Girl runs afoul of gun rules

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A Columbia Falls High School student was suspended last week after inadvertently bringing a hunting rifle to school.

Demari DeReu, a 16-year-old junior, was suspended Dec. 1 and likely faces expulsion after telling school officials about the gun she had forgotten to remove from the trunk of her car.

She had gone hunting over Thanksgiving weekend with family friends.

They had taken a friend’s pickup truck, and when they returned, the friend had put DeReu’s unloaded rifle in the trunk of her car and the rest of her hunting gear up front. She forgot about the gun when she unloaded her gear at home.

The following Wednesday, the school announced during first period that contraband-sniffing dogs were at school. Only then did DeReu remember the rifle in her car, which was parked in the school parking lot.

“I was glad I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs,” she recalled thinking to herself. Then she thought, “Did I get my rifle out of my trunk?”

She said she remembers a teacher — she can’t remember who — telling her that in some cases, the school would allow students to move their cars off school grounds if they took an absence. It seemed better than getting in trouble should the dog find the gun, so DeReu asked her teacher if she could move her car.

He said no, so instead she asked to call Alan Robbins, the high school principal, to explain the situation.

“I couldn’t get ahold of Mr. Robbins — he was checking lockers — so I told the secretary my hunting rifle was in the car, not loaded and with no ammunition, and wanted to see if I can move my car,” DeReu said. “She said she’d get the message to him right away.”

The next thing DeReu knew, Assistant Principal Scott Gaiser was escorting her from the classroom.

She said he told her she was suspended as of that moment and was facing expulsion for a minimum of 21 days after an expulsion hearing, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday.

Immediately suspending and then expelling students found with guns on school property are part of the school district’s policy.

Superintendent Michael Nicosia would not discuss the specifics of DeReu’s case but talked about the policy, which is based on state policy crafted by the Montana School Boards Association.

That policy says the school board “will expel any student who uses, possess, controls or transfers a firearm or any object that can reasonably be considered a firearm at any setting that is under control and supervision of the District.”

The policy also says students in those circumstances will be expelled for at least one calendar year, although trustees may modify the term of the expulsion on a case-by-case basis, Nicosia said.

The district doesn’t see any way around the expulsion clause, which is based on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, he added.

The 1994 law says each state that receives federal funding must have a law requiring schools to expel for at least one year students who have brought or possessed a firearm at school.

The federal law does, however, allow school districts to modify the expulsion requirements on a case-by-case basis.

That means DeReu almost certainly will be expelled at Monday’s hearing — but it’s unlikely she’ll be expelled for the duration called for in the federal law.

“It would not be uncommon for a lesser penalty to be enforced,” said Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association. District policy “starts with the assumption that you definitely have to take action, but you can modify the length [of the expulsion].”

However long the expulsion is, in a situation like this, “a student’s days of suspension will count toward that,” Nicosia said.

“Our school board is a group of very good, child-centered people who aren’t going to make it difficult on the child for making a mistake. That’s not their history. Nor will it be the recommendation ever from the administration” to expel a student in DeReu’s situation for the duration laid out in the law.

DeReu’s isn’t the first such case the Columbia Falls School District has handled, Nicosia said.

“The board has worked through it and tried its best to modify the policy so that there is some leeway or some way that the board can react in those kinds of situations,” he said.

While the federal law might work in some areas of the country, it doesn’t work in Montana, a state where hunting is so common, Nicosia said.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘This isn’t inner-city Los Angeles; this is Montana,’” he said. “A law that covers everyone the same generally isn’t a very good law.”

One gun-rights advocate expressed doubt about whether the law actually requires districts to expel a student at all.

Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, said he wasn’t sure whether the law is flawed or if the flaw was in the district’s interpretation of it.

Marbut launched an e-mail campaign on DeReu’s behalf Tuesday, urging people to attend the expulsion hearing and picket before the meeting starts with signs reading “Free Demari DeReu.”

After receiving e-mailed responses from Marbut’s campaign, the district scheduled a meeting with DeReu and her parents Tuesday evening.

“My goal is the outcome will be that the girl get an apology from the school board [for] getting roughed up by the process and that she get no more than a verbal warning,” Marbut said. “My position is she has learned everything she needs to learn from this. The lesson is handled.”

DeReu said that while she already knew of the district’s no-gun policy, the lesson has been even more deeply impressed on her.

“There are not really any harsh feelings [toward the district], but I really wish they’d re-evaluate it,” she said.

Reporter Kristi Albertson may be reached at 758-4438 or at kalbertson@dailyinterlake.com.

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