The Columbia Falls High School junior who inadvertently brought a rifle to school is back in class today after school board trustees voted not to expel her.
Demari DeReu, 16, faced an expulsion hearing Monday night after bringing an unloaded hunting rifle to school earlier this month. DeReu told school officials about the rifle and was, per district policy, suspended immediately. She has been out of school ever since.
District trustees voted unanimously Monday not to expel her and to allow her to return to school today, a decision that relieved DeReu.
“I honestly expected to be expelled today,” she said after the meeting.
About 150 people attended the meeting in the Glacier Gateway Elementary gymnasium, most in support of DeReu. A couple of Columbia Falls police officers were also present.
Her case attracted national attention after Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, started an e-mail campaign on her behalf. DeReu’s mother, Tracy, e-mailed Marbut about her daughter’s situation.
Marbut was not at Monday’s meeting, but Tom Opre, a board member for the association, was one of several members of the audience who addressed the trustees. His suggestion that similar incidents in the future be addressed “with common sense ... so we don’t have to waste your time and our time doing this next time” drew appreciative applause from the crowd.
Other commenters expressed support for DeReu.
“I don’t think any crime was committed, and I don’t think any crime was intended,” said Clarence Taber of Columbia Falls. “This lady here is one we should hold up in our community as an example of what we’re looking for.”
About 20 people stood outside the gym before the meeting with picket signs with slogans such as, “Get The Fed Out of MT Schools,” “Stop Enforcing Bad Policy 4 MT” and “Suspend [high school Assistant Principal] Scott Gaiser.” A few held up signs at the back of the gym during the meeting.
The trouble began Dec. 1, a few days after hunting season ended. DeReu had gone hunting over the Thanksgiving weekend and forgotten about the .243-caliber rifle locked in the trunk of her car until school officials announced that a contraband-sniffing dog would be on campus that morning.
Such searches have been standard procedure since 1997, high school Principal Alan Robbins told the board. The district has between four and six searches with a dog each year. In addition to finding alcohol and drugs — illegal, prescription and over-the-counter — the dogs can smell gunpowder.
When searches are going on, the school is in lockdown. Students are not allowed to leave their classrooms until the search is over.
DeReu asked her teacher if she could move her car. She said Monday that while reviewing the district’s no-guns policy earlier in the year, a teacher had told her that students who had forgotten about guns in their vehicles might move their cars off campus.
But because of the lockdown, she wasn’t allowed to leave.
Instead, she called the school office and told a secretary about her predicament. The secretary promised to pass the information on to Robbins, who was busy conducting searches.
“Fifteen minutes later Mr. Gaiser escorted me out and told me I would be expelled,” DeReu said Monday.
Gaiser said he found the unloaded gun locked in the trunk of DeReu’s Honda Accord. There was no ammunition in the trunk or in the rest of the vehicle, he said.
“Based upon my belief that she did indeed merely forget the gun was in her trunk and there was no intent on her part to do harm ... it was my recommendation that there be a modification to the term of expulsion,” Gaiser said.
Expulsion is outlined in district policy, which was originally based on information from the Montana School Boards Association, which in turn was based on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. The 1994 law says that 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.
The law does, however, allow school districts to modify the expulsion requirements on a case-by-case basis. And, as DeReu’s attorney Sean Frampton pointed out, there is an exception spelled out in the federal law for firearms “lawfully stored inside a locked vehicle on school property.”
Frampton also maintained that Columbia Falls’ policy overstepped the intent of the state law. As evidence he cited the history of the law upon which the policy is based.
That discussion included concerns from state legislators about whether the law would “trap” students with hunting rifles in their vehicles. Legislators were assured that based on federal law, hunting rifles would not be considered weapons: Weapons exclude guns used strictly for “sporting, recreational or cultural purposes.”
Therefore, Frampton said, Columbia Falls’ policy exceeds lawmakers’ intent.
“You cannot apply it,” he said. “It was never intended for this situation.”
House District 3 Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, offered Monday to draft a bill clarifying state law “in order to allow a rifle in a locked trunk to be in a school parking lot.” His proposal was met with applause.
DeReu’s isn’t the first gun-related offense trustees have had to decide. Trustee Dean Chisholm said he could think of at least four more within the last couple of years; based on board minutes from 2009, there were at least three last year alone.
In the four cases before DeReu’s, trustees decided expulsion wasn’t an appropriate punishment, Chisholm said. Those students “were suspended for a period, readmitted to campus and allowed to make up the work.”
Chisholm recommended the same attitude be adopted in DeReu’s case, that she be allowed to return to school as soon as practical and that she be allowed to make up the work she has missed while suspended.
Trustee Larry Wilson added to Chisholm’s recommendation, saying that DeReu’s record should be expunged at the end of the year.
But the family’s primary concern was the impact to DeReu’s grades, Frampton said. Normally a 3.0 student, DeReu now has two F’s due to her suspension.
Superintendent Michael Nicosia said the district would work with DeReu to help her catch up on the work she has missed while suspended and to mitigate any effect the incident might have as she pursues college.
But DeReu told trustees the incident would impact her college plans.
“At this point ... I don’t have any teachers. I’m teaching myself,” she said through tears. “It’s not fair for me to hear this isn’t going to affect my college education when I have two F’s since I’ve been suspended.”
The board and school officials promised to do whatever they could to help DeReu make up the work and get into college, including “flooding colleges with recommendations from the district,” Nicosia said.
After the meeting, DeReu said she was relieved by those promises.
“I’m really happy that I can sort out all this mess, that it won’t affect me when I go to college,” she said.
She hopes to pursue a degree in respiratory therapy at the University of Montana.