CAJON VALLEY SCHOOL BOARD UNDER FIRE FOR RESPONSES TO GUN VIOLENCE PROTESTS

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By Jonathan Goetz and Miriam Raftery

Photo:  Standing room only crowd included dozens of gun control supporters as well as gun rights advocates

April 17, 2018 (El Cajon) – Actions of the Cajon Valley Union School District have become targets for both sides in the gun violence debate. At the April 10th board meeting, members came under fire for:

  • Hillsdale Middle School students put on lunch detention for participating in an on-campus walk out during the nationwide March for Our Lives;
  •  Termination of a contract for counseling intern Margaret Katchur Morghen, who sat with students during detention as a “learning exercise on the First Amendment” and also spoke with media about the walk-out;
  • School board member Jim Miller firing off a derisive letter to a retired teacher who had written to the Superintendent asking for actions to reduce gun violence at schools. Miller responded on behalf of the San Diego Gun Owners Political Action Committee, and wore a National Rifle Association (NRA) hat during the school board’s April 10, 2018 public meeting.

Those actions got the public up in arms, figuratively speaking. Gun rights advocates and people concerned about gun violence packed the hearing room at the April 10th school board meeting.  Eight people testified during public comments, split evenly with four rounds on each side.

The public takes aim

Photo, left:  Liz Harley has heated words for board member Jim Miller, who is wearing an NRA hat

Greg Brown spoke first.  “I applaud the courage of this board in not falling prey to the sway of public comment,” he said. Brown also brought his 12-year-old son, who said he’s been shooting since age 7.  “My Dad has taught me about gun safety,” the boy stated. “I think you shouldn’t take guns away from everybody. You should only take them away from people who are bad.”

But Susan Hopps-Tatum blasted Hillsdale for missing a “teachable moment” on “the importance of the First Amendment freedom of speech.” She concluded, “To the counseling intern who stood with our students, I applaud you,” drawing cheers.

Photo, right:  Counseling intern Margaret Morghen addresses the board

Linda Sanders observed, “Mr. Miller has his Second Amendment; I’m glad you allow him to exercise his First Amendment Rights,” at which point Miller donned his NRA hat.

Liz Harley admonished, “Mr. Miller, I was taught that men never wear hats in buildings.”  Harley tried building a bridge, stating, “We do not condemn gun owners. We have to work with them to make sure that children are safe.” She then spoke on the importance of keeping guns locked up, away from children and depressed teenagers.

When Hauffen voiced support of the Board, stating, “I thank you for not politicizing the tragedy,” referring to the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that prompted the national walk-out protest over gun violence and calls for stiffer gun regulations.

Kilian Colin touched on the First Amendment’s importance, protecting the “vulnerable” and offered heartfelt support for the counseling intern.  “Margaret is everybody,” Colin declared.

Michael Schwartz, Executive Director of San Diego County Gun Owners (photo, right), spoke last. He thanked the board for “not politicizing the events in Parkland,” then urged the board to “not give one inch to the ridiculous bully tactics.” He concluded, “I hope you guys are proud of yourselves,” drawing loud applause.

The walkout controversy

Photo, below right:  Board members hear testimony from the public on both sides of the school safety vs. gun rights issue

Prior to the March 14th nationwide March for our Lives, the County Board of Education left how to handle the walkout up to each district. Cajon Valley left the matter up to individual principals. 

At many other area schools, students were allowed to walk out of class and remain on campus for the protest; students opposed were also allowed to exercise their free speech.

Superintendent David Miyoshiro told ECM that Hillsdale provided classroom discussions, since walkouts are prohibited at middle schools.

Counseling intern speaks out story

Morghen told ECM that her contract was terminated two days after she sat with students in detention. A mother of two, she says, “It’s really important--what we are modeling for our young American students. I believe in the Constitution, especially now.”

On the day of the walkout, she says she shadowed the principal after a group of students walked out of a classroom.  Morghen says that a full-time counselor at the school engaged students in conversation, so Morghen also spoke with students. She later sat with them in detention, feeling it is important help students “process grief.” 

When a reporter from the San Diego Union-Tribune called her, she spoke with him.  “I was never told about protocol for speaking with the press,” she told EMC, adding that she never received any prior complaints about her work. A KPBS story indicates the district claims Morgen was let go for multiple reasons, but the district declined to state those reasons.

Morghen is concerned that her lesson plans were disrupted and she won’t be able to follow up with students. “That could be harmful to them if they can’t get closure or say goodbye,” she states.

The ACLU weighs in

San Diego ACLU legal director David Loy told ECM that if Morghen’s contract was terminated “for standing up for students or for talking to media about her concerns over the students…I see significant potential First Amendment problems” provided she did not disclose any personal information on students, which Morghen says she did not do.

