So far this school year, Albuquerque Public Schools has confiscated a dozen guns from its campuses, according to the district’s leader.
That’s already two more than the district confiscated over the entirety of the previous school year.
Safety — and the rising prevalence of guns confiscated in school settings — was among topics Superintendent Scott Elder covered in a wide-ranging talk given to business and community leaders at an Economic Forum of Albuquerque breakfast on Wednesday.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the amount of guns that our students have their hands on,” Elder said. “A lot of times, it’s not that they’re there to threaten anybody, it’s not that they’re there to hurt anybody — it’s just, for whatever stupid reason, they had a gun in their backpack and they brought it to school.”
“Their cortex hasn’t developed yet, their frontal lobe isn’t there, and they’re making horrible decisions, but we’ve got to stop allowing them such easy access,” he added, to applause.
Last school year, two students were fatally shot in separate incidents on or near school campuses — 13-year-old Bennie Hargrove, who was killed at Washington Middle School, and 16-year-old Andrew Burson, who was shot near West Mesa High School’s football field.
On Monday, a 15-year old West Mesa student was shot at a park across the street from the school, though not on campus. Her injuries were not life-threatening, according to police.
One of the weapons that was found this year, also at West Mesa, was a gun that had been modified with a switch to function as an automatic weapon, Elder said.
The House voted 34-28 late Wednesday to sign off on Senate changes to a bill that would make it a crime to fail to safely store firearms out of the reach of children. The vote means the measure, House Bill 9, now heads to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk for final approval. The governor has said she would sign the bill.
APS is also struggling to fill security positions, Elder said, before pointing out that safety concerns aren’t just on the district to solve.
“We as a community need to come together and figure out how to address this,” he said. “The problem isn’t unique to APS.”
Still, in an interview with the Journal after the speech, he highlighted the district’s other investments in “hardening the schools,” including with fencing, locks and camera systems, adding that the district has looked into purchasing weapon-detection systems for schools.
Elder also touched on the plan to right-size the district. In January, officials recommended that the school board consider repurposing a handful of schools with low enrollment and turning them into early childhood centers.
Right-sizing has been on the district’s mind for a long time, but even more so as enrollment has continued to decline, with the most recent tally of students coming in at just under 71,000. Ten years ago, that number was closer to 89,000.
Some have expressed concerns about the idea to repurpose schools into early childhood centers, including Gabrielle Wheeler, of East Gate Kids Early Learning Center.
“You’re putting these young children in an institutionalized type of bureaucratic setting,” she told the Journal in February. “When you have a private care setting, … it’s more nurturing. Settings that are private and community based have more choice of … curriculum.”
Elder said the district is taking another, closer look at the plan. Still, he said APS is trying to avoid outright shuttering schools “because of the harm that can create in the neighborhood.”
“We don’t want to get rid of a property that we may need in the future,” he added. “We do have a responsibility to taxpayers, and losing real estate could end up costing us in the future.”
Despite all of the district’s woes, Elder said there’s still hope for the future, saying that after a budget deficit last year the district is now “in the black” and lauding five-year academic goals recently passed by the school board.
“(These are) goals that are concrete, measurable, achievable, and will move the needle for our students,” he said.