Courts & Crime

Gun-toting student gains public support

A teenager expelled from Willows High School for parking on the edge of campus with two duck-hunting shotguns in his pickup truck took his case to the Glenn County Board of Education on Tuesday, asking it to overturn his expulsion.

After a three-hour hearing, the board said it would issue its ruling Friday.

Gary Tudesko's case, in a rural community where waterfowl hunting and gun ownership are a way of life, has drawn national attention and sparked an impassioned debate over gun rights and public safety in the wake of Columbine and other campus shootings.

Tudesko's disciplinary record for disruptive behavior and racist remarks has further complicated the issue.

The slight 16-year-old junior sat between his parents in a packed meeting room, looking somewhat stunned as lawyers argued, supporters clapped and voiced opinions among themselves, and banks of television cameras recorded the proceedings.

Disciplinary hearings normally are closed, but Tudesko's parents requested that his expulsion hearings be open to the public.

"I never thought it would go this far," Tudesko said afterward.

The facts of the case are undisputed. On the morning of Oct. 26, Tudesko and a friend went hunting for geese and ducks in the rice fields south of Willows. Then Tudesko, who said he was worried about being late for school, drove straight to campus and left the unloaded shotguns and ammunition in the truck's back seat. He parked on West Willow Street, a few feet from the campus' tennis courts.

Later, as private security guards performed a perimeter search, a gun-sniffing dog alerted to his vehicle. Tudesko was called out of class to open his truck.

Mort Geivett, the Willows High School principal, suspended him, and on Nov. 19, the governing board of the Willows Unified School District ordered him expelled for the rest of the school year.

The family appealed the decision to the county board of education.

At issue in Tuesday's hearing was whether school officials in Willows exceeded their authority under the state's Education Code by disciplining Tudesko when his truck, with the shotguns inside, was parked on a public street next to the high school.

Chuck Michel, a prominent gun-rights lawyer from Long Beach, traveled to Willows to represent Tudesko with backing from the National Rifle Association and the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

He argued that the school's authority ends at its campus boundaries.

The relevant Education Code sections – which he called a confusing "mess" – require a school principal to recommend expulsion if a student is found in possession of a firearm "at school," he said.

"I believe that means on school grounds," Michel said.

To support his point, Michel said a sign on the gate at Willows High School, at the point where students enter the campus, forbids weapons on school grounds.

Criminal statutes prohibit guns within 1,000 feet of a school, he said. But police opted not to file charges against Tudesko, believing he had no criminal intent, and school officials have no authority to enforce criminal laws, the lawyer argued.

Matt Juhl-Darlington, a lawyer representing the Willows school district and the high school, said the school's legal authority extends to the area around the school.

Not having that authority would mean a student "could amass an arsenal of weapons at the school border," or engage in other illegal activities just off campus, and not be subject to school rules, he said.

Geivett, the school principal, told board members Tudesko brought weapons to school knowing it was wrong. The issue, he said, came down to school safety.

Having guns so close to campus, where someone could easily break into a vehicle, was unacceptable, he said.

Geivett told the board there have been 340 shooting incidents, from suicides to massacres, at schools since 1992.

"I don't want one in Glenn County," he said. "It's a safety issue on my public school campus that I have to stand up for."

The lawyers also disagreed on whether expulsion was mandatory or if officials could have pursued other options.

Michel said school authorities could have told Tudesko to take the shotguns home and never bring them to school again, and the teen would have complied.

But Juhl-Darlington cited Tudesko's disciplinary record of about two dozen incidents that included calling a teacher's assistant a "stupid Mexican" and allegedly disrupting a showing of "To Kill a Mockingbird" by repeatedly saying the N-word – a charge Tudesko denied Tuesday.

"This goes to proving (that) other means of correction are not feasible," Juhl-Darlington told the board.

The school district's lawyer, a duck hunter and gun owner from Chico, urged board members to uphold Tudesko's suspension even though he knew it would be an unpopular decision in rural, conservative Glenn County.

The board members now have three days to deliberate in closed session.

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.

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