DeKalb reacts to spike in trend that scares parents: guns in school

Three guns were found at different DeKalb County high schools last week, prompting surprise inspections and police sweeps at schools across the district.

The reactive nature of the sweeps suggested the district was caught off guard by a troubling trend: Six guns have been discovered at high schools so far this school year, nearly matching the seven guns confiscated on school campuses during the entire 2018-2019 school year.

As the nation reels from the increased number of school shootings, parents and students worry lax attitudes about gun reports may lead to a deadly event at a school. Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates for reducing gun violence nationwide, reports 72 incidents involving guns on school grounds in 2019, including 11 deaths and more than three dozen injuries.

For DeKalb or any school district in America, a near once-a-week pace for discovering a firearm on campus is a stunning and alarming trend. R. Leslie Nichols, a consultant based in LaGrange who helps develop child and youth safety and protection programs across the country, said getting students more engaged and enforcing fundamental procedures for entering schools and routine sweeps would go a long way to deter students from bringing guns to school.

"Everything flows from culture," he said. "You have to ask what it is about the culture that permitted that. Culture has to constantly be shaped, or you're out of step with the problems."

Metro Atlanta school authorities confiscated nearly 50 handguns and rifles from students on their campuses during the 2018-2019 school year, according to data submitted by the districts to the Georgia Department of Education.

“This is not just something that just started,” said Vasanne Tinsley, the DeKalb district’s deputy superintendent for student support and intervention. “We’ve been looking at this intently for the last year. We’re looking at what law enforcement gives us, monitoring other events that happen elsewhere to see what lessons can be learned.”

Late last week, parents received a note from the district announcing random sweeps at high schools for the remainder of the school year. Tinsley said the plan also includes a social-emotional component, engaging school counselors to figure out why students are bringing guns to school, as well as engaging local governments, parents and social service providers to determine the root causes to avoid bigger tragedies.

“We know that’s beneficial to let people know first and foremost we’re serious about the safety of our students and staff,” she said.

Students bringing guns to school in DeKalb have prompted lockdowns and chaotic scenes involving parents frantically seeking information about a child’s well-being, as such events become more commonplace.

Parent Tywanna Bailey-Britt said she has almost daily conversations with her children about school safety and makes sure they have their cellphones on them at all times.

“It’s really scary,” she said. “School is supposed to be a safe haven. It’s really hard for them now. My kids have to have their cellphones with them … so that if anything happens, they can contact me.”

On Aug. 13, the second day of school, a 15-year-old Stephenson High School student was arrested after another student said she saw him with a gun on a school bus. Nearly a month later, on Sept. 10, a male Lithonia High School student was taken into custody for having a gun. On Sept. 19, two Columbia High School students were arrested after one was found with a loaded handgun. Wednesday, two students were charged with having guns at Cedar Grove and Columbia high schools. The gun at Columbia High was discovered during a search and safety drill at the school, a random sweep for weapons and other contraband.

ExploreAnother gun was found Thursday on a Lithonia High School student.

Few details have been released about the types of guns recovered at these south DeKalb schools. All the suspects were male students.

The school system’s top administrator and the police chief did not respond to repeated requests by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to get their thoughts on the potential reasons for the incidents; the challenges faced by officials in keeping guns out of schools; and whether the system can allay the fears of parents, students and school employees.

The newspaper’s efforts to reach Superintendent Steve Green by phone and through requests to the district’s communications team were not successful last week. DeKalb County School District Police Chief Bradley Gober also did not respond to requests through the district’s communications department.

A two-paragraph statement sent from the district Thursday mentioned the random searches, and said further updates would be forthcoming “as we enhance our public safety plan.”

'My heart drops every time'

DeKalb County Board of Education member Diijon DaCosta said the issue of weapons in school is on the board's radar, as well as the radar of officials in the district. He said the district's Student Support and Intervention department is working on plans to address guns, gang violence and vaping, identified as high-priority issues as the year progresses. Lakeside High School held a meeting last week about vaping and its effects.

Every time he gets an email about another gun found in a school, DaCosta said he worries about his daughter, who attends a DeKalb school.

“As a parent, my heart drops every time I read that type of email,” he said. “We hear all these stories of school shootings and things going on in the area. The very first thing I do is text my child. My friends died through gun violence. We send our kids to school to learn.”

For the district’s plans to work, parents said rules and regulations need to be followed by school officials.

Until this school year, parent Kimberly Wright said students at Towers High School were told book bags were not allowed. This year, they are allowed to use clear book bags so officials could detect illegal items being brought in.

One day this week, Wright sat in her vehicle snapping photographs with her phone of students waiting to be let inside the school through its main entrance. The students were eventually let in by other students. Many, she said, had colored bags that obstruct a view of the contents. No adults were on hand to check the bags.

‘That’s how the guns get in,” she said recently. “They have these rules … but the question is if you’re not operating these things the way they should be operated, how effective are they?”

She said her daughter, a senior at Towers, has told her about several instances where students were informed about a gun being found on campus, but the information did not make it back to parents. She trusts her daughter’s word, she said.

“I don’t think they’re reporting it to the public,” she said. “It’s a lot of stuff that goes on in these schools, but it’s not documented so it’s not able to be tracked.”

Natalie Stembel, 17, a senior at Lakeside High School, said she runs through her head how she would react in each of her classes if someone entered the room with a gun. She prepares more after each news report of a school shooting, or a gun found at a local school. Her school notified parents recently after a student circulated a “kill list,” names of fellow students who could suffer harm.

“I feel like with every story you hear, people get desensitized,” she said. “People are so used to hearing about these things that it doesn’t offend them anymore. That scares me. It shouldn’t take a shot at your school after hearing five guns were already found at other schools. That was your school’s warning.”

Bailey-Britt said her teenage daughter who attends Tucker High School, whom she asked not be named, suffers from anxiety, which is heightened after every school shooting and lockdown. She has kept the teen home on several occasions when notes circulated on social media threatened violence at the school. While the school district has a role in how it handles safety at schools, Bailey-Britt said parents and students have a share in the responsibility as well.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s one person [at whom] to point the finger,” she said. “Parenting has a major role in this. Some parents are afraid of what they can do to their children. It’s going to take a village in order to change that.”


Aug. 13: A 14-year-old Stephenson High School student was arrested after another student said she saw him with a gun on a school bus.

Sept. 10: A Lithonia High School student was taken into custody after officials said he pulled a gun on another student.

Sept. 19: Two students were arrested after administrators discovered one had a loaded handgun on campus.

Sept. 25: District officials found handguns on two students, one each at Cedar Grove and Columbia high schools.