COLUMBIA FALLS – A Columbia Falls High School junior returned to school on Tuesday after the school board made the unanimous decision not to expel her for unintentionally having an unloaded hunting rifle on school property in the trunk of her car.
Demari DeReu, 16, met with the School District 6 Board of Trustees at a public expulsion hearing Monday night that drew a crowd of about 150 to Glacier Gateway Elementary.
A junior varsity cheerleader, DeReu’s case garnered attention locally and nationally after the Montana Shooting Sports Association publicized it. The National Rifle Association also sent out an e-mail urging members to support the student.
DeReu took the podium on Monday night and said it all started when school officials announced a lockdown for a routine contraband search on Dec. 1.
High school Principal Alan Robbins told the board that these searches, involving a dog, happen four to six times year. The dog is trained to smell drugs, alcohol and gun powder. Students are not allowed to leave during the searches.
DeReu thought she might have accidentally left the rifle in her car after a weekend hunting trip with her family over Thanksgiving break. She told the board that a teacher had previously explained to her that if something like this happened, she could inform the office and either move her car off school property or take the gun home.
Since the school was in lockdown, DeReu said she contacted the school officials about her predicament. She told the board she was escorted from the classroom, “where I was told I would be expelled.”
Assistant Principal Scott Gaiser told the board he found the rifle in a case in the trunk of DeReu’s Honda Accord. There was no ammunition present in the vehicle.
DeReu has been in out-of-school suspension ever since.
Based on DeReu’s 3.0 GPA and “exemplary behavior” so far in her high school career, Gaiser told the board he recommended that DeReu be removed from school for the least amount of time as possible.
“There was no intent on her part to do harm,” Gaiser said.
School district policy, which is based on state law and the federal Gun-Free Schools Act, requires expulsion for at least one year if a student brings a firearm to school. However, the board of trustees can modify the expulsion requirements.
DeReu’s lawyer, Sean Frampton, said he believed DeReu’s suspension should be voided and she should be allowed to make up the work she’s missed.
“Montana never intended for this situation to be a violation of (state law),” Frampton told the board.
Board trustee Dean Chisolm said DeReu’s case is the fifth in three years in which officials have had to address guns on campus.
“In each case, it’s been troubling,” Chisolm said.
He said the policy was rewritten to allow more leniency through a case-by-case basis, and that the board considers the student’s intent, whether the incident was an honest mistake, whether the student self-reported, when the self-reporting happened and the nature of the student’s participation in the investigation.
In the four prior cases, the board determined expulsion was not necessary. And in DeReu’s case, Chisolm said it appeared she brought the gun unintentionally and she does not have behavioral problems at school.
The board also discussed whether a suspension would affect DeReu’s chances of getting into college. It was determined that there should not be a problem with college applications, but grades were an emotional point for DeReu. She told the board she is now failing in two classes after being suspended.
“At this point I don’t have any teachers, I’m teaching myself,” she said in tears. “It’s not fair for me to hear this isn’t going to affect my college education when I already have two Fs.”
District 6 Superintendent Mike Nicosia told the board that he did not recommend expulsion, and that DeReu should be able to make up any work she’s missed with the help of school staff.
“We will do everything in our power to make sure that’s available to you,” Nicosia told DeReu.
The board agreed, moving that DeReu be readmitted to school and that her record be expunged at the end of the school year.
Before the final vote, members of the crowd were given one minute to express support or opposition to the board’s motion. Several held protest signs with such messages as “Bad Fed Policy Bad 4 Montana” and “No Victim No Crime.”
Fred Hodgeboom said he thought the motion should be amended to include an apology from school officials, who he believes should be suspended.
“Suspend the officials that made the wrong decision,” Hodgeboom said.
Duncan Scott, a Kalispell attorney, told the board he would work with them to help modify their policy, because “it’s going to come up again; it has to come up again, we’re a shooting community.”
State Rep. Jerry O’Neil, R-Columbia Falls, offered to help make state law more clear at the next legislative session by looking at situations like this.
Other audience members expressed disappointment that the situation had gotten this far, while others demanded that the high school officials be punished for their actions.
Board member Barb Riley told the crowd that the school administration is required to follow school policy, and only the board of trustees can make the decision to modify a student’s punishment in a case like this.
“I do believe we need reasonableness in Montana,” Riley said.
After the unanimous vote to readmit DeReu to school and expunge her record at the end of the school year, the crowd cheered and gathered to congratulate her.
DeReu said she looks forward to getting back to cheerleading and hanging out with her friends.
“I’ll go back to school and try to get back to what’s normal,” she said. “I’m ecstatic.”
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