When Demari DeReu was suspended from Columbia Falls High School for inadvertently bringing an unloaded hunting rifle to school, her case attracted national attention. Her expulsion hearing Monday drew a crowd of about 150 people.
But DeReu’s is not the first gun-related expulsion hearing trustees in Flathead County have conducted. The Columbia Falls board has heard five cases in the last three years, just a handful of the infractions schools have faced in recent years.
In the last three years, Montana schools have reported 79 violations involving shotguns, rifles, handguns or other firearms, according to the state Office of Public Instruction.
Thirteen of those happened in Flathead County.
But some unintentional violations aren’t reported to the state.
Whitefish School District Superintendent Jerry House remembers one student who borrowed his father’s pickup truck when his own car wouldn’t start before school one morning.
The youth didn’t know about the gun under the seat until a contraband-detecting dog found it.
“It was a situation where the parent hit himself in the forehead and said, ‘I forgot all about it.’ The son had no clue,” House said.
The district made record of it, but the student wasn’t punished, he said.
“No harm, no foul,” House said. “There was no intent whatsoever. The kid didn’t even know it was there. We [didn’t] need to upset the apple cart.”
Cynthia Clary only became superintendent of the Bigfork School District on July 1 but already has dealt with a gun-related incident.
It was a situation similar to DeReu’s, she said; a student had failed to remove the gun from his vehicle after hunting one evening.
When he saw a contraband-sniffing dog in the hallway, he reported his gun to school administrators, “which was wonderful,” Clary said. “We appreciate his honesty.”
There was no ammunition in the vehicle and the gun was unloaded, she said.
District officials and trustees followed policy in the matter: The student was put in out-of-school suspension and then served time in in-school suspension. He was allowed to explain his situation before the school board.
“There was no malice. There was no intent to harm anyone,” Clary said. “It was a complete accident and the school board ruled as such while still being able to follow the intent of the law in assigning some disciplinary measures.”
The intent of the law came under question at DeReu’s hearing.
The federal law in question is the Gun-Free Schools Act, which says each state that receives federal funding must have a law requiring schools to expel for at least one calendar year students who have brought or possessed a firearm at school.
There is a provision in the law for modifying expulsions on a case-by-case basis.
But as DeReu’s attorney Sean Frampton pointed out, there also is an exception in the federal law for firearms “lawfully stored inside a locked vehicle on school property.”
There was discussion when the law was passed in 1994 about how the law might impact hunters.
At that time, Secretary of Education Richard Riley interpreted the law “not to forbid school districts from allowing firearms at school when students intend to use firearms solely for before or after-school hunting purposes.”
Frampton cited similar discussion around the state statute that prohibits firearms at school.
The legislative history indicates legislators were concerned the law might “trap” students with hunting rifles in their vehicles. Legislators were assured that based on federal law, hunting rifles would not be considered weapons.
That assurance was based on federal law that says “destructive devices” exclude rifles meant for “sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.”
The trouble with that, according to Lance Melton, is that state law is very specific.
“The statute doesn’t talk about destructive devices,” said Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association and a longtime lawyer. “It says firearms ... which includes ‘any weapon (including a starter gun) which will ... expel a projectile by the action of an explosive.’”
The language makes the state statute more restrictive than federal law, he said.
His organization drafted the gun-free schools policy upon which many Montana school boards based their own policies.
Because so many people in the association office have legal expertise, districts rely on the group for guidance, said Marcia Sheffels, Flathead County Superintendent of Schools.
“When we see their policies, we know that they have been checked out. We know that they have been legally perused,” she said. “That gives us a reference point.”
Melton said the Columbia Falls policy, which originally was based on the school boards association’s policy, has better language than his organization’s. The association’s policy specifies that school boards may modify the term of a student’s expulsion, but expulsions under state law are at least 21 days long.
The Columbia Falls policy, Melton said, allows the district to modify the expulsion, which means trustees can eliminate altogether the requirement to expel students.
Kalispell Public Schools has modified its policy even further to include three levels of weapons violations.
Level 1 violations involve students bringing “any firearm, explosive or incendiary device” to school. Such cases will result in expulsion for at least one year unless modified by the school board. Level two violations involve weapons other than guns, which likewise result in minimum one-year expulsions unless modified by the board of trustees.
But the district also makes provision for students who didn’t intend harm by bringing a weapon to school.
According to the policy, “Level 3 violations, involving innocent or foolhardy, rather than malicious acts, shall be handled in a manner deemed appropriate by the district superintendent.”
Since implementing the policy a couple of years ago, Superintendent Darlene Schottle has only had to make one judgment call. A student had gone hunting and left his hunting rifle behind the seat. Another student saw the gun and reported it.
“I was able to use that authority [from the policy] and make the decision to use a suspension rather than an expulsion and not do it at the board level,” Schottle said.
The board gave the superintendent that authority after careful discussion about the federal and state laws, she added.
“We absolutely, totally support the gun-free safe schools policy and the national initiative,” she said. “The only thing the board felt is because there are special circumstances that are unique sometimes, they did not want to be involved in making the decision every time.”
Melton said Kalispell’s policy might be chalked up to a different interpretation of state law. The statute says “trustees may authorize the school administration to modify the requirement for expulsion of a student on a case-by-case basis.”
“There are two ways to read this, and I’m not sure which is right,” Melton said.
One interpretation is that trustees may authorize a superintendent to make case-by-case decisions in gun-related student infractions. Another, which Melton called the “safest bet” legally, is that the trustees might authorize a superintendent every time a gun-related situation arises.
“What I would suggest is a statutory language change so effectively trustees can allow superintendents to make judgment calls in these matters,” he said. “We wouldn’t have any problem if the law were enhanced.”
Under the circumstances, he added, “I think Columbia Falls did everything that they could. They followed all the flexibility under the statute.”
School officials had no choice but to follow district policy, which essentially is the law of the district, she said.
“I think the school did exactly what it needed to do,” she said. “They do have the flexibility in the modification of the expulsion requirement and they have worked very compassionately with that. But at the same time, we can’t overlook the safety of the other students on campus, and that includes the parking lot.”
While this is a hunting state, “at the same time, none of us has forgotten the school shootings,” Sheffels added. “Truthfully hunting is part of our culture, but guns are guns, and if they get into the wrong hands ...”
Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.