Montana Honor Student Faces Expulsion for Leaving Hunting Rifle in Car While at School

On the morning of Dec.1, Demari DeReu drove to Columbia Falls High School in Montana and parked her blue-green Honda Accord in the lot, just as she does every morning. The 16-year-old honor roll student, class treasurer and varsity cheerleader walked in to school, forgetting entirely about the unloaded hunting rifle locked in the trunk of her car.

Later that day, there was an announcement telling students contraband sniffing dogs were scouting the parking lot, sparking her memory. She immediately told administrators that she’d forgotten to remove her scoped hunting rifle from the trunk following a Thanksgiving family hunting excursion.

She was suspended from school for violating federal and state gun laws.

On Monday, the school board will convene for a hearing to decide the fate and academic future of the high school junior, who recently was voted most dedicated cheerleader by her teammates and coach. 

DeReu's supporters say her future success may be harmed irrevocably because of one mistake and a school board’s lack of common sense, and they have been sending e-mails en masse and campaigning to garner support from around the region, and across the country.

But the school district superintendent, Mike Nicosia, says the entire issue has been blown out of proportion and that the school board members will be fair and wouldn’t ruin the future of the bright honors student. He blamed outside influences for turning the whole thing into a circus.

The drama continues.

On Friday morning DeReu and her newly retained attorney are scheduled to hold a news conference outside the family’s home.

When reached by phone, Scott DeReu, her father, described his daughter as an avid deer and elk hunter.

"She got a couple of deer," he said. "Never an elk...they're tough to find."

He declined to talk specifically about his daughter's issue.

And her supporters vow to descend Monday upon the school district building to protest during the school board hearing.

DeReu’s high school has a zero tolerance policy about guns on campus — in a accordance with both state and federal law — and could lose funding under the terms of the federal Gun Free School Act if the law is not enforced.

State criminal law also prevents weapons from being brought into schools and provides for leniency on a case-by-case basis; DeReu did not bring the gun into school, but it was in the school parking lot, which falls under the purviews of the federal law.

Violators of the federal law face no less than a year expulsion — but the law provides some wiggle room, allowing school boards to show leniency on a case-by-case basis.

DeReu's future is in the hands of the school board, says Gary Marbut, president of Montana Shooting Sports Association, the state’s largest gun advocacy group, responsible for getting dozens of gun-related laws passed in the state.

Marbut says he was contacted by DeReu's family following her suspension and has set them up with a lawyer to advocate on the student’s behalf.

“They can expel her for a year or more. Her plan was to go to college next year,” he said, adding that DeReu wants to attend the University of Montana, Misoula, and become a respiratory therapist.

“But scholarship and some college applications require the applicant to explain all school suspensions. Can you imagine a gun-adverse application committee for girl expelled for a gun crime. It may be a deal killer for scholarships or maybe even for admission to college,” he said.

Nicosia, the school superintendent, told he could not comment specifically on DeReu's situation, but he said board members generally are unlikely to dole out a severe, future-derailing punishment for a student in good standing who made a mistake.

A student in similar situation as DeReu would be unlikely to face lengthy expulsion and might not even be expelled at all, he said.

"I believe that if a student who comes to an expulsion hearing under that circumstances that presents itself, I don't believe the individual's future as far as college or making up work or progressing through their last year and half of high school would be any way jeopardized," he said.

The issue will go to the 8-member school board comprise of child-centered individuals who have dealt with this before and who will do the right thing, he said.

“They will put a punishment to fit the crime,” Nicosia said, and suggested that DeReu’s future would not be jeopardized by the board’s decision.

"We believe the right decision will be made."

Marbut is calling for no punishment at all. He wants the school to expunge the matter from DeReu’s record, drop the matter entirely, apologize for its initial response and get her back in school immediately.

He cited an example of a similar case from last year when a boy was suspended and as a condition of his suspension wasn’t allowed to make up any of the work he missed.  This resulted in a plummet in the student’s grade-point average.

“Suppose that takes her off the honor roll—how does that bode for her college education?” Marbut said. “We think the people of Montana should have no tolerance for school officials who have no common sense."

Nicosia said it was unfair that people outside the district, such as Marbut, had inserted themselves into the situation and painted the school district and its board with one sweeping negative brush.

"Sometimes you just have to trust reasonable people to make reasonable decisions, and I hope we haven’t gone beyond that point in our country," he said.