The number of students caught carrying any kind of “firearm,” including paintball guns, or even slingshots, has dropped to its lowest level in 10 years at Hawaii’s public school campuses.
One teenager brought a handgun to Kapolei High School on Jan. 18, 2019, in the only such incident statewide in the last academic year, according to an annual report to the 2020 Legislature. That gun was quickly confiscated, the principal told parents in a letter sent home that day. Police said the student was arrested on firearms charges.
Altogether, out of a population of more than 179,000 students, 17 “firearms” incidents involving 18 weapons were reported in the last school year. The vast majority were airguns, along with two “slingshot like devices” and the hand gun. One student was caught with two airguns.
Maui, Kauai and the Windward Oahu school districts reported no incidents in the last school year.
The 17 “firearms” incidents represent a 32% drop over the previous year and a 51% decline from the 2011-12 academic year, when a high of 35 incidents were reported, annual reports show.
Over the last 10 years, a total of five handguns have been confiscated from students on Hawaii public school campuses. The incidents are included in legislative reports titled “Mandatory Expulsion Policy for Possession of a Firearm” filed by the state Department of Education.
The department defines “firearms” more broadly than the state and federal government. It includes airguns and “any other instrument which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile.” That encompasses slingshots as well as airguns, such as airsoft, pellet, BB, paintball guns.
In contrast to the drop in firearms found on campus locally, the actual use of firearms in schools in the United States appears to be climbing steeply. A national database compiled by the Center for Homeland Defense and Security shows the number of school shooting incidents across the country has soared from 16 reported in 2011 to 111 last year.
Of the 491 shooting incidents listed between Jan. 1, 2011, and Jan. 19, 2020, two occurred in Hawaii. In the first, a 14-year-old student picked up a gun he had found outside on the grounds of Highlands Intermediate School in Pearl City on May 23, 2011, at 6:30 a.m., well before school started. It accidentally discharged when he showed it to his friends and one of them pushed it away.
The second case was when a police officer shot a 17-year-old non-active student during a scuffle at Roosevelt High School as officers were trying to take him into custody as a runaway at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 28, 2014. That event shows up on the school shooting compilation but not in the Hawaii reports because it was a police weapon, not a student with a firearm.
The discipline code, known as Chapter 19, says that any student who possesses a firearm shall be dismissed from school for not less than one calendar year, and provided alternate educational activities. It does allow the superintendent or designee to modify the dismissal, on a case-by-case basis.
A department spokesman said that it could not discuss consequences for individual students in specific cases. But the Department of Education does file annual reports with the Legislature on the number of students excluded from school for possession of a firearm, their schools and the type of firearm involved.
The department opted to respond in writing to questions from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Asked about the drop in overall “firearms” incidents in Hawaii, Max Mendoza, director of the Safety, Security & Emergency Preparedness Branch, indicated it is a team effort.
“The declining trend is very hopeful and reflects the hard work of parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement and staff throughout HIDOE, the Board of Education, state government and our communities to keep schools safe,” he wrote. “Schools work proactively throughout the year with students and families to provide behavioral supports and interventions to maintain a positive and safe school climate.”
Toy or fake guns are also prohibited on public school campuses, according to the department. What’s real and what’s fake may not be readily apparent.
“Many airsoft, BB and pellet guns are extremely realistic and closely resemble real handguns and long guns,” the department said. “These, along with paintball guns, may be considered as ‘toy’ or ‘fake’ guns if the realism of a firearm is measured in terms of lethality, but these guns would be included as Chapter 19 firearm violations, as they are designed to expel a projectile. Airguns and paintball guns can produce serious injury to their targets.”
Principals do have some leeway in determining consequences when elementary kids are found with colorful, plastic toy guns, such as Nerf guns.
“Most Nerf-related issues happen at the K-6 level and administrators have discretion on how to respond,” the department said. “Responses to Nerf gun issues usually include temporary confiscation, notification of parents and some disciplinary action aimed at changing the student’s behavior. School staff often make it a teachable moment to help younger students understand why such items are not allowed.”