How did it come to this?
Children worry about being gunned down at school. Parents fear for their children’s lives when they send them off to be educated in what are supposed to be safe learning environments. Educators spend precious money meant for curriculum, supplies and classrooms on ways to keep deranged shooters off their campuses.
And in our own little corner of this senseless world, Del Mar Union School District’s school board members turned their party affiliations and presumed positions on social issues upside-down, when discussing a proposed gun violence prevention resolution at their April 25 meeting.
Republican Stephen Cochrane favored strong language and an outright ban on high capacity weapons, while Democrat Doug Rafner argued to water down the language and even suggested the board shouldn’t pass any sort of gun violence prevention resolution at all.
Independent Kristin Gibson and Democrat Erica Halpern ultimately voted to support tamer language that Republican Scott Wooden wanted. Cochrane reluctantly joined with Gibson and Halpern.
Even Wooden, who surprised no one by resisting the strong language, ended up surprising everyone by voting against the revised version, saying it was still too strong.
One thing you can say about this discussion: it was thorough … with the conversation lasting well over an hour as the five board members tried to reword the resolution to suit everyone.
Although the board seemed to take forever to fiddle with the wording, the result still felt rushed and hastily put together.
The final wording was a confusing mess that no one really liked, least of all many parents in the community, 190 of whom signed a petition asking the board to revisit the issue and redo the resolution.
Gun groups in schools
It looked good at the start of the April board meeting, when the board was set to approve a draft resolution that included strong language about an outright ban of “semi-automatic firearms, high-capacity magazines, armor-piercing ammunition, bump stocks, and any other equipment, alteration, or modification that would increase a firearm’s capacity for ammunition or rate of fire…”
These words in similar resolutions were recently approved by many school districts in the county and state, locally including San Diego Unified, San Dieguito Union, Cardiff, Encinitas and Solana Beach.
In fact, the Solana Beach School District, after approving the strongly worded resolution in April, proposed a second resolution in May calling for an end to gun shows at the Del Mar fairgrounds. Both resolutions passed 5-0.
But instead of a quickly approved endorsement of a simple measure to protect children’s lives, DMUSD trustees diluted the resolution and parsed it to death, even discussing the placement of semi-colons.
What they ended up with, after exhaustion set in, was to remove the “outright ban” phrase and include a section saying the district will work with “gun owner organizations” among others, “to develop and provide educational opportunities … on firearm safety including but not limited to the rules for children and proper firearm storage.”
This implies that the district would support gun groups coming into schools to teach kids about gun safety.
Although DMUSD Board President Gibson said this would never happen, it’s unclear why this clause was included if the district has no intention of permitting it.
“What this district will not do … under any circumstances, is invite any gun ownership organizations into our classrooms to train our children on the safe use of firearms,” Gibson said at the May 23 board meeting.
Gibson prefaced this statement by saying that “all five board members have agreed that we will not take further action on the school safety resolution that was passed in April.”
This prompted me to ask how all board members came to this agreement, when in the period between the April and May board meetings there was no public discussion and no posted agenda with this item included.
Any such agreement among all board members behind closed doors would constitute a violation of the open meeting Brown Act. The community needs to be assured that unanimous decisions of this sort are being handled in public.
Gibson said she did not ask each board member individually (also a Brown Act violation), but assumed they were all in agreement because no one asked for the resolution to be placed back on the agenda after the revised resolution was approved in April.
She said board members have several opportunities to ask for items to be placed on the following month’s agenda, and no one did this for the school safety resolution.
Despite her explanation, it’s a bit of a stretch to say all board members agreed not to revisit the issue when the specific question was never posed to them.
How it went down
At the April 25 board meeting, Wooden objected to the draft resolution with the “outright ban” language.
“I don’t think we should go into specifics,” he said, adding that it’s the responsibility of state and national legislators to create laws.
Wooden was supported by Rafner, who said, “Never in my wildest thoughts [did I think] we’d be sitting here having a discussion about an assault weapons ban.”
Rafner said the resolution “shows we’ve taken a polarizing stance,” and he questioned whether it’s the board’s place to support an outright ban on anything.
“Our mandate is not to legislate for constitutional Second Amendment issues,” he said.
In a head-snapping twist, Republican Cochrane pushed to keep the strong language intact.
“If we don’t do anything, we’re making a political stance [and] we will give the misperception that we are not as committed to this as we are,” Cochrane said.
Cochrane said he realizes that the resolution is not going to change the law. But he argued that the statement matters, “even if it has the most mildest of influences … even if it has the slightest chance of decreasing a catastrophe.”
“How is that not part of our board obligation?” he asked. The community is saying we want this, “so I will support it.”
“Just because somebody brings it up doesn’t mean we have to do it,” Wooden responded.
