clear School-Based Enforcement Programs

Several recent high-profile cases of school shootings have led schools and communities to increase the security of students and staff while on campus. Deterring gun carrying in schools is essential for both safety and education. Even if actual shootings at school are rare, the presence of guns in schools is not rare and the threatening environment guns create makes teaching and learning difficult. Between 1994 and 1996, the percentage of 12th grade males reporting carrying a gun to school in the past 4 weeks increased from 4.8 percent to 6.3 percent or approximately 1 in 16.1 In addition, 12.7 percent of students ages 12 to 19 reported knowing a student who brought a gun to school. When the sample is restricted to students who reported street gangs in their schools, 24.8 percent reported knowing a student who brought a gun to school.2

Having learned that no school is immune to serious and sudden violence, administrators are choosing quickly to adopt new policies, discipline codes, technologies, and security strategies. Many of these approaches are expensive in terms of startup costs, external technical assistance expertise, and maintenance, and are more effective when updated periodically. The investment appears warranted where schools have carefully considered their actual or potential local gun violence problems and based their approaches on these analyses. Rigorously selected security approaches can deter gun carrying and reduce school violence. Even if school administrators believe gun violence is unlikely, they may want to examine their approach to creating a safe school.

When dealing with students who bring firearms to school, the local chief educational officer should refer to the Gun Free Schools Act (GFSA) of 1994. Under GFSA, every State receiving funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act must have a law that requires any student who brings a firearm to school to be expelled for not less than 1year, and allows the expulsion requirement to be modified on a case-by-case basis by the local chief administering officer. Many States and communities have expanded on GFSA and created policies of zero tolerance for all weapons, including toys. The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than 6,000 students were expelled for bringing firearms to public schools during the 1996­97 school year. Approximately 58 percent of these firearms were handguns.

There are several key points to consider in deterring gun carrying in schools:

  • Treating staff and students with dignity and respect, principals can create an environment conducive to learning, school attachment, and nonviolent behavior. Providing engaging academic programs that recognize multiple forms of student achievement channels students' energy into constructive learning activities. Students' respect for authority can be increased by ensuring that punishments are appropriate to the severity of infractions, the disciplinary code is consistently and impartially enforced, due process is followed (using witnesses, gathering evidence, involving multiple staff members in deciding how to react), and positive behavior is rewarded as vigorously as negative behavior is punished.

  • Assigning an appropriate level of responsibility to every person in the school for maintaining a secure environment increases the likelihood that the presence of guns will be reported. Students can be prepared to take responsibility through social skills training and education about the dangers of carrying guns. Staff can learn the early warning signs for violence, visual screening techniques for spotting concealed weapons, and appropriate procedures for responding to a student with a gun. Gun carrying also can be deterred by providing an anonymous hotline and making everyone responsible for reporting weapons and other offenses.

  • Keeping the school facility clean, in good repair, and attractive to students increases student respect for the school and for school officials, and may decrease gun carrying, vandalism, and violent behavior. Immediately painting over graffiti (after taking photographs for investigators) decreases the recognition received by the vandal and may deter gun carrying by minimizing gangs' opportunities to demonstrate their presence.

  • Monitoring all areas of the school building and grounds increases the opportunities for detecting students carrying weapons and increases their fear of being caught. Monitoring can be enhanced by ensuring that entrances and administrative offices are visible from the street; drop tile ceilings where weapons can be hidden are eliminated; exterior lights are break-resistant; areas where students congregate are supervised; playground equipment is located where school staff, neighbors, and police patrols have good visual surveillance; blind spots are limited by the use of low-level landscaping; and the facility and grounds have sufficient lighting.

  • Restricting access to the building makes it more difficult for students to bring guns into the school. Methods of restricting access may include enforcing a policy against loitering on campus by nonstudents, requiring identification cards for all students and staff, limiting handles on exterior doors with the exception of major entry doors and places where firefighters must be able to enter, and requiring that visitors sign in and be escorted.

  • Involving professional security personnel, security devices, and police effectively can help prevent guns from entering the school and make students feel safer, so that they no longer feel a need to bring weapons to school. Security personnel provide both environmental protection and extra staff who can build relationships with the students. Metal detectors are not entirely effective, but they can be used to limit the presence of guns at school. Alarm systems, surveillance cameras, and student uniforms draw attention to unauthorized entries. Police patrols increase the risk of being arrested for behaving violently and for carrying concealed weapons.

Students who have carried weapons to school pose a grave threat to other students and are likely to repeat their offenses. To be in compliance with the GFSA, the local chief educational officer must consider expulsion. However, gun-carrying students can, and should, continue to receive educational services. Alternative education programs for weapon-carrying students are likely to succeed if they contain the following elements: administrators with vision and commitment, extensive contact with motivated and specially trained school staff, needs-based individualized instruction, focused classes with low student-to-staff ratios, innovative presentations of materials related to real life, caring and supportive environments, intensive counseling for students and their families, and frequent student progress reports.

The strategies profiled on the following pages were developed by communities in response to increasing concern about the safety of children in school settings and to research indicating that a large number of children report that they either carry guns or other weapons to school, or know that their peers are doing so. Some of the strategies focus on youth education; others include a system of warnings, parent notification, and sanctions to create a safer educational environment. Police and probation officers in these communities are now working together for the first time, each bringing special skills and resources to keep probationers from reoffending.


1. Institute for Social Research, Monitoring the Future, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Survey Research Center, 1997.

2. Institute for Social Research, 1997.

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Promising Strategies to Reduce Gun Violence OJJDP Report