Schools trying to keep guns out of class

Guns keep turning up in the hands of children. It is a dilemma many big-city school systems thought they were well on the way to resolving a few years back. Many pushed for and got an expanded school police force. Most toughened the penalty for carrying a gun to automatic expulsion.

But a fresh round of incidents in a number of major urban centers this fall suggests more must be done.

In Boston four teen-agers were arrested for illegal possession of handguns on school property within one two-week period. Two guns were loaded.

In Detroit 11 students were shot by a 17-year-old at a fast-food restaurant across from a high school during a noon hour three weeks ago. Six others were wounded at a high school football game. And a 15-year-old was shot and killed on a street corner near his junior high just within the last 10 days.

According to police records, the number of Detroit youngsters under 17 who have been shot is up to 206 already this year from a previous high last year of 192.

In Miami last month a student was shot twice and critically injured by another teen-ager who was trying to settle a quarrel in a lunchroom across from a high school. The Dade County School System there reports an almost 50 percent increase last year (from 62 to 91) in instances where a gun was found on or near school property.

Many, but not all, of the guns involved are handguns. Los Angeles has had trouble recently with youths armed with Uzi submachine guns.

``We're now confronted with bigger, more powerful weapons, which exacerbates the problem,'' says Michael Hancock, president of the Foundation for Handgun Education. ``It's not just 22 [caliber] snubbies.''

Most of the weapons, police say, are brought from home. Many younger students tote the weapons to school just to show off what they've found.

But a number of students who once turned to fist fights now see guns as adding immeasurably to their clout in settling disputes. Some use them to threaten other students into parting with everything from money to trendy tennis shoes.

The presence of some guns almost invariably leads to more. A growing number of students now say they need guns for their own protection. It is the same rationale often cited by adult gun owners.

In groping for new answers to this old but persistent problem, school systems are both turning inward to more-intensive education efforts within their own walls and reaching out to their communities for help in reducing access to guns.

Last week Boston Public School officials, who recently toughened their system's expulsion policy for gun violations and expanded its police force, launched a precedent-setting teach-in on the problem. Students in every class at the beginning of the day were reminded of the school's gun policies and of their responsibility to report any violations they see.

Some big-city school systems have even talked of making information on guns and their dangers a part of the regular curriculum. Funding remains a major roadblock.

Many feel it is parents who must do more. The Baltimore public school system, which saw a decline in gun violations on school property from 122 two years ago to 66 last year, regularly sends letters to parents reminding them of school rules on guns and the importance of keeping home weapons secure.

Some systems talk of adding physical aids such as metal detectors to help them get a better handle on the problem.

The Detroit schools are using detectors in the controversial random weapons sweeps of students. These searches were recently resumed despite a pending court challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Most observers who keep close watch over the school-and-gun connection say it is the easy availability of the weapons that is most exasperating.

``The underlying problem is the sheer number just out there in the community -- even the legal possession of guns is just rampant,'' says US Attorney Joel Shere in Detroit.

``This is a community problem which is having a spillover effect in the schools,'' agrees the Dade County (Florida) schools assistant superintendent, Dr. James Fleming.

Indeed, the Dade County School Board, convinced its schools could not do the job alone, recently implored the community to form a task force to explore legal ways to tighten handgun availability. A few years ago the Metro Dade County Commission turned down a handgun-control proposal. No one expects getting a new law there or in any other urban center to be easy.

Just ask Maryann Mahaffey, a Detroit city councilwoman. She is the sponsor of a gun registration freeze proposal similar to, but less stringent than, those in effect in the District of Columbia and Chicago.

Ms. Mahaffey's measure has been languishing unintroduced in the council for more than a year because of lack of support. But Ms. Mahaffey says she has not given up: ``You have to begin to dry up the weapons and you have to start somewhere,'' she says.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young is firmly on record as opposing any such efforts at gun control. Ms. Mahaffey insists that, regardless of his stance, the mayor could do much to set a tone for the city on guns, if he used his position to urge parents to lock up weapons and keep youngsters away from guns.

``He's not saying, `Put the guns away,' '' she says. ``He's not saying, `Don't use them.' He's not saying that it makes you a pipsqueak if you have to rely on a gun. And I think it would help immensely if he pointed that out.''

Baltimore school officials credit strong support from their mayor, police commissioner, and state's attorney, as well as Maryland gun-control laws, with playing a key role in the decline of school gun violation problems there. ``The community in general has really rallied around the need to solve this tragic problem,'' says Jacquelyn Hardy, a spokeswoman for the school system.

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