Pooja Flynn, a parent of a 2nd grader at Snow School in Middletown, said that on a morning in January, one of her son’s friends pointed a toy gun at her son on the school bus and pulled the trigger.
“The toy literally looked like a real gun,” said Flynn.
Flynn said she received the call from the school at around noon, about three hours after the event occurred. She said her son wasn’t bothered by it until she and her husband sat down that night and talked to him about what had happened. He cried. They kept him out of school for the next two days.
“He was traumatized after having that conversation with him. But I mean, we had to be real with him and really get down with the details about why this is so serious,” said Flynn. “And there are days where he tells me he’s scared it’s gonna happen again.”
The number of incidents of students bringing weapons into schools in Connecticut last year reached its highest level since at least 2009, according to state data.
Data shows that last school year, there were nearly 1,300 incidents of students bringing weapons into schools, compared to about 800 incidents in 2017-18 and about 900 incidents in 2018-19.
The increases are stark in certain districts. In Hartford, for example, there were about 150 incidents of weapons in schools, more than double in the year before the pandemic. In Stamford, the number of incidents also doubled — from 23 the year before the pandemic to 57 last year. Waterbury, Bridgeport, New London and Norwich also saw increases.
The increases are not unique to Connecticut. Schools across the country are seeing more weapons being brought onto school grounds. And the number of school shootings nationwide doubled last year in comparison to the two years before the pandemic, according to data from Education Week.
Flynn said that two days before the incident on the school bus with her son, a six-year-old in Virginia had shot and wounded his teacher — which, for her, had made the event even more troubling.
“It was a lot,” she said.
Some districts attributed the rise to heightened security, saying it allowed them to confiscate weapons that they may have missed otherwise. Jesse Sugarman, executive director of communications and marketing for the Hartford Public Schools, told CT Examiner that the school district last year increased the number of random bag screening and began using handheld metal detectors to check students for weapons.
“The increased instances of weapons discovered in our schools is evidence that these measures worked,” said Sugarman.
This year, after a student allegedly brought two guns into Weaver High School in October, the district added “semi-permanent metal detectors” that it rotates around the district. Sugarman said in an email that since the implementation of the metal detectors, “we have seen a decreased frequency of weapons brought to those schools, and throughout the district, as students have embraced this new measure of safety.”
Dr. Ellen Solek, interim executive director for the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, also said that the schools have been doing more weapons searches, which they said led to more weapons being discovered. The number of weapons found in the technical schools increased from 36 in the year prior to the pandemic to 86 last year.
Solek said that the increase was mainly from toy guns or fake guns being brought into the schools.
Sandra Chafouleas, a professor at the UConn Neag School of Education, said she believed the increase in weapons was a signal that students’ “needs aren’t being met” — and specifically the need for connection.
“Belonging, social connection, feeling [a] sense of mastery … kids bring weapons to school because they’re not feeling those things or because they’ve learned it or modeled it as acceptable behavior in other spaces,” she said.
She also warned against increasing security, which she said only heightens that lack of belonging.
“Is it a smart idea to lock our doors? Is it a smart idea to have check-in points, not have schools be open access? Yeah, I think we can kind of all agree on that piece,” said Chafouleas. “But some of the hardening pieces, or some of what we’re doing with SROs in terms of training to be more community-based providers than policing are really important to attend to if we truly want to be preventive in meeting a whole child or a whole student’s needs.”
Michael O’Farrell, the director of communications for Norwich Free Academy, said the school has 10 security officers who work on the campus, and that this year they also hired a Student Resource Officer in partnership with the Norwich Police Department. According to data from the school, the district discovered 19 weapons on school grounds last year, including pepper spray, knives, stun guns and brass knuckles. Fake guns also prompted a lockdown at the school in December, according to reporting from NBC Connecticut.
But O’Farrell also acknowledged that the 2021-22 school year marked the first year back from COVID, which presented “many challenges.”
“In some cases, there was a learning curve in place for students to safely and responsibly re-enter the school environment,” O’Farrell said.
Superintendent Alyshia Perrin of Bridgeport also pointed out the need for more support for students.
“It is my belief that this is occurring because students are not equipped with the skills for conflict resolution and advocacy, so they resort to defensive mechanisms,” Perrin wrote in an email. “Creating safe spaces for conversations, and having identified trusted adults in schools will lessen the likelihood of incidents where students feel that they are left with no other choice than to protect themselves with weapons.”
Chafouleas said that a rise in gun violence or gun proliferation among adults can also have an effect on how children behave.
“Adults are perfect models. Adults are the models for kids as to what they should think and see and do and feel,” said Chafouleas. “If you look at it from a social learning standpoint … it’s not surprising to me.”
Kristea Francolino, manager of executive support services for the New London Public Schools, told CT Examiner that outreach to parents had helped with the increase that the district had seen in students bringing “Orbeez” toy pellet guns to school, as well as students bringing pepper spray.
The number of weapons found in schools in the district rose from 13 in 2017-18 to 27 last year. In December, police seized a BB gun and a knife at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, where three young people were charged with possession of a weapon, according to reporting from Channel 8.
Francolino said the district was also working on social-emotional interventions for students and having officers from the New London Police Department visit the schools and participate in community events. Solek noted that CTECHS had also started a program called C.A.R.E.S (Creating Attitudes and Relationships that Empower Staff and Students), focused on “bolstering school climate and building positive relationships.”
Amery Bernhardt, director of the Connecticut Center for School Safety and Crisis Preparation based out of Western Connecticut State University, said he believed a look at school safety needed to include both the physical safety of the actual building and supporting the mental health of the people inside.
“When I say safety, we’re not just talking about facility safety, we’re talking about also psychological and emotional safety,” said Bernhardt. “I think it’s a false dichotomy – I think we’re splitting things and we’re saying you either have to be physically safe or you have to be emotionally safe, one or the other. And I don’t think that’s accurate.”
The Center, which was founded in July 2021, trains school personnel across the state in crisis response, offering workshops on topics like threat assessment, student mental health and restorative practices. Bernhardt said they have formed a working group on violence prevention in schools, and have also done research on school safety for the state.
The State of Connecticut Department of Education told CT Examiner in an email that they had invested in student mental health, keeping students and families connected with the schools, upgrading security infrastructure and working with local police departments.
“We continue to work with our school districts to prioritize the safety of our students and take all necessary steps to ensure that our learning environments remain safe and secure,” the statement read.
Flynn said that she was happy with the way the Middletown district ultimately handled the situation, although she wished she had received a phone call immediately after it happened, rather than three hours later.
The district said in a statement that they followed standard protocols around safety issues and that both parents were notified by the school administrator “immediately upon her learning of their (the children’s) involvement.” The district declined to comment further, citing the event as a “confidential student matter.”
“I think they did what they could,” said Flynn. “I just hope that they’re still going to work on preventing things like this from happening.”
Editor’s note: In an email, Sugarman later told CT Examiner that since the district implemented the use of handheld metal detectors, it has seen a decreased frequency of weapons, not just guns, as was previously published. Also, Michael O’Farrell is the director of communications for Norwich Free Academy, not Michael Farrell as previously published. This story has been corrected.