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Strategy: Gun-Free School Zones

Strategy Establishing policies prohibiting the possession of guns in schools and within a set distance of school buildings helps . . .


Establishing policies prohibiting the possession of guns in schools and within a set distance of school buildings helps to secure schools from gun-related violence and crime.

Crime Problem Addressed

The strategy recognizes the inherent danger of concealed firearms in the possession of gang members, drug traffickers, and fearful students. A survey by the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that about 135,000 guns are brought into schools every day. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, nearly 20 percent of all offenders arrested in 1991 while carrying guns were juveniles.

Key Components

Localities designate school buildings, school bus stops, and the perimeter area around school buildings as weapon-free zones, where possession or use of a firearm, knife, or other weapon carries additional penalties for the offender. Youths caught with a gun in the zone are usually suspended (in some cases expelled) by school officials and may face criminal charges. Like the drug-free school zone concept, this strategy aims to deter offenders from carrying and using a gun or knife in the zone by imposing increased penalties. The policies may displace such activities to other areas of the community. Even so, school and law enforcement officials believe that the policies are very effective in securing areas frequented by school-aged youth and staff while school is in session.

The designated areas are marked by special signage and publicized throughout the community. In addition to enhanced sanctions, most school districts where such policies are in place also have implemented antiviolence and gun education programs to reinforce among students the belief that carrying guns and knives to school is not safe and should not be tolerated by them and their peers.

Key partnerships

Lawmakers must work with school authorities and criminal justice personnel to designate gun-free zones and to publicize the program within the community and to parents and students. Local police must cooperate with the community to arrest and seek convictions for offenders caught handling guns in the zone. Local prosecutors and judges must commit to applying the tougher sentences in such cases.

Schools can create support for the program by designing comprehensive gun violence prevention program. Student support can also be built through student-designed publicity for the gun-free zone and through communication to students about the convictions achieved by local law enforcement and prosecutors.

Potential Obstacles

Some communities resist the policies out of concern that the accompanying publicity will label the community as one with a gun violence problem. Local policymakers in some communities worry that expulsion of students caught with guns just releases dangerous students into the community and removes them from educational opportunities. Many communities in this situation have developed alternative (off-site and separate) education programs for such students, combining traditional curricula with violence prevention education. Implementing such policies and alternative education programs can be costly for school districts. Some have not aggressively pursued these policies out of a concern about costs or because they have determined that guns are not currently a significant problem in their district. As of 1994, the federal government was considering withholding some federal funds from districts that did not adopt expulsion as the sanction for students caught with guns. Costs can be minimized through partnerships with businesses to share expenses and with law enforcement to develop prevention education programs for students.

Signs of Success

In 1990, Congress passed and the president signed the Gun-Free School Zones Act. The law directs school districts to develop policies to keep students and staff safe from guns and other dangerous weapons. Following the successful drug-free zone concept, many local districts have adopted weapon-free zones within and around the school, in many cases developing "zero tolerance" policies that direct severe sanctions (including expulsion) of students caught with guns or other dangerous weapons. Communities in states as diverse as Oklahoma, Washington, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania have had success with this approach. The National School Safety Center and the authors of Violence In Our Schools, Hospitals, and Public Places endorse weapon-free school zones as an effective violence and crime prevention measure. A 1994 federal court of appeals decision called into question the ability of states and localities to enforce the law when it declared Louisiana's law unconstitutional. Localities should consult their state attorney general for advice on implementing a policy inspired by the federal legislation.

Applying the Strategy

The San Diego, California, school district, under the direction of the School Police Services director, devised a zero tolerance policy for weapons on campus policy. The policy prohibits weapons on campus, on buses, and at school-sponsored activities. Posters and bumper stickers publicize the program to students and staff. Parents and youths receive written descriptions of the policy and sanctions against students who violate it. In order to attend certain preferred schools, students must sign a contract that they will not bring a gun or weapon to school or fight with other students. Since the policy was enacted in 1991, the number of gun-related incidents in schools has declined annually. Many students and parents have expressed support for the policy, believing it has helped make school buildings safer.

From 350 Tested Strategies to Prevent Crime: A Resource for Municipal Agencies and Community Groups

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