Winona, Minn. A popular gun safety course taught in a school
when regular classes aren’t in session has run into problems with
the Winona school district’s “zero-tolerance” policy banning
firearms in schools.
The problem came to a head on Saturday, Oct. 11, when students,
including 12-year-old Nick Ziegeweid, did as they were told and
brought their unloaded rifles and shotguns to Winona Middle
Instructors thought it important for the students to learn how
to handle the equipment that they would take hunting. Also, the
arrangement would allow the instructors to make sure the guns were
in good working order.
But school officials didn’t agree. School administrators and
instructors met Ziegeweid and about 40 other students outside the
school to remind them they couldn’t bring their guns inside.
The reason: the district’s year-old “zero-tolerance” policy
prohibited students from carrying guns on school grounds, even if
they are unloaded and used only for instructional purposes.
“I think with all that’s gone on, for me, I’m OK with them not
having the guns,” said Debbie Ziegeweid, Nick’s mother. “I think it
bothered my son more, just because he was ready to learn how to use
The school board’s refusal late last month to make an exception
for the state-sponsored gun-safety course has sparked passionate
debate in Winona.
It also has implications for the rest of rural Minnesota, where
gun-safety classes are a staple of education in many school
districts and taught at school buildings without a second
“It’s like teaching a math class without a calculator,” said
Scott Sabotta, the course instructor. “The whole point of the class
is to save injury or life. In some ways, our hands have been tied
with the decision that they made.”
Said Steve Kranz, chairman of the Winona school board, “We can’t
pretend that guns don’t exist. The question is: Do schools have a
role in educating people about firearms?”
Several board members argue that there is no better or safer
place to teach the Saturday-morning class than at a school
building. Students are familiar and comfortable with the setting,
they say, and the course can be taught without bias from gun clubs
or other organizations.
But supporters of the zero-tolerance policy point to the 1999
shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and last month’s
shooting deaths of two students at Rocori High School in Cold
Spring as reasons to ban all firearms from school grounds.
“There needs to be some safety zones,” said Sue Brown, a school
board member. “And I think a school district and a school building
should be held in higher regard than it is. It’s a difficult
climate, it’s a different day and age. Whatever you can do to
Each year, the Minnesota DNR sponsors scores of gun safety
courses across Minnesota. In many small towns, the most practical
spot to hold class often is the local school.
For years, the course in Winona was taught several nights a week
for several weeks at a local high school. That changed four or five
years ago, when Sabotta, the principal instructor, moved it to a
local sportsmen’s club.
As part of the class, students were encouraged to bring their
own guns or rifles without ammunition so that instructors could
show them how to work and carry the firearm they’d be using on
Said Sabotta, “Every gun is a little different, and they should
be familiar with it. The last thing I want to see is them going out
without having a clue on what they are handling.”
This summer, Sabotta moved the course to Winona Middle School
because of scheduling conflicts. Although the DNR sponsors the
class, the district donates classroom space and promotes it.
But days before the first class Oct. 11, Superintendent Eric
Bartleson notified board members of the conflict with the
district’s weapons policy. The course could still be taught, he
said, and instructors could bring unloaded firearms. But students
couldn’t bring their guns.
Frustrated, Fred Petersen, a Winona school board member and
retired conservation officer who has taught similar courses in the
past, requested a special board meeting to persuade colleagues to
make an exception to the policy. The majority didn’t budge.