Cautionary tale: State, school policies strict about guns on campus

Kevin Tate | Daily Journal Schools across the nation are faced with the dilemma of gray areas in rules about weapons on campus and have generally responded by eliminating the gray.

Kevin Tate | Daily Journal
Schools across the nation are faced with the dilemma of gray areas in rules about weapons on campus and have generally responded by eliminating the gray.

By Kevin Tate

Special to the Journal

The young man expected that Monday this past October to be just another day of high school, but instead it included an arrest complete with handcuffs, a strip search and a court hearing and led in short order to three months at Lee County’s alternative school.

The student – whose name is being withheld not for anonymity but to demonstrate this could happen to anyone – is an 11th-grader who’s never had any disciplinary issues, who makes good grades and who has plans for the future. His parents are well-respected members of the community, folks with as many good connections as any you could find.

The student could be anyone’s son or daughter. If you’re in high school, the student could be you.

This young man is an avid outdoorsman who’d spent the past Saturday working on some leased land, putting in pipes to flood a field for duck hunting and discouraging the resident beavers at the same time. When he was done he’d put his machete in the bed of his truck and his .22 in his back seat, then labored his way off the land and back to the paved road, getting stuck a time or two in the process, finally arriving home late that night and falling gratefully into bed.

An innocent mistake

“I never thought a thing about it after that,” he said and, on Monday, the rifle and the cane-chopping tool were still riding with him when he went to school.

“I got called to the office and, when I got there, I saw they had a machete that had been in the bed of my truck,” he said. “We walked out to the parking lot and the principal asked me if there was anything else in the truck. I said there was a .22 in there. They took me back to the office and called the police. The police came and wrote a report, arrested me and took me to the juvenile detention center.”

Kevin Tate | Daily Journal A .22 rifle in the back seat is more than enough to result in both legal and school punishment for a student.

Kevin Tate | Daily Journal
A .22 rifle in the back seat is more than enough to result in both legal and school punishment for a student.

He was taken from the school in handcuffs, delivered to the equivalent of jail, strip searched, put in chains. He didn’t have to change into the orange jumpsuit and flip flops because youth court was actually in session that day, his next stop on the surprise Monday tour.

“Because we were in session that day, he was able to come straight over here for his hearing and he was released,” said Judge Charlie Brett, of the Lee County Youth Court. By law he could have spent 48 hours in jailawaiting a hearing. By law, also, a wide range of other outcomes could have greeted him at youth court. According to Brett, Mississippi’s youth court judges have an extraordinarily broad range of options at their discretion. This same young man could have been sentenced to probation or he could have been ordered to serve up to 90 days in jail at the juvenile detention center. He could even have been certified to stand trial as an adult in circuit court where he’d have faced the felony charge of possessing a gun on school property and, upon conviction, could have been sentenced to up to three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

“It’s up to the judge whether to let him go home, how seriously to take it,” Brett said.

Separately from the courts, the governing school board in each case must also address such matters. In this student’s case, this resulted in a three-month term at the county’s alternative school, where students work in cubicles under supervision that includes the eyes of uniformed law enforcement.

“It’s like in-school suspension,” the young man said, “but a whole school set up like that.”

More extreme alternatives at boards’ discretion include complete expulsion.

A different world

Brett, Lee County Schools Superintendent Jimmy Weeks and Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson lament the necessity of what, on first appearance, would seem to be extreme measures. Consideration of the extreme, logic-defying scenarios they’re working to guard against, however, brings the matter into focus. School shootings have become a sad part of the cultural landscape. One took place in Nevada the same day as the student’s arrest in this case. Once took place in Colorado a week ago today.

“It would be great if you could take the child’s disciplinary history into account here,” Weeks said, “but you just can’t. In this scenario we know he’s a good kid, but you have to guard against all of the what-ifs. What if another kid who was troubled or who was depressed or who was just having a bad day walked by the truck? What if he picked it up and brought it into the school? What could have happened then?

“In the world today’s adults grew up in, this wouldn’t have happened, but we don’t live in that world anymore.”

Safety of the many

Charged with maintaining the safety of thousands of lives, officials like Weeks and boards of education nationwide face imponderables such as these every day.

“You can’t water down safety,” Johnson said of the matter, which included the full intake processing applied to anyone arrested, including a strip search.

“That part was the worst,” the student said many weeks after the initial ordeal was completed.

“It’s a terrible scenario,” Johnson said, “and we know he innocently drove to school forgetting the weapons were in his truck, but you can’t water down safety.”

To that point stands the tragic story of Casey Harmon. In early March of 1998 Harmon was a deputy jailer working at the Lee County Juvenile Detention Center where, one night, a 16-year-old with no prior record had been brought following his arrest on a shoplifting charge.

The youngster was confined between two locked doors and was about to be released to the custody of his parents but, instead, when Harmon opened the first door and turned his back, the young man produced a small handgun that he’d concealed in his boot and killed him. The shoplifting suspect-turned murderer, who was about to be sent home, is now serving life plus 75 years in prison, and the Harmon family lost a son, a brother and a husband.

“We didn’t search juvenile suspects then to the degree we do now,” Johnson said.

Ultimately, the young man at the heart of today’s story should get clear of his mistake entirely. He’s still on track to graduate high school on time. Juvenile records are sealed and it’s not likely anyone in his future will ask or care. Still, as bad as they were, matters could have been much worse.

A serious matter

“This isn’t play,” his dad said. “We don’t have an axe to grind with the school. Our concern is, I saw how innocent this was. If there’s a way we can help educate other sportsmen who may be tempted or otherwise make the same mistake, we want to do that. They put him in handcuffs to leave the school. He was strip searched. For his hearing he came off the elevator in shackles. There may be people who think having a firearm in their truck to go hunting after school is no big deal, but it is.”