Arizona's K-12 schools and police face flood of gun threats, lockdowns, guns

Guns in schools:

Rising threats, growing fear| 2 kids, 2 police calls| Why kids make threats (Coming Wednesday) | Unsecured and lethal (Coming Thursday)

The threat of gun violence is real in Arizona schools.

As real as a handgun in a backpack.

As tangible as components of an assault rifle in a student's pants.

Police agencies have responded to thousands of calls from Arizona schools since Jan. 1, 2019: threats of shooting up a school, of harming teachers, of targeting a classmate.

In 2022, police handled an average of two gun threat incidents a day, according to an Arizona Republic investigation. From 2019 to 2022, emergency calls from schools came in, on average, about 10 times a week.

Most calls involved just threats — cries for attention or help. Hearsay, rumors and social media posts prompted many calls to police. Anxiety about a potential gun attack demands that a school community approach each threat as valid until proven otherwise.

But at least 96 times, weapons were found in students' possession, The Republic learned.

And the danger is not going away. Some examples from the past calendar year:

Gun threats and guns found at school have been rising since 2019, The Republic investigation found, but Arizona has been fortunate to not experience a mass casualty attack by students or on students in a K-12 school.

The drumbeat of police calls to schools was stunning. Almost 2,200 gun threats were logged by more than 70 departments in the four years The Republic surveyed.

The Republic found 26 students brought guns to school in calendar year 2019; eight in 2020; 19 in 2021; and 43 in 2022.

From 1970 until June 2022, 19 shootings were reported on school campuses in Arizona, according to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security. They left 11 people dead and 10 wounded.

Five of those school shootings — incidents in which a gun was fired accidentally or intentionally — occurred from 2019 through June 2022. Two of them involved a student firing the weapon. In November 2021, a student was shot by a classmate during a dispute in a bathroom at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix. In March 2022, a Kingman student accidentally shot his classmate on a school bus.

Whether gun threats are legitimate or not, learning is put on pause. Law enforcement personnel spend time and resources to investigate their veracity. Fearful teachers and students in lockdown are left wondering “what if?”

Officer Tricia Smalley is the school resource officer assigned to Benson Unified School District, comprised of elementary, middle, high and alternative schools about an hour southeast of Tucson.

The thought of a school shooting has kept her up at night, she said. She even put her daughters through active shooter preparedness training.

"Every single school where there's a mass shooting, (they say), 'We never thought it would happen here,'" Smalley said. "I always play scenarios in my head."

The age of students making gun threats in Arizona schools varied from preschool to high school. Threats came in rural areas and urban; in wealthy areas and working class. Many of them involved students with grievances with teachers or peers. Many of the students were experiencing bullying, mental health struggles or emotional distress.

And when students brought a firearm onto a school campus, they often gained access from a family member.

Data on gun threats took The Republic more than 16 months to compile from police agencies. Some of the data is supposed to be supplied by schools to the federal government, but The Republic found schools fail to fill out a required form correctly, if at all. And the Arizona Department of Education does not track how often lockdowns occur.

The reports obtained by The Republic from police agencies offered a glimpse into what happens at schools when gun threats are called in, who is making the threats and what school officials hope to do to get ahead of the problem.

The boy with the gun at Bostrom brought "more tears, more pain than I’ve ever experienced in my time at Phoenix Union,” said Chad Gestson, who was that district's superintendent at the time.

While Smalley has not had to respond to a student gun threat since her SRO role began in December 2022, she has initiated classroom lockdowns when people wanted by law enforcement came near school property.

"I'm here on campus because, you know, I signed up to be the bullet sponge, if you will," Smalley said. "I'm the one that's running toward the danger. I'm the one that's going to take the bullet."

Emotional distress, bullying often in play in Arizona gun threats

Arizona police responded to 801 gun threats in K-12 schools in calendar year 2022, compared with 654 incidents in 2019, according to The Republic investigation. In 2022, Phoenix police received nearly half of the gun threats in the state.

Emotional distress and bullying were core issues behind gun threats, police reports and interviews with more than a dozen behavioral and education experts show.

Each incident requires a close examination for the underlying issues, they said.

In May 2019, at an elementary school in Kingman, a boy in foster care showed signs of emotional distress when he lost a classroom trivia game. He threatened to set the school on fire and “bring a gun” to school. An officer came to the boy’s house to speak with him. Ultimately, the officer filed a referral to prosecutors asking that the boy be charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct.

