Three Maine schools and a community center faced threats of violence on Halloween.
At Bangor High School, it was a stolen firearm found in a locker. At Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, a 14-year-old allegedly wrote a threatening note on a school bathroom wall. At Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, a student was accused of making a verbal threat about a school shooting. And at the Fort Fairfield Community Center, an 11-year-old allegedly brandished a pellet gun.
Despite last week’s Halloween spike, kids are actually bringing weapons to school less often than they did at the start of the decade, and students feel less threatened.
The results of a national survey on youth health and safety conducted every two years show that both the numbers of students who bring weapons to school and the numbers of students who were threatened by weapons on campus have gone down since 2000.
The percentage of Maine students who said they had brought a weapon to school at least once in the 30 days before the survey — called the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey — remains higher than the national average.
In 2011, 8 percent of students said they had possessed a gun, a knife or a club while on school property at some point in the 30 days before the survey. In 2017 — the most recent year for which data are available — it was just over 5 percent. Nationally, 5.4 percent of students had brought a weapon to school in 2011, a number that fell to 3.8 percent in 2017.
While Maine students were more likely to bring a weapon to school than their counterparts in the rest of the nation, they were slightly less likely to feel threatened by weapons on campus.
In 2017, 5.5 percent of Maine students said in the survey that they had been threatened or injured by a weapon on school property in the month prior to the survey. Nationally, the threats were slightly more prevalent, with 6 percent of students responding that they had recently been threatened or injured by a weapon while at school.
Students in fifth through 12th grade take the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey every other year.
The decline in possession of weapons at school and in the prevalence of weapon-related threats in schools also holds true for overall juvenile crime, according to Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“One popular theory is that the drug trade was much more dangerous 30 years ago. Kids that lived in neighborhoods with active drug sales going on often felt that they needed to have a gun on them to protect themselves,” he said. “The daily threat from street-corner drug sales has gone way down.”
Even with the decline, one in every 20 Maine students admitted to bringing a gun, knife or club to school in the past 30 days. If those students were all prosecuted in the juvenile justice system, research shows that they would be more likely than their peers to commit crimes as adults, and they would have a lower chance of graduating from high school.
“Once kids have an arrest or a charge history, they are more likely to be prosecuted again,” Butts said. “Contact with a police officer, especially formal processing, is never good for a kid.”
If minors are tried and sentenced in adult court — which is legal in all 50 states — they develop an even higher likelihood of future offenses than they would have if they had been charged with similar offenses in juvenile court. In Maine, the juvenile justice system has rehabilitation rather than punishment as its sole goal.
Last week, the Bangor High School student accused of bringing a stolen handgun to school was arrested and charged with one felony, theft of a firearm and two misdemeanors: burglary to a motor vehicle and possession of a firearm on school property. The student at Nokomis and the 11-year-old in Fort Fairfield drew misdemeanor charges of terrorizing. And the Hall-Dale student was taken into protective custody.
In deciding whether to charge a minor, police, prosecutors and judges weigh a range of factors — including a child’s family background, prior offenses and the seriousness of the crime — and ultimately make a judgment call that could affect a child’s entire life, Butts said.
There’s also a desire to prevent future threats to public safety by the same children.
“Police officers are risk-averse,” Butts said. “They don’t want to be accused of having neglected something so their inclination is to react strongly just to protect themselves.”
It takes a juvenile justice system with thoughtful actors to choose the best path forward in every juvenile case, Butts said.
“You don’t want to just ignore every incident that seems minor. But that takes human intelligence and judgment to know what kind of case you’re looking at,” he said. “We do it because it’s the only way to ensure some kind of intervention. It’s justified if the consequences of doing nothing are worse.”