More than a year after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, police say students and parents are “on edge” and “alert,” yet instances of local students bringing guns to school continue to materialize.
The most recent incident happened Friday at Crown Point High School. After a suspicious Instagram post with the caption, "When I pull up with the strap," caught the attention of a Crown Point police officer working security at the school, a loaded 9mm handgun was found in the center console of 18-year-old Kayla Apking’s vehicle, court records state.
The Cedar Lake teen was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm, a Level 5 felony, because the alleged crime occurred on school property.
Crown Point Assistant Police Chief Jim Janda said the incident was the first one he could remember happening at the local school.
“It all started from a social media post. Right away, everybody was alerted and everything was taken care of without an actual threat to the school,” Janda said. “I know it’s our first, but I feel like we are seeing more incidents like this happening and a heightened awareness with guns in schools. Everybody is so on edge about it and aware of what’s going on.”
It might be the first gun incident at Crown Point High School, but it’s not isolated in Region schools.
Last week, a 17-year-old was accused of bringing a revolver into Lowell High School in a book bag, showing it to another student and placing it in his front pants pocket, according to a police report.
A 14-year-old Duneland-area boy and a 13-year-old Chesterton Middle School student were taken into custody by Porter and Valparaiso police earlier this month after threatening social media posts were shared involving photos of weapons and the statement, "I'm going to shoot up a school.”
A 10-year-old student brought a handgun to MacArthur Elementary School in a backpack in August. A parent reported that a student may have brought a gun from home, police said.
A 14-year-old Boone Grove Middle School student was taken into custody by Porter County police in May on accusations of threatening to "shoot up" the school. No weapons were found on the student or in his locker, and there was none at his home, police said.
Trace T. Robertson, 18, was charged with a felony in February 2018 after bringing a loaded gun to Griffith High School, police said. The Griffith teen told officers he mistakenly had brought the gun inside the school and asked if the officer could "cut him a break," police Cmdr. Keith Martin said.
In July, Robertson entered a pretrial diversion agreement where if he completes certain requirements the felony would be dismissed.
Those are only a small handful of incidents reported.
Why it happens
Every incident has different circumstances involved, and there are a number of reasons why kids are bringing guns with them to school, Portage Police Chief Troy Williams said.
Some carry out of fear to protect themselves from peer harassment or bullying. Some do it seeking attention to “look cool.” In some cases, students who engage in gun violence struggle with poor physical and mental health.
“There’s a lot of kids out there, though, that have mental health issues. When you look back at a lot of school shooters, that’s a pretty prevalent concern with all of them,” said Williams, who previously served as school resource officer at Portage High School for six years.
Mental health issues don't cause school shootings, but stress can lead people to dangerous behavior, according to a 2018 FBI study, which looked at 63 active shooters — ages ranging from 12 to 88 — between 2000 and 2013.
Only 25 percent of shooters had been diagnosed by a health professional with a mental illness "of any kind" prior to an attack, the study found. Most shooters experienced mental health “stressors,” including anxiety and depression.
“If little Johnny’s had some concerning writing in his English assignments, that needs to be shared with the guidance counselor or principal and parents. If he’s acting different at home, he’s been more quiet, kind of reserved, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to be a school shooter, but what’s going on behind the scene can be hard to figure out,” Williams said. “We have to be on the lookout and exchange information and conversation to help the kid and prevent any harm.”
Keeping kids safe
Another big problem comes down to accessibility, police said, as many students found with a firearm on school property are underage. In Indiana, a license to carry is issued to individuals age 18 or older who meet a number of legal requirements.
Janda said in many cases, gun-owning parents are not properly storing weapons in their homes, giving children easy access.
This was the case with Apking’s incident Friday. The teen told police she took the handgun from her stepfather's bedroom nightstand the night before, according to court records.
“It’s the parent’s responsibility to make sure that weapons are locked up and secure. If you’re going to have a firearm in the house, that’s something that your child should know about. They need to understand gun safety and the consequences of having a firearm,” Janda said. “Guns are not toys. This is not a computer game. This is real. There are real consequences.”
It’s important for school administrators and parents — even those who aren’t gun owners — to have gun safety conversations with their children, and criminals on the streets are "going to have access to guns,” Williams said.
Last year, the Portage Police Department had 29 separate stolen firearms reports, Williams said.
“Those things make it around the criminal community, and if these kids have somebody they know like a family member, friend or even other juveniles that dabble in the lifestyle, access is not going to be difficult,” Williams said. “We have to always stay alert.”
It all starts with the parents, Lake County Sheriff Oscar Martinez said.
"Talk to your children. Parents need to be in tune to what their children are doing and the issues they may be going through," Martinez said. "Children need to be taught the value of human life and morals. Children should be taught to talk to their parents or other adults in authority and alert them if they see or hear anything involving gun or other violence."
Martinez said more school partnerships with police departments who specialize in active shooter training and education programs can minimize the chance of students bringing guns on campus.
Police advise parents to always store guns, unloaded, and ammunition in locked cases out of reach to children or completely remove them from the home. Additionally, parents should regularly check backpacks and vehicles and “keep a close eye” on phone use and social media accounts for any suspicious activity.
If anything appears potentially dangerous, report it to police, Williams said.
Understanding the law
Under Indiana law, guns are not allowed to be brought into school buildings, and students, even those who are licensed handgun carriers, are prohibited from possessing guns in school parking lots. The state law has exceptions for students on shooting sports teams who have their principal's approval.
The ability of school officials to search students is even less lenient.
“If you’ve got a reasonable suspicion to search a student at school, then you can do it. And it’s not just the students — their lockers and book bags can all be searched at any time on school property, and that’s usually addressed in the student handbook,” Williams said. “School administrators don’t have to have permission by the student to search if there is a reasonable suspicion.”
Martinez added that school officials may enlist the assistance of law enforcement when searching students for weapons based on a reasonable suspicion.
Dana Teasley, attorney for 21st Century Charter School in Gary, said reasonable suspicion is “a very low bar,” and “students have a loss of rights on campus.”
“If one of our administrators hears student talk about someone bringing a gun in or they see chatter on social media that someone will bring a gun to school, that is absolutely reasonable suspicion, and they are allowed to search a student,” she said.
Administrators also have the legal right to question and discipline students based on social media usage, Teasley said.
“Any action that takes place off school grounds that then spills into school grounds and disrupts the educational environment — and that very much includes social media — can be subject to disciplinary action by the school,” Teasley said. “If social media pops up and a student is talking about a gun, administrators absolutely have the right to use that if someone brings it to them as reasonable suspicion.”
Additionally, under Indiana Code, any student who is "identified as bringing a firearm or destructive device to school" or "in possession of a firearm or destructive device" must be expelled from school.