As for the discipline of students, though controversial it appears to be legal. “Students have free speech rights at school under the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in a case called Tinker back in the late ‘60s,” Loy observed, but noted that the case involved merely wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War, an action that did not materially disrupt the school day. 

“There is no constitutional right to walk out of class without permission,” Loy told ECM, adding that if students had engaged in another form or protest such as wearing a button, or held the protest after classes were over, that would have been protected. 

He added that discipline for the walkout over gun violence must be proportional to discipline for missing class for other reasons. Morghen says punishments have been equivalent.

Miller’s gun PAC letter

Photo, left: 12 supporters around counseling intern Margaret Morghen outside April 10 Cajon Valley School Board meeting

Below is the letter that a teacher (name withheld on request) sent to the district Superintendent, which prompted Miller’s heated response:

Dear Dr. Miyashiro,

 I am a proud retiree from CVUSD and an active member of the San Diegans for Gun Violence Prevention, The San Diegans 4 Gun Violence Prevention (SD4GVP) is a coalition of the San Diego Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence and the San Diego Chapter of MOMS Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, partnering with local faith-based and community groups.

 We are requesting that all school districts in the greater San Diego County area take up the call to action for gun violence prevention. We request that you follow the lead of the San Diego Unified School District and complete and send a resolution to your federal government official in support of the initiatives outlined in the proposed proclamation.

 There are two resolutions for review and consideration. The first is the approved San Diego Unified Proclamation and the second (attachment) is a more extensive sample presentation.

 Along with other active volunteers, I am at your service to discuss.

Here is Miller’s reply:

 "In this response I do not claim to speak for the balance of the board.

 I sit as a founding member to the San Diego County Gun Owner's Political Action Committee. I am a Life member of the NRA. I have been shooting since I was 6 years old. With all due respect the "facts" stated in your resolutions are simply not accurate. The use of tragedies such as Parkland for use of forwarding an agenda with the goal of weakening and ultimately eliminating private citizen's Second Amendment Right is in exceptionally poor taste.

 Simply because the weak minded, uninformed and far left leaning board at San Diego Unified signed on to this is not surprising. Given that our board, in unified voice, openly opposed AB 424 you and your organizations should have no such illusions that Cajon Valley will follow suit anytime soon. But again, each board member will make their own decision.

 When your organizations want to really have an honest conversation as to how we can better protect our students and NOT impede on the rights of millions of lawful gun owners I will be happy to meet with your representatives anytime and any place. Until then I can assure you that the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, California Rifle and Pistol Association, NRA and millions of law-abiding and gun owning citizens will stand and oppose the unconstitutional assaults on the Second Amendment and the right of citizens to protect themselves and their families.

 Respectfully,

 James P. Miller, Jr., Esq.

Board Member, Cajon Valley Union School District

Board Member, San Diego County Gun Owner's PAC"

 Did Miller violate district policy?

Some members of the public object to Miller’s actions. Liz Harley told ECM, “I thought his response to a very kind letter of inquiry was ridiculous and I don't think that someone who is on the school board should also sign his name, Jim Miller, San Diego County Gun Owners… a PAC…I don't think that's appropriate, nor wearing his NRA shirt and hat.”

Miller’s speech, though inflammatory, has First Amendment protection.   But it may also have violated district policy.

The district’s Board Policies and Procedures states:

When speaking for the district, the Board encourages its spokespersons to exercise restraint and tact and to communicate the message in a manner that promotes public confidence in the Board's leadership.

In addition, the Board encourages members who participate on social networking sites, blogs, or other discussion or informational sites to conduct themselves in a respectful, courteous, and professional manner and to model good behavior for district students and the community. 

In addition, the Policies and Procedures’ conflict of interest clause may be applicable, since Miller serves on the board of directors for the San Diego Gun Owners PAC.  The district’s clause states:

Common Law Doctrine Against Conflict of Interest

 A Board member shall abstain from any official action in which his/her private or personal interest may conflict with his/her official duties.

 Incompatible Offices and Activities

 Board members shall not engage in any employment or activity or hold any office which is inconsistent with, incompatible with, in conflict with, or inimical to the Board member's duties as an officer of the district.  (Government Code 1099, 1126)

The Policies and Procedures also call for any board member with a financial conflict to recuse himself or herself from discussions or votes on matters of potential conflicts. It is unclear whether Miller is a paid or volunteer member of the gun PAC’s board.

The Cajon Valley School Board thus far has not considered any gun control actions, nor a resolution passed by some other local schools aimed at reducing gun violence. 

Last year, amid calls from conservatives to arm teachers, the Board voted to oppose Assembly Bill 424, which would prevent anyone other than security guars and sworn officers from carrying guns on campus.