Eric Lillis, executive director of Kingman Academy of Learning, greets Aubree Bischoff after she is dropped off on April 26, 2023, at the Kingman Academy Primary School.
Eric Lillis, executive director of Kingman Academy of Learning, greets Aubree Bischoff after she is dropped off on April 26, 2023, at the Kingman Academy Primary School.

In January 2020, at a charter school in Prescott Valley, a student told police he kept a mental list of people he would kill, injure, or save based on who bullied him. He advised friends in a video game chat not to come to school.

In September 2022, at a charter school in Casa Grande, a student said he would bring a gun to school to shoot people who didn’t like him.

In the case of a student threatening to physically harm someone, whether it is spoken, written or gestured, the Arizona Department of Education encourages schools to have a threat assessment protocol and build a team to determine whether the student legitimately poses a threat of violence.

Experts stress that a threat assessment should not be approached as punitive action but with genuine care and compassion for the student. They recommend including an adult who works at the school whom the child trusts to sit in during the assessment.

Mental health workers, counselors, school resource officers and administrators should collaborate to tailor the best response for the child’s needs, said Dr. Paula McCall, a Chandler-based child psychologist.

When behavior escalates toward threatening, McCall advised that the child be treated with the same compassion as a student threatening suicide or self-harm.

Most prevention efforts rely on the staff, parents and students closest to the young people making gun threats. And having peers who notice when a student is acting strangely, or who trust adults in the school enough to report disturbing statements, is also key.

At Bostrom High School, students who spoke up to school officials about one of their classmates had noticed he was walking funny and was dressed in an unusual way, wearing a puffer jacket and an orange ski mask in hot May temperatures. Officials later learned that the boy had part of a semiautomatic rifle in his pants.

Bostrom is one of several schools in the Valley to install metal detection technology to boost campus safety, although officials say it’s too soon to tell whether it’s effective.

It's a difficult time to be a kid, and many teachers believe all the social ills within a community are placed on their laps at the start of class each day, according to Marisol Garcia, a teacher and Arizona Education Association president.

“When you see a school that is struggling, then you know that community is struggling as well," Garcia said.

Weapons easy to find; police officers more scarce

Students were caught with guns in schools at least 40 times in 2022, according to The Republic investigation. In 2019, students were caught with guns 26 times.

Easy access to firearms adds to officials' fears, in addition to the shortage of police officers to serve as school resource officers.

Two boys attending Cactus Middle School in Casa Grande in April 2019 were referred to prosecutors for charges of firearm possession on suspicion that they passed a gun to each other on campus. One of the boys said he was directed to grab the gun from his mom’s room, according to the police report.

In October 2021, a 15-year-old boy in Apache Junction was referred for a charge of gun possession after grabbing the weapon from his mom’s car at a football game. The teen’s mother told officers she had forgotten the gun was in the car, according to the police report.

Prosecutors have limited recourse in pursuing charges against firearm owners when minors have access to weapons. Arizona does not have a child access prevention law that imposes a penalty on someone who leaves an unattended firearm accessible to an unsupervised minor.

Multiple attempts to pass bills requiring safe storage for guns or background checks for private sales have failed.

At the state level, members of a school safety committee convened by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne hope to increase staffing of law enforcement officials in schools. Lawmakers were pushing for a bill that would fund those efforts.Advocates for education workers say each school should be able to determine what safety measures are appropriate based on input from students, parents, teachers and classified employees like librarians, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff.

Arizona schools often don't comply with federal reporting

Federal law since 1994 has required schools that receive federal funding to report firearms incidents. However, most K-12 public schools in Arizona fail to accurately track how often a student was in possession of a firearm at school.

Arizona has been the lowest-scoring state in the country for compliance for three consecutive years, according to the Gun-Free Schools Act data. Most U.S. states and territories are consistently at more than 80% compliance; in the most recent year, Arizona was under 40%.

Schools are supposed to collect and report several pieces of information about firearms on campus: how often a student brought a firearm to school or was in possession of a gun on school property; the student’s grade level; the weapon type; and the disciplinary action imposed.

The Arizona Department of Education is prohibited by state law from collecting discipline data for students through student information systems, according to the latest Gun-Free Schools Act report. Student information systems are software used to track students' grades, attendance, achievements and test scores.

