Expulsion unlikely in school gun case

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The story of a Columbia Falls High School junior who was suspended after inadvertently bringing an unloaded gun to school has attracted national attention — and, school officials say, has been blown out of proportion.

Demari DeReu, 16, was suspended Dec. 1 after telling school officials about the unloaded .243-caliber rifle in the trunk of her car.

She had forgotten about the gun after going hunting over Thanksgiving weekend.

Under school policy, DeReu faces an expulsion hearing, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in the district office’s board meeting room. But district Superintendent Michael Nicosia said it’s unlikely DeReu will get expelled.

“I don’t think the girl is going to be expelled. I think she’s going to be in school before Christmas break,” Nicosia said. “There’s been a lot of hullabaloo for nothing.”

The “hullabaloo” includes e-mails from people across the country responding to an e-mail sent earlier this week by Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut.

Marbut e-mailed members and friends of the association to tell DeReu’s story and urged people to picket before the hearing with signs reading “Free Demari DeReu.”

“Although she has no intent to break any rules or laws, or harm anyone, Demari is at risk of having her college education derailed and maybe even being identified forever as a domestic terrorist,” Marbut wrote.

But neither of those things are true, Nicosia said.

“This girl is not going to be punished,” he said. “It’s not going on her permanent record.”

“We just want to try to put some sense into this thing,” he added.

The trouble began Dec. 1 when high school officials announced during first period that contraband-sniffing dogs were at school.

While the dogs will find drugs and drug paraphernalia, they also can find hidden guns, Columbia Falls Police Chief Dave Perry said. They can sniff out ammunition, empty casings and anything with gunpowder residue.

It wasn’t until she heard the announcement that DeReu remembered the rifle she had forgotten to remove from the trunk of her car, which was parked in the school lot. She told a school secretary, who promised to pass the message on to the principal. The next thing DeReu knew, Assistant Principal Scott Gaiser was escorting her from class.

She said she thought he was kidding when he told her she was facing expulsion.

She was a good kid, an honors student and varsity cheerleader who didn’t drink or do drugs. And despite the district’s no-guns rule, she couldn’t believe she could get kicked out of school for forgetting about an unloaded gun locked in the trunk of her car.

“I thought he was joking at first when he told me I [would be] expelled,” DeReu said. “It’s a big deal for me. I’ve never even had a detention. I’ve never been in the office for anything negative.”

“Just to be labeled as ‘She brought a gun to school’ — that’s harsh to me,” she added. “I brought a gun to school but I didn’t intentionally bring a gun to school. ... I really think it’s kind of an overreaction when it was a thing where I turned myself in and I’ve never had a prior infraction before in my life.”

DeReu said Gaiser told her she was suspended immediately and was facing expulsion for at least 21 days after a hearing.

That’s the minimum a student can be expelled, Nicosia explained Thursday.

“You can have as much as 20 days’ suspension, but the 21st day is an expulsion,” he said, adding that Gaiser probably had that in mind when he talked to DeReu.

But in Montana, only the school board has the authority to expel students.

“The thing that upsets me the most is for our school board. They are going to make the same decision they would have made if none of this [hullabaloo] had happened, and now they are going to be put into a position where it looks like they folded under pressure,” Nicosia said.

“There is no anti-gun, no agenda, in this district,” he added.

DeReu’s isn’t the first case school board trustees have heard regarding students who have brought guns to school without intending to harm anyone, Nicosia said. He didn’t know offhand how many such cases the district has seen.

The most recent happened a little more than a year ago, he said. Since then, the district has made some changes to its gun policy.

The rule originally was based on policy from the Montana School Boards Association, which based is policy on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. The 1994 federal 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, however, allows school districts to modify the expulsion requirements on a case-by-case basis.

“Originally when the law passed, it looked like there was no leeway” in whether schools could expel students who brought guns to school without intending malice, Nicosia said.

But after much discussion, Columbia Falls decided there was at least some wiggle room, although each student’s case must be considered individually.

“All of these nasty e-mails talk about the stupidity of zero tolerance,” Nicosia said, referring to the scores of messages he has received after Marbut’s e-mail campaign.

“Yes indeed I subscribe to zero tolerance. If there is a negative behavior, there will be zero tolerance, but the punishment is going to fit the offense. There is not a one-size-fits-all that this district is going to use.”

In DeReu’s case, that means her suspension will be factored into any punishment she may receive.

“I’m certainly not going to recommend any expulsion, and never was,” Nicosia said.

The board will take the circumstances of DeReu’s situation into consideration, he added.

“That’s what this board does: It does what’s best for kids. If a kid deserves to be expelled, he or she will be. If not, he or she won’t be,” he said. “No other authority is going to dictate something that’s unreasonable to these people.”

Since her suspension, DeReu has been keeping up with her schoolwork at home. She was uncertain Tuesday whether she would be allowed to turn it in for credit.

“I thought how basically my whole world was falling apart,” she said. “I might possibly not get into college.”

But it’s likely her suspension won’t affect her grades or her college aspirations.

“In a case like this, a student probably would be” allowed to turn in work for credit, Nicosia said. “A board can make anything part of their motion. ... I’m sure in a case like this, a student would be allowed to make up their work.”

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

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