Public hearing held after school district gun policy hits snag

School board trustees David Peterson, Cassie Torres and Christa Barker listen during a meeting in November. (FILE PHOTO/Sheila McGuire)

EVANSTON — The Uinta County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees held a hearing on Tuesday, May 19, to hear public comments on the proposed amendment to Rule CKA, the district’s concealed carry policy. The board has been working on amending the rule to include the establishment of instructor qualifications for firearm training programs, as required by the enabling statute, W.S. 21-3-132. A public hearing originally scheduled for the end of March was postponed due to COVID-19 closures and the new hearing was held via videoconference.

The concealed carry policy has been a source of controversy and conflict ever since the board first began discussing adopting such a policy in 2017. The board initially voted to adopt such a policy in the spring of 2018; however, that policy was ruled invalid following a challenging lawsuit that argued the district failed to follow the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act (WAPA) in adopting it.

The board then went through the adoption process again during the 2018-19 school year, again voting to adopt the policy in the spring of 2019. However, the policy was again challenged through the courts, with a lawsuit filed on the first day of the 2019-20 school year by plaintiffs Tim and Katie Beppler, Nathan Prete and Tiffany Eskelson-Maestas, who claimed the rule was invalid because the district had still not adhered to WAPA requirements, had violated the constitutional rights of those who did not want their children educated in a school with armed staff and had failed to abide by the enabling statute that mandated a district establish instructor qualifications.

First District Court Judge Steven Sharpe ultimately dismissed most of the counts in that lawsuit; however, agreed with the plaintiffs’ assertion that the district failed to establish instructor qualifications and ruled the policy was invalid.

In that ruling, Sharpe addressed the district’s contention that the failure to establish instructor qualifications was a moot point because the board was in the process of amending the rule to do just that. Sharpe’s decision said it was not a moot point because the rule had not yet been amended and declaring an intention to do so was not the same as actually doing it. He therefore declared the rule invalid in a decision issued in April of this year.

The video hearing was sparsely attended and got underway about 10 minutes late because of technical difficulties. Several board members encountered challenges with accessing the Zoom video call and the meeting couldn’t start until enough trustees were present to reach the quorum needed to conduct business.

Board chair Jami Brackin began by explaining public comments would only be accepted on the proposed amendment and not on the rule itself.

“I appreciate there are members of the public who don’t like the policy in general but that’s not what this meeting is for,” she said.

The first comments came from Evanston attorney Tim Beppler, one of the plaintiffs in both lawsuits challenging the policy. Beppler lodged a formal objection to the amendment proceedings, stating Sharpe had declared the rule invalid and did not simply remand it back to the board for revisions.

“I urge the board to defeat this amendment and repeal Rule CKA and start the process again,” said Beppler.

Brackin, who had previously stated the board would not respond to any comments during the hearing, simply said Beppler’s objection would be discussed at a later date.

The only other public comments came from Evanston High School Principal Merle Lester and Evanston resident Karl Allred, who thanked district staff and local law enforcement for working to put together a document establishing instructor qualifications. Allred said the district had “done a wonderful job” in adopting the rule and said, “It’s a shame two or three people won’t be satisfied until they get their way.”

Superintendent Ryan Thomas said there had been a few written comments submitted to the proposed amendment, which will be compiled and released in a document along with the comments submitted during the hearing. Written comments will continue to be accepted until June 1.

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