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Schools get tough on armed kids

February 20, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

A Washington County high school student carelessly leaves his hunting rifle in the back seat of his car at school. His punishment: a 365-day expulsion.

A Morgan County kindergarten student brings a knife to school and is barred from attending school for 10 days.

Tri-State area schools are getting tough on students who bring weapons of any kind to school.

Most administrators say they appreciate having the power to enforce "zero tolerance" of weapons because strict rules might keep violence at bay.

But there are times, some say, that such rigid rules don't give administrators enough discretion.

The student who brought the hunting rifle onto school property was a good kid who made a stupid mistake, said Joe Millward, supervisor of pupil personnel and guidance at the Washington County Board of Education.

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But the law gave school officials no choice but to suspend the boy for one calendar year, he said.

"It was heartbreaking for us," he said. "There's no discretion in this law at all. It's scary."

The rules also have gotten tougher in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. In 1995, both states passed laws making it tougher on those who bring weapons in schools.

Students found with weapons at school are expelled for one year, but superintendents can use their judgment to reduce the penalty, local school officials said.

For two years, West Virginia Schools have been under the Safe Schools Act, which requires mandatory expulsion for students with guns or knives that have blades of at least 3 1/2 inches.

"It's needed. Kids are bringing things to school to harm other kids and they're bringing them deliberately," said Taylor Perry, director of pupil services at the Berkeley County (W.Va.) Board of Education.

So far this year, two Berkeley County students have been disciplined for bringing handguns to school, he said. One was expelled for a year and the other was expelled for a semester with counseling, he said.

Jefferson County (W.Va.) Superintendent Jud Romine said he's glad the law exists, even though there isn't a widespread problem with weapons there.

So far this year, Jefferson County school officials have found one weapon in schools there. In that case, a junior high student brought a knife to school, but his punishment has not yet been determined, Romine said.

"I don't think it happens often, but it's a serious matter, even if it's one" instance, he said.

Romine's only complaint about the law is that there is nowhere to send juveniles who have discipline problems.

"I think if you look at our society, there's more violence. That is reflected in our schools," said Kent Shock, director of secondary education at the Morgan County (W.Va.) Board of Education.

So far this school year, five Morgan County students have been suspended for having weapons on school property.

One was a kindergarten student who took a penknife to class.

Although some people thought the student's 10-day expulsion was harsh, Shock said it is better to err on the side of caution.

"At least word's on the street now, you don't bring dangerous weapons to school," he said.

Pennsylvania also cracked down on weapons in schools in 1995.

The first year the new law was in place, eight students were expelled. Five had guns and three had knives, said Lynda Cook, assistant superintendent for the Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District.

So far this year, three students have been expelled under the law.

"Our administrators have been very active in letting our students know what the penalties are," she said. "Kids know very clearly, if you have it you're gone."

In the last three years, no students have been caught with weapons in the Greencastle-Antrim (Pa.) School District, said Superintendent P. Duff Rearick.

But he said he saw quite a few guns when he worked in Chambersburg.

"After the sixth or seventh gun, I started to lose my outrage," he said. "I worry that we're losing our outrage. There's no reason to have a gun in public schools, particularly in this part of the world."

The problem is so bad at some urban schools that metal detectors have been installed.

"We hope that it doesn't come to that," said Lynn Lerew, spokesman for Chambersburg Area School District.

Overall, the Tri-State area doesn't have a big problem with weapons in schools, Millward said. Fifteen Washington County students were suspended for having weapons so far this school year out of 20,000 students.

"Generally speaking, our kids are good kids," Millward said.

Students at North Hagerstown High School agreed.

"I don't think there's much of a problem. I think that's more a middle school thing," said junior Lesley Newkirk, 16.

But Adam Loewenheim, a 16-year-old junior, said his school is peaceful but he doesn't credit a crackdown on weapons.

"If we had more rules, we'd have more guns," he said.

Arik Elliott, 17, a junior, said school officials might be surprised at the number of weapons they would turn up with a metal detector.

"They're too soft on people nowadays," he said.

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