Last week Fayette County school officials sent letters home to Tates Creek middle and high school parents about a 14-year-old middle school student who stole a handgun, then hid it on high school property.
Three weeks earlier, a Paul Laurence Dunbar High School student was arrested on a charge of bringing a handgun onto school grounds. And on Jan. 23, a 14-year-old Henry Clay High School student was arrested on drug charges and possession of a knife.
All of the incidents received coverage on TV news and in the Herald-Leader, which could create the impression that weapons crimes are rising on school campuses. But Fayette school officials say the number of incidents involving weapons has actually decreased in the last few years.
The heightened publicity is part of a concerted effort by the district to make parents aware of such incidents, said Superintendent Stu Silberman.
"We've heightened the awareness of the public by making sure we're sending home letters to parents and sending releases to the newspaper," Silberman said. "There could be a misconception that the numbers have gone up."
School district-compiled crime reports show that from August 2005 through January there have been eight reports of weapons being brought onto school property. During those same six months in 2004-05 there were 10 reports of weapons on school property.
For the full school year in 2003-04 there were 29 weapons reports; in 2004-05 that number was 19. Weapons reports include guns, switchblades, knives and items such as brass knuckles.
Violence on school campuses also has decreased, with 2003-04 reports of 161 cases of assault down to 113 in 2004-05. From August 2005 through January, the number of reported assaults was 71.
"Our intent is to be very open and transparent about what's happening at our schools," Silberman said.
School officials would not disclose the detailed procedures for handling weapons on school grounds, but did say weapons are confiscated and kept in a property and evidence locker until receiving notice from the court on what to do with them.
The district's policy states that if a student brings a firearm or explosive device to school, that student faces a 10-day suspension and possible one-year expulsion.
Many officials think the number of complaints has decreased because students are reporting suspicious behavior through hotlines such as Crime Stoppers and a program known as Foundations. That program trains teachers to make school campuses safer and surveys parents and students on aspects of school safety. Twenty-five schools participate in the program.
Jim Searle, director of law enforcement for Fayette County schools, says that communication between students, faculty and police officers is the best way to handle the problem. Using metal detectors would be an expensive and impractical method for keeping weapons out, he said.
"To absolutely make metal detectors work, you'd have to hire some other staff or pay them extra duties like watching over all the windows and every door," Searle said. "I don't know if that's cost-effective."
Searle said 27 police officers respond to the 55 schools in the district. Officers are also responsible for monitoring other school sites such as bus garages and the district's central office.
"There is a real healthy culture and climate at Fayette County schools," said Jon Akers, Director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. "The information is freely flowing to educators."
Akers retired from Fayette schools in 1999, after spending 29 years with the district. He was a former principal at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and also served as principal at Bryan Station High.
He also argues against using metal detectors.
"Kids who want to get the guns on campus will find alternative ways rather than coming through the front door with it," he said. "Metal detectors create a false sense of security."