Attorney: School Districts Can’t Ban Guns on Campus

  • Mount Lebanon School, in Lebanon, N.H., is shown on March 30, 2017. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Lebanon — Public schools in New Hampshire cannot legally ban all firearms from school grounds, the Lebanon School District’s attorney told officials on Wednesday night.

That means Lebanon’s policy prohibiting the public from carrying guns into school buildings and events is in violation of state law and must be amended, according to James O’Shaughnessy, an attorney who specializes in school law at the Manchester-based firm Drummond Woodsum.

“I will say that it’s a tough job to be on a school board when you’re thinking that on some level, you can’t regulate the possession of a dangerous weapon in a school,” O’Shaughnessy told members of the Lebanon School Board.

“To me, that’s a challenge,” he said. “How do you do your job and keep kids safe when you’re not able to regulate the use of firearms under state law?”

Lebanon’s predicament isn’t unusual, O’Shaughnessy said. In fact, many Granite State schools are being asked to balance federal and state gun laws, which sometimes contradict one another, he said.

For instance, the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act bans weapons within 1,000 feet of a school, and the federal Gun-Free Schools Act states that students cannot bring firearms onto school property.

However, a state law gives the New Hampshire Legislature the sole authority to regulate guns and knives, effectively preventing area school districts and municipalities from setting their own rules.

To add to the confusion, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has said that municipal police don’t have the authority to enforce the federal gun ban.

The news was poorly received by School Board members, who said the current policy exists to better protect children in their care.

“How do we ... protect our students, staff and faculty from what happened in Kentucky yesterday?” School Board Chairman Jeff Peavey asked, referring to a Tuesday school shooting that killed two children and injured 18 more.

“We’re just trying to (say) that people can’t bring weapons into the building to harm anybody,” he said.

Vice Chairman Richard Milius appeared equally dismayed, saying polite conversations with gun owners likely aren’t enough to prevent a deadly situation.

“So we’re left in a really very difficult position because we need a policy. We really do need a policy,” he said.

The Lebanon School Board last updated its weapons policy in October, when it voted to add “school buildings” to a list of locations where firearms are prohibited.

The policy also forbids weapons from entering school property, vehicles or school-sponsored events. It applies to students, staff members and the public.

The Dresden School Board adopted a firearms prohibition last year, joining the Claremont and Mascoma school districts with no weapons policies.

“Without this (policy), I see that we’re having our hands tied,” Peavey said.

Yet O’Shaughnessy said the district can continue to legally prohibit students and staffers from coming to school armed.

He is working on a potential policy that would instruct school officials to call police when a member of the public shows up armed. Police are better equipped to talk with gun owners and provide a potential check on any violent behavior, the attorney said.

But once a gun owner is cleared by police, there’s nothing the school can do to make that person leave, unless they’re acting in a threatening way, O’Shaughnessy warned the board.

It’s unclear how Lebanon police would address someone who attempts to enter a school building armed. An email to Police Chief Richard Mello requesting comment wasn’t returned on Wednesday night.

In the past, Mello has said his officers would help the district remove unwanted visitors from school property.

“If a school wishes someone to leave, or be removed, from one of their properties for whatever reason, we would assist them with that issue,” he said in an email earlier this month.

The School Board discussion was largely prompted by a bill, HB 1749, which seeks to challenge local firearms regulations and specifically cited Lebanon’s policy.

“We can’t have a School Board suddenly start saying that ‘this is going to be a gun-free zone’ and then carry that (rule) to any activity where those students are,” Rep. JR Hoell, R-Dunbarton, the bill’s primary sponsor, said during a hearing earlier this month before the House Municipal and County Government Committee.

Hoell’s bill would institute a $5,000 penalty for elected officials who have been found by a judge to have violated the state firearms law. It also would prohibit school districts and municipalities from using public money to “defend or reimburse the unlawful conduct” of those elected officials.

The legislation remains in committee and will next be discussed on Jan. 30, before going to a full vote in the House. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has signaled he opposes the measure.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com.