ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. – Storing guns safely: That's the message you're going to be hearing over the next few weeks as kids go back to school in Roanoke County.
"The one thing that keeps me up is having a weapon get into our school system," said Don Butzer, Roanoke County School Board chair.
But that happened.
"It scares kids, it scares families about the potential of those things winding up in schools," said Dr. Ken Nicely, Roanoke County School superintendent.
A Cave Spring Middle School student brought a loaded gun to school in 2018. Butzer spoke with that student a few times since in closed hearings.
"I was convinced that that child did not know that they had a loaded, real weapon that day," said Butzer. "Everybody did what they were supposed to do, but at the end of the day we had this little kid who really didn't know what they had, and it could have gone tragically wrong had this thing gone off."
"We can bury our head in the sand and pretend that it couldn't happen or it couldn't happen here, and the other end extreme of that continuum is we build prisons or prison-like environments for our kids to be in. Neither one of those is appropriate," said Nicely.
Instead, Nicely and the school system are targeting parents with one message.
"Store your firearms safely. Keep them inaccessible to people that aren't supposed to have them," said Roanoke County Police Chief Howard Hall.
We investigated, and over the last two years, there have been multiple kids hurt or killed just in Roanoke County:
- A 7-year old and 16-year old were both shot accidentally in separate incidents
- Two middle school students took their own lives
- That middle school student who brought a loaded gun to school
In four of these, police say the guns were not secured.
"It's obviously a very tragic situation. It has a huge and never-ending impact on those families, who in almost all cases weren't intentionally doing anything wrong, weren't trying to put anybody's safety at risk, but because they don't routinely practice safe firearm storage or inadvertently forgot one time," said Hall.
His officers will talk to parents at back-to-school nights.
"We know that kids are curious, so even if you've got a firearm hidden, where you think someone may not find it, kids are going to look around," said Hall. "Think of the potential danger when a young person accesses a firearm. They're likely to pick it up, touch it, perhaps trying to pull the trigger. They may take it and try to show it to their friends. The potential for a bad thing to happen just goes through the roof."
"It is probably the most important issue that I'm involved with. I won't let it go. I'm like a dog with a bone. I'm on to something, this is something we need to keep talking about," said Butzer.
Hall, Nicely and Butzer all agree this isn't just a topic you'll hear at back to school. They plan to continue the message all year and again next year.
"We would be delinquent or negligent if we didn't try to solve a problem or recognize a problem even though the problem may be something at home," said Butzer.
Roanoke County also plans to keep telling students if they "see something, say something." County leaders want students to know they have a responsibility to take care of their community too. There is a pledge you can sign as a family.
Roanoke County schools is not the only school district doing something. Lynchburg and Richmond have their own programs this year, too.
This is part of an ongoing 10 News series about kids and guns. There will be multiple stories in August about how to keep your family safe. As many police departments have told us during interviews for this series, it is not about being pro-gun or anti-gun, it is about locking up guns so kids and/or criminals don't have access to guns.