TIOGA, N.D. – Tioga Superintendent D’Wayne Johnston has resigned after he brought a handgun to school out of concern for safety of students and staff.
Johnston said he received threats from a student who had demonstrated behavioral issues in the past, which led him to bring a concealed weapon to school Oct. 2.
“I didn’t enter into that decision lightly,” said Johnston, in his sixth year as superintendent and ninth year with the Tioga Public School District.
The incident has reopened discussion about school safety and guns in this fast-growing town in the Oil Patch of North Dakota.
The day prior to bringing the gun, Johnston notified a student of his decision to expel the individual and the student responded with threats. The student made hand gestures that indicated a weapon and Johnston said he interpreted the threat to be aimed at himself and others, potentially including students.
Students and staff were concerned they “might say or do something wrong to set this individual off,” Johnston said.
Johnston said he called law enforcement earlier that week about the student’s behavior and police had been on campus. However, Johnston said he did not call police specifically about the threats.
On Oct. 2, Johnston said he wore his handgun in a holster in the small of his back beneath his suit jacket. A colleague asked Johnston if there was a situation that required concern, Johnston said.
“It wasn’t concealed very good,” Johnston said.
School Board President Mark Schmidt said he received a call from a concerned staff member that morning that Johnston was illegally carrying a gun at school. With advice from the North Dakota School Boards Association, Schmidt began an investigation and asked Johnston if he brought a gun to school.
“He admitted that he did do that,” Schmidt said. “It was removed from the school as soon as physically possible.”
Schmidt called a special meeting of the school board, which was held Friday evening.
School board members offered Johnston paid administrative leave if he felt that he was in danger, Schmidt said.
Johnston said he no longer felt in immediate danger and offered his resignation effective June 30, at the end of his contract. Schmidt said Johnston’s decision to resign was his own and not prompted by the board.
“I really believe that it’s going to be in the best interest of the kids, the school, the community and myself,” Johnston said. “I’ve let this community down in a big way.”
Schmidt said he is drafting a letter of reprimand that will be placed in Johnston’s file. Schmidt said it was an isolated incident.
Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association, said he thinks Johnston did the right thing by resigning.
“If he felt his personal safety was in jeopardy, he should have immediately called law enforcement and not brought a gun to school,” Martinson said. “But he didn’t do that.”
Schmidt said he got calls from parents with varying views, from one who said all school staff should be armed to others who called for Johnston’s immediate resignation.
“I do not feel that D’Wayne is a threat and he understands that he cannot bring a weapon to school,” said Schmidt, adding that Johnston was truthful and forthcoming.
During his investigation, Schmidt said he talked to several staff members and no one said they feared for their safety or students’ safety.
Tioga Police Chief Sean Duisen was not available for comment Wednesday.
Johnston said there is no justification for his behavior, but said he may be more sensitive to safety concerns because of a hostage situation he witnessed in Montana about 10 years ago. A bookkeeper at a Catholic church across the street from Johnston’s school was taken hostage and Johnston intervened to help a nun.
Johnston said he doesn’t believe the individual who made the threats returned to campus and he no longer feels students are in danger.
Prior to this incident, the school district was in the process of installing security cameras and limited-access doors and providing training for staff, Johnston said.
In addition, the school board plans to establish a safety committee at its next meeting, Schmidt said.
School safety has become a greater concern in recent years, in part due to the rapid growth of the area, Schmidt said. Tioga is in northwest North Dakota, about 50 miles northeast of Williston. The high school has grown to about 180 students and Central Elementary has about 270.
“It’s not small town North Dakota the way it used to be,” Schmidt said. “We’re having to adjust from being a small school where everyone knows each other to a larger school.”
Schmidt submitted testimony in support of legislation proposed earlier this year that would have given school boards the authority to appoint someone at school to carry a concealed weapon with a proper permit.
“My main point was there might not even need to be a gun in the school,” said Schmidt, a former teacher and father of four children in the district. “To a would-be shooter, just knowing there might be a gun might be a deterrent in itself. It’s not known as a gun-free zone.”
Martinson said his organization interprets state law to say that school boards in North Dakota already could authorize weapons in school.
“I don’t know that any of them have,” Martinson said. “Our position is we hope that they don’t.”
Martinson said the proposed legislation, which failed during the last session, would have made it more clear that districts had that authority.
“People think that there’s an easy solution to school shootings by just having guns in schools. But that’s a knee-jerk reaction,” Martinson said. “Who are they going to give them to? …What kind of training would school personnel get? It sounds like an easy solution, but in fact, it’s not.”
Rep. David Rust, retired superintendent for the Tioga district, supported the legislation. On Wednesday, Rust, R-Tioga, said he believes school districts should be able to make the decision about concealed weapons, particularly for remote North Dakota districts that are a greater distance from law enforcement.
“While I don’t think it’s always a good idea to have lay people fulfilling the duties of law enforcement, at the same time, if you should happen to have an active shooter in school, having someone try to stop it has got to be better than no one,” Rust said.