In Mass., Counting Guns In Schools — And Hoping To Avoid Catastrophe

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The shooting in Parkland, Florida, is an occasion for a reckoning. When it comes to guns and schools, the United States has a problem.

But addressing that problem requires a grasp of its nature and its scope, something that is hard to get even in relatively peaceable Massachusetts.

A recent study examined attempted or actual multiple homicides at schools in 38 countries over nearly 250 years. It counted over 50 such episodes between 2000 and 2010. Half of those incidents took place in the U.S., but none in the Bay State.

Massachusetts has witnessed a few fatal shootings at or near schools, such as the 2016 murder of 17-year-old Raekwon Brown outside Jeremiah Burke High in Boston and a double homicide at Simon's Rock College of Bard — as it was known then — in 1992. But the state has so far been spared a mass school shooting — with four or more victims — on the model of Parkland, Columbine or Sandy Hook.

That may not be surprising, given that Massachusetts' rate of gun ownership is relatively low -- though you might find a firearm in as many as 23 percent of the state's households, according to a 2013 survey. According to the CDC, Massachusetts has the nation's lowest incidence of deaths by gun, at 3.4 per 100,000 residents. (The comparable rate in Alaska, the nation's highest, is 23.3.)

But that’s not to say Massachusetts can avoid soul-searching after Parkland.

“It clearly does raise the bar. Are we spending enough?" asked Rob Pezzella, director of school safety for Worcester Public Schools. "You have to reexamine what your priorities are."

Even if guns aren't often fired in Massachusetts schools, they certainly are making it onto campus. On a recent CDC survey, almost 13 percent of Massachusetts high schoolers reported that they carried a weapon — a firearm or a knife — at some point in the past month. About 3 percent brought the weapon onto school premises.

State data confirms that more than 230 students were disciplined for having a firearm of some kind on school premises between 2012 and 2017. On a map, those disciplinary incidents reveal that guns in school are a statewide problem: east and west, as well as urban, rural and suburban.

The districts with relatively high per-student rates of firearm-related discipline vary widely. The Berkshire hub of Pittsfield led the state's large districts, with one firearm-related incident per 422 of its students. (Pittsfield school administrators couldn't be reached for comment.)

Somerville saw one incident for every 616 students. And there were high rates at some regional schools, like the Frontier School in Deerfield, the Mount Greylock Regional School in Williamstown, and Assabet Valley Regional Vocational Technical School in Marlborough. Boston, by comparison, saw one incident for every 1,210 students.

The relative scarcity of guns in Massachusetts may be reflected in the disciplinary data. Nearly three-quarters of these incidents were sparked by the discovery of a firearm classified as "other" — things like starter pistols, flare guns and air rifles.

If you remove those weapons, the map of red flags looks a lot sparser:

But Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state's department of education, said that doesn't put officials' minds at rest.

"Even toy guns can have disastrous consequences," she said, if they're mistaken for the real thing.

State data doesn't tell the whole story. It may miss weapons that students alone are aware of, and it may conflate inoperable and mock handguns with real ones.

In Pittsfield, for example, the appearance — of 13 separate firearm-related incidents, with seven involving handguns -- is misleading. Superintendent Jason McCandless says there were really only two incidents of a working handgun turning up in schools (though, like Reis, he doesn't minimize the danger posed by lookalike firearms).

Pezzella also contested the finding of eight handgun-related incidents in Worcester Public Schools. He said that in his 20 years on the job, he was only aware of one such discovery.

That said, Pezzella spoke of Worcester's new commitment to toughen security in light of "an uptick in violence" in recent years, particularly fights between students.


Two years ago, the district added an armed school resource officer at each of its high schools. And in its latest budget, Worcester committed to a four-year, $1 million modernization of safety mechanisms, adding state-of-the-art locks and security cameras to secure the district's old buildings.

It's worth noting that some such security measures were in place at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and that alleged gunman Nikolas Cruz had been disciplined for bringing firearms and accessories onto campus. Like other shooters before him, he wasn't enrolled at the time of the killing.

In a 2014 law aimed at reducing gun violence, the Massachusetts Legislature in effect conceded that a school regime of discipline and security can only accomplish so much. The bill established a commission on safe and supportive schools, but its mandate is explicitly not to toughen security. Instead the commission is tasked with "addressing students’ behavioral health and creating safe and supportive learning environments."

Commission co-chair Susan Cole, an expert on trauma-sensitive education, describes its work as empowering teachers — not to act or fight back in a crisis, but "to really support [students], to help them self-regulate, to understand their own emotions and behaviors."

That work will be proceeding with a forthcoming report on the state's psychological resources, even as some districts nationwide debate arming teachers and other "hard" safety measures.

McCandless says that in his experience, students carry weapons for different reasons: sometimes because they feel unsafe, sometimes because they're caught up in the mystique of guns or knives. Those are concerns that a school district can help with, but isn't exactly qualified to fix on its own.

"However," McCandless says, "we certainly have the ability to really concentrate and focus on social and emotional education, on mental health, and catching things early."

This article was originally published on February 28, 2018.

This segment aired on March 1, 2018.


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Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin was an education reporter for WBUR.



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