Clayton bookbag, locker ban: School leaders feared ‘deadly incident’

Clayton County School Superintendent Dr. Morcease Beasley, center, talks during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Clayton County School Superintendent Dr. Morcease Beasley, center, talks during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Close to 100 weapons confiscated on district’s campuses this academic year

Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley appeared firm but calm when announcing a ban on bookbags and the use of lockers at all district schools for the remainder of the school year during a YouTube Live in late April.

Behind the scenes, however, he and members of the school system’s leadership team were terrified of potential violence because of a flood of weapons being brought onto campus, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

The district had confiscated close to 100 weapons on school campuses or buses since the beginning of the school year, including dozens of handguns, knives, brass knuckles, BB guns, stun guns and tasers, according to the documents.

There was a growing fear that an already bad year for weapons would escalate into bloodshed.

“Given the number of guns in our society and we are finding on our campuses and that seem to be making it on the school buses, it seems like it’s a matter of time before a deadly incident occurs,” Beasley said in a text to Clayton Board of Education Chairwoman Jessie Goree, just days before announcing the ban.

“It is sad to say but it is a reality,” he wrote.

No one was killed or seriously injured in any of the weapons incidents at Clayton schools this academic year, but those fears are real all across the country.

In Texas on Tuesday, 19 elementary school students and two teachers were killed in their classroom by a high school student. It was the deadliest school shooting since 20 students and six teachers were killed at a Connecticut elementary school in 2012.

ExploreMetro Atlanta school districts on alert after Texas shooting

Beasley had reasons to worry from the very beginning of the school year. A knife, an AR-15 assault rifle, Glock 48, BB gun and pellet gun were brought to schools in the district during the first two weeks alone.

The two students who smuggled the semiautomatic AR-15 into Riverdale High School were both arrested on charges of possession of a handgun or long gun; possession of a handgun by persons under age 18; and theft by receiving stolen property, according to the police report.

After that, school officials found a weapon on a student almost every other week.

Some months were worse than others. In November, for instance, nine separate weapons were brought onto buses or into buildings, including a BB gun that discharged and struck students on a bus.

Students threatened teachers and their classmates, weapons went off accidently in buildings and even some toy guns looked real enough that alarmed parents called into school offices to report them, according to the documents.

The district of about 52,000 students struggled to contain the problem. It lacked enough metal detecting equipment to check every student, had only one school resource officer each in some of its biggest school buildings, and feared “over policing” a mostly Black population already suspicious of law enforcement.

There was even confusion about the bookbag ban. One principal told parents that they could bring clear bookbags to school, only to have to correct that statement and issue an apology to Beasley for getting the messaging wrong.

ExploreClayton schools banning backpacks, lockers to address ‘spike’ in guns

Most alarming for the district: The number of weapons middle schoolers brought to campus doubled this year.

The school system confiscated 35 weapons from middle schoolers during the 2019-2020 school year compared to 76 through March of this year.

“What scares me is we always think about high school students and these numbers show that they are going back to middle school,” Clayton board of education member Mary Baker said at a school board meeting a day before the bookbag ban was announced.

“These students at the middle school age need to realize that this bad decision you make today ... this could ruin your future,” she said.

The AJC examined hundreds of pages of email messages and texts between district leadership officials, messages sent to leadership by parents, and police incident reports from the school district in preparing this story. The documents were all obtained through the Georgia Open Records Act.

Alarm bells

Clayton is not alone.

A state Department of Education database shows school districts across metro Atlanta have disciplined hundreds of students every year since 2015 for bringing weapons onto campuses. Knives are the most common weapon by a large margin, according to the statistics.

Weapon discipline records are not yet available for the current school year. But it has continued to be a problem across metro schools this academic year.

Fulton County officials, for instance, said earlier this year that they had seen a surge in the number of weapons in schools and more fights compared to past years.

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Donald ÒDeCeeÓ Craddock asks parents questions during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Donald ÒDeCeeÓ Craddock asks parents questions during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Donald ÒDeCeeÓ Craddock asks parents questions during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A student was stabbed during a fight at a high school in DeKalb County in October, and police in the east metro community were forced to pepper spray a group of students fighting at Towers High School in February.

Rockdale County recently mandated that students must carry clear bookbags in the 2022-2023 school year as part of that district’s increased safety measures.

Kris Varjas, an associate dean for graduate studies and research at Georgia State University, praised Clayton school leaders for opening up about their concerns publicly, both on YouTube Live and in recent town hall meetings.

“There are not many places that would be willing to share this information because of fear of what the public would think,” she said.

ExploreClayton teachers, parents react to bookbag, locker ban

The Clayton documents show that parents, school board members and students were sending dozens of frantic emails, texts and voicemails demanding something be done right up until the bookbag and locker ban.

The messages described shootings in cafeterias, students fleeing a school bus as a classmate waved a gun, and fights being streamed on social media.

