August 2001 / No Guns In School

Question Mark
Ask the Superintendent: No Guns In School
Superintendent's Column
Peninsula Clarion
D. Peterson

August 29, 2001

Moose hunting season in Alaska - is there any clearer sign that fall is here? Though hunting in the fall is traditional and expected, recent tragedies involving firearms on school grounds have caused a heightened awareness nationally, and the laws governing firearms on school grounds are important for all to know and understand.

Under the Federal "Gun-Free Schools Act" school districts are required to adopt a policy mandating a minimum of a one-year expulsion of any student bring a firearm to school or to any school activity. The days of hunting on the way to or from school or just having a firearm in the vehicle for hunting purposes are gone. As soon as that vehicle crosses onto school grounds, the Federal law kicks in with severe penalties. The only exceptions are law enforcement personnel or prearranged permits for positive, appropriate purposes.

Alaska Statute (AS 14.03.160) is clear and the intent of the law is well known - schools need to be safe zones free of any firearms. The law does not address intent at all; it says that possession of a firearm on school grounds SHALL result in expulsion for one year.

Kenai Peninsula School Board policy BP 5131.7 restates this consequence. There are no provisions in the law or policy for the excuse of forgetting that the guns are in the vehicle and/or not having any intent to use the guns. Even whether there is ammunition or not is not addressed. The chief administrative officer of the school district is the only one that can reduce the one-year expulsion and then only when there are mitigating circumstances - protection and or forgetting are not mitigating circumstances.

This is not one of those cases where ignorance of the law will get the person a slap on the wrist or a warning; the law has life-changing consequences for violators. Can you imagine what a year away from school for this "mistake" could mean in the life of a student? Just as there are severe penalties for harassment and other issues that used to be considered "okay" in some people's eyes, times have changed in society. Firearms have no place on school grounds.

Where does common sense play into this? Certainly in most instances regarding discipline for students such as behavior, drug, or alcohol infractions, there is some range of responses that can occur based on circumstances, district parameters, student response and honesty, and past infractions. Bringing a gun onto school grounds is a black and white issue with no range of response available - if it happens, there will be a one-year expulsion according to the law. Frankly, we need to make sure people know and understand the consequences before there's a problem. Whether we agree that this is one step to making our schools safe or disagree because there are always mitigating circumstances, it doesn't matter. The school district follows the law.

It should also be noted that we do not allow employees to carry firearms. Our guiding principle is if activities such as a field trips or sporting events are dangerous enough to make people believe they need to carry a weapon for protection, we should not be doing the activity.

As always, the school district and policy makers are taking steps to assure a safe and orderly environment for all students. We are also in the business of education and feel strongly that the level of awareness for community members and parents needs to be increased. At the beginning of the year, the student handbook is reviewed at school and, hopefully in homes. This column is just one more chance to educate. Have a great fall!