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Guns and fentanyl at high schools is a community problem, Kansas City, Kansas, officials say

A brick building with a high bell tower, two double arches in front of doorways, set on a green lawn with concrete paths.
DeBarra Mayo Shaw
Wikimedia Commons
Wyandotte High School, located at 2500 Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. The high school, built in 1936, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

High schools in the Kansas City metro have seen students bring guns and drugs to school at the same time gun homicides and drug overdoses have been increasing on both sides of the state line.

As drug overdoses and gun deaths have been increasing on both sides of the state line, they’ve spilled into area schools – prompting administrators to look for solutions.

In December, a student was arrested at Wyandotte High School for possession of a loaded gun with an extended magazine and fentanyl. In November, a student was arrested at the same school for possessing 15 fentanyl pills, according to incident reports from Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.

Dr. Anna Stubblefield, the district’s superintendent, says these incidents are reflective of the world that students live in.

“There are guns in our community. So there are likely incidents where individuals are trying to bring guns into schools across the country,” Stubblefield said. “We really should be asking what is happening that our kids are showing up and think that violence is the way to solve problems.”

It’s happened elsewhere in the metro, as well — a student shot a school resource officer at Olathe East High School in early 2022. A 14-year-old student was killed by another student inside a school bathroom just a month later at Northeast Middle School in Kansas City.

The Kansas City area has seen a record number of homicides in recent years, overwhelmingly by firearms. Studies estimate that each homicide victim leaves between seven to 10 traumatized family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers – meaning many students carry that trauma to school.

As drug overdoses have increased on both sides of the state line, Stubblefield said they’re likely to show up in schools.

“The reality of it is there are drugs in our community. So there are likely drugs in every school that you go to because they're in every community,” Stubblefield said. “Drugs is the way for me to deal with whatever I'm going through or to earn money or that I have to make these choices in a school setting.”

The Kansas City Police Department announced last May that accidental overdoses from fentanyl had climbed nearly 150% from 2019 to 2020 in the metro area, and people ages 15 to 24 were particularly affected.

Agrowing number of Kansas City schools — including Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools, have begun stocking the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

Stubblefield says students are young and don’t always make the best decisions. That’s why she says it’s educators’ job to hold them accountable, but they also need to help them grow and learn how to make different ones in the future.

If students break the law, the incident will be turned over to the police. But as a school district, Stubblefield says they try to look for ways they can implement restorative practices for students.

Stubblefield says there’s nuance around how to handle some situations. In some cases, she says students may be struggling with self-harm or drug addiction. She says the resolution for those issues may be getting them help, and not necessarily suspending them.

“This is not something you can punish away. You can hold students accountable, but you can't say, I'm going to kick them out,” Stubblefield said. “Because when you kick them out, you're kicking them into the community without any sort of support.”

This year, Stubblefield said all of the district’s high schools were trained in restorative practices. That means looking at situations where students can learn how to repair relationships or figure out other ways to resolve conflict, other than turning to gun violence.

Across the state line, Kansas City Public Schoolsrevised its code of conduct in 2021 to expand restorative justice programs to more schools. In a pilot project at Southeast High School in 2017, instead of discipline, students involved in conflicts were given the option to sit down with a mediator and others. Two years after the mediation began, suspensions dropped by nearly 40%.

Despite the presence of drugs and guns at schools, Stubblefield maintains that their buildings are safe. The district has metal detectors in its middle and high schools, and she said it spends $4.7 million of its budget on safety and security measures.

“Our schools are probably some of the safest places for the students in our community,” Stubblefield said.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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