Instead, Arizona used a survey administered to superintendents to collect data for firearms incidents and associated discipline.

In recent years, many Arizona public schools either have failed to submit the data or submitted it incorrectly or incompletely, making it difficult to understand whether incident rates are growing, what safety measures are working or whether students are more at risk of gun violence.

Failure to comply with reporting requirements could put Arizona at risk for a delay or termination of federal funding.

Out of 2,361 schools required to submit a Gun-Free Schools Act report to the Arizona Department of Education, 37% submitted data for the 2020-21 school year. Out of 691 local education agencies — a school district or charter school — 37.9% complied with Gun-Free Schools Act reporting.

Based on incomplete Gun-Free Schools Act data, the state Education Department reported 10 occasions in which a student brought a firearm to school in the 2020-21 school year.

For the 2019-20 school year, 21.8% of eligible schools and 17.2% of local education agencies complied. Ten students were reported to have brought a firearm to school.

For the 2018-19 school year, 69% of schools and 55% of local education agencies complied. That year, the state reported 27 students bringing a firearm to school.

Private schools, some charter schools, or any schools that do not receive funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act are exempt from reporting data, rendering it impossible to have a complete picture of how often students bring guns to those schools.

Aside from the incomplete data, the latest report advises that the findings should be interpreted with caution. Data for the 2020-21 school year is skewed because of widespread in-person school closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said.

Superintendents are responsible for gathering and submitting the data to the Arizona Department of Education, according to federal law.

According to the Education Department, this data is collected via SurveyMonkey, a cloud-based survey tool that helps users create, send and analyze surveys.

What can be done? Parents and educators should know the signs to look out for, experts say

Alise Mnati is a school social worker in the Phoenix area who has trained districts on behavioral threat assessment and written grant proposals for school safety measures.

“It is really important to capture that data ... so when you’re applying for federal and state grants then you’re able to show the need,” Mnati said.

The additional step school superintendents must take to complete a SurveyMonkey form — a step educators in other states don’t have to deal with — could be complicating the process, she said.

“I think there’s a disconnect here,” Mnati said. “Educators are doing the best they can.”

Republic’s analysis based on police reports

Reports on gun threats in Arizona schools took The Republic more than a year to compile and analyze.

Many Arizona schools fail to report gun incidents as required by law, and they are not required to track threats or make information about threats readily available.

The Republic filed public records requests to all existing Arizona police departments asking for calls for service on gun threats in K-12 schools. The request sought a catalog of incidents for almost four years — from Jan. 1, 2019, through the date of the records request submission in October or November 2022.

It wasn't until April 4, 2024, that The Republic obtained responses from all agencies.

The information The Republic gathered is incomplete. The analysis does not account for calls for service to sheriff’s departments, marshal’s offices or tribal law enforcement agencies that have schools within their jurisdictions.

Complicating and delaying matters, each police agency had its unique system for records management and data software. Understaffing and turnover affected some records offices. Certain data software used for computer-aided dispatch (CAD) limited the ability of users in some police departments to narrow down calls.

Differing systems produced differing responses to The Republic’s requests. Some police departments provided full incident reports. Most departments provided CAD call logs, created spreadsheets or typed out summaries of incidents in an email.

CAD searches did not always yield complete results. Instances reported by news outlets of police responding to a school for a firearm threat sometimes were not included in data records obtained by The Republic.

Reports were not updated to include whether prosecutors opted to charge the students with what officers recommended, what discipline the school gave or what mental health resources a student received.

The Republic’s analysis also can’t account for the incidents in which schools did not involve law enforcement, nor the gun threats that never went reported.

Part 2: An assault rifle on campus shook this district to its core

Free mental health resources are available to anyone in Arizona. A statewide mental health crisis line is available at 844-534-HOPE (4673). Another resource for 24/7 help is to dial 988, the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline

Teen Lifeline is for kids to call and get free, confidential and anonymous help from trained peers at 602-248-8336 (TEEN) or 800-248-8336 (TEEN) outside of Maricopa County.

Kimberly Torres, The Arizona Republic's newsroom manager, and former Republic reporters Kye Graves and Jeremy Yurrow contributed to this article. Yana Kunichoff is a former education reporter at The Republic.

Have you been impacted by gun violence or gun policy? Reach breaking news editor and reporter L. M. Boyd at Follow her on X at @lillianmboyd1.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Guns in Arizona schools: Police face flood of threats