Weapons-free school isn't easy

Save for a brief scare triggered by a suspicious package in a Prosser elementary school Thursday -- which turned out to be harmless -- thousands of Mid-Columbia students safely made it through their first week of school.

That's as it should be -- and it's par for the course around here.

Except last year, when Richland High School went into lockdown during the first week of school after a student brought a handgun on campus.

It was one of four firearms incidents and 91 knife incidents that Mid-Columbia schools reported to state officials last school year.

Those numbers at first glance may seem chilling to parents, but the seizures are a sign of students' desire to keep their schools safe by turning in offenders, officials said.

Reports filed with the state show that weapons offenses last year either decreased or continued to hover at low levels in Mid-Columbia schools. Officials said none of the reported weapons cases resulted in injuries.

Schools must file the annual reports every summer with the state, which compiles the numbers from all 295 districts and posts them online in February of the following year. The Herald this summer requested the reports from seven Mid-Columbia districts under the state open records law.

Weapons reports for Mid-Columbia schools
2008-09 2008-09 2009-10 2009-10 2010-11 2010-11
District gun knife gun knife gun knife
Kennewick 8 40 2 45 1 23
Richland 0 32 0 16 3 17
Pasco 0 39 0 34 0 29
Prosser 1 3 0 6 0 4
Kiona-Benton 0 7 0 3 0 6
Burbank 0 1 0 2 0 6
Finley 0 2 0 3 0 6
Statewide 44 1898 55 1842 n/a n/a

(To search our database of weapons incidents in individual Tri-City schools, click here.)

The reports show the number of students cited for bringing a weapon to school. This does not mean they actually brandished a weapon or used it against someone.

In the vast majority of cases, the weapon was found in a backpack, either because a classmate noticed it or because school officials came across it while searching the bag for more benign prohibited items, such as cigarettes, administrators said.

That was not the case at Richland High a year ago. A student brought a handgun to school and showed it off to classmates, said Todd Baddley, assistant superintendent of Richland schools.

But what happened next illustrated that school safety systems are working at every level, he said.

The students who saw the gun told the assistant principal about it. The administrator alerted the school resource officer -- a Richland police officer who is permanently assigned to Richland High. The officer and school employees quickly isolated the student. When other Richland police officers arrived on campus minutes later, the gun already had been seized.

The incident's quick resolution was an example that students are comfortable sharing information with school employees and that employees know exactly what to do when a report comes in, Baddley said.

It's all part of an "active partnership" between the school districts and each city's police department, said Richland police Capt. Mike Cobb. Officers and school employees go through six drills per year to train for emergencies on school grounds, he said.

That preparation showed in this incident, Cobb said.

The student was expelled for the rest of the school year, which is the mandatory punishment for bringing a gun to school. It made no difference that the handgun was not loaded, Baddley said.

Richland officials expelled two more students for having guns on campus last year. Two Hanford High students had rifles in a car in the school parking lot. Someone noticed the firearms while walking past the car and alerted school staff.

The students said they had been hunting and hadn't taken the rifles out of the car before coming to school. But there are no mitigating circumstances for bringing guns on campus. The minimum punishment is expulsion, according to school policies published online.

The lone gun-related incident in Kennewick schools last year happened at Sunset View elementary. In March, a student threatened a classmate by saying he had a gun in his backpack. The student and his backpack were searched, but no gun was found.

His parents later told school officials that the student had no access to firearms in their home, said Ron Williamson, assistant superintendent of Kennewick schools. The student still was disciplined, although school officials declined to say how, citing student privacy laws.

There were no gun incidents in Pasco schools last year, nor had there been any in the two previous years, state records show.

School officials did confiscate 29 knives in Pasco schools last year. That number is lower than this past year's tally, which was lower than the year before.

Kennewick had 23 knife incidents and Richland took 17 blades from students last year. Both numbers are part of a declining trend. This category includes anything from long blades to keychain pocket knives.

No official from the three districts interviewed for this story could recall a knife being used during a fight in Tri-City schools. The knives were confiscated during unrelated searches or because fellow students reported their presence on campus.

Unlike police, who need probable cause to perform a search, the law allows school officials to search a backpack or a locker if they have "reasonable suspicion," said Steve Biehn, principal of Southridge High School in Kennewick.

The number of knives found in each district during the course of a year favorably compares to state statistics.

Statewide numbers for the past school year won't be available for several months, but in the 2009-10 school year there were 89 knife incidents in the Tacoma School District and 54 in the Kent School District. Both have about twice as many students as each of the Tri-City districts.

Tacoma also had 11 gun incidents, more than any other district in the state that year. The Highline School District in Burien, a district about Kennewick's size, had 64 knife incidents two years ago.

Officials in the Yakima School District, which is about Pasco's size, found 31 knives and one gun on campuses in 2009-10.

The fairly low numbers and the lack of serious consequences from any of the weapons incidents are a result of good relationships between students, teachers and police, several officials said.

At Southridge, for example, the police officer assigned to campus also is the girls' basketball coach, Biehn said. Teachers and administrators chat with kids in the hallways and during lunch, he said.

The students then feel comfortable reporting even the slightest misbehavior to staff. "We're looking for kids who make minor mistakes so they don't make major mistakes," Biehn said.

That approach seems to be common in Tri-City schools. No detection device works as well as thousands of kids' eyes do.

"If we're going to keep it safe, it's going to be through relationships," said Raul Sital, principal of Pasco High.

That's not to say there's no surveillance technology in schools. There is -- and lots of it.

In Southridge's security room this week, Leora Leverett demonstrated the school's camera system. At the push of a button, images from every nook and cranny of the school, including outdoor areas far from school, appeared on the screens in front of her.

A joystick moved cameras around and zoomed in far enough to see what a student down the hallway held in his hands. All high schools and middle schools in the Tri-Cities have similar systems.

But the technology never will replace good communication between all parties, especially with students, said Kennewick police Sgt. Ken Lattin.

After a high-profile school tragedy "you always hear somebody say, 'There were these signs and I didn't do anything,' " he said. "But staff and students (in the Tri-Cities) do a good job of recognizing and reporting."