O.C. Schools Log 128 Gun Crimes in 3-Year Span

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Although Orange County hasn't experienced the campus bloodshed visited on other communities, local educators reported that guns were involved in 128 campus crimes over the last three years.

A Times analysis of state reports covering mid-1995 through the summer of 1998 shows the incidents ran the gamut from a Capistrano Unified District elementary school student threatening another with a loaded revolver to an Irvine high school student who had stashed a .25-caliber pistol in his school locker with his marijuana.

The gun-related incidents are a far cry from the massacre that occurred Tuesday in Littleton, Colo., where two students killed 12 fellow pupils and a teacher. In fact, few of the Orange County cases involved guns actually being fired during school hours.

Still, the reports show that local schools are not the gun-free environments that some have hoped to create through "zero tolerance" rules and other get-tough policies.

The mandatory campus crime reports, submitted under a state law aimed at making public schools "safe, secure and peaceful," show that gun-related incidents were not limited to certain communities or types of schools.

About a third of the reports were from elementary schools. Students brought guns to school in Irvine as well as in the Santa Ana, Capistrano and Fullerton districts.

By comparison, Los Angeles County reported a total of 770 incidents involving guns during the same period. Most of them were simple possession cases, but 147 involved assaults with a deadly weapon and 128 involved armed robbery.

Statewide, school authorities say they have confiscated 2,410 guns that were involved in school crimes over the past three academic years.

But the number of students caught with guns on campus has steadily dropped since 1995-96, when 1,039 guns were discovered. The number of students caught with knives has gone up.

Orange County's most notorious recent case, the killing of an El Modena High School senior in November as he was on his way home, came too late to be included in the reports.

No other cases involved the death of a student, and many of the assaults took place after school hours.

Take, for example, a recent episode at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School.

In June, a sixth-grader from another school in the Capistrano Unified School District brought a loaded handgun that he had stolen to an open house at the school.

"There was a disagreement on the playground while the open house was going on," said Ron Dempsey, the district's director of child welfare and attendance.

A Dana student "called this young man some names, and he pulled out the gun and said something to the effect of 'You'd better shut up or I'll take care of you.' "

No shots were fired, and the armed boy was expelled from the district. Dempsey said four other incidents involving guns at Bergeson, Las Palmas and Reilly elementary schools last year were acts of vandalism.

In each case, vandals used BB or pellet guns to shoot out school windows after hours.

About a fifth of the total gun-related cases at Orange County schools involved after-school vandalism.

In Orange, two Chapman Hills Elementary School students used the campus for target practice last April, said Frank Boehler, the district's administrator of child welfare and attendance.

Holed up in one of the student's homes nearby, the sixth graders fired air gun pellets at trash cans and campus walls. Shooting over the school fence, Boehler said, they struck a third-grader, leaving him with a welt on the arm. Both boys were suspended.

"I would say that we average one gun [case] every year or every other year," he said, adding that the slaughter in Colorado has prompted him to consider adding metal detectors to schools in the Orange Unified district.

District officials in some cases took issue with the state's figures, even though the districts themselves provide the state with the data. One case that Garden Grove Unified reported as an assault with a gun did not involve a firearm, a district spokesman said.

In Westminster, officials reported an assault with a gun at Johnson Middle School. But district spokeswoman Trish Cannady said the report was incorrectly labeled.

"A student had been bragging about having a pellet gun, and although nobody ever saw the pellet gun, a couple of students mentioned it to a teacher," she said.

The boy was suspended for a couple of days, she said, even though he had not threatened anyone and no weapon was never found.

The only other Westminster incident in recent memory occurred a decade before that, Cannady said. In 1989, a relative of a student at Harbor High shot another visitor in the school's parking lot during a graduation ceremony.

In Irvine, two brothers were expelled in 1996 for possession of a .25-caliber firearm found along with marijuana in one's locker, said Richard Martinez, coordinator of student services at Irvine Unified.

Irvine principals reported two other cases in the same year, both involving students with pellet guns. They have found no firearms since then, Martinez said.

Indeed, students are much safer in schools than elsewhere, according to Mike Males, a sociology instructor at UC Irvine and author of "Framing Youth: 10 Myths About the Next Generation."

"I guess to put this in perspective, every third day in Orange County there is a report of a domestic violence incident involving a gun," Males said.

"Compared to other institutions, schools in Orange County are remarkably safe."

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Guns on Campus

Guns turned up on Orange County campuses--elementary through high schools--128 times during the last three school years compared to 770 incidents in Los Angeles County. Most of the Orange County offenses are simple possession of a gun.

1995-96

Orange County: 63

Los Angeles County: 336

1996-7

Orange County: 35

Los Angeles County: 241

1997-98

Orange County: 30

Los Angeles County: 193

Source: California Department of Education

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