A boom interrupted history class and sent sixth-graders screaming and scrambling for the door. D’Angelo Marte tried to run, too, but his left leg wouldn’t budge, rendered useless by a .380-caliber bullet that tore through his knee while he sat at his desk.
As he limped to the front of the classroom, police say an 11-year-old student fled with a loaded gun and water bottle filled with alcohol in his book bag. Another removed his blue Redland Middle School uniform shirt, which a third classmate applied to the wound to stop blood from pooling onto D’Angelo’s Nike Air Force sneakers.
“At first, I thought I was dreaming,” D’Angelo, now 13 and recovered from the May 24 shooting, said in an interview. “I didn’t think I’d ever get shot.”
While jarring, the chaotic scene in Room M211 is the exception, not the rule. School shootings remain uncommon, and local schools officials insist the campus is the safest place for any student.
But the incident — followed one week later by the discovery of a special needs fifth-grader with a loaded Smith & Wesson at a K-8 center in Doral — brought a close to a South Florida school year marred by the fatal November shooting of a 13-year-old girl aboard a private school bus in South Dade. It raised questions about local gun prevention measures and added to calls for increased campus security heard around the nation in the wake of a gunman’s rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
“One gun is too many,” said Cindy Eveld, D’Angelo’s grandmother and guardian. “They need to do something more.”
But how much of a threat do guns really pose to South Florida schools?
For three months, the Miami Herald collected and reviewed — for the first time — hundreds of police reports compiled by the school districts’ police departments that documented the presence and investigation of guns over the past four years, beginning with the 2009 school year. Among the findings:
The issue is frustrating for Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who has made youth safety a pillar of his administration and called a news conference Friday — 10 days after sitting down with the Herald for this report — to talk about violent crime and efforts the district is taking to keep schools safe.
After last year’s Newtown tragedy, the Miami-Dade school district announced it would begin training teachers to spot signs of mental illness among students. Carvalho also joined with county Mayor Carlos Gimenez to encourage collaboration between all local police departments and other community organizations, both in reaction to school emergencies and elsewhere in the community.
This year, the Miami-Dade School Board, like Broward, agreed to pay for more officers to bolster police presence at schools. Police are also launching a gun education forum in elementary schools, and annouced Friday that they’re doubling up on random metal detector searches. Carvalho said he’s also pursuing legislation in Tallahassee to place more penalties on parents who don’t properly secure their guns, because he believes many students are getting their firearms at home — though police reports show guns are also sometimes stolen or found on the way to school.
“One gun in schools is too many,” Carvalho said.
But he also says media and political fixation on fail-safe ways to ward off hypothetical gunmen or prevent the encroachment of guns ignores that students are safer in class than out, evidence that current prevention measures are working.
“Last year was a violent year in Miami-Dade, but not particularly in our schools,” he said. “It’s outside of our schools.”
In Broward, which spends $6 million to staff schools with municipal police officers and sheriff’s deputies, Chief Golt said they are always reviewing security measures, though never in a reactive way.
“I don’t have a problem with it being kept in the limelight. School safety is that critical,” he said. “But people need to understand children are very safe in our schools each day.”
In fact, South Florida students are less likely to carry a weapon on school grounds than their peers across the country, according to a bi-annual study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, the latest study available, students in Miami-Dade and Broward reported carrying guns and bringing weapons to school at a lower rate than the national average. Data provided to the Florida Department of Education by school districts, which are required by law to document gun-related incidents, also show that Miami-Dade and Broward counties reported fewer guns between 2009 and 2012 than Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties.
Dade schools police chief Ian Moffett credits mentorship, active policing, counseling and other prevention methods. One of the most important deterrents, he said, is gun education and relationships with students, who often don’t adhere to the no-snitching code that frustrates so many police investigations.
“There’s far more information coming out of schools than coming out of the community because of the code of silence,” Moffett said. “When I was a school resource officer, the vast majority of the time I got my tips from students and prevented that stuff from getting to campus. It’s the things outside school that cause a person to bring that gun or knife to campus.”
Reports show that schools police go out to homes and into communities in response to tips from parents, other agencies and social media to try and catch guns before they get to campus. But guns do still make it into classrooms and schoolyards, sometimes randomly in restrooms or, in one case, a donated golf bag. And when that happens, principals, teachers and students become responsible for finding and reporting the weapons.
Latoya Thomas, for instance, was teaching seventh-grade science at Madison Middle in 2009 when she noticed her students were passing around a backpack. She thought someone had a pet, because students had been sneaking rabbits and snakes into class.
“I had a really good rapport with that class. I was like another mother. And the kids in my class warned me, ‘Don’t look in the book bag,’ ” said Thomas, 34. “After, I thought what could have happened? The kids were like, ‘We knew about it, all along.’ ”
About one year later, American Senior High teacher Bello Jean-Baptiste overheard two seniors talking about bringing a gun to school, so he wrote a referral to administration. Police found a loaded .22-caliber, double-action H&R Sportsman revolver on the student, who told them he was trying to sell the gun for money. He also had 109 bullets.
