By Sheila McGuire
Uinta County Herald
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
EVANSTON — Uinta County School District No. 1’s Rule CKA, which allows for approved staff to carry concealed firearms on district property, has again been ruled invalid, this time by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
The history of the district’s rule is lengthy, contentious and complicated. Almost immediately after the Wyoming Legislature’s passage of W.S. 21-3-132 (the enabling statute) in 2017, UCSD No. 1 trustees expressed interest in adopting a policy to allow for concealed carry of firearms by authorized personnel as part of the district’s security plan. Following public hearings on the matter, featuring passionate pleas and testimony from those on both sides, the district adopted policy CKA initially in the spring of 2018 — the first district in the state to formally do so.
Within weeks, the policy was challenged in court by plaintiffs Tim and Katie Beppler and Monica Vozakis, who asserted the district had not adhered to rulemaking procedures required by the Wyoming Administrative Procedures Act (WAPA). Specifically, the plaintiffs asserted the WAPA required the district to follow very specific procedures related to publication of notices, public hearings and a statement of principal reasons for adoption and a rational basis for the rule.
Ultimately, Third District Court Judge Nena James agreed with the plaintiffs that the district had not followed proper administrative procedures in adopting policy CKA. She ruled the policy null and void in late 2018, and the district was forced to start the entire adoption procedure over again — this time following WAPA requirements.
Trustees opted to return to the issue and, after multiple formal hearings on the matter, adopted Rule CKA in the late spring of 2019, to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.
However, the litigation wasn’t over, and the rule was again challenged in court in the fall of 2019. This time plaintiffs were the Bepplers, Nathan Prete and Tiffany Eskelson-Maestas. Plaintiffs again asserted that WAPA procedures were violated; however, additional counts included assertions that the rule itself violated the enabling statute by not establishing instructor qualifications for approved firearm training programs and that the rule was unconstitutional because it violated the rights of parents and students who did not wish to attend school in classrooms with armed teachers.
This time, First District Court Judge Steven K. Sharpe dismissed the counts charging WAPA violations, finding that the window to file objections to the rule had passed. However, he ruled the counts related to constitutionality and violation of the enabling statute could proceed. In early spring of 2020, Sharpe dismissed the constitutionality claims as well but ruled the district’s concealed carry rule did violate the enabling statute, W.S. 21-3-132, and was therefore invalid.
By the time Sharpe issued his ruling, the district had decided to amend the rule to include instructor qualifications, perhaps signaling there was some credence to the plaintiffs’ assertions. However, the rule had not yet been formally amended by the time the ruling was announced on April 24, 2020.
Despite the policy being ruled invalid, trustees opted to continue the amendment process, holding a public hearing on the proposed amendment in May and voting in favor of the amendment in June.
During one of those meetings, held via Zoom conferencing, Tim Beppler phoned in to lodge an official objection to trustees continuing to amend a rule that had been declared invalid. However, trustees stated they believed since they had begun the amendment process prior to the ruling they were simply correcting an oversight and could move forward.
The Bepplers, Prete and Eskelson-Maestas ultimately appealed Sharpe’s dismissal of the constitutionality and WAPA violations charges to the Wyoming Supreme Court. The district did not appeal the ruling that Rule CKA was invalid. According to the court’s ruling, the district argued that it was not required to restart the entire process because having the rule invalidated was not the same thing as declaring it null and void.
On Wednesday, Dec. 16, the Wyoming Supreme Court issued its ruling that the plaintiffs’ appeal could not be considered because it was moot, as the rule had been declared invalid.
“We conclude the district court’s order invalidating Rule CKA renders all other issues moot,” reads the ruling. “The school district’s argument that it was not required to restart rulemaking because the district court only invalidated the rule, rather than declaring it null and void, is unavailing.”
The ruling stated CKA was null and void and therefore could not have been amended following Sharpe’s April ruling.
“The school district may restart rulemaking; and these parents and grandparents will have a full opportunity to challenge any new rule.”
When ruling all other issues were therefore moot, the court stated, “We recognize the appellants raise questions of constitutional magnitude, which may be of great public importance. … However, we decline to address the constitutionality of a rule that is subject to revision and renewed challenges, which will, in all likelihood, offer us an opportunity to consider the constitutionality of the rule in its most recent form.”
A press release sent to the Herald by Tim Beppler, who is an Evanston attorney, referenced the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court and urged the district to reconsider its stance on concealed carry of firearms.
“Uinta County School District No. 1 is one of only four school districts, out of 48 districts in Wyoming, that have approved some form of rule authorizing school employees to carry firearms on school property. Sharon Rose, one of the attorneys for the parents and grandparents, stated she hopes the district will seriously rethink the advisability of restarting the rulemaking process or, at the very least, form a committee comprised of community members with diverse opinions on the rule to discuss whether and in what form a new rule should be adopted,” Beppler said.
When reached for comment on Wednesday, the day of the ruling, district superintendent Ryan Thomas said, “I have not had an opportunity to communicate with the board. I am sure the ruling will be discussed at the Jan. 5 meeting.”