Students were expelled or suspended from a Washington state public school 45 times last year for bringing a handgun to class, according...

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Students were expelled or suspended from a Washington state public school 45 times last year for bringing a handgun to class, according to new statewide data on weapons in school.

The guns were found in large and small districts, and rural and urban areas. The problem is nothing new for Washington state, according to the “Weapons In School Report: 2010-11 School Year.”

Although state statistics on other weapons — from knives to shotguns — show a downward trend over the past decade, the numbers of handgun incidents have remained steady around 45 to 47 over the past 10 years.

School safety experts warn, however, that these school statistics, and recent incidents including the accidental shooting of a girl in a Bremerton classroom, give school officials just a glimpse of a bigger problem.

Thirteen years after the deadly rampage at Columbine High School in Colorado, guns are still a danger in Washington classrooms, although most are brought to school by children who have no plans to use them, experts say.

“We’ve had incidents of young children bringing them for show and tell for years,” said Ron Stephens, whose Westlake Village, Calif., organization, National School Safety Center, helps school districts across the nation create safety plans, do bullying prevention and train staff.

Children who are caught with any weapon in school are either expelled or suspended, depending on the particular circumstances of the situation.

A 9-year-old who brought a gun in his backpack to a Bremerton elementary school in February had no plans to use it or show it to his friends. But the gun accidentally discharged and seriously wounded another student. The boy says he found the gun at his mother’s home and took it for protection because he was planning to run away from home.

The Kitsap County prosecutor has charged the boy’s mother and her boyfriend with felony assault, saying they negligently allowed the boy access to the gun. They have pleaded not guilty.

The incident was a stark reminder for Washington parents and school officials.

“When one accidentally goes off, that’s a vivid reminder that there are likely others,” Stephens said.

Federal statistics show gun violence in schools has decreased over the past few decades.

Seventeen youth were killed at school during 2009-2010, the most recent year for which nationwide data is available, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That number is significantly lower than the 34 deaths reported nearly two decades earlier during the 1992-1993 school year.

A Seattle teacher believes the problem of school violence is more complex than just an issue with weapons in schools.

“Most adults think that it’s all about trying to impress others. Part of it is,” said Quinn Rose, a special education teacher at Nova, a small alternative high school.

But Rose believes violence in schools is more about fear and teens feeling they are trapped in school with little control over their lives or their environment.

His previous experience at a large urban high school taught him that schools can be dangerous with or without guns.

“In the years that I’ve been teaching, the incidents that have made me most afraid for my safety and my students’ safety … guns were not involved,” Rose said. “Because of something happening in the moment, the student improvised and someone’s life was at stake.”

Lori George, a mother of two boys in North Bend said she was horrified by the gun incident in Bremerton, but she blamed the situation entirely on adults who didn’t recognize a child’s needs were not being met.

“That’s just sad on all sides,” George said. “The kid wanted to run away and felt that he needed protection. What kind of life does this poor kid have?”

The Bremerton School District had nine weapons incidents last year and seven the year before. The Snoqualmie Valley School District, where George lives, had five weapons incidents last year — one handgun, three knives and one other weapon — and two the year before.

George was unaware of the incidents, but she was not overly concerned.

“I can’t worry about something that is so unlikely,” she said.

Donna Blankinship can be reached at