School board debates weapons policy

Published 6:36 pm Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Princeton, N.C. incident involving the arrest and expulsion of a student had prompted a debate among Beaufort County School Board members during this week’s meeting.

Superintendent of Schools Don Phipps gave offered the latest version of the student code of conduct to the board that he and area principals had recently updated.

Board member Mike Isbell asked that they take a closer look at the weapons policy.

“My big concern is page 18 on the weapons, ‘A student who finds a weapon, firearm, or explosive, who witnesses another student or persons with such item or becomes aware that another student or other persons intends to possess, carry, handle r use such items, must notify a teacher or the principal immediately,’” he said.

As reported by, 16-year-old David Cole Withrow left his unloaded shotgun in the trunk of his car after a weekend of skeet shooting. When he remembered the weapon was there, Withrow asked school officials if he could leave campus to take the gun home. The administrator reported the weapon to police. Withrow was arrested and expelled.

A similar 2010 incident involving a Montana high school student has state officials reexamining their policies. Demarie DeRue had forgotten about the unloaded hunting rifle in the trunk of her car until she heard a school announcement telling students that contraband-sniffing dogs were searching the school parking lot. She immediately told school officials that she had forgotten to remove the rifle after a Thanksgiving hunting trip. DeRue faced expulsion and was suspended for two weeks before the school board, pressured by community support, reinstated her.

Board members tried to piece together the Withrow incident, saying that Withrow had been reported by someone who overheard him on his cell phone asking someone to come to school and remove the forgotten weapon from his trunk.

Phipps said he would hope any student who overheard something similar to that would do the same thing. He said he had an obligation to students to keep them safe and wanted students to feel they had an obligation to do the same.

In recent history, no Beaufort County student has been caught with a firearm on campus. There are some cases of weapons like box cutters, knives and even a crossbow being seized during drug sweeps of the campuses. The charges imposed would depend on the student’s record and the circumstances, but could be classified as a Class I felony.

“My assumption is that if a weapon is found on campus, it’s there for ill intent, Mike,” Phipps said.

He added that he was not saying that students would only intend to do malevolent things, but for the sake of everyone’s safety, that is what he had to assume.

The policy states that the principal must report to law enforcement any incident of a student possessing a firearm or weapon on school property or at a school event.

School board Chairman Cindy Winstead pointed out that the policy also stated “A determination of the appropriate consequence will be made in accordance with the provisions of those policies.”

The school board could opt for a suspension up to 365 days, an expulsion or send the student to alternative school. No action was taken to change the policy.

“I am still unsatisfied with this,” Isbell said.

He voiced concerns that a similar incident could easily happen in Beaufort County and the current policy would be too stringent.

“You know, this kind of thing follows someone for the rest of their life,” he said.

Phipps said Friday that he had taken a close look at the policy, particularly the criteria for a 365-day suspension and for a student who is given a gun and turns it in or reports that another student has a weapon on campus. He was satisfied with the policy as it stands.

He said the superintendent has the ability not to (and is in fact, encouraged not to) impose the 365-day suspension in such a case.

“I think under some grounds, the student would not be given the 365 days. But, if the student is bragging about it or threatening to try to use it, that’s another matter,” he said. “I certainly want to look at it on a case by case basis and use common sense about it.”