'It keeps me up at night.' -- Schools Police Chief Larry Leon
Palm Beach County School District students have had guns at school at least 10 times this academic year, according to an analysis of court, police and school records obtained by The Palm Beach Post.
Those guns were hidden in backpacks, waistbands and trash cans by kids as young as 12 in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the county. Many said they needed protection.
None of the guns was fired on a campus -- important to note after 17 people were killed Valentine’s Day just a few miles south of Palm Beach County at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Yet the guns were real and often loaded, and administrators responded inconsistently -- sometimes erroneously -- to them, records show.
Among The Post’s findings based on arrest reports, school district notices and interviews:
Employees did not always isolate potentially armed students, despite school police policy that they should do so at once.
Teachers aren’t specifically trained on what to do when weapons are found in their classrooms. The district wouldn’t discuss how it trains teachers for weapons-related incidents.
Administrators sent robocalls to parents and guardians when gun incidents occurred at their children’s schools. They rarely made those calls when other weapons -- stun guns, brass knuckles or knives -- were found on campuses, even when students assaulted others with them.
Schools Police Chief Larry Leon knows it’ll take more than metal detectors, clear backpacks and scores of officers to keep weapons out of the county’s 180 schools in one of the largest districts in the nation. It’s a problem that defies a simple solution, and that terrifies him, he said.
Leon’s nightmare unfolded Feb. 14 – five days after he spoke with The Post – in Parkland. Former student Nikolas Cruz walked onto the Douglas High School campus with an AR-15 rifle and killed 14 students and three employees.
A dozen or so miles north, and Leon would have been helping to lead officers through the blood, bodies and panic.
It’s his biggest fear.
“Wouldn’t it be yours?” Leon said. “We worry about this all the time.”
Hear Palm Beach County Schools Police Chief Larry Leon:
Armed at school
A day after the Douglas High slayings, a Palm Beach Lakes High student had two guns on campus, police said. Threats to copy those killings at county schools also have been made on social media.
In the days before Cruz killed 17 people, a Cholee Lake Elementary student brought a gun into the Greenacres school, and a Forest Hill High sophomore stashed a gun with three bullets in his waistband.
With more than three months left in the school year, police already have investigated more verified gun incidents on campuses -- 10 -- than all of last academic year, a Post review of arrest reports and school notifications has found.
That doesn’t necessarily mean more weapons are in schools, Leon stressed, just that authorities are more aware of them. And that’s largely thanks to students.
Students notified school authorities in most of the nearly 100 weapons-related cases that have made it to the county’s court system since January 2016, an analysis of those arrest report shows.
“They want to be safe too,” Leon said.
It was a John I. Leonard High School student who alerted authorities in December that another student had a gun in his backpack. Turns out he bought the gun at the Greenacres school from another student. Police arrested both the gun buyer and seller.
A student told Jupiter High School staff about a Snapchat post of what appeared to be a real gun in November. Someone captioned the post, “It was nice knowing ya’ll, we’re about to die.” The student who made the post was arrested.
In November 2016 children at West Riviera Beach Elementary School notified administrators in November 2016 that their 11-year-old classmate twirled a loaded gun and threatened another student with it during an argument over potato chips. That child was arrested, too.
“These students are telling us. They see something and they say something,” Leon said.
Helping students report crime
County school and sheriff's authorities are launching a new app for students, parents and staff to connect with law enforcement.
CRIME STOPPERS FOR STUDENTS
Submit tips anonymously through the county's Crime Stoppers program:
Call: 800-458-TIPS (8477)
App: Search "P3 Tips" in your app store
How they responded
So what do authorities do when they learn about a weapon, or rumors of one, on campus?
It varies, Leon said.
He wouldn’t speak on the specifics of schools’ safety plans, citing state privacy laws, so it is unclear what employees are told to do when a weapon is found.
Justin Katz, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, said he’s not aware of any specific training for teachers on what to do if they find a weapon or have reason to believe a student is armed with one. Katz said they are told to inform administrators immediately.
A teacher’s “instinct is to take the weapon away,” Katz said, but that can be dangerous and turn a bad situation worse.
“How exactly do you go about taking that weapon in a safe manner, securing that weapon without provoking an incident, because who knows why a student with a weapon is carrying it?” said Katz, who taught for 11 years at Park Vista High School. “There’s got to be some prescribed training ... that’s not something I’ve seen before.”
Leon said the crisis situation guidelines are uniform throughout the district and reevaluated in the wake of tragedies like Parkland. State Attorney Dave Aronberg is convening a grand jury to look at school safety in the county, he said Thursday, the same day the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and school district announced a new smartphone app for students to report suspicious incidents. School police share safety policies with administrators, who then pass it on to their staffs.
