DENVER (KDVR) – Police recovered dozens of handguns from multiple school campuses in recent years with the help of alert teachers, security staff, administrators, and other students, according to open records requests filed by the Problem Solvers.

“I think every gun that we seized this year was a stolen gun,” said John McDonald, the former executive director of security at Jeffco Public Schools. “And that’s important because our kids tell us they know how to profile vehicles and the type of vehicles to look for guns in.”

McDonald said adults can take the simple step of locking their firearms to help prevent children from accessing or stealing them. “It doesn’t cost a dollar to secure your gun, so lock it,” he said.

McDonald recently left the district to become the chief operating officer of the National Council of School Safety Leadership, where he’ll be consulting with districts across the country and building a national critical incident response team that will support districts following tragic incidents.

Jefferson County Public Schools

During the 2021-2022 school year, McDonald said police confiscated six guns from Jeffco Public Schools.

Five of the guns were reported to the Safe to Tell system, an anonymous reporting program that allows students to report their concerns to authorities without their identity being known.

“Those kids are my heroes. Those kids that reported this, we ought to be celebrating them,” he said.

McDonald said the district had never before taken six guns off students in a single school year. The sixth gun, he said, was recovered when an alert school safety employee noticed “suspicious behavior” involving a student that suggested the kid potentially had a weapon.

“We made the decision to go into the classroom, and we confronted the student, who decided he wanted to fight,” said McDonald. He said the teen had a .45 caliber handgun and a high-capacity magazine when police confronted him. The boy was immediately expelled, said McDonald.

He said the juvenile was released on a personal recognizance bond the same day.

“In the past, in Colorado, it was a mandatory five days (in jail) that you would do for bringing a gun in school. Not anymore. Now, it’s just a light tap on the wrist, and you can go home. That’s unacceptable,” said McDonald.

He told the Problem Solvers the juvenile later obtained another gun and was charged with manslaughter in the juvenile system for shooting and killing his friend.

“At what point are we going to say, ‘This is not ok?’ If we don’t do that, then we’re just destined to keep seeing this issue over and over again,” said McDonald.

Juvenile defense attorney talks rehabilitation

“You’re not supposed to charge a young person just for the sake of punishing the young person,” said Michael Juba, a juvenile defense attorney who represented one of the children involved in a shooting outside Hinkley High School in Aurora.

“Retribution doesn’t work with young people. Young people are different. They can and should be treated differently in the criminal justice system,” he said.

Juba said he believes the vast majority of children who are caught with handguns are not planning to use them. He said many kids have guns because they’re scared for their personal safety.

 “Sometimes, they’re given these handguns by other peers. Sometimes they steal them or take them from other adults that are in their family, but the vast majority of young people who possess and are caught with them aren’t using them. They’re caught for simple possession,” he said.

Juba said the juvenile system is designed to educate and rehabilitate youth rather than punish them.

“If you take a young person who was caught with a handgun that they are not supposed to have, you’re going to be in a better situation if you teach the young person about the dangers of possessing handguns, about the dangers of handguns in general, instead of just punishing them and putting them back out on the streets,” Juba said.

However, McDonald said younger children are becoming fascinated with guns at an increasing rate, and it’s a “concerning” trend.

Anecdotally, he said he knew of “multiple” cases in which a student who was caught possessing a gun had previously fired the gun.

“That’s concerning because when you go from thrill of a thought, and then you make the decision to use that gun, to test that gun, to fire that gun, you’re not staying with the thrill of a thought, you’re moving in the direction of thrill of the kill,” he said.

Aurora Public Schools

Aurora Public Schools shared photos of multiple handguns confiscated from their campuses. Police recovered 11 weapons between February 2020 and May 2022.

Three guns were confiscated from Hinkley High School, three were found at Aurora Central High School, and three came from Gateway High School. Officials also found guns at Rangeview High School and at an Aurora Public Schools stadium.

The Aurora Police Department confirmed details showing how several of the guns were discovered. Most turned up in students’ backpacks during a search.

For example, in one case, a school security guard found a gun in a 16-year-old’s backpack after the student got into a fight on campus.

In another incident, school security searched a 17-year-old before he entered the football stadium and found a gun in his bag.

Meanwhile, school staff found a loaded gun and multiple magazines in an unattended backpack that belonged to another 17-year-old in a different case.

Police arrested an 18-year-old who was shooting a gun near school grounds and found to have a gun inside a vehicle. The person also had open liquor bottles and ammunition.

In two separate cases involving a 15-year-old and a 16-year-old, police said they arrested the kids after they found a gun in each of their backpacks while the students were supposed to be in class.

Police searched and arrested a 16-year-old boy after they received “menacing” reports about the student the previous day. They found a gun in his bag.

Other students reported a 15-year-old child to the school after seeing the boy with a gun. School staff found the gun in his backpack, according to Aurora police.

School officials expelled a 15-year-old for showing his handgun magazine on campus. The kid had the loaded magazine and a gun in a backpack.

A 14-year-old had a gun and a magazine in his backpack when security contacted him. A staff member reported seeing the boy holding a gun in a social media post and reported it to the Aurora Police Department.

Denver Public Schools

Denver Public Schools reported recovering nine handguns on campus during the most recent school year. However, they would not provide photographs or police reports explaining how the guns were discovered. The Denver Police Department also declined to provide additional details about the juvenile cases.

“Releasing photographs of the guns does not add anything meaningful to the public discourse about this matter,” said Stacy Wheeler, a records custodian for Denver Public Schools. “Doing so only serves to undermine confidence in Denver Public Schools and could create panic, confusion, and/or concern amongst our students, families and the community as a whole.”

In the 2020-2021 school year, the district said students attended school remotely, for the majority of the year, so the district only recovered three guns from school property.

In 2019-2020, the district found 19 guns on school campuses, according to Wheeler.

Adams 12, Cherry Creek and Douglas County School districts

Adams 12 Five Star Schools confiscated weapons during two incidents at two different schools between 2020 and 2022. Both incidents occurred in February 2022 at Mountain Range High School and at Thornton High School.

In both cases, a juvenile was handcuffed and arrested for having a weapon. In the Thornton High School incident, body camera video obtained by the Problem Solvers shows a police officer recovering two handguns from one student. 

The Cherry Creek School District said it confiscated five guns from campuses between 2019 and 2022.

In one 2019 case, a parent called the school after a student reported “being shown a gun by another student in the bathroom,” records show. Authorities found a loaded semiautomatic handgun on the student.

That same year, a student brought an unloaded .22 caliber, semi-automatic gun onto a school bus, and another student “tried to conceal (it) in (a) backpack to avoid getting him in trouble.”

The district found one handgun in 2020 after school security officials received an anonymous tip about it.

Police found a loaded handgun in a student’s car in March 2022 when the student was attending in-school suspension. The school’s dean was searching for the student’s phone because the student was not allowed to use the phone in ISS and instead found an empty box of bullets. The dean and the Aurora Police Department searched the student’s car and found a loaded handgun there.

Finally, in May 2022, a student brought a handgun from home to a school campus where the student passed the gun to other teens.

The Douglas County School District told the Problem Solvers it “does not have any records that are responsive” to the Problem Solvers’ request for documentation showing every gun that was recovered on campus from 2020 through 2022.