SEATTLE -- Students were expelled or suspended from a Washington public school 45 times last year for bringing a handgun to class, according to new statewide data on weapons in school.
The guns were found in large and small districts, and rural and urban areas. The problem is nothing new for Washington, according to the "Weapons In School Report: 2010-11 School Year."
Although state statistics on other weapons -- from knives to shotguns -- show a downward trend over the past decade, the numbers of handgun incidents have remained steady around 45 to 47 during the past 10 years.
Five students were suspended or expelled from Mid-Columbia schools last year for having a firearm on campus, but none of the reported weapon cases involved injuries, officials previously told the Herald.
The Herald ran a story in September about the number of guns and knives found on school campuses during the past school year after requesting the annual reports from seven Mid-Columbia districts under state open records law.
Schools file the annual reports every summer with the state, which then compiles the numbers from all 295 districts and posts them online months later.
School safety experts warn that these school statistics, and recent incidents including the accidental shooting of a girl in a Bremerton classroom, give school officials just a glimpse of a bigger problem.
Thirteen years after the deadly rampage at Columbine high school, guns still are a danger in Washington classrooms, although most are brought to school by children who have no plans to use them, experts say.
"We've had incidents of young children bringing them for show and tell for years," said Ron Stephens, whose Westlake Village, Calif., organization, National School Safety Center, helps school districts across the nation create safety plans, do bullying prevention and train staff.
Children who are caught with any weapon in school either are expelled or suspended, depending on the particular circumstances of the situation.
Reports filed with the state show that weapons offenses last year either decreased or continued to hover at low levels in Mid-Columbia schools.
A total of 81 students in Benton County schools were suspended or expelled for weapon incidents -- representing just 0.20 percent of the student population. Franklin County schools had no firearm incidents last year, while just 0.30 percent of the student population -- 54 students -- were suspended of expelled for having knives, daggers or other weapons on campus.
The seizures are a sign of students' desire to keep their schools safe by turning in offenders, officials said.
A 9-year-old who brought a gun in his backpack to a Bremerton elementary school in February had no plans to use it or show it to his friends. But the gun accidentally discharged and seriously wounded another student. The boy said he found the gun at his mother's home and took it for protection because he was planning to run away from home.
The Kitsap County prosecutor has charged the boy's mother and her boyfriend with felony assault, saying they negligently allowed the boy access to the gun. They have pleaded innocent.
The incident was a stark reminder for Washington parents and school officials.
"When one accidentally goes off, that's a vivid reminder that there are likely others," Stephens said.
Federal statistics show gun violence in schools has decreased during the past few decades.
Seventeen youth were killed at school during 2009-10, the most recent year for which nationwide data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number is significantly lower than the 34 deaths reported almost two decades earlier during the 1992-93 school year.
A Seattle teacher believes the problem of school violence is more complex than just an issue with weapons in schools.
"Most adults think that it's all about trying to impress others. Part of it is," said Quinn Rose, a special education teacher at Nova, a small alternative high school. But Rose believes violence in schools is more about fear and teens feeling they are trapped in school with little control over their lives or their environment.
His previous experience at a large urban high school taught him that schools can be dangerous with or without guns.
"In the years that I've been teaching, the incidents that have made me most afraid for my safety and my students' safety ... guns were not involved," Rose said. "Because of something happening in the moment, the student improvised and someone's life was at stake."