Getting worse

The number of weapons being brought to schools increased as the year progressed.

In October, a gun in a student’s bookbag accidentally went off inside a class at Appling Middle School. No one was injured. The next month, a Riverdale Elementary student shot others with a BB gun while on the bus to school.

In December, school resource officers at Brown Elementary reported a student allegedly brought 4.5-inch steak knife to school and threatened to stab other pupils.

While waiting for track practice in March, a 17-year-old student at Mount Zion High School was confronted by a 19-year-old who was not a student in the district. The pair pulled out their guns in a show of force before being arrested by district police.

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Pastor Keith Reynolds listens as a woman talks about losing her son to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Pastor Keith Reynolds listens as a woman talks about losing her son to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Pastor Keith Reynolds listens as a woman talks about losing her son to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A month before the system-wide bookbag ban went into place, leaders at Jonesboro High School were already considering a school-wide ban after reports of a student shooting a gun in the building’s cafeteria. The school moved its student parking to the front of the building and began using a wand to search for weapons.

“Unfortunately we do not have enough staff to conduct or man a metal detector on a daily basis,” Principal Felicia Brown wrote on March 25 to a parent who expressed concern about school safety. “Our staff and students continue to be on high alert in the hallways and watching our exterior doors. We have at least ten points of entry in the building.

In some instances, resource officers pursued students off campus.

“We are currently in the process of tracking down at 17-year-old 11th grade Jonesboro High School virtual student who was allegedly seen near the baseball field in possession of a black handgun,” Beasley wrote to staff on March 14. “The student fled into the neighborhood when the School Resource Officer spotted and began to pursue him.”

On March 25, the Georgia Emergency Management Agency passed on a plea from Ke’Yuana Latimore, imploring the state to step in to address her concerns about a shooting at Jonesboro High School earlier in the month.

“Shooting occurred at the school a few weeks ago, bullet went to the ceiling, while students, teachers and workers were in the cafeteria,” Latimore said. “People who don’t attend the school are entering in the building. There have been people walking the halls, throwing up gang signs that don’t attend the school.”

Task force formed

Beasley responded at the end of March by forming a task force, which included assistance from Clayton County Police and others. Baker, the board member, suggested helping parents better keep weapons out of students’ hands so they never leave the home.

She suggested a gun lock giveaway.

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A woman, who asked not to be identified, holds a young child during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A woman, who asked not to be identified, holds a young child during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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A woman, who asked not to be identified, holds a young child during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The issue began to fracture Beasley’s relationship with a board that had generally been supportive of him.

“Two years ago, you were the model administrator when we dealt with COVID; what happened?” Goree, the school board chairwoman, asked in an April 26 email, the day Beasley spoke to residents in the YouTube Live address. “What are you afraid of? I certainly know that you would do everything to protect your children and these 52,000 are your children, too. Please protect them to the best of your ability.”

In a rebuttal, Beasley said he was approaching the weapons issue in same way he did COVID-19, because both could lead to deadly consequences.

“I will be held accountable,” he said. “This is not a concern and I’m not adverse to being held accountable. What I am adverse to is short-sighted decisions that are not well-thought out and that do not really fix issues.”

On April 19, parent Tyoniesha Plair said in an email to the district that a student at Rex Middle School had recently waved a gun on a school bus after getting into an argument with a fellow student. The incident, she said, traumatized her daughter, who captured it on video before fleeing the bus.

ExploreClayton superintendent: social media a factor in school fights

“The schools need metal detectors, clear bags indefinitely, random pat downs, something,” Plair wrote, adding that she will never allow her daughter to ride the school bus again. “The fact that this student had a gun on him all day during school is more concerning.”

In a reply, Beasley apologized for the incident and implored Plair to work with the school to get counseling support for her daughter. He said the district would be using metal detecting wands to scan for weapons, but that he could not guarantee any school was 100% safe because of the proliferation of guns.

“We are grappling with this weapons situation as we hold persons accountable, take appropriate actions ... (and) figure out the balance between safety ... while trying not to over police our children and community,” the superintendent wrote.

On April 25, two days before the ban was announced, Beasley sent an email to district staff about the upcoming safety measures. He said he wanted to end the year without anyone getting hurt, but that the district’s solutions were not foolproof.

“However, if we do nothing, then we are blamed and criticized for not doing enough,” he said in the email.

The district’s last day of school was May 24. School officials plan to announce safety measures for the 2022-2023 school year at Tuesday’s board meeting.

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Sabrina Hill wipes tears from her eyes while listening to a story from a mother who lost her child to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sabrina Hill wipes tears from her eyes while listening to a story from a mother who lost her child to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Sabrina Hill wipes tears from her eyes while listening to a story from a mother who lost her child to gun violence during a meeting on gun violence and school safety in Clayton County Schools at North Clayton Middle School on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in College Park, Ga. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution