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Columbia Falls: Honor student's threatened expulsion for hunting rifle draws national attention

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KALISPELL – A 16-year-old Columbia Falls High School honors student who faced expulsion after unwittingly taking an unloaded hunting rifle to school in the trunk of her car will likely get a pass from the school board on Monday night.

Columbia Falls School District Superintendent Michael Nicosia said it’s improbable that the school board will expel Demari DeReu, a varsity cheerleader and member of the Columbia Falls High School Student Council who was suspended on Dec. 1 for bringing the gun onto school premises.

DeReu, a junior, said she forgot the rifle in her trunk after a Thanksgiving weekend hunting trip, and told administrators about the oversight after learning that contraband-sniffing dogs were patrolling the school’s grounds.

Nicosia informed the DeReu family in a letter that school policy calls for a yearlong expulsion at the minimum for such a violation, and that he would recommend expulsion to the school board; however, he explained Friday that the letter was a template intended “to prepare the family for the worst-case scenario.”

“School policy says that a student can be expelled for a minimum of one year, but the board has some flexibility on that,” Nicosia said. “Our board in the past has used common sense and has understood that we live in a hunting and gun culture and has based its decisions on that.”

The same letter was sent to the families of two other students who were punished for bringing guns on school premises, Nicosia said, and neither of those cases resulted in an expulsion.

“And this case is probably a little bit more innocent than the others,” Nicosia said.

News of the DeReu’s suspension received national attention from gun rights advocates who responded to an e-mail sent earlier this week by Montana Shooting Sports Association President Gary Marbut of Missoula.

Marbut e-mailed members of the association and encouraged them to protest the hearing by

e-mailing school officials with the subject line “Free Demari DeReu.”

The board is scheduled to meet Monday to discuss the case, but Nicosia said he will not recommend expulsion, though the decision is ultimately up to board members.

A more likely outcome is that the board will reach a “common sense” agreement about how to resolve the case, Nicosia said, adding that DeReu could complete the suspension and return to classes before Christmas break.

“Most likely, there will be no expulsion, and that is what I would predict in this case,” he said. “It was never my intention and would not be my intention in a case like this to recommend expulsion to the board.”

Nicosia said make-up work is allowed with school suspensions, and he does not see the punishment as having any long-term negative effect on DeReu’s academic career.

Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 260-4197 or at tscott@missoulian.com.

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