Leaders: Discretion needed when weapons found

FAIRMONT?-?Discretion is the key to applying school weapons policies, say a pair of local superintendents.

They spoke in wake of a weapons policy controversy at United South Central Schools in Wells. A student there was expelled for having pocket knife in her purse, discovered during a school-wide drug sweep. The student said she had forgotten to remove the knife after a weekend of baling twine.

Also in the news this week is a reported plot at the public school in Waseca, where a teen allegedly had weapons and bombs stored to kill classmates and school staff.

“The important thing to get across: everything is situational,” said Evan Gough at Blue Earth Area. “Very few things for school administrators are black and white.”

The policies for Fairmont Area and Blue Earth Area are nearly word-for-word identical, based on the Minnesota School Boards Association’s drafts.

“The main purpose is to assure a safe school environment for students, staff and the public,” said Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown said, quoting the policy. “I want our schools to be sanctuaries of safety.”

Blue Earth Area’s states: “No student or non-student, including adults and visitors, shall possess, use or distribute a weapon when in a school location except as provided in this policy.”

The policies of both districts define “weapon” as: “any object, device or instrument designed as a weapon or through its use is capable of threatening or producing bodily harm or which may be used to inflict self-injury including, but not limited to, any firearm, whether loaded or unloaded; air guns, pellet guns; BB guns; all knives; blades; clubs; metal knuckles; numchucks; throwing stars; explosives; fireworks; mace and other propellants; stunguns; ammunition; poisons; chains; arrows; and objects that have been modified to serve as a weapon.”

Neither superintendent could definitively say what would happen if a student brought a weapon to school, because each incident is evaluated individually.

“The critical thing students and parents need to realize is we all make mistakes,” Gough said. “You get to school and realize, ‘Oh gee, I forgot my pocket knife in my coat, book bag.’ We ask students to come immediately to the office and say, ‘I forgot.’ We’ll deal with it. It doesn’t mean every situation is going to warrant an expulsion.”

At both districts, parents would be notified to come retrieve the object, but Brown added he might hang onto it.

“I’ve been known to keep things until the last day of the year,” he said. “We always tag it and identify it.”

Brown pointed out that even if a student does not turn in an object, the school can search lockers.

“Minnesota is the only state where the principal has the right to go into lockers at any time,” he said. “We don’t need reasonable cause. Other states have to have reasonable cause. Your right to privacy with the locker is pretty much gone in Minnesota.”

It’s always better for a student to turn an object in; they still might face some discipline, but it probably won’t be as bad if the object is discovered with them or if they use it as a weapon against someone.

“According to the policy, they can face up to a one-year suspension just being in possession of a weapon. It’s important for kids and parents to understand there can be severe consequences for having a weapon in school,” Gough said. “However, I have discretion to recommend a lesser consequence.”

As an example, Gough said an out-of-school suspension could range from one hour to 10 days.

Fairmont Area takes the student’s age into account when deciding punishment, Brown said. Younger students could lose recess time; older students could get a day or two of suspension.

“We take every single case on a point-by-point basis,” Brown said. “We take our time, look at individual students, get the parent or guardian involved.”

The school board of either district would become involved only if a student is facing expulsion.

If a student uses a weapon against someone else, consequences can ratchet up quickly.

A threat or attack would be a criminal matter and a school matter. The police would be called and they would conduct their own investigation, as would the school.