Easley High, 2012

In December 2012, police arrested a 17-year-old student at Easley High School after finding a .22-caliber handgun, 200 rounds, two axes, knives, cuffs and a stun gun in his car. District officials said at the time that it appeared the student used the weapons for hunting and did not have plans to harm anyone. File/Provided

As state and national attention returns to school safety after last month's mass school shooting in Florida, concerned parents and lawmakers might find it difficult to get an accurate picture of the threat of weapons in schools.

At the very least, South Carolina can say that its schools found weapons on their campuses 1,089 times in the past three school years, while the types of weapons found were seldom guns.

But those figures come courtesy of the controversial Persistently Dangerous Schools Report, an annual rundown of violent incidents and weapon violations required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. The report's definition of a "weapon" ranges from a 2-inch pocket knife to a slingshot to a rifle.

The data set is hardly perfect.

For Townville Elementary in Anderson School District 4, where a 14-year-old gunman shot a teacher and three students in September 2016, the report lists zero homicides and zero weapon violations that school year.

S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown said such glaring omissions have to do with specific reporting standards: Since the Townville gunman came from off campus and the only fatality occurred when a 6-year-old student died three days later, the shooting didn't fit any category in the report.

Berkeley County School District weapons for safety drill

Berkeley County sheriff's deputies used these weapons to create simulated gunfire in a hallway at Cane Bay Elementary School during a safety session for district teachers on Friday morning Feb. 16, 2018. Wade Spees/Staff

In another notable omission, the report shows zero weapon violations in the past three school years in Greenville County, the largest school district in the state. After inquiries from The Post and Courier this week, the S.C. Department of Education is adding in the district's 164 weapon violations, which were improperly coded in spreadsheets submitted to the state.

What is the most common weapon found in the state's largest school district?

"Knives, by far," said Greenville County Schools spokeswoman Beth Brotherton.

In the three school years spanning from 2014 to 2017, Greenville County — a district of 77,000 students — confiscated eight firearms, according to Brotherton.

One of the most common critiques of the Persistently Dangerous Schools Report is that it encourages under-reporting. If schools cross certain thresholds set by their state, they are labeled "persistently dangerous," triggering a school-choice provision that means students can flock to other, presumably safer, schools in their area.

Currently, no schools in South Carolina are labeled persistently dangerous under the state's reporting standards.

To avoid the scarlet letter effect of a "persistently dangerous" designation, critics say schools tend to under-report — and states tend to set very high thresholds for the label.

In some cases, schools that report high numbers of weapon incidents might actually be safer because their leaders are aggressive and transparent about enforcement, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. 

"The bottom line is you have to take any data with a grain of salt," he said. "I always summarize it by saying that state and federal statistics tend to grossly underestimate the extent of school crime and violence, public perception tends to overstate it, and reality exists somewhere in-between. But in real numbers, we typically have never known where that point is."

If the Persistently Dangerous Schools Report is correct, the school with the most weapon violations in the past three school years is Westside High, a school of more than 1,600 students in Anderson School District 5. It reported 12 weapon offenses for that time period.

According to spokesman Kyle Newton, the district has found weapons, including unloaded handguns, based on tips from students. Principals, teachers and coaches are trained to build a trusting relationship with their students for that reason. The district also uses portable metal detectors to check for weapons when it receives a tip about potential trouble at athletic events.

In one instance at an elementary school, a district teacher found a knife in a 6-year-old's backpack, apparently because the child's older sibling had used the bag over the weekend and left the knife inside. Again, the teacher found it because of a tip from a fellow student.

The Persistently Dangerous Schools Report gives a flawed portrait of the district, Newton said.

"I get why the list exists, and it’s good to have it out there," Newton said. "People pay attention when they’re moving to an area, moving to a school district. But I don’t think it reflects accurately on anyone."

For a more accurate picture of weapon violations, state officials tend to look at data compiled via an administrative computer system called PowerSchool. Even that data set is incomplete due to data entry errors in Greenville County Schools, where officials use their own software to track disciplinary issues.

Three years' worth of reports generated by the Education Department from that data set showed zero firearms confiscated in Greenville schools, despite multiple on-campus gun confiscations that made local news.

According to a report from that database provided by the Education Department, schools across the state confiscated 88 firearms in the 2015-16 school year. Of those guns, 46 were handguns, 11 were rifles or shotguns, and 31 were classified as "other firearms."

The school district that confiscated the most firearms that year was Berkeley County, which found 10 in all — five handguns and five other firearms.

Charleston County and Richland 1 came in second, with each reporting nine firearms for the school year.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Get the best of The Post and Courier, handpicked and delivered to your inbox every morning.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

We're improving out commenting experience.

We’ve temporarily removed comments from articles while we work on a new and better commenting experience. In the meantime, subscribers are encouraged to join the conversation at our Post and Courier Subscribers group on Facebook.