In Plain Sight

Last school year, a student in a rural community went to his truck to retrieve an item. While he was in his vehicle, he accidentally discharged a hunting rifle that was in a gun rack in the vehicle. The bullet passed through a mobile classroom unit, barely missing the head of another student. The student was expelled from school and sentenced to serve time in prison. A number of students and a teacher were quite shaken by the incident, and the school received negative publicity when the media reported the incident. While this incident was an accident, there have been many other weapons incidents around the nation involving weapons in student vehicles that involved intentional assaults.


It is tragic that this incident took place. It is disturbing to think of how much worse the situation could have been had the round had a trajectory a few inches to one side. Such incidents can be prevented with a simple and inexpensive measure known as the plain view check.


The law allows school officials and/or law enforcement officers to seize contraband items that are visible in vehicles that are parked on school property.


The“plain view doctrine” provides educators and law enforcement officers with the means to locate, and confiscate a significant percentage of weapons that are brought to school each day. It is sometimes astounding to see how many weapons may be present in student vehicles. During one of the first plain view checks that my officers conducted almost a decade ago, three firearms and about twenty other weapons were recovered from one student parking lot. I have had a number of seminar participants call me after they had similar results after trying the technique for the first time.


The concept is very simple. The school administrator(s) and/or law enforcement officer(s) who are designated to conduct the check simply walk around vehicles and look from outside the vehicle for weapons that can be seen inside the car. As long as they remain where they have the lawful authority to be (outside the vehicle) they can lawfully seize any contraband that they can see in plain sight inside the vehicle.


My experience has been that those who are designated to conduct these checks should undergo a brief training session conducted by a police officer who has a good track record of making contraband cases during traffic stops. The officer can place a number of examples of contraband weapons, drugs, and alcoholic beverage containers in a vehicle and point them out to trainees. They will need to learn to be alert for the butt of a handgun protruding from under a car seat, part of a knife sheath visible in the side door pocket of the vehicle, and other partially exposed items of contraband.


Once contraband is spotted and the decision is made to recover the item, an armed law enforcement officer should be summoned if one is not already present. The student should then be located and asked if there is any other contraband located in the vehicle. Depending upon what has been found in the car and what district policies allow, it may be a good idea to search the student once a weapon or drugs are found. In all cases, once the presence of drugs or weapons is confirmed in the vehicle, it should be searched thoroughly for additional weapons.


When contraband is located, an attempt should be made to question the student about the presence of the weapon. It is not uncommon for parents and other relatives to claim ownership of the weapon to try to avoid consequences for the student. Statements of the student that indicate they were aware of the presence of the weapon in the car make such claims irrelevant.


It is strongly recommended that school officials make sure that the student code of conduct clearly notifies students that contraband in student vehicles will be treated as contraband possession on campus. I would also urge administrators to make a series of intercom announcements to students concerning contraband in vehicles prior to conducting plain view checks. Some districts have been unprepared to deal with a sudden surge in weapons recoveries and have dealt leniently with the first group of students caught. This could create undue civil liability for the district and take away from the deterrent value of the technique. Our goal should be to prevent weapons violations rather than to find as many weapons as possible.


While the main objective is to prevent student weapons violations, we do want to convey to students that those who chose to bring weapons to school are likely to be caught, and just as importantly, will be punished. Having a“zero tolerance” policy that directs that all students caught with any weapon on campus will face a custodial arrest and expulsion from school may cause difficulty when a number of students are found to have small knives and other similar items in their vehicles. Graded punishments such as citations to appear in court and short term suspensions or assignments to an alternative schools may be more practical. The key point is that a consequence that is significant enough to provide a deterrent while being reasonable enough to build public support should be in place for different types of violations.


By paying attention to what is right in front of us if we only look for it, we can reduce the presence of weapons on our campuses and create a safer learning environment.


About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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