The number of Maryland students found with knives and other weapons in schools rose from 1,739 to 2,845 over the past five years, a jump of 63 percent, making weapon offenses the fastest-rising category of misconduct by students.
Virginia schools also report a rise in confiscated weapons, although to a lesser degree. Between the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 academic years, weapons offenses in the state increased 20 percent, from 1,904 to 2,278. Maryland's statistics include the 2005 school year.
D.C. schools reported 148 weapon incidents in 2004-05. School officials said they could provide no comparable data from previous years.
Weapons offenses are rising in the two states at a time when many other categories of student problems are not. Total student suspensions in Maryland are up just 10 percent since the 1999-2000 academic year; in both Maryland and Virginia, overall student offenses fell during the most recent year tallied. The higher weapons figures also seem to run counter to the national trend; statistics reported by the U.S. Education Department show a decline in weapons at schools early this decade.
So are the region's students bringing more weapons to school, or are schools doing a better job of finding weapons?
Perhaps both, security officials say.
It is clear that suspensions and expulsions involving knives and guns are on the rise at a time of increased worry over gangs, racial intolerance and other signals of the urbanization of the Washington suburbs. A fatal stabbing, a beating and an accidental shooting in and around high school football games in recent months have fed student unease.
If more students are taking weapons to school, officials say, they could be doing so in response to a perceived threat of violence around them, not because they plan to initiate it.
"Kids are bringing weapons to school because they want to protect themselves from the things they're seeing," said Sgt. Tony Emanuel, coordinator of the Educational Facilities Officer program in Montgomery County, which recorded 357 weapon incidents in 2004-05, compared with 213 in 1999-2000.
Other administrators say they see no surge in weapons at school. Rather, they say, weapons-related suspensions are rising because school employees are becoming more skilled at rooting the knives and guns out.
The Columbine High School massacre, the 2001 terrorist attacks and the Washington area sniper shootings all sharpened awareness of weapons in schools, spawning programs that put more officers and tighter security on campuses. The program that put police officers at 24 Montgomery high schools, for example, started just two years ago. And in Howard County, it was three years ago that county police began to train school administrators to find hidden contraband. Howard reported 97 weapon offenses in 2004-05, more than twice the number reported in 1999-2000.
"Maybe there are more weapons, maybe there aren't. I don't know about that," said Sgt. Bill Walsh, leader of school-based police in Howard. "I can tell you that the administrators are much better trained in detecting them."
Weapons made up 2 percent of the 124,610 incidents that led to suspensions and expulsions in Maryland in 2004-05, in a discipline report dominated by comparatively mundane verbal altercations, classroom disruptions and fights. The confiscation of weapons included 45 incidents involving firearms -- one of them an unloaded handgun found in the possession of two second-graders in November 2004 at Callaway Elementary School in Baltimore.
Three jurisdictions -- Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Prince George's County -- accounted for more than half of all school weapons incidents in the state. Prince George's logged 533 weapon suspensions in 2004-05, compared with 306 in 1999-2000, a 74 percent increase.
Weapon statistics were less consistent among large school systems in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County, the largest system in Virginia, reported 232 weapon incidents in 2003-04, fewer than in 1999-2000, while Loudoun County reported 58, more than twice the number logged four years earlier.
Officials strongly cautioned against comparing figures from Maryland, Washington and Virginia because they are collected and reported in different ways. Virginia, for example, reports weapon offenses by incident rather than by suspension; a single incident could result in several suspensions. Statistics on student transgressions in schools is self-reported by schools in all three jurisdictions, meaning that there's no way to guarantee their accuracy or completeness.
Until now, evidence of an increase in weapons in some D.C. area schools was mostly anecdotal. Two students were stabbed after a summer-school session Aug. 5 outside Springbrook High School in Montgomery, an attack linked to the Latino gangs Mara Salvatrucha and Mara Locos. Two subsequent fatal attacks were linked to football games in that county. And in Anne Arundel County, an accidental shooting wounded a teenage girl at an Annapolis High School game in October. Academic officials note that several of those involved in the recent incidents -- both the shooter and victim in Annapolis, for example -- were not local students.
When Anne Arundel school officials surveyed students in April about the overall school climate, the amount who reported that they felt safe there had fallen since a December 2003 study: from 88 percent to 80 percent in middle school, and from 82 percent to 74 percent in high school. Anne Arundel recorded 259 weapons incidents in 2004-05, more than double the number five years earlier.
"I think they're more apprehensive," said Eriqua Ratchford, 17, a senior at Meade Senior High School at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel.
Ratchford recounted an incident the previous week in which a classmate pulled out a wad of bills. She cautioned him to keep them out of view. "And he said, 'It shouldn't matter, because I have a gun,' " Ratchford said. "Did he mean, 'I have a gun on me now?' "
She didn't ask, and he didn't say.