The shooting of a Michigan six-year-old by a troubled classmate on Feb. 29 is a distressing signal that even elementary schools are not safe from the scourge of gun violence.
Since last year's tragedy at Columbine High School in Colorado, most school administrators have focused safety efforts on middle and upper grades. Junior and senior high schools across the nation have sprouted metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and security officers, and strict enforcement of zero-tolerance policies has led to expulsions for students pocketing Swiss Army knives.
Few expect near-toddlers to kill. Yet federal figures show that children too young for geometry have been toting guns to school in significant numbers.
In the 1996-97 school year, 443 elementary school students were expelled for bringing firearms to school, according to the US Department of Education. For 1997-98, the latest year for which data are available, the figure had dropped, but still accounted for 341 grade-school expulsions.
The numbers aren't complete enough to indicate a trend either way, say experts. But their sheer level remains distressing - and is as good an example as any of the saturation of American culture in guns.
"It's absurd that a [first-grader] would be able to bring a gun to school. We were surprised when we first saw the elementary school data start to come in," says William Modzeleski, director of the Safe and Drug-Free School program for the US Department of Education. "We're talking about around 400 kids. In the big scheme of 53 million [school] kids that's not a lot, but it's important."
Experts have only sketchy information about why small children bring guns to schools along with their lunches and Pokmon cards.
As appears to be the case in the Mount Morris Township, Mich., shooting, most find the weapons lying around home. Younger children have seen guns on TV and in the movies and sometimes want to impress their peers. Older elementary students - fifth- and sixth-graders - sometimes believe they need weapons for protection.
Whether tougher laws could keep more guns out of elementary schools is an open question. Michigan already has a 1995 statute on the books requiring the expulsion of any student, high school through elementary, who brings a weapon onto school grounds. Recently, a 10-year-old Michigan honor student was expelled for bringing a knife to school to cut brownies, notes Justin King, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards.
"This isn't a legislative issue. You can pass all the legislation in the world, and it doesn't change human conduct," says Mr. King.
President Clinton, however, expressed outrage that a six-year-old had access to a gun and urged passage of laws requiring child safety locks.
"Why could the child fire the gun? If we have technology today to put in these child safety locks, why don't we do it?" Mr. Clinton said.
Information about the first-grader who mortally wounded Kayla Rolland at Theo J. Buell Elementary School remained incomplete at time of writing. But all indications were that he was a troubled boy from a broken home who had no real idea what he had done.
Other students reported that the shooter and Kayla had quarreled in the schoolyard on Monday. But the little boy, whose name had not been released by press time, waved his weapon at several other classmates shortly before 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Five students were in the room while others were lined up outside. The teacher was at the door. The boy whirled and fired. Then he ran into a bathroom to hide.
Law-enforcement officials said the shooter's father is in jail. The boy lives with his mother and a man described as an uncle. The .32-caliber pistol used in the shooting was reported stolen in December. Law officers found another stolen firearm when they searched his home.
"For a little boy to bring a gun to school in the first grade, he's got some problems on his mind," says Mary Rankins, a member of the Beecher Board of Education, which oversees Buell Elementary. "I believe this kid had nobody to talk to or confide in. There's no [formal] help for kids under 11 years old."
Michigan is a leader in promoting "anger-management" training at an early age, says Dawn Cooper of the Michigan branch of the National Education Association. "Many of our school districts have pre-K conflict-management classes for parents and children to be taught ... how to handle problems," she says.
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