What the district’s more than 25,000 employees do with that knowledge varies, too, Leon said.
“Missteps” by administrators at Jeaga Middle School in November gave a 12-year-old boy time to roam the school after other students alerted a teacher about a loaded magazine in his desk.
A guidance counselor called administrators to report the pistol magazine, but it took at least 10 minutes for the school police officer on campus to be contacted, according to the boy’s arrest report. During that time, records indicate he may have been carrying a .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun that later was found stashed in a bathroom.
The boy was allowed to leave his classroom and began “interrogating” the students who had notified their teacher, police records state. He also knocked on an office door, but it was locked.
After the incident, two Jeaga Middle teachers contacted The Post concerned that neither a “code red” emergency nor a lockdown was put in place, despite knowledge that the boy might have been armed.
District authorities deferred to Leon to answer The Post’s questions about how school employees responded to weapons incidents.
“There were a few missteps,” Leon said. “We discussed with the administration what you need to do, because we could have secured that a lot easier, a lot quicker.”
A robocall was placed to parents after the incident stating “our administrators acted quickly once the matter was reported to them.” But Leon said a different and faster approach should have been taken to assure the safety of students and staff. “Adjustments” were made on how administrators handle those situations, the chief said.
Listen to Dr. Anthony Allen’s call to Jeaga parents:
Of the 10 reported gun-related incidents in Palm Beach County schools this academic year, all prompted robocalls to parents and guardians, according to data provided by the school district. Other weapons rarely do, an analysis of 2017 school robocalls found.
Administrators didn’t call parents in August when a student seriously injured another student with brass knuckles at Lake Worth High. Authorities charged the teen aggressor as an adult in that case.
They didn’t call parents last school year after a Carver Middle School student shot a BB gun on a school bus in Delray Beach, striking the floor and a person outside. Nor did they call parents about a stun gun being discharged in a Boynton Beach High School bathroom; nor Glades Central High School guardians after a student brought in a pink stun gun and threatened to tase a classmate. Each incident led to arrests.
Leon wishes administrators, who have the final say on when to make those telephone calls, would make them more often.
“The kids will talk. This spreads like wildfire,” Leon said. “My opinion -- They don’t want the repercussions. They think it looks bad.”
The district said each school principal has the authority to decide when to send recorded calls to parents.
Katz said it’s in the school district’s “best interest” to come up with a uniform policy on robocalls to dispel “rumors and misinformation that seems to automatically spread” when weapons are found.
“You don’t want parents calling up saying that when it happened at this school, everyone was notified, but it just happened at my kid’s school and ‘Why didn’t anybody tell me?’ ” Katz said.
Weapons in Palm Beach County schools
Examples of weapons found in county schools since 2016:
Examples of items used as weapons since 2016:
Piece of wood
Source: Palm Beach County Schools Police
After the Parkland shooting, many parents have been left wondering what they can do to keep their kids safe.
Palm Beach County schools have avoided gunfire in their buildings since the last day of the 1999-2000 school year, when 13-year-old Nathaniel Brazill shot and killed Lake Worth Middle School teacher Barry Grunow in a classroom doorway.
But gun incidents like the 10 seen this school year illustrate the potential for another shooting to happen.
Most students caught with firearms told administrators they had the guns for protection from other students or off-campus threats.
A Forest Hill High sophomore said someone shot at him in West Palm Beach a few days before school police found a loaded gun in his waistband. His stepfather, Darrell Huggins, told The Post that the teen had it for protection: “He wasn’t just going around wanting to kill somebody.”
Leon knows guns are going undetected in the county’s schools. Take that same incident at Forest Hill High as an example: West Palm Beach police asked school officers to remove a 17-year-old from class because of an open probation violation charge in a curfew case. When officers patted him down, they found the gun loaded with three bullets tucked in his waistband.
“It keeps me up at night,” Leon said.
School safety takes parents securing weapons in their homes, talking to their children and checking their backpacks, Leon said.
And it depends on students who see threatening social media posts or hear of concerning behavior either on or off campus to tell an adult, he said.
The county’s 164 school police officers and eight K9s are tasked with protecting the people inside the county’s 180 schools. Building relationships with students is key to that, Leon said.
“We want them to know they can come here for help,” he said. “If we’re not made aware of it, we can’t handle it.”
Data reporters Mahima Singh and Mike Stucka, staff reporter Julius Whigham II and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this report.