Madison Schools armed staffer program shuttered again for second time in a year

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Community members speak about Madison school board plan to arm staffers.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

For the second time in a year, a court banned Madison Local Schools from allowing staff to carry firearms, this time on the eve of an oral argument before the Ohio Supreme Court on the controversial program.

Last week Judge Greg Stephens agreed the school board acted improperly when it deployed its armed staff program because there was no notice of the meetings held with staff who wanted to arm themselves, the meetings were private and no minutes were taken, violating the state’s Open Meetings Act.

The judge banned arming staff who were approved to carry guns under the current program and has prevented the school board from reinstating the program unless open meetings laws are properly followed.

“It is hereby ordered that the approval of any faculty/staff members to carry firearms, as authorized by the Madison Local School District Board of Education, is invalidated,” Stephens wrote.

In a separate case, the 12th District Court of Appeals halted the program in March. Erin Gabbard and a few other parents sued the district in September 2018 seeking an injunction blocking the district from allowing teachers and other staff to carry guns without the training required of law enforcement officials — 728 hours versus the 26 hours the school has in its policy — and a court order requiring disclosure of policies and procedures for armed staff. The policy was instituted after a 2016 shooting at the Junior/Senior High School.

Retired Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Pater ruled teachers and other staff are not peace officers and therefore do not require police levels of training. The appeals court disagreed and ordered the school district to stop the program without much more involved training. The high court lifted the ban last August allowing staff to carry weapons while the case is pending.

The latest lawsuit in which Stephens’ ruled was filed in September 2019 by the parents of one of the students injured during the 2016 school shooting and Billy Ison, a grandfather who also sued the school district in federal court over its meeting policies. The federal court dismissed that case last year.

The issue is over a safety committee of Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff and board members Paul Jennewine and Pete Robinson that was convened to vet staffers who applied to participate in the gun program. That group was then tasked with making a recommendation to the full board.

Stephens said his decision regarding the safety committee is “supported by public policy.”

“Were the court to accept respondents (the school district) arguments, the board would be unfettered in its ability to circumvent the OMA by delegating any matter requiring investigation and vetting to the superintendent,” Stephens wrote. “Then, allowing the superintendent to select her own advisory group under the guise of ‘it’s her committee, not ours’ would effectively keep all activity hidden from public access.”

Stephens said Ison also took issue with the fact staff were approved to carry handguns in executive session, not during an open meeting as required by law. Stephens said while the law allows governmental bodies to discuss certain things behind closed doors, official actions must be taken in public.

The district has not revealed who or how many staffers may have been approved to carry a weapon. The policy allows up to 10. A formal motion could have been voted on with redacted names.

Ison’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.

Tuttle-Huff told the Journal-News Madison officials believe they have been the most “transparent” school district of any in the state that have instituted armed staff policies and, while they disagree with the judge’s decision, they will comply.

“We can confirm that in light of this ruling, the district will be changing the procedure for approving individuals,” she said. “The district does intend to resume the program, but the details of doing so are not yet in place. Rest assured that the resumption of the program will be consistent with the decision from the court.”

Stephens’ decision came on the eve of an Ohio Supreme Court oral argument scheduled for today, via live videoconference, in the Gabbard case. The lawyers in that case filed a notice with the high court informing the justices of Stephens’ ruling but also saying it has no bearing on the case before them, because it doesn’t pertain to the policy itself but rather the procedure that was used to carry it out.

Adam Sege, deputy communications director for Everytown for Gun Safety, the group that has been fighting the case with Gabbard’s attorney Rachel Bloomekatz, told the Journal-News they did not wish to comment on the open meetings decision.

Meanwhile, legislation by former Ohio Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp. that specifically nullifies the 12th District Court ruling is moving along. It was passed by the senate in November and assigned to the House Primary and Secondary Education in December.

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