VA AG says guns OK at school board meetings
McDonnell disarms school boards on gun bans
By TIM MCGLONE, The Virginian-Pilot
© February 13, 2007
Gun rights advocates are praising a ruling by the attorney general who said school boards cannot prohibit the possession of firearms at board meetings held outside school grounds.
The ruling has surprised some local school board leaders who had no idea guns were allowed at some of their meetings.
"Oh my. I'm not aware of that ever coming up," said Barry Bishop, Norfolk School Board chairman.
The case stems from a York County incident in 2005 when resident and gun rights advocate Chet Szymecki showed up at a School Board meeting with a firearm strapped to his hip. Before the meeting, Szymecki checked with the local sheriff and was told he could legally carry his firearm as long as the meeting was not held in a school.
Szymecki is a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which lobbies for the right to keep and bear arms.
York County holds its School Board meetings at York Hall, a county building. State law prohibits the possession of firearms in a K-12 school building, but not in government offices.
The handgun strapped openly to Szymecki's side apparently upset parents and children in attendance as well as School Board members, according to news reports at the time.
Last year, the General Assembly considered a bill, requested by York County Schools, to ban the possession of firearms anywhere a school board meets. When that failed, school officials sought the legal opinion of Attorney General Bob McDonnell.
"It is my opinion that the Code of Virginia does not grant to the York County School Board the authority to prohibit the possession of firearms at school board meetings that are not held on school property," McDonnell wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to York County Attorney James E. Barnett. The Virginian-Pilot obtained that letter Monday.
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York County School Division officials did not respond to messages left Monday.
The ruling was hailed by members of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
"The truth of the matter is, schools deal with children, school board meetings are mostly for adults," said league President Philip Van Cleave.
Van Cleave said he believes McDonnell's ruling extends to meetings held at school administration buildings as well. He said his organization is continuing to push the General Assembly to lift the prohibition of firearms in schools.
"We're not going to hurt anybody," fellow league member Mike Stollenwerk said. "We're the ones you want around when you have the madman on the loose."
A survey of most South Hampton Roads cities found that while most school boards meet in administration or city hall buildings, officials could not recall anyone openly carrying a gun.
The issue has never come up, at least "not to my knowledge," said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for Virginia Beach schools. Chesapeake School Board Chairman Tom Mercer and Suffolk schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw said the same is true in their cities.
Most school board meetings are staffed by an armed police officer, who is exempt from the law.
Bishop said he planned to bring up the issue at Monday night's Norfolk School Board meeting.
Staff writers Jon Frank, Amy Coutee and Cindy Clayton contributed to this report.
Reach Tim McGlone at (757) 446-2343 or firstname.lastname@example.org.