In May, a 15-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the leg with a .22-caliber pistol he had brought with him to his Dallas high school. The boy, whose name hasn’t been released, has learning disabilities and was a victim of persistent bullying, his mother, Billye High, told a local news station.
High told reporters her son brought the gun to school with the intention of taking his own life. “There was nowhere to turn to, so he’d rather kill himself at the school,” she said.
Two weeks later, the boy was arrested and charged with a felony.
For parents, there are few prospects as terrifying as sending a child off to school with a classmate who may be harboring a firearm inside a locker or book bag. But that nightmare scenario played out on average more than once each school day in the U.S. in the 2015–2016 academic year, an analysis of news reports by The Trace found.
From August through mid-June, there were at least 269 incidents in which elementary, middle, and high school students were caught with guns on school grounds. That figure is an update to the March tally of 185 such incidents in the first five months of the school year. (Some incidents involved multiple students and multiple guns.)
Kids brought firearms onto school property in states with both strict and lax gun laws, and high and low gun ownership rates. Florida reported the most incidents, 28, while nine states — Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Wyoming, Vermont, and Utah — reported none.
This tally represents only guns discovered by school officials. Studies have found that America’s 50 million public school children frequently bring firearms to class undetected. According to one 2011 study, 5.4 percent of students nationwide reported they had brought a weapon to school at least one day during the previous month. A subsequent study, which focused exclusively on firearms, found 7.5 of students in Washington, D.C., reported having brought a gun to school, compared to 2.3 percent in New York City.
Miami is one of 20 Florida cities where administrators reported confiscating a gun. On November 2, a 17-year-old boy was arrested for carrying a loaded 9mm handgun to school. Police said the arrest was connected to an earlier incident, in which the teen threatened a cyclist.
Lieutenant Raul Correa, the public information officer at the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, says kids who bring guns to school are desensitized to guns because of their ubiquity in American pop culture. “I don’t think kids realize the impact” guns can have, he says. “We reap what we sow.”
The Trace’s analysis found that some kids carried guns to school to show them off to friends, while others brought them in anticipation of a fight or for protection. Children who have been bullied are nearly twice as likely to carry weapons to school, according to a 2014 study.
And in some instances, children didn’t know they were carrying a deadly weapon. In Philadelphia on May 25, a second-grader discovered a loaded Glock in his backpack. The boy’s father, a security guard, told police that he stashed the gun in his bag while getting him ready for school but forgot to take it out. Similar incidents were reported in Texas in November and in Florida in January.
The youngest child caught with a gun at school this past school year was a 4-year-old boy in Amite City, Louisiana, who grabbed his mother’s legally owned .22-caliber pistol out of her purse one late October morning and put it in his backpack. The woman and her husband were arrested and charged with misdemeanor child desertion — the harshest penalty that state allows for such an infraction.
Most of the students who toted guns into school this year brought them from home. A survey published by Pew last year found that a third of Americans with children under 18 at home keep a gun on the premises.
A 2006 study from San Francisco General Hospital and Harvard University found that parents often underestimate their child’s knowledge where a gun is stored in the home. In three quarters of 201 gun-owning households, children said they knew where the gun was stored — often, even when their parents thought they had concealed the location from their child.
There is no federal law mandating safe storage of firearms, but in 14 states, including Florida, adults can be held criminally liable under state gun laws if they don’t secure their guns.
Most of the time when a firearm is found in a school, no one gets hurt. When a gun is fired on school grounds, it is usually an accident — the result of a child playing with the weapon, or showing it off.
On May 13, a pistol concealed in a high school student’s backpack accidentally discharged in a crowded cafeteria in Greenville, South Carolina. A classmate was shot in the stomach, but survived.
In more tragic instances — a murder-suicide at a high school in Glendale, Arizona; an ambush at a prom in Antigo, Wisconsin — students entered their schools intending to kill.
Social media is playing a bigger role in apprehending students who pack heat on campus: This year, at least six students were arrested after photographs and videos of themselves brandishing handguns on school grounds showed up online.
On December 2, a high school student in Washington, D.C., somehow smuggled a handgun past a metal detector and security guards, who had performed a bag search. The gun was detected only after a classmate took photos of it and posted them to Snapchat.
Incidents compiled by Jennifer Mascia, Erin Corbett, and Jacqueline Thomsen.