Oak Park, Ill. — Keyon Robinson was just a month away from graduating from high school when he took a loaded gun, placed it in his backpack and headed to campus.
He‘d fought with a relative that morning. He was angry, and scared someone would come after him. The firearm, a ghost gun with no serial number that he’d bought via social media, was his security blanket.
“I felt like I just needed it for safety because of the stuff I got myself into,” said Robinson, now 19.
He insists he never intended to hurt anyone at his school in Oak Park, a suburb that borders Chicago’s West Side. “Realistically, I didn’t need a gun at all.”
And he never fired it. On May 3 - three weeks before a gunman massacred 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas - police arrested Robinson near the school’s main entrance as he returned from lunch. He told the officers he hadn’t even taken the gun out of his backpack until they asked him to do so.
Still, in an instant, that one decision changed the trajectory of his young life. It also shook the school community, prompting intense discussions about how its young people might be protected.
PHOTOS: School gun case sparks debate over safety and second chances
Most gun incidents in and around campuses are more like Oak Park than Uvalde. They’re not planned large-scale shootings, or active-shooter situations. More often, they’re smaller altercations that escalate when someone has a gun at or near a school, a game or other event, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, which tracks incidents from the last five decades.
These cases expose a hard truth: Keeping students from bringing guns to school is difficult.
Security staff and metal detectors miss things, experts say. Doors that are supposed to be locked get propped open. Items can be hidden even when schools require clear backpacks.
This fall, leaders at Oak Park and River Forest High, Robinson‘s school, began training more staff, adding security to the day shift, and moving more experienced team members to hot spots such as cafeterias.
The school, known as OPRF, is trying to walk a fine line - to keep students and staff safe without making them feel unwelcome or anxious. In 2020, the School Board ended the school resource officer program.
Now some officials are rethinking the decision to cut ties with police. But they’re also holding fast to a widely held belief among educators - that connecting with students is the best way to build trust and identify threats.
By his own account, and according to school records provided by his attorney, Robinson bonded with teachers. He owned his mistakes, staff said, but struggled with depression, drugs and impulsivity.
After his arrest, Robinson said he was expelled. The district offered him the chance to complete his studies, away from campus, where he can no longer set foot. A judge agreed that school in some form was “the best thing for him,” though she gave a stern reminder to avoid school grounds and weapons.
She allowed him to be released on bond after a few weeks in jail. As he awaits his fate in court, he’s been granted permission to work at a fast-food restaurant. Ultimately, he’d like to go to community college or trade school. He and his family hope felony charges will be deferred because this is a first-time offense.
Meanwhile, students have returned for a new year at OPRF as officials and the community process what happened.
“It pains me to the core of my being that you have to do this on your jobs,” School Board member Ralph Martire told staff after a security update at a recent meeting. “It shouldn’t be that we should be this worried about violence at this level in educational setting.”
The K-12 database shows that active shooter incidents accounted for 11 of 430 shootings in and around schools from the start of 2021 through August 2022. Fights that escalate when someone has a gun accounted for 123 of those shootings.
No one at the School Board meeting spoke Robinson’s name, though the incident was on many minds. He’s aware that his actions have affected people’s sense of safety.
“Because of the mistake that I made, and other mistakes, then I think that it is reasonable to have more tighter security - and have an officer in the school now,” he said.
Superintendent Greg Johnson still sees a chance to rethink the role police could have at the school. Johnson, who is white, told the school board he understands the “very real challenge” people of color face with law enforcement.
“Our belief as a school district, though, is that the way through that is education and relationships,” he said. “We need a partnership” with police.
But at least two board members balked at praise for efforts to “harden” security.
“We want to keep the buildings safe,” member Gina Harris said. “But that language is challenging, as well as confronting for me as a Black woman and for families and students.”
At a recent status hearing for his case, Robinson sat silently with his mom, Nicole Bryant, who works in child care and drives for Uber to make ends meet. His felony charges could lead to substantial time in prison.
Because Robinson had no criminal record, other than a traffic violation, attorney Thomas Benno is seeking the deferred sentence, which means probation and other requirements detailed by the court. It’s a strict program with no room for more mistakes, Benno said. He believes that’s better than incarceration and that his young client will share his cautionary tale.
“He can go and tell kids, ‘Hey, don’t carry the gun,’” Benno said. “He’s going to tell the story.”
Some in the community quietly wonder if a lighter sentence would send the wrong message.
Last spring, Robinson’s mom had been ready to celebrate her son, the third of four children. He had fought so hard to graduate, she told the school - he wanted to show everyone he could do it, despite his struggles. She, too, graduated from OPRF. Now she’s just grateful her son was allowed to get his diploma.
Leon Watson, a family friend, frowned when asked about Robinson and the gun. “I was disappointed and surprised and confused,” he said. “That’s not him. It’s not … but he’s kicking himself every day.”
Robinson nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Every day.”
His hopes for a second chance are now in the hands of the court.
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