Tracking weapons found at metro Richmond schools; how expert says schools can improve security

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Posted at 6:33 PM, Feb 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-02 18:41:11-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- A teacher shot, a student stabbed, and loaded guns taken into classrooms. All recently made headlines in Virginia, causing safety concerns among parents and school leaders.

CBS 6 requested data from Central Virginia school districts to analyze just how frequently similar school safety threats are occurring.

Since the start of the 2021-2022 academic year, dozens of weapons have been recovered from students on school property across the region. According to Student Codes of Conduct, weapons are defined as firearms, BB guns, knives, tasers, mace or other objects that can be used as weapons.

School districts provided the following data on weapons offenses for the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school year:

  • 43 weapons were recovered from Richmond Public Schools. RPS did not specify how many of those weapons were firearms.
  • 33 weapons were recovered from Hanover Public Schools. None of them included firearms.
  • 119 weapons were recovered from Henrico Public Schools, including 13 guns.
  • Chesterfield Schools did not give CBS 6 the requested information.
Dr. William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at VCU.
Dr. William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at VCU.

“There are more guns than there are people in the United States, so guns going into schools is not an unreasonable occurrence," said Dr. William Pelfrey, a professor of criminal justice at VCU. "Conflicts that would have been resolved through fists 5, 10, or 20 years ago are now being resolved through firearms.”

Numbers from the Virginia Department of Education revealed reported behaviors of a safety concern during the last school year:

  • 3,916 events in Richmond Public Schools
  • 871 events in Hanover Public Schools
  • 4,471 events in Henrico Public Schools
  • 5,156 events in Chesterfield Public Schools

The 2021-2022 school year marked the first year VDOE published such behavioral data.

“The ratios of occurrences of unsafe events to the number of students is really high. It's like one-in-five or one-in-six," Pelfrey said. "So that means that at some point in a school year, a lot of students are going to be impacted.”

So, what can school leaders do to ensure safety?

“Schools tend to think that they don't have a lot of tools to secure safety in schools, and I think they're wrong," Pelfrey said.

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Pelfrey, who said he has researched bullying intervention at school divisions, said most of the time, school districts explore avenues such as installing metal detectors and adding school resource officers.

Both of those measures typically draw mixed reactions from parents and experts.

"Magnetometers or metal detectors will catch the majority of firearms that go through them, but students are clever. They're going to find ways to get things into school that shouldn't get into school," Pelfrey said. "School resource officers are a great resource when they're utilized properly. When you view the SRO as somebody who's there to catch bad guys, that's a little bit late. The SRO instead represents a vehicle for information sharing and a way to secure public trust where students can gain trust in the police and then participate in an information exchange."

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Richmond currently uses metal detectors at five high schools and two specialty schools. Henrico is about to begin a field test of metal detectors at middle and high schools this month. Chesterfield and Hanover do not use metal detectors.

Pelfrey said cultivating a climate of safety begins with empowering students to take ownership of their own safety. He said principals and teachers should encourage students to intervene in healthy manners when they notice conflict, whether it be online or in person.

Oftentimes, he said students are the first to notice a potential issue among their peers and that they have access to information that will never make it up to a staff member.

“When students are tasked or encouraged to be conflict interrupters, they can do it," Pelfrey said. "You just need a few leaders to show this really works in schools, and then they obviate serious problems before they become, well, deadly problems.”

He said schools are one of the top five locations for calls for police services across the country which use up a substantial amount of police resources. Many times, he said it's because threats will begin on social media and materialize into "major concerns" of threats or violence on campus.

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