at school: How local districts are working to keep kids safe

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Though many area schools have reported zero confiscated weapons in the past two years, it does happen -- for example, 17 firearms have been confiscated at Cincinnati Public Schools in that span -- and districts are taking extraordinary new steps to keep kids safe.

After February's school shooting in Parkland, Fla., FOX19 NOW launched an investigation to find out what kind of weapons, if any, were making their way into area schools. We looked at a sampling of nearly 100 districts throughout the Tri-State.

From show-and-tell to bus bullying: Why bring something dangerous to school?

Let's start with CPS, the biggest district in the Tri-State. Out of some 36,000 students at CPS, resource officers have confiscated the following items in the past two years:

  • 17 firearms
  • 29 lookalike firearms
  • 148 of what are considered to be "dangerous weapons," such as knives

Someone bringing a weapon to school can be as innocent as show-and-tell, officials say.

"Our school officials have to take (lookalike weapons) seriously because it keeps them safe," said Lauren Worley, Chief Communications and Engagement Officer for CPS. "You have seconds to make a determination. We really try to stress that with our kids, that it's not a joke, not a prank. And I think that starts really young with the positive school culture that we try to instill in our young people at a very, very young age."

Worley says the numbers are encouraging, as safety is paramount.

"The numbers are going down. I think that's also out of awareness," she said. "We have over 90 security assistants throughout Cincinnati Schools. Four-thousand security cameras help keep folks safe. But that doesn't change the climate and that's why as early as pre-K, when kids are coming in, we're working with them on these positive behavior interventions."

School leaders work with community police officers in their districts, but peer pressure is also a great driver in kids speaking up when they see something.

Worley said there's pressure among students not to bring something dangerous to school.

"We are one of the only school districts in the nation that has mental health services at every single one of our schools," she said. "So at every one of our schools, we have people on-site, providing that support every day. Our team, our staff there, is really trained. If we know a student is going through a tougher time, this team's looking out for those kids."

Bullying on the bus, FOX19 NOW found, was a common thread in different districts. Kids were bringing weapons to protect themselves.

Here's a sampling of some of the infractions:

  • "Pocketknife on the bus to protect himself from another student."
  • "Student had razor blades and two knives, cutting up a styrofoam plate."
  • "Student brought a knife to school, afraid of the Clown Clan."
  • "BB gun and switchblade in the backpack."
  • "Student held lookalike gun behind another student in class aiming it over their shoulder."

CPS has a task force that looks at school security and is continually looking for ways to improve.

There are school response plans at all CPS schools, where they practice ALICE or Active Shooter drills.

A look at mental health, peer-to-peer communication

School shootings from across the U.S. have had a profound impact on local students and school policies.

"I was speechless, I couldn't believe it," said Campbell County High School Freshman Jack Sell.

At his school, he was picked by his classmates to be a "lighthouse" or beacon his peers can trust, to report anything suspicious.

"I think it'd be hard for anybody," said Sell. "But I think our main goal is preparing generations behind us."

Charlie Griffin-Ayers is a fellow freshman and "lighthouse." He believes kids need to talk to each other more.

"Everyone wears a mask every day," said Griffin-Ayers. "Nobody's getting to know each other that well, to know their situation at home, and they can't help."

In her 19 years in Campbell County, Connie Pohlgeers, who's The Director of School Improvement, says they have been lucky.

"It's usually a mistake, it could be anything from a second-grader bringing their pocket knife that belongs to grandpa but nothing as alarming as what has been happening out in other places across the country," said Pohlgeers, adding there have been no guns to her knowledge in the past two years.

Campbell County schools are using a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Justice to change the culture at school, training student leaders in third-, sixth-, and ninth-graders to be these "lighthouses."

"So, by the time the grant is done, more than 200 teachers will be trained on mitigating the bystander effect," said Pohlgeers. "It isn't always easy to stand up and speak up, so our goal is to make sure that we teach them how to do that and teach them to be comfortable doing that. But because those are the students their peers have selected, that they look up to, we're hoping that they will model that behavior and it will permeate the culture of the school. And that means the social, emotional aspect of the child too and we take mental health and the well-being of our students, their emotional well-being very seriously."

The focus is on mental health and kids looking out for each other -- especially when a big conversation in some local districts involves arming teachers.

"Arming our students, if you will, with strategies that they can use to learn to stand-up and always speak up if they see something -- and tell an adult," said Pohlgeers.

Pohlgeers says discipline referrals are being reduced, and students are reporting more.

"And we believe, heading off any issues that could occur," she said.

The district has also added nine additional counselors and one mental health therapist.

CPS has also focused in on the mental health of students.

"The Mind Peace program we have in Cincinnati schools didn't exist in Florida," said Worley, with CPS. "That mental health service we have at every one of our 62 schools here in Cincinnati, is something they might want to be looking at, as a way to kind of head off some of these issues, that might ultimately escalate into a really sad situation."

What happens once these items are confiscated?

"So this is a box of handguns that are scheduled to be destroyed," said Cincinnati Police Lt. Steve Saunders during a tour of the department's Property Room, a virtual arsenal of seized firearms and knives.

Whether it's off the street or from a school, they're all kept there.

"That is where we store the firearms which were held as evidence," said Lt. Sanders. "Or found property that will be destroyed later."

Here are a few examples of what has been seized in the are in the past couple years:

  • An electronic shock device found in a student's backpack in the Three Rivers School District
  • A pellet or BB gun was confiscated in The Princeton School District
  • 18 knives were found at every class level, from primary through high school grades, in Lebanon City Schools
  • Batavia Schools nabbed 13 knives
  • A sixth-grader brought a homemade pair of brass knuckles to class in a Middletown School
  • In the Franklin County (Indiana) Community School Corporation, they found a lookalike grenade.
    • In that same district, five students there have been expelled in that time span for "possessing a deadly weapon other than a firearm"
  • Superintendent John Mehrle from the South Dearborn Community School Corporation reports one set of brass knuckles, one stun gun, one box cutter, one penknife, and one butterfly knife confiscated
  • The Rising-Sun-Ohio County Community School Corporation reports just one knife confiscated in that span

Report card | How Ohio schools are rated for all kinds of safety and more

Nearly every district who replied told us they're always taking steps to improve safety. Boone County sent us this statement:

School Safety is a priority of the School Board and Superintendent.  The Boone County Schools Safety Committee meets monthly to discuss district and campus safety issues, real and potential threats, and the type of safety issues our nation's schools are managing on their campuses. The committee consists of law enforcement personnel, school principals and administrative staff. The Committee reviews safety issues and concerns and makes recommendations to the Board of Education. Boone County Schools utilizes an Emergency Management Plan, which is in place in the event of critical incidents or tragedies. We conduct numerous emergency response drills at each school throughout the school year, parents are kept informed of concerns through an all-call system and social media updates are updated for the community.

Related | Federal report of school crime indicators 

Again, in many cases, schools reported that zero weapons have been confiscated in the past couple of years.

Ask any superintendent and they'll tell you that's what they hope for every year.

EDITOR"S NOTE: A previous version of this story stated CPS was the only school in the Tri-State to have confiscated a firearm. Sunman-Dearborn Community Schools got back to us after the story originally aired and a handgun had been confiscated at East Central High in the past two years. Of the Indiana superintendents who did not originally respond to FOX19's records requests, many instead directed us to the Indiana Schools State Report Cards, which list a number of how many students were expelled for either weapons, drugs or alcohol, but do not provide a breakdown. They're listed on the spreadsheet below by PS (Primary School), IS (Intermediate School), MS (Middle School) Jr HS (Junior High), and HS (High School).

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