Gibson said she was not comfortable with the resolution as written, questioning the role of school boards in legislative matters.
Gibson tried to wordsmith the resolution to appeal to all five trustees. But ultimately, even after deleting the meat of the resolution and adding in the section about gun groups, it was still not acceptable for Wooden.
The revised resolution passed 4-1.
In a later phone conversation, Wooden (who declined to say if he has a firearm in his house) explained his thinking, saying he supports “common sense” gun legislation and believes that Gibson and Rafner understand the limited role of school board members because all three attended the California School Boards Association Masters in Governance program.
The first draft, he said, was “beyond where we are as a school board, to propose legislation,” and it is not his role as a school board member to pass such resolutions.
DMUSD superintendent Holly McClurg said the discussion centered around the role of the Board of Education and what trustees’ responsibilities are. She said board members seemed to feel unqualified to be discussing firearms, that it was not their area of expertise.
School board role
After the revised version passed in April, community members asked the board to revisit the issue at its May meeting. That’s when Gibson said no further action would be taken on the resolution and that what passed in April would stand.
But public comments in May urging the board to reconsider the resolution were compelling.
Carmel Valley resident Carol Landale, a member of San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention, said it is “absolutely within the role of a school board” to address this issue and requested that the strong language be reinstated.
Torrey Hills parent Suzanne Hall asked the board to strike the reference to gun groups teaching children about gun safety. She also said the board has a duty to address this issue.
“If not you, then who?” she said. “You are the policy setters.”
“This is a movement; be a part of it,” Hall said, asking board members to revisit the resolution and pass it as presented in its original form. “It’s not only within your purview but is your responsibility.”
“We’re asking you to put this back on the agenda,” said parent Kristen Panebianco. “We want to talk about it some more.”
“I was comfortable with what we have, but the public was not,” Gibson told me later. “I’d be open to revisiting it [but] need to find out first what exactly is the school board’s role.”
The June meeting would be too soon, Gibson said, to take another look at the resolution, but said perhaps after that.
Panebianco expressed disappointment in the board’s lack of action.
“The San Dieguito, San Diego, Cardiff, Solana Beach, Vista, Chula Vista and Encinitas school boards have all included language in their resolutions to ban assault weapons or semi-automatic weapons,” she said in an email. “Why won’t the DMUSD Board of Trustees do the same?
“The lack of a definitive and timely response by the board reflects an inability to listen to their constituents, and is an unacceptable breach of trust.”
The “outright ban” language adopted by dozens of school districts both locally and throughout the state in their school safety resolutions was originally drafted Feb. 19 by Monterey Peninsula Unified School District trustee Wendy Root Askew and a friend.
“We shared the draft language on a Google doc and shared it with our friends and in a few Facebook groups,” she said, noting that hundreds of people viewed the draft.
“I really just felt that all elected officials, at every level of government, needed to raise our collective voices to demand federal action to protect our communities,” she said.
Her language struck a chord with many school board members, even though most realize that resolutions are largely symbolic.
But as DMUSD trustee Cochrane said, if enough people make noise about this, then perhaps it might have an effect.
This issue is not some faraway problem. Three credible threats of gun violence have been leveled against Torrey Pines High School this year; the latest shut down the school May 31.
Ironically, the city of Del Mar once famously declared itself a nuclear-free zone. Yet its school district refuses to take a hard stance against gun violence.
Should parents be held legally responsible if their children use unsecured firearms from the home to injure or kill others?
Perhaps it’s time to consider replicating the social host ordinance that makes it illegal to provide an environment where underage drinking takes place. It’s not a stretch to extend this code of conduct to gun owners.
Others have echoed this point, that laws should be changed to hold adults responsible and charged with a crime when weapons in the home are used by minors in felonies. Too often, young people can easily access readily available firearms, proving that there are too many irresponsible gun owners.
A recent article about the May 18 attack that killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Texas was encouraging on this point.
From the story: “The family of one of the students killed in a Texas high school shooting filed a lawsuit against the alleged gunman’s parents, claiming the shooter’s father didn’t properly secure the weapons and were [sic] negligent in entrusting him with firearms.”
Judy Woodruff, anchor of the PBS NewsHour, gave an impassioned sign-off on the May 18 broadcast after the Texas school shooting. It’s worth repeating.
“We heard a young student say she wasn’t surprised by what happened,” Woodruff said, “because in her words, ‘It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always felt it would eventually happen here too.’”
“I was profoundly saddened by that,” Woodruff said, asking “whether we owe our younger generation something better.”
Note: This column has been corrected to reflect that DMUSD Board President Kristin Gibson is a registered Independent, not a Democrat. The correction was not able to be made in time for the print version of this opinion column, but a correction will be noted in print next week.
Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.