Rivendell School Board Mulls Policy That Would Ban Firearms

  • Orford Police Chief Chris Kilmer, left, and Rep. David Binford, R-Orford, right, watch the Rivendell boys basketball game with Winooski in Orford, N.H., Wednesday, March 1, 2017. Mike Harris, Rivendell's superintendent has been asked to write a policy under which only uniformed police officers will provide security at school events. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Orford — The Rivendell Interstate School Board is considering a new policy that would ban firearms from school grounds, creating a potential challenge to New Hampshire state law.

Members of the district’s 11-member School Board were presented with the proposed policy during a meeting on Tuesday night. If they are adopted next month, the rules would prohibit weapons in school, buildings, on school property, in school-used vehicles and at school events.

The policy would apply to students, Rivendell staff and members of the public alike. Those found with a firearm could be asked to leave under the rules, which also provides educators with the discretion to contact law enforcement.

The school district also would reserve “the right to issue no trespass letters” to anyone who violates the policy or “acceptable standards of conduct.”

“I feel very strongly that you send your children to us and expect them first and foremost to be safe,” Superintendent Elaine Arbour told parents and educators at Tuesday’s meeting.

Citizens bringing guns into school creates too great a safety risk, she said, adding students and teachers likely will feel uncomfortable with weapons, even if they’re properly secured.

“My advocacy, and I hope it matches other school boards, is that we push hard to not allow guns and other weapons in our schools,” Arbour said.

The potential weapons ban was largely born out of an incident at Rivendell Academy last spring, the superintendent said before the meeting.

That’s when state Rep. David Binford, R-Bath, carried a sidearm while providing security at a Rivendell basketball game. At the time, school officials and police said, they didn’t expect him to arrive armed.

“So that started some conversations at the building and district levels about weapons on school property,” Arbour said before the meeting.

The need for a policy also became clear when school officials began researching gun laws in the Twin States, she said.

In Vermont, it is a crime for citizens to carry deadly weapons into school buildings, on a school bus or school property.

Anyone found to be in violation of that law could face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for a first offense. Police and those given permission by school authorities to carry a gun are exempt from the law.

However, New Hampshire doesn’t have a similar law on the books.

If Rivendell were to adopt a policy, it could conflict with existing New Hampshire law, which gives the Legislature sole authority to regulate firearms.

That means any municipality or school district that sets its own rules is in violation of the law, according to guidance from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

The Lebanon School District also was told its ban on firearms is unlawful during a meeting last month with James O’Shaughnessy, an attorney who specializes in school law at the Manchester-based firm Drummond Woodsum.

Both the Lebanon and Dresden school boards also implemented their own weapons bans after the incident at Rivendell Academy. Lebanon, however, is now looking to amend the policy to comply with state law.

A group of 10 Republican legislators also are hoping to strengthen the existing law and have proposed a bill that would fine officials who enact local gun policies.

The bill, HB 1749, was submitted partially because of Lebanon’s firearms ban and is due for a vote in the state House later this week.

Arbour said Rivendell’s board hadn’t had the chance to discuss O’Shaughnessy’s opinion before Tuesday’s meeting, adding its policy was drafted with legal aid.

She said Rivendell’s policy partially relies on the federal Gun-Free School Zones Act, which prohibits unlicensed firearms owners from carrying weapons within 1,000 feet of a school. The law cannot be enforced by local police, though, according to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office.

“We believe the intent of that law is to have school zones be weapon-free just as they are expected to be drug free,” Arbour said.

It’s unclear how or if law enforcement in Orford would enforce the policy. The town currently is without a police department, and is searching for a new police chief to replace Christopher Kilmer, who stepped down from the job in March.

Board members on Tuesday appeared supportive of the policy, which garnered praise from Rivendell Dean of Students Michael Galli.

“I appreciate your courage,” he told board members. “I think there are other school boards that are looking to this meeting tonight.”

The Rivendell Interstate School Board is expected to further discuss the policy during its next meeting at 6:30 p.m. on March 6 at Westshire Elementary School.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.