High-profile school shootings like Sandy Hook have increased the focus on security at campuses nationwide and in the Valley, but every year since Newtown, deadly firearms continue to turn up at schools in Maricopa County.
Since the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, schools in Maricopa County have dealt with a firearm on campus at least 47 times, according to data obtained by KTVK/KPHO that spans until mid-April 2017.
Some districts were unable to provide exact dates for their firearm incidents, but at least 44 of the 47 cases occurred after the Newtown shootings on December 14, 2012.
High schools encountered the majority of the firearms, with 29 of the 47 cases, but school officials also discovered guns at middle and elementary schools.
While school security advocates often voice the mantra that “one gun at a school is one too many,” most schools in the Valley are not equipped to prevent all weapons from entering a campus, said Kevin Quinn, president of the Arizona School Resource Officer Association.
“Unless you want your schools to look like Sky Harbor airport on the day before Thanksgiving, it's almost impossible,” Quinn said.
Who’s actually tracking firearm incidents?
The Arizona Department of Education launched a program called AZSafe in 2007 to collect data on firearms and other school violence incidents, according to department spokesman Stefan Swiat. But what many districts don’t know is that ADE stopped collecting statewide firearm data years ago.
The collection program on firearm data was funded by a federal grant. When the department lost the grant in 2010, it also lost the legal authority to compel districts to submit the information, according to Swiat. Although some districts continue to voluntarily self-report firearm cases to ADE, he said the department stopped trusting the accuracy of its data after 2010.
“From that point on, the data started getting murkier and murkier,” Swiat said.
[SPECIAL SECTION: Power of 2- Empowering You to be Safe]
The U.S. Department of Education collects data on firearm incidents nationwide under the Gun-Free Schools Act, but the data comes from statewide entities like ADE, not individual school districts. That means if ADE’s data is incomplete, so is the federal data.
Arizona school districts are required by state law to report firearm incidents to local law enforcement, but Valley police agencies contacted by KPHO/KTVK said they do not regularly compile or analyze the information.
“There is not an annual report compiled on these incidents. Unfortunately, the data on the incidents is not readily available or easily searched,” said Tempe Police spokeswoman Det. Lily Duran in an email. “It could be researched through our [Crime and Intelligence Center] if needed, but it would be a labor intensive search and could require an extended amount of time.”
Starting with the 2015-2016 school year, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights will begin requiring firearm data from all schools in the country in its sweeping biennial survey. However, the results of that survey are not yet available.
Gun cases in Maricopa County
We asked all 58 school districts in Maricopa County for the number of firearms on their school grounds since 2011. Fifty-seven of the 58 districts responded by our requested deadline. Partial data showing the 2015-2016 academic year for the final district, Tolleson Union High School District, was obtained from the Arizona Department of Education.
There have been at least 11 firearm incidents since the start of the current academic year. Four of the 11 cases involved firearms left in parked cars on school grounds.
“One of our students was suspended recently and told he cannot return to campus because he had a gun in his car. He didn't take the gun out of the car or threaten anyone. He told administrators he didn't realize he couldn't have his gun inside his car on the school campus,” wrote East Valley Institute of Technology District spokeswoman CeCe Todd in an email. Todd did not provide the exact date, but said it occurred in 2017.
In another case this academic year at Basha High School, campus security discovered a rifle while searching a parked car that didn’t have parking tags. The student had driven his father’s car to school that day, said Chandler Unified Director of Community Relations Terry Locke.
On April 27, a student at Orangewood School in the Washington Elementary District brought a gun and a knife “to show to friends.” “Show-and-tell” is among the most common motivations for students to bring weapons onto campus, according to summaries provided by several districts.
Not every district provided summaries of firearm incidents. Some districts, including Peoria Unified School District, said they do not have the ability to gather such information because of technical limitations with their student information system.
“We only have this as raw data and do not have the ability to pull any additional information related to the incident or view it in the system,” said Peoria Unified Communications Director Danielle Airey. PUSD had nine firearm incidents since the start of the 2012-2013 academic year at seven elementary school campuses.
“None that we know of were ‘intent to harm’ incidents,” Airey said.
It is not clear if any of the cases this academic year involved threats, although at least one at North Canyon High School in September ended with a student in custody. KTVK/KPHO requested police records for several incidents, but none of those records requests were fulfilled as of this story deadline.
The most recent shooting on a school campus in Maricopa County was at Independence High School, where one student shot and killed another before killing herself.
Copyright 2017 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.