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School board may modify its rule for students caught with guns

The South Whidbey School District board is expected to modify its zero-tolerance policy on dangerous weapons on campus.

The modifications, to be discussed at tonight’s school board meeting, would allow for “special circumstances,” District Superintendent Fred McCarthy said Monday.

One change would allow the superintendent to review and modify the automatic one-year expulsion from school for a firearms violation on a case-by-case basis.

The other change would require school officials to notify parents or guardians of students involved in weapons incidents at the same time that law enforcement officials are called in.

Current policy, following a state mandate, says there are to be no exceptions to the one-year expulsion rule for bringing a firearm to school. It also doesn’t require school officials to call parents immediately.

McCarthy said the intent of the state rule has always been to allow local school officials some leeway as circumstances warrant, and that the proposed changes would make the policy more clear.

“We’re trying to do the best we can for the students involved, while keeping in mind the safety and security of the other students,” McCarthy said.

The proposed changes were triggered by an Oct. 15 incident at South Whidbey High School in Langley in which two students were expelled for a year after a shotgun and shells were discovered in the pick-up truck of the older student while it was parked on campus.

The two students had just returned in the truck from being off campus at lunchtime, when sheriff’s deputies, acting on a tip from a school official, searched the vehicle and found the gun and ammunition. The older student admitted the gun was his and said he had been hunting earlier, but added he hadn’t had time to take the weapon home before school started.

School and law enforcement officials said at the time there was no indication that any violence or mischief involving the weapon was intended.

Both male students, a 17-year-old from Greenbank and a 15-year-old from Freeland, were arrested by sheriff’s deputies and transported in handcuffs to the county Juvenile Detention Facility in Coupeville, where they were charged with possession of a dangerous weapon on school grounds, a gross misdemeanor. Both were processed, and released to their parents. Meanwhile, school officials, following district policy, imposed mandatory one-year expulsions.

McCarthy said that after a hearing involving the parents and other adult supporters of the younger student, it was determined that he may not have known the shotgun was in the truck.

“This was a really extraordinary case for a whole lot of reasons,” McCarthy said. “He seems to have been caught up in a situation that he didn’t design.”

McCarthy said that, after review, school officials decided to convert the younger student’s expulsion to a suspension, and to allow him back in school after being absent for about 45 days. He said the parents of the older student didn’t appeal, but his one-year expulsion would remain in force in any case.

McCarthy said that, while exceptions to the rule are rare, “special circumstances can trump automatic expulsion,” and that it was the decision of school officials after an investigation to give the younger student another chance.

Zero-tolerance policies became popular after several high-profile shootings at schools and colleges, including the Columbine High School massacre in suburban Colorado in April 1999, in which two students shot and killed 12 students and a teacher, and wounded 23 others, before committing suicide.

Schools, including those in South Whidbey, were declared “gun-free zones,” and strict weapons policies were instituted.

“It was political correct to want to make a pretty strong statement at the time,” McCarthy said of the policy. “And it’s a good rule. The more you remove access to guns and violence, the safer the environment will be.”

In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for a student to drive to school in his father’s truck with a duck-hunting rifle in the rack, McCarthy said.

“Back in the old days, you might just warn him,” McCarthy said. “Now, the law is clear.”

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