Elementary school students toting fake guns to campus made up the largest group of public school children in each of the last two school years expelled for firearms violations, a trend that’s spurring educators to redouble efforts to warn younger kids about bringing replica guns to school.
The issue has also prompted lawmakers to consider a measure that would ban the sale of toy or replica guns to minors.
Over the past five years, the Department of Education has dramatically decreased firearms expulsions thanks to a statewide campaign educating students on the big consequences for bringing a gun — real or fake — to school.
But although the number of firearms-related expulsions at elementary schools is down from a five-year high of 32 in 2005-06, expulsions have gone up over the past three years — to 17 last school year from eight in the 2007-08 school year.
By comparison, there were only four expulsions at high schools for firearms violations last school year, according to a recently released annual report to the Legislature.
Officials emphasize that almost all of the expulsions — across grades — were for fake guns. (Last school year, there was one expulsion statewide for a real handgun and one expulsion for explosives.)
Although the guns are fake, the punishment is real. Breaking the rules means a yearlong expulsion, regardless of age.
Ronn Nozoe, DOE deputy superintendent, said the number of firearms expulsions at elementary schools is a concern — and evidence that more work is needed to warn parents and kids about the punishment for bringing a fake gun to campus.
"With the younger kids, they may not be fully aware of the ramifications," he said. "I’m sure they know they’re going to get in trouble, but they might be curious. They might be modeling behavior.
"At the same time, they’ve got to know, if they make a mistake there’s quite a consequence attached to it," Nozoe said.
The Department of Education expanded its definition of a firearm in 1997 to include pellet and airsoft guns. The penalty for bringing a firearm to campus is a one-year expulsion. Here’s how the DOE defines a firearm:
Source: Department of Education
THE NEW FIGURES on elementary school expulsions for firearms come amid rising popularity for replica guns that, principals say, look real and could be dangerous.
At the start of this school year, two eighth-graders were expelled from Washington Middle School — one for bringing a replica gun to campus, the other for pointing it at a classmate.
Principal Mike Harano said the student who brought the gun to campus purchased it for $10 at a store near the school. The gun, he said, looked real and shot plastic pellets.
"It could take your eye out," he said. "I really think we can’t be too careful."
After the incident, the school asked the store not to sell its fake guns to kids. Harano said the guns are still for sale there, but aren’t displayed as prominently.
The incident prompted lawmakers to introduce legislation that would ban the sale of toy guns to minors, a measure critics call too vague and unnecessary.
Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully-Kaimuki), who authored the House version of the proposed ban, said lawmakers will have to decide how to define "toy gun" or what shouldn’t be sold to minors.
As the law is written, he said, toy guns would include anything from a water pistol to a BB gun.
"I’m not sure how you draw the line," he added.
But, Saiki said, the intent of the bill is to make sure replica guns that look real don’t get into the hands of children without a parent’s permission.
"The primary concern is the safety of children and students," he said. "A student could have a toy gun that looks real, be playing with it at night and a police officer" could be called.
"It could end in disaster," Saiki said.
Chris Baker, president of the Hawaii Defense Foundation, argues the bill isn’t needed and won’t stop any kid from bringing a fake gun to school.
"If they’re worried about bringing them to school, this is really not going to prevent that," he said.
MEANWHILE, vendors of a popular kind of replica called airsoft guns say they don’t sell the items to children anyway and don’t let kids play at events without a parent’s permission.
Airsoft guns fire nonlethal plastic BBs and are hot-ticket items for youths.
As in paintball games, groups gather to play with the guns in indoor and outdoor areas, donning safety masks and helmets. But unlike paintball guns, the airsoft guns are lifelike — so much so that a 2003 city ordinance banned carrying one uncovered on a street or public land.
Businesses that sell airsoft guns said when parents purchase them for children, they make sure to spell out how to use them properly and where kids can — and can’t — play with them.
Grant Woo, co-owner of Impact Games in Aiea, said the solution to the expulsions problems at schools is not tougher laws, but more parental oversight.
"With some of these younger kids, they might not realize how serious it is to play with any kind of replica toy gun," he said. "It’s very important for the parents to really reinforce with the kids."
Randall Omoto and his 15-year-old son, Avery, play together with airsoft guns and follow strict safety protocols.
"At home, we treat them like real guns," Omoto said.
He agreed that it’s up to parents to drive home for kids that replica guns need to be treated with respect, and shouldn’t be taken to school.
"I think it’s a parental problem," he said.
THE DEPARTMENT of Education said that through bulletins and letters home it is trying to get the message to parents about its firearms policy.
Nozoe added that although schools have made progress on cutting the number of firearms violations, even one incident is too many.
Students who are expelled for a firearms violation get work sent home from their schools, but aren’t allowed on school grounds until the afternoon bell has rung, when they can get help from teachers and use school computers.
Parents can appeal expulsions, and in some cases children are allowed back early.
Either way, Nozoe said, "it’s a big, big imposition" on families.
Schools that have had expulsions for firearms violations say they’ve used the incidents as teachable moments to reinforce the consequences of bringing a replica gun to school.
Dale Castro, principal at Mililani Waena Elementary School, said that after an expulsion for a fake gun at his campus, he made sure to remind parents and students about the firearms rules.
"It’s really important to have effective communication of the policy," he said.
Karen Liu, principal of King Kaumualii Elementary on Kauai, said that after a recent firearms expulsion, staff members spoke to classes on the seriousness of the violation.
"We always follow up," she said.