Weapons confiscations at high school increase

No evidence of ill intent in any of five cases

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— A knife forgotten in a student's pocket or a hunting rifle left in a student's truck at school.

These incidents are a greater cause for alarm now than they were years ago, Moffat County High School principal Jane Harmon said.

"School is not the same - society is not the same," Harmon said.

And neither are the ways Harmon views accidental weapons possession on school grounds.

"We all live in a post-Columbine world," she said, referring to the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton. "We are just more aware of the possible outcomes of those types of violations."

Since 2000, no more than two dangerous weapons have been confiscated on Moffat County High School grounds, according to school records.

That trend changed this year.

Three knives and two guns have been confiscated on high school property since the 2007-08 school year began. Two of those confiscations occurred in the past month, Harmon said.

All five students were disciplined. Four students faced two-week suspensions, and the fifth was suspended for a month.

"We have no evidence that any of the five students who were expelled this year for weapons possession had any ill intent," Harmon said, adding that she believes none of the five incidents were related.

Instead, she said, the students forgot they had brought the weapons with them on school property.

The firearms were taken from students' vehicles parked on campus and were not brought into the school. This year was the first time in her seven-year tenure Harmon could remember students bringing guns onto school property.

Still, the incidents pose a concern for Harmon.

"We want to make clear to the community that although students may not have ill-intent, they're giving access to someone who may have ill-intent," she said.

Weapons considered dangerous include firearms, loaded and unloaded, and fixed blade knives with blades more than 3 inches long, according to state law.

Objects and substances intended to cause bodily harm or death also are included in this category.

Confiscated weapons are turned in to the Craig Police Department if charges against the student are likely, Harmon said. Otherwise, the weapons are returned to the student's parent or guardian.

The Moffat County School District also prohibits students from bringing dangerous weapons to school off-campus events and "off school property when the conduct has reasonable connection to school," according to district policy.

Federal law warrants expulsion for one calendar year for students possessing firearms on school grounds without school or district permission. That includes weapons stored in a student's vehicle parked on campus.

However, "the superintendent may modify the length of this federal requirement for expulsion in a case-by-case basis," the district's weapons policy reports.

A violence risk team, which can include specialists at elementary, middle, intermediate and high school levels, reviews cases in which students bring dangerous weapons to school. The group analyzes the student's past history and family life, among other factors.

The risk team presents its findings to the superintendent during a pre-expulsion hearing, Superintendent Pete Bergmann said, and he determines the length of the student's expulsion.

Statements from the student and his or her parents also are considered at the hearing, Bergmann said, adding that parents or the student can appeal his decision.

If the risk team's report finds the student brought a weapon to school accidentally, the expulsion's length may be reduced.

Two school weeks, or 10 consecutive days, is the minimum expulsion for cases where students accidentally bring weapons to school and "when we were convinced there was no intent to use them," Bergmann said.

Harmon said she would recommend a full year's expulsion in cases in which the student intended to use the weapon.

A student who accidentally brings a weapon on campus may avoid consequences at the school and legal system if he or she turns the weapon in to school authorities on his or her own accord.

"In the event that (a student) discovered they brought a weapon (to school) and on their own : goes to school authorities to turn over the weapon, in the absence of other facts that would lead us to believe they had the intent to use that weapon, we would not charge them," said Jeremy Snow, a deputy district attorney for the 14th Judicial District.

State law exempts students in this position from being expelled.

First-year high school students differ about whether the high school's regulations surrounding dangerous weapons on campus are reasonable.

"It's fair," freshman Ty Spencer said. "It's the rules."

Freshman Nate Navratil differs.

"Some ranchers and hunters have guns in their trucks all the time," he said. "It's not like they're going to shoot anyone."

Lauren Hauger, also a freshman, said accidentally bringing a weapon to school "can just happen."

Still, she said she could understand the school's precautions.

"There's no way to find out who didn't mean to bring it and who did," Hauger said.

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