Jean-Baptiste said the discovery was disconcerting. But he said worries about students with guns are overblown.
“It was just an unfortunate incident,” said Jean-Baptiste, 57. “It’s not like there’s a culture that kids bring guns to classes.”
But as last year’s shootings show, one undiscovered or unreported gun can have frightening consequences. And sometimes, the safety net breaks down when guns go unreported or tips aren’t followed up properly.
That’s what Amanda Collette’s parents alleged in a lawsuit settled by the Broward School Board after their daughter was shot dead at age 15 in Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High by another student in 2008. And last year, police say the students who shot D’Angelo Marte and Lourdes “Jina” Guzman-DeJesus had both shown their guns to classmates before the firearms went off. Criminal charges were filed in both cases.
Lourdes’ mother, Ady DeJesus, says her daughter’s shooting is proof that schools need better security measures. Jina, a Palm Glades Preparatory Academy student, was fatally shot in the neck by another student while riding to their charter schools aboard a private school bus that was also transporting her younger sister to school. Witnesses told police in depositions that the shooter, Jordyn Howe, 15, brought his stepfather’s gun to Somerset Academy Silver Palms for as long as two months. Some said he let other students see or play with the gun on the bus, including Jina, though her mother doubts that’s true.
After Jordyn’s most recent court hearing last month on a manslaughter charge, a trembling DeJesus said Silver Palms, which as a charter isn’t policed or operated by the school district, failed her family, which she is struggling to hold together. She takes Jina’s younger sister to therapy each week in Broward County and drives her to school because she can’t bear to put her back on a bus.
“My daughter wasn’t supposed to die that day,” she said. “I’m not going to stop until I know the schools have metal detectors. I think they should even have see-through book bags.”
The issue of school safety continues to hold traction among some state lawmakers, including Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Coral Reef Senior High teacher and Democrat who wants to tax gun sales to establish a gun safety fund that he’d like to see further preventative measures, like counseling. His Senate colleague, Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, believes voters should be allowed to establish special taxing districts to fund additional school resource officers at elementary schools, where gun reports are rare but fears of intruders run high.
In the House, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, intends to resurrect a bill to allow for trained and armed employees at elementary schools in order to ward off attackers while waiting for police to respond.
“My goal is just to ensure our kids are safe, and right now, in my opinion, they’re not,” Steube said.
But the school boards in Miami-Dade and Broward haven’t been receptive to most legislative proposals, the sum of which led only to a $1 million boost to school safety funding this past session to pay for a security survey. Carvalho called ideas like Steube’s “experimental.” The Broward School Board objected to Sobel’s proposal, which Superintendent Robert Runcie likened to “killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Schools officials believe they’re better off making their own decisions about gun prevention.
For instance, the random wand searches that Miami-Dade brought back in January of 2012 have proven to cut down on the percentage of students toting weapons to schools, according to a recent Georgia State University study that focused on Miami-Dade and Broward schools. On the other hand, some research has found inadequate evidence to support daily weapons searches and entryway metal detectors. And the National Association of School Psychologists this year questioned whether schools are harming learning environments by increasing security regardless of need.
“If you walk into a place that looks like a prison then I would argue students are likely to behave in accordance with the culture that’s been created,” said, Shaun Harper, an associate professor at the Penn Graduate School of Education.
Harper is publishing a study this month on factors of success among high-achieving African-American and Hispanic students in high-minority high schools. He said most of the 325 students interviewed talked about the importance of feeling safe and trusted in their schools — most of which lacked metal detectors in a city where the New York Civil Liberties Union says 100,000 students are searched for weapons before entering class.
It’s one reason Carvalho says he won’t endorse metal detectors in schools like Miami Central, Miami Northwestern and Miami Carol City, where the number of gun incidents were highest. He said he’d rather expand access and hours at schools in rough neighborhoods, like Overtown’s Booker T. Washington Senior High, which students have repeatedly called a safe haven.
There’s also an issue with the configuration of Florida’s schools, which in some cases have dozens of access points. Both districts say they’re working to create single entry points to schools.
Carvalho, however, doesn’t argue that schools can’t be safer. Rather, he says efforts are better focused on cutting down community violence, securing firearms in the home, and shielding kids from the gunplay that resulted in 81 homicides of kids 18 and younger in Miami-Dade between 2009 and 2012 — all but two of them outside school settings.
“I am reasonably frustrated over the fact that schools compared to the rest of the community are far safer places,” he said. “But when something traumatic happens, it’s often seen as a failure of the school rather than a failure of the community that allows for this pervasive violence to occur. To task teachers and principals and even school board police with this absolute responsibility of prevention while at the same time having the community back away from its share of responsibility is not a fair position.”
He added: “The question I ask is, what are we as a community doing to reduce the levels of community violence so that it doesn’t invade our schools?”